Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lord of Light part 3: Death and the Buddha

(Continuing my look at Roger Zelazny's novel, Lord of Light.)

On a planet where the human colonists have established a society based on ancient Hindu culture, and where the members of the original crew have used high technology and science-spawned super-powers to assume the role of gods, one man has decided to challenge the Heavenly Establishment. His name is Sam, (although he goes by myriad other names as well, such as Siddhartha and Binder of Demons) and he too is one of the First. In last week's chapter, he raided the Hall of Karma in the city of Mahartha, where temple-sanctioned technicians performed the act of reincarnation by transferring a person's mind into a new cloned body. He slew the Masters of Karma, stole as much of the body-transfer apparatus as his caravan could carry and gave a big fat raspberry to Brahma, the ruler of the gods.

Now the war begins. But it's going to be a war on Sam's terms.

Like Dune, the chapters in Lord of Light all start out with an excerpt from a supposed document commenting on the story. In Dune the excerpts carried the voice of the historian and the scholar; but here, the opening passages have the distinct voice of the storyteller and give the narrative an additional wrapping of legend. This myth-filter is further intensified by the quotation of authentic Hindu scriptures as a bumper between the excerpt and the chapter itself.
It is said that, when the Teacher appeared, those of all castes went to hear his teachings, as well as animals, gods and an occasional saint, to come away improved and uplifted. It was generally conceded that he had received enlightenement, except by those who believed him to be a fraud, sinner, criminal or practical joker. These latter ones were not all to be numbered as his enemies; but, on the other hand, not all of those imporved and uplifted could be counted as his friends and supporters.... It must be noted that while the godess Kali (sometimes known as Durga in her softer moments) never voiced a fomal opinion as to his buddhahood, she did render him the singular honor of dispatching her holy executioner to pay him her tribute, rather than a mere hired assassin...
It is festival time in the city of Alundil and many travelers have come; some to pay their respects in the city's great temple, but many to hear the Teacher who resides in the grove of purple trees outside the city. One pilgrim in particular has other goals. His name is Rild.

He is found by one of the Teacher's saffron-robed acolytes: a seeming youth of slight build and with abnormally white hair and jet-black eyes, lying unconscious from a fever contracted while passing through the swamps. The monks bring the traveler to the Teacher, called by his disciples Mahasamatman and Tathagatha, meaning He Who Has Achieved.

As Sam examines the feverish traveler, he notes that although the youth wears the robes of a pilgrim, he also carries the crimson strangling cord which is the badge of the holy executioners of Kali. The stranger's body has also been given the death bath, a treatment making his skin as hard and inpenetreable as steel, in select places. Clearly, this is one of Kali's elite.

The monks too know that the stranger is an assassin, and are concerned; but Sam tells them to leave him here. The Teacher himself will tend to the mysterious white-haired pilgrilm.

A couple days pass before the fever breaks and Rild regains consciousness, and another day before he is strong enough to converse. During that time, Sam takes care of him and never leaves his side.

When he awakens, Rild does not understand why Sam did not simply kill him while he was helpless. The Teacher merely replies with zen serenity and returns Rild's strangling cord. "I have no need to move or to act. All things come to me. If anything is to be done, it is you who will do it."

Rild finds himself in a puzzling dillemma.
"You have offended Heaven," he stated. 
"Of that, I am aware." 
"...But I owe you my life, and I have eaten your bread... Because of this, I must break a most holy vow," finished Rild. "I cannot kill you, Tathagatha."
Having failed in his mission, he cannot return to Kali. Sam offers to let him stay here in the purple grove for a time, and Rild agrees. And after a couple weeks, listening to Sam teach, he approaches Sam again and asks to become one of his disciples.
"I have held your words within me and felt the truth which they contain. In the service of the goddess have I slain more men than purple fronds upon yonder bough.... So I am not easily taken in by words, having heard too many, voiced in all tones of speech -- words pleading, arguing, cursing. But your words move me, and they are superior to the teachings of the Brahmins. Gladly would I become your executioner, dispatching your enemies with a saffron cord... but I know that such is not your way. Death and life are as one to you, and you do not seek the destructuion of your enemies. So I request entrance to your Order. For me, it is not so difficult a thing as it would be for another. Once must renounce home and family, origin and property. I lack these things. One must renounce one's own will, which I have already done. All I need now is the yellow robe." 
"It is yours," said Tathagatha, "with my blessing."
Later, Sam goes alone into the city and visits the temple. He places Rild's garrote before the shrine of Kali. "It's a resignation, my dear.... You have lost this round."

Rild takes on a new name, Sugata, and immerses himself in the Eightfold Path of Enlightenment. And somehow, a miracle occurs. He develops a deep undersatnding of the Tathagatha's teachings and displays an ablility to express those teachings to others, such that the Teacher himself will pause to listen to him. Before too long people are speaking of Two who have attanined Enlightenment: the Tathagatha, and his small, dark-eyed pupil.

A year passes. One day as Sam and Sugata are walking together they hear a noise like thunder: the Garuda bird, a jet aircraft used by the gods, passes overhead, circles the area and lands. briefly. Sugata guesses that the craft has dropped off a passenger, and does not like what this suggests. What Sam thinks, he does not say.

The passenger is Yama, god of Death and consort of the goddess Kali, sent to complete the mission Rild failed. We have met Yama in Chapter One, and know he will eventually become Sam's ally. Although an enemy now, he is an honorable man and not unsympathetic despite his grim divine portfolio.

As Yama walks to Alundil, he meets a young man in the robes of a pilgrim and carrying a sword who blocks his way and challenges him. "Give me a name to tell the priests, so that they shall know for whom they offer the rites," Yama says.

"I renounced my final name but a short while back," Rild replies. "...By opposing you now and in this manner, I also betray the teachings of my new master. But I must follow the dictates of my heart. Neither my old name nor my new do therefore fit me, nor are they deserved -- so call me by no name!"

And here we launch into one of the things Zelazny does so well: kick-butt fight scenes. It occurs to me that fencing figures in a number of the science fiction/fantasy novels I like from this era: Dune has them; Zelazny's Amber series has them; Robert Heinlein's sole foray into Heroic Fantasy, Glory Road, also has them. This particular fight scene, between the master assassin and the the avatar of lethality has an additional layer to it.

During a pause in the fight, Rild calls out to Yama asking him to answer a question: "'There is some doubt concerning a man when he is dead. Some say he still exists. Others say he does not. This thing I should like to know, taught by you.'"

Yama recognizes this as a quotation from the Katha Upanishad, an ancient Sanskrit poem in which a young man encounters Death. He replies by reciting Death's answer. For a while the two men re-enact the ancient dialogue; Death trying to dissuade the youth from his boon, and the young man insistent upon learning Death's secrets.

In the poem, Death ultimately accedes to the youth's demands and reveals deep spiritual truths; in this case, Yama finally says, "Very well, Rild... but it is not a kingdom subject to words. I must show you." He resumes the attack, stunning Rild with his deathgaze; his godly power to draw the life out of the living.

The fight continues, until finally the two men grapple with each other in a stream. Yama drags his opponent to the deeper water and holds him under. "None sing hymns to breath... But oh to be without it!"

Yama continues on to the city, where he rests for a bit. In the evening he vistis the temple where stands the shrine to Kali directly opposite one to himself. He falls into conversation with a priest of that temple, who is somewhat shocked at how casually Yama speaks of the goddess of Destruction: "We think alike, the goddess and I. We generally agree on most matters. When we do not, I remember that she is also a woman."

"I live here and I do not speak that intimately of my charges, the gods," the priest says.

"In public, that is," Yama replies.

Yama goes on to ask why the shrine to Death, directly facing Kali's, has no offerings as do the shrines to the other gods; some wreathed in so many flowers that they are difficult to identify.
"No one gives flowers to Death," said the priest. "They just come to look and go away... Other than we priests, when the calendar of devotions requires it, and an occasional townsman, when a loved one is upon the death-bed and has been refused direct incarnation -- other than these, no, I have never seen sacrifce made to Yama, simply, sincerely, with good will or affection." 
"He must feel offended." 
"Not so, warrior. For are not all living things, in themselves, sacrifices to Death?"
The priest admits that in the case of Death and Destruction, he wishes a case could be made for atheism; but that he has seen too much evidence of both. Yama finds this amusing and the two men, reluctant priest and incognito deity, share a couple drinks. Yama asks him about the Buddha, but the priest is reluctant to speak of him. "So, he's gotten to you too?" Yama says.

Leaving the city, Yama comes to the purple grove. He finds a group of monks praying, They make no reply to his questions, and Yama realizes that he has no way of knowing which of them -- if any -- is Tathagatha. So he waits; and as he waits, he falls asleep.

In a passage that reads like a tale from an ancient myth, he dreams that Buddha is sitting beneath a gigantic tree; a tree so big that it's very roots support the world. The Four Regents of the Earth, representing the four points of the compass, arrive to defend the Buddha, and one by one Yama dispatches them. The final Regent declines to fight Yama directly, but instead casts a great shield into the ground, saying, "I do not actively contest. I merely defend. Mine is the power of pasive opposition." When Yama attempts to threaten the Buddha, the branches of the trees knock the sword from his hand, and the grass of the earth hides his weapon and grasps at his feet. In exasperation, Yama finally utters a blasting curse, blighting the grass, the tree, the hill and everything. And then he awakens.

He proceeds onward and finds Sam sitting in the middle of a field. Sam asks him why he is here, and Yama answers, "It has been decided that the Buddha must die."

"You have already succeeded in what you set out to do. You slew the real Buddha this day... The real Buddha was named by us Sugata... Before that he was known as Rild."

Yama laughs."Is this not a pacifistic religion, this thing you have been spreading? ...Then it is well you are not preaching a militant one! Your foremost disciple, enlightenment and all, near had my head this afternoon!"

But Sam is serious. From his time with Sugata he knows that the former assassin truly had achieved the Enlightenment that he only pretended to. "You know what I am," Sam says.

"I know that you are a fraud," Yama agrees. He knows that Sam lifted his Way of Enlightenement from ancient sources and pretended to be it's originator. "You decided to spread it, in hopes of raising an opposition to the religion by which the true gods rule... You are trying to be a one-man antithesis to Heaven, opposing the will of the gods across the years, in many ways and from behind many masks. But it will end here and now, false Buddha."

Sam persists in asking him "Why?" "Why have you, master of arms, master of sciences, come as lacky to a crew of drunken body-changers, who are not qulaified to polish your blade or wash out your test tubes?"

As with his earlier conversation with Brahma in the previous chapter, Sam continues to prod him, needle him, and provoke him. Until one of his barbs sinks home.

"What's she like, that bitch Kali? There are so many different reports that I'm beginning to believe she is all things to all men--"

That provokes Yama to attack. He charges Sam, and runs right into the patch of quicksand.

"Some quicksand is quicker than other quicksand," Sam explains. Although trapped in the mire and unable to escape, Yama has some time before the sands completely engulf him. And Sam promises to have his disciples rescue him... eventually. "For the moment, however, you are something every preacher longs for -- a captive audience, representing the opposition. So, I have a brief sermon for you, Lord Yama."

His sermon is part parable and part shaggy dog story; and it is a warning against Kali.
"You would not give power into the hands of the unworthy if that woman did not bid you do it. I knew her of old, and am certain that she has not changed. She cannot love a man. She cares only for those who bring her gifts of chaos.... Cross her once to try the truth of my words, even in a small matter, and see how quickly she responds, and in what fashion."
Yama responds by glaring at him with his deathgaze. Sam's own powers are sufficient to block the deadly power, although it does give him a hell of a headache. Sam tells Yama that his monks have been instructed to come if they hear a call for help; that they will bring him to solid ground and not try to harm him. "I like the thought of the god of death being saved by the monks of Buddha."

Sam picks up his traveling gear to leave. His work in the purple grove is completed and the religion he has planted will grow without him. He's ready to begin a new phase of his war.
"And you may want to mention in Heaven," he said, "that I was called out of town on a business deal. ...I think I am going to make a deal for some weapons," he finished, "some rather special weapons. So when you come after me, bring your girl friend along. If she likes what she sees, she may persuade you to switch sides."
NEXT:  Chapter Four: Sam goes to recruit new allies; the Binder unbinds... and is himself bound; the Curse of the Buddha; and Heaven comes to Hellwell.

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