From gods to bots

Avatar is a word from the ancient, cultured, Sanskrit language of India. Sanskrit is part of the Indo-European family of languages, which includes Greek, Latin and, of course, English.

Avatar has a long history in Sanskrit literature having been used in the works of Pāṇini, the world’s first grammarian who wrote the Ashtadhyayi (the eight chapters), a book of Sanskrit grammar in the 4th century BC.

The Oxford Dictionary defines avatar as the form a deity takes when descending to earth in an incarnate form (that is embodied in flesh). Although it is translated into English as incarnation, it is perhaps better described as a manifestation. In Sanskrit avatar means descent; it comes from ava meaning off, away, down and tar to pass over.

Avatar is most commonly used to refer to the forms that Vishnu (one of Hinduism’s major gods) took when he appeared on Earth. The ten most famous incarnations of Vishnu are known as the Dashavatara (they are the fish, tortoise, boar, half-man/half-lion, dwarf, Rama-of-the-axe, Lord Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki).

An early Christian gnostic sect, the Docetae (from the Greek dokesis, meaning appearance or semblance), also known as the Illusionists, believed that Christ did not come to earth in the form of a man but only inhabited the semblance of a body, a concept similar to that of an avatar. This concept the Catholic church considers heretical.

The concept of the avatar has been picked up in the information age by Internet users to describe their online representations. It can be any visual representation from a simple, logo-like picture to the complex animated figures used to inhabit the virtual communities or gaming environments of the web. The animated online avatars come in many forms but can be divided into three main types: the combat avatar used in shoot-em-up games such as World of Warcraft; the social avatar that provide the opportunity for social interaction; and the commercial avatar (known as a bot), used by an organization to interact with its customers.

The film, Avatar, combines both concepts: the hero lives in another world by using the avatar, a flesh and blood alien representation of his body which he controls by computerised mind control. On one hand it is a real world manifestation of the man but on the other it is a virtual body controlled by a computer interface.

It is unusual for the language of information technologists to have such a conceptual and spiritual basis. There are various suggestions as to who first used avatar to refer to the online personality or manifestation of a person. However, considering that avatar originally described the earthly manifestation of a heavenly god and that an online animated character represents the manifestation of a real person, it is more difficult to understand why you wouldn’t use this most appropriate word.