“Every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn your place among the people forever.” – Avatar
(click here for the introduction to our series on Avatar)
Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. – John 3:7-8
Jake Sully, compromised in body and spirit, finds himself on planet Pandora and introduced to a world that, honestly, makes his look 2-dimensional. Through plugging in to his Avatar, he discovers new life not just in his legs… but also in his loves, and his worldview, and ultimately, his allegiances. It is a complete transformation that culminates in something permanent by the film’s climax. The film references the idea of being “born twice” in regard to his acceptance into the Na’vi clan, his “rite of passage” fulfilled. However, the idea of twice-born resonates much deeper as – unlike the rest of the Na’vi – Jake Sully is LITERALLY born into his new body, new life, and new world. For our protagonist, our POV character, it’s far more than a ritualistic rite or a reward for the “feats” he has performed. In fact, his avatar life wasn’t even something he intended or worked for, but something he is ushered into at the film’s opening.
Being “twice born” is actually a concept rooted in Hinduism, related to the three upper varnas of their caste system. If you’re born a Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya, then you get to go through a new birth ritual at age twelve, a rite of initiation upon reaching maturity. This ceremony inducts them into Hinduism, “reborn” as a Hindu rather than just a caste member (and to add a hint of Na’vi color to the mix, let’s also remember that many Hindu deities are conveniently blue).
The initial disgust most Na’vi have for Jake is also not far off the mark of the Hindu caste system either. In Hinduism, if you’re not born into one of those three varnas, you’re hosed. If you’re shudra or untouchable caste, you aren’t worthy to be “twice born”; you aren’t even permitted to hear the Vedas (Hindu scriptures) read outloud, for pity’s sake. Moreover, Hinduism teaches that rebelling against caste expectations will result in a lower rebirth in the next life. That might make you blue, but not exactly for the same reasons… more of an Ethel Waters kind of blue, or at best a roadie for the Blue Man Group.
Fortunately, Avatar’s story shatters the discriminatory bonds of Hindu religion and caste culture, allowing comparably “untouchable” Jake to transcend these limitations, not to mention experiencing a mythical transformation beyond mere “coming-of-age”. What, then, is Cameron’s story truly tapping into? Let’s see… new birth, new body, spiritual conformation – even the induction into a family wherein he’s “discipled” by Neytiri to walk in this new shape and hone his newfound abilities – it’s a total transformation. This is the fantasy convention of Neo in The Matrix, among many other movies, and reflects more than a twice-born human ceremonial observance:
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God… – 1 Peter 1:22-23
Perhaps even beyond cinema, the rites of passage and rituals that have emerged since the dawn of mankind all distort something we intrinsically know and/or repress, and the mimicry in movies and mysticism are twisted and tweaked fantasies rooted to a reality that is reachable through our Creator’s revelation. Hinduism’s caste system dominated India dating back more than two millenia, but 2,000 years ago another voice spoke about second birth:
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. – John 3:5-6
There’s a reason rebirth of this magnitude verbally reincarnates around campfires and cineplexes, and I’m so blessed to leave a movie theater with a joyous assurance that it’s not simply wishing upon a Hollywood star. I thank more than lucky stars for that rebirth, possible through a heroic Savior (and even that rescuing hero gets mimicked in Avatar, as we’ll see in the final installment).