In Mumbai a few years ago, seventeen-year-old Vijay Sharma killed his mother and stole a few thousand rupees, dittoing the hero in the film Vastav. I thought this was a freak incident, but a recent conversation with sixteen-year-old Jaimit helped me see that cinema’s negative influence on young people is pervasive.
After I’d given my weekly Bhagavad-gita class at a college hostel, Jaimit revealed his love story.
“I’ve known my girlfriend for three years. Although our parents don’t approve of our relationship and would prefer we focus on our studies, we plan to get married soon.”
“You’ll get over this infatuation,” I said.
“Besides, it’s illegal to get married; both of you are minors.”
“No!” he protested.
“This is a serious relationship, and we’ve got to do something drastic.”
His aggression and teenage passion silenced me. The parents of both Jaimit and the girl are apparently part of the large section of Indian society still conservative about premarital dating and fearful of social disgrace. But Jaimit was dead serious about eloping with his sweetheart.
“What about your future?” I asked. “Without pursuing a career, how will you earn your livelihood?”
“I’ll get a job at some restaurant or gas station,” replied Jaimit, bravely echoing the words of many a Bollywood hero.
Although from a well-to-do traditional Marwari business family, Jaimit now sought residence in the squalor of Mumbai’s slums with no fixed source of income.
“It won’t be the easy life you dream of,” I said. “And you’ll hurt your parents.” Jaimit sighed.
“I’d rather sacrifice the world than lose her.”
I returned to the temple thinking how much Jaimit’s story followed that of typical Bollywood movies: The protagonist fights society to win his girl and live happily ever after.
Magic Spells of the Visual Media
Movies and television cast a magical spell the world over. The influence of the dazzling onscreen images starts even before the child learns to walk and talk. The National Institute on Media and the Family (U.S.A.) revealed that children younger than eight “cannot uniformly discriminate between real life and fantasy/entertainment. They also quickly learn that violence is an acceptable solution to resolving even complex problems, particularly if the aggressor is the hero.” For decades University of Michigan psychologists Leonard Eron and Rowell Huesmann studied the viewing habits of a group of children from various cultures. They stated in their testimony before the U.S. congress that across the world, watching television is the single factor most closely associated with aggressive behavior more than poverty, race, or parental behavior. Repeated exposure to graphic and highly effective visual images, such as those of sex and violence, degrades the consciousness.
With the flicks showing happy people living in mansions, reveling in passionate lust, driving expensive cars, and flaunting attractive gadgets, adults aren’t spared the bewitching influences. A simple middleclass man seeks a higher standard of happiness, influenced by the wealthy and successful portrayed onscreen. He then huffs and pants to get the elusive carrot of success, even though the smiling faces onscreen have a different story to tell off-screen. A few shows that do portray the horrors of this world such as the reality of disease and death are swamped by hordes of attractive advertisements, each promoting a product that promises unique enjoyment for our senses. As reel life throws up promises, real life pulls them down in utter contempt for our hopes and in stark contrast to the assurances.
Spiritual Edutainment: An Empowering Alternative
Life often throws up unpleasant experiences and unexpected challenges. To face these hardships we need a sober and peaceful mind. Repeated viewing of shows displaying displaying explicit and hysterical passion consumes the consciousness and makes one susceptible to emotional outbursts, even at minor provocations. One thus loses the equanimity needed to address personal adversities. The resultant frustrations take a heavy toll on mental health, especially of the young, who are unprepared to handle difficult and complex human relationships.
I lived in a South Indian temple town during the first ten years of my life, with no exposure to television or movies. Our lives centered on daily visits to the temple, where we partook of prasadam, heard discourses, celebrated festivals, and watched devotional dramas. During my teens I moved to the city, and my consciousness was bombarded with violence and passion eulogized on the screen. The experience was frustrating, as my hopes of seeking happiness by toeing the social line were always betrayed.
Years later when I finally entered an ISKCON temple for the first time, I felt my childhood revisited. The purity illuminating the devotees’ faces, the refreshing spiritual ambience, and the generally festive mood in the temple filled my heart with the same devotion and innocence that was an integral part of my childhood. I had been seeking that spiritual experience all those years in the city without being able to recognize the need.
The contrast between enjoyment championed by the media and the spiritual experience of Krishna consciousness became obvious to me. As I felt the calm of the temple during my first visit, I considered what it was about the temple that made me feel so good. Then it dawned on me that glamour shows only titillate the senses and provide temporary relief whereas spiritual activity fills the heart with love, kindness, and a desire to serve. Loving remembrance of God and service-centered relationships with everyone, the children of God, fills the heart with a spiritual experience that no offering from the entertainment industry can match. Spiritual exchanges with other devotees of Krishna, such as chanting the holy names of Krishna and dancing together, feasting on Krishna’s prasadam, and discussing spiritual subjects, offer a happy alternative that not only allows us to explore our dormant personal relationship with God but also soothes the mind during troubled times. A large number of devotees in ISKCON have practiced spiritual life for over three decades and have no regrets about giving up the world of cinema and television as their source of entertainment.
Examples from History
Opening ourselves to spiritual influences protects us from needless exposure to onscreen violence and empowers us to respond maturely when life treats us violently. The Vedic scriptures reveal the history of Narada, born as the son of a poor maidservant. He assisted his widowed mother in her service to Krishna’s pure devotees, and His entertainment was hearing from them about Lord Krishna. Attraction to Krishna grew in his tender heart, and when his mother died from a snake bite, the fiveyear- old orphaned Narada was undaunted in his search for God. He attained a stage of supreme spiritual bliss in devotion to the Lord.
Emperor Pariksit, who ruled the Earth five thousand years ago, also led a life centered on loving Krishna. The impressions of his Godcentered childhood were permanently etched in his consciousness. This foundation helped him rule the kingdom with courage and wisdom. Later, when tragedy struck him in the form of a death notice, he relinquished his unrivalled wealth and prosperity without hesitation and went to the bank of the Ganges to absorb himself in hearing about Krishna. He then attained the supreme destination of returning to the spiritual world.
Narada and Pariksit displayed level-headedness and maturity beyond compare, converting material adversity into spiritual success. The secret of their success was in cultivating a relationship with Krishna and an attachment to His devotees.
The scriptures tell of the spiritual journeys and internal struggles of great persons. Hearing and discussing their examples with sincere spiritual seekers leads to deep contemplation, honest introspection, and fixed realization of timeless spiritual truths. Thus devotees following the footsteps of Pariksit and Narada are prepared to face the inevitable miseries of this world and grow in their spiritual experience.
Srila Prabhupada compared allowing God-centered vibrations to influence our consciousness with cleaning a room. Krishna conscious vibrations like singing and spiritual discourses, along with dancing and feasting, purify the mind. Intelligence sharpened by studying the scriptures and chanting the holy names of the Lord enables us to recognize negative influences and avoid getting carried away by them.
A spiritual lifestyle also helps us pursue careers and responsibilities with confidence and dignity. ananda Vrndavana Dasa, a fortyfive- year-old businessman working at the Mumbai stock exchange, has often been challenged by fluctuating market conditions. Yet for the last two decades he has traveled a long distance daily to our temple, where he chants Hare Krishna and hears spiritual topics in the association of devotees. He has never compromised his spiritual standards and is focused and composed at all times, while his colleagues at the office struggle with swinging moods and intense business pressure. ananda Vrndavana is clear about his priorities: The goal of human life is to prepare for our journey back home, back to Godhead, and to perform our material duties as a service to God.
I can’t help contrasting his example with that of the hundreds of people I see daily traveling in Mumbai’s trains, most of whom always appear stressed. Angry hawkers, annoyed buyers, irate train commuters quarrelling over a seat, honking taxi drivers hurling expletives at rushing pedestrians all are common sights in the cinema-crazed city of Mumbai.
We can choose to be influenced by the media or by spiritual culture. Each delivers its own reward. But a spiritual path gives us tangible benefits, including the strength to face trials, a more nourishing entertainment, and the clarity to pursue worldly responsibilities. Besides, the ultimate goal of life to reawaken our dormant love for God and go back to Godhead, our real home is guaranteed to a sincere spiritual practitioner.
My thoughts go back to Jaimit. If he were to sincerely practice Krishna consciousness, he could certainly deal with his natural adolescent attractions with more maturity.
Vraja Vihari Dasa, MBA, serves full-time at ISKCON Mumbai (Chowpatty) and teaches Krishna consciousness to students at various colleges.