Religion in the Avatar the Last Airbender Universe

Because yes, they have one. Possibly more than one.

We live in a culture massively dominated by one religion, and an unusually exclusionary one at that. This is less true than it was, and Christianity has never been the only religion in Western culture, but it has dominated the discourse for most of our history. That sometimes makes it hard to recognize religious practice as religious when it is very different from Christianity.

The presumed norm for religion–what most in our culture expect to see, even in a fictional religion–is something that resembles Christian religion (and, more broadly, the Indo-European and Semitic religions Christianity hybridizes), which is to say regular, frequent communal acts of worship guided by professional clergy and directed toward gods. But that’s not how all religion works in the real world! There are many possible models from different cultures–and in particular, religion works quite differently in the specific cultures Avatar the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra draw much of their inspiration from.

For example, Buddhism has no gods. It has bodhisattvas, intercessory entities who are almost but not quite entirely unlike saints, but Buddhist practice consists of mindfulness, meditation, even prayer–but not worship as members of the Abrahamic religions or European pagan traditions understand it. Tibetan Buddhism, being part of the Theravada branch of the religion, doesn’t even have those; there are no higher beings on which one can call for aid at all, “higher” and “lower” being themselves illusions. The architecture and clothing of the Air Nomads draws heavily on Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, and Aang’s moral views (his vegetarianism, pacifism, pursuit of calm and detachment) seem drawn from the same source. It would not be farfetched to presume their religion is based on a similar model.

In the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes, meanwhile (and one Fire Nation village), we find a veneration for local nature spirits. Disturbing the natural balance brings the wrath of the spirits, who must be calmed by an expert in such matters. This is not too dissimilar from practices in Shinto and Chinese folk religion, where all things–living, nonliving, and abstract–have souls, and disrespecting them can therefore make them angry. There is a real, qualitative difference between a Moon God and a Moon Spirit, namely that the Moon Spirit is the Moon, while a Moon God rules the Moon–in other words, there is not quite the same sense of hierarchy. The Moon Spirit is important and powerful because the Moon is important and powerful, but it is nonetheless not necessarily a higher order of being–setting it on fire hurts it just as it would you or I. One thus doesn’t need to worship Hei Bai to resolve its anger over the destruction of its forest; instead, one needs to understand it and persuade it to calm down by offering reparations and healing.

Just because there aren’t any gods in the Avatar universe doesn’t mean there isn’t religion. Unalaq is clearly a deeply devout man, recognizable as a religiously motivated tyrant just as Ozai is recognizable as a power-hungry tyrant–or if you prefer, recognizable as a religious zealot just as Amon is recognizable as a political zealot. Religion in the Avatar universe might not consist of regular meetings conducted by a priest, but it’s there–people know what spirits are, and tell stories of them. They know when they’ve done wrong and angered the spirits, and know that if they do, they need to find a sage, monk, nun, or Avatar to help them figure out how to appease the spirits. There are religious festivals–we see Unalaq complaining about how the Southern Water Tribe has secularized theirs. There are religious institutions–the Air Temples, the Fire Sages, the nunnery in “Bato of the Water Tribe.” There are sacred sites (spirit oases, the poles), rituals (meditation, the festival in Korra book 2), myths (the tug-of-war and love between Ocean and Moon, for example), religious art (the spirits didn’t build that bear statue in Hei Bai’s forest)–all the elements of religion are here. They’re just not arranged and presented in a way most of us are used to.

5 thoughts on “Religion in the Avatar the Last Airbender Universe

  1. I’m assuming this in reaction to the fact that some people have seen Avatar and actually said there is no religion. But geez, that’s a very weird thing to think. They have monks for goodness sake. Why would you have monks if there is no religion? As for the whole spirit world thing, maybe people are seeing it as more like ghosts, which people don’t see as “religious,” even though it’s a concept based on a belief in an afterlife. It is an awfully blinkered way to watch the show though.

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  2. I actually don’t think the spirit world is so much an afterlife–we don’t generally see dead people there, except Iroh, and he’s special–as it is a hybrid of mostly Western notions of the otherworld, such as Faerie, with Shinto’s notion that all things have spirits. So you get a world that parallels the physical world, where the spirits of all things live.

    But yeah, I agree about it being a very blinkered way to watch the show, but, well, people in our culture tend to be very blinkered when it comes to other cultures.

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  3. Oh, I don’t think it’s an afterlife either, but I can see how some people would think it is if you don’t know much about Shinto. The idea of the spirit world is at least somewhat familiar to me, as we did have to learn a little about Shintoism as part of the New York State Regents curriculum and I’ve seen a good bit of Miyazaki’s work. What I can’t understand is how you wouldn’t at least interpret the existence of the spirit world in the show as religious in some way.

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  4. There is only one God in the Avatar world and yes the spirit world are the world of the Jinn. We in Islam believe in SPirit world and that there are good and bad spiriyts because spirits have free will. And beieve me The spirits can rever to Angels and Jinns Raava is Gabriel and Vaatu is Satan. Azula told as that God chose her to rule,. it was the devine right to rule you know and where was Zuko screaming for? There are spirits and there is a universal God. And in Islam one name of God is The light. And we knows that the lion turtle told as since beginningless times darkness trives in the void but all ways purifying light. That means the dead was all ways purifying the living. the always living God. We can live with that. Because There was a beginning in the Avatar universe that means there is a God. And they are talking about the universe. about the book of God. The Law al Mahfous. There is a God. and without God you can’t have the real enlightment. Here you can find to go in the real spirit world just like what Buddha him self did and not the buddihtic traditions And Mohammed did it to when he was in the cave. They where all prophets just like Krishna Buddha Mohammed Jesus Mosus. i think Tao to but Mohammed was the last prophet. I believe in all religions when it didn’t contradict Islam. And when you are looking for monotheism you must go to the firenation because they demonstrate it the best. You know God create the universe with Yin and Yang. And they are always in harmony because God dominates them. When God didn’t exits but only the Yin and Yang then we have only chaos and i will not live in a universe where only fight against good and evil. God exist in the Avatar universe. And God first created Gabriel Raava than Vaatu and then Adam, And when you didn’t believe in the direct creation then they evolve from light to Raava from smokeless fire to Vaatu and From Clay to animals and then to Adam. You know i believe in the Avatar universe and i believe it is directly in the way when our humanity will die we will reincarnate to that humanity and i am Iroh. hhhahahhahaha.Believe me i search for so many years and i have more and more faith in it. I am Iroh and you can trust my. That humanity will come. but there must be high earth quacks . God created the tree of time and the portals exist. The Jinns spirits lived before man but God closed them in a other dimension because some of them where wrong doers. And i believe that there are two portals. Because Vaatu told as that he braked the portals. And when you hear me. The angels closed the in the spirit world with God’s permission. there are times that they come to our world. And I believe when the Angels closed it and Vaatu brought the world in darkness you know jihad and further. He has more and more followers. And he become stronger and stronger to break the portal. Angles Gabriel fight with him just like Raava. and. When the second live of Adam that is Wan become the Avatar in his first live the prophet. Avatar is like a prophet but not directly. The Angeld Gabriel Raava bound with him and they become Avatar. You knows that the Guardien Angles where the Guardian spirits and you can follow that because Amon did that he was a prphet but he was’t you know. And he told everything. Youknow the Avatar world is our second live hahahhahahahahhahahahahahahha. When God wants it.

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