"Sam was the greatest charlatan in the memory of god or man. He was also the worthiest opponent Trimurti ever faced. Don't look so shocked at my saying it, Archivist! You know that he stole the fabric of his doctrine, path and attainment, the whole robe, from prehistorical forbidden sources. It was a weapon, nothing more. His greatest strength was his insincerity. If we could have him back…" (1.75)
Right away, we realize the theme of religion won't be an easy one in this novel. On the one hand, Sam's a total liar of a prophet, but on the other hand, his lies do bring about some good results.
"They are aware that a god may do such things without karmic burden, but the shock was great and the impression vivid." (1.388)
To borrow from Plato: Is an act right because God says it's so, or does God say it's so because it's right? It's a super interesting question when you dig into it, and it might just help you dig into new levels of Lord of Light as well.
"Now that the karma idea has caught on, the [pray-o-mats] are better than tax collectors. When mister citizen presents himself at the clinic of the god of the church of his choice on the eve of his sixtieth year, his prayer account is said to be considered along with his sin account, in deciding the caste he will enter—[…]" (2.184)
Speaking of things that remind us of other things, way back in the day, people actually could pay to have sins removed from their soul (or so they thought). These were called indulgences.
"Like Kali," acknowledged the priest. "And in the cases of both deities have I often sought justification for atheism. Unfortunately, they manifest themselves too strongly in the world for their existence to be denied effectively. Pity." (3.290)
Death and suffering present a bit of a bind for this priest. On the one hand, how can he believe in gods that allow death and suffering? On the other hand, if he's going to die, how can he not believe in god? That's a doozy of a quandary. Best to grow a thinking beard before tackling it.
Over the years, their names would merge and their deeds would be mingled. He had lived too long not to know how time stirred the pots of legend. (4.346)
How does one separate truth, history, and legend in any religion? This passage suggests that, in time, these things get inseparably mingled.
"Peace," said Sam. "But tell me, do the ruling passions of the gods ever change?"
"The goddess of dance was once the god of war. So it would seem that anything can change." (4.563-565)
Even religion. 'Nuff said.
Brahma stood, considered the mirrors, considered Vishnu.
"So after we have disposed of Sam, you will have been the real Tathagatha." (5.204-205)
The gods use their religion to consume Sam's, making it less of a threat. In fact, religious history shows that religions often consume aspects of other cultures and religions as a way to integrate societies together. Christmas tree, anyone?
"The Buddha has gone to nirvana," said Brahma. "Preach it in the Temples! Sing it in the streets! Glorious was his passing! He has reformed the old religion, and we are better now than ever before! Let all who would think otherwise remember Keenset!" (6.794)
Now that they've fully implemented the plan above, the gods may give Sam all the praise he wants. He's one of them now, whether he likes or not.
These are the four version of Sam and the Red Bird Which Signalled [sic] His Departure, as told variously by the moralists, the mystics, the social reformers, and the romantics. (7.604)
And so Sam departs into legend. His truth and religion are now what others make of them.