So What Exactly is a Jedi? In summary: we learn from Lucas’s films that a Jedi seeks harmony with the Force, with the essence of all that is. To tap into the Force, or to make use of its powers, a Jedi must learn to commune with it – he must feel an affinity with nature, with the will of God. To act in discord with the Force is to lose one’s connection with it, to flirt with its dark side.
The Jedi is sworn to preserve life – he adheres to the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence. In other words, he believes that it is wrong to kill. Yet, he is trained in the combative arts, for he knows that it is often necessary to halt those who are evil. Consequently, he supports a sort of ‘just war’ concept, as described above – a Jedi may kill only in self-defence or to defend others. Recall that when Luke tells Yoda that he is in search of a great warrior from whom to learn, Yoda responds, ‘Great warrior? Wars not make one great’ – this from someone who has fought valiantly in wars himself, and knows that a warrior’s first duty is to avoid war at all costs.
It is interesting, too, that a Jedi does not act for personal gain, for wealth or power. He acts out of a sense of duty. He seeks to defeat those who would impose tyranny and death upon others. Lucas makes it clear that a Jedi never goes into battle because of hatred, anger, fear, or aggression. Rather, the Jedi is equipoised, at peace with himself and with the Force. He fights merely to protect the innocent, because he has a great deal of compassion. In India, this would clearly be identified as Kshatriya dharma.
Just to make clear that Vedic Kshatriyas actually embodied the qualities that Lucas attributes to his fictitious Jedi, we now offer three examples of Kshatriya leadership taken from the pages of ancient Indian texts: first, we have Maharaja Pariksit, a great king famous for having followed the traditional system of consulting a council of Brahmins (learned and saintly philosophers) on state affairs, respecting their collective wisdom above his own. While today’s ‘think tank’ experts sell themselves to the highest bidder, the self-realised Brahmins who advised Maharaja Pariksit gave their services freely, without salary. They did this because they were, in fact, Brahmins – their inherent quality and natural disposition leaving them no choice but to do so. In other words, they were happy to serve the administration in the way that came most naturally to them. Consequently, they performed their tasks purely and flawlessly. Thus, they were above suspicion, as was the king who accepted their advice.
Though King Pariksit was famous for his impeccable administration, he is better known for his spiritual sensibility. Early in his reign he was cursed to die by a young Brahmin boy. Although he could have nullified the curse, King Pariksit instead accepted it as God’s will, deciding to fast until death. He seated himself on the bank of the Ganges, and an assembly of the greatest personalities of the day soon gathered to witness the wonderful event. During the seven days of life remaining to him, King Pariksit neither ate nor slept nor moved from his seat. His only activity was to ask Srila Sukadeva Gosvami, one of the great gurus of the period, questions about transcendental subjects and to listen intently to his answers – this series of questions and answers, once recorded, is what gradually came to be known as Srimad Bhagavatam, or the Bhagavata Purana (‘The Beautiful Story of the Lord’), one of India’s most important theological texts. King Pariksit thus showed the example that a true warrior-king is deeply concerned with spiritual matters and activities beyond the body.
Next, we have Maharaja Prithu. Unlike today’s leaders and administrative officers, Prithu considered it his primary duty to enlighten his citizens with spiritual knowledge. Though he was courageous and was considered one of the greatest warriors of his time, he taught his people that the spiritual pursuit was more important than anything else. He rebuked the kind of leaders who simply exact taxes from their constituency but neglect to inform them of the real mission of human life. King Prithu advised the citizens: ‘Dedicate your minds, your words, your bodies, and the fruits of your labour for the service of the Supreme Lord. Then you will surely achieve the final objective of life [love of God].’
In addition, under the King’s firm hand, all law-abiding citizens were perfectly protected, not only from external dangers but from disease and famine. Because of his intimate connection with ‘the Force’, he could mystically secure the welfare of his followers, making sure that they were in good health and that the weather would suit their needs in terms of allowing their crops to grow. When he travelled through the world on his victorious chariot, appearing as brilliant as the sun, all thieves and rogues would go into hiding, and all lesser kings would bow to his supremacy.
Nonetheless, King Prithu always adopted a humble demeanour. Moreover, even though he was very opulent due to the prosperity of his widespread empire, he was never inclined to utilise his opulences for the gratification of his senses. He remained unattached, and, like all saintly kings of the Vedic age, King Prithu voluntarily gave up his rule before death or infirmity overtook him, and he retired to the forest to completely immerse himself in God consciousness.
Finally, King Yudhishthira, was famous as ‘the king whose enemy was never born’ – he was so pious that no one disliked him, not even his political enemies. Indeed, the Mahabharata describes that his personal qualities were so alluring that his fame spread all over the universe, and his pure and saintly character induced the Supreme Lord Krishna Himself to become his intimate friend.
Another epithet for King Yudhishthira was ‘the personification of goodness’, for by continuous service to Lord Krishna he was freed from all desire for sense gratification and personal wealth, fame, or power. This complete selflessness made him a worthy emperor, like an ideal Jedi Knight. ‘All for the good of the citizens!’ was his motto, and he lived up to it by always seeing to the social, political, economic, and spiritual benefit of the citizens of his kingdom. It is said that due to his perfect administration and his pure devotion to God, even the rivers, oceans, hills, forests, and so on, were all pleased with him, and they supplied their bounty profusely for all in his kingdom. Thus, during the reign of King Yudhishthira, the citizens of the world were never troubled by any lack or any necessity, nor by mental agonies, diseases, excessive heat or cold, or by any other material disturbance.
Again, like all saintly kings of India’s mythic past, Yudhishthira renounced his kingdom at the end of life to devote himself exclusively to spiritual practice. After making sure that his kingdom would be properly cared for by his successor, he gave up his regal dress and departed for the forest. Thus, his administration culminated in his pursuit of spiritual ideals, a perfect legacy to those who followed him.
Such ideals are seen in Jedi Masters, who bequeath to younger Jedi an abiding spiritual sensibility, one that supercedes the thirst for action and adventure. Yoda, it may be remembered, was living in his forest retreat when Luke came to study under him. Lucas gives us a hint that he was modeling the Jedi master on yogi adepts by showing us that, like a guru or yogi, Yoda knew when his time had come. Like a removed observer, Yoda watched his own death approach, preparing a place to lay down and die as he casually conversed with his new pupil, Luke Skywalker. This is a common image in Vaishnava texts: an accomplished guru is so completely in touch with the Force that he knows his allotted span of time on earth, seeing death as if it were merely a change of clothes.
The Guru/Disciple Relationship
Luke first meets his master in The Empire Strikes Back, and we can immediately see in their alliance a traditional teacher/pupil exchange. For one familiar with Vaishnava literature, Yoda and Luke clearly represent a yoga guru and his student, for their connection is reminiscent of Krishna and Arjuna in the Gita – which is the prototype for all guru/disciple relationships. That Yoda is many hundreds of years old (as is claimed of certain yogis in India), has powers like those of Indian mystics, and even has a name that sounds like the word ‘yoga’, only makes the connection with India more palpable. (In all probability, however, it is more likely that Yoda’s name is related to the Sanskrit word yuddha, or ‘war’, for he is a Kshatriya guru teaching his pupil the art of spiritual warfare.)
The yoga teacher motif is enhanced by the fact that Yoda teaches Luke how to control his mind – and how to control material nature through his mind as well; this is at the heart of the yoga process. First, Yoda teaches him to levitate small objects, like a rock. Gradually, he goes on to lift his sunken ship! Yogis in India are well known for their practice of levitation.
Also like Krishna and Arjuna, Yoda’s first teaching to Luke involves the distinction between body and self. This is traditional, for the expert guru realises the futility of trying to teach spiritual subjects to a student who still identifies with a body made of matter. Krishna makes this a major point in the Bhagavad-gita: ‘As a person puts on new clothes, putting aside those garments that are old and worn, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.’ (2.22) Or, ‘As the embodied soul continually incarnates, in this one lifetime, from childhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly takes on another body at the time of death.’ (2.13)
Lucas conveys this teaching in an innovative way: he has Luke arrive on Yoda’s planet with stereotypical preconceptions of what a Jedi Master, an adept spiritual warrior, should look like. The young hero expects to see a massive, well-built example of perfect manhood, a bodily form that is enviable and attractive. Instead, when he finally meets the diminutive, gremlin-like Yoda, he cannot even imagine that this is the great teacher about whom he had heard so much. And Yoda decides to play with Luke, to keep secret who he really is until it becomes abundantly clear on its own:
Yoda looks down; he’s dejected and disappointed, too. ‘Size matters not’, he responds. ‘Judge me by my size, do you? Hm?’ Luke shakes his head in recognition of the fact that he doesn’t judge Yoda this way. ‘And well you should not’, the Jedi Master continues. ‘For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is.…Luminous beings are we … [Yoda pinches Luke’s upper arm] … not this crude matter.’
Luke has made a judgement based on a superficial observable factor. … We might recall that when he first came to Dagobah he was looking for a ‘great warrior’. He imagined someone larger than life, not the Jedi Master he found. While he has come to accept Yoda as the teacher he was seeking, he is still caught up in the issue of ‘size’.
There are more connections to the Gita, and we have alluded to them before: Arjuna, we will remember, must choose between sentimental feelings toward familial relations, and his obligation to the legions of innocent people who will be killed if he does not fight. Likewise, Luke must choose between familial affections and civic duty – for he realises that his evil opponent is in reality his own father.
But the Krishna/Arjuna and Yoda/Luke comparisons have their limitations. The relationship between Yoda and Luke is in fact more reminiscent of Drona and Arjuna: though Krishna enlightened Arjuna with transcendental knowledge on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, it was Drona who earlier served as his martial guru, training him in combative arts and Kshatriya dharma. In this sense, Vishvamitra and Rama, too, can be seen as early archetypes for the Yoda/Luke relationship. In the above instances we find a teacher/student model that has been popularised in yoga texts for centuries. Sociologist William Sims Bainbridge elaborates on Yoda and Luke as yoga teacher and student, respectively, illuminating how the master is basically training his disciple as a Kshatriya:
Yoda proves to be a deceptively tiny creature who has the spiritual power to levitate Luke’s spacecraft. In the weeks that follow, he gradually teaches Luke how to levitate objects as well, and instills in him the first rudiments of Jedi philosophy. … [He tells Luke that] A Jedi must have deep commitment and a serious mind, never craving excitement and adventure, even though he will be surrounded by them. A Jedi’s strength [comes] from the Force. But beware of the dark side [Yoda tells him]. ‘Anger … fear … aggression. [This is] The dark side of the Force. … [Qualities that come] Easily… . [O]nce you start down the dark path…it [will] dominate your destiny.’ A Jedi should use the Force for knowledge and defence, not for attack, and should remain serene. Strong emotions lead to the dark side of the Force … [And for this reason] the Jedi must seek peace.
After preliminary instruction, Yoda brings Luke to a gloomy, damp cave, a place where the dark side of the Force is strong, where he must confront the evil that is within him. Deeper and deeper Luke presses into the darkness, his lightsabre drawn and ready. With a sudden hiss, Darth Vader leaps at him, and Luke desperately swings his sword, decapitating his nemesis. The severed head rolls until Luke can see the face, and he discovers that it is his own. Only when Vader fades away does Luke realise it was a vision, created by his own, tormented mind.
[In a later episode] He [Luke] arrives just in time to be with the nine-hundred-year-old Jedi Master as he dies. In his last words, Yoda tells Luke to beware the power of the Emperor.
In other words, Yoda helps Luke from the ground up. He gives him positive spiritual knowledge, teaching him to be aware of the Force and to tap into the latent spiritual energies within his own body and mind. He trains him, too, to be aware of the negative, showing him how it can get in the way of spiritual attainment. He tells him what to watch out for – the dark side of the Force, the evil Emperor, and his own negative qualities.
What Exactly is a Guru?
A guru is a teacher. In all serious areas of endeavour, we require teachers. Whether you want to be a doctor, a priest, or even a plumber, if you are serious you will find a teacher. Indeed, it has been said that anyone who claims to be his own guru has a fool for a disciple.
Spirituality is no exception. The Vedic literature informs us that: ‘To learn the truths of the spirit, one must approach a spiritual master [guru] who also has such a teacher. This preceptor must be fixed in the Absolute Truth’ (Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.12). Thus, the Upanishads inform us that one who wants spiritual knowledge must approach a genuine guru who comes in a lineage of self-realised teachers. After lifetimes of material conditioning, say the Vedic texts, doesn’t it make sense that we would need help in approaching God? Moreover, if we are actually serious about the goal, why would we deny ourselves that assistance?
But just what is a genuine guru? How can one distinguish saints from swindlers? In an attempt to understand how a Vaishnava would answer these questions, let us look more closely at the above verse from the Vedic literature. In Sanskrit, a genuine guru is srotriyam brahma-nishtham. Srotriyam indicates that the actual guru is one who has fully absorbed his own guru’s teachings. In other words, if everyone must approach a guru for spiritual knowledge, then the guru must have received knowledge in the same way. Thus, there exists an historical succession of teachers, and a genuine guru must belong to that line. Further, the guru’s teachings must agree with those of the previous spiritual masters, as well as with the holy scriptures. If they don’t, something is amiss.
Here, then, is a sort of ‘check and balance’ system whereby one can ascertain if one’s guru is genuine. Most people in India are unaware of this objective system, but a careful reading of Vedic texts makes it clear that this system exists. What’s more, the authoritative disciplic lines are mentioned by name in the Padma Purana – the Sri, the Brahma, the Kumara, and the Rudra – and important modern-day teachers in these lines are purportedly predicted as well: Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka, and Vishnu Swami. The lines that have these titles and that include these great teachers are considered bona fide according to Vedic/Vaishnava tradition.
Another essential qualification of the genuine guru is brahma-nishtham: he must be fixed in transcendence – a virtual storehouse of transcendental knowledge. While this may be a little more difficult to ascertain, it becomes easily observable when considered in tandem with the above qualities and/or affiliations. In other words, a genuine spiritual master doesn’t just look holy – with flowing gown and long white beard – while speaking some bogus philosophy that contradicts established predecessors. He must actually demonstrate realised knowledge while belonging to a traditional lineage. In addition, he must be completely devoted to God with body, mind, and soul.
Thus, spiritual knowledge, which originates with God, descends to a sincere spiritual aspirant via the guru. One might question whether or not a line of teachers can accurately pass the message from one teacher to another without change or addition. Is it possible to deliver, as does a good mailman, an unchanged and thus reliable message? The Vaishnava scriptures assure us that indeed it is. For not just anyone can presume to speak spiritual knowledge in succession from the past masters. Only a person who possesses the rigorous qualifications given in the Vedic literature, as mentioned above, is fit to be accepted as a guru. By assuring the qualifications of the transmitter, the Vaishnava process assures the pure transmission of spiritual knowledge.
A sincere student can thus receive the pure Vaishnava message in the same way a person might receive a mango from a number of men sitting on the branches of a mango tree. The safest way to get the most succulent mango, which is always found at the top of the tree, is to have the man at the top pick the fruit and pass it down carefully to the man below. Thus, it comes down from man to man and reaches the person on the ground undamaged and unchanged.
The Star Wars movies are overflowing with guru/disciple relationships: Obi-Wan and Luke, Yoda and Luke, Yoda and Obi-Wan, and on and on. In Attack of the Clones, we see the guru/disciple relationship at work. Anakin repeatedly calls his teacher ‘Master’ – as does the traditional Indian student, who refers to his teacher as ‘Prabhu’ (the Sanskrit version of the same word). It might be argued, however, that novitiates in many ancient traditions refer to their teachers in this way, and that is certainly true. But Attack of the Clones goes so far as to depict Anakin with a sikha (!), a tuft of hair that dangles from the upper portion of the back of his head. Indian students in the Vaishnava tradition have for centuries either shaved their heads completely or cut their hair in such a way as to leave a sikha on the back of their heads, marking them as servants of God. Of course, the tuft of hair, too, can be found on the heads of monks in Chinese and Japanese traditions, and in others as well. But when viewed in conjunction with the many other factors outlined in this book, the inescapable conclusion is that ancient India was a central resource for Lucas’s epic.
In other words – and this is true for the Star Wars series as a whole – if you look at one or two elements of the Skywalker saga, you may attribute its influence to many different sources. However, if you look deeply, taking the whole panorama of Star Wars into account, you find that there is a vast gamut of Indic influences permeating the series. Thus, one can only conclude that Lucas owes a debt of gratitude to Indian tradition, either as a direct influence or as a subliminal one, coming from Joseph Campbell and others.
Steven J. Rosen is a biographer, scholar and author in the fields of philosophy, religion, spirituality and music. He has authored nearly thirty books including The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting and Krishna’s Other Song: A New Look at the Uddhava Gita, and The Jedi in the Lotus: Star Wars and the Hindu Tradition.