In my article of last week about the movie ‘PK’, I had written: ‘If the makers of ‘PK’ had counterbalanced their negative portrayals with at least some more positive ones, the film would have been more in keeping with the Truth … maybe they could consider doing a more serious educational film on these aspects of Hinduism that they have criticized and depicted.’
But I also noted that this is not likely to happen, because such a film would fail to be commercially successful, would not bring in the ‘moolah’, to use an Indian jargon.
I also indicated that ‘The film purports to show the seamier sides of religion, apparently meaningless rituals, superstitions and idolatry. In doing so, there is selection bias and political correctness. Thus, the examples that are chosen are predominantly from Hinduism, and less from the other religions shown in the film, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism.’ This selection bias and political correctness on the part of the film’s makers was only too evident in the scenes making ‘fun of how deities made by men are worshipped foolishly, how temples are cash-collecting devices, how stupid it is to pray, how believers are such clowns that if you stick the images of their gods on your cheeks they won’t slap you, and how godmen are frauds,’ to use the words of a commentator in the Hindustan Times, Manu Joseph.
He also noted how ‘The alien (superbly played by Aamir Khan) breaks a coconut in a Church and goes to a mosque to feed Allah wine. He makes fun of the whites of a Hindu widow, the blacks of a Christian widow and of the fact that a Muslim man may take more than one wife.’ These were among the very few examples drawn from Islam and Christianity. Those who have seen the film will recall that the alien does not even reach the mosque with his wine bottle – he is chased by the faithful as he is walking towards it. Whereas the insides of the temple, church and gurdwara are shown quite liberally, there is no scene of the alien with his wine bottle inside a mosque.
Why this discrimination? – is a legitimate question that any filmgoer may justifiably ask. Does this mean that religions other than Islam are more liberal? Or that there is a line that Islam, though a ‘religion of peace’ – as has repeatedly been heard especially since the Charlie Hebdo attack – will not allow to be crossed, whereas this can be done with impunity as regards the other religions? And when this happens and there are protests, raise a hue and cry about these bloody ‘unsecular’ bigots in the great land of secularism? Of course I do not expect that the makers of the film will answer that, too busy as they perhaps are, laughing their way to the bank!
For me, the takeaway lesson from this film is that those who belong to a religion must be its fiercest critics, since they know it from the inside as it were. If we go by contemporary events, such as the Salman Rushdie episode, it would seem that this can be a problem in other religions. However, this is not the case in Hinduism, in which the difference is made between what is sruti – the core tenets that are unchangeable – and smriti, the parts of the tradition that can be changed and adapted according to era and context.
In fact, in The Hindu View of Life, late Dr S Radhakrishnan (who surely needs no introduction!!) almost enjoins it as a duty and responsibility to prune and weed out whatever customs and practices that have come down that do not fit with the changing times, as long as the principle of dharma is not violated. Thus, neither did I need nor had to wait for ‘PK’ to do what is to be done as regards my own tradition.
Let me give a couple of examples of what I referred to as counterbalancing portrayals. In one scene in ‘PK’, the alien is shown looking for his shoes amid the multitude of footwear lying there. As he has difficulty finding them, a man who has done with his prayers and similarly comes looking for his shoes laughingly tells the alien to just pick up any pair that fits, this is what usually happens.
No, this is false, and I say it from personal experience. However, I do agree that there needs to be some better organization to handle the footwear issue, particularly in large mandir premises, and here one can learn from what happens at gurdwaras. Had the makers of ‘PK’ wanted, they could have balanced that scene with a shot of the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara in New Delhi, for example, to show how volunteers take turns to collect the shoes through a window and stack them on racks in a room meant for that purpose, giving each owner a token against which s/he collects the footwear afterwards.
And we are not even going into the issue of why we go barefooted in a mandir or gurdwara.
Another example concerns women: a group of them in black and wearing the veil is shown, with the one in the front loudly proclaiming that Islam does not forbid the education of girls. Fair enough, we have heard that many times. But what about also showing some women lights of the Hindu tradition, such as Gargi, and Meera whose Krishna bhajans continue to enchant and comfort hundreds of millions daily since the hundreds of years that she composed and sung them? And there are more than enough to choose among the Sadhvis and Swaminis in present India who could have been ‘showcased’ as fleetingly? But then again, the question was political correctness and moolah…
Notion and approach to God, symbolism
Turning philosophical during a televised face-to-face between a self-styled guru and himself, the alien says that what he has learnt from his stay on Earth is that there are different categories of humans who each have their own god, who they maintain is different from that of the others. Whereas, he adds, they are missing out that there is in fact only one God instead of many gods, one for each category.
Consequently, these categories have their own ways to approach their god, which involve rituals and externalities such as different apparel, and to him these can be contradictory and confusing. This is especially so in the case of – you guessed it, the rituals associated with Hinduism. Once again, this is misleading.
Firstly, all religions have rituals, whether it is praying at specific times or in set ways, or celebrating occasions in a given manner. The fact Hinduism has more of them, that many of them are very elaborate and colourful – does not mean that they are either confusing or meaningless.
In fact, the opposite is the case, and anyone who cares to take the time needed to understand them will discover their great beauty, coherence, significance and role in leading the practitioner towards moksha or spiritual liberation, which itself is a profound idea that needs to be thoroughly understood and internalized.
And there are innumerable guides to such understanding, in the form of books and compilations of discourse by our eminent Swamis, such as Swami Dayananda of the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam. The first persons that must do this are the Hindus themselves: alas, too many of them are far too lazy not to say indifferent to do so, and then complain about confusion and complexity, as does ‘PK’.
On the other hand, the very notion of the one ‘God out there’ is a strange one to Hindus, as is the idea that God needs to be accessed through an intermediary. In Hinduism, the divine is to be discovered within oneself, and is not ‘out there’ but is reflected in all that exists, at all levels of existence. The divine can manifest in human form as both male and female, and does not need an intermediary. He can come amongst humans himself, as Krishna Bhagavan did in the Bhagavad Gita, to walk with and guide them, to be their friend, to love and be loved, not feared.
And idols are symbols to access the divine, representing the highest qualities such as wisdom, strength, intelligence that we attribute to the divine. Our whole life is replete with symbols – the cross, the star, some colours. Aren’t languages expressed through the symbols of the alphabet? And what about mathematics and science – how would we understand and transact without the use of the symbols that equations and formulae are?
The question therefore arises, if symbols have such widespread currency in so many aspects of life and living, what is wrong with their presence, their use in religion? Again, if Hinduism has more, and more complex ones, it is because it is the oldest extant religion of mankind, and has a richness of symbolism that is beyond compare to express the endless aspirations of the human being.
When the alien picks up the cheapest statuette of Ganesha from the seller, and expects that his search for God should be fulfilled when he returns with a plate of offerings, he has not understood a thing – the makers have not conveyed a thing about what it means to go to a mandir and make an offering. Let alone what the fruit of this offering can be: here we are dealing with the idea of prasad or divine grace, which comes in two forms, immediately visible (drishta phala), or that can manifest later, even in a future incarnation (adrishta phala). Of course the makers would not bother to try and understand some of these basics so as to give a correct interpretation in the film. The media is supposed to entertain, inform and educate. ‘PK’ was only about entertainment – and at a price please, a huge windfall for its makers. It was not meant to inform or educate.
And that’s why there will not be PK 2.0.
To tell us that a stone is not just laid out there and people start saying prayers: any such idol has to be consecrated as pran pratistha, divine grace infused into it. But who will explain that, the alien or the filmmaker? Similarly as regards ‘godmen’. It is a peculiar term invented by Indians themselves. What exactly is meant by a godman? This said, there are many fraud gurus, as there are paedophile priests elsewhere, or men of God prodding some credulous faithfuls to cut throats or engage in terrorism. Do they represent the genuine tradition? They too need to be denounced – which is done in fact.
But again, as counterbalance to the suave Tejasvi guru who makes use of the alien’s crystal remote to con people, the film could have shown Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or Swami Dayananda holding a satsang. Or even the well-known picture of Adi Shankaracharya teaching his disciples under a tree. But no, that would distract from the essential negativity that was the running theme – for sheer entertainment value.
Another thought that comes to mind is that, instead of saying that these different approaches to ‘God’ showed their differences – which have a historical and contextual origin – what they exemplify is the age-old adage India’s sages: Ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti, namely that the Truth is one but sages call it by different names. This would have sent the message that India is a land that has accepted and accommodated all faiths, recognizing that each one is an equally valid approach to God. Something which is not accepted by non-Hindu traditions. An opportunity to transmit such a powerful message, so much needed in our troubled world, has been missed.
So, will there be a PK 2.0? Very doubtful.
* Published in print edition on 30 January 2015