Creating and Destroying the Sacred in Kundun and Water: A Film Critique

Personal Essay

In the United States, sacred objects are usually religious and other-worldly. Other countries, especially in the East, intertwine both the sacred with the worldly. For example, in India, those practicing Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism may develop sacred attitudes towards people, trees, rocks, hand prints, and the list goes on. These differences bring up questions about the sacred. What is scared? Why is it sacred? How did is become sacred? To whom is it scared? Jacob Kinnard explores these questions in Places in Motion coming to the conclusion that “sacred is a designation, an argument to be made” (1). In other words, when something becomes sacred, it is “sacred to someone” (2). Both Kundun and Water further explore the individual creation of the sacred, but also how it is strengthened and reinforced by collective faith.

In the scenes where Kundun is gradually discovered to be the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the combination of individual and collective faith bestows sacredness upon Kundun as the Dalai Lama. First, during the diner scene, the viewers see how each family member had faith that Kundun was a holy person. By their displays of respect to his mystical birth, such as allowing him to sit at the head of the table in place of his father, we see the individual acceptance of each member which is strengthened by their collective faith. Kundun himself says “I’m special,” recognizing the collective and individual belief of his holiness. Then, when a group of Dalai Lamas visit Kundun based on the vision of Reting Rinpoche, the leader of the group is shown to have faith that Kundun is truly the reincarnate Dalai Lama. This is displayed through their eye contact moments after Kundun asserts Dalai Lama’s beads are in fact his. It is after his first visit that Kundun’s mother expresses this faith as well, as she invites the group back to test if Kundun is truly the Dalai Lama. It is in this scene the individual faith comes together collectively confirming the sacredness of Kundun, but also seemed to depend on an individual catalyzing the change. The collective faith laid out the trope of the sacred Dalai Lama while the individuals followed this along with their individual faith.

In contrast to making Dalai Lama sacred, we see the destruction of the widow’s sacredness in Water through collective faith as well as individuals reinforcing beliefs. When Chuyia is first ritualized into the widow life by her parents and other holy people, her parent’s individual belief in this tradition is displayed. They still brought her to the widow home obeying their cultural, religious standards despite their heartbreak to the reality Chuyia’s life would become. The sadness present in the parents is at first confusing since this position of widowhood seems to be sacred. The ritual actions that are completed by individuals in a communal ceremony present her visually similar to a Buddhist monk. She’s given a white robe and her hair is shaved. This sacredness that is bestowed is then taken away the rest of the movie by individuals conforming to the collective faith of India, which then gives an understanding to her parent’s heartbreak. While Chuyia is at the widows’ home, we see that the widows are forced to pay rent, are viewed as polluted, and even prostitute themselves to survive economically. These actions take away the religious sanctity of widows’ work on a communal level establishing the collective faith that reinforces the pollution of the sacred.

Again, the interaction between the individual faith and collective faith to maintain, or rather in this case take away, the sacred. In the scene, Narayan confronts his father about buying Kalyani as a sex worker. Seth defends his actions by twisting religious scripture to accept Brahmin’s purifying the polluted widows through sexual deeds. Narayan replies, “You disgust me.” It is here that Narayan declares his opposition to the communal faith in Indian about widows and takes an individual stance against this. But, he also maintains now the communal beliefs presented by Gandhi. There is tension among the two groups and their individuals about whether or not widows are to be sacred. While Indian culture regards widows as pollute, the ‘other’ culture represented by Gandhi disregards this belief towards widows as all people are believed to be equally sacred. Narayan represents the individual change in belief of sacredness, and he also exposes how a religious culture can reinforce individual actions and these actions reinforce the greater culture. Indian culture may categorize widows as polluted, but Narayan takes note how men’s individual continued perpetuation of desecrating the widow’s pure status through sexual misconduct contributes to this impure status. Individuals are contributing to the cultural standards as well as adhering to the standards.

Even though individuals create the sacred, they are also influenced by communal belief of the sacred. The collective faith in the holiness of an object reinforces one’s individual beliefs, but these individuals may also influence the collective group to change its ways. Both Kundun and Water demonstrate this feedback loop between the collective and individual faith as demonstrated closely with the characters of Kundun’s mother and Narayan both influencing the collective, though each had different impacts to the communal faith. The mother catalyzes the reinstatement of the Dalai Lama and reinforces the collective faith; whereas, Narayan defies the collective faith with little direct impact. Despite these differences, the movies still display how individual’s beliefs begin and reinforce the collective sacred while the collective then reinforces the individuals.


1. Kinnard, Jacob N, Places in Motion: The Fluid Identities of Temples, Images, and Pilgrims. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), xviii.

2. Kinnard, Jacob N, Places in Motion: The Fluid Identities of Temples, Images, and Pilgrims. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), xviii.