Avatar: the Movie and the Muse

This post was originally published as an article by the author in the Faith section of Honolulu Advertiser newspaper, April 2010.

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Although James Cameron’s latest is no longer in theaters, its memory, for many, was lasting.

According to boxofficemojo.com, nearly 26 million people saw “Avatar” at least once, making it the highest grossing film of all time, both in North America and worldwide.

The movie offered a groundbreaking mix of live-action dramatic performances and computer-generated effects. It also generated a discussion among my peers about the similarities between some of its images and ideas and those found in Vedic culture.

For starters, “avatar” is a Sanskrit word which translates as, “one who comes down” (sharing the same root word as avalanche), and it refers to a divine appearance of God among us.

According to the Bhagavad-gita, God appears at different times and in various forms in order to remind us of our forgotten relationship with Him:

yada yada hi dharmasya
glanir bhavati bharata
abhyutthanam adharmasya
tadatmanam srjamy aham

Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion–at that time I descend Myself. (Bg 4.7)

He does this by personally manifesting in one of his eternal forms (such as Krishna, Rama or Nrisimha) or by personally empowering someone to inspire on his behalf (as do prophets and saints).

Vedic history is replete with descriptions of God’s many Avatars.

Most Hindus will quickly recognize the movie’s blue-complexioned hero as bearing a noticeable resemblance to Sri Vishnu, described within India’s Vedic scriptures as riding an eagle-like carrier named Garuda.

Said James Cameron, “I just like blue. It’s a good color … plus, there’s a connection to the Hindu deities, which I like conceptually.”

Further, the storyline rests on the central premise that we are not the body but the soul residing within. It acknowledges that the soul transmigrates from body to body based upon our innermost desires (reincarnation).

It also introduces the audience to the idea that the Supreme Divinity –being no less than creation— exists in female, as well as male, form.

“I just have loved everything…the entire Hindu pantheon seems so rich and vivid,” he told an audience of filmmakers and actors recently at a conference in New Delhi.

Even my Stepmom noticed that the lead character bore the symbol of a Vaishnava on his forehead. “Did you notice his tilak?” she asked.

Sure did.

While the goal of life is not clearly defined in the film, it does suggest the means by which it is achieved, namely, by devotion. This is illustrated at the end of the movie by Jake’s gesture of submission to God (“Eywa”), as known to the Na’vi people.

“I didn’t want to reference the Hindu religion so closely but the subconscious association was interesting and I hope I haven’t offended any one in doing so,” the filmmaker said.

To the contrary, his hugely popular film has brought attention and interest to some of the images and ideas its followers have long known and loved.

The time has come for the epic stories of India’s great Mahabharata and Ramayana to be translated faithfully to the screen with the same care as Avatar. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, nothing compares to the original.

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