This Star Wars Day, AAIA Volunteer, Daniela Pizarro delves into the ancient inspirations underpinning The Force
Since George Lucas released the first episode of Star Wars in 1977, the Star Wars universe erupted with a massive fan base obsessed with flying spaceships, space cowboys and the Force.
Film writers unleashed their quirky imaginations to create extra-terrestrial terrains of the Star Wars universe, but what about the Force? Where did the concept of the Force come from?
The live action Star Wars film heroes Luke, Anakin and Rey are all highly force-sensitive and trained to channel this mystical power, yet the concepts surrounding the Force are not so alien as we might think. The idea of the Force can be traced back through time, to the birth of many Eastern philosophical thoughts such as Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism.
This concept of an energy that is undercurrent of all living things and the cosmos, originates from the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism which emerged circa 5th – 6th century BCE. Although the authorship is not clear, legend has it that the historical philosopher Lao Tzu wrote the principle Taoist book, the Tao Te Ching (The Way) when he left China, as shown above. Once he left, this book was his parting gift to the Chinese people, and it elucidates on the Tao, or the universal energy.
An omnipresent energy glimmers the similarities between Taoism and the Jedi lore. Although Taoism was largely replaced by the arrival of Confucianism and Buddhism in China, it still maintains an active following today. Taoist thought also provided inspiration to the conflict between the Jedi and Sith. In fact, Taoism introduced the idea that the world contains a balance of opposing forces. It is nature’s way, the law that exists in the material cosmos. Thus, saying this, the light will always have a dark side. Sunshine will always have rain, creation will end in destruction, and be reborn again.
The Forces’ ancient origins also trickles into the philosophy of Buddhism. Buddhism emerged in mid-millennium BC in India and has become a widely practiced religion with approximately 500 million adherents. Buddhist teachings place an emphasis on meditation and its focus to relax the mind from racing thoughts and attaining a state of peace. Many scenes in Star Wars show that the Jedi can connect to the Force through the power of a stoic and quiet mind.
Siddartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, who later became known as Buddha (Awakened one) is often represented meditating on a pedestal in Padmasana or the lotus position. In Star Wars, the meditating Jedi often symbolises the way Jedis can channel the power of the Force.
The lotus position (or known as Padmasana in Sanskrit) appears in Star Wars as a nod towards Buddhism but in fact it is much older. The earliest remnants of this pose have been found in the Indus Valley, supposedly representing Siva, one of the supreme gods of the Hindu pantheon. Hinduism’s presence in understanding the Force is also relevant through its corpus of ancient epics (Vedas), most significantly is the story the Bhagavad Gita or the Song of God.
This text is significant as it is one of the first literary pieces to represent the relationship of the master and disciple, a recurring theme in Star Wars. The relationship between Yoda and Luke has been compared to the ancient characters of this Hindu epic, Prince Arjuna and Krishna. Similar to Luke and Yoda, Prince Arjuna despairs as he must go to war against his kin. However, his charioteer, Krishna reveals himself as a mystical and wise being and helps him overcome these challenges.
The origin of this Vedic epic is shrouded in mystery, but it is commonly hypothesised to have been composed circa 2000-1700 BCE. Yet, despite the time difference between Star Wars and the Vedas, the Jedi training seen with Luke, Rey and Anakin all share similar thoughts in the teachings of the Vedas. For example, Jedi training consists on discipline of the mind, especially in regard to attachment and fear.
A similar concept is also found in ancient Buddhist writings. One example can be found in the Suhadukha Sutra, a Gandharan scroll (below), translated by Joe Marino through the University of Sydney’s Journal of Gandharan texts. This text elucidates on the discipline of self-control of the senses that cause pain and pleasure.
These ancient teachings of detachment and self-control show that although they are a few millennia apart, an iconic film such as Star Wars reverberates one of the oldest, spiritual Vedic and Buddhist teachings.
Expanded through graphic art novels, books, and T.V shows, Star Wars has been unpacked to fully explore other stories of its universe, such as the recently acclaimed The Mandalorian series. Taking place after the Return of the Jedi, it tells of a journey of a Mandalorian bounty hunter finding a force-sensitive youngling. Despite that the Force and the Jedi are not connected to the Mandalore culture, it does have a touch of Taoism from their infamous code “This is the Way”. Alluding to the Taoist writings and teachings, many facets of the Star Wars universe have been inspired by antiquity in other ways than the creation of the Force and the Jedi religion. Yet the Force and the Jedi have never failed to add that mysticism of power that thrills its audience. And so, Star Wars allows us to connect to antiquity through its inspiration of ancient teachings to create the concept of the Force, and the correct ways to interact and access the Force. Putting aside the glowing lightsabres and the power to move things at will, these ideas are not far, far away but much closer to us that we think. We’re just travelling back in time to when mystic beings walked the earth.
Daniela Pizarro is an AAIA Volunteer and a University of Sydney graduate with a Bachelor of Arts double degree in Archaeology and Linguistics. Now a postgraduate student, she’s doing a Masters of Research on Ancient Gandhara and studying the ancient religions in the area, i.e. Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.
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