It’s a familiar story: In order to save his son’s life, a father must give up his baby, who is taken in by good-hearted foster parents living on a farm. From an early age the boy demonstrates unusual powers, such as superstrength, and boldly rescues his companions from certain death. When he reaches adulthood, he moves to the big city to fulfill his destiny, but his new friends never suspect he has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.
Moviegoers and comic book fans will no doubt recognize this as the story of the Man of Steel, but veteran yoga students may also nod, thinking of Krishna, the yoga master whose advice to spiritual aspirants is featured in the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna’s father, a deposed king, smuggled him into a sleepy village to save him from the new homicidal ruler. As a boy, Krishna tended the cows but also found time to conquer terrifying monsters and even lift a mountain into the sky to save friends from a flood. When he came of age, he moved to the city of Mathura, where he served as hero and protector of the citizens. Krishna was also the greatest yogi of his era, yet his enemies—and surprisingly, even many of his friends—failed to recognize that side of his character. To them, he still seemed like a farm boy from a poor rural family.
I was reminded of Krishna as I watched Superman Returns, the latest comic book-inspired blockbuster, starring Brandon Routh as the unstoppable superhero from the planet Krypton. There are broad parallels with the life of Krishna, as well as even more obvious similarities with Moses and Jesus Christ. The footage of Superman carrying a newly formed mountain up into space to save Earth from flooding is especially reminiscent of Krishna, whom Hindus call giri dhara, “he who holds up the mountain.”
Krishna is said to be an avatar, a divine incarnation born on Earth to defend us from evil. The Sanskrit word avatar literally means “descended from a star,” which I guess qualifies Superman for that title since he, too, arrived on Earth from a distant star.
Krishna is said to be an avatar, a divine incarnation born on Earth to defend us from evil.
Of course, there are more differences than similarities between Krishna and Superman, not the least of which is that Krishna always gets the girl, while Superman continues to pine hopelessly for Lois Lane. The more important point, though, is that Krishna is a spiritual master, while Superman is a secular superhero with no special spiritual wisdom to offer. He’s clearly no enlightened master—or is he?
Let’s begin with Superman’s past. His father sent little Kal-El to Earth just before Krypton blew up, and the alien child with extraordinary powers was raised by Ma and Pa Kent on a farm in Smallville. Kal-El, whose Earth name is Clark Kent, eventually moves to Metropolis, where he becomes a reporter for The Daily Planet while secretly living a double life as a crime-busting defender of truth and justice. This sounds pretty secular, yet there have been hidden spiritual dimensions to the story of Superman from the very beginning.
As many fans have noticed, the name Kal-El—which is supposed to be Kryptonian for “star child”—sounds like the names of famous angels in the Judeo-Christian tradition (think of Micha-El or Rapha-El). In Hebrew, Kal-El means “swiftness of God,” perhaps reflecting the superspeed with which Superman swoops out of the sky to save those in danger. Some scholars even translate Kal-El from the Hebrew as “all that God is.” Superman’s unshakable goodness, high ethical standards, and ever-present willingness to help anyone in trouble do seem like divine qualities. When you consider that Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were both Jewish, these biblically inspired interpretations become more plausible.
A person who practices dharma “holds up” the entire world through his or her righteous conduct, supporting society and even, in a sense, reality itself.
I admit to being a huge fan of Superman from early childhood. I was impressed that Kal-El, who could easily have used his abilities—as so many powerful men in real life do—to conquer and exploit others, instead devoted himself to selfless service, speeding to the rescue of anyone in need of his help. His life is a dramatic example of the path of karma yoga, which Krishna outlines in the Bhagavad Gita: working tirelessly for the good of humanity without concern about payment or reward. Superman isn’t out to impress anyone, not even Lois Lane. He just helps others because he knows it’s the right thing to do. In India, “the right thing to do” is called dharma, a word closely related to dhara, as in “holds up” the mountain. A person who practices dharma “holds up” the entire world through his or her righteous conduct, supporting society and even, in a sense, reality itself.
Superman, the most powerful and self-confident being in the comic book universe, is also—amazingly—the most egoless. That genuine spirit of humility comes across most strongly in his alter ego, the famously mild-mannered Clark Kent. In real life, we’re surrounded by people who chase the limelight and, even more, people who chase them. Superman runs from the spotlight, disappearing into the nearly invisible Clark, because he doesn’t need fame to boost his ego. All he needs is a reason to exist—and his reason is protecting those who are weaker than he is.
Of course, all this is fantasy. When I was a child, holed up in my bedroom with my DC comic books, I used to wish there could be superheroes in real life. The amazing thing is that, according to the yoga tradition, there actually are people with abilities that seem to go beyond the bounds of what we commonly accept as reality. The ultimate yoga classic, Yoga Sutra, lists dozens of siddhis, or powers, that highly motivated people can develop, including superstrength, telepathy, clairvoyance, the ability to become invisible, and levitation. Advanced yogis, it’s reported, can alter their shape, pass through walls, appear in several different locations simultaneously, and materialize objects out of thin air. One of my own teachers, Swami Rama of the Himalayas, was known for his ability to leave his physical body while traveling elsewhere in his subtle body. His teacher was able to transfer his consciousness into someone else’s body.
This sounds like the stuff of science fiction, yet a number of yogis have demonstrated their extraordinary abilities under rigorous laboratory protocols. For example, the Menninger Foundation researchers observed Swami Rama demonstrating telekinesis—the ability to move objects without touching them. Such feats, however astounding they may seem to us, are viewed by yogis not as an end in themselves but merely as a by-product of intense spiritual pursuits. Like superheroes, these masters shun the limelight and use their powers for healing, not for personal gain or notoriety.
Another one of my teachers, Amma, the “hugging saint” from South India, uses her superstrength not to lift mountains but to spread mass quantities of love. When she appears at public programs in India, as many as 60,000 people come to receive her blessing. She sits without rising for days and nights on end, without eating or even going to the bathroom, to personally greet and embrace every single person who approaches her. She never loses focus or grows tired despite a schedule that would kill the rest of us. Amma is a living example of the exhaustless power that yogic adepts tap into—and of their miraculous abilities to bless and heal.
The existence of real-life superheroes has been acknowledged not only in the yoga tradition but in the religions of the East such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism, as well as in many shamanic and indigenous traditions—not to mention the pagan traditions of Europe. And in one early Christian text called the Pistis Sophia, Jesus is portrayed much like a modern-day superhero, physically flying across the solar system and knocking the planets out of their orbits when their negative energies threaten us here below. In Eastern literature, yogis don’t fly anywhere; rather, they park their physical body in a stable meditation posture and cross interstellar space in their sukshma sharira, their astral body. Even Superman can’t do that!
In 1979 horrified NASA scientists realized that the orbit of one of their space vehicles, called Skylab, was faltering much more rapidly than they had expected, and on July 11 of that year it would fall from the sky. A group of worried citizens contacted Swami Rama at his yoga center in Glenview, Illinois. They wanted him to use his famous psychic powers to prevent Skylab from crashing into Earth and potentially killing hundreds of innocent people.
I had never seen Swamiji look so disgusted. “The laws of physics are real laws!” he shouted. “Skylab will fall! If all the yogis in the world fixed their minds together, they couldn’t move the moon out of its orbit!” That’s when I realized yogis don’t work against the laws of nature, they work with the laws of nature. Their powers, which seem so miraculous, stem from a deeper understanding of nature than most of us are privy to today. By understanding how consciousness operates and recognizing that, ultimately, the physical world is a projection of consciousness, they can do things that seem impossible. Many of Swami Rama’s students saw him materialize objects and make plants bloom out of season, and others experienced his ability to read minds. I remember in the early days when Swami Rama first arrived in America, businesspeople tried to persuade him that he could easily use his abilities to make millions of dollars. But he was not interested in using his powers to enrich himself. His purpose was to found a yoga institute and train teachers to help others uncover their innate ability to experience higher awareness and serve others selflessly.
Does the world really need superheroes?
Does the world really need superheroes? Almost all religious traditions have a savior figure, reflecting our deep desire for a divine helper. In Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer draws on the world’s religious lore, incorporating imagery from Jewish, Christian, Greek, and Hindu myths in his retelling of the Superman story. Superman has had such a powerful grip on the American imagination since he first appeared in 1938 because he is secular America’s avatar; in fact, he’s been called “the patron saint of America.” Superman remains incredibly popular because we still instinctively believe in men and women with extraordinary abilities to help us, though we don’t see examples of such people in our skeptical Western culture. Yoga practice is the antidote to cynicism, a portal to the living experience of the superbeings we can actually become.