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Friday, April 24, 2015

The Air Nomads and Religious Vegetarianism

In the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the quasi-extinct culture of the Air Nomads are portrayed as a society of peaceful, fun-loving monks. They are known to travel extensively, are the only one of the Four Nations to be composed entirely of benders of their respective element, and have a penchant for fruit pies. But one other trait distinguishes them from all the others: They are all vegans. Or vegetarians, or what-have-you.

It's no secret that the world of Airbender (created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko) draws heavily from medieval East Asian culture. Indeed, this unique choice of source material is one of the cornerstones of the success of the series. The mythologies and histories of Japan, China, India, and other East Asian cultures are ripe with storytelling possibilities to draw from. The fact that DiMartino and Konietzko (the latter of whom is a vegan) are the most visible Western creators to do so is a credit to their ingenuity and talent.

However, looking back on the series, particularly the Air Nomads, I began to wonder just how true to their inspirations some aspects of this incredible fictional world were. Maybe it was something I read about vegetarianism in my college Nutrition class, but my curiosity was piqued. So I did a little investigating, and found some things that surprised me, if only just a little.

The Air Nomads, a monastic society, are obviously based off of Tibetan Buddhist monks, right down to their clothing and architecture. On the face of it, Buddhist monks are known to adhere to a code which prohibits the killing of either man or animal. However, as usual, the devil is in the details. Within Buddhism, there are multiple schools of thought regarding exactly how far this code applies. Insofar as I can understand, most divergences in this area of Buddhist doctrine stem from a disagreement over whether the no-kill rule logically extends to not eating meat. Put simply, one school of thought believes that the eating of certain meats (such as pork, chicken, or fish) is okay as long as the Buddhist eating it didn't know it was killed on their behalf, while another believes that a moratorium on the consumption of all meat is implicit in the reading of their sacred texts. And that's all without getting to the Tibetan school of thought which allows for the consumption of both meat and alcohol, a big deviation from these other two which I have been able to identify.

It's a bit complicated, involving a depth of understanding about Buddhist theology and doctrine that I won't even pretend to have. As it applies to the Air Nomads, who are obviously heavily inspired by Tibetan society, I can make a slightly swifter judgment. If the Air Nomads were based primarily on Tibetan Buddhist monks, then their sacraments endorsing vegetarianism, let alone veganism, make little sense. Tibetan Buddhism, as stated, allows for the consumption of meat. The 14th Dalai Lama has encouraged vegetarianism, while still acknowledging it as optional, to the point of regularly eating meat himself. The reasons that vegetarianism is optional in Tibet is for reasons both religious and practical. Tibetan Buddhism follows a school of thought originating from Northern India called Vajrayana which makes vegetarianism unnecessary. More pressingly, vegetables are scarce in mountainous regions such as Tibet, thus requiring less stringent traditions.

So, assuming DiMartino and Konietzko did their research, their incorporation of veganism into the fictional society of the Air Nomads may instead come from the culture of Hindu priests. I talked with an acquaintance who formerly resided in India, and she informed me that when it comes to adherence to the dietary laws of Hinduism, the different castes of Hinduism vary greatly. The priest caste ardently practices vegetarianism, no doubt because they can afford to do so, but not uniformly. Lower castes, however, are allowed to eat meat and dairy. Even these general rules of thumb differ heavily region-to-region.

My acquaintance's son resided in a region near the Ganges River, one of the most polluted rivers in the world by his account, which kept the consumption of fish down. Meanwhile, this 2006 survey tells us that only about 31 percent of Indians are vegetarians. That's all without accounting for Jainism, whose most devout adherents pursue the goal of non-violence to the point of using feathers to sweep insects out of their way wherever they go and wearing head coverings to avoid inhaling small insects. They're all either vegans or lacto-vegetarians, going even beyond that by not eating garlic or other root vegetables so as to not do harm to plants!

Tibetan Monks
In view of all this, the Air Nomads, like most of the other cultures depicted in Avatar: The Last Airbender, are a composite culture which contain elements from Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. This fictional society does not conform to any one specific religion, but is syncretic. This explains why the Air Nomads place great value in meditation and piety, abide by strict dietary regulations, and yet are able to kick serious tuckus through the use of magic kung fu.

A discussion on this blog about religion and fictional monastic orders wouldn't be complete without a Christian view on the subject of religious vegetarianism. While several Christian sects, ranging from Benedictine monks to Seventh Day Adventists, encourage or even mandate vegetarianism, the Bible's teaching on it are clear enough. God gave humanity permission to eat meat after Noah's flood (Genesis 9:3), and although He prohibited the Jews from eating certain animals, He never prohibited the consumption of all meat. Jesus later declared all foods clean in a vision given to the Apostle Peter (Acts 10:10-15), and is recorded in the Gospels as eating fish (Luke 24:42-43) and lamb (Luke 22:8-15). He also served bread and fish during the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:17-21).

In one particularly notable passage, found in Mark 7, Jesus made the larger point that it isn't what a person eats that makes him "unclean," but what comes out of the person from within. As it reads there:

And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride,foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

Image 1 courtesy of avatar.wikia.com. Image 2 courtesy of tibettravel.org.