My Voice - 2020


Star Wars: A Uniquely Indo-Aryan Story

By Munjal Shroff

NOTE: This article does contain some spoilers from the latest films

The hit-movie of the season, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, has been a global success - not only because of its legions of followers and iconic special effects and feel - but for its universally compelling story.

The movie's compelling elements are clear - rich characters facing existential challenges, images of dreamy technology such as intelligent robots, light-speed travel, and lovable and sometimes bizarre ideas of other lifeforms - all of which exist only in our wildest dreams of the future.

But, while it seemingly is a story set in a time and galaxy with technology and new knowledge than we can only dream of today, upon more careful dissection, its most compelling elements are actually deeply-rooted and anchored in the past, specifically an Indo-Aryan past, not Hollywood visions of the future.

From the vast plains of central Asia, and then into the heartland of India, it's a past that that has woven an epic storyline, with elements codified in the Bhagavad Gita and later epics and stories, that has wound its way into the hearts and minds of people around the world, and even onto the modern big screen.

In Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, its Indo-Aryan elements are clear - the protagonist, Rey, must make the same choices and fight the same battles the protagonist of the Gita, Arjuna, must also make. Rey, like Arjuna, must vanquish her internal ambivalence in the midst of battle, to thereby maintain a steadfast commitment to the protection and preservation of the cosmic order above all else, and ultimately, choose sworn duty over family.

Rey, like Arjuna, is trained not by masters who idolize weaponry, destruction, and death, but by masters of the mind. In a sense, the Jedis who came before Rey, speak to her, in her mind, telling her to forge ahead, against seemingly insurmountable odds, and fight not just the physical enemies around her, but her enemies within, to preserve the natural order around her. This is a near mirror image of Arjuna's battle at Kurukshetra, with Krishna, the apostle of Aryan knowledge, reminding Arjuna of his dharmic duty to forge ahead against his enemies, both external and, perhaps more importantly, within, so as to preserve the cosmic order around him.

Rey, like Arjuna, fights her biggest battles within herself, in the midst of a daunting physical battle around her. While fierce and lethal weaponry around her may seem like the obvious challenge, Rey, like Arjuna, faces a larger and more daunting challenge - her ambivalence and hesitation, fueled by her conflicted loyalty to family and her duty to the world around her. In the midst of a grand cosmic battle that has consequences for all life forms around her, Rey, like Arjuna, must remain steadfast to her duty to preserve the cosmic order and fight for dignity, valor, and the common good.

As the film progresses and nears its climactic finish, the parallels become even more clear. Rey's battle with her grandfather, the evil Emperor Palpatine, occurs in an almost inter-neuronal realm, physically encapsulated and separate from the physical battle around her. As starships fire at each other above her, Rey, down below, must remain focused on her duty. Within this separate battle, prodded on by the master gurus who came before her, she must defeat her hesitation and ambivalence, kill her grandfather, and thereby, save and restore the cosmic order, for all living creatures in the galaxies around her.

In so doing, Rey, like Arjuna, becomes the ideal Indo-Aryan warrior, as she has defeated her own internal ambivalence and hesitation, and thereby cajoled the powers needed to defeat the enemies of the physical realm and preserve the world around her.

Rey, like Arjuna, is not armed with thick armor or a stockpile of easily accessible weapons, but with her conviction and steadfast dedication to her cause. Her only physical weapon, the iconic Jedi lightsaber, in many ways, is not just a weapon of science fiction, but a shining symbol of dharmic awareness, a weapon that in the hands of a trained and controlled mind, has no bounds. At the end of her glorious battle, Rey, formerly a child of unknown provenance, takes the name of 'Skywalker,' a nod her to newfound awareness and knowledge.

This is not the only Star Wars film that references Indo-Aryan literature and ideals. One of the more obvious is the other iconic Arjuna-like warrior, Luke Skywalker, another Jedi warrior. A scene seared into the memories of the series' fans, is the cremation of Darth Vader, led by Luke Skywalker, which occurred on a wooden pyre, though on a planet far away, looked like it could have taken place on the banks of the Ganga in the holy city of Varanasi, bastion of Indo-Aryan knowledge and tradition.

Clearly, this epic saga of good versus evil, hinged on a disciplined commitment to duty versus emotional wavering, and conquering our inner battles to win the wars raging outside, are part of an ancient tradition. The genius of the Star Wars saga has been to cloak these ancient themes in a now universally loved and iconic science-fiction drag. What is even more striking is how these themes, pontificated about and written about so long ago, in a language and culture far-removed from a modern Lucas Hollywood studio, have a relevance that truly is timeless and not just Indo-Aryan, but, in fact, human. In an age of growing global nationalism and religious fervor, it is refreshing to see a cultural ideal from India, transcend its borders and migrate to screens around the world, based on its own timeless relevance and merit, without the nationalistic or jingoist baggage of many of today's leading voices.

Like other big ideas and literary themes that have come from India's past - non-violence, the brotherhood of man, the ultimate oneness of true religion, the power of renunciation - the story of the noble warrior, vanquishing their own internal enemies to uphold the moral order of the universe, is yet another Indo-Aryan ideal that belongs not just to India and its people, but to humanity.

May the Force be With You !

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Munjal G. Shroff, is Board-Certified in Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine and is a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.