Written June 2010
[Note: This is about the movie by James Cameron, not about the television series or movie “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” This is not an evaluation of the acting, plot, or production of Avatar; rather, this article examines the spiritual themes in the movie.]
The Word Avatar
The term avatar comes from a Hindu word, avataras, which means “descents,” describing a deity who descends into human form. In Hindu beliefs, it usually refers to the earthy manifestation of the Hindu deity, Vishnu, for he descends to earth to protect it.
This term migrated into the New Age and has come to mean one who has evolved spiritually on earth, moved on to another plane, and then can incarnate at will to help humanity. An avatar may be a spiritually evolved person who has reached the realization that “reality is, in all that lives, divinity itself” (Stephen Cross, The Elements of Hinduism [Shaftesbury, Dorset, Great Britain: Element Books Ltd, 1994; Rockport, MA: Element, Inc., 1994], 7).
The main character, Jake Sully, reluctantly comes to the planet Pandora to take on the body of a Nav’i, the name for the inhabitants of Pandora, and to spy on the Nav’i people for those exploiting Pandora for its resources. Jake’s soul/spirit/mind is transferred via some type of machine from his human body to a body that is grown from human and Nav’i genes so that he appears to be a Nav’i. This Nav’i body is called Jake’s “avatar.”
In Hinduism, Krishna is an avatar of the god Vishnu, and is depicted with blue skin. The portrayal of the Nav’i as blue creatures suggests a parallel with Krishna — that Jake could possibly be viewed as the (divine) being come to save the Nav’i.
A Set Up
The people from planet Earth, with a few exceptions, don’t care about the planet Pandora or its inhabitants, nor do they even care for their own planet (a reference is made later to Earth as a “dying planet”). They call the Nav’i names like “humanoids,” “savages,” “blue monkeys,” “roaches,” and “aboriginal horde.” These cartoonish villains make the Nav’i, appear as saints in comparison.
The names of the characters from earth are suggestive: the military commander is Miles Quaritch (sounds like “quarrel” or “quarantine”); the corporate man who wants to exploit the planet is Parker Selfridge (sounds like “selfish”); and Sully (Jake’s name) sounds like “sullied,” to indicate he is from a ruined or corrupted planet (Earth).
The Nav’i are in tune with nature, and since nature is the god(dess) here, nature is the measure and regulator of value and goodness on Pandora. However, nature itself on Pandora is not pristine. There are predators who eat other creatures and who also attack the Nav’i and those from earth. It is no Garden of Eden.
The Nav’i are not peaceful either. They have tribe members who are called warriors, and the clans across Pandora are not united until the end of the movie when the earthling Jake unites them to fight the people from Earth who have come to get a valuable resource on Pandora.
The choice seemingly given by director James Cameron is:
you are brutal and do not care about nature and living creatures; or you are good if you exalt nature above all.
The implication is that it is pretty much one or the other.
The “Flow of Energy”
Neytiri, the female Nav’i that Jake falls in love with, talks to Jake about “the flow of energy.” There is a “network of energy that flows through all living things;” this energy is “borrowed and one day you will have to give it back.” This latter statement is not explained but could mean, given other indications in the movie, that when one dies, one goes back into the elements of nature via Eywa, the deity of Pandora.
When Jake kills an animal, he says, “I see you, brother, and thank you. Your spirit goes with Eywa and your body stays behind to become one with the people.” Eywa, the goddess of planet Pandora, could be seen as Pandora itself.
This action implies that Jake is respecting the animal, yet the animal, for all this respect, is still very dead. Do these words make it better for the animal? There is a myth-like belief in our culture that tribal or aboriginal peoples who live in nature have a deep respect for nature simply because they live close to nature. Actually, these people are usually animists who believe that spirits and deities inhabit nature and must be placated in order to avoid disaster (Dan Story, “Are Animists Model Environmentalists?” Christian Research Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2010).
“…animists believe that all of life is interconnected. People are intimately linked to their families, some of whom are living and some who have already passed into the spiritual realm. They are also connected to the spiritual world: The ambivalent yearnings of gods and spirits impact the living. Animists feel a connectedness with nature: The stars, planets, and moon are thought to affect earthly events. The natural realm is so related to the human realm that practitioners divine current and future events by analyzing what animals are doing or by sacrificing animals and analyzing their livers, entrails, or stomachs. Many animists also believe that they are connected with other human beings. They are able to access the thoughts of other human beings…” (Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Defining an Animistic Worldview,” http://www.missiology.org/defining-an-animistic-worldview/).
Nature is respected and feared because a natural disaster can mean death, and because food and sustenance depend on the well-being and abundance of the plants, soil, and animals in the environment.
The Goddess and Matriarchy
In “Avatar,” the shaman (Neytiri’s mother) is a female who seemingly has more authority and power than her mate, the chief. A shaman is the mediator between the spirits and/or deities and the people; in this movie, the shaman interprets the will of Eywa for the people.
The goddess Eywa is called “mother” and “all mother.” This homage to feminism is in stark contrast to the evil Col. Miles Quaritch, who calls himself “Papa.” Thus, patriarchal figures are evil and matriarchal figures are good (really, James C., must you be so obvious?). Quaritch is about to kill Jake when Neytiri shoots and kills Quaritch with poison arrows, so Jake is saved by Neytiri, a female Nav’i (not a woman since she is not human).
The tree where it seems that Eywa resides sends out floating seeds which are called “very pure spirits” by Neytiri. These seeds gather around and land on Jake when he first arrives, a “sign” that Jake is special. Thus, Jake is chosen or recognized by the goddess as the avatar who will save the Nav’i. He is not the chosen of the gods, but the chosen of a goddess.
“Hear Us, All Mother”
The special tree is the “tree of souls” where the Nav’i connect to their “mother,” Eywa. There, they plug in to “hear the voices of our ancestors.” The tree’s roots also connect with all other living things on the planet, forming a living interconnecting system throughout Pandora.
The scientist from Earth in charge of the Avatar program, Grace Augustine, has an epiphany toward the end of the movie that Pandora is a living “network” with its own consciousness. This is similar to the idea behind the Gaia Hypothesis, a theory that the earth is a self-regulating organism, proposed by chemist James Lovelock (1919-2022) in 1972. He chose the name “Gaia” because Gaia was the Greek goddess of the earth. Lovelock later wrote Homage to Gaia (2001) and The Revenge of Gaia (2006) and other books.
Neytiri tells Jake that Eywa does not take sides but “protects only the balance of life.” In other words, the highest good is the “balance of life,” not the lives of intelligent creatures such as the Nav’i or even of animals, but rather the balance itself is sacred. Nevertheless, Neytiri later tells Jake that “Eywa heard you” after he performs a feat.
The name “Grace Augustine” clearly has Christian references. When Grace is dying, there is a blatant pagan ritual performed by the Nav’i before the Tree of Souls to save Grace’s life. Chanting and moving their bodies frenetically, they cry out, “Hear us, Mother Eywa.” With her last breath, Grace intones, “I’m with her [Eywa]. She’s real.”
After Augustine’s death, the shaman states, “She’s with Eywa now.” Does the fact that Grace Augustine goes over to the Nav’i side and professes her belief in Eywa mean that Christianity should or will embrace Gaia, the Eywa of planet Earth? Or that Christianity will be absorbed and subsumed into Gaia?
Jake as well ends up talking to Eywa, telling her that earthlings “killed their mother” (meaning planet Earth).
The shaman looks possessed as she intones the chant before this tree. It is an eerie and chilling scene. Again the viewer sees chanting and homage paid to Eywa at the end when the Nav’i perform a ritual to transfer Jake’s soul permanently into the avatar body of a Nav’i. It is not “sort of a pagan ritual” or “sort of goddess worship” as I have seen people say. It is pagan and it is goddess worship to its core.
James Cameron is the executive producer of the documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” which unsuccessfully tried to claim that the tomb of Jesus had been found with Jesus’ body in it.
Pandora and Gaia
In contrast to the goddess Eywa being one with Pandora, the earth and the whole universe was created by God and belongs to Him (Exodus 9:29; Psalm 24:1, 89:11). God is omnipresent but is distinct from creation.
The belief that the balance of nature or energy is the goal or is the highest good is the concept of Taoism and is found in the occult as well. When a balance of forces is the goal (found in the “Star Wars” movies as well), then there are no absolutes and no ultimate right or wrong. There is no intelligence in force or balance; therefore, there is no morality. Morality is a concept that exists only with mind and intelligence. In Avatar, balance reigns supreme as an impersonal paramount value.
Despite Eywa as the deity of Pandora, Eywa seems to be equated with nature and is not distinct from it. Furthermore, there is the connection of energy so that all is one. If all is one, then ultimately there are no distinctions between creatures, nature, and god(dess). A lack of distinctions also means no distinction between truth and falsehood, or between good and evil.
It seems clear that Cameron has made a parallel between Pandora and the concept of Earth as Gaia, and his preference is to treat Earth as the Nav’i treat Pandora. Yet the scientist Grace Augustine understands the network of energy as a scientific principle operating in a material way. So there is a contradiction between the concept of nature as sacred and nature as merely a physical, material component of some kind of energy. Which is it? The only way for it to be both is to abandon a transcendent religion altogether and be a naturalist. Perhaps the religion of Pandora and Gaia does devolve into mere worship of the natural, or naturalism. If so, then there is no transcendent god, goddess, or meaning to life.
Jesus is not an Avatar
Comparisons of Jake becoming a Nav’i to Christ’s incarnation fall short. First of all, an avatar is not a true incarnation but rather a manifestation. Jake is human, but Jesus is God. Jesus was not an avatar (see CANA article, “The Piscean Avatar: The Jesus of Astrology”).
Secondly, Jake did not initially want to become a Nav’i. He only grew to like it because as a human he was crippled as a man, but as a Nav’i, he had legs; plus he fell in love with Neytiri. However, Christ, out of love, gave up his glory as God the Son and chose to incarnate as man (John 10:11; Galatians 1:4, 2:20; Ephesians 5:2; Philippians 2:6-8; 1 John 3:16).
Thirdly, Jake did not suffer a penalty for anyone as Jesus did when he suffered the penalty for sins (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 3:17; 1 John 2:2, 4:10). Nor did Jake redeem anyone from sin and death as Jesus did (Acts 2:24, 5:30; 1 Corinthians 15; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 9:15), giving eternal life to all those who believe in Him (Romans 4:24, 8:11; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 2 Corinthians 4:14; Ephesians 1:20).
Finally, the ultimate meaning for Jake is to join the Nav’i and worship nature. Christ came to glorify God, the creator of nature, and to reconcile man with the true living transcendent God (2 Corinthians 5:20; Colossians 1:20).
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:6-8
But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. Acts 2:24