The film 'Invitation to World Literature: the Bhagavad Gita' (WGBH, Annenberg Media) will screen at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City on Wednesday, Jan. 25 at 1 p.m. The following is filmmaker Joshua Seftel's interview with Hindu monk and Columbia University Chaplain Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, who appears in the film.
Joshua Seftel: When I was in college, I was walking through Washington Square Park, and a Hindu monk came up to me and handed me the Bhagavad Gita, and I remember I was too shy to know what to say so I just took it and I brought it home. But I didn't open it for 20 years. The reason was I felt intimidated by it, and I felt it wouldn't be relevant to me. It wasn't until I worked on the film about the Bhagavad Gita that I realized it's everywhere. It has influenced so many things I already knew about.
Gadadhara Pandit Dasa: The Bhagavad Gita did influence the lives of very prominent western people -- not just Indian people like Ghandi -- but Martin Luther King Jr., and Emerson, Thoreau, Oppenheimer.
Seftel: If you had to tweet what Bhagavad Gita is about, what would you say?
Pandit: (laughs) OK, what Bhagavad Gita is about (pause), "The guide to overcoming life's biggest obstacles, which are caused by the mind and understanding the difference between the body and soul."
Seftel: Would you say the main character, Arjuna, is having a nervous breakdown?
Pandit: Well, here is what Arjuna says: "My hair is standing on end. My skin is burning. My mind is whirling; my bow is slipping from my hand. I can no longer stand here any longer." I would say that if you can't stand on your own feet and things that you are holding are slipping from your hand, then that would qualify as a nervous breakdown.
Seftel: Arjuna, and his chariot driver, Krishna, have a relationship that is timeless and relatable. There's a little "Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi" or "Tiger Woods and his caddy" here.
Pandit: I don't know if you saw the movie "The Legend of Bagger Vance" with Will Smith and Matt Damon? That's based on Bhagavad Gita actually, because Matt Damon's golfer character is named Rannulph Junuh. So that's Arjuna. And Will Smith, his caddy, is named Bagger Vance. If you take Bag and Vance, that's Baggavan which means "god" (laughs). And there's some Karate Kid here too. You know they've got Mr. Miyagi and Danielson (laughs). So Danielson, when he wants to learn he goes to Mr. Miyagi and asks him about karate and Mr. Miyagi then becomes a teacher. I think you can find this relationship everywhere in contemporary life.
Seftel: What about "The Matrix"?
Pandit: There's definitely a good amount of the Gita in The Matrix. Neo is very much like Arjuna because in the movie you see that Neo is looking for something. He sits on his computer. He knows that the world he sees around him isn't everything. He knows that there is something more out there. He just can't figure out what it is. When he finally meets Morpheus, his guru or teacher, Morpheus says, "You know it's out there, you just don't know what it is. It's kind of like a thorn. You have always felt it."
Seftel: In our film, Amitav Kaul says that he had a breakthrough in understanding Hinduism and the Gita after seeing Star Wars.
Pandit: Yes, the scene where Obi Wan tells Luke about "the force." That's why in Hinduism many say "Happiness is found within," because the divine is there. We are not able to access it because we are so busy doing so many things and progressing materially that we are not able to access that divine. So I think that is what he was referring to. The force is the divine.
Seftel: How does the story of the Bhagavad Gita end?
Pandit: It ends in a really beautiful way. One of my favorite passages in the Gita is where Krishna says to Arjuna that I've told you everything that I want to tell you, deliberate on it fully. And now, you do as you wish to do. I think that is so wonderful from a spiritual point of view that God is detached from our life to some degree. He's interested in educating us, but ultimately he says: You make your own decisions.
Seftel: I went to a bar mitzvah a few months ago, and I met a boy named Arjuna. Do you think Arjuna is going to become a popular name in the States?
Pandit: Well, it all depends on how well this documentary does (laughs). I think that is largely in your hands (laughs).
Seftel and Pandit will speak after the January 25th screening of the film at the Rubin Museum of Art.
Click here to watch the entire film on The Bhagavad Gita