Yoda and Yoga

The Bhagavad-Gita may well have been Yoda's manual for teaching Luke Skywalker the way of the Jedi.

BY: Steven J. Rosen

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.

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