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Erik Davis has a wonderful piece up at Aeon Magazine discussing the 2011 documentary Kumaré (trailer above), the ‘prank’ at the heart of the film, and what it might mean for spiritual seekers, placing the experience with the framework of “the theatre of transformation”:

Religion (and its shadowy ally, the occult) has always managed the boundaries between things — life and death, order and chaos, self and world, novelty and tradition, the knowable and the infinite. It is absurd to imagine that the force of such preoccupations should dissipate at a time of cultural crisis and confusion such as ours. Many of those ever-fluctuating boundaries, once patrolled by religion, have erupted into border wars, just as the very notion of a border has been dissolving. It’s easy to take up a simplistic position when we try to appreciate how spirituality and the secular, belief and scepticism, dance their tango, but surely it’s far better to pay attention to how and when these boundaries get drawn — and what happens when they dissolve, or turn out to be not what they seem.

This is what makes Vikram Gandhi’s trickster documentary Kumaré (2011) — for all its considerable problems — one of the more thought-provoking and unexpected takes on the dynamics of modern spirituality I’ve come across in many a moon. I’m happy that the film is now available for digital download after a year or so of touring the festival circuit to rather mixed — and sometimes puzzled — reception.

Gandhi (his real name) was born in New Jersey and is an alumnus of Columbia University. But in the film he impersonates a long-haired, orange-robed, heavily accented Hindu guru called Sri Kumaré for months on end, gathering a small New Age flock that then witnesses its teacher’s shocking ‘Great Unveiling’ at the close of the film. Gandhi’s experiment is essentially a cruel sceptic’s prank, designed to expose the exotic projections and gullible fantasies animating today’s spiritual seekers. In this, it shares some creative DNA with Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian whose sometimes merciless hoodwinks reveal a seething political subconscious that is hard to glimpse without these sorts of ethically problematic ruses. Kumaré provides a number of easy yucks and painful gotcha moments. But in a manner that Gandhi himself did not seem to anticipate, his story winds up being more emotionally nuanced and even charming than its prankster précis implies.

Rather than setting up an atheist’s honey-pot, Gandhi actually staged something more interesting, and more ambiguous: a theatre of awakening that transforms himself as well as his students.

Head over to Aeon Magazine for the full read: “Trickster and Tricked.

Those interested in exploring the topic further might also want to check out Vikram Gandhi’s TEDx Talk discussing his experience in making the film, titled “Become a Story Now” (embedded below).