The unexpectedly sweet documentary “Kumaré” starts out with a Borat-type premise: a young American man of Indian ancestry pretends to be a guru.
As the movie develops, the young man begins to care about his followers, giving them some basic self-help advice and teaching that each is her/his own guru.
Finally he reveals that no, he is not the guru Sri Kumaré from a small village in India, but young Vikram Gandhi from New Jersey.
Some of his followers are delighted by this and remain his friends. Others literally run out the door to get away from him.
Which brings up the question: what made Vikram Gandhi from New Jersey grow his hair and beard to outrageous lengths and walk around in saffron robes (occasionally stripped down to a loincloth) leaning on a silly-looking staff whose top is in the shape of the glyph for OM while speaking in a thick south Asian accent? While being filmed by a camera crew?
We find out early on, as we see home videos of young Vikram in his early teens at various Hindu ceremonies, looking as uncomfortable in his white button-down shirt and gabardine dress pants as pretty much any American teenage boy at any adolescent rite of religious passage.
Like many teenagers, he starts to question things and breaks off from the flock. Unlike most, he goes back to the source (in his case, India) and meets with spiritual leaders. He finds them vacuous.
Returning to the U.S., he interviews various American versions of the guru model. While he has sympathy for people who go off the grid to find peace (even if it does involve the teachings of space beings), he has none for the many American teachers he encounters who openly boast of the greater sexual opportunities they have found through their spiritual leadership.
He decides that anyone can be a guru. So he becomes one, with the goal of exposing essential fraudulence. Bringing us back to the first paragraph.
Watching this movie, I was struck by the expressions of his followers. Their eyes are shining. Their faces are intense. They know they are doing something special. They all want something, they want it with a kind of desperation, and they are looking for someone to give it to them.
Vikram gets it partially right — nobody can give it to you. But he doesn’t get that there isn’t anything to get. He knows he is missing something but he doesn’t know what it is. He keeps returning to a video clip of his grandmother doing her morning devotions. He recognizes that this affected her deeply; he doesn’t understand how.
But the clip is its own clue: his grandmother is completely matter-of-fact. She isn’t looking for something. Her eyes don’t shine. Her face is not intense. She is simply focused on what she is doing, as if it is perfectly ordinary. Which it is.
And that’s the true secret: there isn’t any. Just daily, faithful practice, not limited by personal and inevitably temporary goals.