Indian-American Vikram Gandhi conducted a social experiment in the US to find answers to these very questions about faith. By taking on the role of a false yogi, Gandhi gained the confidence of a group of ‘followers’ in search of a guru; then he shook their trust when he revealed himself; and then restored it for the willing few by providing his solutions. He shot this in the form of a documentary called Kumare: The True Story of a False Prophet. While creating this documentary, Gandhi found some answers about faith.
Gandhi took on the role of Kumare, a spiritual guru from somewhere between India and Nepal. He created a website, uploaded photos of him with other guru-like looking people, grew a beard and long hair, came up with the ‘formula’ for the right spiritual path by throwing in a few words in Sanskrit. People like to gravitate towards a totem or an icon in almost all religions. So he created a few symbols — one was created by inverting the Om sign; another looked like a testicle (It’s easy to draw on the forehead, Gandhi said). He carried a trident in the unique inverted-Om shape he created.
The reason Gandhi conducted this social experiment is as interesting as how the story unfolded. Speaking at the PSFK conference in New York City recently, Gandhi said he grew up in New Jersey and lived in New York most of his life. He had religious Hindu parents — not religious dogmatically, but religious all the same. For most, religion is a tragic incident that happens in childhood. But for Gandhi, in his own words, it was an interesting interplay of characters and stories. When other kids his age grew up on a diet of superheroes like Superman, Spiderman, Batman, etc, Gandhi grew up with his own set of superheroes that included Ganesha, Hanuman, Shiva and Vishnu. This was the start to why he became interested in religion and to understand why religion even exists.
Studying religion as a minor in college, helped only to some extent because it only made Gandhi realise that these stories in religion gave people a structured way to believe. Gandhi’s idea behind the experiment was to question this whole industry, which was born by marketing eastern spirituality. He didn’t really buy it. He met lots of spiritual gurus and what was common to them all was that they believed they were the answer and they were the only answer.
He decided to be a ‘spiritual guru’ to show that it didn’t really matter if something was authentic. He taught something called the mirror, which urges followers to look in the mirror and find their own path.
Gandhi created a spiritual placebo to find out if his fake religion could create the same experiences as a real religion. The Mirror technique of only listening to ‘disciples’, and not advising, worked, he says. It made people realise that they don’t need an external force to make them realise what they already have within them.
Eventually, the real story is about turning the faith into ourselves. Even if the guru is fake.
Kumare won an Audience Award for Best Documentary at the South by SouthWest Film Festival. Gandhi says this process also helped him find his inner guru.
The writer is a Bangalore-based commentator.