Gauging the Mood

Posted in: Current Events,Popular Culture by bill-o on February 21, 2009

Sometimes what lies beneath the surface rises up above the ground. This happens when a person or group of people says what many in a larger society are thinking or feeling, yet, for whatever reason, this point-of-view had not been communicated to the society as a whole. Many would agree that just such an event occurred on one of the American financial news channels this past week.

For those of you who have not seen the instantly famous “rant” by CNBC financial news reporter Rick Santelli on 19 Feb 2009, please see:

Rick Santelli in Chicago on CNBC

(For those of you outside of the United States who may not know what CNBC is, CNBC is one of two U.S. cable/satellite television channels devoted to business and financial news.)

Whether or not you agree with Mr. Santelli (and I would venture to say that many in the U.S. agree and disagree with him), I think that his view and tone reflects the mood of many people in the U.S.

In the United States and in many other nations today, people are scared and upset on all sides of political aisles because of the recent financial crises. Many are losing their homes, jobs, or much of their life savings. Some cry out for more government assistance while others protest such ideas.

Shadows and Symbols does not normally endorse political views, but I do believe that ideas about economics and politics that are expressed in the overall “marketplace of ideas” are important to observe and consider. Ideas precede actions after all. Politics and even economics are a reflection of deeper moral values and understandings of individuals and societies, and those on spiritual journeys need to be sensitive to the world around them, both of the good and of the bad.

Yet an observation of difficult financial times need not lead to fear, but rather is an opportunity for faith. No, we don’t know how or when these worldwide financial problems will conclude nor can we wish away “angry” arguments from different political and economic view points, but we can use this eventful time to  reach with our hearts to what lies beyond what our five senses can perceive.

“For we walk by faith and not by sight.”

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The Wandering Kings of Slumdog Millionaire

Posted in: Popular Culture,Spirituality by bill-o on February 14, 2009

The movie “Slumdog Millionaire” is a 2008 film that tells the story of three children from the slums of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India. Slumdog Millionaire follows the lives of two brothers and their friend from their childhood in Mumbai to the lead character’s winning of the Millionaire television show in India as a young man. The film is a wonderful story in its own right, but there also a few “symbols and shadows” in the story line that you might not be aware of.

Consider the names of the children. The last name of the two brothers is Malik, which means king. The protagonist’s name is Jamal, which means handsome. The older brother’s name is Salim, which means peaceful, and Latika means creeper or vine (or elegant). Salim spends his short life searching for peace but really never finds it. Jamal’s name points to his being looked upon favorably by the viewers in India upon his winning the grand prize. After the brother’s are displaced from their family after anti-muslim riot and then are forced to flee a bad orphanage, they, in effect, become “wandering kings”. Jamal’s quest from then on is to return to Latika (the vine).

The concentration of the game show on the number 100 is also significant: There was one question about the one-dollar U.S. bill and one about centuries in cricket. The number 10 often symbolizes the end of one order and the beginning of another (thus we have ten fingers and use a base-10 number system, where to get from 9 to 10 we must add a digit). The number 100, 10 times 10, symbolizes a major change in the order of things.

Jamal’s life-story takes an important turn when he meets a blind girl who is begging on the streets. Being a blind, begging girl is perhaps as low of a social status as one can have in India. Yet it is this girl who points the way back to Latika, Jamal’s long-lost friend. The girl also knows that Benjamin Franklin is the face on the $100 bill, something that she really has no need of knowing. The girl points out that Benjamin Franklin’s portrait has unusual characteristics: he has long hair like a girl. This scene is in contrast to another part of the movie where the police officer jokes with Jamal that everyone in India knows whose picture is on the Rupee note: Gandhi. That’s common knowledge.

Money can serve as a symbolic representation for a way of doing things (a “currency”). In this movie, Indian money represents the typical or common order of things. The $100 U.S. bill, on the other hand, represents what is not common. It is a larger currency note than most poor Indians would ever see, and it is foreign. However, it is the unofficial currency of the world at large. It represents the atypical order of things that lies beyond the present, everyday reality of the characters in the film. When Jamal and Salim start (without sanction) working as tour guides for Western tourists at the Taj Mahal, the movie subtly, and almost unconsciously, shows their change from dealing with Indian money to dealing with American money. Jamal, as a tour guide, acts as a bridge between these two worlds. Notice in one scene how Jamal takes two Americans to see “the real India” (when their rented car is, shall we say, involuntarily relieved of much of its contents). (This particular scene is also a subtle nod to the Western audiences of this movie, most of whom are not familiar with the poverty and injustices that are sometimes are a part of life for the poorest of the poor in India.)

The film’s turning point comes when Jamal must prove his identity. At the end of the first day of the television show, the police assume that he is a fraud, arrest him, and subject him to harsh interrogation. Through various flashbacks in the movie and rough questioning by the officers, the crux of the matter for the police comes down to this question: Is Jamal Malik a fraud or does he really know the answers to the show’s questions? Through telling the story of his life to the police officers (in other words, by being completely transparent with them), Jamal demonstrates that the truth is inside of him. And by doing so, he gains the victory and is able to return to the game show to answer its final question.

In the film, Salim symbolizes law (religion without love), and Jamal represents love. The respective heart-attitudes of the two brothers is demonstrated to us when Salim sells, without permission, Jamal’s autograph of the famous Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan. To Jamal, this autograph was priceless, but to Salim it was just a piece of paper to be bartered for something else. Later, Jamal did not even care if he would win or lose the game show prize; he only wanted to be reunited with Latika. In the middle of the film, Salim imprisons Latika and treats her only as a commodity, whereas Jamal is genuinely interested in her welfare without any conditions placed upon their relationship. At the end of the movie, Salim finally releases Latika and entrusts her to the care of Jamal (he gives her his mobile phone, knowing that Jamal will be calling it later). This is a picture of the law finally dying and giving way to love. Salim dying a bathtub full of money is perhaps a more obvious symbol of the ultimate emptiness of riches.

Even though Jamal was a humble servant (serving tea as a chai-wallah at a call center), in the end his true identity as a handsome king (in this case, king of the game show Millionaire) is shown for everyone to see.

Dr. Sam Soleyn mentioned three key symbols in Jesus’s story of the prodigal son in his recent teaching sessions entitled “The Mindset of the Orphan” (please see

When the prodigal son returned to his father, the father gave him three things. Each of these gifts were symbols of status in the ancient world.

1.  A robe. The robe is a symbol of identity. To put on the robe of another was tantamount to identifying yourself with that person. (Consider the custom in Latin American countries of a president wearing the national sash over his or her right shoulder. Here, the president is identifying his or her self with the nation and accepting the responsibility of representing it.) In the times of Jesus, a slave or household servant could not wear a decorative robe; only an honored son could wear the robe of his father. It was a mark of distinction and privilege.

2.  A ring. A ring is a symbol of authority. As with the robe, only a privileged son could wear the ring of his father. This was not the authority of self-will; rather, it was authority given freely from a father to his son. It was the type of authority where the son could show the ring and rightfullly say, “I’m doing this in the name of my father”.

3.  Shoes (Sandals). Shoes were the sign of ability and purpose. Only slaves would go barefoot. A son of a wealthy house must be given shoes. Shoes provide the ability to walk about in relative comfort.

Please notice also in the story that not only did the father give these gifts freely to his son, but he had ordered that these gifts be given quickly, without any delay. The status of the returned son was restored immediately and without any conditions.

In the story, therefore, we see a restoration of identity, authority, and purpose without any conditions when a lost son returned to his father. And it is these three symbols that tell us that story of restoration in a deeper, richer way than words alone could.


For a comparison of Jesus’s story of the prodigal son and a similar story in Mahayana Buddhism, please see: