Nice tilak, nice blue skin tones, but the Sanskrit misses the mark
I haven’t seen the film, but I’ve noticed the colourful billboards everywhere I go in London. AVATAR. Great title for a movie, of course, and some of the CGI art from the film is well done.
Any Sanskrit language coming into popular usage, let alone a Vaishnava word in enormous, mind-grabbing letters, will always get my attention. And my curiosity is definitely aroused at the sight of all that blue skin.
Years ago I would have become very happy to see that maybe someone, somewhere, was drawing on Sanskrit philosophical terminology – and maybe Vaishnava art – to use in a major Hollywood film. I might have imagined that we were at some cultural/spiritual turning point in western society. I was a bit younger, and a good deal more idealistic, back then.
Whilst it’s true that the diverse cultures on our small planet are mixing more frequently as people travel and learn more; and while it is true that we’re borrowing words and mind-sets from older cultures when we need to, the fundamental perspective of much of the world – east or west – is unerringly materialistic. I say that not in a disparaging way, from any imagined lofty spiritual watchtower, but as a philosophical reflection based on the symptoms.
The word avatar has a very specific meaning and it is one of the frequently used terms in the theology of Vaishnavism. It means ‘one who descends’ and indicates the appearance of Vishnu, or God, in one of many forms. Although often translated as the English term ‘incarnation’ there’s no exact English equivalent for the word. ‘Incarnation’ is derived from the Latin in carna and describes the act of an incorporeal being becoming flesh; the spirit coming into an earthly frame, a material body of blood and bones.
Vaishnava theology explains that no such thing happens in the descent of the Lord. It is not that God is an incorporeal Being who then comes down to inhabit a body on earth. He is fully formed, fully spiritual, and fully personal, before His descent; and full in every way both during and after the period of His avatar. As souls we therefore incarnate – come into bodies – but Vishnu does not. We re-incarnate many, many times, and normally because we are forced to do so by the laws of nature. Vishnu comes simply because He wants to.
In Bhagavad gita we find that God describes why He comes – to uplift and restore the good and remove evil – but He also declares that fools always think that He has become a human while He’s doing it. Whilst the same fools teach that human society is sentimentally anthropomorphic for imagining that God looks like them, the actual fact is that we humans are ‘theomorphic,’ we look the way we do because God looks the way He does. And this world provides us with a temporary opportunity to have a body that resembles the form of God so that we can attempt to enjoy like He does – but without Him. But the Kingdom of God – the world of bliss or nirvana – doesn’t quite work without God and our attempts to enjoy down here without Him come to nothing. So the Lord descends from the plane of Absolute Reality to save souls stuck in the plane of Virtual Reality. That is His infinite compassion and His unending love for us.
And if you miss that simple, yet essential point you won’t quite get the meaning of the word avatar. The word has been used for at least ten years to indicate the virtual identity of a player in a computer game, or in extension from that, any virtual identity.
The problem is that – philosophically speaking – we are already stuck in a virtual reality game from which we cannot extract ourselves. It’s a game we can never win. Like the character Neo in The Matrix we have to look beyond our apparent situation and make some effort to escape it. That’s the way we’ll be able to attain our true identity and be happy forever. There’s no point at all when someone already caught in a virtual reality creates another virtual identity. That’s not an avatar at all; it’s just an illusion within an illusion.
The real Avatar comes down into our time and space to set us free from all illusion, and does it many times throughout history. He invites us personally to leave this world of repeated birth and death and to accompany Him to an eternal world, the Paramapada – the Spiritual Sky. And while it’s true that we do have to acquire a new form to do that, it’s one that we can easily develop through the daily spiritual activities of Bhakti.