Originally aired in 2005 on Nickelodeon as a show geared toward children, Avatar: The Last Airbender has garnered a massive amount of popularity in recent years among teenagers and adults, continually cracking Netflix’s “Top 10” most-watched list. Set in a fantastical world of magic, martial arts, and mythical creatures, this show includes serious questions about morality as well as some clear allusions to ancient Asian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism.
The explosion in popularity of Avatar: The Last Airbender can be attributed to the way in which it presents weighty themes in a fun and whimsical way, making it equally alluring to those interested in magical fight scenes as well as those with an appreciation of Eastern philosophy. While the cartoon was created entirely in the United States, there are numerous obvious parallels to the philosophical traditions of East Asia, as well as influence from Inuit and New World traditions.
The show examines issues of cultural division, war, morality, and much more through the lenses of these philosophical traditions, making the show both enjoyable for viewers of all ages and extremely resonant with the world of today. It’s hard to think of any other cartoon that has so gracefully presented real-world issues in such a jovial and easily digestible way.
Avatar: The Last Airbender follows the journey of Aang and his friends, who must save the world by defeating Fire Lord Ozai and the Fire Nation. The show begins in the middle of an imperialist war that the Fire Nation is waging against the nations of the three other elements, the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Nomads. Members of each nation have the ability to manipulate a certain element, a practice known as “bending”, and must decide whether to use these abilities to fight with or against the Fire Nation.
Aang, a 12-year-old boy who was frozen in an iceberg for 100 years before being reawakened by his friends Sokka and Katara, is the reincarnation of the Avatar. The job of the Avatar is to promote peace in the world and balance between the four elements. Aang is tasked with restoring balance to a war-torn world, but before he can do so, he must master all four elements. The Avatar is connected with the past lives of all previous Avatars and is the only person in the world capable of bending more than one element.
If you’re at all familiar with the beliefs of ancient Eastern religions, you’ve probably already noticed some parallels between them and the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender just from this brief synopsis. However, the allusions to Eastern religions are clear when examining the “Avatar Cycle”, or the Avatar’s cycle of reincarnation, as well as many other aspects of the Avatar’s life.
The Avatar Cycle and Eastern Religion
One of the most obvious allusions to Eastern religion in the series is the Avatar Cycle, or the way in which the Avatar is continually reincarnated after their death. The Avatar is spiritually connected to all of their past lives and can communicate with them to seek guidance. Obviously, the concept of reincarnation can be attributed to Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, and many adherents to these philosophies even believe that communication with one’s past lives is achievable through deep spiritual meditation, a practice that Aang engages in many times throughout the series.
Many parts of Aang’s lifestyle also allude to the practices of Eastern religions. He was born in a temple and raised by monks, all of who wear yellow and orange robes very similar to those of Tibetan Buddhist monks. Aang and the rest of the air bending masters also shave their heads, eat vegetarian diets, and adhere to a strict code of nonviolence, like practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. On top of that, Aang’s mentor was named Gyatso and his son, who appears in the sequel series The Legend of Korra, is named Tenzin, an obvious reference to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.
Avatars in the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe are not only air benders, however. The reincarnation of the Avatar follows the Avatar Cycle, meaning it follows a cycle between the four elements. It’s based on the passage of the four seasons (as well as on the order in which the first Avatar, Wan, learned the four elements, as is revealed in The Legend of Korra) and follows the pattern: fire for summer, air for fall, water for winter, and earth for spring. Buddhist traditions are particularly concerned with seasons as well, as they represent the impermanence of nature and the state of change that the Earth and we ourselves are constantly in.
When one Avatar dies, the next Avatar is born somewhere in the next nation in the cycle. For example, as we learn from The Legend of Korra, when Aang died, Avatar Korra was born in the Water Tribe, the next nation in the cycle. The new Avatar is identified by selecting four relics that belonged to previous Avatars amongst thousands of toys, a process very similar to the process used to identify the Dalai Lama.
Perhaps the most obvious allusion to Eastern religion in Avatar: The Last Airbender is the word “avatar” itself. This word comes from the Hindu tradition signifying a deity that has taken bodily form on Earth to relay knowledge. Gautama Buddha, the historical founder of Buddhism was believed to be an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, meaning that Vishnu incarnated themself as Gautama Buddha in order to relay their teachings to the world. Another tidbit that we learn from The Legend of Korra is that all Avatars harbor the essence of Raava, the spirit of light and peace, within them. Therefore, the Avatar is quite literally an “avatar” of Raava, who is incarnated throughout the Avatar Cycle in each succeeding Avatar.
Yet another allusion to Eastern philosophy in the Avatar universe is the relationship between Raava, the spirit of light and peace, and Vaatu, the spirit of darkness and chaos. These two spirits appear in The Legend of Korra and are said to be some of the oldest spirits in existence. The relationship between the two of them is very clearly meant to represent the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang. The two spirits represent this cosmic duality from Chinese thought in the way that they’re both necessary to the balance of the universe, they both have a small piece of the other one inside them, and they serve as opposing yet complementary forces to one another.
There are far more references to Eastern religions throughout Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, for instance, the concept of an animal spirit guide that helps the Avatar on their journey is quite clearly borrowed from accounts of the Buddha’s life. In nearly every episode of both series, there are countless allusions to these religious and philosophical traditions that show just how deeply knowledgeable the creators of these shows were about these traditions. While some have criticized the creators for cultural appropriation, I would say that it’s pretty clear they produced these shows with a deep admiration and respect for the merit of Eastern philosophical and religious thought.
What Can We Learn From the Avatar?
The figure of the Avatar in Avatar: The Last Airbender is not just a tribute to Eastern philosophies, but also a character that’s meant to make people reflect on their own internal and external universes. It’s meant to lead us to question the political and social structures in our world, while also examining our own moral frameworks with a keen eye.
There are so many great takeaways from these shows, and I sincerely think that watching them can only make you a better person. They teach us to take responsibility for our own lives, to respect the balance of nature, to be compassionate even towards those who want to hurt us, to enjoy life even when things seem dark, to never give up hope, and so many other valuable lessons that each and every one of us can benefit from.
The creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender took some of the most valuable tenets of Eastern religion and turned them into a digestible and enjoyable cartoon. And in a world that’s as politically divided as it’s ever been, where racial tensions are flaring and people are starting to lose hope for our future, the messages in Avatar: The Last Airbender could be the key to restoring peace and balance in the real world.