Breaking down the religious roots of “Star Wars”

Although Yoda is a Star Wars fan favourite, few people are aware of the character’s inspiration. According to George Lucas, the film’s writer and director, Yoda’s character was profoundly influenced by a Buddhist monk he met while travelling in India prior to filming Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). 

But is that where the Eastern influence ends? 

Yoda’s character isn’t the only part of Star Wars that was influenced by Buddhism. Many of the film’s most iconic ideas, such as the Jedi Order, Sith Lords and the mystical Force have their roots in Buddhism and other Eastern religions. 

Beyond the spaceships and lightsaber battles, the Star Wars films have a distinct religion and present a conception of the ultimate reality – The Force. The Force is famously described as “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” 

The idea of The Force is very similar to the Eastern idea of The Tao (the yin/yang symbol), which is described by Taoist scholars as, “a natural order underlying the substance and activity of the Universe.” However, this definition doesn’t fully encapsulate the essence of The Tao, as it is beyond words and often translated as “eternal order” and  “that which cannot be named.” 

In the Star Wars universe, being able to tap into the ultimate reality and “use The Force” is a powerful ability. It unlocks the ability to move objects without touching them, read minds and accurately predict the future among other capabilities. Accessing The Force is done through mindfulness and meditation, a central practice in most Eastern religions. Meditation can allow one to access their true self and ascend to a higher state of consciousness known as enlightenment. It is enlightenment that connects oneself to the ultimate reality. 

Just as The Tao is symbolized by notions of life and dark, so is The Force. People sensitive to The Force usually fall into two categories — The Jedi, who access the Light Side of The Force, and The Sith, who use the Dark Side of The Force. 

Let’s start with The Sith. The Sith are always the bad guys in the Star Wars movies and represent the Dark Side of The Force. They’re usually tyrants dressed in all-black trying to blow up planets, escape death and gain unlimited power. Some can even shoot lightning from their fingertips. If you haven’t caught on, they’re categorized by negativity and bad vibes. 

Yoda offers some insight into the Dark Side of The Force, saying, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.” The Buddhists would say that the root of fear is desire. In fact, Buddhism believes that desire is the root of all suffering. 

The Jedi on the other hand, represent the Light Side of The Force and have been described by the creator of Star Wars as being “warrior-monks who keep peace in the universe.” 

What differentiates the Jedi from the Sith? Eastern religions would say the difference is found in one’s relationship with The Tao, or The Force. From the perspective of Eastern religions, desire and craving keep the Sith in the cycle of suffering, while the Jedi “let go” by extinguishing their desires – ending their suffering and allowing them to attain nirvana.  

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