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Chinmaya Mission Creates a Hit TV Series
The 54-part Upanishad Ganga offers a systematic presentation of key Hindu and Vedantic teachings in an innovative retelling of ancient stories
WHEN SWAMI TEJOMAYANANDA DECIDED TO REACH THE MASSES THROUGH A TV SHOW, he turned to director Chandraprakash Dwivedi, who wrote, directed and starred in Chanakya, the popular 1990s series set in ancient India. He then assigned a team of erudite Chinmaya Mission acharyas—Swamini Vimalananda, Swami Advayananda and Brahmachari Samvid Chaitanya—to guide the project.
Produced at a cost of US$1.6 million, the resulting 54 episodes of Upanishad Ganga (upanishadganga.com) cover the gamut of Hindu philosophy. Episodes explore the Vedas, the four goals of life, the four ashramas, 16 rites of passage, caste, reincarnation, the guru, the Self, maya, types of spiritual practices and the nature of ultimate liberation. It’s all based on a wide variety of stories—some ancient, such as that of Pralad and Nachiketa, and some more recent, such as that of Surdas, the 15th-century blind musician, and Harihara Raya and Bukka Raya, founders in 1336 of the Vijayanagar Empire.
Swami Tejomayananda, head of Chinmaya Mission.
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Most stories start with a narrator and one or more characters on a theater stage talking about the coming story. It’s an effective technique, one that is woven throughout the series. This narrative prologue then pans to a nearby scene on the stage and then suddenly to an actual location in a forest, city or village. At a critical point the narrator may appear again on the stage, and then we are shifted back to a location or full-fledged set. From time to time—in the style of a Greek theater “chorus”—other characters appear in the scene with the actors but do not interact with them. Rather they talk to each other or the audience, offering insights into what is going on. Overall, it is a clever mix of theater, cinema and television staging.
Our reviewer watched half of the 54 episodes for this evaluation—and that having to depend on the English subtitles, missing what has been reviewed by others as the elegant Hindi dialogue.
Both the series and the staging concepts are developed in the first episodes, in which the son of a traditional pandit finds, contrary to his expectations, that his career and aspirations in theater have much in common with his father’s life. The second episode involves scenes from the end of the Mahabharata war. It must be said that these two episodes are not the most engaging.
The series finds its stride with the next episode, “Knowledge Transforms,” based on the famed story of encounter of highway robber Ratnakar with Sage Narada. The sage asks if the thief’s family—who know his occupation—were willing to share in his karma of robbing and killing. Shocked to find out that none were, he renounced the world, attained liberation and became the famed Sage Valmiki, author of the Ramayana.
Episode 11, on the goal of kama, pleasure, is based on the story of King Bhartrihari. He is living a self-indulgent life in the company of his wives and the palace women when a brahmin offers him a magic mango which will allow whoever eats it to stay young forever. He gives it to his favorite wife, who gives it to her secret lover, who gives it to his mistress, and so on, until it arrives in the hands of another of the king’s wives—who offers it to him, catalyzing in him a rude awaking about the nature of human desire.
Some episodes, such as 15, on the third ashrama of retired life, draw on stories that are a bit of a stretch. In this case, it is that of King Dhritarashtra, who lost the Mahabharata war. According to the episode, he is daily taunted by the boasts of Bhima (of the victorious Pandavas) telling how he had personally dispatched several of the king’s sons on the battlefield. To escape Bhima’s taunts, the king understandably retires to the forest. One might think, however, that entering the third ashrama should be brought about by a spiritual desire to withdraw from the world, not to escape a determined tormentor.
Three of the most entertaining sets of episodes are those on the 16 samskaras. These utilize the devotional song by Surdas which tells of Lord Krishna receiving the rites of passage—replete with Bollywood dance numbers.
ALL PHOTOS: CHINMAYA MISSION
Series snapshots: Episode 40 explores the Hindu theory of creation through the story of 6th-century scientist Varahamihira of Ujjain; the jester and the narrator introduce Chitraketu’s story.
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King Bhartrihari offered the magic mango in episode 11; “Theory of Karma and Rebirth,” the story of Chitraketu from Shrimad Bhagavatam
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The Production Team
Dwivedi, 54, the linchpin of the production, brings to it his considerable talent as a director and actor along with his deep interest in history. The son of a Sanskrit teacher, he was first educated as a doctor. Around 1990 he pursued his interest in the performing arts, considering cinema but then choose television instead. He is best known for Chanakya, for which he personally researched the life and times of the 4th-century political theorist and author of Artha Shastra. For Upanishad Ganga, he worked closely with the Chinmaya Mission acharyas and co-writer Farid Khan in developing the script for each episode. The actors include many of note: Abhimany Singh (who, besides narrating the series, plays in several episodes), K. K. Raina, Zakir Hussain, Amit Behl, Mukesh Tiwari, Jaya Bhattacharya, Huma Qureshi and Seema Azmi.
Director Chandraprakash Dwivedi
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Evaluation and Recommendations
The series perspective is that of Vedanta, drawing mostly on the Upanishads, and to a lesser extent on the bhakti traditions. At times the expansive discourse on deep topics can lose the viewer, as the actors try and inexorably fail to explain the unexplainable mysteries of God and His creation.
Parents are advised this is not a children’s series. Some of the scenes are very rough—Bhima’s taunting of King Dhritarashtra, for one. Several episodes involve learned scholars being killed after losing a debate, which might well raise questions from today’s youth. Others would require explanations a parent might not wish to get into—such as Saint Arunagirinathar spending much of his earlier life in a brothel. Judicious previewing is called for in a home or class situation.
Overall, the series is highly professional, with excellent writing, staging, acting and cinematography. It showed on Doordarshan in 2012-2013 and is now playing on the international channel DD India. Available on YouTube in Hindi and on DVD from amazon.com in Hindi with English subtitles. Highly recommended as a compellingly visual way to introduce Indian philosophy and history to a new audience.
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