It has always intrigued me that the computer world applies words traditionally meant to point towards sacred realities– “icon” and “avatar”–in weird but apt ways. An icon, for example, is a small image that can be clicked on to become a gateway to a much larger reality–a two-dimensional technological version of the way an Byzantine icon can lead an Orthodox Christian who contemplates it to an appreciation of the greater reality it represents. Similarly, an avatar is a picture vehicle or a cartoon personification for a real person while a traditional avatar was a Hindu deity incarnated in human form–the way Lord Krishna appeared to Arjuna on the battlefield. Who first thought of using these terms? What computer geek (s) with a love of comparative religion chose those words instead of the cute common word “cookie” or the made-up word “google”? It seems to suggest that at least some of the time, computing and software design attracts people who have some of the same questions and hopes that animate spiritual search–i.e. the exchange of energy. Certainly, this is true of technologist and gift economy entrepreneur Nipun Mehta, whom Parabola interviewed last year.
James Cameron’s film “Avatar” is a gorgeous digitally animated and live action fantasy exploration of what it could be like to be human and inhabit a greater reality. Regardless of how they may judge the story Cameron tells, almost everyone who has seen the film has been bowled over by the way Cameron (working with a crew of thousands) has reimagined nature. In the New Yorker, David Denby writes: “As Cameron surges through the picture plane, brushing past tree branches, coursing alongside foaming-mouthed creatures, we may be overcome by an uncanny sense of emerging, becoming, transcending–a sustained mood of elation produced by vaulting into space.” Set on Pandora, an Eden-like planet, and among the tribal clan, the Na’vi, who sense and worship the connections among all living beings. As Denby describes them: “In their easy command of nature, they are meant to evoke aboriginal people everywhere. They have spiritual powers and, despite their elementary weapons–bows and arrows–real powers, too. From each one’s head emerges a long braid ending in tendrils that are alive with nerves. When the Na’vi plug their braids into similar neural cords that that hang from the heads of crested, horselike animals and giant birds, they achieve zahelu“….the Na’vi can merge with the animals and govern their behavior with their own thoughts (in some other reports I’ve read, this is the way the Na’vi merge with one another as well). In the film, a shadowy mega corporation grow tall blue avatars by incorporating a few peoples’ DNA–among them Jake, a paralyzed ex-marine. When Jake slips into his avatar body he can suddenly run and jump againg–even before he goes flying on a kind of huge, colorful pterodactyl–we feel the soaring joy of movement.
Another writer calls Avatar “a long apologia for pantheism–a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.” That columnist claims that “pantheism has been Hollywood’s religioun of choice for a generation now…It’s the metaphysics woven through Disney cartoons like The Lion King and Pocahontas. dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force ‘surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.'”
Hmmmmm. So many interesting questions bubble up. I remember so vividly experiencing meditation for the first time–that experience of coming down out of my thoughts and reconnecting with sensory awareness–and with feelings and thoughts before they hardened into ideas. That was like slipping into an avatar and visiting a gorgeous new world, a connected world. But now, decades on, I can also see how easy it is to take that realm for Reality…when perhaps there is a higher heaven? How crucial it is to get out of the cage of the ego and rediscover the body…yet there is even more….