Critics are praising the epic film's social significance, but Asra Q. Nomani, author of Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love, says its sex scene—accurate to the ancient Tantric tradition—is truly award-worthy.
When former Marine Jake Scully drapes his sinewy blue body around his Na'vi bride, Neytiri, the heroine of James Cameron's Oscar-nominated epic Avatar, his neural tendrils fuse with hers, in the script, but off camera, in one of the most unusual sex scenes ever produced on film. Critics and commentators have been dissecting the themes of the Hollywood mega-blockbuster, from its just-war doctrine and environmental ethics. But there's a philosophical dimension that this otherworldly sex scene captures that most folks have overlooked: the Tantra of Avatar.
A precursor to Hinduism and Buddhism, the ancient philosophy of Tantra dates back some 6,000 years to the Dravidian culture that flourished in the Indus Valley cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in modern-day Pakistan, seeping later into the religious traditions of India, Nepal, and other parts of the region. Its tenets of goddess worship, self-discovery, and spiritual liberation resonate in Avatar, from the Neytiri's deity-like qualities to Jake's journey of self-identity. Avatar's climax is actually not the Tantric sex of their consummation, but a moment that comes later, when they do something modern-day Tantric sex experts call "soul gazing," and racier sexperts call "sex gazing."
I learned, like Jake in Avatar, that the true Tantric journey is, first, a lone struggle of self-discovery.
The Tantric theme in Avatar follows a tradition of Eastern philosophy in popular culture. Consider Star Wars' iconic line, "May the Force be with you." Writing the script for that film, director George Lucas became influenced by 20th-century thinker Joseph Campbell, whose encounter with Hindu aesthetic Jiddu Krishnamurti years earlier sparked a lifelong passion for Hindu thought.
• The Daily Beast’s Complete Oscar CoverageIn Avatar, the sex scene took me back to the erotic Tantric sandstone temples I visited almost a decade ago in the northern Indian village of Khajuraho. Built by Hindu kings of the Chandel Empire from the 10th to the 12th centuries, the most notorious of the temples have images of divine, carnal acts carved around the highest points of their exterior walls. For Tantric scholars and historians, the iconography celebrates the highest possibility of sexual union, captured in the mating ritual in Avatar. In the original script, Cameron is even steamier in his depiction of sex on Pandora on pages 90 and 91:
NEYTIRI: Kissing is very good. But we have something better.
She pulls him down until they are kneeling, facing each other on the faintly glowing moss.
Neytiri takes the end of her queue and raises it. Jake does the same, with trembling anticipation. The tendrils at the ends move with a life of their own, straining to be joined.
MACRO SHOT – The tendrils INTERWINE with gentle undulations.
JAKE rocks with the direct contact between his nervous system and hers, and ripples of light spread out around them. The ultimate intimacy.
But there is a deeper philosophical understanding of Tantra to be found in the movie, one that I learned during my reporting. To avoid the cop-a-feel swamis I met in temples and caves dedicated to Hindu gods such as Ram and Shiva, I turned inward. And I learned, like Jake, that the true Tantric journey is, first, a lone struggle of self-discovery. The philosophy of Tantra comes from the Sanskrit verbal root tan, meaning "to weave," just what Jake must first do with the Na'vi universe of Pandora, before he and Neytiri's braids literally weave together when they mate for life in the mind-blowing Tantric bliss of their mating ceremony. (Tra comes from a Sanskrit word trayate that means "to liberate.")
There is a powerful union of male and female energies in Avatar that are core teachings of Tantra, represented through a link between the goddess Shakti and the Shiva. In Tantra, the goddess Shakti is the primordial deity, her name coming from the Sanskrit word shak, meaning "power." In the Tantric model, it's Shakti who brings healing and enlightenment to the god Shiva, just as Neytiri does with Jake. Jake and Neytiri are the Shiva and Shakti of Avatar. The Sanskrit noun avatāra is derived from a verbal root that means "to cross over," just as Jake does in his journey. Most often, in Tantric philosophy, there is a goddess that guides the journey. She is represented here by Neytiri.
Even Jake's transformation into the blue skin of his Avatar is spiritually significant. Matthew Fox, the author of The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine, reaches into Hindu mythology, along with other sources, to talk about "the Blue Man," who represents our "expanding consciousness." In Tantra, you open your seven chakras, or energy centers, unleashing the kundalini serpent inside of you, with the culmination being the opening of the crown chakra at the top of the head. That's the journey of Jake Scully in the movie.
Tantra is about non-duality, or the weaving male and female energies through ourselves without a strict sense of gender. Neytiri most definitely isn't a typical, helpless woman, waiting for Jake to save her. Rather, she is the stronger one who teaches Jakes the ways of the jungle.
There is something very Tantric in the very powerful female energy that runs through the film, from Neytiri to the goddess Eywa, whom the Na'vi people are shown worshiping in Avatar. Tantric priestesses would welcome men returning from war, broken and wounded, and help to heal them, just as Neytiri does with Jake. Some critics have said that the movie follows a typical plot where a white man saves the native people. But using the Tantric model, it's actually Neytiri who heals and saves Jake. (It made me wish that in The Hurt Locker, battle-scarred bomb-disposal expert William James would have been open to heal like Jake, and that his wife could have been a healer for him. But then, Jake was on Pandora and the bomb expert was on Earth, staring at a grocery store shelf of Lucky Charms.)
In a call for papers for a new book, Avatar and Philosophy, University of Indianapolis philosophy professor Georget Dunn suggested to fellow philosophers that "Netyiri, Grace, Mo'at, and the Feminine Care Ethic" could be a possible topic. Grace and Mo'at are other powerful female characters in the movie. The book would be the latest in a long line of books that mix pop-culture and philosophy, from the philosophy of The Matrix to the philosophy of Seinfeld. (Dunn's favorite: the philosophy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Some of his other suggested topics for Avatar: "Learning of the Ways of the Na'vi: Avatar and John Dewey's Philosophy of Education" and "Neytiri and Jake: The Philosophy of Love."
In Tantra, like in the movie, spiritual union isn't just between man and woman. The Na'vi fuse their braids with animals, too. Like a dakini, or "sky dancer" in Tantric teachings, Neytiri teaches Jake that to become a warrior, he must do like the Na'vi do, taming and riding a creature called the Ikran through the air by fusing their braids with the creature's mane.
Ultimately, Jake rides the wild creature called a Toruk, or "last shadow" in Na'vi—a fitting symbol for how he opened his seven chakras, making peace with himself and allowing him to know inner power and Tantric bliss with the universe and his goddess teacher, Neytiri. This is a guy who doesn't care if he wins the Oscar.
Avatar's Seven Tantric Chakras
The first chakra, or muladhara, at the tailbone, is about base survival, and that's the challenge Jake faces when he first meets Neytiri and she helps save him from a pack of viperwolves. She extinguishes his fire. And, ironically, in the darkness, he sees the luminescence of the jungle around him.
The second chakra, swadhisthana, at the genitals and the navel area, is the one most associated with Tantric sex. But the biggest trip, before divine copulation, Tantric teachings say, is the celibate path, finding union with self, overcoming blame, guilt, control issues, emotional feelings, and duality. That's certainly what happens to Jake when Neytiri points the tip of her bow at his throat and scolds him for stomping through the forest: "You are like a baby, making noise, don't know what to do. You should not come here, all of you!" It reminded me of Tantric sex workshops where couples sit in "child pose," holding the palms of their hands together at their heart in traditional Hindu greeting, saying Namaste to each other in a salutation that essentially means, "I bow to the divine in you." They then gaze at each other, developing empathy for the other, seeing the other person's inner child.
The third chakra, at the solar plexus, manipura, is about overcoming fear and attaining a sense of belonging. That's what Jake does, with Neytiri's help. In their opening scene, Neytiri scolds Jake but likes him because he seems fearless, while also a bit spiritually stunted. In his script, director Cameron writes that Neytiri looks at Jake with "those big gold orbs" when he asks her why she bothered to save him. "You have a strong heart. No fear," she says, leaning forward. "But stupid! Ignorant like a child!"
Opening the Heart
The fourth chakra, anahata, is the heart chakra, located at the center of the chest; it's what Neytiri touches in Jake to help him grow. Tantra is about freeing ourselves from suffering by freeing ourselves from maya, or illusion, and opening our hearts to other possibilities. This is what Jake has to do, letting go of his attachment to his physical body. He is faced with a choice: Abandon the Na'vi people and get surgery that would give him his legs back, or stay with them and never have the operation. Are the legs maya? Or are the Na'vi people? He concludes his legs are the illusion. His heart is with the Na'vi.
The fifth chakra, located at the throat and called vishuddha, meaning "purity," captures Jake's journey to understanding his inner truth and expressing it honestly. First, he is duplicitous with the Na'vi people, and then with his bosses. Finally, he is honest with himself and then others.
The sixth chakra, or ajna, commonly thought of as "the third eye," between the eyebrows on the forehead, is about insight. One of the key ingredients of Tantra is the discovery of atman, or true self. That's Jake's journey, as he finds himself without his legs in his human form but leaping through the forest in his Avatar body. With that true self, Tantra teaches that we can reach raga, or passion, and kama, or sexual desire, on the path to enlightenment with another. When Jake and Neytiri say to each other, "I see you," that is the ultimate spiritual union—a practice called "soul gazing" in American Tantric sex weekend workshops.
The movie peaks with a scene in which we watch Jake dare to attempt to leave his physical body and enter his Avatar body. In Tantra, the seventh chakra is the crown chakra, the sahasrara chakra, located at the top of the head. It's the channel that is supposed to connect us to our spiritual nature, and it's through here that the life force of universe flows through the lower six chakras, Tantric teachings say. Found in a text called the Shiva sutra, this is the ultimate expression of Tantric journey, in which goddess energy—in this case, Neytiri—guides energy called kundalini through the chakras to flow from the crown chakra at the top of the head. This happens when Jake actually moves from his physical body to his Avatar body.
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Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She also wrote Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace. She is writing a series of articles about "the gender jihad" on the Daily Beast.” firstname.lastname@example.org