How The ‘Young Sheldon’ Series Brings Together Faith And Science In A Very Hindu Manner

Aravindan Neelakandan

Mar 10, 2021, 05:45 PM | Updated 05:45 PM IST

A scene from The Young Sheldon.
A scene from The Young Sheldon.
  • If Sanatana Dharma is true, then it cannot be unique to a specific clime, geography or even a culture.
  • Its principles should become guiding principle universally and should manifest spontaneously through every sincere quest for truth. What is shown in the series is just that.
  • In the classic 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind, veteran actor Spencer Tracy acts as freethinker-lawyer Henry Drummond who argues for an arrested biology teacher.

    The movie is a romantic-fictionalised retelling of the infamous ‘Scope’s Monkey Trial’.

    The movie shows the tension between science and fundamentalist Christianity in the deep south biblical backwaters of the United States. The film clearly takes a stand against fundamentalist Christianity.

    In the end though there is a scene — significant and crucial.

    Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond shows his respect for the idealism of his opponent lawyer who was also a fundamentalist Christian, Matthew Harrison Brady (played by Fredric March).

    Then as he leaves the courtroom, he picks up a copy of the Origin of Species, which he had brought. While he is doing that, he notices Brady’s Bible lying there. He pauses for a moment, picks them both as if to weigh them against each other, and then takes them with him.

    The US has been struggling now for more than a century and a few decades about how to reconcile with fundamentalist Christianity, which forms a crucial component of its nationhood, and science, which is its future.

    There needs to be harmony and not confrontation, even if the realms of Christian faith and modern science are mutually exclusive. Naturally, there have been constant, consistent and untiring attempts to achieve this.

    The last scene from Inherit the Wind, a movie many consider as a bitter criticism of fundamentalist Christianity, is a testimony to this harmonising attempt.

    In this process, with the emergence of ‘new physics’ as well as the visible presence of eastern spiritual traditions, which emerged in the West during the chaotic late 1960s and 1970s, the harmony thus desired between Christianity and science has been incorporating more and more of Hindu elements.

    It is not stated obviously. It is not acknowledged but it is expected.

    It is the natural course when a monopolistic dogmatic religion needs to deepen itself, compelled by the vision of the universe unveiled by modern science. It becomes Hinduised. Even if 'Hinduism' is never heard, the concepts for such a harmony gravitate towards elements which are verily Hindu.

    A good example of this is the Young Sheldon series now available on Amazon Prime.

    Let me hasten to add that the term ‘fundamentalist’ is not used here with negative connotation but as one of the dominant ideological streams of Protestant religion in the US south.

    The TV series uses two important characters: Young Sheldon, a prodigy born in Texas in a family where the father is not religious but the mother is a fundamentalist Baptist while the maternal granny is more secular than the daughter.

    The series brings to the fore the strength and advantages of strong family bonds in many of the episodes.

    The mother actually emerges as a strong, loving, and even a bit possessive character and her positive personal qualities are shown rooted in her biblical values.

    At the same time, the series also shows how Sheldon’s young, inquisitive, and prodigal mind clashes with the fundamentalist aspects of his mother’s faith.

    In creating this tension, the choice of the characters by the series-makers is quite interesting.

    They could have chosen a fundamentalist teacher in school or a pastor. That would have made the other side villainous.

    Instead, they chose a mother — an innocent but extraordinarily loving mother.

    There are nourishing elements in any faith — even of the Baptist fundamentalist variety. They are essential for a family, community and society.

    In the case of the US, particularly the South, it is Protestant Christianity. A society or a community or a family cannot afford to lose it unless it is replaced by something that can give equally strong psychological nourishment.

    So, the atheist Sheldon who explicitly rejects god, follows his mother’s footsteps and prays at times of crises. When his father gets a heart attack and is in the intensive care unit, he goes inside the chapel in the hospital and prays.

    When a storm passes over the house, his mother, in a typical fundamentalist fashion, 'commands' the storm in the name of Jesus not to harm the family and Sheldon, instead of criticising this absurd commanding of nature, asks his mother to "pray harder”.

    In both these scenes the need for prayer to a personal god as a means of comfort and hope is brought out — very Christian and even anti-science but for a terrified child, even when he knows it may be make-belief stuff, it is needed psychologically.

    Now let us see the confrontation parts.

    Sankhya In A Dream

    When Sheldon’s mother tries to wean him away from playing Dungeons and Dragons because she feels it may be Satanic, she ends up exciting Sheldon’s desire to study all religions.

    Sheldon’s mother, who is initially pleasantly surprised that Sheldon has studied entire Bible, later finds to her horror he is studying the sacred texts of all world religions.

    He questions the literalist approach to creation. Then, he has a dream vision. The vision of one and zero. He initially takes them for the 10 commandments — a common mistake the numbers tell him. They represent 1 and 0, the binary that operates in all existence. They talk alternatively in male and female voices:

    And when Sheldon asks why there is evil and suffering, the numbers point out that without them, there would be no good and happiness. Sheldon understands it is binary, again.

    However, before the numbers give him the ultimate mystery of the beyond, he is woken up by his more worldly brother.

    Quite an interesting and lucid way to prepare the minds of the watchers, mostly kids and teens, to Sankhya Darshana one can say.

    Avatar And The Octopus Aliens

    An even more interesting scene is when Sheldon questions the pastor of "only through Jesus" salvation — on the core doctrine of Christianity.

    "When you said god gave his son to the world, did you mean Earth or the universe?" asks young Sheldon and pastor answers, "Earth".

    But if god created the universe wouldn't he want to save all of it, counters Sheldon. The pastor has to answer in the affirmative. Then why did you say Earth asks Sheldon again. Helpless, the pastor grins and says that Earth is a synonym for the universe.

    Now Sheldon goes for the theological jugular: “So, if God's plan is to save all of the universe, that means a race of octopus aliens light-years away could only be saved by Jesus?”

    The pastor mutters a "sure" of which the viewer can be sure that the pastor was not that sure.

    "Even though they never would've heard of him?" Sheldon goes ballistic and the pastor gives a weak "yes".

    "Even though his appearance might be terrifying to them?"

    "W-Why would his appearance be terrifying?"

    "He has four limbs and they have eight."

    The pastor tries to bravely plough on, only to make the Christian theology look more and more ridiculous at the cosmic scale: "Sheldon if these creatures were born without sin, they don't need to be saved by Jesus”.

    Sheldon is not the one to let go, "what if an octopus Adam and Eve brought sin to their world? Would they be saved by a human Jesus or an octopus Jesus?"

    Mercifully curtains are drawn on that scene.

    Later, the pastor informs Sheldon’s mother that he posed the problem of the salvation of octopus aliens to a seminary professor and the ‘official ruling’ is that their god would appear to octopus aliens as an octopus aliens Jesus and that they too would be saved.

    The questions that Sheldon asks reveal a vital weakness of Christian core theology.

    The belief is that only through the blood of Jesus all sins are removed. But the universe and the possible life forms in it are infinitely varied.

    This means even a personal god such as a Christian deity would have to take varied forms to effect salvation.

    In that case, what happens if the octopus alien civilisation and human civilisation meet? Will the human Jesus believers try to convert the Octopus Jesus believers?

    Or would they agree that the forms and names do not matter and that their personal god can have infinite names and forms?

    As one can see this comes closer and closer to Hindu core visions of avatar as well as ‘ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti’.

    A Very Hindu Tolerance Sheldon Shows To His Mother’s Faith

    The series also show the faith of Sheldon’s mother being shaken up by the sudden death of a 16-year-old girl in the neighbourhood.

    Sheldon somehow intuitively understands that his mother’s love for him, who needs extra understanding, care and even protection, stems from her faith and Christian values.

    A sudden loss of that faith can make her neglect her motherly duties, including showering of her love to the almost impossible Sheldon.

    So, as she suffers a crisis of faith, the young Sheldon tries to fortify her faith with his own argument that is loosely based on what are called anthropic coincidences — that certain cosmic parameters have been fine-tuned to allow our existence. It is more a truism than a scientific theory.

    Clearly, Sheldon himself does not believe in it but nevertheless he employs it to get his mother out of her crisis of faith.

    The tolerance and understanding that Sheldon has for his mother’s faith comes from two things: one, his own love for his mother and secondly an enlightened self-interest.

    Rather than scoring a brownie point by using her crisis to win her over to his atheism, Sheldon shows an extreme empathy (so uncharacteristic of that character’s later development).

    It is here that one remembers the Bhagavad Gita’s injunction (3:26) that those who consider themselves as panditas should not confuse the others less intelligent who are attached to their own work for visible results.

    While for Sheldon, the rejection of belief in a creator and personal god leads him to his own chosen work, it is the belief in a personal and creator deity that helps his mother to be a good, extraordinarily good mother.

    Confusing her in that would have removed the most crucial emotional life support system Sheldon had in that phase of his life.

    Later, when Western philosophical discussion, in which the essence of reality is questioned, pushes him to inaction, the call to action comes at two levels: very mundane, survival needs and then the inner urge to do one’s real calling.

    The philosophy lecturer who makes Sheldon question the naive reality and leads him to confusion also makes him realise that the questions should make him work and not shrink into inaction.

    It is not ‘what’s the point!’, but ‘What is the Point?’ — the need to know that makes her get out of the bed every day says the philosophy lecturer, pushing Sheldon from his superficial philosophical inaction into action inspired by quest for knowledge. The episode can serve a wonderful introduction to how to move away from superficial Mayavada to real Vedanta.

    So, does this show the influence of Hinduism across the world? Yes and no.

    If Sanatana Dharma is true, then it cannot be unique to a specific clime, geography or even a culture. Its principles should become guiding principle universally and should manifest spontaneously through every sincere quest for truth. What is shown in the series is just that.

    One should remember that the series makers are extremely careful that the context for scenes should be entirely Christian. Even when a Vietnamese refugee family is shown, it is Catholic and not Buddhist.

    The Hindus cannot fall into a false sense of security in seeing Hindu elements (most probably) naturally surfacing in a series that is aimed to harmonise science and religion in a funny way in a popular television show in the US.

    The aim of this article is to show that Indians apart from neglecting the engagement of science and Dharma in popular culture we Indians are even creating a negative, hateful stereotype about our culture.

    The entertainment industry by and large has absorbed into it the colonial view of Hinduism as nothing but a collection of caste identities, untouchability and Brahminical oppression — the last one a colonial hate myth.

    Given the fact that we have a heritage that is not in conflict with science, that we cannot yet produce a serial like Young Sheldon is worrying. The last time a good serial based on Hindu wisdom and tradition dealt with historical problems was when Chanakya was aired (1991-1992).

    Nation-building via entertainment means engaging our culture and tradition creatively with modern challenges and giving positive vision and values to the younger generation. The West is adept in doing that. They too have their negativities. But a significant section also engages in nation-building.

    We need to learn that from the West, not ape them.

    Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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