by Rudyard Kipling
The Teshoo Lama
The (Extremely) Odd Couple
Actually, against all odds, the Teshoo lama and Kim have a lot in common. First, both of them are outsiders to Indian society—Kim because he doesn't totally fit in to any of the castes or groups that he imitates so well, and the lama because he is not from India (he's Tibetan) and he is only traveling through the country for religious reasons. (BTW, a lama is a spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism.)
Second, both Kim and the lama seem to inspire a lot of help from strangers. Kim is hugely charming, and he is great at manipulating people into giving him what he wants. The lama is pretty charming in his own right, but he is also so clearly a holy man that he receives donations on the road from the people he passes.
But we have to be honest: the number of differences between the lama and Kim definitely outnumbers their similarities.
The lama is hugely disciplined and dedicated to his Buddhist faith. Kim, by contrast, doesn't seem to have a religion, and his main dedication is to becoming a spy—a job that seems pretty far from religious salvation. The lama is actually a wealthy man—he used to be the Abbot of Suchzen Lamassery when he was still living in Tibet—which means that he has the resources to send Kim to school. Meanwhile, Kim is "a poor white of the very poorest" (1.2).
And the list of differences goes on: the lama is old and Kim is young. The lama always appears exactly the same, in his priestly robes, while Kim is always changing.
The Lama Isn't Totally Naive, You Guys… Just Mostly
The biggest contrast between Kim and the lama is how they see the world. Kim is an exceptionally good observer of people. From just one close look, he can size up other folks: where they belong in the Indian social hierarchy, what they might want or need, and how he can use these characteristics for his own benefit. The lama, on the other hand, is remarkably naive about physical appearances.
When Kim first appears to the lama in European clothes in front of the Lahore Museum and then later reappears in Hindu clothing, the lama thinks that this change in Kim's looks is proof that Kim is an unearthly being.
The lama's lack of understanding of other people's appearances actually has a religious reason behind it: he believes that, "There is neither high nor low in the Middle Way" (1.174). In other words, distinctions in social class, ethnicity, and all of that stuff that matters so much to Kim and his future job as a British Indian spy are just not important to the lama. He believes that we are all humans, trying to figure out our way through our lives as best we can.
In a way, this kindly philosophy makes the lama the most sympathetic of all of the characters in the novel to us. He often seems a bit disconnected or out of touch with the events of the book, and he can appear hopelessly naive at times. But he also doesn't constantly judge others according to race, religion, or cultural background.
Oh, don't get us wrong—the lama still has some awareness of the social differences in India. When he finds out that Kim is a Sahib, he feels pretty upset that Kim has hidden his status from the lama all of this time. And the lama is also judgmental about people who are either not Buddhists or who do not follow the kind of Buddhism that he believes in, as when he dismisses the Kulu woman's "idle tales which she heard from devil-serving priests who pretend to follow the Way" (4.110).
However, for the most part, the lama sincerely believes that we are all asking the same questions of our lives, even if our answers may differ in this lifetime, at this turn of the Great Wheel of existence.
The Lama And Kim, Milk and Cookies, Chocolate And More Chocolate: A List of Things That Go Great Together
But if Kim and the lama are so different, how can they be so extremely close? Well, you know what they say about opposites attracting. The lama loves Kim for his devotion and kindness in sticking with the lama on his quest for the River of the Arrow (for more on that whole business, check out our section on "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory").
Kim loves the lama because Kim is a great judge of people, and the lama is a superb person. As Kim tells Mahbub Ali, "that worth do I see [in the lama]; and to him my heart is drawn" (8.127). Kim is actually a pretty cynical and calculating young guy; the addition of the grandfatherly lama to the novel adds sincerity and emotion to the otherwise kind of dry plot.
After all, this is not a book with a lot of romance complicating the story line. There is essentially no love interest for Kim, as he focuses 99.99% of his energy on transforming himself into a super secret agent. Not only does Kim's attachment to the lama add depth to his otherwise pretty serious character, but together, the two of them bring a lot of warmth and care to a book that mostly skips human emotions in its plotting.
(For more on the lama's quest for the River of the Arrow—and his crisis of faith—check out our analysis in "What's Up With the Ending?")