The Experimental Guru

By Farzana Dudhwala

“This is an experimental event! The plan is to have a light supper and then watch “Kumaré”, the recent documentary about someone who sets himself up as a “false guru”. Some interesting ethnographic issues.” ­– Steve’s email invitation

This was all we had to go by: an ‘experimental’ event at Steve’s house. I’d read the email a while back and responded then, too. I only realised that I hadn’t read it properly when I got there. I’d told everyone that I was going to an ‘experimental taste’ evening. Having read the email again, I realised it didn’t say the experimental part of the evening had anything to do with the food (although I still think that Steve’s delicious citrus and chilli salmon dish could be seen as ‘experimental’ to those of us with less imaginative cookery skills). After we had finished eating (the salmon was preceded by a broccoli and stilton soup and followed by a fruit crumble with Cornish ice-cream), we moved to the next room where the show was about to start.

Vikram Gandhi

The starting scenes of the film had all the familiar sounds and sights of India. We were presented with vignettes of people talking about different gurus, and how some were more real than others. We were then introduced to Vikram Gandhi, the director and protagonist of the film, who had become disillusioned with the religious leaders he’d met. He was curious about the increasing trend in the West to seek spirituality in Eastern beliefs and decided to impersonate an Indian spiritual leader to find out more. Enter Sri Kumaré.

Sri Kumaré

Vikram Gandhi as his ideal self: Sri Kumaré

Vikram Gandhi as his ideal self: Sri Kumaré

Vikram took on the appearance of a stereotypical Indian guru – he let his beard and hair grow out for a few months, learned some yoga, and took off most of his clothes. He then set up a website and started advertising his new form of meditation and chanting. He ended up with 14 devout believers who zealously followed his principles of finding the ‘blue light’ and ‘oo-aa-ee’ chanting. When speaking about him, they proclaimed that he was a ‘true’ guru; unlike the others, he was the ‘real’ deal. They had faith in him and believed that he was the cause of actual and significant changes in their lives. But of course, all along, Sri Kumaré was just Vikram Gandhi in disguise: a self-proclaimed ‘false’-guru, and a ‘fake’ deal.

“A True Film about a False Prophet”

As the credits started to roll, the room erupted with differing opinions. Were the lessons Kumaré taught any less real or transformative for the participants now they knew he was a ‘fake’? Did it matter that Kumaré was not really a guru? To a few of his devotees it clearly did: after Vikram’s revelation, they walked straight out of the room. But surprisingly most of the followers embraced him and saw it as the ultimate culmination of their journey with him. They accepted his idea that ‘true meaning’ would be found inside themselves and not in, or through, a guru, and acknowledged that this was exemplified by their own transformations, which had taken place without Kumaré and without the help of any ‘true’ guru at all.

Still, I can see why some of the people walked out. They had put their faith in something that had turned out to be false. Yet if, as they claimed in the film, Kumaré had positively impacted their lives, then perhaps it’s not the deceit that they should have had a problem with, but the fact that Kumaré came clean at all. For me, it’s a bit like the placebo effect: I’ll happily keep taking a pill if it actually has the effect of curing my headache – just as long as you don’t ever tell me that it was only ever a sugar pill!

In our own lives, too, how many ‘false prophets’ have we come to believe in? Take yoga, for instance. Kumaré’s postures and chants were really not that different from the widespread belief in the benefits of doing the ‘cat’, ‘cow’, ‘crow’ and ‘eagle’ poses in yoga. What if someone walked into the yoga studio one day and waved her hands around proclaiming that it was all just a joke? That she’d made up her routines by imitating things she saw in a children’s comic strip, and that it had not been ‘real’ yoga at all? Would any of the benefits of these routines suddenly cease to exist? Would you walk out of the studio feeling like you had been taken for a ride, or would you embrace the woman for enabling you to feel more peaceful and tranquil using nothing more than a children’s comic?

These were just a handful of the many thoughts and discussions provoked by the experimental evening. Steve’s rather demure indication that Kumaré may give rise to ‘some interesting ethnographic issues’, it turns out, was a bit of an understatement.

Steve Woolgar’s experimental event took place on the 8th February 2013. Also in attendance were Lucy Bartlett, Marta Gasparin, Sara Jensen, Katrina Moore and Tanja Schneider.

First Impressions of STS at the SBS: “Business at the Business School”

By Sara Jensen

I was sitting at “The Winter Doctoral Conference” at Said Business School feeling both impressed and a bit perplexed. It was the first week of Hilary Term and I had just arrived from Denmark from a rather small Institute with not a lot of DPhil Students. Of course I knew that the Business School would have many DPhil students all in all, but I was still impressed with the setting of this Colloquium, which was after all ‘just’ an internal event. I looked at the nice and professional looking brochure to get an impression of the speakers of the day. And I must admit, that an impression was all I got, since I, with my humanistic background, did not understand a lot of the abstracts or topics of the day’s speakers.

One of the other DPhil students kindly introduced herself and asked me who I was, and I told her that I just had arrived and was visiting the Said for this semester. When I started to tell her briefly about my project and the words ‘ethnography’ and ‘STS’ came up, a kind of distant, though still polite, glance showed in her eyes. From the Institute of Information Science in Copenhagen, where I come from, I am used to this distant glance since a majority of the people there do more quantitative or statistically related studies – so her reaction was not unfamiliar to me at all. I think the perplexity that I felt during the conference had more to do with the feeling that the DPhil students here at Said were all very dedicated, busy and knew exactly what they were doing, and while drinking my coffee in the coffee break I was thinking: well yes, this was after all Oxford, so what could you expect…?


Sara Jensen is a visiting PhD Student at the Institute of Information Science at Copenhagen University, Denmark.