July/August 2010 Featured Stories
Spiritual Teachings of Avatar

by Jeffrey Armstrong

Paradigm-shifting ideas can germinate for years, even decades, until the time is right for them to manifest.

So when I heard that it took over 20 years for director James Cameron to develop the vision for his recent megablockbuster film Avatar, I was not surprised. We do have something in common: I have spent the last 40 years studying the deepest meanings of the word “avatar” and the multilayered teachings associated with it.

Cameron’s choice of the word avatar — a key word from the divine stories of ancient India, and my special field of study — inspired the writing of my book, Spiritual Teachings of the Avatar. Behind the film and this book — and many undeniable trends unfolding at this time in history — are the will and working of something greater. One can call that will Mother Earth, Gaia or whatever you like, but its existence should be clear to anyone even remotely aware that the human species and the planet we inhabit are at a watershed moment.

Both the film and the book converge on this historical moment, when what we do next could affect positively — or tragically — all life on our planet. Through science and technology, we have grown too powerful to continue the unconscious and at times irresponsible use of our resources and abilities. We are at a crossroads where we must somehow learn to more deeply cooperate with one another and chart a course for the future that includes the safety, dignity and well-being of all living entities. Unless we do so, we risk catastrophic consequences, militarily or environmentally.

As I walked out of my first viewing of Avatar, I turned to my wife and said, “It appears that Mr. Cameron has opened Pandora’s box office.” I’m prone to such puns.

In Greek mythology, a young girl named Pandora is given a box by her father, who cautions her not to open it under any circumstances. Her curiosity, of course, eventually gets the better of her, and she opens the mysterious chest. Out flies every manner of pestilence, problem, affliction and misery. Just as it seems all is lost, one last being emerges from the box: luminous, quivering and sensitive — that being is hope.

Seeing Avatar, I felt that sort of hope for a sometimes cynical and endangered world. It was the same hope I experienced 40 years earlier when I was initiated into the life-changing wisdom of the avatars by my teachers from India. That hope is actually a lifestyle based on a set of teachings that are the treasure of the best indigenous cultures on our planet.

India and the many noble Aboriginal cultures have been the historical keepers of the secrets of living in greater harmony on the Earth. The word aboriginal means “awareness of the original intention” of life. Undeniably, aspects of that original intention have been skillfully woven into the fabric of the film Avatar. By titling his box-office smash Avatar, Cameron both borrowed one of the most important spiritual words in the history of India and simultaneously helped give rise to the opportunity to tell its real meaning.

The movie Avatar shines a glaring light on some of the oppression, unchecked greed and injustices we see happening around us today. The movie’s message is perhaps most relevant for those profit-only corporate heads who behave as if taking from the world, without concern for the consequences, is their right — and one justified by the earnings garnered for their shareholders. This attitude needs to give way to a caring corporate ethos with heart, balanced somewhere between sustainability and profit.

The movie could also be seen as a call against despotism and dictators of all types whom we see leading undemocratic nation-states all over the world. How can we be serious about being free if we all are not allowed to speak freely?

Another important issue raised by Avatar is the meeting of technological science with indigenous science. In other words, how can we advance technologically without going against Mother Nature’s vast intelligence? How can we even come to believe in an intelligence that to so many is self-evident? Answers to these big questions are what the hope in Pandora’s box is asking us to ponder.

The Meaning of Avatar

Avatar, a Sanskrit word, combines ava, meaning “to descend,” and tara, “to heal and restore.” The idea is that a divine being, or supreme being, purposely descends to Earth, takes on a body (which appears to us as a person being born), and then fulfills some kind of mission according to the needs of the moment. This is different from reincarnating, which is not a conscious, intentional birth but a result of karma. The avatars come according to their own will.

When the avatars come, their primary purpose is to rescue and heal the Earth at a time when the balance in nature or Mother Earth is being destroyed. The secondary purpose is to remind us that we also are beings from the transcendental and that transcendental is our true nature. The avatars usually leave us a set of teachings that are essential tools for living a life of integrity for the good of all. The avatars exemplify this message and teach us to do the same.

Love Your Mother

It is commonly understood that indigenous cultures have always viewed the Earth as a great being that is alive in every sense of the definition — and far greater than ourselves. How did they discover this? Put another way, how did we forget this?

As we drive certain plants, animals and resources to extinction, a scene in Avatar symbolizes the hopeful epiphany for modern technology when scientist Dr. Grace Augustine finally sees the All Mother Eywa and says, “I can see her, Jake, and she is real.”

What would it look like if science and business — and our own habits — supported a more sustainable planet? Would the economy really collapse from a reduction in fossil-fuel use? What if the same urgency we applied to war or bank bailouts or races to Mars were applied to the manufacturing of renewable-resource technology?

Part of the hope in Pandora’s box is that modern science decides to join with the deepest traditions of our ancestors to reimagine our world as a peaceful and sustainable place for the safety and growth of future generations.

The process of sustainability can be deeply enriched through really trying to feel what a relationship with Mother Nature might look like. On this spiritual journey, trying to live more sustainably can be a means of increasing one’s consciousness while surrounded by matter.

Listen inward. Listen to all that surrounds you. The tears you cry for the environment, both joy and sadness, are the tears of your original mother. You are feeling her, and she is feeling you — and you both know it. How beautiful is that?

Jeffrey Armstrong, author of Spiritual Teachings of the Avatar, is the founder of the Vedic Academy of Science and Arts. Visit www.jeffreyarmstrong.com. Excerpted with permission by Atria Books/Beyond Words at www.beyondword.com.

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