AVATAR. The Sanskrit word, so familiar to devotees of Krishna, jumped at me from the newspaper headlines. I wondered if the film of that name had any relation to the incarnations of the Supreme Being. When the Lord comes to this world the technical term for His manifestation is avatara, meaning “one who descends.” So I wondered whether there was now a major commercial film about Krishna’s avatars.
Watching mundane films is generally a distraction from spiritual life. We want to absorb our mind and heart in the spiritual, in the beautiful and charming ultimate personal manifestation of Truth, Krishna. Most films are almost a form of non-chemical intoxication that manipulates the viewers’ emotions and carries away their consciousness to the depths of the material modes of passion and ignorance. Would this film be an exception, a spiritually uplifting movie?
Curious because of the title, I read reviews and looked online at several trailers. I found that the movie made headlines mostly because of its extensive use of new technology that evidently gave audiences a deeper immersion experience into a fantasy world than most films can accomplish. Many reviewers also discussed the plot of man’s exploitation of nature and themes that included philosophies of the spiritual.
The human urge to enter through drama or books into a world beyond the ordinary has always been part of civilization. Avatar seeks to intensify such an experience through vibrant computer effects presented in an illusion of three dimensions. Bhakti-yoga also aims at total absorption in a reality beyond our human-made cities and even the natural world. The Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam tell us that this world, while real, is a temporary shadow of an eternal spiritual reality full of a vibrancy of color, sound, movement, activity, and personality that exceed by millions of times what we perceive through our ordinary senses.
An accomplished bhakti-yogi can directly contact this transcendent reality in his or her heart. Such a pure devotee of Krishna can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste all the aspects of the spiritual world with the purified spiritual senses of the original body of the soul, the real self. Unlike a movie, it’s not a passive experience. The bhakti-yogi enters the spiritual world and engages in activities of loving service to Krishna, even while continuing to move and act in this world.
How pale is an ordinary movie, even with the most sophisticated technology, compared to the ultimate spiritual goal! It is also unfortunate that absorption in such movies is likely to reduce a person’s desire to persevere in the search for the genuine.
Avatar’s theme of respect for nature as the energy of a divine being is a valuable message. I read, however, that the characters who are supposed to exemplify such respect and harmony are carnivorous. It is more than a bit incongruous to say to an animal that I respect you as a soul equal in importance to me, yet I will hurt and kill you to satisfy my taste buds. One of the symptoms of those who truly live in harmony with nature is a vegetarian diet, which respects the construction of the human body. Beyond a vegetarian diet, one of the symptoms of those who truly see the world as the divine energy of the Supreme Being is offering all food to Him as a sacrifice.
Most religious and spiritual philosophies teach a view of nature that makes it difficult to harmonize the world with spirituality. If a philosophy teaches that God is only transcendent, separate from the world, then the material energy is seen as evil. It cannot then be used in the service of spirit. People with such a philosophy tend either to become materialistic sense enjoyers, or to live completely separate from any activities of the world. If a philosophy teaches that God is only imminent, or in the world without a separate personal existence, then the material energy is seen as divine. But without a separately constituted Supreme Being to whom to offer that energy, the tendency is also to become a materialistic sense enjoyer but imagine that one is being very spiritual. Followers of these philosophies tend to see themselves as God and believe that all their activities are divine. Thinking one can kill and eat animals in a spiritual way is a typical manifestation of these ideas.
The philosophy of Sri Chaitanya, an avatar of Krishna, is that God is simultaneously one with and different from His energy, including the material energy. This philosophy naturally leads to bhakti-yoga. A practitioner views all living beings and matter as divine and meant for the purposes and pleasure of their source, the Supreme transcendent person. A loving relationship with that person, Krishna, then expands into love and service for all His parts and energies. If we really want to stop greedy exploitation, only a comprehensive spiritual philosophy and way of life will serve our purpose.
Body and Soul
Avatar obviously has a theme about the difference between the body and the soul. Themes where a person’s body changes but the same personality continues to exist abound in traditional tales, fantasies, and science fiction. Whether a person’s body changes into a dog or an alien being, viewers or readers seem to be able to easily grasp the idea that there can be a consistent sense of identity even if the body the person inhabits is completely different.
It is ironic that themes in the media and literature of a person inhabiting various bodies are both common and intuitively understood as reasonable. After all, we are now in a world where scientists and school teachers tell us there is not even a mind separate from the brain, what to speak of a soul distinct from both mind and body. Perhaps no amount of materialistic propaganda can completely erase the inner sense each of us has that we are an eternal person merely temporarily inhabiting a machine of bones, fat, blood, and skin. Sacred books such as Bhagavad-gita take us to a deeper understanding of the nature of the real self, teaching both how and why we inhabit material bodies, and how we can gain release to awaken our real spiritual form.
My brief study of Avatar’s reviews and trailers convinced me that although seeing the film might give me some fleeting thrill or even inspiration, my time, energy, and money would be better spent gaining deeper, eternal, and more complete happiness and insight through bhakti-yoga. Perhaps someday all the intelligence and technology that went into this film could be used to connect us with a real avatar.
—Urmila Devi Dasi