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In Gurukulam, Swami Dayananda Saraswati tells his students that he achieved enlightenment “Sunday, at 4:30 p.m. I was sitting under a tree and something fell on my head.” It’s clearly one of the amiable guru’s attempts at humor, a gentle mocking of students at his South Indian ashram who impatiently want to know when they will be bestowed with enlightenment.
Saraswati, who died last year, founded the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam to teach Advaita Vedanta, a Hindu discipline, as well as ancient texts such as the Bhagavad Gita. (Though co-directors Neil Dalal and Jillian Elizabeth take 13 minutes to reveal these details; until then, you’re not sure what to make of scenes of people cooking, praying, and chanting.) Programs officially run up to three years, though many seekers choose to spend their lives there. And some have lofty goals: “Personally, I wouldn’t settle for anything less than the universe,” an earnest young man says, adding that the “stakes” are either gaining or losing infinity. And you thought Bible class was hard.
The highlights of Gurukulam are inarguably Saraswati’s lectures, which are exclusively blow-your-mind statements such as “Consciousness is” or instructions like “Work while you work. Play while you play.” If that sounds maddening, though, the rest of the documentary is truly not for you—or for most anybody, really, outside of those already on the path. There’s little here but static cameras taking in people eating, animals roaming, devotees attending to Saraswati. And the aforementioned chanting. There’s quite a bit of chanting.
Besides the swami’s congeniality, however, moments of humor can be found. Most of them involve cell phones: In one shot, for example, a man has a hand in his food while his other is cradling a phone. Guess which one has his attention? Other apparent leaders in the ashram discreetly check their mobiles while in small prayer groups. They may claim they wish to be one with the universe, but at these moments they are still one with technology.
Then the doc starts to get redundant. Such redundancy is key to absorbing many Hindu teachings, mind you, but we don’t need to repeatedly watch people chow down or get dressed or avoid cows in the road. And you’ll feel sympathetic lower-back pain as everyone bends at the waist to accomplish tasks from sweeping to putting objects in baskets. Along with the obvious heat, it looks brutal. But not as brutal as the film’s nearly two-hour running time, which will leave you as questioning and impatient as a new ashram student.
Opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.