Study Guide

The Left Hand of Darkness Religion

By Ursula K. Le Guin


Though the technique is the exact opposite of most discipline, tending toward the experience of Immanence; but I can't categorize any practice of the Handdarata with certainty. (5.28)

It is almost impossible to judge a religion from the outside looking in—especially when you're bringing in a bunch of preconceived notions about what religion is supposed to look like.

"Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion…." (5.113)

Wow, deep stuff here. The basic idea is that religion can't have proof. If you've proved something, there's no room for faith. So, you have to stay in a state of "unproof."

[God's] existence or his nonexistence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof. Thus proof is a word not often used among the Handdarata, who have chosen not to treat God as a fact, subject either to proof or to belief: […]. (11.21)

We're not touching this one with a 43 and ¾ foot pole. Feel free to draw your own conclusions here. (Hint: it probably has something to do with the Handdara's ideas about light and dark.)

And in the Center there is no time past and no time to come. In all time past it is. In all time to come it is. It has not been nor yet will it be. It is. It is all. (12.1)

Sneaky, Le Guin, very sneaky. Remember at the beginning of the novel how Ai mentions that the Gethenian calendar is always at Year One, counting forward and backward accordingly (1.3)? Well, this quote slyly points out just how much religion paints the way we view the world. Sometimes the smallest details have vast religious histories (see our own A.D. and B.C. timeline).

The life of every man is in the Center of Time, for all were seen in the Seeing of Meshe, and are in his Eye. We are the pupils of his Eye. Our doing is his Seeing: our being his Knowing. (12.5)

Hmm, there seems to be a lot of stress on the word "eye" when read aloud. Could there be a possible connection between the "Eye" here and the pronunciation of Ai's name? Is there any way that Ai can be seen as a type of Messiah-figure?

"There used to be an old Sanovy crazy-priest would come by my Hearth when I was little and tell us children all about that, where the liars go when they die, and where the suicides go, and where the thieves go—that's where we're going, me and you, eh, one of those places?" (13.51)

Here, Asra notes how religion is sometimes used to explain the unexplainable. In this case, the use of all those planets seen in the night sky.

"No, this I'm telling of isn't a spirit-world. A real one. The people that live on it are real people, alive, just like here." (13.52)

Of course, religion will have to make way for new evidence and insights, as Ai's follow-up comment suggest. Wonder what else will change for the Gethenian religions with the Ekumen's arrival?

"The Yomeshta would say that man's singularity is his divinity."

"Lords of the Earth, yes. Other cults on other worlds have come to the same conclusion. They tend to be the cults of dynamic, aggressive, ecology-breaking cultures." (16.42-34)

The novel suggests the religious view of man's singularity might not be such a great thing. If we view ourselves as separate, distinct from nature, then we might fall in line with Ai's cults and become ecology-breaking ourselves. Yeah…might. (You get the sense that Le Guin isn't a huge fan of religion.)

"Well, in the Handdara…you know, there's no theory, no dogma…. Maybe they are less aware of the gap between men and beasts, being more occupied with the likenesses, the links, the whole of which living things are a part." (16.44)

Okay, so here's the novel's alterative to singularity: if we realize how much we're like everything else in the world, we'll consider ourselves a part of the whole ecology of the world.

"It's found on Earth, and on Hain-Davenant, and on Chiffewar. It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness…how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male." (19.28)

The yin yang represents the idea of unity: not just of black and white but of religions as well. Although separated by the vast emptiness of space, both the Handdara and the Tao have reach the same conclusion, suggesting a possible link to all religions. (We're thinking maybe because the Hain seeded all these planets.)