2016-06-30
At first glance, it might seem that "Star Wars" and Hinduism have little in common. The "Star Wars" films are modern science-fiction classics, created as entertainment. They make use of futuristic spaceships and imaginative weapons that the real world has not yet seen. Hinduism, for its part, is an ancient religious tradition-or, more explicitly, a family of religious traditions, such as Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism--meant for spiritual enhancement and personal fulfillment. What, if anything, do the films have to do with the religion?

My thesis is simple. Lucas, the creator of "Star Wars," was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell, the famed mythologist. Campbell's preferred stock of philosophical stories comes from India. This is well known. Campbell explained the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the principal epics of contemporary Hinduism, to Lucas, who digested their many stories and gave them back to us as "Star Wars." Lucas himself says that he was "influenced by Eastern myths." Here's one example I use in my forthcoming book, drawing on the first film of the series, which was released in 1977:

A beautiful princess is kidnapped by a powerful but evil warlord. With determined urgency, a mysterious non-human entity delivers a distress call to a budding young hero. The youthful hero, a prince, comes to the princess's rescue, aided by a noble creature that is half-man and half-animal. In the end, after a war that epitomizes the perennial battle between good and evil, the beautiful maiden returns home. The valiant efforts of the prince and his comrade, who were assisted by an army of anthropomorphic bears in the fight to return the princess to safety, are duly rewarded, and peace and righteousness once again engulf the kingdom.


In the Eastern part of the world, the story evokes memories of the Ramayana, an ancient epic from which many of India's myths and religious traditions originate: The princess is Sita, kidnapped by the power-mad Ravana. Her loving husband Rama, the archetypal hero who, as the story goes, is Vishnu (God) in human form, soon becomes aware of her plight and anxiously pursues her.

How did he learn of Ravana's nefarious deed? The good-hearted Jatayu, a talking vulture-like creature, sworn to protect the princess, sees the demon-king abduct Sita. He attempts to rescue her on his own, but Ravana mercilessly cuts him down. Luckily, Rama happens upon the dying Jatayu, who manages to recount all that has taken place before he expires.

After a period of intense grieving, Rama engages his devoted half-human/half monkey companion, Hanuman, in a lengthy search for the princess and, after a complex series of events, they wage war to get Sita back. Aided by an army of Vanaras (bears and monkeys who have anthropomorphic characteristics), Rama rescues Sita from Ravana. The forces of the underworld defeated, Rama-raja (the kingdom of truth and righteousness) reigns supreme.

In Western countries, the story would remind most readers of the first "Star Wars" movie. Here, too, the princess--this time, Princess Leia--is kidnapped. In the "Star Wars" universe, evil incarnates as Darth Vader, who holds Leia against her will. Artoo-Deetoo (R2-D2), an android, carries a desperate cry for help. The princess, just before being captured, managed to conceal a holographic message in the droid's memory banks. Thus, through this futuristic robot, she asks for the assistance of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a master among the mystical Jedi knights, hoping he would come to her aid.

Luke Skywalker, a farm boy from the planet Tatooine, is the one who first receives this message, however, and it is he who turns to the retired Obi-Wan to alert him to the princess's plight. Luke himself is reluctant to travel into unknown territory, into a world of action and intrigue. But Obi-Wan convinces him to go, telling him that "the Force" will protect him.

The two team up with Han Solo, a renegade space cowboy, and Chewbacca, a "half-man/ half-monkey" creature who devotedly assists them. By the end of the original "Star Wars" trilogy, in the company of legions of bear soldiers, they wage a war to end all wars--Darth Vader and his evil empire are defeated and the princess is returned to safety.

Is it a stretch to say that Lucas was directly and/ or indirectly influenced by the Ramayana? This author, obviously, thinks not. And there are many other parallels between Star Wars and Hindu tradition as well. Consider the example of the relationship between Yoda and Luke--a dead-ringer for the traditional Guru/ disciple relationship, especially as depicted in the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad-gita.

Yoda teaches Luke self-control, the importance of restraining the senses. Every Jedi, he says, must overcome desire and anger. The Gita must have been Yoda's sourcebook: "A faithful man who is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge--and who subdues his senses--is eligible to achieve such knowledge, and having achieved it he quickly attains the supreme spiritual peace." (4.39) Again, "By the time death arrives, one must be able to tolerate the urges of the material senses and overcome the force of desire and anger. If one does so, he will be well situated and able to leave his body without regret." (5.23)

It is interesting, too, that Yoda locates the source of the Jedis' strength as flowing from "the Force," which he essentially defines as the ground of all being. Indeed, Yoda tells Luke that all ability comes from the Force, but that this is especially true of the Jedis' supernatural powers. The Gita also says that all power flows from the "Force," i.e., the metaphysical source of all that is: "Of all that is material and all that is spiritual, know for certain that I am both the origin and dissolution. . . .Everything rests upon Me, as pearls are strung on a thread. . . . I am the ability in man." (7.6-8)


Yoda's name is closely linked to the Sanskrit "yuddha," which means "war." Accordingly, he teaches a chivalrous form of warfare, imbued with ethics and spirituality, to the Jedi knights. The non-aggressive but valiant ways of these knights are exactly like those of Kshatriyas, ancient Indian warriors who emphasized yogic codes and the art of protective combat. In this, Yoda resembles Dronacharya from the Mahabharata, who, in the forest (again like Yoda), trains the Pandava heroes to be righteous protectors of the innocent.

In the Ramayana, Vishvamitra Muni, as Rama's spiritual master, teaches the great avatar (incarnation of God) to be adept in the art of war, but he also teaches him that fighting must always be based on yogic principles--he teaches Rama while they are living in the forest as well. Both Dronacharya and Vishvamitra seem like earlier incarnations of Yoda.

In this sense, and in many others, the Hindu scriptures may be the ultimate guidebooks for aspiring Jedis: Consider the Bhagavad-gita yet again: Lust, anger, and greed, the Gita tells us, are deeply embedded in our consciousness. Just ask Anakin. And deep-rooted habits are not always easy to overcome. Nonetheless, in the Gita, Krishna helps us through the darkest of battles by explaining the source of our dilemma, the gradual steps by which we delude ourselves, and by putting us in touch with the spiritual element lying dormant within our hearts. He tells us that those who are enamored by materialistic life begin simply by contemplating the objects of the senses.

Again, just ask Anakin. Such contemplation naturally leads to self-interested action and, finally, attachment. This, in turn, gives rise to anger. Why anger? Because everything in the world is temporary, and so we eventually lose the objects of our attachment. Anger, Krishna says, leads to bewilderment, and bewilderment to loss of memory. At this point, intelligence is lost. We can watch this happening to Anakin in "Attack of the Clones" and, further, in the latest film, "Revenge of the Sith."

Other connections to Hinduism are also apparent in the prequels. For example, the idea of midi-chlorians, or living cells found in high concentration in Jedi blood, resonates with the idea of Paramatma, or the Lord in the Heart. Vaishnava Hinduism uses this concept to explain how God (the Force?) exists inside our bodies as a symbiont, as it were, allowing living entities to commune with Him. Also, young Anakin Skywalker, a Jedi priest, wears a shikha, or a tuft of hair, on the back of his head. While this religious symbolism is found in several ancient monastic traditions, it is nowhere as pronounced as in the Vaishnava Hindu tradition. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna teaches that intelligence means good memory and fine discretion--both of which fall away when we adopt a materialistic and self-centered approach to life. This vicious cycle puts us in a non-spiritual frame of mind, in which we forget who we are and what life is really all about. Krishna refers to this as "a material whirlpool" that drags people ever lower; it is a complex downward spiral that begins, as He says in the Gita, simply by one's contemplating the objects of the senses. (2.61-64) Krishna thus tells Arjuna not to be fooled by sensual stimulation and, instead, to control his senses for a higher purpose. This, indeed, is the teaching of the Jedi and a lesson that is valuable to each and every one of us.

Can people learn this Hindu wisdom from watching "Star Wars"? Most likely not. They'll have to go to established religious texts and the paths traversed by the sages. But something is definitely afoot here. More than 70,000 people in Australia, in a census poll, declared that they are followers of the Jedi faith, the "religion" engendered by the "Star Wars" films. Despite the extremism and absurdity of this statistic-of people adhering to a faith concocted in a fictional film series-experts see in it a manifestation of the movies' spiritual dimension.

In light of this enthusiasm, it's not surprising that the "Star Wars" universe continues to grow. Lucas is now re-mastering the entire series into special 3-D versions, updated for modern times. New TV shows based on "Star Wars" are planned for upcoming seasons. And you now learn of parallels between this consequential film epic and one of the earliest religious traditions known to humankind. What's next?! Only the Force is likely to know!

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