Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Reflections about Hinduism: occasioned by The River

I have been interested in India all my life and have always wished to go there. Typically for people my age, however, it was largely British India that I knew, from reading Kipling, and from hints of a mysterious India that would crop up in English books like A Little Princess. (I did study comparative religion in college, and more recently read a long, serious scholarly history of India.)

At any rate, I just got around to looking at the classic film, The River, by the famous director Jean Renoir. Made in India in 1948, the waning days of the British Raj, it was the first Western film to take India seriously on its own terms. Previous ones were shaped entirely from the perspective of the Raj. They were exotic spectacles of the Lives of a Bengal Lancer variety, or Kipling-based movies like Kim. Renoir collaborated with British author Rumer Godden, who was raised in India, to write the screenplay based on her book of the same name. Renoir fell in love with India and spent five months there making The River.

The film depicts an English family in the waning days of the Raj. More about the movie itself (available from the Criterion Collection) later, but first, some thoughts about the Hindu religion, which is depicted reverently and in detail throughout The River. Indeed, the Hindu outlook pervades the movie and seems to be its heartbeat.

In the movie, the Hindu festivals and seasonal cycles are depicted lovingly, without irony of any kind. Renoir was, apparently, enamored of the whole Indian way of life. There is no criticism of poverty, castes, or strange customs. The camera gives us a lyrical, contemplative depiction of river life and religious practices in almost hypnotic rhythms. The central religious observance, the one most important to the film’s story, is the ritual involving the goddess Kali. She is represented by a statue, painted black, made of clay. Devotees come with prayers, petitions, offerings, and ornaments. At the climax of the ritual, which apparently goes on for several days, the statue in its finery is put into the river where it drifts out into the water and gradually sinks, clay dissolving and disappearing. Kali will reappear the next year and the cycle will begin again.

To what extent do the people participating believe that a statue has intrinsic power? Do the uneducated among them think that the idol is really a goddess? Do people who rub the foot of St. Peter at the Vatican believe in the efficacy of a bronze statue? Do worshippers in Eastern Orthodox churches think that an ikon of a saint has spiritual powers? Do Tibetan Buddhists believe that turning a prayer wheel is in itself a sufficient mode of praying? I have been told repeatedly that the answer to these questions is no, but I remain partially unconvinced. It is a very easy matter to transfer one’s hopes and dreams to a simple ritual involving an inanimate object; isn’t it much more challenging and potentially more transforming to refuse material aids and direct one’s thoughts and prayers to the God who has revealed himself exclusively through his Word? In that respect, at least, Islam offers a more rigorous view of God.

It behooves us all to work at understanding world religions the way that we would like Christianity to be understood. Most readers of this blog don’t want Jerry Falwell and Joel Osteen to define Christian faith, and we should not judge religions by their most egregious or uneducated practitioners. Although most Protestants are disturbed by the veneration of relics and the cult of the saints in many circles of Roman Catholicism, we don’t believe that is the best of Roman Catholic theology and practice. Surely educated Hindus do not really believe that a little statue is a god. Hindu philosophy is very advanced and worthy of our respect and study. Still and all, I find it baffling that anyone would find the symbolic cycle of death and life of the goddess Kali (only one of a multitude of Hindu gods) to be even remotely as compelling as the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

In the movie (spoiler alert), a child dies. I personally found it disturbing that there was very little mourning or grieving in the family. It was all very Eastern. This is the way things are, we conclude; the idea of resistance or protest against the way things are is missing, and death is not really seen as an irreparable loss—not even the death of a child. The child’s coffin is prepared with garlands, which we see being made according to Hindu traditions hundreds if not thousands of years old. An Anglican priest (who appears to be Indian) appears at the head of the small funeral procession for a few seconds, but that is the only reference in the movie to anything other than Hinduism. Within just a few days, there is a birth in the family, and the implication is indeed one of cyclical life and death, with life going on as if the dead child was scarcely missed. We see life continuing on the river as it has from time immemorial. The images are soothing, meditative, and pantheistic. Kali is gone; Kali will come again.

I find this very problematic. The passivity of Eastern religion goes hand-in-hand with this cyclical, repetitive, all-accepting view of reality. It is not a coincidence that Gandhi was educated in London and had read the Bible. He remained a Hindu, of course, but I am not persuaded that either Hinduism or Buddhism untouched by the West would have led to activism. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was also educated in England, and married an Englishman. I can’t prove it, but I believe a good argument can be made that the protest movements that we see in Asia today were influenced by the Judeo-Christian West. It is also significant that self-immolation, widely used by Buddhists as a means of protest, finds no foothold in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

In any case, The River is extraordinarily beautiful—some say one of the most beautiful films ever made—shot in rich, saturated Technicolor. It is celebrated for its lavish and loving depiction of India in its own right. For many, certainly for me, the most electrifying moment comes when, in a dreamlike story narrated by the young teenaged English girl (who is essentially the voice of the young Rumer Godden), an ordinary Indian bridegroom is suddenly transformed into the Lord Krishna, complete with blue body paint, and the bride, who is likewise metamorphosed into his consort Radha, dances for him. Astonishing in its unexpectedness, it is classical Indian dance, admired the world over, and simply transporting. (The dancer is Radha Burnier, who later became a leader in the peculiar Theosophy movement.)

The “universal spirituality” of Jean Renoir, always named among the greatest of directors, is praised by many. But is there such a thing as a “universal spirituality”? The Dalai Lama has called Jesus “a great master,” humbly saying that he is not in that category, but still, including Jesus among other “great masters.” As John Stott has written, however, we do not speak of Jesus the Great, as if he were Catherine the Great or Alexander the Great. “He is not the Great. He is the Only.” There is nothing whatsoever in world religion to compare with the story of Christ, the only Son of God, who though he was “begotten before all worlds” nevertheless took upon himself not only human flesh but, in his horrific, godforsaken death, absorbed and conquered all human sinfulness and the power of Death itself.

P.S. If you watch this movie, be prepared for some stiff, unconvincing acting. Renoir used mostly untrained amateurs, and it shows. For this reason, the actual narrative of a wounded warrior stirring up adolescent passion is (to me at any rate) dull and unconvincing. The reason to see The River is its poetic depiction of “timeless India,” which was revolutionary in 1948 and remains, by all accounts, unsurpassed.