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Open Access Publications from the University of California

From Gods To Gamers: The Manifestation of the Avatar Throughout Religious History and Postmodern Culture


When James Cameron’s epic film, Avatar, was released in 2009, it was the highest-grossing film of all time. Yet how many people who watched it were aware of the multifaceted Hindu doctrine underlying the concept of the avatara? This paper traces the avatar from the Vedic age to the present day, examining how it has persisted and adapted for over three thousand years. First the complex history of the Hindu avatara is examined through Hindu religious literature, mythology, and hagiography. This is followed by a deeper exploration of the theology of the avatar as a “hierophany”, or divine manifestation, through three progressively deepening dimensions of Hindu belief—dharma, bhakti, and moksha. The final chapter concludes with a glimpse of the avatar concept in the postmodern world, now stripped of its religious context and emerging as a simulacrum of selfhood in the digital age. The question is asked whether the secularization of the avatar is a simple case of cultural appropriation, or what possibilities for authenticity remain as we explore the recoding of religious idioms in popular culture.

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