Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Not Quite Avatar

During the week I spent at ASB in February I was lucky enough to attend the TEDx and listen to this talk about the role of avatars in Indian culture.  I'm keen to learn more about this incredible country and so I was really interested in Devdutt Pattanaik's talk.  In the West we have come to see avatars as people with a secret (online) identity, or else a hero who achieves the impossible, a saviour in the war between good and evil.  The question he posed is who decides who is good and bad?  He explained that the word evil has no synonym in Indian languages - everything is divine, even your worst enemy exists to bring out the divinity within you.  

Devdutt told some of the lost stories of several Indian avatars such as the fish avatar and the man-lion avatar where the boundaries between good and evil are not clearly defined - sometimes an act of violence is actually seen as an act of liberation in these myths - it's hard to say what is good and what is bad.  The story that had the most impact on me was when Krishna led the war against the "bad guys" and yet when the good guys went to heaven they found that all the villains were in heaven too.  The heroes were upset but God said to them, "Haven't you forgiven them yet? They are dead and still you cling on, give up your anger, move on, let go."

Devdutt explained that if we in the West believe that life is a journey with a clearly defined destination then we are looking for a hero to take us there - all too often we want a simple story that can be divided into a conflict between good and bad:  the haves and the have nots, the left wing and the right wing in politics and so on.  However there are other ideas in this world.  Other cultures don't think of life as journey with a defined destination - they believe life can be a series of moments - and that perfection may well not be achieved.  You may have to fight villains, but the bad guy may also be you.  He urged us to be patient, not to be so quick to judge.  He asked, "Are you sure you are the hero?  By transforming cultures, are we trampling on others?" He questioned if we think of culture as a single bank note with a single language on it, or if are we more open minded - as in the case of India - with 17 languages on each bank note?

To me, this giving up of our world view as the "right" one, of the good -v- the bad, is the heart of intercultural understanding and respect.

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