Table for Two: Kumaré, Or How A Guru Is Born Out Of Orientalism


Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid with featured guest, Sikivu Hutchinson, author of “Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars”

Tami: Kumaré follows a filmmaker, Vikram Gandhi, who transforms himself into a fake guru to explore the concepts of blind religious faith and devotion to spiritual figures. It is interesting that Vikram and his assistants–all American-born and -raised–adopted accents in the subterfuge, playing off the magical brown person/foreigner trope.

Andrea: Would he be believable if he didn’t take on the accent?

Sikivu: Channeling the authentic brown magical mystery tour exotic (and I’m thinking specifically here of the sixties cult of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi legitimized in the West by mega-celebs like the Beatles) wouldn’t be complete without the right “Orientalist” lilt.

Tami: There are plenty of American religious/spiritual figures who inspire a devotion similar to that demonstrated by Kumaré’s followers. But I also think his race and faux accent provided a short cut of sorts.

Andrea: And I think that shortcut allowed the subterfuge to be more successful. Deepak Chopra wouldn’t be where he is if he didn’t have his accent.

Tami: …or if he were named Bob Henderson. It’s the otherness that adds credibility.

Andrea: Great minds, sis! That’s why I see some white people adopt “exotic” names when they become gurus or get deep into yoga.

Sikivu: Yes, and the drooling idolatry of Kumaré’s mostly-white female acolytes underscores this—I know a number of lib/progressive white women who have adopted trendy “yogic”  names to buttress their devoutness and confer them with the Eastern mystic equivalent of “street” cred.

Tami: This ties into the biased belief that brown people (and I say that meaning all brown peoples–black folks, Native Americans, etc.) are inherently plugged into something

Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi
Jersey-born filmmaker Vikram Gandhi outside of his Kumare costume

beyond the physical world…some magic. And that “magic” can be positioned positively or negatively, but it is part of the mantle of “other.” By adopting guru “drag,” the filmmaker successfully plugs into that idea. A brown guy with short hair and a clean-shaven face in jeans and a button down, may be too Americanized (read: normal) to work his magical mojo.

We went to see this awful movie, The Last Exorcism II, and at some point (of course) the protag goes to visit a black roots woman in New Orleans. I commented to my husband about the character’s vaguely African headwrap and her exaggerated accent. But the viewer would likely not have accepted that part if she had a Queen Bey lace-front and sounded like a black Brooklynite or had my Midwestern twang. We like our magical brown people unassimilated.

Sikivu:  And the noble savage sexuality of Kumaré goes hand-in-hand with the way the film trots out and parodies the West’s eternal fascination with the Magical Negro/Indian/Asian (take your pick) other.  The blond woman gushing in her living room about how Kumaré has “touched her life” looks practically orgasmic.  So much of this guru shtick is tied up with the charade of liberating the repressed uptight “rationalist” white folk from their shackles a la Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” paradigm pimping “black soul” as antidote to all that ails the modern white man.  A brilliant send-up on this theme is “The Couple in a Cage,” by Guillermo Gomez Pena and Coco Fusco—they mounted a performance piece where they pretended to be indigenous primitives displayed in their “native habitat” for the delectation of mostly white museum-goers seeking authentic savage artifacts.  While there was no overtly religious element to it, the Western impulse to gain validation through the body/essence and “shamanic” wisdom of the other is similar.

Andrea: The fact that he just makes up some fake yoga moves–and people went along with it–just about flatlines me.

Tami: I love yoga. But there is no doubt, in this country, that the practice can be surrounded by exoticizing foolishness.

Andrea: And that has been a big critique of yoga.

Tami: This film also makes clear how so-called spiritual leaders can take advantage of their power over followers to commit acts of sexual harassment and assault. Not that anything like that occurs in the film. But so many of Kumaré’s followers were at difficult points in their lives and yearning for a human connection. The woman in the failing marriage–Trish, I think–comes to mind. The scenes with her in them made me uncomfortable. There is an emotional connection that can easily be manipulated and leveraged as sexual.

In fact, it was the scenes with that woman and the man recovering from his addictions that began to make me feel uncertain about this exercise. As ridiculous as many of these people appeared, as influenced by magical brown guru bias as they were, they were fragile human beings and I hope this experience did not do irreparable harm to them. Gandhi seems to be a good guy and it is lucky he is. Many spiritual leaders–faux or “legitimate”–are not.

Sikivu:  I agree, though I’m not as sympathetic as you are to these folks’ gullibility—Wikipedia is your friend, do a little damn research people.  I had a younger friend who became entranced by one of these charlatans and went on a pilgrimage to his ashram in India to devote herself to his cause.  He was a predator—sucked her and umpteen others in with seductions of unlimited access, emotional intimacy, and transcendence.  She eventually became disillusioned and came back to the States.  The experience was a turning point and compelled her to confront her attempts to escape from her own conflicted racial identity.  As with the majority of Kumare’s acolytes this guy was a space of projection for every fear, insecurity, uncertainty, “weakness” and doubt that inhibited her.

Kumare 500-sessionCROP

Tami: …and what’s the guy that appears to be buffing Kumaré’s sins away with a floor shiner? ::Looks for carpet shampooer in laundry room. Considers using it as focal point in Tami-worshipping cult.::

Andrea: I think Vikram may mention his making up the poses in passing. But I could have sworn he says it in the beginning of the film. But, back to your question about the Buffer Dude: the adoration of a guru. I think that’s why he’s doing it.

Tami: This film reminds me of the “The Chinese Woman,” a season six Seinfeld episode. Jerry starts dating a woman named Donna Chang (Her family shortened it from Changstein.) But George’s mother takes her advice over the phone because she thinks she’s an Asian woman. When she discovers she’s white, she doubts the advice.

Andrea: Seeeeeee…Though Seinfeld himself has had some jacked-up racial moments, too.

The assumption of “exotic” wisdom and the Asian continent, from the Kama Sutra on, if not earlier. The Kama Sutra is the first text of what’s stereotyped as “ancient Asian wisdom” that popped to my mind.

Tami: Lawd, this woman in the film who wants to teach yoga to “the children in Africa.” There is so much wrong with that, I could cry. The idea of Africa as country not continent. I mean, which African children? The children of wealthy Ghanaian and families? Middle class Nigerians? Of course not. She’s thinking of “primitive” African children in some impoverished or war-torn country. There is no centuries-old economic and racial marginalization that downward facing dog cannot heal! We’ll forget that many countries in Africa are still suffering the effects of Western intervention, including religion. What the Global South needs is a Western woman to bring Eastern spiritualism to the children, enlightening “the dark continent.”

Andrea: ::screams:: That woman right there! I couldn’t with her. It’s, like, “Keep your fake enlightenment to yourself.”

Tami: Because people in Africa don’t have their own beliefs or lack of. And the spiritualities of African peoples are dark and evil…

Andrea: Gurl, and they need white people to bring them some religion.

Sikivu: But of course Western spirituality is always designed to domesticate and rationalize the dark pagan other whereas only the dark pagan can lead the uptight white universal subject to the underbelly of desire, physicality and earthiness.  I’ve always yearned to go on a pilgrimage to San Fernando Valley and find a little tribe of white kids to study or do spiritual reconnaissance on courtesy of a Ford Foundation grant.

Andrea: Oh snap, Sikivu!

Tami: Also…I want someone to do a spiritual intervention on this woman’s frosted 80s hair…

Andrea: I was in the middle of a yawn when I read that and cut it short by guffawing.

Tami: I found the moment where he finally reveals his true identity stressful. You’d think I was about to tell somebody I’m not who I say I am!

According to the film, most of Kumaré’s former “disciples” continued to communicate with him after discovering he is not an Indian-born spiritual leader. But some did not. I’m trying to figure out which. I know Frosty McAfrica cut him off. And Trish never spoke to him again.

Andrea: “Frosty McAfrica”…LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL She was pissed off because he snatched her white-savior gift to the children in Africa.

Tami: This was a good doc. A lot to unpack.

Andrea: Yep! Like the need for some of the mostly-white congregants to continue to believe that Vikram has some spiritual power, like being “psychic.” Or that they simply kept on with the faith, even after Vikram revealed himself.

Tami: That part made me guffaw. “But you’re still a little psychic, though.” No, lady. He isn’t. I think it is telling that his followers were mostly white. That isn’t to say brown people (all of us) are not similarly susceptible…just to different spirituality and religion.

Andrea: Right! Nichelle Nichols’ brother joining Heaven’s Gate is unusual. As outre as we’ll get is Jim Jones, who still framed himself as a Christian, if not Christ himself.

Sikivu: Absolutely, although Jones’ appeal and the People’s Temple phenomenon were complicated by the social justice ethos and community organizing that kept many of the “movement’s” black followers’ invested.  It’s interesting that one of Kumaré’s followers attributes his appeal to his humility and illustration that “we all have god inside us” ad nauseum, yet the spiritual sucker-punch he delivers is precisely his simulation/channeling of a godliness they could never hope to attain as lost white-bread seekers slogging through the spiritual “wasteland” of middle America.

Tami: But there are quite a few Christian Kumarés that black folks willingly follow. What sort of religion it is is almost besides the point. It is the credulity. I don’t think we are as susceptible to brown skin and an accent, though.

Just reading through some reviews of the film. A lot of people compare Gandhi to Morgan Spurlock. And not in a good way. They feel the doc is self centered. I don’t think so. I think it is just as much about Kumaré as his followers.

Sikivu: It’s a fascinating smorgasboard of schlocky Americana wannabe exotica—the law of attraction shtick, the Urantia charlatanism and, best of all, “acoustic theology!”—all underscore the bankruptcy and rudderlessness of the post-industrial U.S., the most rabidly religious God-besotted Western nation on the planet.

Andrea: Right..but what I’m saying is that as long as the frame is Christian, black folks will go along with it. I think quite a few Black folks are almost conservative in that sense.

Tami: Agreed.

Sikivu: Black folk have a long tradition of being consumed in messianic/charismatic Christian and Muslim cults – in the 1960s Jim Jones literally studied at the feet of forerunning urban shaman Father Divine.  He modeled his whole style on Divine and snatched a page from his parasitic social justice cum prosperity gospel rhetoric and methodology.

Andrea: And I agree that Kumaré is about Gandhi as much as his followers. I just don’t think that Gandhi could have been an “objective” doc-maker in order to make this doc.

Tami: You’re right. Because very early on I think he began to feel uncomfortable about his deceit–I did, too. I think that’s why the film kind of veers into this place where he is trying to help people.

Sikivu:  As a stone cynic, I really find the scenes where he’s spending all this time delving into the intimate problems of the befuddled white people problematic because at the end of the day it re-inscribes him in the role of the brown mammy-esque caregiver

Andrea: Co-sign. But could he have asked another person to do it, though? To me, no.

Tami: Yeah, putting himself in the doc made it even harder but ultimately he would have come to the same crossroads. When I heard the woman talking about her marriage and the guy talking about his addiction, I was like “Eh, I don’t know about this. He’d better be easy on these people.”

Andrea: Because gurus are about self-aggrandizement as much as about helping others. That’s what Vikram understood, as uncomfortable as he is with it.

Tami: Yes! That’s a great observation. Perhaps his discomfort with self-aggrandizement made him a better person to listen to than an actual guru.

Sikivu:  I would think that the acolytes would’ve been suspicious from the get-go, because the Kumaristas didn’t break out a collection plate.

Andrea: Morgan Spurlock, as self-aggrandizing as he comes off, couldn’t have asked another person to take the health risks he did in Supersize Me without getting sued.

Tami: But ultimately it also messes with the “truth” of the documentary. (Gawker did an interview with him, BTW)

Andrea: But I think the truth is how easy it is to fall into the power dynamics of faith for both the guru and the believers. Vikram broke the dynamic intentionally, whereas quite a few faiths and gurus get into terrible scandals that proves to their believers that they’re human after all.

Tami: Yes. And it also made me think how hard it is to separate out nuggets of what is truly helpful and healthy from the trappings of religiosity. For instance, mantras aren’t magic, they are a way of focusing the mind and centering attention on something. You don’t need a religious leader to help you chant a mantra. Just as that woman didn’t need Kumaré to tell her that moving more and eating healthier would be a good thing to do, but somehow his words had extra weight because he was a holy man with robes and a Om-symboled staff and not just some dude. But holy men are just dudes.

Andrea: Yep!

Tami: Dudes that are given a lot of power because we ascribe magic powers to them. “But you’re still a little psychic.”

Andrea: I really wonder what his email exchanges with those who stuck with the faith are like nowadays.

Tami: I know. Do they still speak to him like a leader? Do they still give him that power? Or is it like “Yo, Vikram, you heard that new Lumineers song?”

Andrea: LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL I think he may be the one asking about the Lumineers song just to keep them understanding that he’s not their guru.

But I think that, since we really don’t know how to talk about religion in this country–especially with the vicious kind of atheism that’s taken hold–we can’t know that.

Tami: To be fair, a lot of personal beliefs have gotten vicious (See: politics). We can’t have a discussion without fighting our corner. We have little respect for other people’s views. And we never will say “I don’t know.” But atheists remain a very marginalized group in a largely Judeo-Christian country.

Sikivu: Atheists are not driving misogynist anti-social justice legislation and Medievalist views about science in this country—the radical Christian Right is.  There are a lot of liberal religious and “spiritual” folk who are anti-clerical and vehemently opposed to this extremism.  That said, to the extent that Kumaré raises questions about the commodification of designer spiritualism and the navel-gazing indulgence of Western vacuity it’s a welcome expose, but I did find the assemblage of sunny redemptive moments at the end to be a cop out, i.e., nobody crashed and burned, had a crack relapse, etc.  Like the emperor with no clothes, they all saw what they wanted to see–there was no Jonestown moment and the filmmaker is vindicated as the good guy who did help them find “god” in themselves.

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  • Derek Vandivere

    I saw it a couple years ago at the International Documentary Film Festival here in Amsterdam. He did a Q&A afterwards, and a couple of people really went at him for deceiving his students. Just rewatched a couple weeks ago, and noticed a few things. He does very explicitly say towards the beginning of the film that he wanted to find a message to teach that he could believe in – that he wasn’t really a guru and that the true gurus – the people who could answer the important questions – are the people themselves.

    What was interesting to me as well that just his simple interaction – being nice to his students, playing with them, and listening to them – very clearly had a pretty big impact on their lives. So in a sense it was a comment on the trappings of being a guru (talking in his grannie’s voice) and on the actual nature of being, for lack of a better word, a spiritual advisor.

    I do take very strong exception to Andrea’s description of a ‘vicious kind of atheism.’ It’s the former pope who said that I deny the basic value of humanity, not the other way around. And only one of us has covered us child rape. That’s not vicious, that’s just a fact.

  • Sticky Geranium

    I really liked this film. I didn’t read all the commentary above, but what I liked about the film was that he didn’t just dupe some people. Because he could have, and that would have worked, but it would have been a shitty movie, and it would have been mean, and it would only have proved that people are gullible. Instead he packed in a much richer critique of the idea of spirituality and the need for spiritual leaders, as well as many questions about the physical and cultural trappings of orientalism.
    One thing it made me wonder: do white westerners seek eastern spirituality as a solution in a similar way to people in the east who are converted by western missionaries? By which I mean, people often seek religion or spiritual practice for comfort, or out of vulnerability – that’s shown very well in the film. And why not seek out ones that are new, more foreign, from further away, that might seem better? The grass is greener….