The late American historian of religions, Jonathan Z. Smith stressed the importance of setting up good comparisons in assigned course readings (Smith 2013, 17). Students understand abstract or difficult concepts by making comparisons. In the summer of 2018, I taught an undergraduate course on storytelling in Indian religions. Following Smith’s advice, I prepared a semi-comparative syllabus that surveyed literature belonging to a number of Indian religious traditions. By the end of the course, students were expected to:
1) be acquainted with different genres of Indian story literature;
2) be familiar with a number of Indian storytelling techniques;
3) demonstrate a basic understanding of classical Indian worldviews, and numerous challenges to those worldviews;
4) demonstrate a working knowledge of the mechanics of karma in its variant expressions within competing religious traditions;
5) recognize religious tropes in early Indian stories and popular culture; and
6) show some interest in contemporary expressions of Indian religion.
My plan was for students to complete these intended learning outcomes by drawing comparisons between the assigned readings: thematically arranged stories belonging to premodern Brahminical, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh traditions. Students, I thought, would holistically uncover similarities and differences between these religious traditions.
A quarter of the way through the term, my students were not impressed. Through anonymous feedback they complained that they felt ill-equipped to draw comparisons between Indian religious traditions, as they did not yet grasp the basics of those traditions. Students also indicated that they were having difficulty following the plots of the narratives, not only due to unfamiliar storytelling techniques, but also because they could not keep up with the characters’ names: usually untranslated Sanskrit names, frequently interchanging between bynames, epithets, or titles.
It was within this environment of confusion and discontentment that I presented the plot of the original Star Wars trilogy as a Jain narrative to my students.
A man whose mind is overcome by the delusion of lust cannot distinguish between a woman he can have and a woman he should never touch. Such a man even goes after his own sister. He kills his father, O King, just like this person right here! (Granoff  2006, 153)
This statement does not describe Luke Skywalker, the protagonist of George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy, but Mohadatta, a hero whose story is extant within the Kuvalayamālākathā, a 13th century Sanskrit digest of Jain narratives from India. The above quotation comes from Phyllis Granoff’s translation, in her anthology of medieval Jain stories, The Forest of Thieves and the Magic Garden (Granoff  2006, 152–68; internal citations will refer to this text). Here, the Jain monk Dharmanandana tells king Purandaradatta the story of a man who, together with his twin sister, was born as a result of a hidden love affair. His family, through a series of karmic events, become strangers. Unbeknownst to him, he kills his birth father in a saber duel in order to protect the love of his life, a woman he soon after learns is actually his twin sister.
The similarities between the story of Mohadatta and the basic plot line of Lucas’s retro space opera are striking. It is well known that Lucas draws upon Eastern religions and storytelling in his own writing. Drawing comparisons can be entertaining. But, pointing out the similarities between Star Wars and complex, karmic narratives also has great pedagogical value in the classroom.
Most of the students were already aware of the characters and story of Star Wars, whether they had seen the original films or not. Few had critically engaged with the more confusing, seemingly needless plot points. Reading Sanskrit story literature in light of Star Wars elucidates confusing narrative elements in the franchise. Conversely, teaching the original Star Wars trilogy as a karmic, Jain narrative helped students approach and empathize with themes like unintentional incest and patricide, which are prevalent in premodern Jain story literature. Consider some of the odder narrative elements in Star Wars. Leia, for example, is a princess. Her title seems out of place in the original trilogy, but makes perfect sense in Sanskrit story literature. Moreover, Luke is trained by Obi-Wan Kenobi, a hermit with magical powers. A religious renunciant, and Luke’s spiritual master, only Kenobi knows of Luke’s origins. Viewers might wonder why Kenobi would allow Luke to fall in love with his twin sister, or why he would pit Luke against his estranged father? But, in premodern Jain narratives, the shock of close encounters with incest or patricide, revealed at just the right moment, often inspires life-changing piety in the main characters at the conclusion of a story.
Mohadatta, the character described in the quote towards the beginning of this post, hears the voice of a Jain monk near the end of his story. This voice reveals Mohadatta’s true identity at a critical moment, saving him from consummating a marriage to his estranged, twin sister (165). Shocked and disgusted by his acts of patricide, and his close call with incest, Mohadatta renounces the material world, and seeks ordination as a Jain monk (166). A viewer familiar with the story of Mohadatta might expect that Kenobi was waiting for the right pedagogical moment to reveal the identities of Vader and Leia to Luke, ideally after Luke defeats his father, but before he sleeps with his twin sister.
After repeatedly asking students to compare unfamiliar stories without success, Star Wars provided a familiar narrative that students could use as a baseline for understanding Mohadatta’s tale. Mohadatta then became a familiar narrative of world-renunciation, which students could use to make meaningful comparisons with other stories assigned in the class. The story of Mohadatta, set a long time ago in a country far away, becomes familiar through Star Wars, a story set an even longer time ago in a galaxy far, far away …
On this, the fourth of May, may the Force be with you.
Gerjan Altenburg is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He is primarily interested in the religious history of the Indian subcontinent, with a special focus on jurisprudence, monasticism, and story literature. His email address is email@example.com.
Granoff, Phyllis (trans.). (1998) 2006. “Mohadatta.” In The Forest of Thieves and the Magic Garden: An Anthology of Medieval Jain Stories. New York: Penguin Books, 152–68.
Smith, Jonathan. 2013. “The Introductory Course: Less is Better.” In On Teaching Religion, ed. Christian Lehrich. New York: Oxford University Press, 11–19.