This is, indeed, a story about the James Cameron film “Avatar”—because this interview with author Jeffrey Armstrong makes an important and inspirational connection with the ancient Indian wisdom, the Vedic teachings, that form the basis for the film’s powerful mythology. Journalist and author Lynne Meredith Schreiber occasionally writes about Vedanta (the ongoing path of spiritual wisdom that continues to spring from the Vedas) for ReadTheSpirit. Today, she interviews Jeffrey Armstrong. Enjoy!
Avatar: Ancient and Modern, Fusing Time and Space
Interview with Jeffrey Armstrong on
“Spiritual Teachings of the Avatar: Ancient Wisdom for a New World”
by Lynne Meredith Schreiber
Jeffrey Armstrong has studied Vedanta for more than four decades. He now lives in Vancouver, B.C., but was born in Detroit, which he left in the 1960s. Armstrong visits India frequently, speaking to Indian youth about their own ancient philosophy of Vedanta, a path which many young Indians have abandoned. His new book, Spiritual Teachings of the Avatar, was written in partial response to the release of the Hollywood hit, Avatar, an effort to educate the Western masses in the ancient philosophy upon which the film was built.
According to Vedic teachings, an Avatar is a divine being that comes from the transcendental realm to restore peace and harmony on earth. At the core of Vedanta lies a respect for all life and the belief that the Divine resides within each and every creation, thus giving every living creature the possibility for direct connection with God.
LYNNE: What inspired you to become a Vedanta scholar?
JEFFREY: My parents didn’t go to church, but sent me to a Methodist or Presbyterian church. I quite eagerly went, was in the choir, was an altar boy. In my early teens, I started asking philosophical questions. This is the typical defining moment in our culture. The word heresy means to form an opinion. Once I started asking questions, I asked them of everyone: rabbis, Catholic priests, anyone I could find. Thus my philosophical journey began by the age of 13, and that journey kept going.
At university I studied psychology and literature, with a creative writing emphasis. There was really only one thing I was interested in in life: the answer to who we are and why we’re here. I had no other career aspirations. I wanted to know who we are and what makes us tick. That became my passion and it led me to turn over every stone. I worked at a metaphysical bookstore in Ann Arbor, read everything that came into print on everything esoteric around the world, learned everything I could.
LYNNE: How did you settle on Vedanta?
JEFFREY: My light bulb moment happened in my early 20s. As my philosophical quest got more intent, I narrowed my search to India. I came to the Vedantic conclusion and spent 5 years in ashrams. Through that I deepened my practice and studies and made this the root of my identity.
Yoga and Vedanta
LYNNE: How are yoga and Vedanta connected?
JEFFREY: Yoga and Vedanta are companions in the Vedic teachings—both are universal, they’re not cultural. They’re not particular to a certain group of people. They just work wherever you do them.
In the West, we’ve mastered exteriority but we’ve totally ignored interiority. So people are hollow at the center, heavy at the outside. That destroys their balance.
That’s why so many Westerners are embracing yoga—which can lead them to Vedanta if the studio that provides yoga is connected to the source.
There are three forms of yoga (mind, body and intellect). Both yoga and Vedanta ask a huge question, longer than just one life: who am I over a longer period of time and how should I live in harmony on the planet. It asks who am I outside of just my material identity, giving you interiority, balance and a deeper approach to the question of who I am beyond my situation right now.
All those questions have been neglected in our western culture—either faith-based religions are neglecting them or science or lifestyle is disturbed to such an extent. People are becoming yogis without asking any questions. Those questions begin to arise as you get more balance. The next level of yoga begins to open up to them which is who am I? Vedanta is the companion of yoga.
LYNNE: Why do you lecture in India if this philosophy comes from there?
JEFFREY: India is 50% under the age of 30 right now. India is a post-colonial culture, whose people have been told their culture is primitive and they should get modern. If we hadn’t colonized India and weren’t the ones who stole the china and the silverware, the universities would teach their story as openly as they teach other stories. They’re not – they have a built-in bias which is cultural.
Contemporary importance of Avatar
LYNNE: So what is Avatar and why is it relevant now?
JEFFREY: The conclusion of Vedanta rests upon the evidence of history. If you ask, who are you among the other nations? The supreme reality, the supreme being, aka bhagavan in the Vedas—made a revelation of both how to live on the planet, who we are and of the ultimate transcendental reality. That’s the fullest sense of the word Avatar.
The intermediate meaning is there are numerous divine beings out of our sight but real, that could choose to come to our earth and get involved with our world. When Christians hear the word Avatar, they say, ‘Oh so Jesus was an Avatar.’ Indians would say, ‘Yes, a partial one.’
The purpose of an Avatar is to help us restore balance and harmony here, to help us know who we are and to point us in the direction of higher truths.
LYNNE: Tell us about the book.
JEFFREY: The book was written in 26 days—cover to cover. It was an overnight success in 40 years. It was an interesting moment that such a large publisher (Atria Books is a division of Simon and Schuster) took an interest in a book like this and rushed it.
James Cameron wrote the story for the movie Avatar, and he said on YouTube that he got most of the knowledge from India. The texture of the film came from deep sea exploration. When the film came out, I had already scheduled four classes for my weekly class on the subject of Avatar, as part of my normal curriculum. When I saw the film, I meditated and realized I was supposed to write a book on Avatar. My sister is in public relations, and she connected me with Simon & Schuster. Within a week, I had the book contract.
Indian wisdom, Vedanta rising in the West
LYNNE: Do you see Vedanta catching on more widely in the West due to movies like this?
JEFFREY: Kipling was wrong; east and west have met. Just as the two hemispheres of our brain are now meeting, the revival of our feminine side as well as the scientific masculine side, really it has to happen that way.
As the world grows as a global community, as long as we can keep that open communication, all the different cultures of the world are now going to flow through those channels. It’s a global smorgasbord of food; the smorgasbord of ideas is only a step away.
In a funny sort of a way, everyone is exploiting everything first—James Cameron did it lovingly, that’s ok. He’s glad to say that’s where I got it from, which means he’s inviting us into the conversation.
If it’s done in a way where there’s nothing you have to join to receive the knowledge, there’s no threat of Kool-Aid, there’s no thing you have to become a part of, lose your identity, to gain more knowledge. That’s the secret of India—they have never colonized another culture to impose theirs. The knowledge of India is very soft and non-coercive.
Our true self is listening all during the presentation but in the same soft way that I’ve written the book. There’s no reason this knowledge won’t go around the world in its soft form because it isn’t coercive. There’s just too much information out there for people to not engage with the questions of life now.
Care to read more? Here is Lynne’s overview of Vedanta, published in July 2010.
Want to find out more about the challenges of living with religious diversity? Educator Noelle Sutherland writes about the challenge of moving beyond mere “tolerance,” especially when Americans embrace Eastern religious paths that seem exotic to our mostly Christian neighbors in this country.
Lynne Meredith Schreiber is a writer, publicist and marketing consultant in metro Detroit. Learn more about her at www.lynneschreiber.com and www.yourppl.com, and read her blog at www.lynneschreiber.com/blog/
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