Symbols are everywhere, and as human beings, we couldn't get on very well without them. Religions are infused with symbols to help us come to grips with their otherworldly ideas (God as the king, God as the father, and so on). Science and mathematics use symbols to give form to abstract ideas (looking at you number 0). Even the words you are reading at this very moment right now are symbols meant to represent certain bits of information.
Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, and since Lord of Light is brimming with religion, science, words, and considerations of self, you can bet your bottom dollar that semiotics will be a handy theme to consider while reading.
Most of the characters in the book assume symbolic names, meaning we never get their true identity.
Sam's quest for social liberation is an attempt to readjust the symbols of a society.
We know what you're thinking: How do you have versions of reality, as in the plural? Isn't there reality and then not reality? And sure, there might be a single reality out there, but here's a question that has kept many a philosopher awake into the wee morning hours: How do we know if the reality of our minds is the true reality? How do we know if what we believe to be true is actually the truth? Tricky stuff.
Lord of Light plays with questions of reality without giving in to simple explanations. Are the truths professed by the gods really lies meant to hide reality? Are the lies told by Sam really truths puncturing reality's core? In the end, unable to provide an answer, the novel provides several possible versions of reality. And that's as it should be… we think? Forget it—you decide.
Every version of reality in the novel seems to be based on a previous version of reality, which means none of them are authentic, and therefor, none are completely true.
The gods are unable to completely cover up the fact that they aren't human because they don't truly believe it themselves. Without belief in a reality, it's can't be considered a reality.
The idea that the rich be getting richer and the poor be getting poorer is nothing new, but Zelazny gives it the celestial treatment in Lord of Light. Zelazny's pantheon of gods has positioned itself as the upper class and created a type of trickle-down religion—whereby the people sacrifice their money and lives for the gods, and the gods in turn bless the people with a hearty pat on the back.
Unfortunately, the lower classes find themselves living in a type of economic, technological, and intellectual dark age while the gods of the Celestial City enjoy all the pleasure good food, superior technology, and unlimited funds can provide. Sam's mission is ultimately one of balancing this horribly tipped scale to redistribute society's gifts amongst all of society.
Social liberation for the lower classes is only possible because Sam, a member of the upper class, takes on the task.
Nirriti, like Sam, is a character whose goal is the leveling of society and class. Hey, say what you will about zombies, at least they don't maintain hierarchy.
Lucky for us, Lord of Light deals with all different varieties of freedom and confinement, giving us a pretty thorough look at these ideas in action. Good times. Well, if you're a god, anyway.
There's the social variety of freedom and confinement, where the upper classes decide what technology or type of life the lower classes may have. Then there's the religious variety, where the gods make all the people worship them as the supreme beings. And then there's the personal variety. Here, the characters' souls are trapped within confines of their own making, and while some seem perfectly pleased in their gilded cages, others fight desperately to discover a personal freedom.
Which leaves us with one question: Which do you think seems worst?
Religion is seen in the novel as a force that both frees and confines simultaneously. Yeah, we know that sounds like a paradox, but give it a second….
The only character that manages to free himself from himself is Rild. All other characters remain confined in their own identity, even Sam.
Right? Obviously this theme was going to be making an appearance, although maybe not in the way you'd expect. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity are all present and accounted for, and we have plenty of characters representing their major religious figureheads. But we must not forget that these characters in Lord of Light are not the religious figureheads, but merely people pretending to be them. It's an important distinction because it hints that the novel is concerned with religion not as a method of divining the truth but as a social tool. And like any tool, it can be used for good or for ill.
Sam's version of Buddhism in the novel is less religious Buddhism and more philosophical Buddhism.
None of the Firsts that become gods proclaim any type of religion of their own—it's only the Firsts that leave the Celestial City who profess any type of religious belief.
Identity is nuts in Lord of Light. You know how so many stories on identity are about finding your true self? Well, this novel is sort of like that… only a little less cut and dry. The question is: How would you know your true self even if you found it? It's a legit question, and Sam goes through the entire novel pretending to be a Buddha, lying his butt off to garner followers. But in pretending to be the Buddha, does Sam become a Buddha? Sam doesn't think so, but others sure do.
Another question on identity: Can who you are ever change? The gods have been transferring themselves from body to body for millennia. But in all that shifting of self, does their core identity remain the same, or does it alter with each new life? We never get a definitive answer to any of these queries. Not one. Just questions to ponder… and ponder… and ponder.
Sam has many names but only one self, though that self remains hidden throughout the novel.
In contrast, Kali has many selves and many identities because she never holds steadfastly to any belief, idea, or creed.
Suffering is an important theme in Buddhism, so when Sam takes on the guise of the Buddha in Lord of Light, his message naturally revolves around the idea of suffering as well. As a result, suffering kind of ties all the other themes we've mentioned together as the novel considers suffering through society, through religion, through warfare, and through life itself. Sam's message might not be able to end suffering like the Buddha's, but it does seem to lessen suffering by the novel's end. And that's something to consider in its own right.
Time to contradict ourselves (again). One could argue that Sam's message has absolutely nothing to do with suffering as the Buddha understood—instead, it has to do with a purely material form of suffering.
Although this story is lacking in truly villainous villains, that characters that tend to be antagonists to Sam are the ones who promote the suffering of others to lessen their own.
War is present in many facets of Lord of Light. There's good old-fashioned war—i.e. two sides line up on the battlefield and beat each other senseless. There's social conflict, which is sometimes called class warfare. And then there is the war of ideas fought between Sam, the gods, and Nirriti, a war that often manifests in a violent reality. But is war good for nothing? You'll have to read the book to find out.
Before you make your decision, though, we kind of insist you revisit an example at the novel's end. During the final battle, Sam does not fight; he only brings water to ease the suffering of a dying Nirriti. Re-read it before you make up your mind of whether war is good for anything in this book, please and thank you.
The only gods who don't participate in the war in some manner are Vishnu and Varuna, known as the Preserver and the Just respectively.
Kali and Yama are both gods of death, but only Kali enjoys war for war's sake.