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How movies embraced Hinduism (without you even noticing)
From Interstellar to Batman and Star Wars the venerable religion has been the driving philosophy behind many hit movies. Why?
Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars … is he really a Hindu?
Interstellar's box office total is $622,932,412 and counting. It is the eighth highest-grossing film of the year and has spawned an endless raft of thinkpieces testing the validity of its science and applauding the innovation of its philosophy. But it is not so new. The idea that propels the plot – there is a universal super-consciousness that transcends time and space, and in which all human life is connected – has been around for about 3,000 years. It is Vedic.
When the film's astronaut hero (Matthew McConaughey), declares that the mysterious and all-knowing "they" who created a wormhole near Saturn through which he travels to save mankind – dissolving his sense of material reality in the process – are in fact "us", he is simply repeating the central notion of the Upanishads, India's oldest philosophical texts. These hold that individual human minds are merely brief reflections within a cosmic one.
McConaughey's character doesn't just talk the talk. He walks the walk. So, the multidimensional tesseract – that endlessly reflective prism he finds himself in as he comes to this realisation, and in which he views life from every perspective – is the film's expression of Indra's net, the Hindu metaphor which depicts the universe as an eternal web of existence spun by the king of the gods, each of its intersections adorned with an infinitely sided jewel, every one continually reflecting the others.
"Look at the first Matrix movie," says producer Peter Rader. "It's a yogic movie. It says that this world is an illusion. It's about maya – that if we can cut through the illusions and connect with something larger we can do all sorts of things. Neo achieves the abilities of the advanced yogis [Paramahansa] Yogananda described, who can defy the laws of normal reality."
Rader's latest movie, a documentary about Yogananda, who was among the first gurus to bring Indian mysticism to North America in the 1920s, has been a sleeper hit in the US. The film documents how influential Hindu philosophy is in American culture, with contributions from the likes of the yoga-devoted hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. "There's a big pent-up demand," thinks Rader. "There are a lot of closet spiritualists who are meditating, doing yoga, reading books and thinking about a bigger reality. And now they can come out and say, 'Yes, I'm into this.' Steve Jobs read Yogananda's book once a year. He bequeathed a copy of it to everyone who attended his memorial. It helped inspire him to develop products like the iPad."