Star Wars Idea of ‘The Force’ is a Central Hindu Teaching: Dr Long

Dr Jeffery D. Long, Professor of Religion and Asian Studies, Elizabethtown College has engaged with Indian traditions for a long time and even as recently as this week was busy preparing to lead the local Saraswati Puja in Harrisburg. This is the third year he has served as the purohit for the local Bengali Hindu community. “It’s a big honour, but involves a good deal of preparation,” says Dr Long.

Dr Long describes himself as a ‘part-time purohit’. “I was trained by Dr Amrutur V. Srinivasan, a Hindu priest and scholar (and author of Hinduism for Dummies, as well as several excellent books on Hindu weddings). I am deeply indebted to his wisdom and many years of experience.”

Speaking about the beauty and relevance of Hindu rituals, he says, “Hindu rituals, if approached with the right mindset, are a very beautiful way to express and evoke bhakti and connect us back to our divine source. Their richness and complexity open our minds to the deeper truths of Hindu philosophy. But they need to be explained well and not approached in a mechanical manner. They really are a high art form.”

Star Wars  and Hinduism

At the Oscars ceremony today, though The Rise of Skywalker failed to take home any prizes, it was nominated for Best Score, Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects at the 92nd Academy Awards. Dr Long recently presented a talk on how the immensely popular Star Wars series has been inspired by Hinduism.

Nishant Limbachia, the INDICA Chicago Chapter co-coordinator reports that Dr Long’s keynote speech was on Star Wars and Vedaṅtā and how the Star Wars movies have quite a few Hindu (Vedantic) themes. “George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, grew up in the 60s in America when America was in the quiet phase of discovering Eastern cultures including Hinduism. Lucas’ main influence came from the works of Joseph Campbell and his seminal book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Lucas, however, also borrowed from movies of various genres like American Westerns, World War II themed films, Science Fiction and Akira Kurosawa’s films,” writes Nishant.

Dr Jeffery D. Long speaks to CSP about Star Wars and Hinduism

Given the cult following for the Star Wars, can we say that Hinduism, while not acknowledged overtly, has an appeal to people world over?

I think that Hindu ideals, when presented in an engaging way, certainly have universal appeal. My own engagement with Star Wars, I believe, helped make me open to Hindu ideals when I finally encountered them in texts like the Bhagavad Gita.

What for you personally is the greatest appeal in Sanathana Dharma? Do you find it showcased in any aspect of Star Wars?

Actually, the two most appealing ideals to me in Sanathana Dharma are not really presented or discussed in Star Wars: namely, rebirth, or reincarnation, and religious pluralism (many paths to realization). Star Wars does, though, teach that materialism is not true: that we are spiritual beings temporarily inhabiting a physical form. “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” as Yoda teaches. Yoda also teaches that fear is the root of suffering: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” This is a central Hindu teaching as well. And of course, the root of fear is ignorance: the fact that we do not know our true, spiritual nature, which is infinite, immortal, and incapable of being destroyed. Finally, the idea of the Force, that there is a divine reality pervading the whole universe and that we all might commune with it, is a very central Hindu teaching that appeals to me as well.

Who among the great heroes of the Mahabharata inspires you the most? Do you see any character in Star Wars modelled on him/her?

My favourite character from the Mahabharata (though perhaps this is too easy) is Krishna. I love the scene where he saves Draupadi from being humiliated by the Kauravas. The idea that God is always nearby and ready to help us is profoundly reassuring. I am also fond of Bhishma, who keeps his word even though it makes things extremely difficult for him later in life. We need more models of integrity like Bhishma. I also find both Karna and Ekalavya to be very tragic characters. Both have very noble qualities, yet suffer because of the circumstances of their birth.

In Star Wars, I would see Krishna as being reflected in both Yoda and in Obi Wan. Both are guides and teachers to the main hero. And interestingly, like Krishna, both find that they need to resort to deception in order to bring to protect the greater good, or dharma (telling Luke that Darth Vader killed his father, rather than the full truth that Darth Vader is his father.) Bhishma, though, is more like Luke: completely committed to truth, and questioning, in The Last Jedi, whether the things the Jedi did were really right in the end. Both the Mahabharata and Star Wars are complex stories, reflecting how difficult it is to follow the right path.

How much did Joseph Campbell influence George Lucas in creating Star Wars? How did they become friends?

Joseph Campbell’s influence on George Lucas first came when Lucas read Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This is what inspired Lucas to develop a great American epic myth, which eventually became Star Wars. They did not actually meet and become friends until 1984 (after all three of the original Star Wars had already been released). They were introduced by a mutual friend: Barbara McClintock, a botanist who won the 1983 Nobel Prize for medicine. They found they had many shared interests, though, and Lucas came to refer to Campbell as “my Yoda.” They remained close until Campbell’s death in 1987.

The visual aspects of Hinduism, including Anakin's shikha are extremely Vedic. Are there other symbols?

Luke Skywalker’s use of padmāsana in The Last Jedi and his levitation as he projects his Force image to another planet are also, as you say, extremely Vedic. Similarly, the very concept of his Force projection is something observed in Hindu sacred literature, and even in accounts of modern yogis such as Paramahansa Yogananda.

Is the first Star Wars movie, which has the story of Princess Leia being kidnapped inspired by the Ramayana? In your opinion, do you think the story should have been credited to India's ancient ithihasa? How does copyright work with work where the authorship lies with a country not an individual?

A princess being kidnapped is a very common image throughout global literature – what Joseph Campbell would call an archetype–so I do not think this particular aspect of Star Wars was necessarily inspired by the Ramayana. In fact, there are important differences between the two stories as well. Ravan kidnaps Sita in the hope of marrying her. Princess Leia is a political prisoner or prisoner of war, captured because she knows the location of the secret rebel base and the plans to the Death Star. This is not really a copyright issue. Being inspired by well-known and ancient stories is very different from plagiarism.

Do you feel that Lucas is also referring to Indian institutions like the Guru-shishya tradition between Yoda and Luke? Most ancient cultures have this concept. Why do you think Steven Rosen believes it to come from Lucas' being influenced by the Bhagavad Gita rather than some other culture?

As you say, most ancient cultures have this concept. It is how knowledge is traditionally transmitted from one generation to the next. Lucas’s familiarity with Indian culture (via Campbell’s work) suggests that India might have been one of his major sources of inspiration. The fact that many of the names and terms he uses are derived from Sanskrit also suggest this. (Yoda, for example, is close to yoḍha, or warrior.)

Dr Jeffery D. Long

How has Lucas used Indian traditions to explain to the Jedi the art of war and the Dharma of a Kshatriya. Indian martial art Kalaripayattu brings together the Veda, Tantra, Ayurveda and Jyothisha, Yoga and Martial Art. It's the warrior's art. There are traces of all these elements in Star Wars. Do you think that Star Wars training of Jedi is influenced by these traditions?

Probably so. But it would be a mistake to see Star Wars as a serious attempt to educate people about these ancient traditions. All the elements incorporated into Star Wars are included in the service of telling an entertaining story. Creating a sense that the Jedi are an ancient order of warriors with a rich cultural background and teachings makes them seem more compellingly realistic and engaging for the audience.

Words and names used have Sanskrit roots. Have you compiled a list of other such words used?

There are a few: Padawan, for a Jedi student, is drawn from padavān (someone who has learned many padas, or verses: a student). Anakin’s wife is named Padme, which is reminiscent of padma (lotus), which is itself a sacred symbol, and a common name for a Hindu woman. There is a female Jedi named Shaak Ti, which is obviously Shakti. There are the Gungans, an aquatic species, whose name is evocative of the Ganga. And Anakin’s student (Padawan) is named Ahsoka, which is very close to the ancient Indian king, Ashoka. There may be more, but these are the most obvious ones.