Awake: The Life of Yogananda is a stunning vision, statement, and experience all at once. The little theater in Berkeley where it is playing has been extending its screening each week (watch the trailer here). One might think fans of the movie are having un-Yogi-like difficulty in letting it go, but the real reason one feels like watching it again is that it is an experience and not a commentary. In the brief respite of 90 minutes from the world outside, what you witness is something like reality. You do not have to presume to explain why, or defend such a view against charges of mysticism. You feel not just a holy man's presence, or a philosophy's coherence, but something more powerful. You might see scientists and musicians, yoga teachers and professors, and the guru Yogananda himself on the screen, but what you really feel is the world shaking you out of thought, stupor, fear and pride and saying, simply, be as you are.
What is it that one really is? It is not a question for gurus or scientists alone. It is a question for everyone, because what we think we are has consequences in terms of what we do as people, a society, and a nation, to ourselves and to others around us. If our culture, religious or secular, tells us we are special and put here on the planet to merely feed off the blood and sweat of others, we might do it, and we humans have done it too. We have justified slavery, the exploitation of women, the wholesale slaughter of whole species of living beings, all in the name of both god and reason. We cannot ignore either, for worldly, as much as supposedly other-worldly reasons.That is why Awake works. You see a man waking up a culture as it is busy fighting world wars, setting off atom bombs, segregating minorities, and going on thinking it's all fine, it's all just the way it is. You see a story of spirit that's not mumbo-jumbo at all, but about this world we live in.
In the same few weeks that Awake was opening up the minds and hearts of people from so many different faiths and nationalities, the land of its protagonist's birth, the cradle of his spirituality, wisdom and if there is a thing, the source of his mystique and power, was entertaining itself with the rather gratifying notion that ancient India invented plastic surgery; why, just look at how they put an elephant's head on a man's body and called him Ganesha! We do not know how seriously it was said or how literally it was taken. But there has been a lot of talk going around in India of late about how ancient Hindus invented airplanes, stem cell research, and genetics (duly spoofed, here). There may be no harm in wondering about the past or what the stories of the gods might have really meant, but not at the risk of losing sight of the real treasures of Hinduism.
The passion for rediscovering Indian history today is understandable and even commendable. There are problems with how Hinduism has generally been looked down upon in rarefied intellectual discourses in Indian public affairs, and there has been a growing disconnect between Hindu life and current debates for several decades now. But if we think that the solution to these problems is to project essentially a machine-age fantasy onto the past with some Sanskrit-sounding names thrown in for seeming authenticity, we are going to be doing a disservice to a great, and living, cultural legacy. After all, the measures of greatness and civilization we are using today to talk about our past are neither great nor even civilized. Airplanes and plastic surgery are as ephemeral as they get in the face of the perennial wisdom that has helped human beings of many different cultural dispositions find truth, happiness, and at least some moral coherence to their lives. Even our comic books when we were younger paid as much attention to the moral implications of our stories as they did to the battles with demons and such. If our new history books, or our emerging public discourse don't recognize this, it will be a greater loss for our imagination than any thing the pseudo-secularists might have ever done.
The way forward is to recognize that Hinduism is as alive today as it was millennia ago. Hindus, Indians, Americans, many more are still turning to its real gifts because they see something in it that the stories of the modern world cannot provide; not because we supposedly invented planes and gadgets in the past. I agree that we do need a better story of our past, and we need a better critique of the ideas that deny us our past; but for that we need to look for what we need where we need to look for it. There was science in ancient India, and it is worth understanding accurately. But to reduce the vast world of our gods and goddesses with all their implications for our moral growth and well-being, to a simplistic science fiction story will be unworthy of the better ideals of both religion and science.
What Valmiki said about the pushpaka vimana may or may not fly today, but what he said about the human condition will still make us free in the way it is meant to.
An earlier version of this essay was published in The Hindu.