Inspired by the latest outrage over the Bhagavad Gita reference in ‘Oppenheimer’, Lakshmi Chaudhry does her best to figure out the rules for referencing Hinduism in Hollywood movies. Unlike our usual Big Stories, this one has very little educational value—but offers at least some entertainment (we hope).
Written by: Lakshmi Chaudhry, Editor.
First, the latest trigger: The Bhagavad Gita
Why, ‘Oppenheimer’, why? As you know, government ministers and Hindu groups alike are furious at this sex scene between J Robert Oppenheimer and his lover:
[Florence] Pugh stops during intercourse, gets up and goes over to the bookshelf, picks out a copy of the “Bhagavad Gita” and asks [Cillian] Murphy to read from it. Murphy reads the line “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” the quote from the “Bhagavad Gita” that Oppenheimer famously thought of when the first nuclear bomb was detonated — as intercourse resumes.
Other than winning the ‘bad sex in movies’ award—and there really should be one—this is at best a sad Hollywood attempt to make Oppenheimer’s sex life seem ‘deep’ or ‘meaningful’. Imagine the same scene with the Bible—and he’d be a kinky born-again Christian. The Gita, OTOH, is short-hand for ‘I’m a cool, intellectual dude’—the kind who reads mystical Eastern texts on the toilet, perchance. Richard Gere has been flogging this schtick for decades!
Quick reminder: The great Stanley Kubrick did it first—and worse! He used verses from the Gita to gin up a sex orgy scene in the 1999 movie ‘Eyes Wide Shut’—which got it banned in India. And the scene was deleted from video releases of the film.
Redemption points? At least the original Oppenheimer was looking for absolution in the Gita—hoping it would make him like Arjuna—able to accept the deaths of his enemies as his dharma. Sadly for him, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki turned him right back into a guilt-ridden Christian. Two years after the atomic bomb test, he said:
In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatements can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
We’ll take that as a tacit apology for the gratuitous use of the Gita to wipe out entire cities, as well.
Consolation points? Perhaps devout Hindus can gain some solace in the fact that Christopher Nolan was not making a movie about the notorious Nazi Heinrich Himmler—who deployed the Gita to help execute (ouch!) more pressing tasks on his to-do-list—like killing Jews:
The problem for those in power is how to get people do the dirty work without turning them into monsters. This was Heinrich Himmler's dilemma… There was a further "ethical problem" for Himmler: how to make sure that the executioners, while performing these terrible acts, remained human and dignified. His answer was Krishna's message to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita (Himmler always had in his pocket a leather-bound edition): act with inner distance; do not get fully involved.
See? The silly sex scene is not looking so bad any more!
The Gita’s secret history: The sadder truth is that the holy text owes its modern popularity—even among Hindus—to the West. Before the Brits came along, it was mainly read by philosophers and academics—and ignored by the rest of the janta. They had more entertaining texts at hand, for e.g Mahabharatha—which, truth be told, makes all the same points about war without wearing out your brain.
The Gita only ‘went viral’ thanks to its translations into European languages—commissioned by angrez rulers who mistook it for the Hindu version of the Bible. As Sundar Pichai well knows, the surefire way to become a super-duper hit in India is to make it big in the West. So it was with the Gita:
It was only after these Western interpretations and their global popularity that Indian nationalists like M. K. Gandhi, Aurobindo Ghosh and Lokmanya Tilak took up the Bhagavad Gita and made it into India’s national text. Editions of the Bhagavad Gita were then relentlessly printed by Gita Press and the like. It became common reading in literate households. It is indeed quite telling that by his own admission, Gandhi’s introduction to the Bhagavad Gita was through Edwin Arnold’s 1885 translation, The Song Celestial. Gandhi writes in his autobiography that he first read the Bhagavad Gita in English when in London, in the company of theosophists.
The Gita never looked back and its far more fun rival—the every-bit-as-spiritual Panchatantra—was soon relegated to the kiddie aisle. Speaking animals wouldn’t become cool until George Orwell turned them into bloodthirsty socialists in ‘Animal Farm’.
PS: Jawaharlal Nehru really ought to have titled his magnum opus ‘Rediscovery of India’.
Going ‘Hindu’: The wrong way
The moral of the ‘Oppenheimer’ story is that Hollywood can’t be trusted with anything Indian. But tinseltown types are far worse when they’re just making up shit.
The ‘Temple of Doom’ model: This is where a white person takes something sacred to some people in some other part of the world and turns it into Tolkien-esque gibberish. Example: Goddess Kali—who first got the treatment in the Brit movie ‘Gunga Din’—which was also about the so-called thuggee cult. But at least she looked something like herself back in 1939:
The 1984 Gunga Din-inspired Indiana Jones flick turned her into this!!!
That is not progress. Given that Steven Spielberg went on to win three Oscars, white folks seem to have gotten yet another Hindu tenet wrong: karma is clearly not a b***h!
FWIW: The Indian government caught on early—and Spielberg had to move production to Sri Lanka. But, attention, Anurag Thakur, the next time you’re in the mood to ban something Hollywood… Then again, we’d have to junk ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’, as well—for kicking the ass of demonic Hanumans in Angkor Wat. Really, you forgot about this?
But, but, but: There must be some kind of ‘hot girl’ exception for easily offended Hindus—since there is now an ‘Angelina Jolie Temple’ in Angkor Wat. And there have been many hopeful (and false) rumours of her converting to Hinduism—maybe because like all good Hollywood celebs, she got her own holy baba. A good guru cleanses all sins.
To make things really confusing: M'Baku (Winston Duke) in ‘Black Panther’ wasn’t even allowed to take Hanuman’s name. When he hailed his god as a fictional tribe member, saying: "Glory to Hanuman”—the word was muted out and deleted from subtitles in India. So, you can beat up Hanuman but not praise him? Confusing.
The ‘Love Guru’ model: This route takes a refreshingly honest approach—parodying Hollywood’s cluelessness. Sadly, all that self-deprecation was not enough to save this Mike Myers dud. He plays an ashram-raised American—who seeks fame and fortune in the West by reinventing himself as a guru. The most only amusing bit: Myers greets everyone with “mariska hargitay!”
If you don’t watch ‘Law & Order: SVU’, this is Mariska Hargitay:
FYI: The movie ended Myers’ movie career—which should make all the Hindu groups who fought for a ban feel real good. Apparently, self-parody is not okay, either. Even a gorgeous Jessica Alba in a fantasy Bollywood number couldn’t save the film from their righteous wrath (also see: lead image).
Going Hindu: The right way
All ‘good Hindu’ movies don’t make the crass mistake of referencing the religion. They instead sprinkle it in as one more mystery ingredient in a ‘made in LA’ khichdi of spiritualism. Example: ‘Maya’ in the Matrix. As one Hollywood producer gushes:
Look at the first Matrix movie. 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.
Aww, now you’re making us blush!
Make it a superhero: A never-fail formula: a superhero with serious angst. The right-leaning Swarajya magazine goes to great lengths to claim Nolan’s other opus— ‘Dark Knight’:
Knowingly or unknowingly, the movie takes in dollops of inspiration from the Hindus’ revered heroes. Intentionally or otherwise, Nolan sneak peeked at India, saved the dying superhero genre and recreated the story of, what I call a ‘Hinduised’ Batman. His villain, Joker, was also intelligent and had an uncanny philosophy behind his acts. The Dark Knight showed fight among deep seethed beliefs of two warring human beings. A thin line between right and wrong, unmistakably similar to the scenarios in Indian epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana.
Or how about the Avengers:
The very concept of superheroes may be linked to Eastern mythology. Common people realising their hidden powers and defending the larger cause of humanity is a common philosophical line in almost all mythological stories in India and so is the case with most of the superhero films in Hollywood, including Avengers.
See, Nolan? Why’d you have to ruin it all by directly quoting a Hindu text 🤦🏾. We can do all the ‘Hindu-ising’ ourselves.
Make it sci-fi: The best ‘Hindu’ movies are science fiction—preferably located in a galaxy far, far away. Hello, Star Wars:
In Star Wars, Skywalker’s close encounter with Darth Vader reveals how positive and negative energies are within everyone and even the heroes need to conquer the villains within. This concept is also one of the common beliefs in Hinduism. Chants like ‘Aham Brahasmi — I am God — or even Har Har Mahadev (‘Every person is Lord Shiva’) assert that humans are mere reflections of the larger being, the Almighty.
Never mind that George Lucas pointed out that almost every religion claimed Star Wars spirituality for itself. Now, that’s an excellent khichdi!
Another example of crowd-pleasing galactic gobbledygook: Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’:
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.
Sigh, Oppenheimer’s like seeing the smartest kid in the class inexplicably flunking the exam. Christopher, you know better!
A very secret Hindu fantasy: is to convert all Hollywood stars—in a mass tinseltown ghar wapsi. It’s why everyone gets so excited about Will Smith praying in Haridwar—or Julia Roberts declaring herself a (gasp!) Hindu. No wonder, an AI art series imagining all the hottest Hollywood babes as spiritual seekers went wildly viral. The caption read:
In a captivating scenario, imagine a Hollywood female actress, known for her glamorous appearances on the silver screen, deciding to embark on a spiritual journey in India. She embraces the path of an Indian monk and finds herself walking the ancient streets of Varanasi, a city renowned for its profound spirituality and religious significance.
See? If only Nolan had turned Oppenheimer Hindu—or better yet, embraced the faith himself. Instead, we get a chee-chee sex scene. Sad.
A parting pro tip: for Hollywood hotties. Stay away from Kali—she will always get you in trouble. Just look at what happened to Katy Perry who innocently posted an image of the goddess with the caption: ‘current mood’. Even her Sanskrit tattoo couldn’t save her from the hate that followed. If you must do goddesses, stick to the very LA-appropriate Lakshmi—as Salma Hayek did, declaring: "When I want to connect with my inner beauty, I start my meditation focusing on the goddess Lakshmi, who in Hinduism represents wealth, fortune, love, beauty.” Feel-good materialism is always a winner.
The bottomline: This hardly needs one:)
There’s not much to recommend other than these three pieces—in The Guardian, Hindustan Times and Swarajya—claiming Hinduism as the inspiration for some of Hollywood’s biggest hits. The Print looks at the role of the West in promoting the Gita. Wired UK looks at Oppenheirmer’s relationship with the book. TIME has a feature on how Hollywood made meditation mainstream in America.