The Dark Knight Triumphs

Like Godfather II, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night is that rarest of sequels: better than the original. In my review of Batman Begins (entitled, Best Batman Movie Yet) I called the film, “a smart and insightful piece of psychological film making.” Dark Knight earns that same accolade and a little more.

The film is a masterful metaphor for the complex challenges of healing the human mind. Gotham City is the mind field and the characters the different aspects of the self wrestling for dominance. Gotham City has risen up from its crime-infested haze, thanks largely to the efforts of the Batman. A more cowed criminal force remains at large, but their weakened state is of much disappointment to the Joker (played with artistic force and psychotic glee by the late Heath Ledger.) Gotham’s recently emerged villain du jour, a dark and volatile psychopath, so perverse that he ends up frightening even the city’s own leading criminals. His goal is not wealth or power but rather to be the voice (and source) of chaos.

The story itself can be viewed as allegory for the well known psycho-spiritual phenomenon, the dark night of the soul. This ‘dark night’ is sometimes experienced by those who have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of virtue and spiritual activism. It is somewhat like the darkness before the dawn. It results from tenacious efforts of the false ego to maintain dominance over the mind field. Consequently, the mind is overwhelmed with feelings of doubt, terror, and conflicting desires. At the worst moments the chaos reigns supreme. This is the capacity of the false ego in the mode of darkness and ignorance. The word for this in Sanskrit is tamasic. This tamasic energy in the uninspired person generally shows up as laziness, envy, hatred… but for the individual striving for virtue and betterment, this energy can take on a blackness (a heart aching, lonely, sense of desolation) that attempts to cover the heart. This is what has come to be known as the, ‘dark night of the soul.’ In the film, Gotham City is experiencing a dark night of the soul (personified by the Joker.)

A person experiencing the dark night of the soul is not to blame. This phenomenon is wired into the nature of material existence. Material energy is designed to confound us in various ways at different times; The dark night of the soul is one possible aspect of the material energy. Another is to cause us to identify with our bodies, our possessions, and our material desires. This is the role of Maya (represented in the film by asst. DA Rachel Dawes – who by the way represented intelligence in the film Batman Begins). Maya’s role in clouding the seeker’s heart and mind is part of the interplay of light and dark–the cosmic dance meant to push us onward and upward.

All the various dark, downward pulling energies work not just on individuals, but on the collective mind as well. One example of this in the Sanskrit texts is the dark and evil personality of Kali who rules over the Iron Age. (Yes [gasp] our present age – that explains all the greed, quarrel, and hypocrisy.)

In other words, the same thing that can happen to the human mind can happen to the world or the various epochs of time. The 18th century Sanskrit scholar Visnavatha Chakravati Thakur described how it is possible for the influence of a dark age (the aforementioned Kali Yuga) to enter into and influence a Golden Age (like Satya yuga.)

Other smaller, but equally vicious agents of change can be put into the game by the Big Guy. These dark force angels are responsible for wreaking havoc on behalf of the drama known as life. They are representatives of God who bring unimaginable hate and destruction. There are several examples of these in the Vedas: the evil Ravana in the Ramayan; the cruel and vicious Hiranyakasipu in the Vedic history of the Nirsinghadeva incarnation, and the malevolent and despicable Kamsa in the Mahabharata.

One might wonder, “What is the purpose of these evil doers?” But they are crucial to the unfolding of God‘s story or as they say in Sanskrit, lila. Remember that in the Vedic paradigm this whole reality we know so well is just a play, a dream, a construction for our benefit and our development. Bad guys are as important here as they are in any story. Without the protagonist there is no one to move the story forward.

Spoiler alert below!

The Joker plays the role of the dark force angel; he is even self aware of the nature and importance of his role. He doesn’t want anything materialistic. He is just here to teach lessons. The only way to beat the Joker at his game is to not surrender the values he is assailing. When he targeted deception and dishonesty, people died because Batman (who in our analogy to the mind would be compared to intelligence) did not want to surrender his identity. Batman’s dual identity is a rich example of how human intelligence becomes adversely identified with its various roles. When Joker targeted fear and selfishness and set the prisoners in one boat against the good citizens on the boat, they chose compassion and frustrated his dastardly plan altogether. When the Joker disguised evil henchman as hostages, and hostages as henchmen, only the refusal of Batman to accept things as they appeared, and his willingness to seemingly break the rules of conduct–attacking the so called “good guys” to prevent them from harming the true innocents–saved the day. This is what is known as protecting virtue as contrasted by the blind adhesion to virtue practiced by Harvey Dent.

The Joker as the Dark Night of the Soul is able to render the most ardent representative of virtue into an agent of darkness. Harvey Dent was a paragon of upholding virtue (dharma.) But he was known to cling too tightly to his values, creating a dual perception of himself; so much so that he was referred to as “Two-face” in his career as an investigator of police conduct. In the end his over adherence to rules and regulations (known in Sanskrit as niyamagraha) caused him to succumb to the dark influence. This is what happens to those who adhere to the rules simply for the sake of adhering without understanding the larger picture. There can be this dramatic reversal of roles, exemplified when the District Attorney goes on vigilante killing spree. In the end, only the influence of mature intelligence can prevent a warped aspect of the mind, a dysfunction (called an anartha in Sanskrit and represented by Harvey Dent as Two Face) from doing irreparable harm.

Another dark force angel the Joker has traits in common with is the personality of the planet Saturn, known as Shani in Sanskrit. Persons familiar with Vedic astrology are terrified of Shani coming to their house, i.e. influencing their lives. Shani brings sorrow, destruction, loss (although he also brings wealth to some). The lessons to be learned from Saturn is that virtue coupled with compassion, and free from material or ego gratifying desires, are the keys to success. Shani, like the Joker, cannot be eliminated only overcome.

Here is a summary of the Vedic model of the mind based on Samkyha (analytical) Yoga, with the corresponding characters from the film Dark Knight.

Mind : [Sanskrit –Manas] importer/exporter of data, the conscience; that which tells you, “That looks good”, or, “That looks bad.” Represented in the film by – Alfred, Lucius (The overall-inclusive mind field, i.e. ones “heart” is known as Antahkarana; represented by Gotham)
False ego: [Ahamkara] the I or id maker, that which ties you to the material realm; the false ego has three facets: 1) goodness, 2) change (for the sake of change), and 3) darkness (which was represented by the Joker.)
Intelligence: [Buddhi] the part of the mind that is supposed to protect you and lead you in the right direction, but if it succumbs to the false ego it works against you. When it is functional and mature it will do whatever is necessary to help get you back on the path of self development; even sacrifice itself. [Batman]

In the Vedic model it is super consciousness [Paramatma] that is the source of virtue. And the goal of the individual is to regain its original awareness of super consciousness and in this way rise above the influence of the mind altogether. A common underlying (and rarely acknowledged) theme to most modern hero and adventure movies is that without regaining the realm of pure spirit the cycles of life, death, good and evil continue unremittingly. Consequently any well written adventure movie will subconsciously remind us of this.

So while Dark Knight does not give us the answers to life (nor should it necessarily, after all, we are learning to think for ourselves) it does, however, give us an extraordinary, even operatic insight into the challenges facing the human mind.


About Atma

An organizational psychologist and intellectual visionary, Atma is a provocative, colorful personality whose commentary on the subjects of wellness ranges from opening yourself to compassion and empathy to the absolute need for personal discipline and courage. As a leadership mentor his methodology derives from his study in India of the ancient Vedic teachings to post-modern, high-tech, street level savvy. Atma brings a unique and cutting perspective to the little-understood world of marketing psychology.

Posted on August 8, 2008, in Films, Loved it. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Awesome film analysis bro. I felt exposed when you talk about the ‘tenacious efforts of the false ego’! I haven’t seen the film yet but will soon – I used to read the Dark Knight comics as a kid. I liked them because of their grittiness.

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