An extract from The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes by Deepak and Gotham Chopra
I read my first comic book when I was about six years old. My father handed it to me with the following instructions: “Here – read this. The most important thing you’ll ever learn is how to tell great stories.”
Contrary to what may seem obvious, given my name, that comic was not actually Batman (Gautam, Gotama, or my anglicized spelling, Gotham, is the original name of the Buddha – how it became Gotham City, I have no idea), and I can attest to the fact that only recently has my father become a fan of the Dark Knight. That first comic was actually a story about Lord Krishna, one of India’s most beloved gods.
I. Loved. It.
Through the years, I’d amass more old Indian comics every time my family traveled to our ancestral homeland in India to visit my grandparents who lived there. There were hundreds of those comics that chronicled all the great stories of Indian gods and goddesses, kings and queens, invaders and liberators, warriors and sages, and my cousins and I collected them all. Eventually, as I reached adolescence, I got caught up in the wave of Western comics too – Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men, and all the rest. I studied Alan Moore and Stan Lee and other visionary thinkers who toiled in the relatively obscure world of comic-book storytelling. Several years ago, I even started a comic-book company with a good friend and rode yet another comic-book wave as countless characters donned their capes and tights and took Hollywood by storm.
All this while, my father was leading a charge, bringing the East to the West, making things like yoga and chai and ideas like karma and mantras part of our everyday vernacular. Sure, I noticed. How could I not? He was on Oprah. Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson came to our house for dinner. His bestsellers paid my college tuition.
But then our worlds really started to intersect. In a college film class, I watched Star Wars again. “Use the force, Luke…” rang a bell. So did Morpheus in The Matrix: “The world is an illusion.”
More recently, Heroes, Lost, The Dark Knight, and many, many more iconic television shows and films spoke to so many of the ideas that have laced my father’s books for the past two decades. And it’s a two-way street. A couple of years ago when I helped facilitate a discussion at the San Diego Comic-Con between my dad and comic icon Grant Morrison, an audience member asked my father a question about “quantum consciousness.” He turned and stared at me with wide eyes and a grin. I knew what he was thinking: He was among his own.
With all that in mind, recently while hanging out with my father (and now as a father myself) and discussing the teetering perch upon which our planet seems to be balanced, I was reminded that he was the one who introduced me to comics in the first place, along with the clear notice that they would play a central part in the most important thing I’d ever learn.
This time, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to find out why.
When my children, Mallika and Gotham, were growing up, we had a ritual every night before they went to sleep. I would tell them a story, usually some sort of mythic tale involving good versus evil, nature, or talking animals. At some point that qualified as a cliff-hanger, where the story reached a climactic stage in which the central character had to confront a nemesis, face some dramatic challenge, or make a critical decision, I’d stop. I’d then ask them to dream up the ending overnight with as much drama as possible. With those instructions, they’d go off to sleep poised for an adventure. In the morning, when they woke up and climbed into our bed, I’d ask them to tell me about their dreams. I’d listen patiently as they narrated the quests they’d been on. I was amazed at their fertile imaginations and the magnificent journeys they went on in the midnight hours. Frequently their stories reminded me of the great myths of humanity – those epic stories of good versus evil, romance and drama, betrayal, loyalty, conflict, conquest, virtue, and vice, many emotions and experiences that they themselves had not yet confronted in their young lives. Were their innocent minds tapping into the deep reservoir of the collective imagination?
The great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung made us aware of the collective unconscious and its archetypal symbols. Myths exist in this “akashic field,” or a non local plane of existence, where information, and in this case the collective imagination, is stored and from which it gets re-created generation after generation. Myths are the closest we can come to conceptualizing the nonconceptual – the infinite. They are the highest expression of the finite – of striving to articulate the infinite. These tales are primordial; they capture the transcendent and then cloak it with beginnings, middles, and ends. Often the stories are similar, but take on modern masks and costumes. They have a simple plot and compelling characters and often depict the eternal struggle between good and evil, the sacred and profane, the divine and diabolical. The good guys keep winning, but never really win. The bad guys often lose, but occasionally give the impression that they’ve won. In truth neither side ever really wins or loses, and the story never ends. This is the dance between creativity and inertia, between evolution and entropy.
Later, as the kids grew up, when I traveled back from my ancestral homeland in India, I’d bring them suitcases full of native comics that retold the great epics of our Indian heritage. This of course further stimulated their imaginations, since the great stories of countless gods and goddesses, emperors and conquerors were so vividly depicted in the pages of those comics. I like to think that all of this played a very strong role in the fact that both Mallika and Gotham have grown up to be great storytellers.
While in high school Gotham was never the strongest student as far as grades go, but his creativity was noticeable, and that trend continued in college, when he attended Columbia University in New York City. As I always had, I chose to focus my support on those areas he was interested in rather than worry about his grades in areas he seemed disinterested in. I encouraged his collegiate explorations in the subjects of comparative religion, literature, and film. Upon graduation, he and his friend Sharad Devarajan conceived the idea of reimagining some of the Indian stories chronicled in those old comic books and bringing them to the world.
Together they started to recruit young writers and artists in India – one of whom is named Jeevan Kang and whose original artwork fills out the pages of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes. Like Jeevan, these mavericks were mostly young men who otherwise would likely have ended up working as outsourcers for big Western studio conglomerates, but were instead excited by the idea of flexing their creative muscles and dreaming up new characters and stories. Soon Gotham and Sharad approached Sir Richard Branson for investment support, and together they formed a comic-book company called Virgin Comics. Today, after years of building the company with the Virgin group, it is now owned mostly by Gotham and Sharad and is named Liquid Comics (www.liquidcomics.com). Gotham, Sharad, and the creators they have assembled produce great modern myths and are developing their stories beyond the page into digital domains, feature films, video games, and more. Some of their projects are in collaboration with filmmakers like John Woo, Guy Ritchie, Shekhar Kapur, Wes Craven, and others.
This book is an evolution, culmination, and amalgamation of all of the above. In many ways, I see it as a distillation of years’ worth of my own ideas, explorations, understanding of consciousness, and mythmaking fused with those of Gotham and a new generation of creators and storytellers. I take great pride in the notion that once again, like so many years ago, I started stories filled with archetypal elements and characters and am listening in as my son and others in partnership with me take them to great new heights. This is consistent with my belief that real, enduring myths and the characters that populate them are never generated by one creator. They are drawn from those universal fields that are the fruit of eons’ worth of human dreams, aspirations, fears, and imaginings, and they are in constant transformation and evolution.
This book is the story of modern mythmaking and the creation of new superheroes who will transcend national and ethnic identity. These superheroes are desperately needed to resolve our current crises in a world filled with conflict, terror, war, eco-destruction, and social and economic injustice. The characters and qualities generated and described are special and pioneering; they are the synthesis of my own reflection and, equally important, the understanding of Gotham and his generation, who have been inspired by and have emulated the greatest superheroes, both Eastern and Western, from Buddha to Batman.
The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes was inspired by my book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. I have tried to pick up on the essence of that book as applied to the next generation of spiritual seekers. This is also a book about my own personal journey as I taught Gotham the superheroes of India and in turn learned from him about the superheroes of America. Over the past few years, both of us have frequently spoken at and participated in the sprawling San Diego Comic-Con in panels with other fantastic mythmakers, including the legendary Stan Lee, the creator of the Marvel Universe, and Grant Morrison, the most prolific writer in the comic-book industry today.
New superheroes must express themselves in the language of our time and speak to a new generation, though they cannot be owned or limited by any of us. We live in perilous times and at a crossroads. On the one hand, we risk our extinction and that of our planet because of the devastating combination of ancient tribal habits and modern technologies that have the ability to obliterate every living being on the planet several times over. On the other hand, we also possess a nervous system through which the universe is becoming self-aware. More than ever, we have the means and insight to create a brave new world in which our current stage of survival of the fittest can evolve to one of survival of the wisest. The road we choose will determine our future. That choice will be shaped by the qualities we aspire to, qualities that we can identify and emulate in some of the great heroes and heroines who have populated the legends and lore of our civilization throughout our time here so far.
It is no coincidence that in our times, superheroes have captured the cultural imagination like never before. Everywhere you look, superheroes and the supernatural have become a dynamic part of our mainstream conversation. Superheroes are imbued with magical powers that challenge the laws of space and time, offering us a vision of a world that can change. Superheroes explore the boundaries of energy and awareness and allow us to better understand ourselves and our potential.
That’s why, in my opinion, superheroes can help us save the planet in a very real way. Most important, we can become those superheroes. In the following pages, I attempt to connect the dots between some of the ancient wisdom traditions as I have understood them throughout my life and the costumed superhero characters who fill up the modern mythologies of today. In Batman, I see qualities that resemble those of Buddha. In Superman, surely there are attributes that also define Lord Shiva. Beyond that, though, there are new frontiers I think we need to reach. We have to not only identify in these dozens of characters certain aspirational qualities that already lie dormant in us, but also nurture them with the powerful ingredients of intention, attention, and action, so that we can create a new cast of characters. Those characters are ones who are in touch not only with their sage self but also with their shadow self, and have a deeper understanding of the connectivity of all things. If we succeed, the result will be a profound road map for living to our full potential, discovering the superhero within, and rewriting the story of humanity.
From The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes, ©2011 by Deepak and Gotham Chopra, published by Bantam Press.