“Does the end justify the means?” is a question that has challenged philosophers for centuries. In the case of the fake guru Kumare, does the fact that many of his followers experienced significant spiritual self-transformation justify his unethical behaviour in lying to them about who he was, by claiming to be a guru from India rather than a film-maker from New Jersey? In other words, he used an unethical method that achieved positive results for the duped participants, but does that make it right?
When discussing the methods of achieving awakening, Buddhism uses the analogy of the boat crossing the river. The boat is the method that helps you to cross over the river of delusion and life’s vicissitudes so that you can reach the other shore, which is wisdom. However, once you have reached this destination, you don’t need to continue on the path carrying the boat with you. This is a caution not to hold onto spiritual doctrines and ideas in the mistake that they in themselves are the Truth. Rather, spiritual methods are merely a tool for getting you across the river, that is, tools to help you deal with the obstacles that obstruct your journey towards self-transformation. However, you do need to have a good strong boat, made of sturdy materials and made by an experienced craftsman to weather the storms and currents of a swift and mighty river, with plenty of obstacles, rocks and dangerous animals that might hinder progress. This is such a good metaphor for the chaos of our journey through life!
Now, as for Vikram Gandhi’s experiment in proving that you don’t need a “real” spiritual teacher to achieve self-transformation, my feeling is that he started to cross the river with a very leaky boat! He was responsible for a group of people who thought that he was an experienced sailor in a well-crafted vessel that they could trust. But his boat was merely a movie prop made of flimsy materials disguising the leaky raft! Luckily for him, as he continued on his journey he was able to keep putting patches on the leaks and in the end no one drowned… Or so his documentary made out. Whilst a number of the participants forgave Gandhi’s deceit because they had in fact benefited from the exercise, on the other hand, I think there may have been considerable harm done to the participants who chose not to tell their story in the end and abruptly left when he revealed who he really was. We don’t get to hear about their experience.
My conclusion is that this was a very dangerous and irresponsible experiment that may have had profoundly injurious consequences for the vulnerable people who followed him. Each individual is a precious spiritual being and making an experiment like this is not skilful in its actions, words or thoughts; it is not relating to other beings in a compassionate and wise and respectful manner.
One positive outcome is to raise awareness that we need to take a responsible approach in seeking a spiritual teacher: make sure that you look very carefully at the credentials of your teacher in an open and honest way. If the teacher is genuine, they will welcome your questions. And if you have any intuitive feelings that perhaps something is not quite right, then you must trust this deeper wisdom that is speaking to you. If it doesn’t feel right but you can’t quite put your finger on what is wrong, talk to your teacher about your doubts – a skilful teacher will be able to help you distinguish between doubt that arises as a natural consequence of stretching your practice and doubt that arises in response to a deeper wisdom that something is not right and needs to be changed. Spiritual practice is about learning to open your eyes, so look with gentle compassion and wisdom at your teacher as well – a genuine teacher will welcome your scrutiny.