Reading Loop – Spring 2021

“Reading Loop” is a close reading or discussion by an invited contributor.

Avatar, Dharma, and “Unprecedented Times”

by Ryan Patel

We’re surviving during a pandemic. Above all else, we are surviving.

In a time that is so uncertain and yields so much concern for the future of the United States, and of our society, it’s completely normal to feel as if we don’t have control over our lives.

This is a time when we are experiencing the full impact of false information and conspiracy theories spreading rampantly throughout so many aspects of society.

We are experiencing the rise of authoritarianism and nationalism on a global level.

We are only beginning to understand the immense power that social media platforms hold—including the damage that is being done to the human psyche and to democracy.

We are reckoning with systemic racism against Black people, and at the same time we are seeing an alarming rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.

We are dealing with unfettered capitalism that impacts our quality of life and morphs our notions of productivity and value.

We are responding to—and, implementing quick fixes for—the effects of climate change that seemingly know no bounds and have no mercy.

I say all of this not to create some kind of doom-and-gloom list of all (or, many of) the problems of humankind right now, but, instead, to shed light and hold space for all that we are enduring. This enduring is traumatic; it is exhausting, and this is life for Americans today. As we progress to a post-Covid society, I believe it is important to reflect on all that we have endured.

I’m thinking about the stories I will tell my children one day about how today’s world lived through a pandemic and coalesced to solve modern societal problems. For our society to function more efficiently and harmoniously post-Covid, we must drop our individual egos and work toward the betterment of all. I have seen beautifully depicted messages of community organizing and discoveries of love and compassion for self and others in one of my favorite shows, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The show takes place in a world where individuals possess powers to harness any one of the four elements—water, earth, fire, or air—based upon the culture and traditions from which they are born. As the Fire Nation has led a campaign of domination and terror over the other populations, the Avatar, master of all four elements, is tasked with bringing peace to a world constantly in a state of flux, chaos, and imbalance. Several characters manifest their expressions of self, their past traumas and experiences, and their passions and their destinies, as they navigate a long journey toward peace and harmony, as much for themselves as for the rest of the world.

I first watched this show on Nickelodeon as a kid. I was thrilled to watch it at such a young age and see it utilizing ideas, symbols, and beliefs from my culture of Hinduism; elements of the other dharmic traditions of Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhi; as well as Indigenous cultures, in ways that are humble and deferential. Of course, at the time, I did not recognize all the nuances I do today; however, I was still able to see aspects of my culture and faith represented in a beautiful and deeply sentimental way.

Since it was recently released on Netflix, I binged it again after so many years, and I am so thankful for this show for a new reason: providing me with a little bit of comfort and escape during this pandemic. And, it turns out that I am not alone. Many people from all over the world have turned to Avatar during quarantine. The audience and the appeal have expanded dramatically from its initial fanbase over a decade ago. And, with the news announced last month that the original creators of the show will be launching Avatar Studios with Nickelodeon, “to develop new animated projects in the #avatarverse and oversee the franchise,” we can expect the appeal and appreciation for the show to grow tenfold.

I cannot recommend this show enough. In it, I watch the journey of a young leader named Aang (the Avatar) who learns how to love himself, work through obstacles, and ultimately become the most authentic version of himself possible. I see a wise and compassionate elder named Uncle Iroh offering sage advice to those in need of it, and fulfilling his own personal desire to serve as a fatherly figure to many. I see a young, proud, disabled, blind person named Toph Beifong who is unapologetic in her presence and in her roles as she navigates complex periods of struggle and growth. 

With respect to Toph’s journey, specifically, the viewer recognizes that she comes from a place of privilege. Simultaneously, she endured many hardships. Toph processes and grapples with trauma and grief with the support of her friend group, affectionately known as the Gaang. She expresses a fresh sense of authenticity and pride in all aspects of her identity; it is truly marvelous to learn about how she trains and fights as an accomplished earthbender, despite having been treated in a belittling and paternalistic way as a member of an Earth Kingdom noble family. There are several aspects of eco-crip theory, disability liberation, and self-determination that I think ring true in Toph’s character. 

Most importantly, I think Avatar teaches me about being principled, proud, and authentic to myself and the people I care about. It teaches me about empathy in ways that have never been expressed to me before, and poses questions about how I can feel the most fulfilled in this life. It reminds me to stay true to my faith, and practice ahimsa—nonviolence in words, actions, or thought—to all living beings.

There will always be problems throughout the course of human history. Covid is just one of many, right now. But, I believe we are defined by the actions we take and the roles we play in achieving a more equitable and peaceful society and world.

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About the Author

Ryan Patel is a young and proud Indian-American from Los Angeles, California. He is a Syracuse University alumnus and current student at UCLA. His recent lockdown hobbies have included baking, cooking, yoga, language learning, and weightlifting. When not at the beach, watching TV, studying, or eating tacos, he can most likely be found sleeping.