The following will be a kind of odd post (really? HERE?!?–Never!): both a film review as well as a further reflection upon the matters raised by that film.
The film in question is Kumaré, which I’ve known about for a while (Chas Clifton has mentioned it several times); you can also look at the film’s website, and here is the trailer.
Further, Kumaré himself has a website, and here’s one of the (very catchy!) kirtans used in his tradition.
Now, I know you might be a bit confused at this point: “PSVL, don’t we know that he’s a fake? Doesn’t he pretty much declare that up-front? So, why are you then going on to show us his website and talking about his kirtans as if they are real?” Why indeed! ;)
Firstly, let me speak a bit more about the film. I’ll be up-front and say that I highly enjoyed it and would recommend that EVERYONE see it, and I mean that with complete sincerity. As indicated by my subject line above, I think seeing this film and taking it to heart is a very good inoculation against certain excesses of the BNP (“Big-Name Pagan”–though Rhyd Wildermuth has done a nice variation on this in calling such individuals “Brand-Name Pagans” as well–!) persona, lifestyle, and (dare I say it?) egregore, which may be more pervasive than something simply found amongst pagans.
There are two levels to the genius of the film, in my view. On the one hand is the obvious one that I suspect most people (including the filmmaker) set out to do and amply demonstrated, which is to expose the artificiality of the “guru” and “spiritual teacher” schtick that is perpetrated by a lot of people, including some of the very real and detrimental excesses of that. With my own contact with gurus in HInduism, as well as with some other (usually self-proclaimed) spiritual authorities who have attracted followers, I have found many of these same critiques to be valid, and I fully endorse the viewpoint which is suspicious of them and actively seeks to demonstrate how destructive and even offensive to the ideals they purport to espouse they often are.
On the other hand, though, Kumaré does something that it is also clear to me the filmmaker never thought would be possible. He actually reached people, and impacted them on a spiritual level, including himself. And in this way, it’s almost as if the methods adopted by Vikram Gandhi to become Kumaré were a kind of Dionysian take on general Hinduism which, in fact, supports the basic viewpoints and aims of HInduism just as well as anything else does. (Keeping in mind, of course, that there is no religion more diverse in terms of being an “umbrella term” than Hinduism, not merely because of the hundreds of millions of followers that it has.) The notion that everything is maya, “illusion,” can be demonstrated in no better fashion than by using that illusion (wow…I almost quoted Guns’n’Roses there!) to prove how even illusory the very category of “illusion” is. What is most illusory about Kumaré is his status as a guru, and yet it’s also the most real and wonderful and impactful thing about him (in certain respects). There is a thing within many of the doctrines that arise from dharmic faiths that is this (in my view) necessary self-short-circuiting effect they have if really taken seriously and comprehensively: the radial detachment in Zen, for example, must include being detached from the idea of radical detachment itself, I think. So, too, with maya–why wouldn’t whatever is “true” and “good” in a tradition that sees maya as pervasive be, in and of itself, “true” or “good” over and above anything else, or more authentic and less-illusory? There’s no real way to judge that, and what gets substituted for those necessary exercises of discernment is the authority of a tradition, a textual interpretation, or a guru or some other figurehead of a tradition.
It’s a question that gets raised when dealing with a deity like Glykon as well: do people know he’s a puppet? And, even if he is a puppet, does that really impact the matter of whether he’s “only a puppet,” and may in fact be a god that exists but has taken the form of a puppet snake oracle in one time and place, but exists independently of that? I think it’s a valid comparison, especially when one looks at how people were actually getting healed as a result of their contact with Glykon, no matter how many potentially unsatisfied customers (including emperors!) Lukian of Samosata may have reported on afterwards.
I do think Vikram Gandhi and this film has a very good and important point to make, though, perhaps not in relation to Hinduism in general but to Hinduism and “Eastern spiritualities” in relation to people in the United States–Gandhi is of Indian ancestry, certainly, and was a practicing Hindu in his youth with his family, but grew up in the United States and is therefore just as American as anyone else who was born and grew up in the United States–which is that guru culture is rather inappropriate for Western folks in various ways. To be a “guru” is not simply to be an honored and respected teacher (despite the colloquial usage of the term to indicate that amongst people in the U.S. and other Anglophone countries). To be a guru is, in essence, to be the person who is doing the real and definite spiritual work on behalf of other people, and thus one doesn’t need to do that work oneself, but instead only has to put their trust and faith and (often) material support behind that guru to reap the benefits of their spiritual realizations. As popular as this is and has been, and as effective as it can be in certain cases, at the same time it’s something that many of us are rightly suspicious of, as it makes of these various (often still-living) persons the carriers of ideals of spiritual enlightenment that cannot always be sustained by their realities as incarnate beings. In this view, it is much more accurate to say that Jesus, from a Hindu perspective, was (and still is treated as) not an avatara of the Hebrew god, but instead he was a guru in whom millions of people still put their faith for salvation–they don’t have to do anything other than do that, and all shall be well, which is exactly what some modern Hindu gurus say in their
In essence, even as a “fake” guru, Kumaré says all of that exactly and plainly, and tells people that they need to become their own gurus in order to dispense with external gurus. That is a really important and powerful teaching to take on-board for people. Too many people define themselves as “seekers” who can’t figure things out for themselves or have no power or spiritual authority, and that automatically places them in a position that is bound to be exploited by certain people. As Robert Anton Wilson said, “There’s a seeker born every minute.” There was an element of this in the film at one point that I observed as very intriguing, which was actually in one of the deleted scenes. Kumaré goes to a number of other spiritual teachers, and even to some mainstream religious leaders, and speaks with them. All of them treat him respectfully, but also give a picture of their own intentions and traditions that is consistent with their (public) teachings and character, without much attention to the personalities involved. Some of these are somewhat strange, to say the least (the “audio theology” guy with his fuzzy sander thing, shown in the trailer above, was one such). But the one in the deleted scenes that was most interesting to me was the Christian minister at some (I got the sense it was Evangelical, possibly mega-) church in Arizona, who when interviewed singly for the piece said that he saw Kumaré as someone who was a seeker who was open to the truth that he (the minister) was teaching about Jesus. Not only was this disrespectful to even the facade of Kumaré, but it shows something very interesting, I think: many Christian ministers of the evangelical variety are just as adept at “reading” people and taking advantage of exploiting their weaknesses and managing to pervert their genuine and innocent yearnings into profit for themselves and their organizations. That almost everyone else who Kumaré met projected their ideals of spirituality and enlightenment onto him and then had them reflected back, but this Christian minister who had no concept of nor context for those things or interest in them instead saw beneath his facade to the genuine curiosity and desire to find spiritual consolation in him exposed that predatory spiritual impulse in the minister, I think. I wonder if this might be why that scene was deleted…I don’t know.
So, I would highly recommend the film to everyone, and especially to people who are or who might wish to be BNPs, to take a step back and see if one is doing it for the right reasons, and if one has ever done something that interferes with the ability of people to be as self-actualized in their own spiritual search as they can possibly be, no matter what that spiritual path of theirs and their particular work of the gods might be.
However, there are some “BUT”s in this picture as well, which are particularly the case for polytheists, but for pagans more widely speaking as well. And, these don’t often get paid attention to either, and quite often get treated in a similar fashion to the main take-away of “guru skepticism” mentioned above, but in ways that might not actually be useful or helpful. Let me explain.
First off, if one reads “guru” as a “spiritual leader,” then that’s a problem, because there are many people who are simply not meant to be leaders of various types. I am a relatively effective teacher, and a decent-enough ritualist, and a pretty good poet; but that doesn’t mean I’m cut out for organizational leadership (and that phrase actually makes me gag a little) or for being adept at motivating even small groups of people toward common causes, even though I realize both of those things, and many others that are outside of my own skillset, are useful and necessary and probably even more important to an endeavor like the Ekklesía Antínoou than the skills that i have. But, the important thing to realize in this “but” is that one doesn’t have to be a “spiritual leader,” or any kind of leader, to have authority over one’s own spiritual life and goals and one’s place in the cosmos and with the deities and other divine beings. You don’t have to have deep and penetrating insights into all of the universe to be secure on your path; you just have to have enough perception to see where you’re at, find out what you can do best and what might be the most useful to your gods and your communities, and then put forth enough effort to accomplish those things well and completely in the time you have left. No, you don’t need to change the world or do any of the things that you’re expected to in every video game in terms of “saving the world” and “beating the boss” and “completing all the levels” and so forth; you just have to be the best damn whatever-it-is-you-are that you can be under the circumstances. And, that’s not only enough, it’s more-than-enough and in fact everything.
Which brings us to the second “but”: you, personally (and no one who is reading this is an exception) can’t do everything or be everything, and furthermore you shouldn’t try to, either. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have ambitions, or wish to improve, or shouldn’t try new things, or shouldn’t enjoy certain hobbies that you may not be fantastic at but which bring you some joy or contentment in at least trying to do them. Heavens know that I am awful at bowling, but that doesn’t stop me from giving it a go a few times a year just because it’s a fun night out! However, the notion that you should be your own spiritual authority also means that you should be your own priest, your own diviner, your own textual scholar and exegete, your own oracle, your own prayer-writer, and anything else does not necessarily follow. Many of those matters are skilled, lineaged, and properly-speaking professional vocations, not all of which everyone is going to have the time or talent for, and that’s okay. No, that doesn’t mean you should then have to make do with whatever the local diviners or oracles or priests or prayer-writers create (or those further afield) if it doesn’t feel right based on your own sense of spiritual authority and appropriateness, but likewise it also doesn’t mean that you have to “put off” doing certain things until you can become adept in any or all of those fields yourself in this “D.I.Y. or DIE trying” ethic that seems to also be somewhat pervasive amongst modern pagans. (On which, more in a moment.) It was one of the biggest reliefs of my life, but also one of the biggest frustrations, to really deal with a particular message I got via an oracle from Antinous a few years ago. While I have done some possessory trance-work (on a few occasions, not intentionally) in the past, it’s not something I’m properly trained in, nor is it really something that I should be doing in my won spiritual life, despite what some rather presumptuous and inappropriate people had suggested to me. Antinous pretty much told me that it wasn’t my path with him to be doing those things, but that meant that I should then seek someone out who could do those things in a dedicated fashion for him so I could be in more regular contact with him. Do you see what that does? It makes me dependent on other people…in other words, on community…to get some of my needs met in a spiritual sense. And, that’s not a bad thing! That is why community is good and necessary, because then we can benefit from one another’s strengths rather than trying to rely solely on the combination of our own strengths and weaknesses to accomplish anything and everything.
And this brings me back to the last (at least for now) “BUT” of this discussion: the notion that “I can do this for you, but you should learn to do it yourself” approach that takes place in so much modern paganism is, to put it bluntly, about as emphatic a “NO!” as I can muster. That notion does two things, in my view (at very least): first, it makes people feel bad that something which should be in their power to do isn’t already and therefore they have to rely on someone else, and thus their having to rely on someone else is understood as a failure or laziness of some sort; and second, it puts a totally unrealistic burden on people to then have to get training and put forth effort into something else before they feel they might be able to make progress on whatever-it-is they might need at that point and for which they’re seeking the services or advice of another. First off, even though it is completely contrary to the American self-reliant rugged individualist ideals of our (U.S.) overculture, it is never a failure to ask for help, or to seek the services of someone outside of ourselves (as long as one isn’t a monist, which is yet another reason why monist thinking when taken to its logical conclusions is an impediment rather than an aid to spiritual progress). Indeed, in a polytheistic theological framework, even the gods don’t expect to be able to “do everything” themselves, though they might theoretically be able to do so in ways humans cannot, which is why they have friendships and family relationships and other interactions with a wide variety of other deities and divine beings in their respective mythologies. But to the second point: if a village shaman told every person that came to them that they should learn to do these things for themselves, they’d soon be out of a job. But that applies to many other things: when you go to the pharmacist, the doctor, the accountant, or the plumber, they never say “Okay, so I’ll take care of this matter you’ve brought to my attention, but you should learn to do this yourself in the future,” and they’re not just withholding such advice because they want repeat customers in the future, it’s because they know you can’t possibly master what their field is with the busy life you lead and the things that you have to do otherwise. Why it is, therefore, that so many people who are in the practices of modern alternative spiritualities seem to think this is “how it should be” is a mystery to me…unless it is because they have had to learn their skills amidst also having jobs and families, often without any pay or a formally-recognize course of training and a title attached to it that is admired and respected in the community, and thus they end up denigrating the tradition and the technique and their own expertise with it because of that lack of the overculture’s societal support and recognition of it.
The fact is, there has never been any religion in the history of the world where everyone was their own self-contained “expert” in every aspect of its practice and theory; there are always people who are specialists (for various reasons–a vocation directly from the deities or an intense interest in certain aspects of it and the training and skills necessary to do those aspects well), and those who are a part of the tradition but may not know as much or do as much as others, along a full set of spectra for each of those possibilities, from the spiritworkers who don’t go an hour without a god in their ear (or eyes, or whatever) to the festival priest who does one ritual for one minor hero or land-spirit once a year for an hour, and from the most fervent lay attendee of rituals who has a five-times daily devotion to their particular gods at their home and work to the busy executive who can only manage to attend one ritual a year and otherwise reads up on things and makes donations to their favored practitioners in other ways several times a year…and many other possibilities between and beyond any of these. As with everything in a polytheistic framework, the “many” Is emphasized and respected for what it is, and variation is prized rather than denigrated, along every possible axis.
So, while I think the lessons of Kumaré (and Kumaré himself!) are good ones, and that the reliance upon gurus to do the work of “spiritually saving” people, at least in the U.S., is not a good thing and should be challenged and deconstructed (including in the ways he has), even when these then inadvertently prove the tenets of one of the religions under scrutiny, at the same time, spiritual authority and spiritual techniques and the expertise in the latter are not the same thing, and so availing ourselves of the services of specialists in these areas should be no cause for shame or worry, and in fact would help to build the communities we are trying to create much more effectively than might be realized. No, pagans–including Big/Brand-Name Pagans–are not and should not aspire to be gurus in the true sense; but, that doesn’t mean that your local diviner might not be able to help you with your problems far better than you’d be able to after studying tarot for ten years.