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Traces Of Hinduism In The Legend Of Korra

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Imagine a fantasy-world divided into nations, but different cultures are not divided in continents and countries but nations which correspond to the four elements in our world: fire, air, water and earth. Every nation, as our lands, has its own culture and can be distinguished from the other nations. One of these distinctive features is the ability to bend a particular element. This is to say that some people in this fictitious world can manipulate an element at will. These people are called benders. Typically, benders are only able to bend one element, a trait which is inherited from either their mothers or fathers and often fits the element of their country of origin. However, there is one exception: The Avatar. The Avatar is the only person that can control all four elements. It is known that the Avatar reincarnates into one nation after the other and that its duty is to restore balance to the world. Besides benders the world that we are talking about is inherited by non-benders, which are basically normal humans, and a variety of animals. Besides the world of humans there is another parallel world that can be accessed by skilled meditators or through spirit-portals, a physical point of transition between the mortal world and the spirit world.

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Within this paper we will focus on a series named The Legend of Korra, where the world described above is reality and a strong-willed water-tribe girl named Korra is the Avatar, enabling her to bend all four elements. The producers of the series admitted being influenced by a variety of Asian religions and the focus of this paper lies on elements of Hinduism within The Legend of Korra.

Traces of Hinduism in General

To begin with, let us take a look at the sacred language of Hinduism in relation to the language used throughout the series. The word Avatar is derived from the Sanskrit word avatara, meaning descent. In Hinduism, many deities are regarded to manifest in different physical incarnations (avatara). For example, god Vishnu is said to have ten main incarnations that manifest in times of crisis when chaos threatens to take over the world and move in where cosmic balance should be. The stories of his incarnations, especially of Rama and Krishna, are very popular in India. His incarnations then restore the cosmic order. The same is true for the Avatar, he or she always strives to restore balance to the world as it is his or her soul duty to do so. Unlike Hindu deities however, the Avatar only reincarnates in human form. Knowledge about past Avatars lives is spread across the lands just as everyone knows the stories of Vishnu’s avataras.

During the course of the series Korra has to fight several opponents. One could argue that it is not a very logic way to fight for peace and balance by using violence. However, the fighting could be seen as necessary in order to restore balance. If Korra would surrender or refuse to fight, the world would burst into chaos. This is the concern of the Bhagavad Gita, a scripture that is highly valued in Hinduism. It contains the story of Arjuna who worries about fighting. He has to choose whether to fight or to run from the fight. Vishnu in his form as Krishna serves as Arjunas advisor and tells him about his duty as kshatriya (warrior) to do so. If he would not fight, the cosmic order would fall out of balance. Thus, he has to fight the adharmic in order to protect the cosmic order. Similarly, Korra needs to fight her opponents to bring balance upon the world. If she or Arjuna did not fight, adharmic would take over and the world would descend into chaos. A lot of teaching-moments between the Avatar and various mentors are naturally formed as dialogues between the Avatar and her various mentors. This could represent the form of the Bhagavad Gita and Upanisads which are written in dialogical styles.

Another parallel between deities in Hinduism and the Avatar world is that all Avatars have animal companions. The former Air Nomad Avatar Aang had a flying bison by the name of Appa, whereas Korra now has a true friend in her polarbeardog Naga. Many Hindu gods and goddesses are frequently depicted with their animal mounts like Ganesa with his mouse or Sarasvati’s swan.

Hinduism regards time as cyclic, for example the cycle of rebirth. In Korra’s world we have a similar motive. The Avatar cycle is the order in which the Avatar is reincarnated in a cyclic pattern throughout the four nations. It is always first fire, then air, afterwards water and lastly earth, before the cycle starts again. Not just the course of time is similar between Hinduism and Korra but the emphasis on cosmology and astrological events as well. Hindu rituals often have to be performed in line with the natural rhythms as for example the lunar calendar. When harmonic convergence (the alignment of the planets of the solar system) is upon the world, Korra needs to battle with an opposing dark spirit for the fate of the world. This can only be done every 10,000 years during harmonic convergence when spiritual power is at its peak. If Korra loses then 10,000 years of darkness would be upon the world. But if she wins, balance is restored. However, after 10,000 years the battle will begin again, because darkness and light can never destroy each other completely for there is no light without darkness and vice versa. The emphasis on astrological events is further demonstrated by the fact that some temples or secret cities can only be accessed at specific days of the year when for example the sunlight falls at a specific angle. Furthermore, firebenders lose their power during a solar eclipse, whereas waterbenders have weak bending during a lunar eclipse as they draw their power from the moon.

Now that we have taken a look at the general traces of Hinduism in the world of Korra we will focus on elements of Hinduism within each of the four nations following the Avatar cyclus beginning with the Fire Nation.

Traces of Hinduism in the Fire Nation

The Fire Nation is home to fierce and fearless attitudes with a great respect for personal honour. Except from the word Avatar mentioned before, the word Agni Kai, describing a duel between two firebenders often for the reason of saving one’s honour, is derived from the Sanskrit word agni meaning fire. Agni is also the name of the Hindu fire-god.

In the world of Korra, there are not only benders who control the elements in a basic way but also individuals with special skills. Combustion benders are a special type of firebenders that are able to shoot fire from their minds, destroying everything in range of their powerful fire blasts. The Hindu-god Siva with his reputation as the destroyer of the cosmos when the time has come, served as a role-model for the combustion benders. The spot where the fire emerges from their foreheads is marked by a remarkably similar symbol that is used to depict Sivas third eye in imageries at roughly the position of the sixth main chakra or third eye. When Siva has his eye closed, it poses no threat, but it is dangerous when opened, because flames will emerge in order to destroy. In season three the audience meets P’Li, a savage combustion bender. She is part of a group that is trying to take out the Avatar and all world leaders in order to unleash chaos onto the world for they believe that chaos is the natural order of things. When she and her group, named the Red Lotus, are about to kidnap Korra, Bolin (one of Korra’s earthbending friends) shoots a small piece of rock aiming for her third eye, because the only way to stop a combustion bender is to take a hit at his or her third eye. This could be equated with Siva at moments when his third eye is closed, and he is unable to shoot fire from it.

Fire Nation people are used to a spicy diet with very hot meals. Hindus know this diet under the name of rajasik and it is said to lead to action which fits the explosive fighting style of fire benders.

Traces of Hinduism in the Air Nation

The Air Nomads are described very easily with one word: spiritual. In general, they adopt a vegetarian diet. This diet is said to lead to greater spirituality in Hinduism. It is called sattvik. Air Nomads have been vegetarians for generations making them one of the most spiritual people, being able to communicate with spirits at ease or meditate into the spirit world at will. This ability can be found in other benders as well, but it is definitely more common, and more emphasis is put on it amongst Air Nomads. Thus, it is no surprise that Korras spiritual training lies in the hands of the great airbending master Tenzin.

Many air Nomads have deep spiritual understanding and powers. They are putting heavy emphasis on the art of meditation. Through meditation people can attain access to the spirit world. For example, Zaheer who is a criminal and leader of the Red Lotus, which his girlfriend, the combustion bender P’Li, is a member of. For his crimes he is imprisoned. Although he can fly, he is bound by the chains of the prison. Therefore, he now spends most of his time meditating into the spiritworld where he can move freely. Another example is Jinora who uses meditation to communicate over some distance with other people. Furthermore, meditation is shown to be a useful tool to open the flow of energy in one’s own body through points called chakras. In Hinduism there are seven main chakras. They lie aligned from the point where your legs meet up to the crown of your head. Each of these chakras has a special function assigned to it. Similarly, there are seven main chakras in Korra’s world. These are named differently but remain roughly the same in location and function. The first one is the Earth Chakra which concerns survival. After that there is the Water Chakra which deals with Pleasure and the Fire Chakra responsible for willpower. The fourth, the Air Chakra, is already concerned with more abstract things like love being located at the heart. And the Sound Chakra deals with truth. The Light Chakra, the sixth from the bottom, refers to insight and the Top Chakra deals with pure cosmic energy. When the Avatar wants to go into the Avatar state, a state where all the power and wisdom of all past avatars flows through her, she needs to open her seventh chakra, the Thought Chakra. Only then can she access her greatest powers which are needed to be victorious over the adharmic. In Hinduism it is a nectar that flows from the top Chakra down if it was opened and the person is liberated, attaining moksha.

The architecture of Air Temples, former home to the Air Nomads, bears a striking resemblance to Hindu temples. The temples include an inner sanctuary lying roughly in the middle of the temple. On special days of the year, the Avatars which the temples are dedicated to can be met on the inside of these sanctuaries. This is similar to Hindu temples that are often built around an inner sanctum which houses the god of the temple.

Also, in Hinduism humans help the gods to restore balance to the cosmos through the performance of rituals. There are innumerable rituals for all kinds of purposes and they are ranging from simple rituals that are included into the daily routine to elaborate, costly and time-consuming rituals that can span several days or weeks like the agnicayana, which is a 12-day fire ritual. On several occasions in The Legend of Korra rituals are held. For example, the ceremony that is held when Jinora, one of Tenzin’s daughters, gets her airbending tattoos. The tattoos are a symbol of being an airbending master. When her family arrives at the site of the rite her little brother states “It smells like shoe trees. ”, but his aunt Kya replies “Sandalwood, Meelo!”. Sandalwood is a prominent part of rituals held in Hinduism. In the puja (devotional worship) ritual sandalwood is often used as gandha, a paste that is used to smear the picture or statue that is inhibited by the god or goddess that is worshipped.

It is known that Tenzin and his kids are the last airbenders, but when Korra decides to leave the spirit portals open at harmonic convergence something amazing happens: Some people suddenly develop the ability to airbend without it being in their genetics. Thus, a large part of the series is dedicated to the group trying to rebuild the Air Nation. Here we frequently can observe a conflict between Tenzin who likes to keep it all very rigid, just the way it was and the new generation of airbenders who are interested in more than just ancient knowledge from boring stories. The Air Nation in the end shows great adaptability when they decide to no longer reside secluded at their temples but move out to help wherever they are needed. This is similar to Hinduism which frequently adapts itself to modern forces like technology.

Traces of Hinduism in the Watertribes

Waterbenders live in smaller tribes and stick together. They know how to survive based on the harsh conditions of their homelands: The North-and South Pole. Some of them live in even smaller Hippie-like communities in the Swamp. A short scene in the beginning of season two features Bolin who wants to break up with his girlfriend Eska, a straight up crazy and scary girl. Instead of breaking up, they end up engaged to Bolin’s discontent. Normally, in the Watertribe, the groom gives a necklace to his bride, just as in Hindu tradition the groom gives the so called mangalasutra to his future wife. This is a necklace that is to be worn by a married woman. On the day of the wedding it is tied around her neck by her groom. However, concerning Bolin and Eska, this time the bride Eska gives Bolin a necklace and ties it around his neck, demonstrating who has the upper hand in their relationship.

Traces of Hinduism in the Earth Kingdom

People of the Earth kingdom are of the stubborn kind and just face problems, like their opponents, head-on with their neutral chi and grounded stances. One particular example is Toph. Toph, which we know as a child from the previous series, can be encountered in season four of The Legend of Korra, now as an old woman. After being the chief of police in Republic City for many years and having two daughters that have grown into middle-aged women by now, she now lives alone in a Swamp, secluded from her family. When Korra meets Toph and asks why Toph recognizes her, Toph answers “In a manner of speaking, we were good friends in your previous life “. This is an indication that the idea of reincarnation as we can find it in Hinduism has been included in the series. And thus, also the notion of atman (the Self) that is repeatedly reborn. If Korra would not have the same self or soul as the previous Avatar, then Toph could not recognize her.

Toph can also be seen as being in the forest-dweller stage of life. She left her children and grandchildren in order to wander the world in search of enlightenment. A characteristic of that stage is the beginning commitment to the attainment of moksha (liberation from rebirth), which is regarded as one of the main goals, if not the highest, in Hinduism. Old and grumpy as always, Toph teaches the Avatar “The roots of the Banyangrove tree spread out in every direction, connecting this whole swamp. Your problem is you’ve been disconnected for too long…. ”. Incidentally, the banyan tree is the national tree of India and the swamp is a sacred place with the Banyangrove tree as its centre and is used (as in the previous series Avatar Aang: The Last Airbender) as a metaphor for brahman. In Hinduism, brahman is ultimate reality, it is the essence of all things in this worldly realm, and it flows through all beings. These individual beings are thus made out of the same essence and could be reduced to the one ultimate reality, brahman. Just as in the swamp, every tree has its individual form, whilst at the same time being part of that one big tree lying in its centre.

When they finally arrive in Ba Sing See we can see that even the popular caste system of Hinduism is represented in The Legend of Korra. The city is known for its great walls surrounding it. It has been targeted by several attacks in the past, but still stands proudly. The walls are also used to separate different population groups based on their social status within the city. Once a tour guide told the former Avatar “There are outside walls protecting us, and the one’s inside that help maintain social order. ” People with a lower status, such as refugees or “craftsman and artisans, people that work with their hands” are banned to live in the Lower Ring, whereas wealthier merchants and the King’s Palace are located in the Upper Ring. The Earth kingdom in general is a good representation of the diversity of India and Hinduism. Normally, the animation of a particular bending style is derived from one martial art, but there is no one true bending style for earthbendig. Just as there is no one true Hinduism. For example, waterbenders only use Thai Chi moves to control water, firebenders use Northern Shaolin and airbending was modelled after Ba Gua Zhang. In contrast, the earthbending fighting style is either inspired by the Hung Gar or the Southern Praying Mantis style of martial arts depending on the individual that uses it. This indicates the variety and diversity within one kingdom that we know from India.

After this analysis it can surely be said that there are a lot of aspects inspired by Hinduism in The Legend of Korra and that we can find them throughout the four nations.

10 December 2020

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