Have you seen the documentary Kumaré? It is a fascinating expose of false religious movements: how they are created, maintained, and grow to influence others. The filmmaker, Vikram Gandhi, said he made the film to “tell a cautionary tale about spiritual leaders. We trick ourselves to believe them so we can be happier too, so this was just sort of trying to unveil the trick.” [Warning: spoilers below].
The basic plot line of the film is aptly described on the official film’s webpage:
Sri Kumaré is an enlightened guru from the East who has come to America to spread his teachings. After three months in Phoenix, Kumaré has found a group of devoted students who embrace him as a true spiritual teacher. But beneath his long beard, deep penetrating eyes, and his endless smile, Kumaré has a secret he is about to unveil to his disciples: he is not real. Kumaré is really Vikram Gandhi, an American filmmaker from New Jersey who wanted to see if he could transform himself into a guru and build a following of real people…
Vikram takes us back to where his story began. From an early age, he questioned the meaning of religion and spirituality. Was it all just make believe, or was there something real beyond the realm of our understanding? … When he began filming these gurus for a documentary, he discovered there was nothing special about who they were or what they did — they were no more holy than anyone else. In order to prove this, Vikram decides to transform himself into one of them: Sri Kumaré, a guru of his own creation. If he can build a following as Kumaré, wouldn’t it demonstrate that spiritual authenticity is just an illusion that we create? So he grows out his hair and beard, acquires the bells and whistles of Indian mystics, affects an accent, and transforms himself into the wise Indian Guru Kumaré.
The filmmaker explained the purpose of the film in an article for The Huffington Post:
The character Kumaré was the center of a social experiment testing what we coined “The Spiritual Placebo Effect.” Can a fake religion and religious leader have the same effect as a real one? If the facts are not real, does it make the experience any less real? Some people were appalled, offended at the idea. It’s easy not to question what feels right — people think you’re being a downer, a bummer, or a cynic. But to me, asking questions, breaking down icons and idols, and destroying the illusions our society is built on are highly ‘spiritual’ acts. And aren’t the saviors of history the ones that decided to speak up and say something?
This film was my humble attempt to bring the spiritual heroes I learned about as a child to the real world. I studied Buddha, Shiva, Krishna, Jesus — all the big ones but it took the form of a bearded barefoot man who carried a trident and spoke like my grandmother.
Here’s my thesis: the film Kumaré does successfully show the quackery of many fake spiritual teachers (e.g., the “acoustic theology” guy, whose practices are incredibly strange). However, there is little similarity between these faddish, fantastical New Age movements and the historical record of Jesus.
Are you thinking: Seriously?!? Everyone knows that Christianity is a big, fat, fake religion!
Ok, fair enough: but that thesis requires documentation, evidence, and argument. And Kumaré doesn’t provide it. In fact, the whole point of the documentary is to encourage us to think critically about religion. So instead of a fuzzy, hazy sense that all religions are basically the same, and therefore equally and easily discredited, let’s compare and contrast Kumaré and Jesus on five points:
- The nature of their disciples
- The geographical setting of their movements
- Their approaches to sin
- Their willingness to suffer and die
- Their disciples’ willingness to suffer and die for their movements
The disciples of Kumaré and Jesus
In the documentary, Kumaré’s first followers are paid assistants. Not only are they paid to follow Kumaré, but they are promised starring roles in a documentary film, offering them status and, potentially, further job opportunities.
What about the next set of followers? We aren’t told if they pay for their sessions with Kumaré, but the relationship is somewhat similar to a counselor-patient relationship, with the disciples attending meetings as they wish and Kumaré offering yoga lessons, meditation, and encouraging words about their lives.
How did Jesus get his first followers? At the start of his mission, He tells Simon, Andrew, James, and John to follow him, so they leave their paying jobs as fisherman and join Jesus on an itinerant and rather uncertain mission (Mark 1:16-20).
And what did he say to his later followers? In Luke 9:57-62, various people offer to follow Jesus, and he explains that will require homelessness, not burying one’s own father, or even taking the time to say goodbye to one’s family. As he explains in Mark 8:34, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
The contrast is black-and-white: Kumaré pays his disciples and focuses on very immediate benefits for them; Jesus requires his disciples to sacrifice everything that is valuable and precious to them.
The geographical setting of their movements
Vikram Gandhi knows it would be risky to start his fake religion where family and friends know who he really is, so he starts his movement on the other side of the country. Arizona is about as far away from New Jersey as possible. He then lies about where he came from, saying he is a guru from India, with a fake website to back up his claims.
By contrast, Jesus’ ministry takes place within walking distance of his hometown, including a trip to Nazareth itself, where, after a badly received talk in the synagogue, the residents, “rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff” (Luke 4:29). Or when Philip invites his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, Nathanael’s scornful response is: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). We’re also told that Jesus’ family did not believe in him during his ministry (e.g., John 7:5).
Again, completely opposite geographies. Vikram deliberately chooses a location far removed from anyone he knows; Jesus begins his ministry in a location where his family and others are available to be questioned – even though they are hostile witnesses.
Their approaches to sin
The evidence from the documentary shows little evidence that Kumaré challenged his disciples’ sin. For instance, one woman questions whether she should leave her husband; Kumaré doesn’t seem to do or say anything to suggest that marriage is a great good and that, if it is at all possible, she should do what she can to strengthen her marriage. By contrast, Jesus tightens the restrictions on divorce (e.g., Matthew 19:3-9).
In general, Kumaré’s teachings are about looking within, deciding what you want to do with your life, and really going for it. But Jesus’ teachings are about giving up one’s desires for life and submitting to His rule and authority in every matter of life.
Their willingness to suffer and die
Vikram appears to go through an agonizing process as he realizes how hard it will be to finally tell the truth to his disciples. Having lived a lie for so long, it is that much more difficult to come clean and live in the light of truth.
However, Jesus not only tells his disciples the truth, he claims to be The Truth (John 14:6). But there is no ‘big reveal’ at the end. Instead, Jesus is willingly arrested by the governmental and religious authorities, who believe that Jesus is a fraud. Jesus maintains his identity at a sham trial, is convicted for blasphemy, beaten, humiliated, and ultimately, crucified. At no point in this far more painful process does Jesus deny his claim to be God.
Let’s compare the two:
- Vikram: avoids suffering, except to end his ministry.
- Jesus: embraces suffering, even to the point of death, to fulfill his ministry.
Their disciples’ willingness to suffer and die for their movements
Since Kumaré’s disciples are getting paid or looking for self-fulfillment, they are not very well motivated to suffer and die. None of them are asked to do this. And none of them, in fact, do suffer or die to spread the movement.
By contrast, nearly all of Jesus disciples willingly died as they proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Their sincerity in believing that Jesus had risen to new life after His death is difficult to question. Even Jesus’ brother James became convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead, was God, and therefore was worthy of worship. What would it take for one of Vikram’s family members to worship him as God, even to the point of willingly dying to spread this message?
The differences between Vikram’s ability to start a fake religion and Jesus’ ability to start a real religion are immense.
In fact, in the most important ways, they are mirror opposites of one another.
Because of these vast differences, we haven’t covered the evidence for the unique, bodily resurrection of Jesus, the transformation of the disciples from scared cowards at his death into fearless martyrs a few days later, Jesus’ claims to be God (and not just a guru), and so on.
So while the documentary film Kumaré sheds a revealing light on the deceit behind false gurus, it also happens to show, by contrast, the genuine nature of Jesus’ ministry.
If we are rational to be suspicious of religious teachers who fail to challenge their followers, gain wealth, status, and comfort from their religious teachings, and personally avoid suffering, then we should also have a respect for religious teachers who straightforwardly confront evil, embrace suffering and sacrifice to serve others, and inspire their followers to do the same.
What Kumaré fails to be, like all other false gurus, is precisely where Jesus’ integrity, love, and truth shines most clearly.