Steve Bannon has a CliffsNotes understanding of dharma - Hindu American Foundation
On The Issues

Steve Bannon has a CliffsNotes understanding of dharma

By January 22, 2020 September 21st, 2020 2 Comments

Errol Morris — who’s won rightful acclaim for making insightful documentaries about polarizing political figures such as Donald Rumsfeld (The Unknown Known) and Robert McNamara (The Fog of War) — in his latest film, American Dharma, has turned his focus on Steve Bannon.

If you want to get inside the mind of Steve Bannon, and thus understand the political rise of Donald Trump as well as the worldview of some of Trump’s most ardent supporters (and Brexiteers for that matter), American Dharma does that.

What American Dharma unfortunately doesn’t do is push back on Bannon’s apparent limited understanding of the concept of dharma.

Bannon, in case you’ve been in a coma or marooned on an island without internet access for the past four years, was former executive chairman of the right-wing media outlet Breitbart News, ran Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for a time, and served in President Trump’s administration for several months at the start of his term.

Bannon also happens to be a film director who cites Morris’ work as an inspiration, though Morris and Bannon stand solidly on opposite sides of the political fence. At one point in American Dharma, Morris says he voted for Hillary Clinton and Bannon looks genuinely shocked that one of his filmmaking inspirations could do such a thing.

If you’ve seen any of Morris’s recent films, from a cinematic perspective American Dharma will feel stylistically familiar, both visually and in terms of the method of storytelling. This is a good thing. Morris largely lets Bannon speak for himself, interjecting into the conversation but only occasionally genuinely pushing back.

Where some stronger push back would have been useful would be in questioning Bannon on the depth of his knowledge of dharma itself — especially given the fact that Morris gave the term prominence by using it in the title and that Bannon’s understanding seems as though it’s at about a CliffsNotes level.

As portrayed in the film, Bannon clearly has been moved by Krishna’s conversation with Arjuna on the battlefield, in the Bhagavad Gita, in which Arjuna, a prince, is dejected at the thought of battling his own cousins.

In this scene from the Gita, Arjuna is ready to run away from the battle in the name of non-violence and sense of duty to his family. Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer as well as an avatar of Lord Vishnu (initially unbeknownst to Arjuna), then explains how running away from the battle would actually be an act of adharma (an act contrary to righteousness). Arjuna is a warrior whose primary duty is to eradicate the world of the unjust forces allied against him because it benefits a greater good. Krishna shows that in this particular context the right thing to do is to pick up arms and fight his own kin.

This one aspect of dharma is grafted onto Bannon’s beliefs about an ideal world order being one with hard national sovereignty and neo-mercantilist competition between nations. Bannon sees the world today as being engaged in an existential conflict where white, Western civilization is under threat — from immigrants, from a globalized economy, from Islam. Bannon is naive, simple, and genuine in these beliefs. Given this, it’s hardly surprising to learn that two films that inspire him, which he admits to watching over and over again, are 12 O’Clock High and the John Wayne version of The Searchers. Both, in their own way, merge Bannon’s worldview with his interpretation of dharma.

Basically, Bannon takes one single aspect of the very multi-faceted concept of dharma and applies it to a fundamentally wrong worldview. His intellectual starting point is a type of avidya (ignorance) regarding economics and geopolitics — the superiority of Western civilization over others, the actual nature of the genuine threat of terrorism, combined with a particular delusion about there being some sort of Golden Age of American Civilization that could be returned to if only we followed his advice.

What Bannon misses entirely — and which if somehow pointed out directly in the film would have improved it — is that dharma is both framed by time and context, but also within a system of metaphysics and ethics.

In this metaphysical system, dharma is understood as a way of being that helps further spiritual evolution. This is underpinned by an understanding that all of existence is fundamentally united in its Divinity. All of our apparent external differences like nationality, race, gender, species are differences in kind, not essence.

Too much focusing on these differences — which Bannon seems to do exclusively — keeps us from realizing the Divine oneness of existence.

Recognizing this oneness doesn’t eliminate mundane conflict, but it can provide a powerful counterbalance in our personal and political lives, encouraging us to minimize the potential harm caused by our thoughts and actions, to be compassionate and truthful, and to exercise self-control.

My advice to Bannon, if he really wants to find the essence of dharma, is to take a step off his battlefield, retreat into a cave or the forest and contemplate for a while on these three passages:

Dharma exists for the welfare of all beings. Hence, that by which the welfare of all living beings is sustained, that for sure is dharma.” — Mahabharata, Shanti Parva, 109.10

“Those who see all creatures in themselves, and themselves in all creatures know no fear…How can the multiplicity of life delude the one who sees its unity.” — Isha Upanishad 1.6-7

“The man equipped with yoga looks on all with an impartial eye, seeing atman in all beings and all beings in atman.” — Bhagavad Gita 5.29


  • Aiden Alamo says:

    Looking at life to see that atman applies to all living being and that in all living beings see atman is a powerful truth in the understanding of passionate grounding without compounding disportionatate lotteries. – Kind regards, Aiden Alamo

  • Jaipal Panwar says:

    You are missing Bannon’s point in which that every step you take you have to pick a side and fight for it just like Krishna is asking Arjun to do. You should be made aware of the ultimately reality of “Divinity in all existence “ being as the ultimate goal but to get there you have to have these fights at every turn And step. If you are not aware of the difference you would not be able to pick a side and you would not fight – just as initially Arjun wanted to do. The true Realization of Gita is that the Dharma is the duty to have these fights at every step in realizing the Moksha of divinity in all existence. Dharma is a journey towards Ultimate Reality. That’s what Krishna is telling Arjun – you are not the same as Korva even if they are your kin. Unfortunately you completely missed the point of Divinity that you have to have these fights to get there.

Leave a Reply

10/28/22Dr. Anandibai Joshi

Dr. Anandi Gopal Joshi is credited with being the first woman from India to study medicine in the United States. Born in Bombay in 1865, she was married at the age of ten to an older man who had been her teacher. Dr. Joshi had a child at the age of 13, but the child died when only 10 days old. She believed that with better medical care, the child would have lived, and she frequently cited this as motivation for her desire to attend medical school. Her husband encouraged her in her academic pursuits and in 1883, Joshee joined the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, now known as the Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. She graduated in 1886 with her degree in medicine; her M.D. thesis focused on Hindu obstetrics. Unfortunately,  Dr. Joshi was only able to practice medicine for a few months before passing away from tuberculosis.

Science in Hinduism

10/2/2022Gandhi Jayanti

Gandhi Jayanti marks the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, the ‘Father of the Nation’ for India and the Indian Diaspora. To honor Gandhi’s message of ahimsa (non-violence), volunteer events and commemorative ceremonies are conducted and statues of Gandhi are also decorated with flower garlands. Gandhi and the satyagraha (truth force) has inspired many of America’s most prominent civil rights and social impact movements and leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez. The United Nations declared October 2 as the International Day of Non-Violence in honor of Gandhi, whose work continues to inspire civil rights movements across the world.

Examining the Impact of Mahatma Gandhi on Social Change Movements

Why we should not tear down statues of Gandhi

10/1/2022First Hindu temple in US

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 facilitated the journey of many Indian immigrants to the United States. In this new land, many created home shrines and community temples to practice and hold pujas (services). As Hindu American populations grew in metropolitan and rural areas, so did the need to find a permanent temple site for worship. In 1906, the Vedanta Society built the Old Temple in San Francisco, California but as this was not considered a formal temple, many don’t credit this with being the first. Others believe it is the Shiva Murugan Temple built in 1957 in Concord, California, whereas others believe it is the Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devanstanam in New York that should be considered the first. Today, there are nearly 1,000 temples in the United States . Regardless of where you live, you have the right to practice your faith.

A Guide To Temple Safety and Security

5 Things to Know About Visiting a Hindu Temple