This fabulous review/reflection comes to us from Josh Hall:
Plenty has been said about the documentary Kumare, and I certainly don’t want to stir up controversy. What happens in it is undeniably fascinating and worth talking about: this guy, by all accounts a normal American male, gets the idea to set out into the world as a “false prophet”. With pseudo-message and made-up rituals in hand, he brings a camera crew along to capture the whole thing. Not your typical documentary.
His stated purpose is as follows:
“My problem wasn’t with spirituality, but with spiritual leaders. Why do we need them? I wanted to prove to others who are looking for answers, that no one is more spiritual than anyone else, that spiritual leaders are just illusions, and we are the ones who decide who and what is real. So I thought, what if I became a spiritual leader. If I could do it, wouldn’t it prove anyone could?”
Of course, he is an illusion, but we’ll get to that later. He starts out with the popular belief that we all possess the power within to fix ourselves and make ourselves happy. Kumare says his goal is simply to teach people that they can teach themselves—they don’t need a guru in the first place. He says, “As a guru, all I would teach people was that I was an illusion…” Little did they know what they were in for.
What Kumare finds is that getting people to listen to him is relatively easy. Maybe it’s because he puts on an Indian accent in the middle of suburban America, and we are suckers for “foreign wisdom”. Whatever the case, people seem legitimately drawn to him. But what is it that draws people to a guru (or spiritual teacher) in the first place? Certainly a Christian would say it has something to do with the fact that everyone needs a savior, and that we instinctively look wherever we can to find salvation and hope. Or maybe we all just want someone who will make us feel “okay”? Someone upon whom we can project those things that make us feel better about ourselves? I say “us” because, Christian or not, no one is exempt from this tendency — or perhaps compulsion.
Maybe it’s just his likable personality, but Kumare’s teaching becomes popular. Since he knows he’s not a real guru, his plan is just to show up and then get out of the way. This takes the form of a teaching style that appears, if only unintentionally, as something rather selfless.
So instead of what you might expect from a typical “guru” (advice, etc), we see Kumare just being with people. Since he’s simply there to tell them that he isn’t a teacher (how many levels of irony deep are we again?), and they’ve got it all figured out within themselves, there’s nothing really for him to do except just hang out, which he does naturally. One of his followers is amazed by how much time Kumare actually wants to spend with him one-on-one. Another says, “When someone else shows an interest in what you’re interested in, it makes you want to know them better…” To these people, Kumare has no agenda. In fact, strange as it may seem, Kumare’s attitude toward his followers is almost Christ-like, at least in the sense of being with people where they are without passing judgment upon them.
Kumare gives these people a gift, small as it is, of with-ness. We watch as his followers completely open up to Kumare, and he does a lot of listening. When he does speak, it’s normally nonsensical spirituality. Or he asks lots of questions—personal ones. The result is that people seem to be really excited he’s there.
So Kumare is the “anti-guru”; a teacher who teaches you there is nothing to be taught, except that “you’re pretty great and I want to hang with you”. “This is the story of the greatest lie I’ve ever told, and the greatest truth I’ve ever experienced”, he says. Strangely, his intent to leave his followers – since his teaching was a lie – frees him up to have actual relationships without demands or expectations. This is the same old story — judgment kills, and grace gives life. Like you and me, these people need the true Jesus, not a bad facsimile. But in a very small way, Kumare is filling a similar need, the need for being accepted where we are. We hear the message loud and clear: people want to be known and loved.
Of course, Kumare’s deceptive premise definitely does not look like Jesus. By his own admission, he’s a liar. He’s not a “spiritual guru”, and he’s certainly not from “the East”. The deception gets heavier as the documentary goes on, and he gets closer to these people; they become completely enthralled with him. A woman says meeting him has fundamentally changed her DNA. Her husband says, “He has this great power, to make others happy”. She says Kumare is the most amazing thing that has ever happened in her life. Another woman claims Kumare is the “living embodiment of the divine” — whew! Talk about pressure! And Kumare has got to be feeling the weight of it. The documentary doesn’t let us know exactly what he’s feeling at these times, but we do know what happens when he gets ready to tell everyone the truth, and it’s not pretty. Near the end of the documentary he attempts to reveal his true identity, and we see the inner anguish that he’s going through. He fails on his first try. Eventually he tells one couple, “I am the biggest faker I know. I fake so much, I forget who I was before.”
It’s hard to see these people placing their hope and trust in a man who is deliberately deceiving them of his identity, but there is another layer of sadness that is more fundamental, and common to us all. It is illustrated when one of his followers claims that she doesn’t need anybody telling her what to do to improve her life; she just needs someone to “guide her”. What Kumare does next is a snapshot of what the Law has done to us. Kumare has this practice where he makes the person act like they are the guru and he is the pupil. When he tries it on her she begins telling herself all the things she needs to do to get better, thereby becoming the entity she just said she didn’t want in her life. She of course doesn’t realize that the “guru” (or accuser) has actually been there all along, telling her all the ways in which she falls short. Yet she still hears condemnation loud and clear, and she clearly hates it. While she may not allow someone else say these things to her, that doesn’t stop her from believing that she save her self by appeasing this “judge” — on her own. By becoming the judge she hates she proves she needs the very judge she condemns! In other words, she hates the law, yet she also believes that by following it, it will save her.
We are just like her. At least, I know I am. We all have this love/hate relationship with the law. We know the law is right, good and true, but we are powerless to follow it. It condemns us, so we hate it; yet we can’t help but cling to the erroneous possibility of redemption through it. We continue to try every which way to make ourselves “get better” and somehow achieve all that the law demands, but in the end we fail. We hate that which kills us, yet we try to save ourselves by it all the same. We are in a sad state, and this woman’s failure is our own.
Kumare, despite his deception, is for her a small picture of what real hope looks like. That is, people loved Kumare because he accepted them as they were, not as they should be. This is one of the more hopeful descriptions of Jesus by the late Brennan Manning. God loves us just because He does, which is pretty fortunate since we have nothing to offer Him but our broken and sin-sick hearts. Fortunately, the gospel does its most glorious work in those moments when we figure out afresh that no amount of rule-following will fix our lives.
I for one have nothing but compassion for these people following Kumare, even Kumare himself. Whether we realize it or not, we are all sufferers and perpetrators of the same sadness — of being deceived and deceiving others — of believing we can actually change if we just try hard enough — of giving our hearts away to counterfeit gods — of losing hope and finding our comfort in work, drugs, food, alcohol, books, movies, and relationships. This is the sadness of separation from the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and it marks not only our own lives but our history as a race. We often seem to choose anything except the Truth. Perhaps this is what it means to have hearts that are dead to God and alive only to ourselves. We don’t think we need saving; we just need to feed whatever diet that our idols demand, a diet which always posits a set of laws to follow, or die. But that’s where our hope comes in—the hope of being killed, so that we might be raised back to life again.
Praise God that this is precisely the Truth we hear of on Easter! Instead of a teacher who tells us what we need to do to save ourselves, we have a God who came down to not only be with us, but to save those who can’t save themselves.