Avatar and Spirituality

Last Saturday my son Ken and I went to see the movie Avatar together. It was Children’s Day in Thailand, and I first thought of taking Ken to the newly opened “Thailand Knowledge Park” at the Central World Shopping Mall. We did spend some time there but in the end we went to see the movie which was already shown at the same shopping mall. It was a very big movie, both in length (almost three hours) and in the content.

The theme of the movie is the fight between those who want to exploit nature for private gains and those who fight to protect it. This is of course a very well worn theme, but the setting of the movie, in an imaginary, remote planet far, far away from earth, kind of made up for this redundancy. The remote setting also adds to the urgency of the theme. It kind of made us think the matter through again. A group of people went all the way from earth to the planet Pandora to mine a very expensive kind of mineral there. The journey takes more than five years on board of space ships, and it takes more than five years to travel there. Those who have their missions at the planet have to have their bodies frozen up. The main character in the movie said that it felt like a bad sleep.

Pandora is not exactly uninhabited. There is a tribe of people there, the Na’vi, who is twice taller than an average human and much stronger. Their problem, however, is that they are forest dwelling people and do not have much technology beyond bows and arrows. Their sacred dwelling place, a very huge tree where they live inside, happens to be on top of a huge amount of deposit of this mineral so desired by the earth people. So this is the seed of the conflict. All efforts by earth people to persuade the Na’vi people to leave their sacred tree have failed, and the only way out was a violent conflict. Much of the movie then is on this fight scene which is really exciting for my son and others of his age. I don’t need to say who wins in this fight. This is easy to guess.

However, what I would like to say about this movie is that it encapsulates some very interesting ideas in philosophy and spirituality. The Na’vi people believe that the world and their forest is an expression of the Mother Goddess they call “Eywa.” Eywa is nature and everything else; thus everybody is already part of Her. We learn that she “does not take side” in conflicts between people. She only takes care of the “balance of life.”

So there have been some blogs (such as this one) saying that the movie is perhaps advocating pantheism, the idea that everything is identical to God. However, some (like the author of the same blog) say that instead of pantheism, the idea presented is more panentheism, the view that everything is included in God, that God exceeds the whole totality of nature. The difference between the two is that pantheism believes that everything is God and God is everything. God is nature (‘nature’ is the catch all word for everything, anything whatsoever) and nature is God. Like Spinoza said, ‘God’ and ‘Nature’ are two interchangeable words, meaning absolutely the same. Panentheism, on the other hand, believes that God is more than nature. Nature is part of God, and here panentheism agrees with pantheism, but God is more than nature. There is part of God that is not in nature.

Nonetheless, I am not saying here whether pantheism or panentheism is the correct interpretation of the movie. What I would like to say is about my reflection of the movie, its spiritual message, so to speak. The message is clear enough. We need to protect nature. For the Na’vi people, their sacred tree and the Tree of Souls, which is some kind of center nervous control for Eywa herself, cannot be exchanged for anything. These are their lives, their very beings; thus they are very sacred places indeed. We moderns have lost much touch with this idea of nature being sacred. For us nature is merely an object to be exploited, bought and sold, but for the Na’vi and close to home for many indigenous people it is very different.

Another message from the movie concerns globalization and its role in changing indigenous cultures. This is very close to us, but somehow we need a setting light years from our home to get the message across. Now globalization does not limit itself only to earth, but spans across the galaxy. This illustrates how greed is really limitless, a message that the Buddha gave us more than two millennia ago. Thus, apart from the philosophical discussion on pantheism and panentheism (I believe, contrary to others, that the message is rather pantheistic, but I have to talk about this in another post.), the message is that greed is to be avoided or at least limited. There is indeed no end to what we want to take. Even the whole universe would not be enough, let alone an extra-solar planet like Pandora. But before we really get to be able to travel to Pandora, perhaps we need to learn to live within our means and control our exploitation of nature within this earth. Otherwise going to Pandora might be nothing more than mere fantasy.

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