A religious scholar’s view on the Buddhist themes behind Groundhog Day

Divinity School celebrates religion in film, 20th anniversary of Martin Marty Center

Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day, which many religious scholars study for its Buddhist themes, will be screened and discussed as part of the Divinity School Martin Marty Center’s 20th anniversary.
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Columbia Pictures
Andrew Bauld
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesNews Office

The 1993 film Groundhog Day features egotistical weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, reliving the same day over and over. While the movie is beloved as a comedy, many religious scholars consider it an “underground Buddhist classic” for its depiction of the cycle of death and rebirth.

Dan Arnold, associate professor of philosophy of religions at the Divinity School, said although the idea of getting repeated chances at life might sound like a blessing, the Buddhist concept of “Samsara” might be closer to a punishment.

“People often suppose that the idea of rebirth represents a good thing—another chance, for example, at realizing dreams unfulfilled in this life,” said Arnold, PhD’02, a scholar of Indian Buddhist philosophy. “But in the Indian religious imagination, the fact we are continually reborn is thought to be a problem to overcome. The idea of Samsara is that to be continually subjected to rebirth is to be repeatedly subjected to suffering.”

Arnold will discuss the film Feb. 1 as part of “Religion in the Frame,” the Divinity School’s six-day exploration of religious ideas in films. Following the 6:30 p.m. screening at the arts nonprofit Facets, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., Arnold will take part in a Q&A, hosted by former WBEZ host Gretchen Helfrich. In particular, he is interested in highlighting areas in which the film diverges from traditional Buddhist thought.

“When Bill Murray breaks the cycle by overcoming his egotism, he ends up happily ever after,” Arnold said. “It’s not clear, though, that the Buddhist tradition imagines release from Samsara as that kind of achievement. Perhaps the film’s depiction of endlessly repeated experience gives us other ways to think about what rebirth might mean—and thus, with different ways to think of what Nirvana could be.”

The film series is part of a larger celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Divinity School’s Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion, and also marks the 90th birthday of its founder, Martin E. Marty, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity. To kick off the film series Jan. 28, Marty discussed the 1960 drama Elmer Gantry, starring Burt Lancaster.

The Marty Center has worked to foster understanding of religion through dialogue with the world beyond the academy, and Willemien Otten, director of the Martin Marty Center and professor of theology and the history of Christianity, said the film series is an ideal addition to the celebration.

“For us it was a very welcome idea that would both add luster to the 20th anniversary of the Marty Center and add weight to the notion of the public understanding of religion,” Otten said. “I am not sure about Marty’s personal taste in film, but it is quite clear that he treats film as an important medium that can help educate the public about American religion, and about religion in general.”  

Learn more about the film series and the Marty Center here.