The 3000 year old sacred story that inspired Star Wars

Star Wars : The Last Jedi continues a tradition of spiritual storytelling that has existed for thousands of years.

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A week out from the premiere of a new Star Wars and there is barely a word to describe the public excitement preceding the event. At a nearby cinema a dedicated big screen plays the latest trailer on infinite repeat. There are never less than a score of people watching the loop. As new clips hit the internet they go viral instantly, gathering up to seventy million views in a matter of hours.

I would call it hype, but suggesting that this level of global excitement is purely a construct of Hollywood scale marketing budgets denies the simple fact that hundreds of millions of people, of all kinds of backgrounds, are rapturous in expectation of a new Star Wars movie. It’s been this way since Disney bought the entire Star Wars franchise from its creator George Lucas — for the staggering sum of $4.05 billion — and announced a slate of seven new films.

I’m happy to concede that I stand near the epicentre of a cultural phenomenon that might seem less significant from outside the blast radius. I’m a 40 year old white Anglo male, which means I was born in the year Star Wars: A New Hope premiered. I have, quite literally, grown-up with the characters of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Darth Vader.

But as much as my cultural identity is inextricably intertwined with Star Wars, I’m not a Star Wars fan. I’ve never longed to wield a lightsaber, I don’t own a collection of still-in-their packaging first edition action figurines, nor do I revert to the psychological state of an eight year old when the Millennium Falcon zooms into hyperdrive. I find myself interested less in a new Star Wars film itself, than I am in the question of why the people who are excited about Star Wars, are quite as excited as they are.

One clue comes in the form of a recent interview with The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams. Discussing the nature of the Force, the source of Luke Skywalker’s powers in the Star Wars films, Abrams reveals that he always saw this central element of the stories as something more than the inherited genetic condition later Star Wars “prequels” clearly reduce it to. In Abram’s own words, “Star Wars was never about science fiction — it was a spiritual story”.

That’s a tough word in contemporary culture — spiritual. Not many people agree on what it means, and while many find it compelling, many others are equally repulsed by it. Is Star Wars a spiritual story? There’s certainly a religious quality to the ritual of sitting in a darkened auditorium, gazing up at a flickering light display in which we see the shades of unreal men and women. I think most fans of Star Wars would deny it. And yet here we are, fascinated not just by Star Wars, but by hundreds and thousands of spiritual stories.

And not for the first time.

Come back with me almost 3000 years to the part of the world now called North India. At this time the plains that stretch from the river Ganges and the ancient city of Varanasi, to the high mountains of the Himalayas and the kingdoms of Kashmir and Nepal, were home to one of the wealthiest civilisations on the earth. Rich farmlands and new agricultural techniques made for an abundant society, which in turn gave people more time for enjoyment, and in particular, for stories.

Katha evolved as the traditional Indian storytelling form. A professional storyteller called a Kathavachak recounted an epic tale, in a mixture of verse and prose, often with singing, dancing and other arts in support. Kathas were long, often told over many episodes at different sittings. Kathavachaks were people of very high status, in great demand at royal courts and the households of the wealthy, who would host a Katha as a sign of their power and status. Katha were the cinema and the DVD box set of their day, telling hugely popular stories that have become central to Indian culture.

The Ramayana, which translated from Sanskrit means roughly, “Rama’s Journey”, is one of the very oldest and most famous Indian epics. The young prince Rama loses first his kingdom and then his wife, Sita, and must complete an epic quest to recover both. Along the path he gathers many new friends, including the monkey god Hanuman, and defeats a number of villains including the dark lord Ravana and his son Indrajit. Once the quest is completed, Rama reforms his new kingdom to become an ideal state, with himself as an ideal king.

2400 years after it was first transcribed, the Ramayana became one of many influences on Star Wars. The influence of Jospeph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces on George Lucas and the writing of Star Wars is widely documented. Campbell’s insight was simple — stories from many different cultures and points in history all share archetypal elements. This idea in turn inspired Lucas to borrow many elements from ancient stories like The Ramayana.

Both stories contain the same archetypal characters, a young hero-price in Rama / Luke, a virtuous princess who must be rescued in Sita / Leia, a morally ambiguous but loyal friend in Hanuman / Han Solo, and a master and servant of evil in Ravana / The Emperor and Indrajit / Darth Vader. Both stories are set in a fairy tale time long before the time of their audience; in the Ramayana the Treta Yuga of Hindu cosmology, in Star Wars a faraway galaxy, a symbol drawn from modern scientific cosmology.

While they no doubt served to entertain their audience, stories like the Ramayana, and others told as Katha, had a far greater significance in early Hindu culture. Vedic Hinduism sees the universe as one big story, or perhaps as an infinite collection of stories, all being dreamed by the Atman, the unifying spirit of the universe, who with its many arms and many masks, plays out every part in the drama of reality. Storytelling was an important and powerful part of ancient Hindu culture because it allowed the audience to escape the mask of their own role in the world, and free the Atman within them to play out another role for a time. In a quite literal way, Hindu stories like the Ramayana are told to help you become someone else.

Woven into the telling of a sacred story like the Ramayana are important spiritual lessons that audiences would learn by playing them out as part of Rama’s journey. For instance, Rama’s heroic powers in the story all come because he is an avatar of the god Vishnu. The audience, by following Rama’s journey, are experiencing what it means to be a true devotee of the divine. The promise of the Ramayana was that it would in this way help those who watched it achieve spiritual liberation, the ultimate goal of Hindu practice. Hollywood marketing departments are ambitious, but even they don’t promise that watching Star Wars will take you to heaven!

But throughout human history, stories have been intricately bound up with our spiritual and religious lives. Many of the texts collected in the Bible, like the creation myths of Genesis, were written as stories long before they were coopted into Christianity. The story of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha is central to Buddhism, but there are hundreds of versions, including the Jataka tales, of Buddha’s other lives. These were among the stories studied by Joseph Campbell, and through him it’s not unreasonable to suspect that Star Wars absorbed a variety of religious meanings.

And yet even as we’re gaping awe struck at the spectacle of The Force Awakens, I still doubt many of us will believe we’re in the cinema for anything more than a few hours distraction from mundane life, rather than for some quasi-spiritual experience.

The best definition of spiritual I’ve encountered is summarised in the sentence:

“They broke her spirit.”

Most people with empathy feel a dread on reading those words. Who are they? A terrible boss? An abusive husband? The Nazis? Some potent infectious disease? A doomed love affair? What is this thing called a spirit, and how can it be broken? With a little luck you’ve experienced the joy of living with a strong spirit. And if you’ve lived any length of time, no doubt you’ve also felt at least the shades, if not the deep shadowlands, of what it is to have your spirit broken. If so, then I hope you’ve also learned what it is to have your spirit healed, which is, as best I can communicate it, what this essay is really about.

The first Star Wars movie is called A New Hope with good reason. Think of all the broken spirits we meet in that story. Obi Wan “Ben” Kenobi, a broken old man lost in the desert after seeing all he believed in destroyed. Han Solo, on the run from gangsters and from his own better self. Princess Leia, her entire planet destroyed by the evil empire. Darth Vader, a once great hero, his will overpowered and his shattered body trapped in a machine. All broken spirited, and all doomed to worse yet, should the powers that broke them triumph. Doomed, that is, until Luke enters their story.

Luke is the New Hope of the title. It’s Luke who rouses Ben Kenobi to finish what he started. It’s Luke who rescues Leia. It’s Luke who gives Han a cause to fight for, and ultimately resurrects the spirit of Anakin Skywalker. Star Wars is such a powerful story because every beat of the movie shows us another step in each character’s story of recovering, and the healing of their spirit. Luke represents something — call it hope, call it heroism, call it whatever, we know it when we feel it — that sleeps within all of us. And when we see it on the silver screen, we feel the deep longing for it and we remember the times it has aided us.

If that isn’t a spiritual experience, I don’t know what is.

Is it possible we deny our spiritual attraction to Star Wars because it points out some painful truths in our real lives? We live in a material culture that has, in many ways, made our lives more comfortable. Like the people of Northern India millennia ago, we find ourselves with time on our hands to watch great stories. But even well fed, richly clothed, and clutching our iPhones, the challenge of keeping our spirit intact is really no easier than ever. We still get sick, get old, and eventually, die. We still encounter violence and oppression. We still lose the people we love. We still need hope, and a reminder of the hero within, be it Rama or Luke, to help us on our journey.

FURTHER READING

The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell, the epic four part history of world religion and its intricate relationship with myth and storytelling.