(LOS ANGELES) — Kumare speaks with a thick Indian accent. His hair is long, his beard is full, his feet are bare. Wrapped in a saffron sarong, Kumare effortlessly becomes a spiritual beacon for a curious bunch of truth seekers in Phoenix.
But Kumare, whose real name is Vikram Gandhi, is actually a hip 33-year-old filmmaker from New Jersey, who created a fake “yogalebrity” persona but wound up with a real American following.
“Isn’t the most traumatic part of the illusion of Kumare is that the guy who they all thought was from another country actually grew up in Jersey?” he told ABC News in Los Angeles after the premiere of the resulting movie, Kumare: The True Story of a False Prophet.
“It’s not about making fun of people,” Gandhi said. “It’s about the general absurdity of what we all believe.”
Gandhi was raised in a Hindu household, the child of Indian immigrants. He watched, slack-jawed, as his fellow Americans embraced the spirituality of his Indian ancestors in search of truth.
“I think in the very beginning it was absurd,” Gandhi said. “I was like, ‘Are you pretending to be Indian?'”
About 15 million Americans practice yoga, which has grown into a $6 billion-a-year industry.
Gandhi started making the film about sadhus, or holy men, in India and the U.S. But soon he decided that a deeper truth could be found by becoming a religious leader himself. So he kicked off his shoes, grew out his beard and hair and started speaking in his Indian grandma’s accent.
“When I was creating Kumare, who is this guy going to be, I was looking at the big ones, Jesus, Buddah, what did they say? What did they do? And the one thing I couldn’t get down with that they could was saying that they had authority,” Gandhi explained. “Kumare was about saying he didn’t have authority.”
Kumare’s message was simple: The only guru you need is inside yourself — that’s the cornerstone of Kumare’s invented “mirror philosophy.”
“I wanted to sort of tell a cautionary tale about spiritual leaders,” he said. “We trick ourselves to believe them so we can be happier too, so this was just sort of trying to unveil the trick.”
Gandhi said he would tell every yoga class, and repeatedly tell his band of followers, that Kumare was not real, that he was no more a guru than the people in front of him.
“People often thought that was a riddle because the accent, because of the robe and because of what we are programmed to think as a holy man,” he said. “It might be naïve, but I think everybody has a similar potential to be wise and good.”
And then there came the day Gandhi had to unveil his true identity, for the sake of the movie and the philosophy behind it. How would his followers react?
Tune in to Nightline Friday night at 11:35 p.m. ET to see what happens when Nick Watt attends one of Vikram Gandhi’s yoga classes.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
David Shortell, CNN
Debra Goldschmidt and Nadia Kounang, CNN