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Slumdog Millionare — Transcending Karma

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire has garnered a lot of critical praise, and made not a few year-end “best-of” lists. The film combines gritty realism with whimsical hope as it follows the plight of an 18-year-old Indian orphan named Jamal who’s spent his life in abject poverty, scavenging on the streets of Mumbai, experiencing the worst of the Hindi slums. Jamal inexplicably becomes a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and, to the dismay of authorities, reaches the final question round and becomes a folk hero.

But how is it possible that a “slumdog” — the dregs of the Hindu caste system — could transcend such bad karma? Thus, the film opens with a multiple choice question:

Jamal Malik is 1 question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it?

A) He cheated
B) He’s lucky
C) He’s a genius
D) It is Written

Inherent in the question is a philosophical conundrum. How does anyone ever “make it” in life? Do we create our own luck, or does luck find us? Should we try to cheat the system, or work our way to the top? Is blind chance at work, or is there a divine plan, a destiny, that we must lay hold of?

As we follow the plight of the protagonist in Slumdog Millionaire, we get the sense that something very different than Hinduism, the primary religion of India, is at work. Apparently, this was intentional by the book’s author, Vikas Swarup. In an interview with The Hindu, Swarup says,

“I wanted my protagonist to represent each and every street kid in India. Hence I gave him this all encompassing name. Ram Mohammad Thomas, in a sense, transcends religion and caste – he is an everyman, an embodiment of the microcosm of India,” the author says.

The book had also set itself apart by refraining from using themes like Karma in it’s narrative, which are a constant fixation in many books by Indian authors.

“My hero is an eighteen year old waiter living in Asias biggest slum in Dharavi. His life perforce had to pass through the bars and ‘chawls’ of India. He would be working as a servant here, a waiter there. Hence there was no scope for any karma-dharma exotica.” (emphasis mine)

Notice that the author intentionally avoided “using themes like Karma” and created a character who “transcends religion and caste.” This is interesting because “religion and caste” are intrinsic to the protag’s dillema. As a child, we find him living in squalor amidst a vast tent city of peasants and cripples. These were the lowest of India’s four castes. The Encyclopedia of World Religions explains:

In general the caste system is rigidly based on heredity. One is simply born to a lifelong caste identity, as determined by karma, which directs the soul into whatever it deserves.

Thus, basic Hinduism would interpret Jamal’s suffering through the lens of karma. In other words, being a slumdog is what he “deserves.” But rather than frame his suffering and poverty as part of a necessary karmic cycle, the movie interjects something completely foreign to Hinduism — the concept of destiny. It is Written. In other words, in order to interject hope into Jamal’s miserable existence the basic concepts of Hinduism had to be jettisoned in favor of a more Westernized, Judeo-Christian paradigm.

Scripture teaches that grace transcends karma, that a merciful God pursues us through the slums of existence, that we need not bear the penalty for our sins, and that no matter how dire our circumstances, goodness can prevail. On the other hand, if karma ruled, Jamal would have no such luck.

Perhaps this is why the author and filmmaker avoided making the connection. For without grace, not only would there be no redemption, the story would be pointless.

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{ 15 comments… add one }
  • k.hath January 6, 2009, 5:29 AM

    Mike, it’s not clear in the movie if the lead character is actually a Hindu. In fact, I think he was a Muslim. Interesting thoughts, though.

  • Mike Duran January 6, 2009, 7:06 AM

    k.hath, my point is not what Jamel’s religious views are much as the writer’s — or at least his intention to minimize those views. As the article said, “The book had also set itself apart by refraining from using themes like Karma in it’s narrative, which are a constant fixation in many books by Indian authors.” It’s not a surprise that Indian authors have a “constant fixation” upon karma. It is central to their worldview. My point here is that in order to give Jamel any chance at redemption, the author had to replace a karmic worldview with a more westernized one.

  • Daivd January 6, 2009, 4:00 PM

    having followed the link from jeff overstreet’s blog here hoping to find a little clarification and i think i’m still a little confused. it seems way out of left field to say that the movie is replacing hinduism with a western, judeo-christian ethos. doesn’t it seem more likely that it’s replacing it—or perhaps, more accurately, synthesizing it with—a muslim one instead? it seemed to me to be a sort of spiritual descendent of a work like salman rushdie’s “midnight’s children”—less about the theology of the human soul and more about the soul of the nation of india, about the roiling tensions between hindu and muslim, about how the pieces might ultimately fit, if not theologically then practically. i don’t think that the west really enters into the equation at all. could it be that christian critics like yourself might be just a little too eager to find allusions to christianity?

  • David January 6, 2009, 4:01 PM

    by the way, embarrassingly enough, i apparently spelled my name wrong in that first post. but speaking of which, i believe the main character’s name is spelled ‘jamal’, not ‘jamel’.

  • Mike Duran January 6, 2009, 8:57 PM

    Thanks for visiting, David. As I mentioned in my post, the author himself (and the writer of the article) notes an intentional downplaying of the concept of karma. Why? Hinduism is one of the greatest world religions, with estimates of over 900 million adherents. Karma is central to Hindu doctrine. Then why extricate it from a film that takes place in such a predominantly Hindu nation?

    One explanation, I think, is that the implications of karma are terribly uncomfortable and difficult for people with a westernized worldview to grasp. Remember after the earthquake in China last year and Sharon Stone suggested that it was a result of bad karma? Hey, if karma is legit, then she was right to ask that question. Instead, she got pummeled. I explored Ms. Stone’s reasoning in a post entitled, Is Helping Earthquake Victims Bad Karma? At the heart of the tension is a violent incompatibility between a Judeo / Christian worldview and the Hindu.

    The sense that Something or Someone outside of ourselves is working for our good is contrary to karma. Nevertheless, something like Fate (It is Written) was guiding Jamel — through the circumstances in his life, the people, the poverty, the crime, even the individual questions on the game show! Someone / Something brought Jamel through his sufferings to a place of goodness. Perhaps I AM too eager to find “allusions to Christianity.” Yet, this is the heart of the Judeo / Christian Gospel.

    Again, my point here is not to address the character’s religion, but the author / filmmaker’s. In order to give Jamel any chance at redemption, they had to replace a karmic worldview with a more westernized / Judeo-Christian one. Thanks for the comments, David!

  • david January 6, 2009, 10:05 PM

    “Again, my point here is not to address the character’s religion, but the author / filmmaker’s. In order to give Jamel any chance at redemption, they had to replace a karmic worldview with a more westernized / Judeo-Christian one.”

    yeah, but… that’s kind of my point. that’s not the movie the movie’s making, i don’t think. it doesn’t look to me like the movie isn’t moving from a hindu worldview toward a western/judeo-christian worldview. it’s more like it wants to move from a nation nation fragmented by religious conflict between hindus and muslims toward a synthesis between the two borne out of love. i don’t really see any distinctly western/judeo-christian elements in the movie at all that would lead me to believe that the author or filmmmakers had it in mind at all.

    don’t get me wrong—i’m not here to bash your interpretation or to say that i’m right and you’re wrong. i’m just wondering how you arrived at your reading of the film because as i’ve gone over the film in my memory with all this in mind, the western element just seems like an artificial, unnecessarily complicated step.

  • Mike Duran January 7, 2009, 7:48 AM

    Hey, I appreciate the discussion, David. I’m not sure I got that the movie was addressing the religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Other than the scene of Jamal’s mother being burned by Hindu extremists, there’s no direct exploration of that conflict, or its religious underpinnings, that I can remember.

    You wrote: “i don’t really see any distinctly western/judeo-christian elements in the movie at all…” That’s probably the crux of our differences. For one, I think the quote from the original author in The Hindu is pretty clear about an intentional distancing from karmic concepts. So which way did he then go philosophically? Toward a more conventional “westernized” paradigm of Rags-to-Riches / Love Conquers All / Grace Transcends Evil, Hope Prevails, etc. Redemption (especially of the unearned kind) is more of a Judeo-Christian concept. Grace is not found in pure Hinduism. Nor is Hope. Even Islam is far more tilted toward retribution than mercy, toward Law than Love. Those two things — the author’s open disavowal of karmic law as a philosophical device and the powerful, relentless redemptive thread — led me to suggest that the author / filmmaker has tilted (unknowingly?) away from the East toward a Judeo-Christian worldview. Blessings, David!

    (And the protag’s name is Jamal, which I went back and changed. Thanks for the correction.)

  • david January 8, 2009, 12:37 AM

    i think it’s best to understand and interpret those comments in the context of his culture, though—particularly given that he made them to an indian news outlet. i believe he specifically said that he was surprised western audiences had any interest in his book because he felt like it was very indian and would only interest indian audiences so it seems doubtful that he had western values in mind, especially since the article seems to imply that he’s not rejecting hinduism because he thinks it’s wrong, but more because it doesn’t make sense artistically in this particular story.

    but i mean, as i’m beginning to understand your reading of the movie and of the authors comments in that article, i can see it as a plausible reading. perhaps western values have crept in unintentionally. but i think it’s also less likely that he’s moving toward a western, judeo-christian perspective, and more likely that he’s simply steering toward a secular one.

    he says that he wanted jamal to be an everyman, to embody a microcosm of india, and ultimately to transcend religion and caste. so obviously there’s a move implied from the set of values that have been handed down to some new set. but i think it’s a little hasty to immediately assume that that new set is a christian one. a book like the davinci code is a book that rejects the judeo-christian values of western society, but that doesn’t mean that it’s safe to assume that it embraces eastern values instead.

    certainly when we speak of a secular set of values, a lot of that has its roots in the enlightenment so in that regard there’s probably echoes of the west. but i think it’s maybe going a little too far to say that they’re judeo-christian in nature. toward the end of the article, the author identifies the central value of the work as making one’s own luck which immediately brought to mind that famous ben franklin quote “god helps those who help themselves”. in that sense, i’d probably accept the movie is more deist than judeo-christian.

    but i still think that for the most part he’s really just sort of stirring the elements he seems in a very stratified india in his melting pot and seeing what he can get out of that. that’s the way i hear him when he talks about jamal being a microcosm, encompassing all of india and of transcending religion and caste—not an outright rejection but a rising from that nourishing soil and becoming something more. there’s probably some cross pollination with the west going on there, but it seems the author is primarily concerned with india and i think maybe it would be even more apparent to a non-western audience. i think maybe it’s easier to see western elements because we’re coming at it from a western perspective.

  • suresh January 9, 2009, 6:45 PM

    Karma is often misunderstood in the West — So let me try and give an explanation and come back to your original comments.

    Karma = Action.

    You can have right actions and wrong actions, good actions and bad actions.

    Therefore Karma can be observed as positive or negative.

    What is good and what is bad? Such labels are subjective and absolute in its judgement. One good action doesn’t make a person good, likewise one bad action doesn’t make a person bad.

    If you have done good your all life — does that mean you are less likely to be run over by a bus? or die from a tsunami? are we less likely to be abused by someone? — of course not!

    We therefore need to get out of the mindset that we are gauranteed good fortunes in our life, it is the nature of life that bad things could happen to good people.

    In life there will always be good and bad. One cannot exist without the other. Indeed the question that how can there be a God when there is so much bad things in the world is just the point, God is not there to dish out good fortunes to some people or bad foruntes to others, it is the way of nature, it is the way of the universe, both are important, and both exist, the universe cannot exist without both such kinetic forces (good and bad).

    Things go wrong when people believe that they are supremely good and that others are supremely bad, thats when it become fanaticism. This is true of religions as well as nations.

    Lets get back to the discussion on Karma.

    Karma means Action.

    At its most simplest theory, your mind observes the world, it interacts with the world; you interact with other people, who interact with other people. Its a complex matrix of interactions. your mind acts upon that.

    If you focus on right thinking, right thoughts will arrive in your mind and right actions will be manifested by you. It therefore follows that with good actions the probability of good actions being received by you are higher as well as more good actions being manifested in your mind are higher.

    Our Actions or our ‘Karma’ is driven by our intentions. These intentions that manifest themselves in the material world are the cause of human suffering and pain. It is our attachment to to them influences our actions.

    By focusing our efforts and our life on Work/Duty (Dharma) we avoid the pitfalls that keep us caught within the woes of everyday triviality, thus further sealing our fate.

    From that we can understand that fate is our past Karma.
    Free-will is our future Karma.

    Karma imprints a psychology that promotes individual responsibility. This responsibility gives each individual the freedom to lead ones life as they see right.

    BTW — Karma is part of a broader and diverse school of Indian Hindu philosophy, if you want to learn more, then investigate the teachings of Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, Swami Vivekananda on “Karma Yoga” and also the Sankyha school of philosophy.

  • ae January 23, 2009, 5:39 PM

    I feel that Slumdog did subtely include Karma… in the idea of, “it is written,” what wrote it right? Perhaps Jamal’s kindness and doing the right thing maybe a bit more than bad? Like helping Latika when his brother said no… Sure he also helped his brother with things like stealing shoes but I think in the movie they almost consistently showed his brother doing the main “bad” action. And Jamal seems to only have done really wrong things out of desperation… so can you call his actions “bad” when he’s just trying to survive in the streets? I think the blend of his luck – getting lucky with the right questions coming up, and knowing how to get picked for the show, and remeeting Latika, but having sevearl difficulties like getting beat up by police etc…. are karma at work.

    Also… in karma I think theres an element of having to live out your past actions. Perhaps in a previous life Jamal was a spoiled rich brat. In order to become rich in this one, he has to live a life of long poverty and suffering, make mostly honest choices by working his way up and out of destitution, make sacrifices and show mental strength. Then he uplifts himself and his good karma give him the fruits of a much happier life.

  • Arth January 30, 2009, 1:32 PM

    Jamal is not hindu, he’s Muslim. Your analysis makes little sense in this context.

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