NPR Story
1:40 pm
Fri April 18, 2014

False Guru

Originally published on Fri April 25, 2014 6:28 pm

Transcript

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

OK, so a lot of you know that I grew up in this crazy religious cult, right? And when I left that organization, I wanted to tell the people still involved - I wanted to tell them a lot of things. I want to let them know that Santa Claus was probably not the devil. I wanted them to understand that white people did not form the lost tribe of Israel and that Jesus probably wasn't going to be here next week.

But I had this kind of internal conflict because as much as I wanted to preach, if that cult taught me anything, it's that you've got to take people where they are. That only when the student is ready will the teacher appear. So I was quite intrigued when I found someone who was willing to force the issue. This guy, this guy named Vikram Gandhi.

VIKRAM GANDHI: I was born in New York and I grew up in New Jersey.

WASHINGTON: Like me, Vikram had a rather strict religious upbringing. In his case, he was raised in a Hindu household. And as Vikram grew to manhood, he became interested in some of the teachers - the gurus of his faith. He became so interested, in fact, that he decided to make a film about them.

GANDHI: I went and got a hug from the hugging saint or, you know, I went and saw this one woman who just sat in a chair - she was an Indian woman - and people lined up in New York to not even give her a hug like the hugging saint, but to actually just bow in front of her and she didn't say a word.

There was something about the artifice of the spiritual leader that seemed not authentic to me. And I thought, you know what, it would be really funny if I just became one of these people. I'll create a character online like the Dalai Lama. There'll be like quotes on Facebook. He'll have a website and you could buy books from him.

WASHINGTON: Vikram named this new character his new self, Kumare.

GANDHI: The basic character's me growing out a really long beard and not cutting my hair for like two years. I got a saffron colored vest made and then I got a bunch of sarongs, took off my shoes. The root of the Kumare voice is just this sound, "uhhh." I don't know exactly where that sound comes from, but it's just, "uhhh," and then everything sort of comes out of that, and it's a, hello. When I met people as Kumare, I would say, hello, my name is Kumare. I am from a place in my mind. That place is called Alikhash (ph).

WASHINGTON: Every guru has to start somewhere, so Vikram had two of his producers pose as students of Kumare. They asked a woman named Tish Hagel (ph) if they could use her studios. And they organized yoga workshops around the Phoenix, Arizona area. And no joke, Kumare can do some real yoga, serious poses and stuff. He's super bendy. So he'd do that for a while, but then he just started making stuff up.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY, "KUMARE")

GANDHI: They call this one a blue light meditation. And you would look - focus - other person facing into eyes. OK? Until you feel yourself inside other person. OK? Imagine that.

WASHINGTON: And in just a little bit of time, Kumare started drawing the notice various spiritual seekers.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY, "KUMARE")

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #1: I consider Kumare to be a living embodiment of the divine.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: There are so many gurus in India. I have seen many of them, they are just fake because they just want attention and maybe money and fame. But meeting Kumare, I thought he had the positive mind and attitude, so I think he's a real teacher.

GANDHI: Kumare was very real to those around him and the experience to me was actually very real as well. When you're living a - sort of a double life in a way and you realize the fictional, or quote, "fictional" version of you is so charismatic and so lovable to others, you wonder why you're not that person all the time?

(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY, "KUMARE")

GANDHI: You are not that rich.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #3: Yeah, no. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #4: I would love to know him even more.

WASHINGTON: While the project may have started off as an elaborate prank, Kumare did in fact have something that he was trying to teach.

GANDHI: My philosophy is the middle philosophy, that is that all that you are seeing inside of me as a guru, you have inside yourself. That which you find divine in myself, you have inside. Therefore, you do not need a guru, you just simply need to find the guru inside yourself.

WASHINGTON: Kumare eventually gained a core group of 14 disciples. They met regularly at his house. And the crazy thing is that the people who came, they came because they got something out of it.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY, "KUMARE")

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #5: The experience with Kumare has affected my life and I feel like it has changed my teaching. It's given me the same thing that the students feel, that confidence.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #6: I will remember him from the day I die. I will tell my kids, my grandkids, my great-grandkids about this wonderful person that came into my life and changed me.

WASHINGTON: Every day Kumare's followers grew more and more deeply attached to a character that he pretended to be.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY, "KUMARE")

GANDHI: What you have been thinking for last week about your life?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #7: I feel like I've been forcing my marriage to work for a long time and forcing and fighting. I don't even believe in marriage. I don't know. I don't want to be - I want to go.

WASHINGTON: Understand this is a guy from New Jersey without any professional training and he's fielding marriage questions. It was time to tell people who he really was.

GANDHI: I could storyboard every scene, but whenever I tried to think about how the unveiling would go, you know, my - I just couldn't process it in my head.

WASHINGTON: Kumare gathers his followers together for something he calls, the unveiling. He's got to let people know the truth, but Kumare is nervous. He doesn't know how people are going to react upon discovering that they're part of someone else's game.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY, "KUMARE")

GANDHI: Today is the unveiling. At the unveiling we are unveil our true self. To begin, I will reveal my true self. You see, I don't know if I am who you think that I am. You see...

WASHINGTON: He can't do it. The guru chickens out, but he can't get off that easily. So later, Kumare reassembles the flock and he tries another approach.

GANDHI: So I made a video and in the video I talk to people as Kumare and I tell everyone the story of how Vikram became Kumare.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY, "KUMARE")

GANDHI: Hello, gurus. By now you must understand my teaching - that the external guru is an illusion, that they only exist to help you find the truth, that the guru is inside of you. So now, I would like to introduce you to the guru inside of me.

Right at the end of the video playing to everybody in a room, I walked out and presented myself clean-shaven an in American clothes dressed like I normally dress. And said, hello, my name is Vikram. And my ideal self is Kumare.

WASHINGTON: Wow. When you did that, what did your followers do?

GANDHI: Well, it was a mixed reaction from people. Some people didn't stick around very long and some people stuck around to take photos and hug and relate ideas and, you know, to start a new friendship in a way with me.

TISH HAGEL: My name is Tish. I am the owner of a yoga studio where Kumare did filming for his project. In June, I get an invitation to a final farewell. And when we arrived late, the unveiling had actually already happened.

The producers would not let us go inside. They said, we want to talk to you before you go in because you will be shocked when you go in. We just want you to understand that we have a clear message here in how much we appreciated your involvement and help and openness to bring these students to us. In order to expose the true guru, we have to kill the guru. And I said, I don't know what you're talking about. Tell me what I'm going to see when I go in there. They seem very nervous.

One of them would not make eye contact with me, so we walk in and sit down in the back. And there's bright lights, everybody's very dressed up. And up at the top on the stage is Vikram. And I didn't recognize him at first and then we did. And it was very, very clear to me. I was not going to spend one more minute of my life wasting my time with that. I was not going to help further his cause anymore by even staying in the room and letting him talk to me and explain himself. The first two principles to practicing yoga have nothing to do with the yoga postures. And the very first one is called Ahimsa, which is non-harming. And the second one is Satya, truthfulness. And I stood out there and talked to the producers and I said, you guys have violated the first two foundational principles that are so fundamental to practicing yoga by harming so many people and doing nothing but lying from the minute you contacted me.

And I said, your message to me does not justify the means that you used to deliver that message. They just kept saying over and over again, but the message, but the message, look at these people. They're so happy. And I said, how do you know those people are happy? They're probably embarrassed.

RACHEL STRICKER: We found out that Kumari wasn't who he said he was from someone else. We actually ran into her, she told us that it was all a hoax and they duped us and they punked us. One of the things that I think I felt most angry about was that we never received a call from anybody with the information that we had missed.

The conclusion that I really came to was that the work that I had done with Kumare was undervalued regardless of the person that he was or wasn't as it had turned out. I like Kumare as the person, and the person that I was seeing was Vikram. He may have been talking with an accent and dressed in different kinds of clothes, but like, he was still the same person, which I think is what allowed me to actually become friends with Vikram despite everything.

WASHINGTON: He is a friend of yours?

STRICKER: Yeah, that's fair to say. He actually was the officiant at our wedding, so, yeah, we are definitely pretty close with Vikram.

WASHINGTON: Would you treat a friend the way Kumare treated you? That's a very interesting question. The reality of the situation is that he wasn't completely honest with us, but Kumare was nothing but friendly and loving towards us. He was the listening ear that I think so many people desperately crave.

WASHINGTON: Vikram, if someone came to you and said, I get where you're coming from with this but I feel like I was manipulated for a project, how would you answer them?

GANDHI: The only thing I can say is that I never took anything lightly. To me, the hardest thing to hear is when somebody is just focused on whether I am a good person or not. That doesn't matter.

WASHINGTON: Vikram Gandhi is a filmmaker living in Los Angeles. And to see the transformation from regular guy to guru, we'll have a link to his film "Kumare" on our website, snapjudgment.org. I'd like to think Tish Hagel (ph) and Rachel Stricker (ph) for speaking with the SNAP. And if you want to share your thoughts on the whole adventure, hit us up on Facebook. That story was produced by Nick van der Kolk.

(SOUNBITE OF SONG, "OM NAMAH SHIVAYA")

MC YOGI: (Singing) Om Namah Shivaya, Om Namah Shivaya. Om Namah Shivaya, Om Namah Shivaya. To Shiva Shankar, the yoga master, known as Nataraja the cosmic dancer. Lord of destruction, god of disaster, and if you don't invite him he's the party crasher. To the old school mystic, who's non dualistic, Shiva guides my mind so that I can shift it away from a place that's materialistic into a space that's more holistic. Magnetic ascetic you make my soul shine. You awaken the...

WASHINGTON: You're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT the "Choosing Sides" episode. And when we return, it's going to get cold, real cold. So we're going to eat caribou fat whipped on a stick - for real, when SNAP JUDGMENT the "Choosing Sides" episode continues. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.