Study Guide

Lord of Light Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Lesson in Titling Your Book: When in doubt, name it after your protagonist. Hamlet, Jane Eyre, and David Copperfield are just a few examples of some great writers taking the easy way out of titling their works. Zelazny would have followed suit, only you can't name a science fiction epic Sam—that's just silly. So, Lord of Light it is since Sam is the Lord of Light.

    It is that simple, right? Maybe not… Sam goes by many names in the novel, including "Mahasamatman, Kalkin, Manjusri, Siddhartha, Tathagatha, Sinder, Maitreya, the Englightened One, [and] Buddha" (1.93). Any one one of these names could have been chosen for the title and sounded way less vanilla than Sam. So why go with Lord of Light?

    There are many possibilities, really, as this book is big on allowing for many answers rather than having an answer. For our money, it's a matter of the journey Sam and the world undergo during the story.

    Sam starts the novel off as a self-centered prince who only takes on the image of Buddha to counter the gods. In the last chapter, Sam claims people only call him the Buddha because they "are afflicted with language and ignorance," but Taraka denies this, believing Sam is "what [he] claimed to be" (7.278-279). Lies or no, Sam has transformed into an Enlightened One, a Buddha, a true Lord of Light.

    At the same time, Sam brings a sense of Enlightenment to the world. Much like our own age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, Sam's world learns to be less reliant on the gods and more reliant on reasoning, invention, and scientific observation. It's important to note that the humans were re-inventing certain technologies before Heaven's doors were opened wide for them to access the Celestial City's scientific goodies.

    The novel is named Lord of Light to signify this play on the religious and philosophical versions of the word enlightenment. Sam is the Lord of Light because he brings himself and the world out of a philosophical and religious dark age.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Lord of Light has what we call a three-layered ending. Imagine a three-layered cake. It's all part of the same whole, but there's a distinct lemon crème filling separating the layers at the same time. Is anybody else hungry? No? Just us? All right then, let's explore this thing.

    Layer 1: The Circle of Life

    Layer 1 is an ending we've seen a million times before, the what-happens-to-everyone ending. We learn that Varuna has returned to the Celestial City, the Lords of Karma have been overturned by the Wardens of Transfer, Kubera and Ratri are now together, and Tak and Olvegg went off cruising the world.

    Most telling, we learn that this planet's unique take on Hinduism continues alongside its unique take on Buddhism, and Sam has become a religious figurehead in each. This layer ends with lines almost identical to the novel's opening lines, giving the proceedings that fated, circle of life feeling.

    But although we've been served this type of ending a million times before, like a favorite apple pie recipe, it still satisfies doesn't it?

    That said, we're still a little hungry. So on to the next layer.

    Layer 2: Into the Sunset, Into Legend

    Now we get to the center, which is the most important layer. After Sam's duty is done, he leaves Khaipur and is not seen again. Several different legends pop up regarding where he went and why, "as told by the moralist, the mystics, the social reformers, and the romantics." The only thing these different versions have in common is that Sam scrammed when a red bird appeared to him.

    This layer wraps up the novel's ongoing themes of symbols, stories, religion, and truth. Depending on who you ask—the moralist, the mystic, the social reformer, or the romantic—you'll get a different answer as to how and why Sam vanishes from the western continent. That's because each of these people has a different view of the world, religion, and society; so the stories they tell of it will in turn be different.

    Which is the real version; which is true? No one can say. Maybe they all are. Maybe none. Ultimately you'll just have to "select whichever version suits [your] fancy" (7.604). It's like having four different recipes for chocolate chip cookies—all are different, but that doesn't make any of them any less chocolate chip cookie-y, er, we mean true. Sorry about that… it's just… you sure you're not hungry for some dessert?

    Layer 3: That's Sweet

    At the very end of the novel, Murga visits the temple and places before Yama's shrine "the only devotion he receives, of flowers" (7.608). Remember: Murga was once Kali, the woman Yama loved but who did not love him back. Now, it seems the god of death has finally received the love he's desired so much from the person he's loved so much.

    Sure, Murga's love is the type one feels for a father and not a lover, but still. That's really the perfect place to end this thing, right at the point that warms your heart like an ooey-gooey molten lava cake.

    Okay, seriously, if we don't get some dessert in us, we will metaphorically die. See you at the next section.

  • Setting

    Planet Unknown; Time Unknown

    Mum is the word on the setting of Lord of Light. The subject is kept intentionally vague, and what we do know is only provided in brief snippets throughout the novel. With that said, the careful reader will be able to find the clues, connect them, and piece together a complete, if vague, history of Sam and his world. Here's what we came up with:

    In the Future… of Space

    We know the Firsts are called the Firsts because they were the first humans to settle on the planet (1.130). Pretty straight forward that. They came from a planet called Urath (read: Earth) on the spaceship the Star of India to settle on this alien world because they needed a new home (7.21). It's unclear why they left Urath, though—we only know that the planet "vanished" (2.23), which is maddeningly mysterious.

    Their new home was filled with strange alien creatures such as: "the Rakasha and the Nagas, the Gandharvas and the People-of-the-Sea, the Kataputna demons, and the Mothers of the Terrible Glow, the Dakshinis and the Pretas, the Skandas and the Pisakas." Needing a place to call home, the Firsts began colonizing the planet by either domesticating the aliens or outright fighting them. In time, the aliens would be known as demons because it's easier to kill something you consider a demon and not the rightful owner of the planet.

    To help with this colonial endeavor, the Firsts used their advanced technology to create weapons and machines. One machine allowed them to craft stronger bodies, and another transferred their minds into brand new bodies if their old one ever became decrepit or injured. Eventually, their descendants grew numerous enough to populate the entire planet. In turn, the Firsts fashioned themselves identities similar to the gods of Hindu mythology from back on their home world, ensuring they would remained at the top of society's caste system. Go team.

    And that's all we can say for certain, but there are many other important events in the history of this planet. We can't say when any of these take place or what their relation is to one another, only that they seem worthy of note:

    • Vishnu creates the Celestial City, or is its architect at least (5.13).
    • Sam binds the Rakasha within Hellwell and seals it with a big of metal door (4.46).
    • The Firsts kill all of the Mothers of the Terrible Glow, save for Dalissa (6.464).
    • Nirriti the Black One leaves Heaven because he believes their proclamations of godhood to be blasphemous to the real god, Jesus Christ (5.457).
    • Jan Olvegg leaves the company of the Firsts due to his Accelerationist leanings (2.174).
    • Sam leaves Heaven to enjoy the pleasures of the world as Prince Siddhartha.
    • The gods outlaw Accelerationism and many other relics of their Earthly past, including other religions, like Buddhism (1.75), and music, like "The Blue Danube Waltz" (2.53).

    And… that more-or-less brings us to the start of the book.

    The Celestial City and the Cities Not So Celestial

    Although its history may be vague, there is one thing we can say with absolute clarity about the setting: The Celestial City is awesome. Everywhere else? Eh, not so much.

    The Celestial City is where the gods hang their hats and call it a day. It's a hedonist paradise, and better still, it's a technological wonderland that's totally self-operating, meaning the gods don't have to lift a finger to make sure their heavenly home remains heavenly to the utmost. As Yama says:

    "If everyone in it were to die at this moment, it would still be perfect ten thousand years from now. The flowers would still bloom and the music would play and the fountains would ripple the length of the spectrum. Warm meals would still be laid within the garden pavilions. The City itself is immortal." (4.542)

    Like we said, heavenly.

    As for the rest of the world, it's living in something akin to a dark age. War, famine, and disease are everywhere, and rajahs like Videgha keep the people impoverished to maintain their own lavish existences (4.8). The populace has to bend knee to the will of the Masters of Karma just to have a decent go in their next life, while in this life, they don't even have toilets (6.80).

    The vast differences between the Celestial City and everywhere else helps drive home the theme of social inequality at the heart of the novel. The denizens of the Celestial City have everything and claim to horde it for the good of the people, but when the people don't even have toilets, well, the claim kind of rings hollow, now doesn't it?

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Have you ever wanted to tour a futuristic society crafted on Hindu mythology? Duh, right? Well you're in luck as you'll find few trails easier-going than the one Roger Zelazny has bushwhacked for us in Lord of Light. Zelazny's writing style is poetic but at the same time simple and fluid, so although the future society is alien to our Earthly sensibilities, the writing prevents us from getting lost in this otherworldly land.

    There are a few stumbling blocks for the unwary reader, though. Since this is Hindu mythology, the names of characters and places can be a little difficult for those of us used to Western conventions. And the timeline can also get a little tricky since the relationship of one event to another isn't immediately clear. It all makes sense in the end, though, so worry not. Plus, these are minor issues, and problems well worth traipsing through to hike to the top and see that grand, mythological landscape spread out before you.

  • Hinduism / Buddhism

    In the novel, Hinduism and Buddhism are two religions at each other's throats. Sam specifically resurrects the forbidden religion of Buddhism to both annoy and combat the Firsts who have fashioned a despotic society around Hindu mythology, and the Firsts attempted to stamp out any and all references to Buddhism in their perfect—well, perfect for them at any rate—world.

    But are these two religions really at such odds? Not really. Sure, they are two different religions with different beliefs and different solutions to life's burdensome problems. But Hinduism and Buddhism do share a common ancestry as well as many core concepts, so we thought we'd take a quick look at the actual religions for a moment and set aside their fictionalized counterparts.

    Oh, and quick warning: Hinduism and Buddhism are two religions with some seriously long histories behind them. Whatever we say in this little survey is in no way meant to be comprehensive. Like, say, Christianity, each religion contains many different sects that look at their religion in different lights.

    Righto, now we can do our thing.

    Axialmatic

    Hinduism is by far the older of the two, so let's start there. In Hinduism, there is a period known as the Vedic age. It's called this because the religion's main holy texts, the Vedas, were composed during this time period (roughly 1500-800 BCE). During this period, ritual, fire sacrifice, and chanting of mantras were the main religious concerns, since these were the ways to communicate and gain favor from the gods. The supreme gods also tended to be the gods associated with nature and the elements, such as Agni, Indra, and Vayu. (Source)

    Enter the Axial Age. Conceived by Karl Jasper, the Axial Age is a historical period where religious, philosophical, and intellectual pursuits began to flourish and develop into something more akin to what we'd recognize as "modern." It was an age where the axis of thought spun from ancient to modern. Zoroaster, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, and Plato are just some of the thinkers to pop up during this time period. (Source)

    In India during the Axial Age, Hinduism grew out of its Vedic age and came into its Classical period with the writing of the Upanishads. Whereas the Vedas were concerned with concepts like ritual, the Upanishads began to develop Hinduism's more philosophical and ethical teachings with concepts like samsara, moksha, karma, atman, and Brahman,or the absolute. Although Hinduism would continue to grow and change, this era gave birth to something more recognizable as Hinduism by today's standards. (Source)

    Also during the Axial Age, a man named Siddhartha Gautama reached a state of enlightenment while sitting beneath a Bo tree. Building on many of the concepts found in the Upanishads, Gautama would preach an end to suffering for humanity and took the title of the Buddha. Since Gautama borrowed so many concepts from Hinduism, some have debated that Buddhism is actually heterodox Hinduism (Source). As for us, we'll stay clear of that debate, thank you.

    Does your brain hurt yet? Well take five, and then we'll figure out what some of these terms mean…. Ready?

    Oh, wait. Just a quick reminder: Hinduism and Buddhism will have a nuanced understanding of all these concepts, but we're going to try to explain them with a comfy middle ground approach.

    All right. Let's do this.

    Karma

    Karma is a concept dealing with the cause and effect of deeds and actions. When you perform an action, that action ripples forth and into the world. Like a sound wave in an amphitheater, over time, the ripple of the action makes its way back to the source. If the deed was a good deed, it returns as positive karma, while bad deeds get negative karma in return. As a result, both religions see human beings as the architects of their own fate, a scary yet liberating notion. (Source)

    Two things to note:

    • Karma is seen as a law of the universe in both religions, much like gravity. Even the gods and goddesses cannot escape the karmic ripples of fate.
    • Karma may not come back to get you in this life—but though you may have to wait one or several lifetimes, rest assured that it will return.

    Samsara

    Samsara is the name of the continuous cycle of death and rebirth. While continuous rebirth might seem pretty awesome, let's not forget that every life is not a human one—it takes an awful lot of positive karma to keep your human status, and many of our past lives have been spent in the form of fish or insects or water buffalo and such. Also, keep in mind that even the best human life is filled with suffering, pain, and death. Yeah, samsara is definitely a mixed bag. (Source)

    Moksha

    If samsara spins us right round like a record, then how do we get the cosmic DJ to stop? In a word: moksha.

    Moksha comes from the Sanskrit word muc, meaning "to free," and it's exactly that: freedom, or liberation from samsara. Now, Hinduism and Buddhism each have their own paths for obtaining liberation, and different sects within each religion will offer even more variation. But moksha is the ultimate goal of each. (Source)

    Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turning

    Boom: Journey reference for the win. What were we talking about again? Oh, right.

    Wheels show up as important symbols in both religions. Hinduism has the wheel of life, which is used to represent the circling of samsara (Source). Buddhism has the Dharma wheel, an eight-spoke wheel representing Buddha's Eight-Fold Path.

    Zelazny even gets in on the action and creates the Great Wheel of the Law for his futuristic version of Hinduism. This wheel is meant to suggest the divinity of society's laws while hiding the Firsts' involvement in creating said law (2.94).

    So… Now What?

    Are there any difference between Hinduism and Buddhism? Yes, plenty. We just felt it was important to point out their similarities, since they can be easily missed amongst the great battles and epic conflicts between Sam and the Firsts. One important difference is the Hindu caste system or jati. But perhaps we'd better take this up in our discussion of technology as a symbol. See you over there.

  • Technology

    The Firsts have fashioned themselves as gods thanks to technologies so advanced they seem like supernatural powers. These technological wonders are called Aspects and Attributes. Cool trick, right? And way to not just call them like, say, inventions—that would be so pedestrian.

    Aspects are the gods' and goddesses' ability to alter their minds and grant themselves the powers to "transform themselves into gods" and "[strengthen] their bodies and [intensify] their wills." This allows them to wield their Attributes, powers and weapons that "[fall] with a force like magic upon those against whom they turned them" (4.346). In other words, don't mess with these people or they'll put a divine whooping on you.

    But there are other bits of technology in Lord of Light, symbols that dig deeper into the thematic heart of the novel.

    Reincarnation Nation

    For starters, forget jetpacks. Why hasn't science invented reincarnation machines?

    Unlike Aspects and Attributes, resurrection machines and pray-o-mats are pieces of technology the gods have let spread throughout the human realm. Buy why? Because, like Aspects and Attributes, they are used to keep the humans in a social class below the gods.

    The resurrection machines are, as the name implies, used to resurrect people into new bodies. They are run by the Masters of Karma, and when used with mind probes, the Masters of Karma can "read over [one's] past life, weigh the karma, and determine your life that is yet to come" (2.158). Pray-o-mats are machines that allow citizens to pay for the right to pray. The more you pay and pray, the better your chances of entering a better caste in your next life (2.184).

    But what's a caste? To put it simply, a caste system divides a society into different level, or castes. Each level comes with a certain amount of social, economic, and political power. Those on top receive the lion's share of each, while those on the bottom get a whole lot of nothing.

    In other words, both types of technology are a form of social control. By owning the resurrection machines, the Masters of Karma ensure that their friends, family, and themselves (obviously) remain on top of the caste system. Those who attempt to oppose the system get knocked to the bottom of society—if they're lucky enough to remain human at all.

    Even so, that doesn't mean there isn't any opposition to such a form of social inequality. To unpack this, be sure to check out our thoughts on Accelerationism elsewhere in this section.

  • Accelerationism

    If we only skim the surface, Accelerationism is simply an idea of technological liberation. As Tak tells Maya:

    "Accelerationism—it is a simple doctrine of sharing. It proposes that we of Heaven give unto those who dwell below of our knowledge and powers and substance. This act of charity would be directed to the end of raising their condition of existence to a higher level, akin to that which we ourselves occupy. Then every man would be as god, you see." (5.172)

    But if technology represents a caste system and social inequality (which is totally does, so be sure to read up on it elsewhere in this section), then Accelerationism takes on dimensions outside the obvious. Here, it's not simple a doctrine of giving humanity some technology—instead it's about balancing the social equation. It's about removing the caste or class system and making everyone equal.

    Can you call it socialist or communist, then? Perhaps. But our point here is merely to point out that what at first appeared to be really cool gadgets and butt kicking weapons are actually symbols exploring issues and problems very really in our society today. And Accelerationism represents one approach to solving them.

  • Atman

    Atman is a concept found in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. Although the idea contains nuances within each religion, for our purposes here we can basically consider it to be translated as soul or self. But wait, we hear you say, didn't we already discuss the concepts similar in Buddhism and Hinduism in another section? Why are we separating this one out?

    Answer: Zelazny does something particularly interesting with atman in the novel, something that requires a little side consideration in our discussion.

    Of Auras and Origins

    Atman comes into play right at the novel's beginning when Yama must use a satellite to fetch Sam from the great magnetic cloud around the planet like picking up a radio signal (1.120). Later, Yama gives a definition of the body-image (read: the self, or atman), which he describes as "electrical as well as chemical in nature" (3.471). Still later, Taraka refers to Sam's atman as a flame unaffiliated with language or ignorance (7.278-279).

    There are other examples of the atman being explained differently, but you take our point: The novel can't come to any definitive conclusion on what the heck atman, or the soul, is. On the one hand, it's electrical and chemical, i.e. a natural part of our body. But on the other hand, it's a flame, something more intangible and supernatural about us.

    All of these explanations are given the same weight in the novel, too, and accepted as accurate even if contradictory. Ultimately, the novel could be saying all of these explanations are equally valid. But it could also be arguing that they all leave holes in the true definition of atman. It kind of remains a mystery. Perhaps this is the point, though: Just like names don't really mean anything because they can't express the whole truth of a being (we discuss this in our convo about Sam in the "Characters" section), maybe the soul is unknowable.

  • Trees

    Trees are great. Don't believe us, take a look at these. Still don't believe us? Well, then just consider the important roles trees play in just about every religion ever:

    • The Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bo tree. (Source)
    • Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden for eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
    • Jesus was crucified on a cross (formerly a tree).
    • The Norse god Odin hung from the world tree, gaining knowledge of songs and runes in the process. (Source)
    • The Upanishads feature a cosmic tree named Asvattha. (Source)
    • The hundred-headed serpent Ladon guards a tree of golden apples in Greek mythology. (Source)

    And that's just to name a few. So it's no surprise that tree imagery pops up once or twice in Lord of Light.

    When Yama first meets Sam in a dream, he spies the Buddha sitting beneath "a massive tree, a tree such as did not grow upon the world, but rather held the world together with its roots" (3.331). The Dome of Heaven contains not only the Celestial City, but also the forest of Kaniburrha (5.18), too, and Nirriti's last words contain a reference to the Gospel of Matthew when he says, "Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit" (7.487).

    So, what can we make of all this? Well, it seems that every major religion referenced in this novel—Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity—comes equipped with tree imagery. Perhaps this shared imagery suggests connecting points between all the different religions of the novel; a common root system, if you will. This would bring extra importance to Nirriti's last words, suggesting the importance of a religion is not what religion it is but what it generates. The differences that matter are practical more than anything else.

    On the other hand, maybe Zelazny just wanted to keep the religious-tree-referencing streak alive and needed to include trees to give his mythological world that extra bit of veracity and zing.

    What do you think? Are we missing the metaphorical forest for the trees here? Do have a different take on why trees appear so frequently?

      • Allusions

        This novel's cup doeth runneth over with references to Hinduism, Buddhism, and their respective mythologies. As such, we're only going to mention a few choice examples here for two major reasons: (1) Zelazny knows his mythology, so we're certain we've missed several hidden gems; and (2) almost every character is a shout-out to some mythological figure. If we named even just the ones we noticed, we'd be here all day.

        Literary and Philosophical References

        (Some) Mythology References

        Historical References

        Pop Culture References

        • Johann Stauss II, The Blue Danube (2.44, 2.48)
        • Jack Judge, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" (2.145)
        • Kathakali Dancers (3.22)
        • Irish Stand-down (6.338)