January 26, 2010

James Cameron's Avatar from the perspective of Hindu Philosophy

James Cameron's blockbuster movie, Avatar, about which I have written about in an earlier post, might have unconsciously sparked off a flurry of interest in the Hindu concept of Avatar, which can be loosely translated as a manifestation of -- usually -- the Divine in human form. But the term Avatar first entered the modern, techno-savvy, non-Hindu lexicon through its usage in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) like Everquest, World of Warcraft and 3D Virtual Worlds like Second Life. The MMORPG eco-system -- players and builders alike -- treats an Avatar as a digital extension of a conscious human entity, the player, and is used to "manifest" the player's personality and behaviour,  however imperfectly, in the game domain. So there are two domains -- the virtual, digital domain inhabited by the Avatar and the real, physical domain inhabited by the human player -- and these are connected through the "magic" of the MMORPG hardware and software.

James Cameron's Avatar also has two domains but both are physical and unlike an MMORPG where the human and the avatar can  exists simultaenously in both, these two domains are constrained by the fact that either one or the other can at any point of time be the carrier of the consciousness. So Cameron's Avatar is a distortion of the concept of the MMORPG Avatar which itself is based on the Hindu concept of the Avatar.

Traditional Hindu theology -- as distinct from Hindu philosophy -- treats Avatars as manifestations of the Divine Personality of the GodHead generally referred to as Narayana. Hindu mythology documents ten manifestations of Narayan, nine of which have already occured and the tenth is expected at the end of the current physical cycle of human existence. Some scholars have read the nine previous avatars -- Fish (Aquatic),Turtle (Amphibian), Boar (Mammal), Nara-Simha (Centaur like, half man), Dwarf (stunted man), Parashuram (fierce warrior), Rama (the Monarch), Krishna (the Statesman) and Buddha (the Wise) -- as a representation of the Darwinian ascent of human consciouness from the primordial soup-of-life to his current intellectual status. The tenth avatar, Kalki represents the Armageddon, that will be the prelude to the violent end of the current Kalpa -- or human cycle -- after which a new cycle should start once again.

But theology and mythology aside, there is one branch of Hindu philosophy articulated by Sankara in the 8th Century as Advaita Vedanta, that comes very close to the original treatment of Avatars in MMORPGs. I have explored this in my earlier posts : Maya, Matrix and MMORPG, Second Life and the Maya of Vedanta, MMORPG and the Maya of Vedanta. 

Vedanta postulates that there is one "Reality" and all that we see around us is an illusion or illusory manifestation of this fundamental reality that is referred to Atman : the primordial singularity. What bends one's mind even more, and takes us to the limits of cognitive consciousness, is the fact that we, or the mind that experiences this illusion, is itself an illusion -- a recursion that seems to push us beyond pale of credibility.

This is where modern science can come to our rescue. In my book, The Road to pSingularity, I have explored how the intriguing philosophy of Advaita Vedanta can be rationalised in terms of (a) the Turing Machine, which is the cornerstone of current computer technology and (b) the Human Genome, which is the cornerstone of current biological research and how Godel's theorem of Incompleteness can be invoked to explain the final gap between the rational analysis of Vedanta and the intuitive experience of enlightenment.

Should you be intrigued by the philosophy of Vedanta and would like to explore it in terms of modern technology you may consider buying a copy of the Road to pSingularity at Bookshop@Yantrajaal.

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