A new book by scholar and popular ISKCON author Satyaraja Dasa (Steven J. Rosen) investigates the connection between two unlikely bedfellows—Star Wars and the Hindu Tradition. Or, perhaps more accurately, Star Wars and the family of religious traditions often termed “Hindu,” such as Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism.
You might be doing a double-take right now. Wait—you mean, Star Wars, the phenomenally popular series of fictitious sci-fi films, created purely as entertainment? And Hinduism, an ancient spiritual tradition meant for developing love of God and freeing oneself from this material world?
Do not adjust your computer screens. Not having been a fan of the film series, Satyaraja Dasa, author of The Jedi in the Lotus: Star Wars and the Hindu Tradition, wasn’t overtly aware of the connection either. That is until Rajiv Malhotra, leader of the Hindu organization the Infinity Foundation, contacted him in 2000.
Malhotra was familiar with Satyaraja’s many pevious books on the subject of “Hinudism” and his reputation as a scholar of the tradition. So he approached him to document the many similarities between Star Wars and Hinduism that Hindus everywhere had reportedly pointed out.
Satyaraja agreed. “I did, however, explain to him that I would have to point out at the beginning of the book that the word ‘Hindusim’ is a misnomer,” he says. “I said I’d be happy to subtitle the book ‘Star Wars and the Hindu Tradition’ to attract the interest of the Hindu community. But my interest was to show how Star Wars reflects Sanatan Dharma, the eternal function of the soul described in Vaishnavism, rather than the so-called sectarian Hindu tradition which came later.”
As was his style, Satyaraja threw himself into the work, watching all six Star Wars movies one after the other, and reading every book about the series. Soon, he too noticed many parallels between Star Wars and the Vedic tradition, and became inspired.
“It was exciting that, although there were books on Star Wars from Christian, Buddhist, and Daoist points of view, no one had yet written a book on the series’ obvious parallels with the Hindu tradition,” he says.
Satyaraja explains that George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, was friends with and heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell, the famed mythologist, and even said, “There’d be no Star Wars without him.” Campbell’s “preferred stock of myths,” as he called them, included the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, ancient Vedic histories about God’s avatars written thousands of years ago.
Although he never specifically mentioned these books, George Lucas did say in interviews that he had “drawn from ‘Hindu mythology.’” And following the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977, he stated that its story was shaped, in part, by ideas described in Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which the main examples of the “monomyth”—a kind of archetypal hero story—are given from the stories of ancient India.
In The Jedi in the Lotus, released this October, Satyaraja shows that this influence yielded in Star Wars many startling parallels with the Vedic epics. For instance, he compares the plot of the original Star Wars trilogy to the plot of the Ramayana.
In Star Wars, Princess Leia is kidnapped and held against her will by an evil Warlord, Darth Vader. Her desperate cry for help is delivered by a mysterious non-human entity—the android R2-D2—to the youthful hero Luke Skywalker. The hero then comes to the princess’s rescue, aided by a devoted and noble creature that is half-man and half-animal, Chewbacca.
By the end of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Luke, aided by the mystical Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and leading legions of anthropomorphic bear soldiers, wages a huge war. Darth Vader and his evil empire are defeated, the princess is returned to safety, and peace and righteousness return.
By comparison, in the Ramayana, Princess Sita is also kidnapped and held against her will by the demon Ravana. Her cry for help is delivered by a mysterious non-human entity—the talking vulture Jatayu—to the youthful hero Lord Rama. Rama then comes to his wife’s rescue, aided by a devoted and noble creature that is half-man and half-animal, the monkey god Hanuman.
Rama also wages a war to get Sita back, leading an army of Vanaras (bears and monkeys who have anthropomorphic characteristics), and finally rescues her from Ravana. The forces of the underworld defeated, Rama-raja (the kingdom of truth and righteousness) reigns supreme.
Satyaraja says that George Lucas didn’t exactly deny all these similarities, but was very guarded about his influences, saying enigmatically, “I’m telling an old myth in a new way.”
There are also other parallels between Star Wars and the Vedic tradition. The relationship between Yoda and Luke is similar to the traditional guru/disciple relationship, and Satyaraja says that the instructions Yoda gives are “almost verbatim” from the Bhagavad-gita, the ancient spiritual manual spoken by Lord Krishna to Arjuna.
“Yoda teaches Luke self-control, and the importance of restraining the senses,” he explains. “Every Jedi, he says, must overcome desire and anger. Similarly, in the Bhagavad-gita, it is written, “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.”
Yoda also describes “The Force” as the source of the Jedis’ strength, and, in fact, all abilities, just as Krishna describes himself in the Bhagavad-gita: “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.”
The Force is also described as a kind of divinity that is pure energy—it penetrates and surrounds everything that exists, and holds the galaxy together. This is similar to Brahman, the impersonal manifestation of God. The personal aspect to the Force is also highlighted in Return of the Jedi, where Yoda tells us that the Force is his ‘ally,’ and alludes to ‘the Force’s love.’ This points towards Bhagavan, God himself. And Yoda also talkes about the importance of getting in tune with one’s higher self, essentially describing the third aspect of God described in the Vedas—Paramatma.
In addition, the chivalrous form of warfare imbued with ethics and spirituality that Yoda teaches to the Jedi knights is just like that of the noble Ksatriya warriors of ancient Vedic times. Just as Yoda teaches the Jedi to be non-agressive but valiant, Dronacharya of the Mahabharata trains the Pandava heroes to be righteous protectors of the innocent.
Of course, some may say the parallels drawn in The Jedi in the Lotus are mere coincidences, seen as something more by a practioner of the Vaishnava tradition who will relate anything to Krishna consciousness. And some of the similarities described by Satyaraja do seem like a stretch—for instance, his assertion that “Yoda’s name is closely linked to the Sanskrit ‘yuddha,’ which means ‘war’.” Or his excitement about the fact that as a student in one film, Luke Skywalker sports a shaved head and a ‘sikha,’ a tuft of hair worn by Vaishnavas to show that they are servants of God.
Satyaraja himself does admit that monks in the Chinese and Japanese traditions also have such tufts of hair. And he’s not afraid to say that a lot of the parallels he draws probably are coincidences. But he is convinced that many of them are more than that.
“In the afterward of the book, I say that now that the reader has looked through all of the parallels, he can decide for himself if they’re coincidental, or if there really is enough overlap to make it obvious that Lucas was influenced by the Vedic texts,” he explains. “I, as someone who has researched this thoroughly, am convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was.”
Supporting Satyaraja’s claim in the forward to The Jedi in the Lotus is Jonathan Young, a PhD, psychologist and founding curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives. Close to both Campbell and Lucas, Young says the book “reveals how the wisdom of India permeates the Star Wars films” and “takes us inside the tales of the Jedi to document the profound Eastern teachings that George Lucas conveys in the series.”
Whether or not you share Satyaraja’s conviction that Star Wars was influenced by the Vedic texts, there’s no doubt that The Jedi in the Lotus is a scholarly book that uses a pop culture phenomenon to powerfully present ancient authoritative teachings. And Satyaraja is clear about his goal in writing it.
“You’re not going to get spiritual truths from Lucas’ movies,” he says. “But what the Star Wars series can do is open people up to the idea that there’s something beneath the surface. And I point my readers to the ancient texts and the religions that came from them to get to the real crux of spirituality—whether it’s Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hindusim, or the science of spirituality, Vaishnavism.”
It’s very possible that The Jedi in the Lotus could provide the basis for thousands of people to enter deeper into Eastern spirituality. In 2001, more than 70,000 people in Australia, 53,000 in New Zealand, and nearly 40,000 in the UK declared in their respective censuses that they are followers of the Jedi faith, the ‘religion’ created by the Star Wars films. And while it’s believed some stated this simply to mock the census or as an act of protest against it, there are many genuine Jedi adherents.
“Star Wars may be a fictional story created for entertainment, but the principles of a Jedi are ones that anyone can appreciate,” says Satyaraja. “And they are very similar to those described by Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita as belonging to a transcendentalist: ‘One who is not disturbed in mind even amidst the threefold miseries or elated when there is happiness, and who is free from attachment, fear and anger, is called a sage of steady mind.’”
Satyaraja is sure that his book will find Star Wars fans who will appreciate this message, despite being released years after it was originally intended to be. The Jedi in the Lotus was originally completed in 2003, and would have been released in the midst of the prequel trilogy and a new wave of Star Wars hysteria. But when Columbia University Press, who had first optioned it, changed their publishing policies and passed, the book was delayed until October 2010, when it was picked up by UK publisher Arktos.
“It was a blessing in the end—there couldn’t be a better time to release the book than today,” Satyaraja says.
He’s referring to Lucasfilm’s recent announcement that it will re-release all six Star Wars movies in 3D, starting with the Phantom Menace in 2012. And a TV series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, is currently running on Cartoon Network.
“Star Wars is set to continue being in the public consciousness for many years to come,” Satyaraja says. “It’s a perennial thing—I don’t think Star Wars will ever go out of vogue. And I hope that by reading The Jedi in the Lotus, its fans will find an even more detailed description of the Jedi than the one found in the films; and that they will be encouraged to investigate the Vedic literature to learn even more.”
The Jedi in the Lotus: Star Wars and the Hindu Tradition was released in late October 2010, and is available from www.arktos.com.
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