The Legend of “Bagger Vance”

“The Legend of Bagger Vance” presents profound insights into the psychology of accomplishment. The film was directed by Robert Redford and released in 2000 based on a novel by Steven Pressfield. Explicit parallels between Pressfield’s novel and the Bhagavad Gita are brought out in a book called Gita on the Green: The Mystical Tradition Behind Bagger Vance (Continuum, 2000), written by Hinduism scholar Steven Rosen with a foreword by Pressfield.

Accomplishment is a mystery. Very often we are unable to see the relationship between our actions and their consequences. Sometimes our efforts are quickly and generously rewarded by life. Occasionally the rewards come even before we complete the required action. At other times, the more and the harder we try, the farther we seem to be from our goal. Then there are inexplicable moments when a work that was proceeding smoothly suddenly runs into trouble or a work that was stalled just as suddenly takes off. At rare moments, the veil concealing the mystery of accomplishment is lifted for a moment, revealing to us its deeper secrets. Or, a wise man comes along with the knowledge and power to draw aside the curtain to help us find the hidden key. Such a man was Bagger Vance .

The Legend of Bagger Vance is a film about two people who accomplish extraordinary things against great odds. It is the story of Randolph Junah, who was born in Augusta, Georgia, USA around 1900. At an early age Junah displayed a remarkable talent for the sport of golf, and won a national amateur championship when he was sixteen. Experts who saw him play, predicted he would one day become one of America’s most successful professional golfers. Adding good fortune to his talent for golf, Junah was also able to win the love of Adele Invergorden, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy real estate developer. It appeared that the lovely couple were destined for a married life of success, leisure and luxury.

Then, World War I broke out and changed their destiny. Instead of playing golf, Junah enlisted in the army along with his classmates, and was shipped off to Europe to fight against the Germans in the trenches of France. There his talent for golf was of no value. The main objective was simply to kill the enemy and survive a horrible war against great odds. At the end of the war, he was the only member of his company, the only one of his classmates, who returned home alive. Psychologically devastated by the violence he had witnessed and the friends he had lost, disillusioned with the posh life he had known before the war, Junah retired to a secluded farm house where he drank and gambled with the riffraff of society and completely cut his ties with Adele and the upper class people with whom he lived earlier.

Ten years later, Adele’s father died and left his daughter to manage a huge resort hotel and golf course burdened with debt and on the point of bankruptcy. True to her rugged Scotch heritage, Adele refused to give up the resort to her creditors. Instead, she decided to risk every last dollar she could raise on a grand scheme that would either make the resort a success or ruin it completely. Her idea was to conduct a personal golf match between the two greatest professional golfers of the day, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, seventy two holes of golf played over two days for the fabulous prize of $10,000.

Adele’s creditors were skeptical of the plan, but saw that it just might succeed in attracting national attention and luring wealthy customers to the resort. Therefore they consented to the plan, provided that Adele also included one golf player from Augusta as representative of the local talent. The idea seemed absurd since Augusta had no players of professional caliber who could compete with the likes of Jones and Hagen. Then someone suggested Junah and the creditors unanimously agreed that if Junah would join in the match, they would support it.

At first, Junah refused the proposal as preposterous. He had not lifted a golf club for a decade since returning home from the war. Even had he been practicing or playing daily, no one could seriously imagine that he could compete with the likes of Jones and Hagen, who dominated the sport and had won every major golf championship for years.

Enter Bagger Vance, a quiet, soft-spoken lanky black man with a mysterious smile and laughing eyes, who approaches Junah and offers to act as his caddy for the match – to carry his golf clubs and offer his coaching assistance for the great contest. While the normal caddy’s fee in such matches is 10% of the prize money, in this case, $1000, if Junah wins. Bagger asks for a fee of only $5 guaranteed, regardless of whether he wins or loses. At the request of Adele, and under pressure by the leaders of the town, Junah reluctantly accepts to play. Adele sees some hope of saving her property, and perhaps, even a glimmer of hope of recovering the man she once loved so dearly.

During the first day of the contest, Jones and Hagen are superb. Junah plays disastrously with an increasingly sullen attitude, and Bagger stands silently by, witnessing the debacle. No one is surprised when Junah falls eleven strokes behind the two pros by the end of the first day – a hopeless position from which it is almost unimaginable that he can recover. His performance is so humiliating that Adele regrets that she ever asked him to play.

As play continues on day two, and Junah is without hope, Bagger begins his work. He quietly offers advice to Junah that has a dramatic impact on Junah’s performance. He shows Junah that his real opponent in this match is not Hagen or Jones. It is his own mind. The key to success on the golf course lies in mastering his fears of failure, his sense of inferiority, his concern about what Adele or the towns people are thinking about him. Bagger tells Junah: Stop worrying about winning or losing. Stop trying so hard to hit the ball. Do not think about the results of your action. “Concentrate on the field,” Bagger says. “Become one in your consciousness with the field. Allow the natural rhythm and harmony of life to pass through you and express it in your acts.” Life, life golf, is only a game. Play the game and enjoy it.

Once Junah starts listening to Bagger, to his own amazement and that of the crowd, Junah begins hitting the ball with the power and precision of a great golfer. By the end of the morning, he has wiped out half the deficit that separates him from Jones and Hagen. Junah gains confidence, the crowd begins to stir with excitement, and even his opponents are impressed by the beauty of his play. No one, including Junah, really understands what has transformed him.

On the final afternoon of the match, Junah pulls within three strokes of the leaders and becomes so confident that he actually believes he can win the match. Then a second turning point occurs. At a critical juncture, Junah loses touch with the field. He disregards Bagger’s advice and becomes over-confident. He takes a high risk shot and misses. Then out of arrogant pride, he repeats it again. In a few moments, all his momentum has been lost and his hopes of winning have been shattered. In frustration, he smashes a shot off into the woods and is forced to go hunting for the ball among the trees, as if he wanted to physically remove himself from the crowd’s sight.

Finding the ball lying in a hopelessly difficult position from which recovery is unimaginable, Junah feels tempted to move the ball with his hand while no one is looking – an illegal act unworthy of a professional. Just then Bagger arrives and prevents him. Instead of acknowledging the hopelessness of the situation, Bagger says to Junah: “It is time for you to choose. It is time for you to give up clinging to the ghosts that haunt your past. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Concentrate fully on the work at hand. Focus on the field. Tune in to the harmony.”

Following Bagger’s instructions, Junah hits the ball so hard and so straight that it emerges from the forest onto the green in a very advantageous position, and Junah goes into the last hole of the match just a single shot behind Jones and Hagen – a simply extraordinary accomplishment.

On the last hole, both Jones and Hagen make errors, and Junah actually has a chance to win. In preparing for a shot, Junah accidentally moves his ball a centimeter or so from its position, but no one else sees what has happened. According to the rules, he should be penalized a shot for this accident, even though the movement was insignificant. Contrary to his earlier impulse to cheat, he informs his opponents of the accident and asks to be penalized. Considering the stakes are so high, even his opponents do not want Junah to be beaten on a mere technicality, but he insists on following the letter of the rule book. Hagen and Jones complete the last hole tied. Junah then hits a magnificent shot to match their scores. The contest ends in a three way tie. Junah has performed a miracle. He is the unquestioned hero of the match. He splits the prize money, saves the resort from bankruptcy, and wins back Adele.

This simple sporting tale reveals truths that many a sportsman, business and political leader know from their own personal experience. Our thoughts and our attitudes determine the results of our actions. Mind is the determinant of our successes and our failures. Junah failed when he concentrated his attention on himself and worried about the prospects of failure. He succeeded when he forgot about himself and concentrated totally on doing the work as well as he possibly could, by totally identifying himself with the field in which he was acting, and seeking a harmony with that field. The field is the universal life of which we are an inseparable part. The field is work or action (karma). The ego divides us from the world around us and creates the false sense of separateness. It makes us view even our own thoughts and actions as something different from ourselves. To be in harmony with the field is to overcome that sense of separation and see the oneness of all existence and live in the harmony of that universal play. Success arises from shifting our reliance from the outer world around us to our own inner being, relying on right attitudes, rather than on external sources of support and assistance. The inner attitude that accomplishes, is to act in self-forgetfulness and self-giving – forgetting ourselves and our desires, giving oneself whole-heartedly to the work that we do.

Bagger is a humble man of truth who possesses the wisdom of an ancient race. He never shouts or insists on his point of view. He quietly waits for Junah to become receptive, then he helps Junah overcome the inner obstacles that prevent his natural talent from coming to the surface. It is a matter of conscious choice. When Junah becomes overconfident and asserts his own knowledge, Bagger quietly withdraws and waits for him to again seek assistance, then helps him get back on track without a single sign of rebuke. Finally Bagger departs without even claiming his fair share of Junah’s prize money.

Some readers may think that this is only a story about a game. It is not real life and it is not about serious accomplishment. Bagger’s message is that all life is a game, the play of the Divine lila. Running a family or a business or running for office are only various expressions of the game. And the rules are the same regardless of the field of your activity. Your situation may appear impossible, but it is only impossible if you think and believe it to be so. Stop calculating and thinking about the limitations. Confidence, faith, concentration, harmony with the field, self-giving in the act, self-forgetfulness – these are the attitudes that lead to high accomplishment.

The truths depicted in this story are cited by many high achievers as the keys to their success. But beyond these, the story reveals hints of a more profound insight – the subtle shade of difference that distinguishes the Truth from the falsehood. By Truth here,I mean the power of truth expressed in actions that lead to accomplishment. Truth is not a mere word or idea. It is a vibration that expresses a true intention and true consciousness. A small change in our attitude can move us from Truth to falsehood or back again. The Mother describes this process of reversal of consciousness in Agenda where she explains that Truth and falsehood are like the front and back side of one’s hand. Turn the hand on one side, and you are in the Truth. Flex it ever so slightly to show the other hand, and you are in the falsehood. Genuine spiritual sincerity elevates us from the normal vital falsehood of human nature into the vibration of Truth. The very slightest compromise is enough to plunge us back into falsehood.

Junah experiences this subtle reality first hand. One moment he is a failing amateur. By a seemingly tiny reversal of attitude and perspective, he starts playing like a seasoned professional. He is not even aware of how the change has come about. He has forgotten himself, the contest, and the crowds of people looking on. He immerses himself totally in the action at hand, without thought of success,or reward,or social approval. He has reversed his motive from seeking the ego’s success to seeking the soul’s joy of adventure playing the game.Then a few moments later, he flips back from Truth to falsehood without being conscious of it. The change in his attitude seems insignificant and inconsequential, but it makes all the difference in the world. He becomes excited, over confident, assertive, proud and vain. Forgetting that he has been accomplishing on the strength of Bagger’s knowledge rather than his own wisdom, he ignores Bagger’s counsel. He forgets that golf, like life, is only a game and feels tempted to violate the rules simply for egoistic satisfaction. He lives in, and for himself, and his own personal achievement – in the ego. Suddenly nothing goes right any more. His gains vanish. He finds himself back in despair.

And then the final reversal takes place when Bagger once more comes to Junah’s aid. Junah shifts his concentration and reliance from the outside to the inside, from his acts to his true inner being. He forgets his past suffering and present humiliation; rejects thoughts of success and failure, gain and loss. He reverses his attitude once again. He makes a conscious choice to live and act in the moment as a free and true being.

Junah attained a ‘perfect perfection in Truth at the moment when he insisted on being penalized for the accidental movement of the ball on the eighteenth hole, believing fully well, that the penalty could cost him the match. So great the power of his sincerity, that was able to make up for the error and tie the match. At every moment we face the very same choice: to live for ourselves, meaning the selfish falsehood of the ego, or to live for Truth.

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