In the first episode of Season 2 of National Geographic’s The Story of God, Morgan Freeman explores the idea of The Chosen One, seeking out those believed to lead and guide humanity. Morgan Freeman goes in search of the chosen people walking the earth today, ranging from a 9-year old boy in the heartland of America who is believed to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist lama who has been returning in different bodies for almost five hundred years, to Sioux Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a leader of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest at Standing Rock. The absence of a chosen Hindu in the various vignettes contrasts with the use of and references to the Sanskrit word guru, a concept deeply rooted in the ancient traditions of Hinduism. The episode also presents concepts that that are both alien to Hinduism and intrinsic to it – leaving me with a healthy tension that allows me to explore and deepen my own faith.
When presented with the title and the premise of the episode, I went back and forth wondering whether I wanted to see a Hindu spiritual leader in the episode – would it provide a better understanding of this often-exoticized religion, or would it actually be a misfit, since Hinduism is not a prophetic tradition? As a Hindu, I am not a follower of a particular prophet, one who has been selected to receive the word or blessing of God. Almost every other faith has a figure its followers think was chosen by God: as Freeman says, Muslims have Muhammad; Christians have Jesus; Jews have Abraham and Moses. But as a Hindu, I seek guidance from many gurus – both men and women who are alive, and those who have moved to the Great Beyond. My obligation as a Hindu is to obtain spiritual guidance, so that I too can understand spiritual truths, and become enlightened. My ultimate goal – as a practitioner of VishishtAdvaita – is to attain moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and re-birth, through self-realization, merging one’s self with The Self.
Those who know me as their own divine Self break through the belief that they are the body and are not reborn as separate creatures. Such a one, Arjuna, is united with me.
– Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4, verse 9; translation by Eknath Easwaran
Common threads are woven and intertwine throughout the vignettes, and easily draw a viewer in. In the first story, the discipline and commitment exhibited by the young American Buddhist, coupled with his acceptance of his life’s journey as a Buddhist monk, are inspiring. Discipline, commitment and acceptance are concepts paralleled in many religious traditions, including my own Hindu practice. I can easily relate to this young Buddhist monk trying to balance the world he lives in with the world he lives within.
When Morgan Freeman travels East to Amritsar, India, I am not surprised to hear a Sikh explaining the meaning of guru, a word, a concept, originating in Hindu teachings, now commonly used in the Western lexicon. A young American Sikh woman questions an Indian Sikh historian against the fascinating backdrop of the Golden Temple, a sacred site that has seen violence in years past. Morgan Freeman’s voice provides a calming narrative as the young American seeker’s questions about the Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikh religion are answered and the events of the day unfold. The celebration of the Guru Granth Sahib reminds me of the way that my local temple’s Akhand Ramayan Paath, a celebration which involves a 24-hour continuous reading of Sant Tulsidas’s Ramayana, the Ramcharitmanas. The Ramayana is not just the story of Rama, but a book that provides guidance to anyone seeking its wisdom. Just as the Guru Granth Sahib is revered in a processional at the Golden Temple, the way the Ramcharitmanas is honored in a similar way, beginning with how the Guru Granth Sahib is carried on a Sikh’s head.
I try to find parallels even with the forays Morgan Freeman makes into an exclusively Abrahamic understanding of God. When he says “Around the world, Chosen Ones keep the faithful ones close to God, close to His Will,” I reconcile it with my Hindu understanding of God as Devi, the Feminine Divine, or Shakti, the embodiment of energy as intrinsically female. When he says “Churches are designed to be awe-inspiring, towering towards the heavens, reminding us of the Man Upstairs,” I am reminded of many Hindu mandirs with magnificent shikhara and intricate sculpture and carvings, which are steeped in mystical significance.
No parallel is more poignant as that of Chosen One Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who says “Mother Earth is a source of life. Not a resource.” This reminds me of a Hindu’s reverence for the environment and Mother Earth, the Bhumi Project, and the cruel consequences of colonization on ancient traditions. But more importantly, it reminds me of the months-long protest at Standing Rock, and how the Native American chief brought people of all religions together to stand with the peaceful protesters as the Sioux sought to save their sacred space. And I find myself in complete agreement with Morgan Freeman: the Sioux Chief “inspires others to follow in his footsteps… People who risk, face great danger. We need people like that.”
National Geographic’s The Story of God with Morgan Freeman: The Chosen One
Premieres Monday, Jan. 16, at 9/8c