Phantom India, Episode 3: “The Indians and the Sacred” - Louis Malle

In Episode 3 of Phantom India, Louis Malle attempts to come to grips with a core feature of Indian civilization: its deeply-felt and unabiding spirituality. In fact with due consideration and respect for all the dedicated religious practitioners in various parts of the globe, it seems that Indians are the most religious people on earth. But how can one convey that spirituality in a one-hour film? Since it is always difficult to convey spiritual notions via the concrete imagery of film, the task of taking on of the vastness of India’s never-ending spiritual journey would seem to be hopelessly daunting. Despite these long odds, though, Malle’s documentary investigation here does offer some interesting insights.

Happily, Malle focusses his attention on the spirituality of southern India, and it is there, I believe, that the key to the Indian story of spirituality lies. Although difficult to verify conclusively, the evidence suggests that South Indian culture is the original source of several unique spiritual notions that have enriched religions the world over [1]. These include the overlapping traditions of
  • Ahimsa (nonviolence to other beings)
  • Shramana (the tradition of the wandering ascetic monk)
  • Yoga
  • Samsara (the transmigration of souls and the karmic determination of reincarnation)
  • Meditation
All of these themes were later more formally codified and merged into Buddhism, Jainism, and certain elements of Hinduism (they were even included in some of the later Vedas), as well as subsequent religious traditions, including Sufism and Sikhism. The situation with Hinduism was particularly complex, because it represented a combination of two fundamentally different conceptions concerning the path towards enlightenment: that of the Vedas and that of the South Indians (Dravidians). Very roughly speaking we might characterise the two paths this way:
  • The Vedic path, as the basis of the Indo-Iranian culture, emphasized a radical separation of mind and body. Mind, the creative principle behind the sky god, was supreme and the eternal goal was always to purify the mind and separate it from the pollution of the physical world and the body. With this metaphor the ultimate, fundamental categories came to be good and evil. In short this tradition was utterly dualistic.
  • The South Indian path emphasized nondualism and the attempt to be one with all being. For this tradition, dualism is not the goal, but is in fact the actual source of all suffering, and one should seek oneness with all.
When these two visions clashed in South India, it became the melting pot, perhaps the spiritual laboratory, in which these contrasting notions came together and generated an astonishing array of religious practices and beliefs. As a consequence of this encounter, some of the South Indian notions began to be included in some of the later Vedas, and the admixture of combinations proceeded from there. Hinduism came to reflect, in various ways and sectors, many composites of those ideas. Thus although the priests recite some of the Vedas, they worship gods who were not mentioned in the Vedas, such as Shiva, the god of creation and destruction.

This episode of Phantom India follows something of a narrative arc that moves from incredulity to wonder. At first Malle seems to reject many of the practices that he comes across as mere fetishism and blind superstition. So early on, his critical eye is focussed on the priests who dupe the simple people out of their meagre earnings. In fact Malle remarks that he is always struck by the fanaticism of the believers, especially the women. But he is also amazed by the fervour and the commitment on the part of the believers. Gradually he comes to appreciate that this unworldly devotion elevates these people to a plane of bliss that is rarely attained in the West.

There are four main sections to the episode:
  1. Mortification of the Flesh
  2. Brahmans and priests
  3. Pujas and ablutions
  4. Sadhus
1. Mortification of the Flesh
In the beginning Malle shows various devotees engaged in extreme acts of mortification of the flesh – fervent attempts to separate the mind/spirit from the polluting effects of the body. They believe that if one can become enured to pain and sensual feelings in general, then they can make themselves independent of worldly lusts and attain release from the endless sufferings of birth and death. This is the extreme side of dualism, the attempt virtually to ravish the body as much as possible and become pure mind. The images are painful to watch, but the devotion of the believers is absolute.

2. Brahmans and priests
Everywhere in India there are Hindu temples, run mostly by the Brahmans, the priestly caste. Although the priesthood is the ancient designated calling of the Brahmans, Malle observes that few Brahmans are priests. Most of them are professionals, and generally only the losers, those who cannot make a living any other way, take up the priesthood. Frequently these lower-level Brahmans are illiterate, and so they merely uncomprehendingly recite the Sanskrit prayers for their followers. In this segment Malle’s camera repeatedly shows the faithful eagerly making cash offerings for religious blessings, charms, and fetishistic powders. For Malle, this is shameless exploitation on the part of the priests, who are accused of fleecing the innocent. With respect to the Brahmans, themselves, Malle remarks that he is struck by their habitual arrogance and how haughty they are over their unearned privileges. Now, to be sure, one should not generalize on the basis of a few personal encounters, but, unfortunately, my own experiences with Indian Brahmans have not been entirely out of line with Malle’s.

3. Pujas and Ablutions
Next Malle’s camera turns to the individual acts of devotion by the faithful. These are the pujas and ablutions (ritual washing) that are performed by believers. The large temples have pools for ritual ablutions, and the believers come there to wash themselves obsessively, even though the water, itself, is polluted. To Westerners the complex hand movements, bowings, and body twirlings seems ornate, arbitrary, and slightly ridiculous. There is no attempt to understand or explain whatever symbolic meanings are associated with these complex gestures, which seem to come in a large variety. But the sincerity of the believers is evident. Malle speculates that in the crowded, communal Indian society these pujas and acts of reverence may offer the mass of ordinary people their few precious moments for personal self-expression and privacy.

4. The Sadhus
In India there are many thousands of sadhus, people who have renounced everything in order to find enlightenment. These people seem to belong to no established religious order, but their bizarre attire makes them easily identifiable. They belong to the renunciant shramana tradition of the ascetics, and each one seems to following his own path. Although some of them have evident mental problems, these sadhus are not anything like the homeless people one encounters in the West. For some of them, this path is merely fulfilling the Laws of Manu, for which there are four stages: (1) the student, (2) the householder, (3) the forest dweller, and (4) the wandering ascetic, i.e. the sadhu. In any case it is astonishing that in a country with such material shortages among the ordinary people, they are so willing to give alms for the support of voluntary mendicants.

At the end of the episode, Malle says that at first he looked at Hinduism with a rational mind, and his early impression was that it was a religion of fetishism and exploitation. But then he began to look deeper, and he no longer could make any judgement. In India, he noticed, there are in fact almost no atheists. People never ask you if you believe in a god, but instead only ask what is your religion. They all believe in something. So many people, all holding so many differing beliefs, but with such fervour, had left their mark on Malle, after all.

  1. See for example:

  • H. G. Rawlinson, India, a Short Cultural History (1968), Praeger, New York.
  • Unto Tahtinen, Ahimsa: Non-violence in Indian tradition, (1976), Rider, UK.
  • Gavin D. Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism, (1996) Cambridge University Press, UK ISBN 0521438780.
  • Padmanabh S. Jaini, Collected Paper on Buddhist Studies, (2001) Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 8120817761.

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