Gurukulam Is a Slow Meditation On Slow Meditation

The word Gurukulam refers to a school in India, where knowledge of sacred texts, the science of Ayurveda, yoga and Vedanta—or Hindu philosophy—are communicated orally by a teacher or guru to a devoted group of seekers. Thus, the film Gurukulam focuses on what life in a forest ashram (a place of religious retreat for Hindus) is like for a teacher and a group of students. Filmed in Southern India, the documentary explores spirituality around the concept of non-duality and confronts questions regarding the nature of reality via study, meditation, daily chores and ritual.

Gurukulam, however, isn’t your typical documentary. There isn’t a narrator or scholarly expert holding the viewer’s hand, spoon-feeding them information about Hinduism. Because of this, filmmakers Jillian Elizabeth and Neil Dalal say Gurukulam often leaves people with a lot of questions. And that’s exactly what they intended.

The film aims to give people a first-hand, experiential understanding of the complexities and depth of the religion. “The moment you have someone explaining everything, you’ve kind of ‘other-ed’ the foreign culture,” says Dalal. “The way in which we decided to create this film causes people to actively think and participate as a viewer.”

According to Dalal, Gurukulam makes some people who are unfamiliar with Hinduism feel uncomfortable. “I think when most people encounter religious traditions that are different than what they’re familiar with, they want to chunk it down to really easy consumable bits that they can digest and feel like they have a working knowledge of,” he says. “But we resist that. So much nuance, depth and complexity of religious tradition are lost when films are created that way—we made it our focus to make those aspects the basis of our film.”

In a world of instant gratification exacerbated by the infinite information available on the web, having raw exposure to a new philosophy combined with religious practice and traditional eastern culture is enough to make some people’s hair stand up. Gurukulam, which strings together images of ritual, meditation and teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita, forces one to contemplate the way other people live. “People want to compartmentalize things in boxes of ‘Oh, I know this’ and ‘Oh, I know about that,’ causing them not to strive to learn more about something,” says Elizabeth. “We purposely leave things open-ended in our film so people think and do their own researching. We don’t want people to come to a very specific set of conclusions—that’s when people stop wanting to learn about a topic.”

One of the themes displayed throughout Gurukulam is simplicity. No one in the ashram is in a hurry, each aiming to go about his or her daily duties with ease. But it’s not because they’re lazy, or that the Hindu religion promotes a laid-back way of living. The documentary captures the idea that, for those in the ashram, moving this way emphasizes the importance of even the smallest of chores and can lead to a beautiful path of inner peace. As Dalal says, we live in a fast-paced world that makes it hard for people to slow down and tune in with those living around us. The pace of the film is meant to replicate a meditative state within the viewer, according to Elizabeth and Dalal. “Creating this meditative yet cognitive connection between film and viewer,” says Elizabeth, “is a way for the viewer to in turn connect, appreciate and hopefully respect that way of life.”

Gurukulam was directed by Neil Dalal and Jillian Elizabeth. Catch the screening at the Long Beach Art Theater on Friday, June 24th at 5pm. 

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