Christian Shephard. The Dharma Initiative. Japanese temples and statues of Egyptian gods. The ever-present questions of fate, faith, suffering, atonement and redemption. Over six seasons of “Lost,” religious traditions were a key component of the show, informing characters’ decisions, shedding light on the mysterious and raising new questions about just what the heck is going down on that wacked-out island.
The series finale brought these religious elements to the forefront like never before. It turned out that the so-called sideways timeline in which our Losties had been living alternate lives — their plane landing in safety rather than crashing on the island — was really a sort of way station for souls: Jack, Kate, Sawyer and the rest had collectively created this universe as a way to find one another again, experience an awakening about their island lives and ultimately free themselves from it and move forward into the Great Beyond. But how much of that story line actually lined up with identifiable elements from actual religious doctrines and traditions?
Quite a bit, it turns out. In creating their mythology, the minds behind “Lost” sampled from Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and other traditions.
“They were drawing on a number of religious traditions,” James McGrath, an associate professor of religion at Butler University and an avid “Lost” fan, told MTV News. “It didn’t closely resemble any one religion, although there were points of similarity. It was like that ’Coexist’ bumper sticker.
“There’s this Hindu idea of passing into one life and remembering another one,” he continued. “There is also the notion of purgatory, which is largely connected with Christian doctrine and tradition — essentially suffering as a way of atoning for sin and wrongdoing. But that didn’t seem to be a part of the sideways universe. If anything, they seemed to be fairly happy,” McGrath said. “And I suppose you could give a Buddhist slant to it, but in Buddhism it’s that our consciousness perceives reality wrongly. The reality that we perceive, we may create it, but that’s a bad thing. In ’Lost,’ it was a good thing.”
Put another way, taking that tack was how “Lost” gave us a happy ending. But this sort of salad bar-like sampling of religious tradition should not be seen as disrespectful to any one faith. Rather, there’s a long history of such storytelling assemblage.
“Myths are always mashups, not just in pop culture, but from thousands and thousands of years of traditions,” explained S. Brent Rodriguez Plate, a visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and a big fan of the show.
Just look at the Losties’ final meeting place in the finale: an interfaith church with iconography from Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and more. McGrath also pointed to Jack’s descent into the bubbling source of the Island’s power — a glowing stone hole whose energy is stoppered by a large stone plug.
“The technical description of these artifacts would be a lingam and a yoni,” he said. “It basically is the representation of the male and female aspects of the deity, quite common with Hindu religious iconography and connected with sexuality.”
And then there is the fact that the sideways Losties recovered memoirs of their other lives. John Hawley, a professor of religion at Barnard College and a specialist in the devotional traditions of North India, sees a connection to Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
“In terms of remembering past lives, some of that comes up with the Buddha, when he is said to have had that night of awakening that made him the Buddha,” Hawley told MTV News.
“He is said, in the course of that long night [of meditation], to have gone through a whole series of moments in which he remembers all of his past lives. It is a major feature of Hinduism — one of the accomplishments that can be achieved by someone who takes the time to step aside from ordinary, everyday reality and meditate, think and watch things.”
Iconography, purgatory, remembrance of other lives — all this is just scratching the surface of how the show explored various religious practices. “Lost” dealt intimately with the idea of suffering and redemption, concepts that are central, in one way or another, to Christianity, Buddhism and other religions, according to the experts with whom MTV News spoke. And while “Lost” freely sampled from all the various religious principles, Plate sees a unifying theme connecting it all together.
“What the show was ultimately about is the fact that we need each other, we’re a community, and we all die,” Plate said.
“The final scene — it doesn’t matter if you’re a Hindu or a Jew or a Buddhist — we all die,” he added. And those are probably the deepest shared ideas across the world and history. No religion can deny that we need each other. No religion can deny that we die. The differences come when you try and explain what happened.”
What do you think of how “Lost” used religion to tell stories? Share your thoughts in the comments.