"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him," says an ancient Buddhist koan, meaning that if you meet someone claiming to be the Buddha, it's an illusion. Bikram Gandhi's documentary Kumaré is a vivid demonstration of this principle.
Gandhi, a young man from New Jersey, introduces himself in an engaging prologue that employs vintage video of himself growing up as the son of first-generation Indian immigrants. Gandhi's parents are Hindus who raised their sons to respect their ancestral culture. He experiences his parents' traditions as "a source of embarrassment," but he also notices a sense of peace surrounding his grandmother as she says her morning prayers.
His skepticism about religion , alongside an inchoate desire to embrace spirituality, play out in Kumaré. Gandhi conducted a filmed experiment in which he fashioned himself into an Indian-born guru, set up shop in Arizona and amassed a following. He asks, "If I could do it, wouldn't it prove that anyone could?" So, with his hair and beard grown long, and with a lilting Indian accent lifted from his grandmother, Kumaré was born.
It's unclear how long the experiment ran or how Gandhi financed it, but with a yoga teacher and manager in tow, he rented a house in Phoenix and was quickly embraced by people in search of spiritual guidance.
In the film, Kumaré teaches his "blue light meditation," leads groups in phony chants, and dispenses spiritual platitudes. The students are instantly enamored. "I felt connected to you right away," says one woman. They rave about his "special energy." A movement is launched, and soon Gandhi, hiding within his Eastern alter ego, is sought for counseling by people with real problems . What started as a satiric exercise — look at all these silly people who will believe anything! — becomes something else, and Gandhi is conflicted.
Gandhi tries to have it both ways — perpetrating a fraud as his camera mocks the people who believe it, then assuaging his guilt by reasoning that in his own way, he's offering enlightenment. Eventually he seeks to "unveil" himself without incurring the (justified) wrath of his followers. Gandhi says Kumaré represents his better self, the one who's empathic and inspirational – and with his musical voice and gentle eyes, it's easy to see why people responded.
Ultimately Gandhi justifies playing with people's emotions by claiming he's teaching them not to believe in gurus, because the guru is within them. True as that is, Gandhi, with his selfish intentions, is a poor emissary of that message. The film downplays the followers' sense of betrayal, instead asserting that most benefited from his counsel.
Its questionable ethics aside, Kumaré is an often fascinating exploration of human behavior and spiritual hunger. A recent Pew Forum study found that one in five Americans now claim no religious identity. People clearly still need to believe in something, and, as Kumaré shows, somebody.
Kumare screens at the Cleveland Museum of Art Friday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 1:30 p.m.