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.



Filed under Sanskrit

7 responses to “Avatar

  1. I’ve just read this piece on Avatar – written by a devotee of Krishna and published in the Hindustan Times of India – and thought you’d like to read it too:


  2. Vaisnavi

    In a 2007 interview with Time magazine, Cameron addressed the meaning of the film’s title, answering the question “What is an avatar, anyway?” Cameron stated, “It’s an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods taking a flesh form.” He said that “[i]n 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”. Cameron stated, “It’s not an avatar in the sense of just existing as ones and zeroes in cyberspace. It’s actually a physical body.” [Wikipedia] I believe the film comes as refreshing in our materialistic world. It introduces important issues as well as the idea of worship of a beautiful divine mother, and as such can only raise our consciousness.

  3. rasasthali

    Very nice article.
    I think that this movie is extremely important not because of its name, but because it highlights an important problem created by the West. Over the centuries the western culture tried to monopolize other cultures than their own, destroy folk beliefs and exploit the natural resources that might have had even religious meaning to other people. This happened in case of Native Americans, for instance, but it is still happening in places like Africa, or Middle East… Christianity is to blame too to some extent, but such tendencies in people probably emerge simply from the desire combined with avidya!

    The plot of the movie is not very elaborate but I think that due to its simplicity the main message is crystal clear. I am glad to see such a self-reflection on drawbacks of western culture in the main-stream media!

    • The mode of passion causes the urge to exploit others, thus reducing their stature in the consciousness of the would-be exploiter. The message of Christianity is pure but when combined with the mode of passion became a great force for justified exploitation of ‘others’. Vaishnavism, when combined with the mode of passion, behaves in exactly the same way. Lord Krishna’s advice is to identify and control lust, individually and collectively, so the consciousness is not pulled down to the level of exploiter. Yet our present economic systems thrive when the lust of the populace is stimulated. More exploitation is created as a result. Therefore we must all deliberately simplify our lives, minimize our needs, and cultivate the mode of goodness.

      • rasasthali

        Wonderful and inspiring comment! We all can do little things to minimize exploitation of our mother nature. It is a subject that could easily be an interesting focal point of the interfaith dialogue.
        I am glad that Iskcon has people like yourself who care about environmental issues with such a theological dimension to it.

      • Thank you, Rasasthali. I have found it interesting to investigate the contrast between Celtic and Roman Christianity. There are differences in the attitude to God’s presence in nature. And of course, there is the most important question of the identity of the soul and its relationship to nature. Theology is important because when you expand those views into actions and multiply those actions taken by millions of people taken over many years you change the state of the Earth.

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