Posted by: Philip Carr-Gomm | January 29, 2013

I am a Guru – You are a Guru – A Review of Kumare

images-1Is deception in the study of human psychology or spirituality ever justifiable? The obvious answer might seem a resounding ‘No!’ But anyone who has studied psychology will know that sometimes to explore a particular function or phenomenon the researchers  are obliged to deceive their subjects. You might think that no good could come of such unethical behaviour, but think of the famous Milgram study in which subjects thought they were giving shocks to other people in a learning experiment, when in reality what was being studied was the ease with which people could be persuaded to comply with authority figures – apparently giving dangerously high electric shocks to other people because they were asked to do so by men in white coats. In reality no electricity was being induced, and the ‘stooges’ writhing about in agony were just acting, but the results from Milgram’s research astonished the world and provided us with a greater appreciation of the way in which we can be manipulated by authority figures, and how dependent we are on the need to conform – at whatever the cost.

In psychological research the subjects’ interests are protected by ethics committees who must first approve the research.

In the following research there was no ethics committee involved, but the deception carried out on certain people was profound. To produce an entertaining film that would expose the way people slavishly follow gurus, a New Jersey film-maker of Indian origin posed as a guru and built up a following, who were filmed interacting with him, to create the movie Kumare.

As a ‘fake guru’ he always insisted that his followers were gurus and developed his own ‘Mirror Philosophy’ to explain this, including a helpful exercise in role reversal which helped the student ‘become the guru’.

It’s a fascinating, provocative idea that has resulted in a film which raises interesting questions. At the end of the film, the guru appears before his ‘disciples’ and reveals his true identity.

Remarkably ten of his fourteen followers remain in contact with him after the ‘unveiling’ of his deception. I wonder whether the hurt, anger, or humiliation the other four might be feeling can be seen as a valuable-in-the-end step in the journey of enlightenment which is also the journey of disillusionment.

You can view the film through i-tunes (find it here). It is certainly worth watching if you are interested in spirituality and psychology, and I’d be interested to know how you feel about it afterwards.  I have mixed feelings: on the one hand it is rather touching and shows how many of us do need spiritual guides who can offer us support, mirroring, attention, and ways to work with our consciousness. And the fact is that the ‘fake guru’ actually had a positive, even profound, influence on most of his followers. And yet I’m left with the question I posed at the beginning: is deception ever justified in someone who acts as a spiritual guide (even if they are just acting!) As Time Out’s Chicago’s reviewer said: ‘the film’s notion that the ruse here was okay because it ultimately helped people seems like a specious rationalization.’ And yet, and yet….

See the trailer here:

You can see the ‘guru’s’ website here.


Responses

  1. What a conundrum! I am tempted to suggest that it falls into a similar realm as the use of placebos. And perhaps it’s a bit like using a talisman that can be relinquished…perhaps the only people who can truly define whether the ruse was OK or not, are the participants themselves.

  2. How fascinating. I’m struck by the similarity of this tale to that of the “fake” shaman – a man in Siberia (I believe he was a communist) wanted to disprove to efficacy of shamanic practice which, he believed, was mere trickery. So he apprenticed himself to a shaman, and learned the practices of the craft including the *tricks* of how to throw your voice so that it sounded like you were leaving your body, and how to hide stone arrows in your palm so you could pretend to prise them from the bodies of the ill.

    Bolstered by his discoveries, he set himself up as a shaman, in the hope of exposing the falseness of their healing work. And yet – everything worked. All the smoke and mirrors healed the sick, broke curses, blessed the fields, and he became renowned as one of the best shamans in the region. And all the time, he protested, “I don’t even believe in it!”

    • … Maybe not blessed the fields, actually, I believe the culture in question were pastoralists. Blessed the herds, I think, was what was in the original story!

  3. Well: if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, what’s the difference? Well, the deceit, of course, but presumably most of them felt he’d delivered the goods in an initiatory or transformative way. I hope at least one of the 10 people popped the guy on the nose before they decided to keep in touch & be OK with it all.
    From a professional psychological point of view, isn’t it of equal or more interest the changes the guru experienced in himself as a result? So, did he remain a fake throughout the experiment? And if he changed to any extent into what he was pretending to be, should he have come clean at the end? OR did he, because of his inflated understanding of gurus and their role?
    Is the idea of guru-led spirituality based on manipulating people on some level, in that they give themselves over to another person at quite a deep level?
    At a a tangent, it’s often a significant part of occult training for the student to be deceived by the teacher – I’m thinking Carlos Casteneda/Don Juan & probably most Edwardian hierarchical magical lodges, and that’s deceit supposedly for the furtherance of the student; exactly what happened in this case, in that people were transformed.
    Just random thoughts on a fascinating topic. I am fervently anti deception, so I couldn’t have set this up, and probably will never be a guru.
    Thanks for posting

  4. I thought what the film showed most of all is that people need someone to listen to them, and what a shame it is that so often our community structure is so broken that we have to seek out someone to just listen and believe in us from somewhere outside of that circle. Seeing the one-on-one sessions between the believers and Kumare really reminded me of therapy, except of course for the fact that Vikram is untrained in that regard and was often uncomfortable with the level of problems showing up.

    I think, as an Atheist myself, that what the film demonstrated is that people need an impartial observer who has their best interest at heart to talk to. Religion was traditionally supposed to fill that role, but often fails miserably. It would be interesting to try to figure out a way to provide that for people without the context of religion or therapy (saving therapy for the more distraught).

    • I very much agree with you! Most of the ‘magic’ that occurred was due to the fact that someone unconditionally ‘heard’ them and appeared to dispassionately ‘love’ them and have their best interests at heart.


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