A Splinter in the Mind: The Matrix Through Hinduism

I didn't hear about "The Matrix" until five years after it had come out. I had moved into the monastery the same year it was released and had cut myself off from all TV and movies. When I finally decided to watch it, I was completely blown away.
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"Something is wrong with this world, you've known it all your life, you don't know what it is. It's like a splinter in your mind ... driving you mad." -- Morpheus, the Matrix

I didn't hear about "The Matrix" until five years after it had come out in theatres. I had moved into the monastery the same year (1999) it was released and for the next five years, I had cut myself off from all TV, movies and even news. For the most part, I had lost all interest in things of this material world.

After hearing many people talk about the spiritual connections the movie had with Hindu philosophy, in 2004, I finally decided to watch it. I was completely blown away by the character of Neo and by the notion the movie was presenting that the life we're living might be a complete dream or illusion. "How in the world could a Hollywood movie capture the state of mind of a seeker and where did they get the idea that our worldly existence is possibly an illusion" were the questions I was asking after seeing it.

The only place I had come across these topics was in the Bhagavad Gita. I could very much relate to the confused state of mind that is depicted by the character Neo. One of the first scenes of the movie show him sleeping at his computer while searching for answers about the world he lives in. I remembered a section of the Gita I read when I was searching for the purpose of life myself. The Gita explains that we carry a false conception of ourselves because we identify with the physical body and aren't able to see or experience the soul. This specific teaching turned my paradigm of life upside down. I remember standing on the sidewalk and asking myself the question, is it possible that the self is different than the body? If so, wouldn't it mean, most of us are in some kind of illusion? Having my paradigm shifted and adjusting to a new one was hard and it took a while for me to adapt.

When Neo is finally rescued by Morpheus and the resistance and is shown what The Matrix really is, he rejects it and wants out. He refuses to believe that everything he had believed all this time was actually false and illusory. The experience is so intense for him that he throws up and falls unconscious. I never threw up or fell unconscious, but the paradigm shift did make me feel very confused and uneasy for some time because I no longer understood how I fit into society.

Besides Neo's state of mind which is beautifully captured, the dialogue is absolutely phenomenal. It starts with Trinity approaching Neo in the nightclub and telling him, "It's the question that drives us Neo ... it's the question that brought you here." There are so many questions that are driving us as humanity. Whenever we're not keeping ourselves busy and distracted by all the gadgetry, I'm sure every human being has asked themselves the following questions:
  1. Who am I?
  2. What's my purpose in life?
  3. How did we all get here?
  4. Is there a God?
  5. Why is there suffering?
  6. Are we alone in the Universe or are there other beings out there?
Too quickly, life takes over, and we come to the conclusion that there may not be an answer to these questions. However, I don't think we can truly be satisfied until we at least try to answer these questions. They won't leave us alone.

Trinity also goes on to say, "the answer is out there and it will find you, if you want it to." It's possible for the answers to be right in front of our face, but if we're not looking for them, we'll completely miss them. We keep ourselves so busy in life that we leave ourselves little or no time to explore the answers to these very profound questions. Society can almost make it seem like a waste of time to pursue these queries.

The conversation dives even deeper when Neo and Morpheus finally meet. One of the first things Morpheus says is, "you look like a man who accepts what he sees because he's expecting to wake up ... this is not far from the truth." A similar line comes a few minutes into this dialogue when Morpheus questions Neo, "if you had a dream that seemed so real, what if you were unable to wake from that dream, how would you know the difference between the real and the dream." This theme of distinguishing reality from illusion runs throughout the movie as the characters from the resistance constantly go in and out of the "Matrix." It's a theme that is constantly addressed in chapter two and eight of the Gita.

Chapter two makes a distinction between the body and soul:

As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.

Chapter eight of the Gita creates a distinction between the illusory world of matter and the spiritual world.

Yet there is another unmanifest nature, which is eternal and is transcendental to this manifested and unmanifested matter. It is supreme and is never annihilated. When all in this world is annihilated, that part remains as it is.

After leading a discussion comparing the Gita and "The Matrix" at Columbia University, a student came up to me afterwards and told me that she was about 9 years old when she saw the movie and the idea that there may be an alternate reality really freaked her out.

One of my favorite metaphors used during the dialogue between the two main characters in their first meeting is when Morpheus says, "something is wrong with this world, you've known it all your life, you don't know what it is. It's like a splinter in your mind ... driving you mad."

Having a splinter stuck in any part of our body is very irritating and somewhat painful. It's not debilitating, but definitely disturbing. It's fascinating to imagine that we could have splinters stuck in our mind. These splinters are the very same questions that are referred to earlier in this article. We might think that if we just ignore the splinters in the mind, that somehow they will dissolve away, but these splinter don't just disappear. They keep popping until they are properly addressed. Hindu texts explain that the main purpose of human life is to address these questions and remove the splinters. To remove such splinters, we need a teacher.

The concept of "guru" or spiritual teacher is wonderfully depicted through the interaction of Morpheus and Neo. Hinduism emphasizes that in order to achieve spiritual perfection, one needs to have a guru or guide. If we look back at our lives, we've had a teacher for just about everything. For every subject in school, athletic engagements, artistic endeavors, we've needed teachers. Teachers have walked down the path we're embarking on and have gained insight and wisdom from their experiences and can help move an individual forward in their respective field. The same is true for a guru. A good teacher, in any field, can recognize the talents and weaknesses of the disciple and accordingly assist that individual grow to new heights. So, in one sense, the "guru" concept isn't so foreign when we stop to consider how many gurus we've had already.

As the "guru" and guide, Morpheus explains the truths to Neo, but ultimately leaves it up to Neo to make the decision. "You take the blue pill, you wake up in your bed believing whatever you want to believe; you take the red pill and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes." Morpheus concludes, "all I'm offering is the truth." This is very similar to the way Krishna concludes his instructions to Arjuna in the Gita.

Thus I have explained to you knowledge still more confidential. Deliberate on this fully, and then do what you wish to do.

Krishna and Morpheus both make it clear to their disciples that they can exercise their free will to either accept the advice or reject it. This theme comes up several times throughout the Matrix and at each major step Morpheus brings this choice to Neo. When Morpheus takes Neo to the Oracle, he says, "I can only show you the door, but you're the one who has to walk through it." This is very true for every spiritual seeker. At each moment, at each stage of our progress, we decide how far we want to go and we can be sure, many tests and temptations will come to distract us from our spiritual pursuits.

The Bhagavad Gita and the Matrix depict wonderfully the struggles an individual has to undergo when embarking on a spiritual journey. Some of these struggles are related to ones faith and the other to ones determination to continue. For spiritual progress to be steady, we will need to follow one of Morpheus' final pieces of advice: "You have to let it all go Neo, fear, doubt, and disbelief."

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