Reflections on David Lean’s adaptation
of E.M. Foster's A Passage to India
E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel of the same name, David Lean’s 1984 film A Passage to India focuses on two interrelated storylines: the adventures of two English women in British-occupied India and the friendship between an Indian doctor and a British schoolteacher. Forster was an anti-colonialist, and A Passage to India, which is considered a literary landmark of the twentieth century, highlights what critic Robert McCrum calls “the larger tragedy of imperialism.” Lean’s film adaptation follows suit.
As works of art, both the book and film contain numerous themes that reflect deeply human and thus political, social, and spiritual realities. This contention is based on what Jungian-influenced author Thomas Moore says about imagination and spirituality. For Moore, whenever imagination achieves depth and fullness, we glimpse the sacred. Accordingly, any creative work of human imagination that approaches this richness and depth helps create a religious sensibility. “When they expose the deep images and themes that course through human life,” writes Moore, “so-called secular literature and art serve the religious impulse.”
A Passage to India lifts up and explores a number of themes reflective of the depth dimension of human life and its inherent “religious impulse.” The two that will be explored here are encounter and journey. Both of these themes can be seen to be key aspects of the transformation, the movement towards wholeness, at the heart of psycho/sexual/spiritual development. Accordingly, the following questions are important to keep in mind.
• How do the ways we approach and encounter one’s self and others support or hinder this movement – this journey – in psycho/sexual/spiritual wholeness?
• What role do our religious frameworks play in supporting or hindering the ways we encounter others, the ways we make meaning of such encounters, and the trajectory and progress of our journey?
• What are the wider social, religious, and political implications of such a journey?
In exploring the ways that A Passage to India presents and responds to these questions, I’ll be viewing the themes of encounter and journey within an understanding of psycho/sexual/spiritual development represented in what is known as the Hero’s Journey.
In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell highlights the universality of the myth of the Hero’s Journey by terming it the “monomyth” (Campbell, p.30). The true hero is every human being as all are called to grow and develop in ways whereby transformation and wholeness are embodied as the result of a process that can be envisioned metaphorically as a quest, journey and/or adventure.
Campbell notes that “the standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return. A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on [others]” (Campbell, p.30).
Such a rite of passage is discernible in A Passage to India, primarily in the character and travails of Adela.
Judy Davis) moving through a faceless crowd of people to stand alone at a rain-splattered window. Within she observes a model of the steamship that will transport her and her potential mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), to India where her fiancée, Ronny (Nigel Havers), awaits their arrival in the city of Chandrapore.
Film critic Alain Silver notes that in the film’s opening scene Lean introduces and reinforces Adela’s “isolation in a sea of objects.” An insert of the clerk’s pen reveals her name as he smilingly remarks, “I envy you, new horizons.” Adela’s response is to lower her head and reply, “I’ll be staying on . . . probably.” She then glances up to the framed prints on the wall depicting the ship, the Taj Mahal, and the Marabar Caves. When the caves are identified by the clerk who then proceeds to inform her that they are just twenty miles from Chandrapore, Adela displays an intriguingly knowing expression, tinged with trepidation. It’s as if some deep part of herself unconsciously recognizes the disrupting significance that the caves will play in her life.
In devising this opening scene, writes Silver, Lean “imbues Adela with . . . conflicting impulses. The prints on the wall represent . . . an unknown filled with promise of ‘new horizons,’ of adventure, but far from the security of familiar surroundings.” (Silver, David Lean and His Films, p.212)
Yet much to Adela and Mrs. Moore's disappointment, they do find themselves in "familiar surroundings." For the India they've journeyed to is the India of the British “Raj” (its colonial empire in India). Ronny is part of the ruling elite, a magistrate in Chandrapore, and upon their arrival to the sub-continent, Adela and Mrs. Moore all too quickly find themselves immersed in the imported British culture of the Raj.
Determined to experience “the real India,” the two women accept an invitation from the affable Muslim Indian physician, Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), to journey and partake in a picnic lunch at the Marabar Caves. It is planned that they’ll be accompanied by both Mr. Fielding (James Fox), Headmaster of Government College and a friend of Dr. Aziz, and Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness), a Hindu scholar and mystic.
East and West: Contrasting Models of Religious Life
In its exploration of themes of importance and depth, A Passage to India highlights the similarities and differences between two philosophical and spiritual frameworks, often termed Eastern and Western.
In her book What We Can Learn from the East, Beatrice Bruteau notes that religion in the East “is a matter of direct experience.” Ultimate reality, or God, is believed to dwell all around us and infuse our entire being, speaking to us in ways that draw us to union with God-self. Religious people are therefore called to open themselves to the presence of God within and beyond themselves.
Huston Smith writes in The World’s Religions that all of us dwell on the brink of the “infinite ocean of life’s creative power.” Eastern religions remind us that this sacred power lies at our deepest core. As Huston says:
We carry it within us: supreme strength, the fullness of wisdom, unquenchable joy. It is never thwarted and cannot be destroyed. But it is hidden deep, which is what makes life a problem. The infinite is down in the darkest, profoundest vault of our being, in the forgotten well house, the deep cistern. What if we could bring it to light and draw from it unceasingly” (p.26)
This last question, Huston observes, has been India’s obsession for thousands of years. “[India’s] people seek religious truth not simply to increase their store of general information; they seek it as a chart to guide them to higher states of being,” says Huston. “Religious people are ones who are seeking to transform their natures, reshape them to a superhuman pattern through which the infinite can shine with fewer obstructions.” (p.26)
The Esoteric Model
When religion primarily focuses on inner transformation and views the world and human experience as the locus of God’s transforming presence then it can be termed esoteric. Such a religious framework has distinct benefits. It fosters a deep respect and love for others and the environment as they, like oneself, are perceived as vessels of the sacred. It also compels us to be attentive to our experiences and those of others as all are potentially capable of revealing divine truths. A danger of such a model is that it can lead to self-absorption and relativism, as understood as an "anything goes" attitude and approach to life.
The Exoteric Model
The esoteric model of religious life may seem foreign to many in the Christian West where an alternative model has gained prominence in the last 1500 years. In the West, religious people tend to believe that their religion is given by God in an absolute and authoritative form. Divine revelation is believed to have been deposited once and for all, through a particular medium/s such as sacred scripture, dogma, an authoritative figure, and/or an ecclesiastical structure. Contrary to historical evidence, this revelation is often viewed as unchangeable.
For many accustomed to this model the proper response of the religious individual is to accept unquestioningly the understanding of divine truth that the model presents and conform to its prescribed beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and behaviors. A religious understanding/model that places emphasis on authority outside the individual and within a highly regimented and insulated framework can be termed exoteric.
An exoteric model of religious life has distinct characteristics that many find beneficial. Its highly focused (and usually closed-circuited) framework allows for the articulation of very clear and precise theological pronouncements. Accordingly, it offers for many not only the assurance that they are “on the right track” in terms of being “saved,” but the rules and regulations to follow so as to stay on this track.
Yet many see disadvantages to this model. It does not readily accept, for instance, new insights on the spiritual/religious life gained by people’s experiences or by advancements in areas of inquiry outside a strictly religious sphere, e.g., science. Accordingly, it often fails to acknowledge that the revealed truths it articulates were themselves discerned and shaped over centuries by people’s experience of God mediated through humanity’s ongoing development. When this model over emphasizes its rules it can become uncompassionate, dogmatic, and legalistic. At its worst, this model has maintained and expressed itself as religious imperialism, assuming that it has all the answers, silencing all alternative views and questions, and forcing its particular perspective and it structures of order and control onto others.
Of course, it’s crucial to remember that all religions contain both esoteric and exoteric characteristics. What varies is which characteristics are emphasized and to what extent. The caste system in Hinduism, for instance, with its strict order and sense of hierarchy, is an exoteric feature within a religion that generally reflects an esoteric understanding. Though many would classify Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as exoteric, each contains a strong and consistent stream of esoteric thought. In Judaism there is the Yahwist source, the earliest author of the Torah, as well as the Psalms, the wisdom books, and much of the prophetic literature. In Islam, there is the rich mystical tradition of the Sufis. Throughout the West, which has been long dominated by the exoteric characteristics of religion, there is an effort to reclaim and reinstate to a level of prominence humanity’s deeper esoteric spiritual heritage. In Christianity, these efforts can be seen in a number of developments. Three from the Catholic tradition include (i) the theological themes and emphasizes of the Second Vatican Council; (ii) the renewed interest in the ancient doctrine of the Cosmic Christ; and (iii) the increased awareness of the Christian East’s understanding of theosis (a transformative process that aims to bring an individual to union with or likeness to the Divine).
Representations of the Two Models in A Passage to India
Such a model (and the journey it facilitates) welcomes and is characterized by an openness to diversity and difference, a willingness to engage, and a willingness to journey beyond the known. Both Adela and Mrs. Moore reflect these qualities.
Openness to Diversity and Difference
Upon their arrival, both women are awed and enlivened by the colorful and vibrant atmosphere of Chandrapore – one that is open to life as well as death, as the funeral procession through the marketplace illustrates. Yet Ronny, entrenched in the repressed and controlling British Raj, can only turn to his mother and Adela and assure them that they’ll “be out of this soon,” implying that this is not where they belong.
The following day, after observing Ronny’s harsh and punitive sentencing of an Indian, Mrs. Moore dryly and cynically notes the “sights” of the city she had been shown earlier that morning: the library, the war memorial, the church, the college. The British Raj, Mrs. Moore has discovered, cannot look beyond itself and its owns structures and trappings of prestige and power so as to observe, celebrate, and be potentially transformed by the rich culture that surrounds it. Similarly, exoteric religion can tend to view itself as exclusive and superior from others. In doing so it risks cutting itself off from the presence of God mediated through sources outside its own framework.
In Professor Godbole’s eyes, Mrs. Moore is a “very old soul,” one who is nearing the end of her cycle of rebirths. In a Buddhist context, Mrs. Moore personifies the bodhisattva – “one whose essence is perfected wisdom” (Smith, p.124) and who lingers in this world so as to help others along this same path of wisdom by his/her example.
Willingness to Engage
Adela and Mrs. Moore also reflect authentic religion’s need for engagement with those perceived as “other.” This need is not shared by their British counterparts. For when they ask Mr. and Mrs. Turton if they could meet some of the Indians with whom they “come across socially,” Mrs. Turton condescendingly responds that such a coming together is not possible as, “East is East, Mrs. Moore. It’s a question of culture.”
Such condescension is again on display at the “bridge party” – a superficial attempt to “bridge the gap” between East and West. Mrs. Moore rightly recognizes that the British Raj’s ingrained prejudices ensure that the event is “unnatural” – a mere “exercise in power and the subtle pleasures of personal superiority.” Ronny is at a loss for words. He, like the other members of the Raj, lacks the vision and insight to view the wider picture, one that his mother articulates quite plainly: “We are called to love and help our fellow men.”
Mrs. Moore sees that the attitudes and structures of the colonial system within which her son is enmeshed, prevent openness to and sharing of such love. In ways both conscious and unconscious, Mrs. Moore situates herself outside this system (she intentionally leaves the club to visit the mosque and, later, she seems not to hear – and thus hesitates to stand for – the national anthem). Her openness to engage with Dr. Aziz and to share with him honestly and intimately about her life and family, shows that she does not see herself superior to him.
Journeying Beyond the Known
Another characteristic of esoteric spirituality is that it is more comfortable with ambiguity and paradox as opposed to an exoteric religious framework that prefers things clear and precise. Esoteric religion is open to going beyond the known and into the unknown.
This openness is supported and sustained by the hallmark of authentic spirituality, that being a trustful outlook with regard to the ultimately mysterious presence of God, our “ultimate ground of confidence” (Haught, p.156). In his book, What Is Religion?, John Haught notes the following.
At the heart of religion there lies an attitude of confidence and assurance. Religion is not in the same category of understanding as, for example, knowledge of the multiplication tables. It hardly possesses that kind of clarity and distinctness. People do not become religious simply by performing automatic operations of logic. Religion instead is closer to interpersonal kinds of experience and knowledge. The latter require that we risk ourselves by going out to people in acts of trust. (p.146)
Openness to both mystery and a wider perspective/experience of the world can, however, be frightening and dangerous. For those accustomed to the more focused and regimented approach of the West, it can instigate a spiritual crisis. Yet in the East, crisis not only implies danger but also opportunity. It is a crisis that has the potential to lead us to an ever-deepening experience of union with God, Self, and others.
At the Marabar Caves, both women will be profoundly disturbed when each is forced to confront aspects of their lives that they have repressed. This confrontation occurs where it does because the Marabar Caves, as the anonymous author of an online commentary notes, are “pregnant with both meaning and meaningless.” They harbor a strange echo and “serve as amplification chambers, magnifying the fears and desires of all who enter.”
To be continued.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• Learning from the East
• Rock of Ages: Theological Reflections on Picnic at Hanging Rock
• Pan's Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
• "This Light Breeze that Loves Me": Reflections on Hamam: The Turkish Bath
• Reflections on the Overlooked Children of Men
• Revisiting a Groovy Jesus (and a Dysfunctional Theology)
• Reflections on Babel and the "Borders Within"
• Dew[y]-Kissed: Reflections on Under the Greenwood Tree
• What the Vatican Can Learn From the X-Men
• The New Superman: Not Necessarily Gay, But Definitely Queer