Avatar’s Reversal of Fortune

By Maxim Osipov

With the dazzling 3D-vortex of colors, actions and emotions, James Cameron’s Avatar seems to have given everyone something to rave about.

But let’s get it straight—Avatar is a downright misnomer for this latest new blockbuster.

No, not because, sadly for Hare Krishna moviegoers, the film’s got nothing to do with Hinduism except its Sanskrit name. And some Hindu activists who habitually frisk all new releases for concealed sacrileges also needn’t worry—there are none in Avatar, or at least not more that in those little digital icons they hide themselves behind on their own e-chats.

It’s because the movie reverses the very concept that the term “avatar” is based on.

Leave aside the fact that Hindu theology reserves the use of avatar, which in Sanskrit literally means descent, almost exclusively for appearances of Vishnu on Earth. The key point here is that an avatar always descends from a higher realm into the lower, restores prosperity, wisdom, and happiness—and moves on unchanged after the mission is accomplished.

However, the “avatar” Jake Sully—and we the viewers along with him—shortly after his descent into the world of Na’vis sees the higher realm of earthlings rapidly grow pallid and repulsive in comparison to the pristine world of supposed savages. The “civilized humans” turn out as primitive, jaded, and increasingly greedy, cynical, and brutal—traits only amplified by their machinery—while the “monkey aliens” emerge as noble, kind, wise, sensitive, and humane.

We, along with the Avatara hero, are now faced with an uncomfortable yet irresistible choice between the two races and the two worldviews. And invariably, along with him we cannot help but lean toward the far more civilized insides within the long-tailed, blue-skinned, and technologically infantile exterior.

So much for a descending avatar. Jake soon admits to himself in his videolog: “I realized that I had it backwards, I wasn’t sure what was the dream and what was real.” Having regained through the avatar body not just his legs, but his dignity, his freedom, and his brethren whose love and trust he struggles to earn, the rescuer becomes the rescued, the benefactor becomes the benefitted. The avatar becomes . . . well . . . a refugee among the aborigines so content inwardly that they wouldn’t trade their tree for whatever the savvy sky people gods have to offer! Contrary to The Matrix’s Neo, Jake plugs into a supposedly illusory world to discover it to be much more tangible, wholesome and true than his own—and wants to stay in.

This makes us ask the question: Why? And what on Earth (or on Pandora) do “culture”, “civilization”, and “human” stand for?

Not succumbing to the stock trifle of sci-fi genre, James Cameron makes this question the fourth dimension of his movie—and answers it most convincingly: it’s the qualities of kindness, gratitude, regard for the elderly, self-sacrifice, respect for all life, and ultimately humble dependence on a higher intelligence behind nature that qualify one as cultured, civilized, and human.

The other alternative is summed up by Jake Sully: “This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on something that you want, you make them your enemy so that you can drive them out.” And “they have already killed their mother.” Here you have it, the savage—give or take his spaceship, touch-screen, and a rifle.

And getting back to the Hindu theology, Bhagavad-gita (16.1-4) echoes this distinction: “Fearlessness; cultivation of wisdom; charity; self-control; austerity; simplicity; refrain from unnecessary violence; truthfulness; freedom from hatred; renunciation; tranquility; aversion to fault-finding; compassion for all living entities; freedom from covetousness; gentleness; modesty; steady determination; vigour; forgiveness; fortitude; cleanliness; and freedom from envy and from the passion for honor—these are qualities befitting real civilized humans.

“Pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness, and ignorance are qualities of barbarians.”

In order to descend—that is, to be an avatar—one first ought to be above. Unfortunately for our civilization, epitomized by the human conquistadors on Pandora, from the place where we are happily getting ourselves into, we can only climb.
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This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.


About the Author

11 Responses to Avatar’s Reversal of Fortune

  1. Maxim Osipov is a student of Sanskrit and Indian philosophy and a follower of the Hare Krishna movement since 1991. Mukunda Goswami contributed to this article.

    This is typical, cynical, condescending criticism that the Hare Krishna sect is so very habituated too.
    Meanwhile, in the New Age blogs they are praising the movie as inspired and inspirational.
    Obviously, anything can be examined for it’s faults as the Hare Krishna sect is so very prone to do.
    This tradition of criticizing and belittling everything that doesn’t have the GBC seal of approval on it is a humbug mentality that is totally out of touch with the wonderful spirituality that exists in places outside the Krishna cult.

    Too bad the Hare Krishna’s can’t be more gracious and generous instead always being so condescending and critical.
    This kind of negative posturing does nothing to advance the cause of Sri Chaitanya.

    This holier-than-thou mentality is a plague with the Hare Krishnas and it shows in their outspoken criticism of anything that doesn’t match their cult version of reality.

    On top of that, I doubt that this critical mentality of this article represents Tripurari Maharaja, even though it might appear that he endorses this kind of critical and cynical bashing of a movie that is very popular with the younger generations and some older people too.

    The article in criticism is no more spiritual than is the movie.

  2. James,

    I have not seen the movie and just now read the review. I think the reviewer has negelcted the fact that the word avatara has taken on a second meaning in today’s technological world. From Oxford Press:

    The icon representing the user of a virtual reality system.

    This is what Cameron said about the meaning of the word in an interview with Time Magazine:

    “It’s an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods taking a flesh form.”[But] in this film what that means is that the human technology in the future is capable of injecting a human’s intelligence into a remotely located body, a biological body . . . It’s not an avatar in the sense of just existing as ones and zeroes in cyberspace. It’s actually a physical body.”

    So his movie is about an extension of the idea of downloading an identity into cyperspace to injecting intelligence into a remote biological body. Seems like the second, modern, secular definition of the word fits the movie.

    That said, the reviewer has a positive take on the film in that he agrees with the theme of the movie, that human civilization is arrogant, conceited, etc. It has lost cite of core values and has much to learn from nature and the higher intelligence behind her:

    Not succumbing to the stock trifle of sci-fi genre, James Cameron makes this question ( Why? And what on Earth (or on Pandora) do “culture”, “civilization”, and “human” stand for?) the fourth dimension of his movie—and answers it most convincingly: it’s the qualities of kindness, gratitude, regard for the elderly, self-sacrifice, respect for all life, and ultimately humble dependence on a higher intelligence behind nature that qualify one as cultured, civilized, and human. . . .

    Unfortunately for our civilization, epitomized by the human conquistadors on Pandora, from the place where we are happily getting ourselves into, we can only climb.

    So I do not think this review is the best example of the problem you speak of, but it is not without fault—flaunting one’s literary ignorance while reviewing the expression of another.

    • It appears from this recent interview with Cameron that he indeed intended to use the term ‘avatar’ in its primary Hindu sense rather than as a reference to its modern cyberspace definition as you opined:

      So his movie is about an extension of the idea of downloading an identity into cyperspace to injecting intelligence into a remote biological body. Seems like the second, modern, secular definition of the word fits the movie.

      A relevant excerpt from the interview, where Cameron, while acknowledging modern usages of the word, clearly says its primary definition was his idea in the movie:

      What does the word avatar mean to you? It is a Hindu word for us also …
      Of course, and we don’t even pronounce it correctly in the west. I understand the traditional roots of the word, which is that it is the descent or incarnation of a divine being in the flesh. Of course, that was the significance in the film, although the characters are not divine beings. But the idea was that they take flesh in another body. ‘Avatar’ is a term that’s now widely in use, as we all know, in cyber space, relating to second life, alter ego and things like that.

      I am wondering, therefore, if your remark on the author’s “flaunting [his] literary ignorance” was completely accurate.

      • Now that you mention it, it seems unlikely that the author would not know both uses of the word. But Cameron seems to change his story as your more recent (I presume) quote illustrates.

        • Thanks for your reply.

          It appears to me that in both quotes — in Time (2007) and in Times of India (2010) — Cameron sticks to the same explanation: ‘Avatar’ in the movie refers to the ancient concept of divine descent translated into the realm of modern technology. He did not say ‘but’ in the original quote from Time:

          What is an avatar, anyway?

          It’s an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods taking a flesh form. In this film what that means is that the human technology in the future is capable of injecting a human’s intelligence into a remotely located body, a biological body. It’s not an avatar in the sense of just existing as ones and zeroes in cyberspace. It’s actually a physical body.

          The author acknowledged the term’s cyber space use in the very beginning of the article:

          And some Hindu activists who habitually frisk all new releases for concealed sacrileges also needn’t worry—there are none in Avatar, or at least not more that in those little digital icons they hide themselves behind on their own e-chats.

          and then moved onto discussing its primary Hindu meaning in application to the movie.

          There are quite a few sources discussing this and other Hinduism-related themes of the movie quoted in this Wikipedia article.

  3. James,

    How does this article criticize the movie?

    It seems to me that you are guilty of the very crime you are condemning.Your strong words are cynical and condescending toward Hari Krishna’s. Why do you assume that all Hari Krishna’s criticize and belittle everything? Why do you call Hari Krishna a cult? Why do you say Hari Krisna’s are “always” condescending and critical? Hari Krishna doesn’t exist only within Iskon or the GBC you know.

    The philosophy of Lord Chaitanya isn’t holier than thou – just the opposite. Be more tolerant than a tree and more humble than a blade of grass. Those holier than thou people exist in all religions and all walks of life. Why not consider them great practice for developing your tolerance and chill out.

    I’ve seen the movie and thought it was excellent – loved the 3D and computer effects – really well done. I can’t see how the movie is spiritual or inspirational. The plot was just the standard Hollywood battle of good versus evil. Predictably and unrealistically – good always wins.

    • bijaya kumara das

      I agree with you here. It was a typical drama.

      Nice analogy Guru Maharaja. Very insightful for not having seen the actual movie and spot on.

  4. I can’t see how the movie is spiritual or inspirational. The plot was just the standard Hollywood battle of good versus evil. Predictably and unrealistically – good always wins.

    You’ve now described the biggest problems with Hare Krishnas today: they can’t find inspiration even if it sits on top of their heads.

    Are you sure you cannot see or feel anything inspirational in that movie? There’s nothing in that movie besides money making? As Lex Luthor character said in the original Superman movie, “Some people can read ‘War and Peace’ and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”

    For example, think about Srila Prabhupada, his journey, his inspiration. He found inspiration everywhere! That’s guru. Guru also means finding light, or God, everywhere! Looking at the bright side of things is another word for it.

    Revelation is there around you, and when you get it, when you feel it, you also get the meaning of the word ‘avatar’ in its full, dynamic sense too. Then you go beyond dictionary.

  5. After talking to a number of people who saw the movie, it is encouraging to see a thirst for real spirituality that this movie generally invokes. People are tired of the same old dogmatic religions, know-it-all priests, empty rituals, and moraly ambiguous behavior of the ‘true believers’.

    If only we could figure out how to satisfy their thirst…

  6. Luke Matthewson

    True spirituality is inseparably linked with the environment where it lives and thrives. It finds inspiration there and it enriches the environment back with added new value of life. It doesn’t live in outer space, vacuum. It must be positive, moving and progressive.

    The beauty of the movie is that you see a transformation of all individuals on Pandora through both personal and mutual effort for a common cause, for the benefit of all.

    Maybe we think like this: same as Jake Scully and Dr Grace, we are also avatars in this world, born here to discover our true selves, and in the process help the environment together with all individuals and life forms that exist here.

    If only we could figure out how to satisfy their thirst…

    Figuratively speaking, this world is Pandora. So how we can figure out to satisfy people’s thirst?

    Chaitanya would say: become a guru. So, become a guru.
    Inspire them. Show them a bright side of life.

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