Hindu Themes in Western Popular Culture: A Tale of Two Georges, Part Two

By Jeffrey D. Long

Introduction

In the first part of this two-part series on the ‘two Georges’–Harrison and Lucas–who have played roles in infusing Hindu themes and thought into Western popular culture, I focused upon George Harrison, whose Hindu connections and commitments were quite open and well known. Starting with the brief sitar passages in the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” then moving on to the reflections found in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s “Within You Without You,” and culminating in the Krishna devotion of “My Sweet Lord,” from 1970’s All Things Must Pass, and continuing to the end of his life, the evidence of Hindu influence on Harrison is abundant, and has become one of the most distinctive features of this artist (although the other Beatles were not without these influences, as one can find in Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Across the Universe,” and more subtly in McCartney’s “The Fool on the Hill” or in the title of his 2001 instrumental on the album Driving Rain, “Riding into Jaipur”).

In this essay, I turn to the other George–George Lucas. In regard to the topic of Hindu influences in Western popular culture, the case of Lucas is quite different from that of Harrison. It is not at all clear that Lucas has any explicit Hindu affiliations, or even interests. The Hindu themes which one can discern in his work are arguably as much a reading into the ‘text’ of his cinematic oeuvre as they are a result of discernible influence, though the intellectual influence of Joseph Campbell, a scholar deeply immersed in the Vedanta tradition of Hinduism, cannot be completely discounted. It is certainly possible–indeed likely–that any element of Hindu thought one can find in Star Wars is there purely to create an entertaining story, and may even be coincidental. It is also the case that many themes I will identify here as Hindu are equally to be found in Buddhist traditions, and that the proximate source of influence on Lucas in these cases may have been Buddhism, rather than Hinduism. The samurai films of Akira Kurosawa were perhaps an even stronger influence upon Lucas than his conversations with Campbell, and a likely conduit of Buddhist influence.

This does not, however, render Star Wars irrelevant as part of the larger story of how Hindu ideas and practices came to infuse Western culture in the latter years of the twentieth century. Literary theorist, Roland Barthes, wrote in 1967 of the ‘death of the author,’ arguing that once a text has been created, its meaning is not fixed. Even the text’s creator has no particular authority over how it is to be interpreted. Each reader (or viewer, in the case of a visual text like the Star Wars films) has the ability and the authority to interpret the text in whatever way she sees fit. Certainly, when I first viewed The Empire Strikes Back as an eleven-year-old, while my father lay suffering from quadriplegia after a horrific accident, Yoda’s teaching to Luke Skywalker that, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” certainly rang true. The essence of my father was not identical to the physical form in which it was imprisoned. These words of Yoda helped to spark a spiritual journey which, after my father had passed away the following year, led me finally to the teaching of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita that, “Never was there a time when you I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth, and then to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.”[1]

Unlike the case of George Harrison, then, the argument of this essay is not that Hindu thought necessarily influenced George Lucas in any serious or conscious way, such as to be found in his art (though, again, such influence is not to be discounted entirely). The argument is that one can find resonances with Hindu thought in the Star Wars universe if one examines it attentively.

The Force

The most obvious point of contact between Hindu philosophy and the Star Wars universe is, of course, the Force. We are first introduced to the Force in the original Star Wars film, A New Hope (later revealed to be the fourth chapter of the Star Wars saga as a whole). Luke Skywalker–who is the archetypal hero, in Joseph Campbell’s sense, of this epic–asks his mentor, Obi Wan Kenobi, how his father died. Kenobi explains that Luke’s father, a great Jedi Knight, was killed by a young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was “seduced by the dark side of the Force.” The Jedi are essentially warrior monks. For millennia, they were the guardians of peace and justice in the galactic republic which has, by the time of A New Hope, fallen, becoming an evil galactic empire. When Luke asks Obi Wan what the Force is, Obi Wan explains that, “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”[2]

In the scene immediately following this one, the Force is again the focus of discussion, but in a very different setting. On board the Death Star, a superweapon in the form of a spherical space station which houses a laser with the ability to destroy an entire planet, imperial officials are in a heated debate about how to proceed because the rebels against the empire have stolen the plans to the Death Star and are likely planning to destroy it. Among these officials is Darth Vader, whom we have already met at the start of the film, when he was pursuing the rebels who had stolen the Death Star plans. A fearsome figure, Vader is the archetypal villain: physically imposing, dressed in black armor, his face concealed behind a mask and his covered in a shiny black helmet that has a strong (and not coincidental) resemblance to the flared helmet of a samurai warrior. One of the officials arrogantly defies Vader, mocking Vader’s “sad devotion” to the “ancient religion” of the Jedi, and his faith in the Force, which Vader insists is more powerful even than the Death Star. As the skeptic continues to taunt Vader, he suddenly begins to choke and turn blue, as if an invisible hand were crushing his throat. Vader, meanwhile, is holding his thumb and forefinger together. The lead imperial official, Governor Tarkin, grows impatient with the bickering of the group and says, “Vader, release him!” “As you wish,” Vader replies, and the choking official slumps to the table in relief as Vader’s invisible grip vanishes.[3]

The most obvious comparison between the Force and something in Hindu philosophy is with the omnipresent Brahman: the infinite being, consciousness, and bliss that is the true nature of reality, according to the teaching of Advaita (or non-dualist) Vedanta. Both entities can be likened to an all-pervasive energy field. The Force, however, has a “dark side,” whereas Brahman is the highest good in Hindu thought. Significantly, though, many of the Hindu deities, which are the preeminent forms of Brahman in the relative realm of space and time, do have destructive aspects which do not easily fit into morally dualistic Western notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Another way to look at the matter is that Brahman, in and of itself, is the ultimate good; but so long as we suffer from the state of cosmic ignorance known as maya, we project onto Brahman attributes that do not belong to it. In other words, Brahman is itself beyond our relative notions of good and evil, but appears to us in forms based on the relative good and evil within our own consciousness.

One can also see resonances here with the Tibetan Buddhist Bardo Thodol (or ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’), in which the same entities can appear as benevolent Buddhas and Bodhisattvas or as malevolent, demonic beings, depending on the consciousness of the observer: whether that consciousness is filled with compassion or with fear. This imposition, or adhyasa, may explain the (apparent) dark side of the Force. More evidence for this interpretation emerges in the next Star Wars film.

The Wisdom of Yoda

The Jedi master Yoda, probably the Star Wars character most obviously rooted in Asian spiritual traditions, is introduced in the second Star Wars film (part five of the entire saga): The Empire Strikes Back. In A New Hope, Luke’s guide–the character playing the mythic mentor role, in terms of Joseph Campbell’s archetypes–is Obi Wan Kenobi. Obi Wan, however, is struck down in his duel with Darth Vader: or rather, he merges with the Force, his physical form vanishing, much to Vader’s bafflement. This provides a distraction that allows Luke and his band of friends to escape from the Death Star (from which they have rescued the epic’s chief heroine, Princess Leia) and go to the hidden rebel base. In the climactic scene of the film, Luke destroys the Death Star with the help of the Force, guided by Obi Wan’s disembodied voice.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Obi Wan again appears to Luke, not only as a voice, but with a visible form as well (which fans refer to as a ‘Force ghost’). He advises Luke to go to the planet Dagobah to be instructed by Yoda, “the Jedi master who instructed me.”[4] (It is interesting to note that, in Sri Lanka, a ‘dagoba’ is a stupa, or Buddhist shrine.)

Apart from his name sounding vaguely like “yoga” (and being similar to yodha, or ‘warrior,’ in Sanskrit), Yoda, in many ways, fulfills the archetypal role of the eccentric teacher whose divine madness serves to uproot the limiting preconceptions of the student and open the student’s mind to higher spiritual realities. “You must unlearn what you have learned,” Yoda tells Luke in one scene.[5] And unlearn he does. When Luke first encounters Yoda, Luke’s X-wing Starfighter has crash-landed in the swampy environment of Dagobah. Yoda is a tiny figure–roughly three feet tall–with green skin and large, pointed ears that extend from the sides of his head. He is also ancient–over nine hundred years old–and lives in a humble hut on a world which Luke unkindly characterizes at one point as a “slimy mud hole.” “Mud hole! Slimy! My home this is!” Yoda replies, using the word order typical of such languages as Sanskrit and Japanese: a verbal idiosyncrasy for which his character has become famous (or rather, for which famous his character has become). Upon his arrival, Yoda offers to help Luke find his friend, to which Luke replies, “I’m not looking for a friend, I’m looking for a great warrior.” Yoda’s reply to this is instructive, “Ah! Wars not make one great.”

Once Luke actually realizes this eccentric little figure is the very Yoda he seeks, he becomes his earnest–though often frustrated–student. The initial interactions between Luke and Yoda are, in many ways, reminiscent of the first encounters between the young Narendranath Datta–later to be Swami Vivekananda–and his master, Sri Ramakrishna. Naren, too, thought his master-to-be was, at first, a madman, only later coming to see him as a great enlightened teacher–and even then, still challenging him with doubt and skepticism. The job of the guru is to deconstruct the ego and the false conceptions in the mind of the student, to enable the student’s true, divine potential to shine through.

This is what Yoda does for Luke Skywalker. At one point, Yoda takes Luke to a cave that is strong with the dark side of the Force: a place of evil. Luke asks Yoda what is in the cave, to which Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.” He also tells Luke that Luke will not need his weapons in the cave. Still skeptical, Luke takes his weapons with him. In the cave, he encounters Darth Vader–or rather, an apparition of Vader. The two duel with their lightsabers (swords with a blade made up of a coherent energy beam). Luke strikes Vader down, beheading him. Vader’s mask is broken and Luke beholds the face behind it. The face is his own.

This scene strongly suggests that the Force–and reality itself–is shaped by our perceptions: by the impositions of our own fears and expectations upon it. This is a major theme of Vedanta.

Finally, there is the scene which I think of as the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ moment of Star Wars. One can see Star Wars as a modern American version of the kind of epic found in ancient cultures, which embody and express the values of those cultures. The two great epics of Hinduism are, of course, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Many parallels can be seen between Star Wars and these two epics–parallels which have been well documented in Steven Rosen’s work, The Jedi in the Lotus.[6]

The Bhagavad Gita, or ‘Song of God,’ is a dialogue which occurs in the midst of the action of the Mahabharata. It is an interlude, in which the events of the larger epic fade into the background, and the focus becomes the spiritual path, which Lord Krishna explains to the hero Arjuna as he is about to lead his forces into battle against the rival forces of the Kaurava clan.

The most profound dialogue between Luke and Yoda occurs as Luke’s Starfighter sinks fully into the waters of the swamp, effectively stranding him on Dagobah as the war between the rebellion and the empire rages in the space beyond. This dialogue is worth replicating in full:

Luke: “Oh, no. We’ll never get it out now.”

Yoda: “So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”

Luke: “Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.” [Yoda had just been teaching Luke to use the Force to move stones with his mind.]

Yoda: “No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Luke: “All right, I’ll give it a try.”

Yoda: “No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” [This is probably the most famous of Yoda’s lines in the Star Wars films.]

Luke extends his hand, closes his eyes, and the ship begins to emerge from the waters; but then it sinks again and Luke opens his eyes and lowers his hand in frustration (and apparent exhaustion).

Luke: “I can’t. It’s too big.”

Yoda: “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? And well you should not. For my ally in the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. [As he says this, he pinches Luke’s shoulder, underscoring that the Self is not the physical body.] You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you, me, the tree, the rock: everywhere! Yes, even between the land and the ship!”

Luke: “You want the impossible.”

Yoda then closes his eyes and turns toward the ship, extending his clawed hand. The ship starts to rise from the water and floats to the dry land, where it lands gently.

Luke: “I don’t… I don’t believe it.”

Yoda: “That is why you fail.”[7]

Space, time, size, extent, causation itself: none is ultimately real, according to Advaita Vedanta. The reality is Brahman: infinite being, consciousness, and bliss. Yoda challenges Luke to see well beyond our normal concepts of space, time, and causation. The scene is reminiscent of a similar moment in The Matrix, when the guru character of Morpheus asks the hero, Neo: “Do you think that’s air that you’re breathing?” The phenomena that we normally experience and take to be real are manifestations of a deeper consciousness. One who becomes attuned to that consciousness has the power to shape these phenomena. In fact, we are doing this all of the time, though without any awareness (or with only very little or occasional awareness) of the process involved. ‘Using the Force’ means becoming attuned to this deeper consciousness: to the Self (Atman), or the Brahman within.

The Power (and Peril) of Attachment

After being instructed by Yoda and beginning to have visions of the future in which he sees his friends suffering, Luke rushes off to save his friends, even though Yoda and Obi Wan warn him that his training is not yet complete. Luke ends up facing Darth Vader in combat and (here is the biggest spoiler alert of all time) discovering the terrible truth that Vader did not, literally speaking, kills his father. Vader is his father. The great Jedi, Anakin Skywalker, became consumed by the dark side of the Force. The final film of the original Star Wars trilogy (part six of the saga as a whole), Return of the Jedi, narrates Vader’s redemption. Luke, confident that there is still good in his father, refuses to kill him in a final confrontation orchestrated by the Emperor: the dark lord whom Vader serves and who has enslaved the galaxy under his rule. The Emperor, seeing that it will not be possible to sway Luke to the dark side, assaults him with his Force powers, shooting lightning bolts from his hands. Luke cries out to his father for help, and the divine spark within Vader finally asserts itself. He tosses the Emperor into a nearby pit. Anakin Skywalker has come back. He dies, however, from the wounds inflicted in his battle with Luke and from the lightning of the Emperor.

The idea of a dualistic battle between good and evil is very Western, and its presence in Star Wars is quite understandable, given that Lucas originally conceived of his films as an American myth. The idea that there is a core of divinity–of essential goodness–in all beings, though, is also strongly present in Hindu traditions. It was this core of divinity that Mahatma Gandhi sought to evoke in his opponents when he used nonviolent methods of opposing oppression. Luke, in tossing aside his lightsaber and refusing to kill his father, similarly evokes the good from him. The good, divine core of Vader reasserts itself and the Emperor–representing ego and delusion–is destroyed: cast into an abyss. Of course, the image of a being who embodies pure evil being cast into an abyss is evocate of the Christian image of Satan being cast out of heaven and into hell. Again, this makes sense, given the pervasiveness of Christian imagery in American culture.

Another major difference between Asian and Western thought is that there is no final battle, no ultimate defeat of evil, in such traditions as Hinduism and Buddhism. There is for the individual who attains liberation from the cycle of rebirth. But within the cycle, good and evil are constantly waxing and waning, ebbing and flowing. If we see the end of the Return of the Jedi as the final defeat of evil in the Star Wars universe–through a Christian lens–we miss this point. It is interesting to note, though, that the recent resumption of the Star Wars saga, with the release of The Force Awakens, shows us that all evil was not, in fact, defeated in Return of the Jedi. The war continues to rage, as the Empire seeks to be reborn through the help of a fanatical and fascistic group known as the First Order. One rumor that circulated among fans prior to the release of the film, The Last Jedi was that the character of Rey, introduced in The Force Awakens, might actually be the reincarnation of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. This would have helped explain why this completely untrained young woman is both an outstanding pilot and instinctively adept in the use of the Force, not only resisting Kylo Ren’s powerful mind probe, but even turning it back against him. This idea was not, however, taken up in The Last Jedi, though neither has its possibility been excluded.

Returning to Anakin Skywalker: how does he become Darth Vader in the first place? This is the story of the first three Star Wars films (in terms of the chronology of the Star Wars universe, but released in theaters as ‘prequels’ many years after the release of the original films). The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith together narrate the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, the fall of the Jedi and the Republic, and the rise of the Galactic Empire.

The story of Anakin’s fall expresses another deeply Hindu theme (similarly present in traditions such as Buddhism): the theme of the perils of attachment. In the Star Wars universe, we are all basically good (except, perhaps, for the Emperor). As in Hinduism, the soul is essentially pure. It turns to evil because of avidya, or ignorance of its true nature. Thinking itself limited, it comes to feel fear. And in the words of Yoda, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”[8] Anakin’s original fear is for the loss of his mother. He is separated from her in the first film when he goes, as a young boy, to join the Jedi order. He has no contact with her for many years. In the second film, he begins to see premonitions of her death. Fearing for her, he rushes off to his home planet of Tatooine to find he is too late. Having been attacked by a group of desert bandits known as Tusken Raiders, or Sandpeople, she dies in his arms. Filled with fury, he uses his warrior skills to destroy the entire Tusken village, sparing not even the children. This is his first turn toward the dark side.

Also during the second film, Anakin violates his Jedi vows, falling in love with and marrying the princess Padme. The Chancellor of the Republic (soon to become the Emperor from the original films) begins to tempt Anakin by telling him the dark side will give him the ability to save the ones he loves from death. Anakin has begun to have premonitions of Padme’s death, just as he did of his mother. When the Chancellor is finally revealed to be an evil Sith lord (the dark side analogue of the Jedi), Anakin sides with him, taking the Sith name of Darth Vader and helping the Emperor to, as Obi Wan narrated to Luke in A New Hope, hunt down and destroy the Jedi. Anakin/Vader is also responsible for Padme’s death, using his Force powers to choke her in anger when she does not wish to join him on his new path. She dies later, secretly giving birth to twins who will become Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. The children are hidden and their identities kept from them and Obi Wan watches over Luke from a distance as he grows into the hero that he will eventually become.

How is love different from attachment? Love is the experience of the unity of all souls as finally one with the divine Self, or Atman. Attachment, though, is rooted in ego and avidya: in our sense of being separate individuals that can be threatened and experience loss. In our experience, the two are often mixed up together, and are often difficult to disentangle. But the difference between the two could not be more stark: one is life-affirming while the other leads, unchecked, to death and destruction.

Tat Tvam Asi: You Are That

The most recent addition to the Star Wars film canon, The Last Jedi, is, if anything, even more rich with explicitly Hindu imagery and concepts than earlier films in this series. Luke Skywalker’s choice to turn away from his fame and the heroic struggle with evil, though fueled not so much by spiritual aspiration as by self-doubt and disillusionment, is evocative of the life of the sannyasin, or renouncer. But while secluded in a monastic setting, the location of the first Jedi temple, Luke does engage in spiritual pursuits, and develops powers even greater than those we have previously seen the Jedi deploy. As he instructs Rey, in the ways of the Force, he uses language that is most evocative of the famous dialogue of Uddalaka Aruni and Shvetaketu in the Chandogya Upanishad, the repeated refrain of which is tat tvam asi, often translated as “You are That,” by which Uddalaka indicates to Shvetaketu that the core essence of all things is the same as Shvetaketu’s own Self, or atman. The teaching of the ultimate unity of atman and brahman, the ground of all being, is the central teaching of the nondualistic, or Advaita, tradition of Vedanta, or Hindu philosophy. Luke explains to Rey that the Force is not simply some mysterious power that allows the Jedi to do the amazing things that they do. It is the essence or true nature of all beings, including Rey herself.

In the climactic scene of the film, Luke is seen meditating in a lotus position, and levitating above the ground: a classic, archetypal image of a Hindu spiritual master.

As Luke teaches Rey, though, the Force is not all about levitation. Luke’s critical and dismissive attitude toward the Jedi and their powers reflects the attitudes of both Hindu and Buddhist masters toward the siddhis, or paranormal abilities, believed to come with spiritual mastery. The aim of the path is spiritual liberation, from which such powers can become a distraction. They may even become an impediment to awakening.

Conclusion

Like all great works of art, Star Wars is subject to many interpretations, and each interpretation has its strengths and its limits. A Hindu reading is not the only possible reading. But the fact that Star Wars does lend itself to such a reading, on so many levels, makes it part of the larger story of the infusion of Hindu thought and practice into Western culture.

Dr. Jeffery D. Long is Professor of Religion and Asian Studies at Elizabethtown College, in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, where he has taught since receiving his doctoral degree from the University of Chicago in the year 2000. He is the author of A Vision for Hinduism, Jainism: An Introduction, and The Historical Dictionary of Hinduism, as well as the forthcoming Indian Philosophy: An Introduction and Hinduism in America: A Convergence of Worlds. Dr. Long is also the editor of the Lexington series Explorations in Indic Traditions: Ethical, Philosophical, and Theological. He has spoken in many venues in North America, India, and Europe.

Endnotes

[1] Bhagavad Gita: As It Is, with translation and commentary by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1972), pp. 21-24. The original verses are Bhagavad Gita 2:11b-13

[2] Star Wars: A New Hope (Lucasfilm, Ltd., 1977)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Lucasfilm, Ltd., 1980)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Steven Rosen, The Jedi in the Lotus

[7] Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Lucasfilm, Ltd., 1980)

[8] Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (Lucasfilm, Ltc., 1999)

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