Every year, people of all ages, races, and creeds journey from around the world to reach Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, a secluded forest ashram in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. There, they spend three years reading, meditating, and learning Sanskrit. Why? They’re seeking the answers to life.
But enlightenment is easier said than done, according to Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the central figure in the new documentary Gurukulam. A folksy, unassuming guru clad in bright orange robes, Saraswati—who died last year—was one of the leading practitioners of the school of Hindu philosophy known as Advaita Vedanta. The philosophy teaches non-dualism, the idea that there are no substantial differences between individual elements of the physical and spiritual worlds.
Today, many Westerners primarily associate Hinduism with yoga. But gurus like Saraswati go deeper, and help interested learners understand the philosophy of unity that lies beyond chanting and poses.
To tell the ashram’s story, Gurukulam breaks from traditional documentary style. Co-directors Jillian Elizabeth and Neil Dalal didn’t put any narration or talking heads in the film, and they don’t give the history or philosophy behind Vedanta.
Instead, the film is an immersive sensory experience that uses quiet pacing and dreamy rhythms to plunge the viewer inside the daily rituals and meditations of the swami and his students.
Speaking from Alberta, Canada—where Dalal is a professor of South Asian philosophy at the University of Alberta—the two filmmakers talked about what the yoga craze gets right (and wrong) about Hinduism, the unique progressive nature of Saraswati, and why they didn’t want the movie to explain too much.
What makes Advaita Vedanta such a unique school of Hindu thought?
Dalal: It traces its lineage directly back into some of the oldest spiritual philosophical texts. It’s the oldest living non-dual tradition in Indian philosophy. Those texts, the Upanishads, people date to different periods—most scholars date them to the ninth century B.C.E.—and we don’t know the exact history, but it seems to have continued, certainly from around the sixth century C.E. to the present.
Can you define non-duality for me?
Dalal: It’s the philosophical theory that in the ultimate reality, there are no distinctions or differences—no qualitative differences and no substantial differences. We live in a world of duality—you and me, the objects around us—but [non-duality is] arguing for something like a unified field of existence. Advaita Vedanta has had a massive influence in the history of philosophy.
Elizabeth: And not just philosophy, but also the spiritual traditions of India and what has come out of [them], such as what’s happening in the West here with yoga. There’s a lot of talk about “we’re all one,” and “I bow to the divine in you, the divine in me.” All this stuff comes out of this non-dual idea.
Since you brought it up: In the West, we most closely associate this school of thought with yoga. Is that a positive thing for Hindu philosophy, that we’ve embraced the mind-body-wellness part of the equation, or is something being lost?
Dalal: That’s a good question. It deserves a complex answer, and it’s actually become quite political in recent years. Yoga really is, in the West now, a wellness, holistic health type [of] tradition. It incorporates elements of meditation, things like that, but it’s really about wellness. I think the Indian traditions include that, but the traditions themselves go much deeper and further, generally, than what you would find in your average yoga class.
I think it’s great that yoga is continuing to grow at an exponential rate, but from the traditional perspective I’d see it more as a stepping-stone to something much deeper and bigger than simply developing wellness or physical health or stress reduction. Because what they’re all talking about, ultimately, is an inquiry that radically changes your very self-identity. Yoga is so big and so vast, even just in the West, so I can’t stereotype that. But popular yoga hasn’t really delved into that in the way tradition does. I think there are big pieces missing.
Elizabeth: The proliferation of yoga in the West is quite amazing—the fact that something even remotely Eastern, that’s spiritual, has so much exposure on such a massive level. It’s something that’s very exciting culturally, because people are looking for something different and looking for change. But of course, something gets lost in the process too, as they try to reinvent it for their own lifestyle.
Dalal: Western yoga is also part of a vast, neoliberal commodification, and to market it means stripping away a lot of elements that are not going to work in the market. So deeper philosophical study, reading these texts, engaging the culture in any way—these things don’t sell as well. Nowadays it’s things like “beer and yoga” or “wine tasting and yoga.” It’s such a saturated market, and it’s so competitive.
The film has a very observational approach, where you don’t explain what’s going on. What did that allow you to do with the material?
Dalal: A big part was trying to get the phenomenological experience for viewers, of actually being in the place and space, and not having it mediated by a narrator, who tends to be a white male. That sort of “others” the community. The moment an [image] has somebody telling you what to think, you’re not really having the experience of being there. We’re trying to slow the film down to gain this sense of raw, sensory immersion, and not tell viewers just what to think, not to construct it too much, to allow people to have their own response.
Elizabeth: We really removed the descriptive aspect of “what is Vedanta, what is this tradition, what is the dot that people put on their forehead?” Because when you arrive there as an outsider, you’re not going to know those things immediately. The film was not created to give somebody information about culture and a community. What we really wanted people to do was experience it as though they were in the place.
So you don’t think a knowledge of Vedanta is necessary for understanding the film?
Dalal: I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s only going to help. You can go to Wikipedia and read 10 minutes on Vedanta, or read a little paper. That’s not what we were trying to do. We were trying to give people the experience of what it would be like to study Vedanta. If we just described what Vedanta is, people would come out of the film and go, “Oh yeah, I kind of know what this is, I can go tell someone: A, B, C, D.” Rather, it’s partly poetic.
In the teaching tradition of Vedanta, you’re not supposed to just listen and say, “Oh, I got it.” Because if you think that, you probably didn’t get it. So there’s a resistance in the film to an overly facile decoding of what Vedanta is and what the spirituality of this community is. That can be really disconcerting to some viewers who want everything packaged in digestible, bite-size chunks.
The students that we meet come from different backgrounds, from all over the world: there’s an American professor, a former U.N. diplomat. What did they all have in common?
Elizabeth: They’re all intellectuals. It was very clear that they’re all interested in deeper inquiry. People who ask a lot of questions end up at the ashram. In the Indian community, there’s also that, but there’s also the religious, cultural component where they’re looking to have more in their lives.
Dalal: They don’t separate an intellectual, cognitive kind of pursuit from a spiritual pursuit. And that’s a polarity that’s taken root in the West: Generally, if you’re thinking too hard, you’re not being spiritual. Philosophy and spirituality have been divorced. In these traditions, they don’t see it that way.
The swami is a very open person in the film—he jokes about how people misunderstand the concept of enlightenment. How did his personality affect his teachings?
Elizabeth: It made him more accessible, attractive, to the average person who normally wouldn’t be attracted to such a tradition. He knew a lot about the world and he knew a lot about the West. He has an ashram in Pennsylvania. He was teaching people in California in the seventies, mostly Californians who weren’t of Indian background. It gives him the ability to connect to people, and people are attracted to that. If they’re looking to understand themselves, they want to connect with their teacher.
Dalal: He was supersharp intellectually, and progressive, despite coming from an Orthodox village himself. It was controversial early on, in the sixties and early seventies, that he was teaching in English, for example. And he was allowing women to study, and people from various classes and castes.
Elizabeth: And treating them as an equal, too, whereas in the Buddhist tradition, that’s not necessarily true.
Dalal: Allowing foreigners to study, and all this. He lived abroad so much and traveled the world doing talks at the U.N., interfaith conferences. I think the general sense is that he walked his talk and he was the real deal. When I first encountered this particular lineage and probed them philosophically, they had a real command of the tradition. The inference I was making from that was that, well, Dayananda must really know his stuff. He’s not just a one-hit wonder: His students are really knowledgeable.
Saraswati died last year. How has his death affected the ashram community?
Dalal: It’s devastating to have your guru, your beloved teacher, pass. But I think his health had been so bad—he actually flatlined twice on the hospital table over the last 15 years—on some level the students have been gearing up for it. I think the community’s doing well.
Elizabeth: He’s been documented very well within the community. There are many books written and audio recordings of him. People say, “Oh, he’s still with me.”
Dalal: It’s almost like he’s incarnate in his teachings, whether through books, audio, DVDs, or through his students who are teaching now. There’s a theological view that he’s no longer with us in his physical body, but he’s still with the students through their own knowledge and their own growth.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Andrew Lapin is a film critic and journalist who has written for NPR, Vulture, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter.