Wednesday September 21, 2005
Last week I went to see the film Mystic India at our local IMAX cinema. The film follows the early life of the Indian sage Swami Narayan. The young sage left home at the age of eleven in 1792, and set out on an 8,000 mile journey across India. Narrated by a sloshed-sounding Peter O’Toole, the film follows the boy from his home to the Himalayas to the deep forests of Assam and to the sea. Everywhere he goes, he dispenses wisdom and encounters happy, smiling and deeply spiritual people.
The film is visually stunning. With a cast of 45,000, and beautifully shot, it certainly looks good on the IMAX screen. But I must confess I watched the film with a growing sense of unease. And when the film ended with O’Toole speaking in rolling tones about the message of universal brotherhood that India brings to the world, I found this unease deepening even further.
The trouble was that, despite all claims to historical veracity, Mystic India seemed to me to be nothing other than the purest fantasy. Whilst there was poverty in the film, it was merely the simple poverty of the humble-hearted, rather than the grinding poverty of misery. Whilst the film made claims about teachings of universal brotherhood, there was not the slightest indication that India has been, for much of her history, in the grip of caste-thinking, the antithesis of this brotherhood. There is an interesting story concerning caste here. When he met with the British governor of Bombay, Sir John Malcolm, Swami Narayan persuaded the governor to agree to extend particular protection to Brahmins and cows (see reference here). And in his writings he proclaimed that “None of My followers shall break the code of Varnashram Dharma” (see reference here), which is to say one’s position within the rigid hierarchy of caste. The British, with their own rigid and inhumane social hierarchies, readily agreed to protect both Brahmins and cows. So whilst during the film there were a few shots of ‘imposing fortresses’, these were mainly for the architectural interest, and there was no suggestion as to why, amongst such a holy and deeply spiritual people, such fortresses might be necessary. Mystic India, it seems, was (and, the film intimated, still is) a land without war, without cruelty, without greed: a land of happy people dressed in brightly-coloured clothes, dancing and singing their way to spiritual liberation.
This is simply wrong. It is no doubt true that in India there are and have been many people who are kind-hearted, compassionate and wise. There no doubt are and have been people who might be considered, in different ways, enlightened. But at the same time India is a country riven by divisions of caste, torn frequently by communal violence, suffering from the most terrible poverty, a troubled nation where the reality of suffering is only too apparent. The fantasy depicted in Mystic India masks over all of this suffering, division and conflict. It overwhelms the viewers’ critical faculties by the sheer force of its splendid vistas. It suppresses the difficult questions that need to be asked: about India, about Hinduism, about religion, about ourselves as human beings.
These difficult questions (what are the roots of violence and inequality? what is the role of religious history in perpetuating this violence and this inequality? do our religions unite us or divide us? – these are only a few) need to be asked, whether we are Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Christian or anything else; and feel-good mystification simply fails to answer these questions. In their attempts to promote their own greatness, religions – Buddhism included – so often efface all traces of reality from their histories. They cannot be anything but partial; and, being partial, they tend to be divisive. Whether in Hinduism, in the religious histories of Tibet and Sri Lanka, in the Christian churches, in Islam, or in the semi-religious way that we think about our nation-states, everywhere such myth-making takes place there is a forgetting of the realities of human suffering. Myth-making such as this disguises the realities of our existence in favour of the ideal. You can’t make an omelette of universal brotherhood, after all, without breaking a few eggs on the way.
Isn’t it time to cut through the dross? Isn’t it time to face up to the the reality of our histories? Isn’t it time to get to grips with the disturbing elements within the texts and the histories that we venerate? Isn’t it time to read them nakedly, without apologising for them, humanly? Mystic India does a disservice to the very values it claims to promote.
Photo by: Suraj
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