Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month Charles Farhadian discusses the importance of studying world religions, and reflects on what we can gain by learning to see life from another perspective.
Also, as part of this series we are giving away three copies of his book Introducing World Religions. The winners will be announced at the end of the month.
Breaking all opening box office records at the time of its release in India, the film Three Idiots was a spectacular Bollywood hit worldwide. Three Idiots presents the struggles and antics of three close male classmates as they survive the challenges and humiliations of studying at a prestigious and ruthlessly cutthroat engineering institute in India, mirroring the pressures of student life at the world famous Indian Institutes of Technology.
One of the “idiots,” first-year student Rancho, captures the attention of the entire student body of engineers when he outsmarts upper-class students and, eventually, even the headmaster. Rancho’s endearing qualities of self-sacrifice, wisdom, and love for the two other “idiots,” amaze his peers, who have no category for someone with such great brilliance, inspiration, sagacity, and love. It is clear. Rancho is a redemptive character. He’s a savior. His role is to restore and guide the other two “idiots.”
Students in my Theology in Film course chose Three Idiots as their favorite film of the many international films we watched over a semester. Students laughed and cried as they watched the three-hour film that featured Bollywood dancing, upbeat songs, and tales of love and loss and a kind of redemption they thought they recognized. Students remarked that Rancho was a Christ-like character, since he saved others and was referred to by the other “idiots” as “His Holiness Guru Rancho.” Everyone seemed to agree – Rancho was like Christ.
Fair enough. But what struck me was that students were bringing their own perceptual grid, intellectual and narrative framework, to their analysis of the film. I teach at a Christian college, and the majority of my students are Christian, so the “Christ-like” interpretation was not surprising. Most of my students have inherited Christian categories. However, when I pointed out that perhaps Rancho was not a Christ-like character, but rather probably a Krishna-like character, I had to unpack that statement for those without knowledge of Hindu tradition. Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, comes to earth to save when truth and wisdom have been lost. Whether or not the Rancho character was intentionally created as a Krishna-like persona, the class discussion reminded me of the importance of trying to see the world through others’ perspectives. At the least, learning about other perspectives adds richness to our lives and opens up the world in new ways.
A few years ago I led students on an educational trip to India, where we visited the famous Taj Mahal. While standing on the footsteps of the Taj Mahal with my students, two muscular Indian guys approached our group. They seemed friendly enough but I wanted to make sure so I struck up a conversation with them. I invited them to be in a photo with some of our group, and they complied without hesitation. Before I captured the photo I thought I’d go out on a limb. I yelled, “Hey, you look like idiots,” thinking I would either be pummeled or we’d all have a good laugh. Thankfully, we all laughed. They got it. We got it. And I took the photo at the height of our laughter.
Learning about other cultures and religions opens us up to the world and each other; it allows us to share in other’s joys and sorrows. That day, on the steps of the Taj Mahal, we enjoyed brief friendship and mutual connectedness. That connection began with viewing a film and learning something about Hindu tradition. We have everything to gain by learning to see life from another perspective. We might be surprised how enjoyable that encounter can be.
Charles E. Farhadian (PhD, Boston University) is professor of world religions and Christian mission at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He is the editor of Introducing World Christianity and Christian Worship Worldwide and coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion. He has done fieldwork in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, where he has investigated themes of worship, social history, and nation making.