I recently watched the 2012 documentary “Kumare”. It left me feeling completely uplifted and inspired. The movie conveys the message that gurus are not necessary. You don’t need to follow anyone to have access to wisdom or a good life. It is all within you already. The Guru is YOU.
The film follows Vikram Gandhi, a New Jersey-born filmmaker of Indian heritage, as he explores the question: Can anyone become a guru?
Vikram’s devoutly Hindu grandmother planted a seed of religious curiosity in him. Despite growing up in a more secular and materialistic American culture, Vikram never forgets the rituals and traditions she taught him.
When he graduates from college, Vikram ventures back to his roots. He travels through India and explores the religious landscape, interviewing many spiritual seekers and leaders, including numerous gurus.
After some time, he begins to wonder what would happen if he himself claimed guru status. So he decides to try it.
He calls himself Kumare, grows a beard, adopts his grandmother’s accent, wears robes, moves to Arizona (where there’s little chance of anyone recognizing him), and hires two women to act as his supporters.
But he takes it even further. He really lives the guru lifestyle. He sleeps on a thin mattress outside, meditates, and practices yoga daily.
When people meet him, he tells the truth. He tells them that is not who they think he is.
His message is that everyone is a guru, that everyone can find wisdom inside themselves. His teaching is that gurus are not necessary.
He repeatedly explains that he will not always be there, but that doesn’t mean they will lose access to wisdom when he is gone. It is all within them already.
He also invents and teaches exercises, visualizations, and mantras, which closely resemble various yoga practices.
People love him, and he soon develops a devout following.
I won’t spoil the rest of the movie for you, but I think the premise raises many interesting questions.
First, let’s clarify what a guru is.
“Guru” is a Sanskrit word which literally means “one who disperses shadows.”
It is the term used to describe an individual who is recognized as the leader of a spiritual following, most often in the Hindu tradition, but it could also be applied to other spiritual leaders like Jesus and Muhammad.
The assumption is that the guru is enlightened, and teaches his (sometimes her) followers wisdom, and with that teaching is able to disperse the shadows of illusion so the Ultimate Truth may be realized.
It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. In the traditional guru model students/disciples are meant to be devout to their one teacher/guru, strictly following the guru’s instructions in hopes that they, too, will attain enlightenment.
The reality is that power often gets exploited. Gurus have a tendency to be idealized, while they often have just as many shortcomings as their followers, if not more.
This can lead to some dire consequences.
For example, there is the famous case of Rajneeshpuram, or Osho, who started an isolated spiritual community in Oregon, only to have it end violently a few years later.
Even more extreme are cases of mass suicide, as in the infamous Jonestown incident, where devotees follow their leader to the grave.
Of course there are also milder situations, where nobody gets hurt, but often the integrity of the guru is nonetheless questionable.
Thankfully, there are also genuine individuals who really just want to teach people. Still, all too often the followers will independently choose to revere the guru as a god, projecting unrealistic ideals on him/her, even if the guru tells them not to (as happens in Kumare).
So, are gurus necessary?
I think the answer, as is the case with most Big Questions, is: It’s Complicated
At their best, gurus show their followers how to live better lives, not take themselves so seriously, and lead the path to a more joyful existence. Ultimately, they inspire people to be the best version of themselves.
But I think that in today’s world, with access to all scriptures, teachings, and teachers at our fingertips, it isn’t necessarily the wisest choice to follow just one teaching without exploring the others.
You have the capacity to be a critical thinker. By following a single guru, closing yourself off from all other influences, you are making yourself susceptible to potential brainwashing. You give up your freedom to choose what you believe and may find yourself catering to someone else’s whims over your own.
While it is true that much can be gained by having a singular, unwavering focus, when you open yourself up to the whole world of spiritual teachings you will come to find that they are all saying the same thing. By exposing yourself to a variety of teachings, you will gain a richer understanding of what that is.
There is certainly something to be said for tradition. Rituals are practiced and taught to remind people not to get carried away by their own egos, to connect to the higher Truth. They provide people with the tools to become the best version of themselves.
But when the rituals, and the people teaching the rituals, become the object of worship, instead of being recognized as symbols, humanity has an unfortunate habit of getting carried away.
I love the movie Kumare because it shows that we don’t have to look outside ourselves for salvation.
We all have the potential to be our best possible selves. We just have to choose to manifest that version.
All too often, we focus on the ways in which we are failing, or falling short of our ideal. But, as Aristotle (one of the great Western gurus) suggests, only by acting virtuous can we become virtuous.
So even if you don’t believe yourself, pretend to be the best version of you. Look within rather than outside of yourself, and you’ll find that the guru is you.