Hinduism in Anglo-American cinema

5. Hinduism in Anglo-American cinema (e.g. “The Razor’s Edge”, “Around the World in Eighty Days”, “A Passage to India”) and pop culture; Reincarnation for the masses; Health-club Yoga; rock-stars and transcendental meditators; is the culture itself ‘spiritual but not religious’?

This theme within the course offers space for ample reflection on personal impressions and celebrity anecdotes. India, of course, has its own cinema, with an enormous production several times that of Hollywood (the Mumbai studios are referred to as ‘Bollywood’). Both religion and spirituality are there, as transient episodes or underlying implications in both India’s art cinema and its pop films. The two great epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana) have been serialized on television; they seem to appeal more to credulity than to a spiritual faith seeking understanding and expression through art (this observation has been voiced also by Indian critics).

I have noted the absence (in Anglo-American cinema) of native Indian actors and actresses in roles that called for them. Some examples are: Shirley MacLaine as ‘Princess Aouda’ (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1956); and Alec Guinness as ‘Professor Godbole’ (A Passage to India, 1984). Present-day critics and the public generally deplore the use of face-painted Caucasian actors for persons of color; in the film “Cloud Atlas,” whose script demanded that the same actor or actress play plural roles of differing ethnicity and gender, this practice might be considered tolerable (CGI has now superseded makeup in some cases), but critics noted the ambiguity of such casting.

Aside from the question of ethnic realism, one should ask whether and how Indian thought and spirituality find their way into otherwise American-situated movies. We hear passing references to karma, reincarnation, yoga etc. in everyday conversation, and so also we hear them in the movies. Do these references actually reveal the ‘vedic’ side of America?

Yogananda, like many another Indian guru in the West, did appeal to the masses, but I find something more serious in his home-study lessons, as also in the AY. He accompanied his solid belief in free will with a strong insistence on commitment to ‘the path’ and on loyalty to his lineage, once one had received initiation into Kriya Yoga; he often said that those who fell away during his lifetime would have to reincarnate many times before having another chance at God-realization. But note here, how he implies a ‘punitive’ function of reincarnation, an implication contained in many Western adaptations of the pan-Indian myth of transmigration.

Most gurus in the West have lived with this ambivalence between popular appeal and serious spiritual commitment. Others have insisted openly on yoga and meditation as means to a more healthy, prosperous, and happy life in the here and now; some resemble Christian televangelists with oil lamps and Shiva Nataraja in the background. If pop culture has sometimes degraded those elements of Indian spirituality that it has absorbed, it has also degraded Christianity in other instances.

Please do not take these points for conversation as expressions of contempt for pop culture and ordinary persons’ search for spiritual meaning in their lives. I know from years of listening to seekers that many who have approached India through an urban yoga school or by reading top-selling books on Indian (or generally Asian) themes have been drawn into intense practice and deep experience of what India has brought to the West, and many have also thereby discovered the spiritual and mystical riches of traditional Christianity.

About ashramdiary

Thomas Matus, who blogs this Ashram Diary, was born 1940 in Hollywood, California. Academics: A.B. in music from Occidental College (Los Angeles); S.T.L. in ecumenical theology from Athenaeum Anselmianum (Rome, Italy); Ph.D. in comparative mysticism from Fordham University (New York). Initiated into Kriya Yoga (by direct disciples of Paramahansa Yogananda) in 1958. Became a Catholic in 1960 and entered New Camaldoli Hermitage (Big Sur, California) as a novice monk in 1962. Lived for more than 30 years at the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy. Traveled to India some 20 times; made frequent retreats at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in southern India. Was in Brazil, off and on, from 1999 to 2006. Now back in California, he lives at the Hermitage in Big Sur and Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, California. See: http://www.youtube.com/user/thomasmatus
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