What did Kumaré teach?

If you haven’t seen Kumaré yet, hold on to your turban.  In the Native American culture, this man would be called Heyoke, the sacred Trickster who forces you to laugh at your pain.  If you can’t laugh, it will only be more painful. This questionable prankster presents a sound argument and ought not be dismissed because of his mockery.

In this film, American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi impersonates a guru to prove that guru’s are just regular people making stuff up.  In his process of deception, Vikram makes fun of dozens of gentle souls who willingly opened their hearts to his seemingly qualified guidance. They believe him to be a man of wisdom who has accomplished a sense of peace they long for.  Vikram did abused these people’s trust in an extremely public way and because of that it is tempting to feel he was wrong to do what he did. But it is also evident that Vikram made a highly spiritual film that upholds a respectable integrity to self empowerment. Ultimatly, Vikram’s alter ego, Kumare, tested the ego’s of all who chose to study with him.  Those who could not laugh at the outrageousness of his antics or appreciate the complex (though violent) point he was making, were not able to overcome their ego and did not move beyond the surface level of the teaching.  Those who embraced the deception and found a way to let go of their notions of the wise exotic guru, truly embodied the content of Kumare’s teachings. I understand any well-founded anger the participants might have felt.  I felt it for them as I watched the joke unfold.  There is no way around the sense of betrayal Vikram created.  It was cruel to be so elaborately deceitful.  And if it is any consolation to the beautiful people who participated (unknowingly) in his experiment, I appreciate their willingness to share their part in the story.  And I thank them because I learned a lot from their experience as well as their wisdom.

The real process of yoga is getting other people out of your yoga practice so that you can locate private space wherever you go in life.  And that is the challenge Kumare presented to his students. Despite his efforts to mock the iconic image of ‘wise teacher’ Vikram ironically did locate a wise teacher. As far as the film presents, he reached people in a real way and helped them.  Was that help undone when they learned the truth?  I hope not, and it is obvious Vikram hopes not too. But the real story about the effects of Vikram’s experiment is not told.  We would need to hear more from those involved outside of the subjective perspective of the film maker to know for certain.  Regardless, his antics are incredibly brave, eye-opening, and educational. It is unfortunate that it was at the expense of good, decent people.  I think Vikram does the best he can to express his grief about hurting innocent people.  And his lesson is strong- “I am just a regular person just like you.  And I am a guru.  And so are you.”  It is the age-old lesson that all the truly wise leaders have always taught.

But it is possible that people might interpret the message of the film to say that we do not need teachers- all we need is ourselves, and that to ‘follow’ a guru is naive and foolish.  We do need teachers. We guidance from people who have come through the challenges we are currently working on.   From the footage, there is nothing to indicate that these ‘followers’ are particularly brainwashed.  They all seem like healthy, level headed individuals with commendable sensitivity, and an earnest desire for guidance in their daily struggles.  Unfortunately, to make the social commentary he set out to make, Vikram made his students victims of the very cruelty he was supposedly trying to expose about the notions of false gurus.  The only difference is that he came clean about his deception to show the fraud for what it is, giving them a chance to experience a true egoic challenge.

The people in this film were not wrong to want a healthy community structured around real guidance. I didn’t get the sense that they thought of Kumare as anything more than a healthy leader in a collaborative effort towards peace.   And it is not wrong to have love and affection for someone who spends time listening and caring about your struggles.  This Vikram did.  We all need leaders.  Leaders are not the same as ‘Gurus’ in the now derogatory sense that the word is being used.  Leaders keep a gathering on topic and facilitate the flow of healthy community.  A good leader yields to other peoples leadership when it feels appropriate and has no attachment to being the center of attention. Leaders share leadership and inspire others to become leaders.  There is no way one person could indefinitely know what a group or individual ought to do at any given time.  It is a dialogue.

Trusting people is not a weakness. Making fun of trusting people is not helpful. And this is where Vikram’s experiment is hurtful.  In his efforts to make a point, Vikram violates the trust of good people as well as a whole movement of earnest yoga practitioners seeking normal, healthy guidance from qualified leaders, not to mention the absolutely outrageous mockery he makes of his own ancestry- imitating the cliche ‘Indian yogi’ to award-winning comedic levels.  Who will be able to take the Indian yogi accent seriously now? I love Kumare.  I think Kumare should continue teaching yoga as a performance artist.  He certainly channeled true wisdom as Kumare so why not keep that alter ego around as a new form of yoga teacher?  I’d definitely take a class with this trickster!

From what I saw, Vikram’s motives, though a bit misguided and insensitive, were not malicious. He was sincerely angry at the American yoga scene and for good reason.  The yoga industry is capitalism at its very worst.  And I appreciate his sheer guts to expose what many teachers do not expose; the commercialization of that which should be a personal, private experience.  How do we teach people to find their own privacy?  We must come together in a collective to teach these things.  What does that really cost? $10 a class, $15 a class, $20!! a class?  How can I feel right about spending $20 to relax?  How can we make the true yoga teachings available to everyone without expensive studios?  Vikram’s film is a start.

But mocking peoples willingness and desire to be a part of a trusting community is a misguided thing to teach. Deception only propagates more wariness.  The lesson, “Don’t trust me, I am a liar and a fake” is not really the direction we want humanity to move towards. “Don’t trust me because I am imperfect and can’t always know how to be helpful” is more sensible advice which I ascribe to even in my most intimate relationships. I can not guarantee how I may change and I can not expect others to guarantee that either.

The lesson in this film is a force of nature.  Powerful and painful. How has this social commentary affected your personal yoga practice?  I hope you do not let this jokester’s careless mocking harm your own views of yoga. He himself began to find real value in the ‘fake’ yoga moves he taught, proving that it is actually all made up. Making something up is not wrong if done with integrity. The ancient yogis made up the sutras and krias.  How can it be otherwise?  Is being ancient a criteria for authentic yoga?

If we can’t make fun of something we risk creating religious oppression around it.  I study Kundalini yoga which is ripe for the Kumare-ian ridicule.  We chant foreign sounds. We perform silly exercises that any comedian worth his salt would have NO problem making fun of.

Does making fun of something invalidate it?

Yoga means union of body, mind, and spirit.  Going through yoga motions is not yoga. Jogging, swimming, lifting weights, or doing Sun Salutations- what’s the difference?  There isn’t any difference if you don’t take the time to bring awareness to what you are doing. To practice yoga you must make that physical, and mental connection every time you sit down to the mat.  It is easy to say a sound or move into a stretch while on auto pilot and believe that by just saying the sound you are earning yoga points and uniting body, mind, and spirit.

Sitting down to use a set of (yes- MADE UP) exercises as a platform to observe your inner life is the ‘union’ aspect of yoga and it is what has allowed yoga to survive and evade thousands of years of religious control.  Yoga is not inherently religious.  It is inherently personal.  Yoga teachers do not teach people how to be personal with themselves, they serve as an example that locating personal autonomy is possible.  If I can do it, you can do it.  I have no idea of knowing how YOU can do it- I only know without a doubt- that you can.

Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo loosely translates into English as- ‘I call on, and bow to the teacher within.’  It is up to me to make that actually true. Doing yoga isn’t going to make you a nice person.  I’ve certainly met my share of angry yogis who like to power trip on yelling at students in public.  And I know of lots of false prophets who want a following for egoic validation.

I hope the students of Kumare find a way to heal from the shock and maintain their own yoga practice.  Kumare himself seemed to hope they would as well.  The most important lesson I learned from the film is that yoga doesn’t have to come from India to be yoga.  It doesn’t have to be ancient to be effective.  It only needs to be physical exercises that support muscle toneing, relaxation, and self-compassion.

I hope Vikram keeps working and experimenting with the world.  I hope he keeps making films. But whatever he does, we can be certain it will have sincerity and true teaching.