Although the Hindu word avatar has been used in English long before the film, James Cameron's Avatar has given the term a newfound popularity with filmgoers around the world. For Hiren Bhakta, a practicing Hindu from Cincinnati, the term’s transition has provided for a learning experience.
"Words like guru and chakra had already broken through as pioneers of the language migration. At first I thought it was a butchering of Indian culture...I believed that there was a sanctity or holiness associated with the words, but I realized that my concept of sacred was misplaced. Words are only as sacred as the meaning that they are used to convey, not in the way they are said,” says Bhakta.
Avatar is most closely translated in English as "incarnation," and finds its origins in the Sanskrit word avatara, or "descent." In Hinduism, avatars are an attempt by the human intellect, through symbolic representation, to give form to the formless Brahman, the transcendent reality which is, and pervades, all things animate and inanimate. Avatar, as a term, is most widely associated in Hinduism with Vishnu, the deity whose incarnations are often depicted as having blue skin, similar to the Na’vi in Cameron’s Avatar.
Symbolically, blue is a reflection of nature's most pervading and infinite manifestation in relation to human perception: the sky and the ocean. It is the color blue that represents the infinite in our imagination. In this way, Vishnu’s appearance is a reminder for Hindus of the divine energy that connects all animate and inanimate objects. The act of worshiping Vishnu, therefore, provides the Hindu mind a channel through which one can continually give, and inherently gain, respect for the energy that sustains life and creation.
"The stories of avatars in Hinduism are mythological, but the underlying concepts are deeply philosophical,” says Bhakta. Interestingly, in Cameron’s Avatar, the Na'vi are physically able to connect to both plant and animal life—an ability that allows them to fully understand, and ultimately worship, the deep connection shared by all things in their environment. Cameron’s concept of Pandora and the physical interconnectedness shared by its inhabitants parallels that which exists, in a spiritual sense, in certain Hindu ways of thought.
The connection is taken a step further in Cameron’s decision to visualize a reincarnation of sorts, as a human is bestowed new life as a full-fledged Na’vi, permanently retaining life on Pandora. The scene depicts luminescent, jellyfish-shaped fireflies moving from the human body to the Na’vi host, completing a transfer of consciousness from one entity to another.
Although there are Hindus that find the language migration misused, there are positive outcomes to be had—in Avatar’s case, the sharing of thought-provoking philosophical ideas. “I’ve started to accept the way Hindu words and concepts are used in Western culture…and I celebrate the fusion of ideas,” says Bhakta, who believes Cameron’s film can give Hindus a sense of entitlement with their own lives.