From Shmoop.com, with gratitude: The absolutely best breakdown of the Novel I have ever read:
HOW THE PLOT ALL GOES DOWN:
Shmoop Editorial Team. “Lord of Light.” Shmoop University, Inc. Last modified November 11, 2008. Last Accessed August 9, 2018. https://www.shmoop.com/lord-of-light/.
From Amazon Reviews –
First published in 1967 it won the Hugo Award for best SF novel of that year. Sales continued for 32 printings and over 2 million copies until 1992. In March, 2000, due to popular demand and continued high ranking on best SF Lists around the world, Avon brought out an unprecidented new edition garnering more critical praise and delight to international fans new and old. Zelazny’s Lord of Light and The Amber Series are considered amongst the best SF novels ever written.
LORD OF LIGHT is a novel about a future world after the destruction of Earth, conquered by men who, through ultra-technology, give themselves godlike powers and set themselves up as the old Hindu gods to rule the common people. Called The First, they have achieved a kind of immortality by transferring their identities from old bodies to new ones. These Deicrats (as Zelazny calls them) through centuries of “divine” rule, have become corrupt, and only one among them will openly oppose their tyranny. He
is the hero, “who was variously known as Mahasamatman, Kalkin, Manjusri, Siddhartha, Tathagatha, Binder, Maitreya, the Enlight-ened One, Buddha and Sam.”
The Novel itself starts off as a flashback, after Sam is brought back to life by Yama-Dharma, Lord of Death, to return to fight the Hosts of Heaven a final time and save the world from tyranical destruction.
[It is noted that the Film adaption restructures the book to follow a linear plot line]
Mahasamatman, or Sam as he prefers to be called, is our protagonist for this trip through heaven, hell, and meditation, one of the original colonizing crew who has, over the centuries, fallen out of favor with the ruling coterie, who now style themselves as actually being the Hindu deities. Sam, seeing the inequitable treatment of the colonist’s descendents, the forcible holding
back of their attempts at technological progress, the sometimes total denigration of these people as mere objects and the cynical attitude of the ruling group towards them, decides to become a one-man army to change the status-quo by preaching the heretical philosophies of Buddha.
But he finds his preaching has some unlooked-for consequences: he attracts a fanatical following and he finds it near impossible to not actually become the modern incarnation of the ancient philosopher, even though he does not totally subscribe to Buddha’s philosophical outlook himself. As we delve deeper into Sam’s battle with Shiva, Kali, Brahma and the rest of ruling pantheon, we are given looks at the original battle to colonize the planet, when all the crew had to develop Attributes to fight the native denizens (almost literal demons) of the planet, Attributes now part of their chosen godly character. In seeing this early period (which is highlighted by some very powerful and exciting battle descriptions), we get to see that none of these people are either totally evil or saintly, but are very human, with engaging foibles and distinctive characteristics.
This is one of the main strengths of this book, as we have a large set of fully realized characters, each with their own motivations and desires, whose interactions form a complex weave of happenstance and emotional intertwinings, that give the novel a unique order and flow, and are sure to evoke multiple responses in the reader.
Zelazny here has managed to create an archetype, a legend for modern times, with real relevance to the reader’s everyday life, with a great promotion of life philosophies without preaching. Sadly, Roger is no longer with us, there will be no more of these brilliant tour-de-forces, but this will stand as one of his finest gifts to the world. A gift that everyone can enjoy and appreciate.
Story Overview & Commentary:
There are direct parallels to be drawn between the interaction of Hinduism and Buddhism and Zelazny’s form and chaos theory. Yoke writes: In the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism, Zelazny found a perfect metaphor for his own doctrine. The parallels between the historical relationship of the two great religions and the novel are obvious. The real Buddha, who was originally a wealthy young Prince, found the Hinduism of his time to be static, corrupt, weighed down by insensitivity to the common man & too complex to be understood. Sam found Zelazny’s Hindu system to be the same. Buddha’s mission on Earth was to reform the old religion, not to start a new one. Sam’s mission is identical, to reform the old religion through Accelerationism. Both men are instruments of change.
And we see the change brought on in the world by Sam’s actions. He must be a force of destruction in order to restore the proper rhythm to men’s lives. Sam himself evolves throughout the course of the story. His immortality grants him the length of time necessary for such personal change. Each of his many names reflects a different person he has become, even to the point that he says, about the Buddha, “‘I don’t recall any longer whether I was really that one, or whether it was another. But I am gone away from that one now’.” Needless to say, this doesn’t make his lifelong mate, Kali, very happy and she does everything in her power as Death Goddess to thwart him.
At first, he takes a Machiavellian approach to it all, doing whatever he deems necessary to achieve his goals. Though he spends years as the Buddha, he doesn’t believe a word of his own teaching; he is still willing to murder Brahma and Shiva in the city of Heaven (which he does). Though he and Kali love each other still, they are both willing to fight to the Death and he goes to battle against the gods anyway. And though his battles lay the foundation for the demise of Heaven’s grip on the world he still loses, because he has failed to integrate all the creative and destructive forces within himself. But by the end of the story, Sam has become all of the men/gods he once was, and in a final battle, his side prevails. A new world of mankind living without the rule of the Gods is born.