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Some thoughts on religion in the World of Avatar

I began considering this while watching “The Voice in the Night” last Saturday. Before the evening meal, Tenzin and his family bow their heads, clasp their hands, and close their eyes while this prayer is offered: “We are grateful for this delicious food, for our happiness, for compassion—“. With about the same timing as Tarrlok, my friend’s little sister bounced into the room and directly addressed the TV with “Hey Tenzin! Who’re ya talkin’ to?” We shushed her and continued watching, but I began to wonder: who was Tenzin talking to? How much of a concept of a divine all-powerful being, a creator deity, do the inhabitants of the Avatar Universe have?

I have some knowledge of some of the real-life influences on spiritual traditions in the Avatarverse. Most obvious is the culture of the Air Nomads, based on the monastic tradition of Tibetan Buddhists, as many real-world names, customs, art styles, and teachings have been directly applied to them. Guru Pathik, with his wisdom about chakras, brings a bit more of a subcontinental flavor with his blend of Buddhist and Hindu thought. The regional beliefs of the spirits of nature and the sanctity of life draw on such animistic traditions as Shinto, Bön, and a great deal I’m forgetting at the moment. Even the near-deification of the past Avatars reminds one of the Confucian value of filial piety, or ancestor worship. But as far as I’ve seen, Bryke have stayed away from the idea of a single, omnipotent Judeo-Christian god, or even a great creator spirit (I’d be really interested to hear the mythology of the Avatar World’s creation, just saying).

Thinking back, though, some characters have directly addressed a sort of intangible, omnipresent being before. Most obvious to me is in “Bitter Work”, when Sokka says something like “Okay karma person or thing, whoever’s in charge of this stuff” and makes a deal with the sky to try and get out of his uncomfortable situation. In the same episode, Zuko climbs a mountain and screams at the storm “You’ve always thrown everything you could at me! Well I can take it! And now I can give it back! Come on, strike me! You’ve never held back before!” I understand that in both cases, the authors were likely trying to have some character development that was evident to the audience, but to me, both of those sounded like appeals to the universe, if not prayers. I suppose I could bring existentialism into this, but the idea of a harsh, uncaring universe in a fictional world is no fun, and besides, I hate existentialism. I guess the main point here is who are Zuko and Sokka talking to?

So what do you think? Was Tenzin’s action a prayer? Appeal to the spirits? Simple expression of thanks? Sorry if you find this post dull and unfunny, and you don’t even have to leave a comment; I’d be flattered enough if anyone reads it. If you find it rambles too long without raising any good questions, you’re probably right :P

(And if you’re wondering about my own religion, I’m Mormon)

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