New movie Avatar shines light on Hindu word

In James Cameron's new film, Avatar, the Titanic director creates a world where humans take on the form of avatars to exist on a planet called Pandora. The humans that belong to these avatars control them through technology, but some use their powerful avatar bodies for evil as they try to ruin the resources of the planet.

The term “avatar” might already be familiar to those who play virtual reality games where avatars are movable images representing real people.

Hinduism recognize three main deities. It is believed that these deities sent avatars — incarnations of themselves in human form — to perform “dharma,” or righteous duty.
Avatar's origins, however, come from the Sanskrit language in sacred Hindu texts, and it's a term for divine beings sent to restore goodness to Earth.

Hinduism, the third-largest religion in the world with about 1 billion adherents, began many centuries ago on the Indian subcontinent, and a majority of the world's Hindus reside in India.
Those who practice Hinduism recognize three main deities. Lord Brahma is considered the creator of the universe; Lord Vishnu is considered the sustainer of the universe, to right things when needed; and Lord Shiva is the redeemer of the universe.

It is believed that these deities sent avatars — incarnations of themselves in human form — to perform “dharma,” or righteous duty, to right wrongs or to restore peace and goodness.
Hindu theology names 10 numbered avatars. Two of the most important from Hindu scripture are Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Lord Vishnu and written about in the poem Ramayana; and Lord Krishna, written about in the mythological poem Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata, the world's longest epic poem at more than 90,000 verses and one of the most important Hindu texts, tells of a battle between bad forces and the Pandava family. The avatar Lord Krishna appears to assist Arjuna, one of the five Pandava family brothers, reveals his divinity to him and encourages him that it is his duty to fight for right.

Illustrations of these Hindu avatars, which are magnificently detailed and reflect an aura of divinity, are in stark contrast to Cameron's alien-meets-robot-warrior look in the film.

Despite the very different avatar interpretations, local Hindus' reverence for specific avatars from their scripture does not conflict with how they are seeing the modern usage of the term.

“The way the term is now being used is not a distortion of my beliefs,” said Anil Dandona, a practicing Hindu. “It is just a term. We believe the Supreme Being sent humans to create righteousness. These messengers of God take a human form, but they have godlike qualities, and they are delegates sent to do a task.”
Rishi Bhutada, Houston coordinator of the American Hindu Foundation, agreed with Dandona. He said that while Hindus use the term to mean an alternative representation of the divine, using it to mean some other representation does not “raise any hackles.”

“There are certain sacred terms that would offend Hindus if used improperly, but avatar is not one of them,” Bhutada said.

Local filmmaker Ashok Rao, who has made four full-length feature films, is looking forward to Cameron's film, and he feels that as long as filmmakers do not insult the sensitivities of a particular religion, then artistic license can be used.

“The film's use of avatar is a close relationship to the original meaning. It is a word meaning reincarnation and isn't meant to always mean a representative of God on Earth. It simply means one being in another form.”
“In literature, moviemaking, poetry and other forms of art, something is taken and stretched in meaning. That is art,” said Rao.

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