Patrick Flueger is a Hollywood actor, a rising star. And I’m pretty sure if Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio had a baby, it would be him (see below). Patrick is also a former student of mine. In 1999 he was in my world religion class. And in that year I had to gather up several weeks of homework for him while he shot his first film in California, Princess Diaries. It was the beginning of his career.
I enjoy seeing Patrick on the big screen, but every time I do I am pulled out of the plot and find it difficult to “get into” the movie. The Hollywood illusion is shattered and ultimate truth rushes in – I know that guy! I know his brother, his father, his sister and mother. All I can see is Patrick’s true self. It is a very “Hindu moment,” and one that I share with all of my students when I teach about the Hindu religion.
So what do Hollywood and Patrick Flueger have to do with Hinduism? Well… to answer this I need to start with a question, a question that goes to the core of human nature and Hindu theology: Why is it that what we think of as the first law of nature, self-preservation, suddenly dissolves in moments of crisis when people instinctively and spontaneously, without any regard for their own safety, risk their lives to help total strangers?
It is a perplexing question. It is a question that needs to be taken seriously by anyone wanting to understand human nature. Perhaps Hindus have the answers: we are all deeply connected – my life is your life. We are all part of a cosmic whole. And if I spontaneously and instinctively react to save your life, it is no different from me instinctively and spontaneously reacting to save my own life. We are one!
This idea of unity is one of Hinduism’s distinguishing features, but wait, there’s more! Hindus see all of creation (including humans) as eternally divine. In other words, we are all literally God. “And God poured forth creation from Himself, and in that way he became creation,” says a Hindu text.
The idea of creation and creator being one in the same is strange to the Western mind. The Bible clearly depicts God as creator, and everything else as creation. To say that we are all God is blasphemous to most Christians, and many of my Christian students are confused and offended by this Hindu idea. To help them understand the idea I ask them if they believe that God has always been, will always be, and cannot be destroyed? Unanimously they say yes. I then ask them if the same can be said about matter. Are descriptions of God and matter similar? My devoted Christian students hesitate to answer this question. Many are unsure of what I am asking, but my scientifically minded students are quick to point out the parallels; both have always been, neither can be destroyed, and both will always be. What’s interesting and thought-provoking is that Hindus see no difference between God and matter – God is the energy and matter of the universe, and we are part of God’s existence.
The idea that a Supreme Being is living through the substance of the universe is not totally incomprehensible to my students. They know that people live through the life of their cells. My students understand basic biology and how each cell is alive, and they understand how, right now, millions of their cells are dying and new ones are being born. They also understand how “war” is often waged between cells when sickness and disease race through the body. Yet, through it all, “we” exist! My students understand this, but they have a hard time imaging that they might be a small “cell” that God is living through. They wrestle with the idea that our true self is divine spirit, and that we are not physical beings in search of spiritual experiences, but rather spiritual beings in search of physical experiences. They wrestle with the idea that the physical world – their reality – is an illusion.
Nearly all of them believe that their “true self” is wrapped up in their personality. The irony is that the word persona is in the word personality. Persona, literally speaking, is the mask an actor wears. This – somewhat ironically – implies that there must be something more “true and genuine” behind the mask of personality. Hindus believe it is the timeless, eternal, and divine source of all being: God.
I know what you are thinking, if we are all divine then why don’t we act divine? My neighbor certainly does not act divine! To this, Hindus ague it is because we have forgotten and lost touch with our true selves; we think we are the masks we wear. Consequently we become obsessively caught up in the daily drama of our lines and roles and unaware of our true Self. Hindu literature is filled with stories emphasizing this point. One story is about a lion cub raised by sheep. The cub grows up bleating and eating grass. The other animals become concerned about the lion’s behavior. “Why are you behaving this way?” the animals ask the lion. “Don’t you know what you really are?” Another story is about a King who has been hit on the head and has lost his memory. Dazed and confused he wanders his kingdom as a beggar unaware of his true self. It is this ignorance of our true Self that is the source of human conflict, war, hate, and violence in the world, say Hindus. In other words, as long as we remain ignorant of the nature of our true existence and our divine potential we will continue to “act” as selfish children.
Christians often encourage people to “invite God into their life.” This makes little sense to a Hindu. Why? Because in the Hindu way of thinking we are all God! The task is to get in touch with the God within, to allow our true nature to surface, and to make ourselves transparent to the transcendent (through yoga) so that when people look at us they see the radiant light of the God within shining through us. It is a beautiful thought. And, if put in practice, I can see it working; to truly believe that we are all God and worthy of divine respect would certainly make the world a better place.
Every time I see Patrick Flueger in a movie I am reminded of this Hindu idea. But to a Hindu a Hollywood character is nothing but a mask masking the mask of the actor’s personality – it’s a mask on a mask. I get that. And I will be the first to admit that when I say I can only see Patrick’s “true self” when I see him on T.V. or in a movie, I am referring to the personality I got to know while Patrick was a student at Red Wing High School. Yet, for me, it is still a “Hindu moment” because it reminds me of the notion of a “true self.” A notion worth pondering! So… what is your true self? Do you have one? And, more importantly, are you in touch with your true self?