With No Inkling of the Contents: Viewing Narnia Through a Hindu Lens
A retired gentleman browsing through a used bookstore in Montevideo stumbles upon El Leon, La Bruja, Y El Armario, buys it on a whim and is captivated, not knowing that at that exact moment, a young schoolgirl in Chiang Mai is experiencing much the same feeling while flipping through Muang Nai Too Sua Pha. I discovered The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the form of a well-thumbed paperback in my middle school library in Chennai (then Madras), India and, like the man in Uruguay and the girl in Thailand, quickly came under its spell.
I was so taken with the story that I wanted to share it with the world, but I had to be content sharing with just my grandmother and my sister. I read the story aloud to them as we sat one evening on the patio of our home by the deepening evening light. They were as engrossed as I, and we finished the book in a couple of evenings, transported to a wondrous land so very different from our rambunctious city in southern India. The evening sun even made the clouds as golden as the mane of a lion just for us.
We don’t always recognize magic moments that descend on us, but when we do we instinctively know that the moment may not come again. So we try to hold on to that heady feeling for as long as possible. My stab at “holding on” was to read only the first six books in the series and save the last for a later date. The enchantment could be prolonged so long as there was one book left to read. Whenever I wanted to slip into Narnia, I merely re-read one of the earlier books. Then I got busy with high school and college and didn’t read The Last Battle until I was an adult.
It was as an adult that I discovered, during the course of my reading, that C.S. Lewis had planted Christian messages in all the Narnia books. It was a profound shock. I had known that Lewis was a Christian apologetic who had written Mere Christianity and a number of other Christian books, but I never linked his Christianity to the Narnia books, which I thought occupied a distinct niche in his oeuvre. The article I read about Lewis had enlightened me. Enlightenment can be disillusioning.
Discovering Narnia’s Christianity
My elementary school was founded in the early 20th century by missionaries from the Church of Scotland. The Indian teachers who later took over—almost without exception, Christian—had enough missionary zeal to shame the most ardent of their Scottish predecessors. The curriculum for all grades included scripture classes (Bible study), mandatory for all Christian students. The equivalent class, which the students of other religions attended, was Moral Science, essentially reading stories that each delivered an in-your-face moral.
I grew up in a liberal Hindu family, but my parents actually enrolled me in the Scripture classes instead of Moral Science, something that astonished the teachers. My parents wanted me to have a broad worldview that included getting to know religions other than the one I was born into. So I not only studied the Bible but excelled in it, bagging the Scripture Prize year after year. I remember one of the teachers chastising the Christian students—many of whom hung their heads and avoided her reproving eye—over how they let a Hindu boy walk away year after year with their prize.
Yet, how did I—winner of so many Scripture prizes—overlook the religious codes in the Narnia books? The Christian parallels were patently manifest in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Pevensie siblings rescue Narnia from the hundred years of winter imposed by the White Witch with the guidance and help of Aslan the Lion, the Son of the Emperor-Over-Sea. When one of them, Edmund, betrays the others to the White Witch, Aslan (who is free from sin) offers himself as a sacrifice in exchange for Edmund’s life. Aslan spends a sorrowful night in the woods (two of the children keep him company in this Gethsemane), is ceremonially scourged and killed on a stone table atop a hill, only to rise up from the dead through “deeper magic from before the dawn of time.” Here was the Passion of Christ, from Gethsemane and Calvary to the Resurrection. How could I have missed the whole thing, even after several readings?
I had spotted the similarity to Genesis in The Magician’s Nephew with the creation of Narnia so quickly followed by a garden with forbidden fruit (apples, at that), but I had never for a minute imagined that it was a calculated decision of Lewis rather than something he picked because it went along naturally with the story. Nor did I realize that such insertions ran through all seven books.
At the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the Narnian adventurers and the English children (Edmund, Lucy, Eustace) are welcomed ashore and invited for breakfast by a lamb that is broiling fish over a fire on the beach. The resurrected Jesus also showed himself on the beach to some of his fishermen disciples. Jesus broiled the fish they had just caught over burning coals and they breakfasted together. In the novel, after breakfast the lamb metamorphoses into Aslan the Lion, who then delivers this now-classic line before the children are returned to their world: “But there [in your world] I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. That was the very reason that you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
My turn now, to hang my head in shame. I felt obligated to return all my Scripture Prizes to my school.
Recognizing Hindu Philosophy in Narnia
Perhaps part of the worldwide popularity of the Narnian saga lies in people from other cultures discovering a resonance of their own spiritual beliefs—meanings that Lewis never consciously intended. But then, works of imagination are open to interpretation. As I contemplated the Christian themes in Lewis’ work, I began to wonder: what would Narnia be like if it were viewed through a Hindu lens? Could a reader find such themes throughout Narnia?
Hinduism embraces a spectrum of spiritual ideas and traditions. At one end, there is Vedic Hinduism, originating from the Vedic scriptures (generally dated to the 2nd millennium BCE) and at the other, Folk Hinduism, based on customs built over the eons around local deities, customs which differ widely from one nook of India to the other. Between these two bulwarks stand several variations of this religion. So Hinduism has no single pontiff or supreme prophet, governing body, or even one overriding scripture such as the Christian Bible or the Muslim Quran. In viewing Narnia through a Hindu lens, I have largely drawn from the Hindu school of philosophy called Advaita Vedanta, which is arguably the most popular contemporary concept of Hinduism.
Atman, Brahman, and Maya: Hindus believe that the human soul (Atman) intuitively knows that existence within a physical body is not its true nature—that it is part of the Godhead, the Universal Spirit (Brahman). But in its body prison, the soul has forgotten its real identity. This ignorance (avidya) forms the human quandary and its accompanying sorrows.
This forgetfulness is due to maya, usually rendered into English by the fuzzy term, “delusion.” Maya is also used to mean “magic,” in the sense you’re fooled into believing in something that is not. The classic analogy is “the serpent and the rope.” A man, walking home on a dark and windswept rainy night is startled by a snake coiled right outside his door. He bolts, but when he finally gathers the courage to return, he sees but a rope that he has mistaken for a snake. His senses have befuddled him, as they do us every day. You may have white skin and blonde hair and blue eyes and I may have black hair and brown skin which makes my teeth appear whiter than yours, but underneath it all, our bodies are cells, made up of masses of atoms with whirling protons and electrons, all part of the same energy. So too all our souls (Atman) are part of the Universal Spirit (Brahman) but our senses deceive us into seeing diversity instead of unity. It’s not that the world is unreal—it exists—but our senses deceive us into perceiving it for what it is not.
In The Silver Chair, Prince Rilian has similarly forgotten who he is for years whilst bewitched by the Lady of the Green Kirtle. When liberated, Rilian regains full knowledge that he is the heir to the Narnian throne. He declares, “For now that I am myself, I can remember that enchanted life, though while I was enchanted, I could not remember my true self.” Similarly, in The Horse and His Boy, Shasta is clueless about his true identity, but he knows that he isn’t who he and others think he is (a slave or serf). His intuition sets him on a quest that ultimately reveals he is the lost heir of Archenland. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lord Rhoop is trapped on Dark Island where subconscious dreams come to life, where one is a prisoner of his or her own mind. In The Silver Chair, Jill Pole sees boulders and is fooled into thinking they may have given rise to the old wives’ tales of giants—until the boulders turn out to be actual giants. In The Last Battle, Puzzle the Donkey cloaked in a lion’s skin deceives others into thinking he is Aslan. And in Prince Caspian, Caspian longs for the old Narnia, just as the soul instinctively knows that there is a better place and a better experience (viz., Brahman, Spirit) than its current surroundings. Mythology awakens within us the desire for our true self—so just as Caspian clings to his myths, Hindus hang on to theirs.
Time: Hindus hold that time does not follow a strict linear progression that leads from primitive to advanced societies but moves in a cyclical fashion. Higher ages descend to lower ages, from which there is an ascent to the higher ages of the next cycle. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ends with a Golden Age (the Hindu Satya Yuga). In the next book, Prince Caspian, thousands of years later, Narnia has sunk into a Dark Age (Kali Yuga). Succeeding books invoke higher and lower ages in Narnian history. In The Magician’s Nephew, when the children Digory and Polly enter the Hall of Images in the palace of Charn, they see the ancient kings and queens of Charn seated in chronological order in two rows on either side of the room. The children notice that down the row they are looking at, the faces of the monarchs progressively change from kind and wise to solemn to proud and cruel, again signifying a descent from a higher to a lower age.
Variations of Form: Lord Krishna declares that to save the pious and give the miscreants their due, God (Brahman) will take physical form in the world from millennium to millennium (Bhagavad Gita, IV:8). When Spirit thus morphs into flesh for an earthly mission, that being is called an avatar (from the Sanskrit roots ava, “down” and tri, “to pass”— literally, “I descend”). Avatars need not always take a human form. Vishnu’s avatars include a fish, a tortoise, a boar, a half-man half-lion, a dwarf, as well as human forms such as Rama and Krishna. Aslan, though most often seen as a lion, has also appeared as a cat (The Horse and His Boy) and an albatross (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). At the end of The Last Battle, when the scene shifts from Narnia to Aslan’s Land (Heaven), Aslan no longer looks like a lion. The reader is left to assume Aslan now looks human, that is, as Jesus.
Gods, Revelry, and Wine: Aslan is clearly the Christ of Narnia but not the sole god. The dryads and hamadryads are referred to as gods. Similarly, in Calormen, while Tash is the supreme deity, their pantheon includes others like Zardeenah and Azaroth. Bacchus and Silenius show up in Narnia on special occasions (and in Prince Caspian, harmoniously romp alongside Aslan), and wine and beer flow freely during revelries. Jesus’ first miracle, after all, was turning water into wine. Besides, wine was served literally and symbolically at the Last Supper. And the Vedic gods imbibed a fermented beverage called Soma. It gave them much pleasure but it also induced them to do some silly and dangerous things—a great way for mythology to open human eyes to both the pleasures and perils of alcohol.
What might we infer from this? Perhaps that Christ is the Supreme Deity, the Lord God over all, but we can honor other deities also without getting condemned as a sinner. Where Hinduism is concerned, all deities, humans and everything in Nature are manifestations of the one Universal Spirit that underlies Creation.
Karma: One of the key tenets of Hinduism is the Law of Karma, frequently quoted but often without complete understanding. Karma in Sanskrit translates into “action,” something that is or has been done. Any physical act is preceded by a mental stimulus, so karma refers to both the thought and the act. In its simplest form, the Law of Karma states that whatever you do comes back to you. If it doesn’t in this lifetime, it will when you reincarnate in your next life. This is similar to the Biblical “As you sow, so you reap.” Life is a school; you keep taking classes until you are ready to graduate. As long as there is still karma to be worked out, one has to return to the world. This is the basis of samsara, the cycles of births, deaths, and re-births (reincarnation).
In The Horse and His Boy, Aslan attacks Shasta and Aravis as they flee from Tashbaan to Narnia, covering Aravis’s back with blood after tearing it with his claws. He later explains that this is retribution for Aravis framing her mother’s maidservant to shoulder the blame for her (Aravis) running away from home: “The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You need to know what it felt like.” Similarly, in an earlier episode in the book, Aslan (in the form of a cat) scratches Shasta in response to Shasta’s past cruelty to animals.
The predominant view of karma entrenched in people’s minds is: getting your comeuppance. We forget it also implies that we ourselves planted the seeds of the happiness that comes our way. As the Hermit of the Southern March in The Horse and His Boy says: “I have now lived a hundred and nine winters in this world and have never yet met any such thing as Luck.”
Creation: In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory, Polly, and their entourage end up in a world of darkness. Then a voice sings. Lewis writes: “Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions beneath them. Sometimes, he [Digory] almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard.” Then the blackness overhead blazed with stars and eventually, it became light, and they saw hills, valleys, and a winding river. Aslan was creating Narnia through sound.
The Hindu scriptures also declare that creation emanated from a sound, Om. This divine vibration resonated into a stronger, grosser vibration out of which the material world came into being. Meditating on Om, the scriptures say, therefore draws one closer to the godhead.
Dharma: The word dharma is central to Hindu doctrine but it has no synonym in English and the concept is fiendishly difficult to expound in a line or paragraph. Duty, righteousness, morality, obligation, and virtue are some terms offered. Dharma includes but goes beyond all of them. It is the cosmic order that binds the world together. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Lewis refers to a “Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time,” and this moral or natural code could well be dharma. Lewis also mentions a “Deeper Magic from Beyond the Dawn of Time,” and this would be the thought-process of the formless Brahman out of which dharma arose.
Besides this Universal dharma (Sadharana Dharma) the term also refers to one’s social and religious obligations (svadharma), and this varies with one’s station in life. A midwife’s individual dharma, for instance, would be different from that of a soldier’s, each focusing on diametrical opposites: birth and death. The Sanskrit root for dharma is dhr, meaning to bear, to uphold. Dharma therefore comprises of actions that uphold the universe.
The early chapters of The Last Battle show the complexity of dharma. Puzzle the Donkey, masquerading as Aslan, is instructed by Shift the Ape as to what should be proclaimed to the world. Narnians get suckered (for aren’t the utterances of the Lord God the very scriptures themselves?) and carry out the horrible orders. Talking trees are cut and sold to the Calormenes, who also enslave talking animals. This is not dharma but its opposite: adharma (vice; destructive force). The narrative underscores the importance of being wary of those who play God and harness religion to advance a vile agenda.
Tirian, the last king of Narnia, is delighted to hear that Aslan has returned to Narnia after a prolonged absence. When the wise centaur Roonwit declares that this cannot be, the king is furious. Hindu mythology likewise is replete with stories where kings disregard the wisdom of the sages. But when Tirian witnesses what is happening, the falsehood becomes clear. Thus, anubhava, personal experience or realization, is shown as the most revelatory religious experience.
The Magician’s Nephew contains a vivid scene right out of a post-apocalyptic novel or movie. Two aristocratic women, Jadis and her sister, are embroiled in a civil war for the throne of Charn. Her sister is winning, and the only way Jadis can overcome her is by invoking the Deplorable Word, a magic incantation that kills all living things save the person who spoke it. She uses it, and her sister, both armies, and all the civilians perish. Jadis has ensured she will never be a subject of her sister. But now as Queen of Charn she has no subjects to rule over either. So she puts herself into an enchanted sleep, from which Digory and Polly awaken her and then learn her story.
C. S. Lewis fought in the European trenches during World War I, and knew the horrors of war firsthand. He was devastated by the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Deplorable Word is a metaphor for the atom bomb that destroys everybody except the pilot who dropped it.
When J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, witnessed the first test explosion in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he quoted Vishnu (Krishna) from The Bhagavad Gita (XI:32): “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.” The Bhagavad Gita entranced Oppenheimer from an early age; he even learned Sanskrit to free himself from reliance on translations. Although Oppenheimer quoted Krishna, he probably identified himself with Prince Arjuna.
The Bhagavad Gita is set in ancient India amid a civil war between two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, battling for the throne of Hastinapura. The Pandava prince Arjuna does not wish to fight his own kin even though they are morally in the wrong. His charioteer Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu) says that as a warrior, Arjuna has his duty/svadharma cut out for him. Everybody is obliged to act but they have no say in the fruits of their action. As Aslan tells Lucy in both Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, “…no one is ever told what would have happened.”
As a weapons scientist, Oppenheimer’s svadharma was to make the best possible weapon for his country. It was not his responsibility to decide how the weapon should, would, or ought to be used. That decision (and the accompanying karma) belonged to someone else, just as Jadis had to bear the karma of uttering the Deplorable Word though another magician had devised it.
Moksha (Salvation / Liberation): There is no ‘salvation’ in Hinduism equivalent to that in Christianity. There is moksha, more properly termed liberation. Individual souls (Atman) came out of Brahman and eventually they (and all of creation) will go back into Brahman. Until then, one goes through endless cycles of birth and re-birth, unless one speeds up the process of returning to the source.
That’s not easy. Our sensual attachments bind us to the material plane. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the White Witch wins Edmund’s heart through his tongue. She offers him enchanted Turkish delight and generates a craving for more. In the process she usurps his inner peace. His titillated taste buds—with their associated thoughts—ensnare him further and further; he is trapped. Whenever his siblings make plans to move against the Witch, Edmund does his best to covertly dissuade them. In The Silver Chair, another witch, The Lady of the Green Kirtle, uses two other senses to enchant: hearing and smell, burning incense while she strums on a musical instrument, inducing her victims to misinterpret their perception of their world, making them think they see a lamp and dream up a sun, see a cat and dream up a lion.
Unity of Existence: The concept of panentheism—not pantheism but panentheism (that God as the Universal Spirit is not just part of Nature but also extends beyond creation, time and space)—pervades Hinduism. It is mentioned in the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. As Lord Krishna declares, “I, the Unchanging and the Everlasting, pervade and support the entire cosmos by a very small portion of my divine power.” (Bhagavad Gita, X:42). And the Vedas have beautiful paeans to Nature and Mother Earth (check, for example, Atharva Veda, Book XII, I:1-27). Behind the seeming chaos of diversity lies unity, but maya prevents us from seeing it.
Panentheism exists in Narnia. Not only is it a land overflowing with natural beauty, but its talking trees, talking beasts, fauns and centaurs are on par with its humans. It is easier to sense the divine in animals and trees that can converse with you. The landscape is stunning: the crystal-like purity of the winter snow, the deep blue of the sea, the panorama of mountains and valleys and forests spread beneath you when you are up in the sky astride a flying horse.
Even the Great River of Beruna is considered a god. And where River Rush joins the Great River, there are the Fords of Beruna, the setting for the final surrender of the Telmarines in the War of Deliverance in Prince Caspian. In Hinduism, fords (known as tirthas) are sacred places. Today, tirtha just means a holy place congenial to bring one closer to the Divine. But in olden times tirthas were literally places to ford a river, and many of India’s holy cities are on the banks or situated at the confluence of rivers.
Calormen is a longstanding opponent of Narnia, and Calormenes worship many gods, chief of whom is Tash. In The Horse and His Boy, Rabadash the Crown Prince of Calormen is turned into a donkey. Aslan tells him that he will not be a donkey forever, but as it is to Tash (not Aslan) that he has appealed, it is in the temple of Tash that he would be healed. In The Last Battle, Aslan’s acceptance of the Calormene Emeth (a kind man of impeccable integrity) into his country can be considered the culmination of his life of good deeds. Here is part of Aslan’s remarks to Emeth:
“…therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for oath’s sake, it is by me he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash the deed is accepted.”
The full dialogue between Aslan and Emeth resonates with yogic philosophy. The word “yoga” has its roots in the Sanskrit word yuj, meaning union. The English word ‘yoke’ has the same Indo-European root. Yoga refers to the union of the individual soul with universal spirit (Atman with Brahman). There are many forms of yoga: through devotion (bhakti yoga), through the intellect (jnana yoga), through meditation (raja yoga), and so on. All of these hasten moksha, liberation, the return of soul to spirit.
Emeth’s karma yoga, living an immaculately unselfish life of good works with no thought or expectation of personal reward, has brought him to the Divine. Which deity you pray to does not matter as much as doing right and standing by your fellow beings in the world. That guides you towards moksha.
Lewis did not mean it this way at all. One of Christianity’s conundrums is the tenet that one can only go to heaven by accepting Christ Jesus as one’s personal savior. What then, of the many millions down the centuries who never heard of the Gospel or were born before Jesus? Is it not unfair that they must writhe for all eternity in fire and brimstone merely because they were ignorant about Jesus? Some say it’s truly unfortunate but if it must be so, then so be it. Others hold that if the “heathen” has led a good life, God makes special allowances. Lewis clearly belongs to the second school. But people ignorant of the Christian tradition will not “get” Lewis’s intent. Even many Christians think Lewis advocates a Unitarian philosophy here.
I do not imply that Hindu readers will “get” any messages such as I have described from reading the Narnia books. They won’t any more than Christian readers will always spot the Christian symbolism. Books that sermonize are generally not enjoyed. The story is everything — readers (of any age) must be pulled into it, experience it, get beguiled, wonder, delight, sigh, sob, smile, grit their teeth and be surprised by joy without the feeling of being preached to. Author Philip Pullman states: “The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader's mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I'm not going to explain.” In Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, Lewis says much the same: that an author “is not necessarily the best, and is never a perfect, judge” of his books’ meanings. Artists produce their art; their audience interprets. To label the Narnia books as solely “Christian” is to limit them. Lewis knew through his extensive studies that Christian ethics were not exclusive — there was a common moral code in religions and philosophies as varied as Chinese, Hindu, Roman, Babylonian, American Indian, and Australian aborigine.
G. K. Chesterton stated that fairy tales are “the oldest and gravest and most universal kind of human literature….The human race that we see walking about anywhere is a race mentally fed on fairy tales as certainly as it is a race physically fed on milk.” Lewis considered the Narnia books to be fairy tales. He did not want his audience to catch on to his Christian symbolism, at least not at the first reading. He reflected on his own not-so-happy childhood experiences in church:
"I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion since childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But suppose by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could."
At the time of filming the 2010 movie The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the filmmakers met with 100 Christian opinion leaders and Lewis fans at a “Narnia Summit” in Los Angeles. They showed their audience clips of the movie and went over the entire script together, scene by scene, line by line. Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson, also attended the summit. For all their planning, their efforts did not meet with complete success. At the end of the movie, when Aslan tells the children that in their world they must learn to know him by his other name, a friend who watched the movie with me, knowing the children were going back to World War II England, turned to me with an intensely puzzled look and asked: “Winston Churchill?”