Why 'Avatar' Feels More Real For Hindus Than For Other Cultures
The struggles of the Na'vi people as shown in the first 'Avatar' movie mirror both the historic as well as the contemporary struggles of Hindus.
The first Avatar movie (2009) became a phenomenal success soon after its release.
Beyond the magnificent graphics and the fantasy realm it created, the movie had also had additional attractions for Indians — the name itself and the bow-arrow wielding blue-skinned humanoids, who resembled Hindu deities.
The movie is set in a moon in Alpha Centauri star system, where a westernised corporate humanity is colonising another world. That world is named Pandora and it is mined for the mineral unobtanium.
On the planet, the humans meet a very forest-based blue-skinned humanoids — the 10-foot tall Na’vi.
While at one level the movie makes a statement against corporate development that destroys the tribal communities like in the Amazonian — at another level it is also a confessional statement of Western anthropology itself.
Western anthropology studies other cultures and civilisations — mining them for knowledge and that knowledge later becomes the basis for very physical colonialism.
Colonisers present themselves as a civilising force in the beginning. But when it finally comes to make the Na’vi abandon their way of life as well as spirituality — simply their Dharma — they use force.
At this point, we can also mention the lingering colonialist discourse in the movie itself where the saviour of the natives comes from outside and is a male and seduces or falls in love with the ‘native’ female proving his higher masculinity than the males of the ‘native tribe’.
Avatar is initially in the movie a corporate infiltration programme that involves a hybrid body and a human operator. At this point, it is villainous in the discourse of the storyline. But a transformed Avatar becomes the saviour of the tribe and one of the tribe — fulfilling in a way the original meaning of the term. Here, the Avatar becomes positive.
But the movie shows three aspects that are relevant from a Hindu point of view.
The first is about the network of the root systems that the ‘Tree of Souls’ possesses. They form an intelligent network which is also spiritual.
The colonisers call the floating mountain on which the tree stands as "Hallelujah Mountains". For them its real significance is the large deposit of unobtanium.
By renaming the floating mountain "Hallelujah Mountains" the colonisers give a semblance of respecting the divinity of the mountain but reduce it to a glory of a male sky god than a complete goddess in itself.
The Na’vi call the tree "Vitraya Ramunong" and it is the most sacred spot associated with Eywa, the goddess. One of the marines who had obtained the Avatar training explains what or who Eywa is:
Who's Eywa? Only their deity! Their goddess, made up of all living things. Everything they know!
The conceptualisation of an intelligent root system actually can be traced back to Charles Darwin and his botanist-son Francis Darwin.
Darwin stated that the tip of the radicle behaves like the brain in other animals. That was in 1880.
Then Acharya Bose showed how plants respond to variety of signals and he questioned the artificial barrier between plant and animal behaviour.
In 2009, the same year the movie came, a team of scientists, Baluska et al, revisited the root-brain hypothesis in the historical context as well as in the light of modern discoveries and had this to say:
The common descent of all organisms is the central pillar of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and, as pledged by Jagadish Chandra Bose, the unity of life implied thereby is a revelation of both beauty and simplicity. By the same token, the existence of a plant neurobiology harmonises with the neurobiology of animals.Baluski et al, The ‘root-brain’ hypothesis of Charles and Francis Darwin Revival after more than 125 years, Plant Signaling & Behavior 4:12, 1121-1127
And now in 2022 we learn that the roots actually play a very dynamic role in making the soil almost a mega-organism with other microbes also joining the music of life.
The current functionality of soils in providing food and fuel and fibres, supplying plant nutrients, filtering water and flood regulation, and disease suppression are all dependent on the activities of plant roots. Roots are actively communicating and collaborating with other organisms for mutual benefit, and the signals underlying this modulation of the rhizosphere microbiome are being identified.Peter Gregory, Are plant roots only “in” soil or are they “of” it? Roots,soil formation and function, European Journal of Soil Science, 2022
So here the movie quite rightly identifies a physical and ecological connectivity. It then brings in the humanoids as evolving a spirituality that taps into this ecological connectivity.
Basically, this is also what Hindu Dharma is. It is not a constructed religion of dogmas and beliefs. It is an evolved natural religion of experience and diversity.
The 'Avatar' is an important technology. Again, it should not be considered as futuristic, though such a cybernetically connected and controlled genetic systems may well become a reality sooner than we think. This has already been happening right from the colonial times.
A colonial-evangelical ‘scholar’ dressed as a ‘native’ or posturing as being genuinely interested in ‘native’ spirituality, coming and mining knowledge is a well-known strategy wrought with disastrous consequences for the ‘natives’.
Even if they manage to reacquire their land rights often only partially, as a charity from the dominant Western civilisation, their spiritual traditions are completely destroyed and theo-colonial expansionism becomes irreversible.
The theo-colonial implants are the more effective controller systems than the ‘Avatar’ project shown.
The planet coming together and alive, to save herself is another scintillating climax scene in the movie. What is shown in a dramatic fantasy-filled way happens in real life in a very different manner.
The best example is Ram Setu. This may or may not be an artificial structure. Most probably it may be more a natural formation with human-additions made to it. But it has made itself part of the sacred geography of the land. It is important for the biodiversity of the region.
Consider for a moment Ram Setu as a live organism. It has triggered through a series of sacred literature a sense of mystic belonging to it. So, when it got threatened, it reawakened the sacred memories and bhakti. It brought a network of human brains to argue for it — using Ramayana and Rama Bhakti.
None saved Ram Setu. Ram Sethu saved itself using us. We are its tools.
This is just a speculation. But more often the structures of sacred geography so integral to the organic being of a natural religion like Sanatana Dharma (perhaps the only surviving natural religion) gets protected through sacred lore.
Do they, who are millions of years older than humanity, infuse us with the sense of sacred to make us the tools of their protection?
That is a Dharmic thought worth pondering. That is also evolution at work.
Finally, when I saw the ‘Tree of Souls’ the sacred tree fall, I cannot but remember an event recorded by a missionary administrator in my own place.
The scene of missile power destroying the 'Tree of Souls' was not a futuristic imagination that unfolds in the screen. It was actually a replay of history. Now read this.
In one of the mountains of Travancore grew a noble timber tree which our assistant missionary Mr. Ashton wished to secure for use in the erection of the large chapel at Neyyor. The trunk was so large that four men with outstretched arms could not compass it and the branches were as thick as the ordinary trees of that species. …Even the native government has refrained from cutting down the monarch of the forest for their public works. …The mountaineers firmly refused to assist in cutting down the tree, so that the missionaries had to bring Christian workmen from considerable distance. At last the tree fell with a terrible crash, which echoed amongst surrounding mountains, amidst screams and cries of the heathen who from that time seemed to listen more readily to the exhortations of the missionary. Much of the wood-work of the chapel was made of this single tree; so that what had formerly been used in the service of the devil now became subservient to the worship of the one true and living god.“Rev”. Samuel Mateer, Land of Charity pp.206-7, London, 1870
This passage is from Samuel Mateer’s account of what happened around 1860s in Kanyakumari district. Pandora and the Na’vi fights are not in the realm imaginal.
For Hindus, events in the screen are not even closer than they appear but happening right now and here.
Also Read: 'Avatar: The Way Of Water' Is Western Cinema's Rare Acknowledgement Of The Cosmic Mother
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