CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


The religion of Avatar?
It was born in Piedmont, Italy

by Massimo Introvigne (Avvenire, 30 January 2010)


James Cameron's film Avatar combines an incredible technology, that can be only appreciated in 3D on the big screen and that can truly bring back to the cinema all those who feed only on Internet and TV, with an all-in-all very simple plot and a debatable ideology. The Na'vi, the peaceful inhabitants of the planet Pandora attacked by earthly mercenaries hired by a multinational, are in fact an obvious metaphor for all of those who are 'different': and the message is that those who are 'different' are always and in any case better than us. If it were only a criticism of what Giulio Tremonti calls the 'turbo-capitalism' of multinationals - including its scarce respect for cultures and the environment - there would be nothing to object. But the fact is - as many Christian critics in the United States have noticed - that the moral superiority of the Na'vi is derived from their religion, which the spectator is brought to admire and share.

The film teaches that this religion is superior to those of the earthlings, because it unites rather than dividing, because it is monistic rather than dualistic. It does not distinguish between Creator and creatures, and it venerates Eywa, the Mother or the All, a sort of collective mind of the universe that reveals it to be an extremely dense network of interconnections. Everything is connected with everything else, and the Na'vi shamans perform miracles, including healings, because they are able to penetrate these lines of connection and enter into attunement with Eywa. The classic name for this religion - not used in Cameron's film - is pantheism: but this is a pantheism revisited with an ecological and New Age flavour. The reference to New Age is obvious, and it is more convincing than the hypothesis that the Na'vi's religion is a slightly modified variation of Hinduism - a comment that made the front pages of Indian daily newspapers. The expression ‘New Age,’ nevertheless, indicates a genre and not a species. There are very many New Age groups, and there is quite a lot of diversity among them.

Those who are familiar with this world, when confronted by Avatar can't help but notice that the New Age group that comes closest to the Na'vi’s way of thinking is not in the United States, but in Italy, in the province of Turin. It's Damanhur, the "Aquarian" center founded in 1976 in Valchiusella by Oberto Airaudi, a place that is famous for its great underground temple. Despite how much its 'citizens' - as they prefer to call themselves - dislike this label, Damanhur represents the largest New Age community in the world. The hypothesis that Cameron could have been inspired by Damanhur is not so far-fetched. Books and videos about Damanhur in English are very common in the American New Age circuit, and the story of the underground temple that the community, quite incredibly, succeeded in keeping secret until 1992 has fascinated even large newspapers. The similarities are astonishing. Like the underground temple of Damanhur, the center of power and spirituality of the Na'vi is hidden: inside an enormous tree.

Like the Damanhurians, the Na'vi have their sacred language, and the use of it, both in Cameron's film and at Damanhur in Valchiusella, helps to indicate the difference with those who are not part of the community. Both the Na'vi and the Damanhurian citizens emphasize the value of being part of a 'people', a belonging that is not only ethnic but initiatic, and - as the protagonist of the film himself demonstrates - voluntary. The Damanhurians greet each other, recognizing the deep communion that exists between them, with the words, "Con te” (With you), not with the usual "buongiorno.” The Na'vi do the same by saying "I see you." At Damanhur, every member of the community establishes a special - bilateral - connection with an animal, taking on its name. Amongst the Na'vi, every warrior becomes one by choosing a winged animal to ride, and by being chosen by it at the same time.

The Damanhurian citizen, writes the founder Airaudi, becomes "a drop that is conscious of oneself and of all the other drops forming the sea of Being." The Na'vi would agree. Both the Na'vi and the Damanhurians believe pantheistically in a great All, where each manifestation of nature and life is in connection with all the rest. Like the Na'vi, the Damanhurians attempt to interact with these connections – also by using special symbols – obtaining results, or so they say, even therapeutic ones. One can understand - in the United States and elsewhere - the diffidence of the Church and the Christian community, for which pantheism, and the negation of the ontological difference between the Creator and the creation, are centuries-old enemies, now returning with the New Age. But until now, there haven’t been very many people who have seen the origin of this new Hollywood religion very close to us, in Valchiusella