This past year, the Princeton Hindu Satsangam, a group that seeks to foster a Hindu community through social and education events, took a different approach to studying Hindu teachings. Rather than focusing on religious ceremonies or the study of Hindu texts like they had in the past, the group decided to analyze movies like “The Dark Knight” and “Silver Linings Playbook” to learn more about Hindu philosophy.
The group met every Friday during the academic year to discuss and analyze a movie. Members of PHS and other interested students met in Murray Dodge Hall and watched 15-20 minutes of the chosen film at each meeting. After that, the group discussed what happened and how aspects of the film, such as the plot and characters, might relate to Hindu teachings. In the fall, students watched “The Dark Knight,” while in the spring, students watched “Silver Linings Playbook,” over the course of each semester.
Arjun Venkataraman ’18, president of PHS, said that PHS sought a way to engage students so that discussions would be more than just another precept.
“We know that students have plenty of studying and reading texts that they do in class, so we wanted to think of an innovative way . . . where people could see the application of Hinduism not only to their lives but see how it’s applicable in a lot of situations,” he said.
Venkataraman heard some people mentioning how Hindu philosophy might apply to “Kung Fu Panda,” and the conversation inspired him. He talked with Hindu chaplain Vineet Chander to further flesh out the idea of exploring Hinduism through cinema, and they decided to watch “The Dark Knight” for the fall semester.
“We really wanted to show people that Hinduism is not limited to Indian culture or any nationality . . . and it can be applied in ways we don’t really think of traditionally in our own lives,” Venkataraman said. He noted that choosing an English-language movie allowed for larger appeal.
“From the beginning, our approach to the program has been based on the idea that Hindu teachings help us to tap into universal, time-tested wisdom,” said Chander. “We truly believe that this wisdom transcends the particularity of time, place, or even genre of movie. The idea is that if we are open to recognizing them, we will find opportunities to engage with Hindu teachings wherever we look for them.”
Despite this, Venkataraman noted that it is sometimes hard to see the Hindu philosophy in movies like “The Dark Knight.”
“Part of the challenge with ‘The Dark Knight’ was taking these generally deep, often philosophical questions and […] finding the connections to the textual spots where these philosophical questions are discussed in the scripture,” he said.
He added that looking at Hinduism through this lens allowed the religion to give more day-to-day meaning for students.
“Hinduism isn’t just a group of rituals that you do every week or it isn’t just something you do on one day and then you’re fine for the rest of the week,” Venkataraman said. “It’s really about a way to live your life and a way that’ll provide you a framework that allows you to really overcome any challenges you have.”
Venkataraman noted that in “The Dark Knight,” Batman particularly struggles with isolation, and he felt this resonated particularly with University students, especially freshmen who may be coming from home to a new college environment.
Specifically, Venkataraman noted that in Hinduism, there are different gunas, which are generally considered “modes of thought.” According to him, there are three of them, which can be loosely translated as “studious,” “action-oriented,” and “lazy.”
“Looking at the different characters [in “The Dark Knight”], we were able to use characters as a metaphor for each one of these gunas […] and it really allowed us to see how the different characters dealt with the same situation using different mindsets […] and how that would really lead to different outcomes, different levels of happiness within ourselves,” Venkataraman said.
He said for the spring semester a group of students helped to plan movie discussions in which everyone watched the film portion several times. The group then met in advance to discuss how to guide discussion at the overall Friday evening meeting.
Venkataraman noted that the film analysis has significantly improved member engagement in PHS. He said that in the past they often had issues with retention — a lot of people would come at the start of the year, but then stop coming later. With the introduction of these discussions every Friday, he said, regular attendance numbers have doubled.
Chander noted that in the past, meetings to analyze texts were not as effective as this at engaging students.
“Even among those attending, only a few would speak while others would stay quiet,” Chander said. “By contrast, this program allows us to create an interesting, dynamic environment in which everyone can watch something for 15-20 minutes and then have a meaningful discussion.”
He recalls a time when the group was analyzing “Silver Linings Playbook” when there was a discussion about admitting when we have problems and seeking help.
“The conversation became really energized and even a little heated,” said Chander. “Many students, including students who tend to be more shy or hesitant to share their opinions in other contexts, were eagerly contributing thoughts and responding to one another respectfully but passionately.”
“I remember looking around the room and seeing everyone leaning forward and engaged in the discussion. It was a great feeling,” said Chander.
Satsangam member Rik Nag ’19 said that discussing Hinduism through the lens of American movies allowed him to see important concepts in action and better understand how to apply these concepts in his life. Venkataraman added that the meetings helped create a greater sense of community for the Hindu Satsangam.
“People realize that a lot of people are struggling with the same issues, and that’s really helpful as a community [and] a lot of people have found a lot of really great friends through [PHS],” he said.