Eschatology in The Legend of Korra


Seasons two and four of Legend of Korra end with some kind of radical, permanent change to the world. First, Korra opens the spirit portals, allowing spirits to live together with humans in Republic City. This also revives airbending and sparks the birth of the Air Nation. In season three, she has to deal with the consequences of bringing about this new era, both good and bad. Finally, season four brings the end of imperial powers and leaves room for yet another new era of overturning powers not with violence, but with grace.

By nature, the Avatar is someone who changes the world in some way or another. No Avatar has ever escaped this fate. What makes Korra’s actions as the Avatar particularly eschatological is that they change the established rules and assumptions of the Avatarverse. What Korra ultimately achieves are illogical things that no one thought were possible. She closes the divide between spirits and humans by opening the spirit portals, which directly contrasts the notion that, because the Avatar world is becoming more modern, it is necessarily becoming less spiritual. Arguably, Korra makes the world even more spiritual despite her major struggle with spiritual disconnect.

Eschatology is, most generally, the study of the end of history. In many religions, the eschaton (though it may not be called such) is the end of the faith’s spiritual story. Secular and scientific eschatologies envision the era of humans ending–or humans mixing so much with technology that we are no longer humans, but something else. There are dozens of theories both across faiths and philosophies, and within faiths (Christianity has several which depend in part on how literally one takes the Bible).

Season four in particular pits two types of eschatons against one another: spiritual (the Avatar) and technological (Kuvira). Willingly or not, Korra has acted as a spiritual revolutionary in that she is always bringing more spirituality into the human world and changing it as a result. Kuvira, obviously, is a technological revolutionary. Her ambition has no limits and with all her mecha and spirit cannons, she will definitely create a new era.

This tension between the spiritual and the technological is certainly something we see in our own world. New scientific innovations push the boundaries of what we thought was possible or ethical. In Legend of Korra, Kuvira embodies this ethical problem. She has proven how far technology can go and how much can be done without spirituality–without the Avatar. In her mind, none of the people who were supposed to lead the world, spiritual or political, lived up to their calling. Those systems, in a sense, failed and Kuvira feels that it then fell to her to both save and recreate the world.

The thing is, Kuvira isn’t completely wrong. Spirituality and spiritual authority have taken major blows in the Avatarverse, and nowhere is this more prominent than in Korra’s traumatic injuries at the end of season three. Previously, her struggle with being a spiritual Avatar has been more of an inconvenience, but now she’s completely shattered. She, the embodiment of spirituality, retreats from the world to recover, and perhaps those who earnestly believe in the Avatar are left wondering when or if their god–their guide–will come back. Surely others, like Kuvira, become cynical and abandon faith in the Avatar or the spirits altogether.

So, technology comes to fill that spiritual gap and totalitarianism fills the political gap in the Earth Kingdom. When spirituality (Korra) finally does return to the world, Kuvira has already gone too far and it seems that her way–her version of how the eras shift–will come to pass. In the final episodes of the series, these two visions clash, yet the resolution does not result in one side overpowering the other. Korra and spirituality win, but they win in a very spiritual way: humility and understanding. When Kuvira loses control of the spirit cannon arm she found among the vines in the middle of Republic City, Korra manages to transport them both to the Spirit World. There, Korra sits across from Kuvira, listens to her, and shows her grace.

In the end, it’s spirituality that brings about a change in era. It quells Kuvira’s anger and makes her relinquish her aggressive vision for the world while allowing the connection between the human world and the Spirit World to persist.

Yet this doesn’t suggest that spirituality and technology don’t exist in harmony in this new era because they most certainly do, and the clearest example of that (as many have noted) is Korrasami. Is it possible for me to write about Legend of Korra without bringing up Korrasami? The answer is probably no.

In a few of my past posts, I’ve mentioned how Korrasami is a perfect metaphor for balance because Korra, the Avatar, is the ultimate form of a bender while Asami is a nonbender. However, they also embody a balance between technology and spirituality. Numerous Korrasami fans have pointed this out already, so I won’t spend much time on it here, but Korra, obviously, is spirituality and Asami, as the owner of Republic City’s most innovating company, is technology. However, Asami’s approach to technology is much different from Kuvira’s. Instead of using it to dominate spirituality, Asami uses it to work with spirituality (as best as she can). She rebuilds Republic City’s roads to accommodate the spirit vines and leave them in peace whereas Kuvira wants to find a way to exploit their power. While Asami will always find the next big thing in transportation or technology, she’s still very conscious of protecting Korra’s place in the world and her identity as the Avatar. Asami always affirms Korra, protects her body when she’s in the Spirit World, and uses technology to aid Korra’s goals (like the time she brought Korra a giant airship). Likewise, Korra accepts Asami’s assistance, whether it’s emotional or technological.

So, the type of eschaton or era-shifting that Legend of Korra ends up showing subverts a one-over-the-other, us-versus-them battle and victory that we might expect (both of the show and of our own faiths). Spirituality and technology may initially be pitted against one another, but the battle ends illogically with harmony between the two opposing sides. Yes, the evil conquest parts of the technology side are purged and calmed, but technology isn’t completely tossed aside just because spirituality technically wins. Besides, if one side were to totally dominate the other in the end, then the Avatar wouldn’t really have brought balance to the world.

I think this type of illogical, harmonious ending can help us conceptualize eschatologies in different ways. For Christians, we read Scripture and are given an idea of the end of things. A surface reading of Revelation gives us a clear good side and a clear bad side, making it easy for us to project that to the world and figure out who will be redeemed and who won’t. Sometimes, we think we know how the battle will end and who will be let into heaven; however, the real ending (whatever that might be) could end up being very surprising and could go against the logical conclusions or understandings that we have come up with over the history of our faith tradition.

I’m not suggesting that God will make good and evil one in the same and live harmoniously with each other, but if the story of Jesus is any indication, the end of our already/not yet time may not at all be what we expect.