The Spiritual Journey of Darth Vader

Today, George Lucas releases a new 3D version of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in movie theaters across the country. This follows on the heels of the Star Wars films recent release on Blu-Ray, instantly becoming the bestselling set of all time, obliterating all previous records. So this creates the occasion to explore the spiritual meaning of the Star Wars films. I'll do that in this post and the next, from two very different angles.

The Phantom Menace, which in the Star Wars universe/mythology is the first film chronoglically, is of course in our world the fourth film that Lucas made. As we all know, the first three dealt primarily with Luke, Leia, Han Solo and the gang as the central characters with Darth Vader playing a crucial but in some ways supporting or secondary role. But The Phantom Menace and the next two after it are really the story of Annakin Skywalker and his transition into Darth Vader. In fact, now that all six films are released, what we see in hindsight is that the greatest spiritual journey taken by any of the characters is Annakin/Vader's. Luke has a moderate growth arc, while Leia, Han Solo, Obi Wan,  and the rest are relatively minimal. Even with Luke, aside from having to learn some skills and gain self-confidence, it's not really the big of a journey for him, especially in comparison to Annakin/Vader, who swings all the way from child prodigy and the true savior of the jedi (a pure embodiment of Good), all the way to the depths of evil, only to eventually --after many, many years of pain and suffering--to finally find redemption in the end.

Annakin/Vader starts as a celebrated child--as most of us are by our parents or even society (everyone loves a newborn). Somewhere along the way, the child must recede as adult responsibilities and realities come into our lives. With this comes confusion. In Annakin's case, he takes on the archetype of the clearly troubled but also well-meaning person. Which eventually blossoms into a Judas-like moment where he ends up betraying that which rescued him and which he loved. His own personal desires and egoic self-centeredness assert themselves over his innate capacity for goodness (represented in the film by a quite literal biological/genetic abundance of Force-attuning midi-chlorians). He allowed flattery and the promise of power to seduce to him--an externally focused worldliness.

Like of all of us born with an innate capacity for bliss and spiritual genius, we squander our great potential. We get side-tracked, look for cheap short-cuts to avoid sometimes hard work, and find ourselves in some very dark places as a result. We never intended for it to turn out this way. It was one small but bad decision at a time, each one seemingly justified in the moment. But with each bad choice, we get further and further away from true selves and further away from fulfilling our highest potential. We lose ourselves. In the films, as Annakin becomes Vader, he quite literally loses parts of his body. His authentic self ends up cloaked in a suit that masks his real self. He's lost sight of who he truly is and has become utterly, completely dependent on this external apparatus to maintain his life, just as we become mentally and spiritually dependent on external circumstances to give our lives an ultimately false and empty meaning.

Ultimately, though, no matter how dark the place we find ourselves, no matter how bad the choices we've made, it's never too late for redemption. We can change our destiny. We just have to throw off the yoke of our greedy, megalomaniacal desires and relocate that genuine, authentic reservoir of bliss within. It also helps us greatly when we are shown compassion and unconditional love by others. Luke's pure love for his father--no matter what his father has done to him (including, remember, literally chopping off his hand in The Empire Strikes Back)--helps Annakin/Vader remember and relocate his own innate Goodness.

Obviously, much more could be said. One could write an entire book--as Joseph Campbell did--on the mythology and spiritual meaning of these films. But you get the point: if you happen to take this weekend's theatrical 3D release as an occasion to check out the Star Wars films all over again--try viewing the entire six-part journey as the mythico-spiritual journey of Annakin/Vader and how it might apply to our own lives.