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Film Review: “Gurukulam”

In “Gurukulam,” Swami Dayananda Saraswati shares his wisdom with his last group. He died in 2015.
Photo credit:
Matson Films

“Enlightenment is not an event. It is you.”   – Swami Dayanda Saraswati

The first and last shots in Neil Dalal and Jillian Elizabeth’s “Gurukulam” tell the story without narration or explanation.

In one, a saffron-robed monk walks at a leisurely pace through a peaceful jungle landscape in rural Tamil Nadu, India, seeming to gather strength and peace from nature. In the other, a man chants outside on a mat while a cow sits on the grass, perhaps ten feet away, chewing its cud.

This is a life most Westerners have never known: quiet, meditative, integrated with nature in its various forms and willing to accept things as they are.

But Westerners have long been fascinated by this life, and many have gone to India to study it (and to search for “enlightenment”) for months or even years at a time.

In “Gurukulam,” Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who taught such pilgrims at his Advaita Vedanta at the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in southern India for five decades, shares his wisdom with his last group. He died in 2015.

These students – a French businessman, an American psychology professor, a Japanese yoga teacher and a young South Indian Brahmin – practice peace and oneness with themselves and nature as they go through the chores, meditation, rituals and hours of rigorous study that make up their days.

Here, the hum of the jungle, melodic birdcalls, ringing temple bells and hypnotic changing replace traffic noise, blaring TV programs and the jangle of ringing phones.

The directors smartly provide no narration, nothing you need take notes about; this is total immersion in another way of life, which speaks for itself (but is difficult to describe).

At one point a huge elephant strolls into the compound. This occasions neither hysteria nor panic; just an order to “tell them to clear the area” for the creature known here as “king.”

One reason it’s difficult to discuss the search for “enlightenment” (the term most non-practitioners like me use to describe the quest that westerner visitors are on) is in the quote at the top of this review: It’s not a “thing” you can “find.”

I’ve often wondered what happens to Westerners who take themselves off to India to study in an ashram or gurukula. Now, thanks to Swamiji Dayananda Saraswati and “Gurukulam,” I have an idea.

“Gurukulam” opens June 24 at The Angelika Film Center & Cafe at 11620 Carmel Mountain Road.

This film is not rated.