Avatar: Religious Potpourri

Just got back from Avatar and wanted to jot some reflections before I forgot things from the movie.

There has been a lot of conversation about the religious imagery in Avatar. Is it pagan? Native American? Eastern? Christian?

Answer: Yes.

There is a great deal of Mother Earth religion mixed in with hints of Native American spirituality. There is also a great deal of Hindu spirituality. The avatars of Vishnu are important in Hinduism. Vishnu's avatars are blue, the color of the divine, just like the Na'vi. In light of these overtones there is a great deal in the movie about interconnection and interdependency, particularly with the earth.

But I also saw a lot of Christian motifs in the movie as well.

Spoiler Alert!

Specifically, the movie centers upon the dramatic tension existing between the two "lives" of Jake Sully. At the start, in the "real" world Jake is:
  • Small (humans are much shorter than the Na'vi)
  • Crippled (obvious if you've seen the movie)
  • Stupid (Neytiri's first descriptions of Jake)
  • Violent (Jake begins his work on Pandora aligned with the military forces)
  • Cannot breathe (Humans can't breath the Pandora atmosphere)
  • Consumeristic (At one point Jake says that the Na'vi are not going to give up their world for "light beer and jeans," a clear commentary about Western consumerism)
  • Emotionally empty (Jake begins the movie with no emotional attachments)
  • Individualistic (Jake begins the movie as a self-interested individual)
In his avatar Jake is:
  • Larger
  • Able to walk
  • Knowledgeable
  • Peaceable (well, until the action sequences start)
  • Can breathe
  • Ecological
  • In Love
  • Communal
And remember the Hindu associations here. The avatar, being blue, is a manifestation of the divine. So as Jake spends more and more time in his avatar he begins moving from the "real" to the truly Real. As Jake says, his "real" life starts to feel like the dream. Readers of C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce will see a lot of similarities here, the contrast between the reality of hell and heaven. Recall how the bus travelers in that book were mere shadows (less "real") in heaven.

And most importantly, in the final scene Jake talks about his "birthday." Baptism symbolism Resurrection. Jake's "physical" body dies and is exchanged for a Real one. Death into New Life. A violent, crippled and ignorant reality is exchanged for a Reality of love and community. The lame man can walk again.

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4 thoughts on “Avatar: Religious Potpourri”

  1. Sounds like an extended metaphor for astral projection/lucid dreaming, which might be the case for every religion. After all, Mohammad's midnight journey to the "farthest mosque" was steeped in dream-like imagery. Or St. Paul's "saw third heaven though whether in body or out of it I don't know." Or being "born again" into a new life.

    I've "woken up" inside dreams before, and you can do miracles for as long as your concentration lasts. I've bodily flown, regenerated damaged limbs, thrown fire and lightning, many things like that. It's a wonderful feeling.

    Just don't talk about this in church.

  2. That's a good run down of the imagery in the movie, particularly from the hero's viewpoint, which is the dominant narrative mode of the film.

    There may also be another line though, if you flip the perspective to that of the Na'vi, then Jake is a sort of incarnational savior character, one who faces rejection but also demands faith and response. And might it be (stretching) possible to interpret humanity's role as the otherworldly "powers"? Ultimately the corporate military greed theme in the movie (the least well-done aspect of the film, IMHO) disallows tat sort of an interpretation, but it's still an interesting thought.

    Poor theology perhaps, but a fun way to think about a movie.

  3. Great summary Richard, thanks. It was an enjoyable movie to be sure, and it's really interesting to think about symbolism there...maybe it's a bit more than just the popcorn flick everyone says it is (although it certainly is that). I agree with stevepvc...the corporate military greed theme just felt cliche in every way to me. It's forgiveable, in my opinion, but still cliche.

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