The reincarnation of avatar in English is a revealing distortion
The Sanskrit word avatar has become mainstream in English due to both a Hollywood blockbuster and computer role-playing games. In contemporary usage, avatar refers to an icon representing a person in a computer game, Internet forum, etc.
Another word central to the Bhagavad-gita’s teachings that has assumed a new meaning is reincarnation. Today, reincarnation refers to anyone reinventing oneself. Thus, in cricket, an aggressive opening batsman may be said to have reincarnated as an anchoring middle-order batsman. Combining these two semantically morphed words gives the phrase “the reincarnation of avatar” which can convey the word avatar’s usage in contemporary cultural discourse.
In the Gita (04.05), Krishna underscores the difference between Arjuna’s and his reincarnation. The human memory undergoes a near-total amnesia during reincarnation, whereas the divine memory remains unaffected. Nonetheless, both have memory.
In contrast, our digital avatar has no experiential memory because it has no consciousness to experience anything. So, our referring to something unconscious as our avatar reflects a distortion in our self-understanding. Yet this distortion is revealing, for it points to two underlying thought-trains:
- A mechanistic conception of the self which makes us think that we can be represented by a digital profile that is as unconscious as the electrons that comprise the digital world.
- A longing for escaping to some other world beyond this material world with its inanity.
The Gita guides us towards fulfilling this longing by explaining that we are better than our perishable fleshly bodies – we are indestructible spiritual beings. And our longing for belonging to a better world can be fulfilled if we devote ourselves to Krishna by practicing bhakti-yoga. As his avatars, Krishna makes himself accessible, thereby making devotion to him easier. Steady bhakti practice elevates us ultimately to his eternal abode, thus ending our reincarnation in this world.