Spiritual Star Wars: Luke Confronts Vader

By Ryan Smith

Watch this piece as a video here.

George Lucas has said that “Star Wars is a synthesis of all religions.” But which religions inspired what? What religion inspired this?

VADER: The Emperor has been expecting you.
LUKE: I know, father.
VADER: So, you have accepted the truth.
LUKE: I’ve accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father.
VADER: That name no longer has any meaning for me.
LUKE: It is the name of your true self. You’ve only forgotten. I know there is good in you. The Emperor hasn’t driven it from you fully. That is why you couldn’t destroy me. That’s why you won’t bring me to your Emperor now.
VADER: I see you have constructed a new lightsaber.
VADER: Your skills are complete. Indeed, you are powerful, as the Emperor has foreseen.
LUKE: Come with me.
VADER: Obi-Wan once thought as you do.
VADER: You don’t know the power of the dark side. I must obey my master.
LUKE: I will not turn… and you’ll be forced to kill me.
VADER: If that is your destiny.
LUKE: Search your feelings, father. You can’t do this. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate.
VADER: It is too late for me, son. The Emperor will show you the true nature of the Force. He is your master now.

In Vedanta – or what some might prefer to call Hinduism – the true self is indestructible, eternal, and unchanging. However, a person might get cut off from his true self, causing him to live a life of suffering and bondage, being a slave to illusions and false self-knowledge.

This conception of the self is decidedly not Buddhist, since Buddhists don’t believe in an unchanging self (that is, with the exception of the Pudgalavada school, which did believe in individual personhood, but was unanimously condemned as a heresy by all other Buddhist schools).

There are clear allusions to a Vedantic conception of the self in this scene: Though Vader has certainly changed, being “more machine now than man,” the good man that was Anakin Skywalker is still postulated to be the “true self,” still awaiting Vader in unchanged form beyond the veil of ignorance. Like the Vedantins who claim that the true self is unchanging, all of the bad deeds that we have seen Vader commit throughout the movies have presumably not changed this true self. This is a major contention between the Vedantins and the Buddhists: The Vedantins essentially consider the self to be outside the realm of cause and effect, while the Buddhist believes that there is no ‘self’ as such and that whatever we call a ‘self’ is affected by cause and effect exactly like everything else is. With the Vedantins, the self is the innermost and unchanging truth about a person, just like Anakin Skywalker is the innermost and unchanging true identity of Darth Vader. But to the Buddhists, whatever it is that we falsely call the ‘self’ is just as changing as everything else. Thus, in the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha says that everything about the human being is conditioned and that all conditioned things are like that: Impermanent, changing, and not lasting.

At the intersection between these teachings, the Christian doctrine of an immortal soul (which is really not in the Bible, but which the church fathers took from Plato) is decidedly closer to Vedanta than Buddhism. Indeed, almost all religions have taught some variation of the doctrine that the soul is immortal and lives on after death, and it is Buddhism that stands out when taking a grander view of these things. However, most Christian teachings on the soul have traditionally been dualistic, that is to say, they’ve posited the soul to be different from the material world. Vedanta is not dualism but monism: The self is not different from the material in any way, it is all one substance. The monism has traditionally posed some problems for the Vedantins, since if everything is all one substance, how could it be then possible to lose contact with the truth, the way Darth Vader has lost contact with his true self? The Vedantic answer involves turning the tables on the questioner, and to point out how his experience of multiplicity begets adverse effects. Thus the Vedantic text, the Katha Upanishad says “he who sees multiplicity runs after things on every side, but he who sees oneness becomes one with true wisdom.”

In Star Wars, Vader lives in bondage since he has lost contact with his true self. In the scene where Luke surrenders to him, he says that he must obey his master, thus giving the audience a concrete allusion to bondage. In other scenes of the trilogy too, Vader preaches the doctrine of giving in to a variety of intense feelings (as does Palpatine).

VADER: Now release your anger. … Only your hatred can destroy me.

EMPEROR: Good. Use your aggressive feelings, boy! Let the hate flow through you.

These scenes give credence to the Vedantic doctrine that those who have lost contact with their true self “run after things on every side”; they are at the mercy of their emotions and thus to the external conditions that give rise to them.

By contrast, Luke is at liberty to control his hatred; to back down from destroying Vader and to reject the Emperor’s attempt to turn him to the dark side. In contrast to Vader, Luke’s liberty is the liberty of someone who has retained contact with the true self and who has therefore gone beyond the tyranny of external conditions.

EMPEROR: Good! Your hate has made you powerful. Now, fulfill your destiny and take your father’s place at my side!
LUKE: Never! I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.

As the Katha Upanishad says, to be in contact with the true self is equal to “the renouncement of all desires that surge in the heart” and the means by which “the mortal becomes immortal.” And in Star Wars, Vader becomes immortal in a quite concrete way after having re-established his connection to Anakin Skywalker – “the name of his true self that he had only forgotten.”

This scene must therefore squarely be credited to Vedanta.

2 Comments

  1. Darth Veda? BTW, I doubt that George Lucas understands the subject. Just borrowing for his creative purposes. Is our essence permanent? How could we know?

  2. Yeah, Darth Veda :)
    I agree that Lucas probably didn’t understand all of the intricacies of the material that inspired him in detail, but to my mind, that’s not really a problem in the affairs of artistic people the way it is among scholars and researchers who appropriate without reference or credit. /Ryan

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