Is deception in the study of human psychology or spirituality ever justifiable? The obvious answer might seem a resounding ‘No!’ But anyone who has studied psychology will know that sometimes to explore a particular function or phenomenon the researchers are obliged to deceive their subjects. You might think that no good could come of such unethical behaviour, but think of the famous Milgram study in which subjects thought they were giving shocks to other people in a learning experiment, when in reality what was being studied was the ease with which people could be persuaded to comply with authority figures – apparently giving dangerously high electric shocks to other people because they were asked to do so by men in white coats. In reality no electricity was being induced, and the ‘stooges’ writhing about in agony were just acting, but the results from Milgram’s research astonished the world and provided us with a greater appreciation of the way in which we can be manipulated by authority figures, and how dependent we are on the need to conform – at whatever the cost.
In psychological research the subjects’ interests are protected by ethics committees who must first approve the research.
In the following research there was no ethics committee involved, but the deception carried out on certain people was profound. To produce an entertaining film that would expose the way people slavishly follow gurus, a New Jersey film-maker of Indian origin posed as a guru and built up a following, who were filmed interacting with him, to create the movie Kumare.
As a ‘fake guru’ he always insisted that his followers were gurus and developed his own ‘Mirror Philosophy’ to explain this, including a helpful exercise in role reversal which helped the student ‘become the guru’.
It’s a fascinating, provocative idea that has resulted in a film which raises interesting questions. At the end of the film, the guru appears before his ‘disciples’ and reveals his true identity.
Remarkably ten of his fourteen followers remain in contact with him after the ‘unveiling’ of his deception. I wonder whether the hurt, anger, or humiliation the other four might be feeling can be seen as a valuable-in-the-end step in the journey of enlightenment which is also the journey of disillusionment.
You can view the film through i-tunes (find it here). It is certainly worth watching if you are interested in spirituality and psychology, and I’d be interested to know how you feel about it afterwards. I have mixed feelings: on the one hand it is rather touching and shows how many of us do need spiritual guides who can offer us support, mirroring, attention, and ways to work with our consciousness. And the fact is that the ‘fake guru’ actually had a positive, even profound, influence on most of his followers. And yet I’m left with the question I posed at the beginning: is deception ever justified in someone who acts as a spiritual guide (even if they are just acting!) As Time Out’s Chicago’s reviewer said: ‘the film’s notion that the ruse here was okay because it ultimately helped people seems like a specious rationalization.’ And yet, and yet….
See the trailer here:
You can see the ‘guru’s’ website here.