I just finished reading Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light and although I enjoyed the book very much and liked its overall tone, I can't help feeling a little lost.

I'd like to know a little bit more about the book's background and intended interpretation, if any. Is it an homage to / a parody of Hinduism? Of religion in general? A morality tale (if yes, what is supposed to be the moral of the story)? Just another "mystical East"-style tale among the many that were published during the hippie wave? Or simply a deliberately-left-vague story designed to mystify but without any deeper context ("style over substance")?

I'm interested both in Zelazny's original thoughts on the story (if available) and in what fans of the book have commonly made of it.


Per Zelazny's own words;

"Lord of Light was intentionally written so that it could be taken as a science fiction or a fantasy novel. On the one hand, I attempted to provide some justifications for what went on in the way of the bizarre; on the other, I employed a style I associate with fantasy in the telling of the story. I wrote it that way on purpose, leaving some intentional ambiguity, because I wanted it to lie somewhat between both camps and not entirely in either. I did this because I did not see much stuff being written at that time which fit that description; because I wanted to see whether I could do it; and because I was curious as to how such a book would be received."

As to whether the book was an overt homage to Eastern religion, the answer is a resounding "Yes". From the opening sentence onwards it should be immediately apparent that the story is essentially a sci-fi retelling of the story of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.

The wikipedia page for Lord of Light contains a very extensive description of the links between the book and Buddhist tradition. Suffice to say, pretty much every single character and scene is a thinly veiled reference to Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

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I read it as an anti-theist story.

The original settlers ("the First") use advanced technology combined with their psychic powers to set up a world in which various ideas of Hinduism are carried out in physical reality. The First set themselves up as gods, living up in heaven and receiving the prayers of the people down below. When people die, their brains are scanned, and if they've been obedient and followed the rules (and made many donations to the church), they may be reincarnated into a higher caste. If not, they may be reincarnated into an animal's body.

Sam is one of the First, but he's offended by the tyranny of the priesthood and the greed of the "gods," who keep the technology for themselves and let the common people live in poverty. To strike back, Sam starts a counter-religion based on Buddhism and preaches equality and independence from the prevailing religious system. He finally conducts an out-and-out war against his former cohorts in heaven.

I think the following quote says something important about the message of the book:

“The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either.”

Yama is saying that a religious attitude is one that worships the unknown at the expense of one's ability and drive to figure out how the natural world works. In writing a story about people who rebel against the gods, and in presenting this anti-mystical point of view, I see Zelazny making a humanist statement.

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What I love about this novel is how the author either inadvertently or quite knowingly has created a modern religious epic, tempting the reader to recognize the thin veneer of all religious works and ideals.

In this narrative the truths of life, obscured by the convolutions of human and theoretically godlike machinations become stripped of their mystical awe so that the audience sees the cognitive filters of the believer, the fear and blind loyalty that makes each of us potential victims to the inhumane indiscretions of authority.

It may, then, be even more true that this is a story about victory over tremendous manipulation and the disappearance of greater universal truths in the world of narcissistic personalities possessing technologies and beliefs bordering on the magical. In as much as this may be true, it is taking the tone and language of the classic Indian texts and creating a story that is very much appropriate to a modern age.

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