A while ago my son David told me that my wife and I would be very interested in a film available on Netflix, Kumaré. This is a film by a young filmmaker, Vikram Gandhi, who grew up in New Jersey. His family had immigrated from India, and from the time he was a child he was fascinated by the devoted religious rituals that his grandmother performed every day. He and the rest of his family had no real interest in any kind of religion, but she was so devout. Having gown up in New Jersey myself, and having been so very close to my own grandmother, I resonated with this.
By the time he was a young man, he had met a lot of people who were reputed to be spiritual teachers, and was convinced that some of them were charlatans, a few of them were genuinely devout but without any detectable, special spiritual qualities once you got to know them, and the rest of them were ordinary people who knew no more about spiritual realities then he did. Why were people so gullible as to be taken in by these “spiritual teachers?”
As a way of testing whether there was anything more to the spiritual life than this, he decided to disguise himself as an Indian holy man, visiting in the United States, and with the mission of making a film about spirituality. He carried a classical Indian, mystical looking, trident-like device, a symbol of Hindu gods, wore robes and a loincloth, and spoke only broken English. The primary limitation he put on himself was that he would not exploit anyone nor teach anything that was beyond his own basic, common sense spiritual belief that we all have the germ of spirit within us and have to find it ourselves. So his message was always some variant of “Look within, your own spiritual self will guide you, you don’t need an outside teacher.”
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(image courtesy of http://coccoyoga.com/2012/07/01/yoga-gurus-film-kumare-review/kumare-trident/)
He was introduced to various spiritual groups by his assistant, who was part of the plot, as the living representative of the Kumaré lineage. Soon he was adopted by many Americans as a spiritual teacher, and the film shows these followers’ descriptions of their deep spiritual experiences resulting from their interactions with Kumaré.
As I watched the film I first found myself becoming increasingly angry. How dare this young man put himself in this position when he was no more spiritual teacher then you or I are? And yet…… As the film goes on, I was increasingly impressed that people were having genuine and deep spiritual experiences as a result of listening to his “teachings,” and pouring out their deep hopes and fears to Kumaré.
I won’t spoil the ending of the film when he finally reveals to his followers who he actually is, but I was no longer at all angry. Indeed, I saw that he performed an essential function. He was what we might call a reminder or “place marker,” a living, approachable symbol of spiritual possibilities within each of us. By being such a place marker, he reminded people of their own spiritual possibilities, and they grew in their spirituality!
I think I’ve had a mild lifelong anger at the many religious leaders who probably don’t have much spiritual depth themselves, but now I realize that they may still be serving this place marker function, reminding us of our deeper selves and of the spirit. As long as they are not exploiting people as a result of the charisma that they acquire from being ostensibly spiritual people, we can appreciate what they do.