[The article below has been adapted from The Jedi in the Lotus by Steven J. Rosen, published by Arktos. In part II, Rosen will explore the guru/student relationship and the training of the archetypal spiritual warrior. Here the author examines the qualities of the spiritual warrior, according to ancient Hinduism, and his place in society.]
The Jedi are valorous warriors who adhere to a spiritual code of ethics. In the Star Wars milieu, they are considered the ‘twice-born’ – a privileged group of individuals who are born not only to mother and father, but who also undergo spiritual initiation, which is seen as a second birth. The Kshatriyas of ancient India – can it be a coincidence? – lived by principles almost identical to those of the Jedi. They were among the twice-born of Indian tradition, and they were mystic-warriors of great integrity. Here we will look at the similarities between these two groups of guardian-yogis, as well as the related concept of the guru-disciple relationship, which is indispensable for both Jedi and Kshatriya.
Second only to the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas were highly esteemed in the Varna social system of ancient India. The similarity between Brahmins and Kshatriyas, i.e., that they are both twice-born, makes it easy for the untrained eye to confuse the two – and to even claim that the Jedi might in fact be more closely aligned with Brahmins than with Kshatriyas. One glaring example of this confusion can be found in an otherwise insightful article by Cie Sharp. Basing his work on an earlier paper by Rajan Rajbhandari (‘Star Wars and Hinduism’, 1994), Sharp writes, ‘I see the Jedi as Brahmins.’ He supports this contention by claiming that one’s status as a Jedi is determined by birthright, and that, traditionally, one is identified as a
Brahmin in this same way. He further argues that the Jedi engage in guru/disciple relationships, as do Brahmins. But, as already mentioned, these same phenomena exist for Kshatriyas: they are generally born into Kshatriya families and are accordingly identified by their peers. They also take initiation from gurus and take part in guru/disciple relationships, even though Sharp suggests that these things are peculiar to Brahmins.
Anticipating that some readers will disagree with his theory, saying that the Jedi engage in warfare, and that Brahmins simply do not fight, Sharp points out that Parashurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, and Dronacharya, the teacher of the Pandavas, were Brahmins, and that they, indeed, had many times engaged in battle. But if Sharp looked closely at the voluminous pages of Vaishnava history, he would admit that these two were exceptions rather than the rule, and, in general, Jedis have much more in common with Kshatriyas. Incidentally, the story of Parashurama has much affinity with that of Darth Vader, who, in his earlier life as Anakin Skywalker, was responsible for annihilating legions of Jedi warriors, in the same way that Parashurama is said to have exterminated generations of Kshatriyas.
Psychologist Jonathan Young, author and longtime associate of Joseph Campbell, has this to say: ‘The Jedi are the high priests of the Force as well as the noble knights of their time. The Jedi began earlier as a theological and philosophical study group. Only after long consideration of the Force did they take up the idea of fighting for high principles and causes.’ In consideration of Young’s perception, we may admit that the Jedi are more like a hybrid. In other words, the Jedi exhibit a merger of brahminical and Kshatriya sensibilities. Overall, however, they are more like Kshatriyas, for even their brahminical qualities of learning and introspection were often found in the Kshatriyas of Vedic times.
When Obi-Wan first presents Luke with his lightsaber, he informs him that the Jedi were the guardians of peace and light in the Old Republic. It is ironic, or perhaps telling, that it is the ‘Old Republic’ in which we first encounter the Jedi, for the Western world was first introduced to ‘Kshatriya-like’ ideals in Plato’s book, also named The Republic. Here we read about the ideal society and the virtuous warriors that are a necessary part of it, not unlike the Kshatriyas and the Jedi in Vedic culture and Star Wars, respectively. In fact, it is often said that Plato’s ideal society was based on the Varna system of ancient India, a subject to which we will now turn.
What Is the Varna System?
Varna must be distinguished from ‘caste’: the Sanskrit term varna, as used in early texts such as the Rig Veda, classified people according to their inherent nature, acknowledging the diverse and multifarious ways in which their distinct psychophysical makeup allowed them to function in society.
Varna is best translated as ‘colour’ – this is because it refers to one’s personal proclivity, or the way one’s natural disposition colours the way he or she interacts with the external world. Such personal characteristics might arise because of one’s birth in a particular family – it might be genetic – or it might be acquired in other ways, through conditioning, for example.
However it comes into being, we are speaking here of character traits that are deeply embedded in the consciousness, defining, in a sense, who one is. In regard to the varna system itself, human society is divided into a four-tiered ideal, the Chatur-varna, or the ‘four-coloured orders’ of man: white, red, yellow, and black.
To begin with white – which is symbolic of Sattva, or goodness and truthfulness – such people embody the qualities of purity, faith and detachment. They have a thirst for knowledge and often have a spiritual temperament. They are called Brahmins.
The next varna is red – the colour of Rajas, which is energy or passion. This is characterised by action, determination, and aggression. Those who partake of this mode seek honour, power, and status. They are generally strong people with military and political leanings. They are called Kshatriyas.
After this, we have the yellow varna – this is a person who shares certain Rajasic traits with those in the red varna, but he is devoid of martial tendencies. He is generally more family-centred and inclined to business, typically involving agriculture (but not always). Such people excel in communication, verbal exchange, trade, and commerce, and they are known as Vaishyas.
Finally, black represents the quality of Tamas – that which is inert, or weighed down. People with this disposition are given to ignorance or dullness. They are usually dependent on the rest of society for motivation and direction. They are called Shudras.
Thus, at the highest tier of Vedic society, we find the Brahmins, or priestly intellectuals; slightly lower are the Kshatriyas, or the warrior class; the Vaishyas, who are generally businessmen and farmers, are next; finally, we have the Shudras, or the servants of the rest of society. Most forms of social stratification resemble the varna system to one degree or another. For this reason, ancient Vedic texts refer to this system as universal, in the sense that people tend to lean toward one or another of these characteristics and can thus broadly be defined as either Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, or Shudra.
While in India today the various classes are generally depicted in terms of highest to lowest in terms of power, wealth and status, the Vaishnavas emphasize the equality of all classes, noting that societal differences are merely external, existing for practical purposes, i.e., the interaction of people in day-to-day life. Vaishnava texts are clear that the soul, the core of one’s being, is more important than any external designation, and, because of this, everyone is equal in the eyes of God. And all have important roles to play in the divine drama of life.
Though one fits into the various varnas according to inclination and disposition, in actual practice in India, birth status has come to preclude all other factors which once largely determined how an individual would live his or her life. As a result, today, familial associations and hereditary concerns have become major deciding factors in determining which varna a person will take part in: this compromised form of the original Vedic system is today known as ‘the caste system’.
Vaishnavas reject the modern caste system as a poor derivative of the original idea. While the varna system recognised social differences, it also claimed an underlying spiritual harmony for all people. Thus, while there was an implied hierarchy based on one’s external designation, it was merely for the purpose of social order – beyond the hierarchy stemming from one’s vocational identity, there was mutual respect for all members of society, all working for the shared goal of spiritual realisation. But as the modern-day caste system took hold, all of the symbols and customs of the classes of Indian society took on superficial meanings, devolving into petty competitiveness, interclass hatred, and strife.
Among the many catalysts for this devolution, perhaps, was the fact that the varnas were identified with colours – white for a Brahmin; red for a Kshatriya, yellow for a Vaishya, and black for a Shudra – though these colours were originally symbolic and had no relation to the hue of one’s skin. Today, there are Brahmins who frown upon those Indians who look darker, claiming that they must be of lower birth status. In a similar way, Brahmins are allowed gold and silver ornaments, while Kshatriyas, also twice-born, can use the same kinds of ornaments but only if they are of an inferiour quality to those used by the Brahmins. Vaishyas are to use brass ornaments and Shudras can only use those made of iron. The Varnas were also associated with the four ages of time: Brahmins with the purest, Satya-yuga; Kshatriyas with the slightly less revered Treta-yuga; Vaishyas with Dvapara-yuga; and, finally, Shudras are identified with the iron age, Kali-yuga, or the age of degeneration, in which we are now living.
In the Rig Veda, the varnas are associated with various parts of the body: the Brahmins are the head; the Kshatriyas are the arms; the Vaishyas are the torso; and the Shudras are the feet. Identification with these bodily parts gradually led to traditional modes of greeting according to one’s station in life. The Brahmin stretched his right hand forward reaching the level of his ear; the Kshatriya held his hand to the height of his chest; and the Vaishya would hold it low, near his waist. The Shudra bowed down and stretched forward his joined hands in respect. Again, these customs and forms of civil interaction were meant to distinguish one class from another, but were never intended to be demeaning or judgmental in a negative sense. Today’s caste system, however, throws a dark light on bodily differences, glorifying the Brahmin and maligning the Shudra.
This brings us to the much later concept of jati, a term that more accurately translates as ‘caste’. Today, in India, it is used for the many ‘sub-castes’ found throughout the subcontinent, virtually replacing the original varna system.
Star Wars: Return of the Jati
Jati comes from the root jan (‘to be born’), or janma (‘birth’), and it implies ‘begetting’ or ‘producing’. In terms of caste, it refers to the social stratum into which one is born. Thus, unlike varna, it refers to one’s birth status and not to personal inclinations. For the modern Indian, jati is binding, and there are strict rules governing occupations, foods, marriage, and interaction with people born in other castes. Though there are only four varnas, there are literally thousands of jatis. Unfortunately, most Indians today feel duty–bound to honour their placement in one of these innumerable sub-castes – again, dictated by birth – as opposed to searching out their varna, which would enable them to best function in society by engaging their true psychophysical disposition.
In Lucas’s films, too, we sense a tension between the idea that one must be born a Jedi, with large amounts of midi-chlorians in one’s blood, and that one might just be a Jedi by inclination and training. In other words, one walks away from Star Wars with a question: ‘Is being a Jedi merely about birth (which would align it with the conception of jati), or is it about one’s inherent quality and work (one’s varna)? Could I be a Jedi, or is it a position reserved for a select few?’ Clearly, there is truth to both positions: a person can pursue Jedi dharma on his own and, through training and practice, achieve Jedi-like qualities. But being born with certain advantages, like a high midi-chlorian count, or to parents who have trained you as a Jedi from the very beginning, wouldn’t hurt, either.
And this is seen in Vaishnava culture as well: while true Varna is more about an individual’s qualitative traits and personal inclinations, it is well-known that parents who favor a particular field of work will direct their children to that same field. While this may not always hold true, it is a common enough phenomenon, making the family into which one is born a legitimate factor in assessing one’s occupational direction. This, coupled with the fact that there are definitely metaphysical reasons – such as karma and destiny – why one is born in a particular family, makes the jati idea understandable and even pragmatic from a particular point of view.
But rather than belabour this point, let us instead look at deeper similarities between Jedi and Kshatriya. We should perhaps begin by reassessing our conception of ‘the warrior personality type’, for we in the West tend to identify a warrior more as an irresponsible, swashbuckling adventurer than as a mature, deep-thinking human being. To understand the Jedi, or the Kshatriya, we must re-think such stereotypical Western images of those who would rather fight than reason. For many, the thought of a battling commando conjures up images of inarticulate bullies and puerile braggadocios who virtually live for violence. Or we might think of some naive brute manipulated by power-mad politicians. Of course, we acknowledge exceptional cases as well, as in, for example, the fictitious Indiana Jones, who is a brilliant archaeologist as much as a courageous and well-trained hero. But far and away our more common conception of the warrior class is more a Sgt. Fury, or a Rambo – a person who knows and cares for little more than battle, without any deeper thought or finer sentiment. This is a great distance from the conception of the Jedi or the Kshatriya, which is a more progressive warrior model. In writing about the Jedi, Jessie E. Ayani states:
Our concept of the warrior must shift to pop us out of 3-D reality into realities of higher frequency. We will never lose our archetype of the warrior; it is part of the landscape of the human psyche, but aren’t we ready to part with the barbaric behaviour we have inherited from our ancestors? The archetypal patterning of the warrior, the brutish and abusive Attila the Hun, the Roman gladiators, Medieval knights, soldiers, the warlords and even the new warriors of the men’s movement will not work in the 5th dimension. All of the manifestations of this archetype, so graphically portrayed for us on film, the news, and everyday life, are born out of a false sense of courage that has, in no way, eliminated the deep fear that drives the warrior to conquer and kill.
Lucas is presenting us with an archetype that will work in higher dimensions, an archetype with a heart, a truly authentic man. The only mythic characters that have come close to this archetype have been the Grail Knights, the Knights of Arthur’s Round Table. However, there were flaws in the round table that failed the evolution of human consciousness and a romanticism that could not possibly serve us now.
Professor Ayani is obviously unaware of the Kshatriya kings of ancient India. They, indeed, existed on a ‘higher frequency’, far surpassing the ‘barbaric warriors’ of Western history. They would have been shining examples for the Grail knights and others like them – the Kshatriya works in ‘a higher dimension’, is ‘an archetype with heart’, ‘an authentic man’. Ayani suggests that Western myth has given us similar heroes, though, she admits, examples of this are few. In the early days of the Crusades, there existed a group of idealistic monks known as the Knights Templar. They were considered ‘holy warriors’ in that they were never aggressors but sought only to protect pilgrims traveling to the holy land of Jerusalem. These specially-trained monks would undergo rigorous discipline and become skilled warriors for the faith. They were comparable to the Japanese samurai, or to certain contingents of Zen Buddhists, who were adept at the martial arts, combining meditation with fencing, archery, and jujitsu. But nowhere, East or West, can one find a concept of a noble soldier as akin to the Jedi as that of the Kshatriya. Ayani continues in her analysis of the Star Wars warriors:
So, who are the Jedi Knights? The Jedi are spiritual warriors dedicated to maintaining peace in the galaxies. They poke holes in the egos of the powerful and controlling – those who seek personal gain at the expense of others. They try to bring things into balance wherever they find imbalance. These are the kind of high ideals that our armed forces and government would like us to believe they embrace, but the veil of this deception is thin. What is different about the Jedi is their integrity. They are trained to be impeccable and to exercise a high degree of discernment – what I perceive as a 6th sense, or knowingness, that allows them to chose right action in the moment. They must be focused in the ‘Now’ at all times. How different our lives would be if we could attain this degree of focus. They are a bit like the Shaolin priests of old China in that respect – using force only when it is used towards them, choosing every possible alternative to harming another.
Ayani is describing the Jedi/Kshatriya model, almost point for point. Her focus, of course, is on the Jedi, which is, in turn, based on her viewing of the Star Wars films. But her words apply, with even greater force (pardon the pun), to the Indian Kshatriyas. If one reads Vedic texts, one sees that Kshatriyas are ‘spiritual warriors dedicated to maintaining peace in the galaxies’. Moreover, ‘they try to bring things into balance wherever they find imbalance’. Kshatriyas are ‘trained to be impeccable and to exercise a high degree of discernment’. They embody ‘knowingness’ – indeed, they, like Brahmins, are possessors of great learning and intuitive wisdom – and they know how ‘to chose right action in the moment’. Most importantly, they ‘use force only when it is used towards them, choosing every possible alternative to harming another’. This was clearly seen in our earlier retelling of the Mahabharata, when the Pandavas went through great pains to avoid the inevitable war that was building before them. As stated in that same retelling of the Mahabharata: the etymology of the word ‘Kshatriya’ is itself revealing – kshat means ‘hurt’, and trayate means ‘to give protection’. Thus, a Kshatriya is one who protects from harm or violence, not one who instigates it.
Ayani may have been a little hard on our own armed forces and government: she says they are attempting to deceive people when they pose as being righteous and noble. While this might generally be the case, there are certainly exceptions – individuals working for our government who live by a high standard of ethics and morals – and I think Ayani would support my contention here. But, overall, it is as she says: our system is more concerned with getting the job done than with exactly how we do it, endorsing an ‘end justifies the means’ sort of sensibility.
The Jedi/Kshatriya model, on the other hand, is just as concerned with the method as with the outcome. Surely, they fight to win. But they fight according to the strictest standards of fairness and dignity.
The Just War Concept
Of course, even in the West, we appreciate these finer qualities, and we hope that protectors of the innocent adhere to them. Western history has shown us, however, that it is not uncommon for one to abandon principles of justice, or ethics and morals, when threatened by aggressors; we simply do what we have to do. Because justice has been so abused in the name of defence, some feel that violence is never justified. Such people adopt a policy of pacifism, an ideal in which human life is not to be taken under any circumstances.
The notion of pacifism invariably falls short, however, when one’s life, values, and loved ones are threatened with extinction. Luke could have just let Princess Leia ‘go to the devil’, as it were; Rama could have abandoned Sita, letting her live out a dismal life in Ravana’s kingdom; Arjuna and his brothers could have allowed the Kauravas their terrible reign. But courage and righteousness would not allow it. As the Irish politician Edmund Burke writes, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ Our heroes, the Jedi and the Kshatriyas, would never let evil triumph. In all of the above instances, violence had utilitarian justification, and our heroes knew it.
We in the West are painfully aware that such situations arise all too often. For the first three centuries of Christian history, pacifism was the preferred stance of all who called themselves Christian. Then, in the Fourth century, Christianity became a mainstream religion and had to systematically address questions of self-defence and public order – and the aggressive force necessary to uphold those values. As a result, pacifism was replaced by the ‘just war’ theory, which is based on the idea that pacifism is not absolute, and that there are other values that are just as important as the preservation of the lives of others.
After all, what is the value of life when existence is made intolerable, when our loved ones are killed or tortured? In such instances, we clearly have a right to engage in retaliatory action. In other words, the values that compete with the preservation of life centre around the principle of ‘justice’ – and when attempting to implement justice, we know, there are sometimes casualties. Within this context, the principle of pacifism is seen as an ideal for which people should undoubtedly reach. But they should simultaneously recognise its limitations.
Originally, the just war concept was meant to minimise the use of force, limiting it to situations where a wrong could not be undone by any other means. Further, if one indeed found that war was inevitable, one would have to fight that war in such a way that the least harm would be caused to the fewest number of people.
History informs us, however, that in due course of time the just war theory was exploited, especially by religious fanatics, who used its utilitarian stance to wage wars in religion’s name – if not always in religious spirit. Words such as ‘Crusades’, ‘Inquisition’, and ‘Jihad’ give thinking people reason to pause, evoking suspicion and distrust for religious institutions. This is because innocent and sincere people have been victimised in the name of God for longer than anyone can remember. And we all know it to be true: believers with ulterior motives, supported by a superficial reading of religious tradition, have abused the just war concept from the beginning of recorded history.
Still, the abuse of an idea does not invalidate the idea itself. Sometimes, when there are no options left, war becomes inevitable. In such situations, all one can do is to fight that war with a measure of dignity and self-respect, and respect for one’s opponent. After all, though he may have a differing point of view – though he may even be unjust and cruel – he is still a human being, if an errant one, and is worthy of consideration. ‘Many of the truths we cling to depend on our point of view’, Obi-Wan instructs Luke. A ‘good’ war must be fought with this awareness. Both Jedi and Kshatriya would never engage in battle without having this in the forefront of their minds. The Mahabharata war, especially, was fought according to sophisticated religious principles of fairness, though practically everyone involved compromised these principles as the battle wore on: ‘In the course of the battle, if one fights with speech, he should be opposed by speech only. One who, for any reason, leaves the midst of the battle should not be killed. A warrior on a chariot may only be fought by a warrior who is also on a chariot. One must fight opponents in fair ways, and no one who does not wish to fight is to be so engaged.’ (Bhishma-parvan 1.28-32) The rules of the Mahabharata battle are accurately summarised by Gita expert Winthrop Sargeant:
The great battle was supposed to be fought according to certain rules of knightly etiquette, which were, in fact, adhered to in the very beginning. Fighting was to take place only in daylight. After sunset, everybody mixed in friendship. Single combats were supposed to be only among equals. Anyone leaving the field or sitting in Yoga posture was supposed to be immune from attack. Anyone who surrendered was to be spared. Anyone momentarily disengaged was prohibited from attacking one already engaged . . . Animals were not to be killed unnecessarily or deliberately.
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.