Even by Lost standards, Season Five opened with unprecedented degree of Christian symbolism over its first seven episodes. In the first segment of that arc, John Locke watched the Virgin Mary fall from the sky; the final segment revealed his death and resurrection. The past two episodes have borrowed religious imagery from different sources, even further into human history. LaFleur of course embraced a number of ancient Egyptian influences. (In last week’s article, I overlooked another hidden reference. The new Dharma characters, Jerry, Phil, and Rosie, were named after The Grateful Dead, a band named for a passage from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which describes burial rites and the role of Anubis.) Episode 5.09 Namaste shifts its spiritual focus about 3,000 miles east, from the Nile River to the Indus River. The first frames of the episode show the now-familiar Flight 316, with its prominent India-based Ajira Airlines logo. The word ‘ajira’ has several translations in different languages, but it translates from Hindi as ‘Island’. The episode’s title comes from Dharma Initiative’s favorite Hindi phrase. The saying Namaste can express either a welcome or a farewell. Literally, it means: “I humble myself to you,” but, as with so many other Lost titles, this one proves to be more ironic than literal. The episode was filled with different greetings, with characters expressing varying degrees of humility towards each other. Throughout the numerous power struggles in the episode, the prevailing question seemed to be: who is humbling themselves to whom?
Hinduism is the world’s oldest surviving religious tradition, and it encompasses a variety of different beliefs. One common idea in Hindu (as well as Buddhist) thinking is that the human sensory experience is ultimately an illusion. Under this view, the temporary division between the individual human self and the rest of the universe is a false impression. All persons are part of the same undivided self. Fittingly, the structure of Namaste embraces this lack of egoism. Although it is not the first episode to forgo the character-centric format, Namaste truly centers on no particular individual. Each scene takes place on the Island, and showcases just about every one fairly equally across its two time periods. Lost has already alluded to the most prominent concepts in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, sometimes directly (karma and dharma) and sometimes indirectly (samsara, the wheel of rebirth). The Dharma Initiative itself appears to practice some combination of borrowed Eastern philosophy and twentieth-century Western science. Dharma is aptly named for this framework, as both an English acronym (Department of Heuristics and Research on Materials Application) and a central idea from Hinduism. The word dharma denotes the law, the code of ethics that describes each person’s set of obligations to the rest of society. The Initiative’s logo borrows the design of a Buddhist symbol for such teachings.
(The episode even includes a return to the Flame station, along with its signature cow. Hinduism famously regards the cow as a sacred creature in the cycle of reincarnation. However, Namaste also reminds the audience not to treat Lost’s religious subtext too seriously: the Dharma initiation party includes a feast of flame-broiled hamburgers.)
ALPERT: You answer to someone, don't you? You follow a chain of command, right?
ALPERT: Yeah, well, so do I.
Namaste offered a more revealing look at the inner workings of Dharma than ever before. Almost every member of the Dharma Initiative wears a uniform that displays the person’s first name, along with that person’s job assignment. From the glimpses shown here, these positions are prescribed immediately and permanently on arrival. Each person carries his or her individual dharmic duty in public: Security, Motor Pool, Mathematician, Nurse, Teacher, or Workman. For thousands of years, Indian culture used the idea of dharma to justify its own caste system. Each individual in the lower castes was required to fulfill the social obligations of its group, in order to ensure reincarnation into a higher level. It is difficult to judge whether the Dharma Initiative follows some similarly strict social hierarchy, or whether all participants are viewed as equals. Their top decision-maker, Horace, goes by his first name and he apparently never talks down to anyone. Even an important figure like Dr. Chang stops by to say Namaste to the lowly Jack Workman. Although everyone else in the Initiative walks around with their first name and title in view, two members of Dharma’s social order expressly put themselves above their subordinates. Only LaFleur, Head of Security, and Radzinsky, Head of Research, have their last names and ranks embroidered on their jumpsuits. Even without these status symbols, their behavior demonstrates their higher status. LaFleur has trained Jin and Miles to obey his commands, while Phil and Jerry appear to be bungling sycophants. In his brief introduction here, Radzinsky proves to be a power player, who refuses to humble himself, even in the presence of LaFleur.
Three decades later and a few miles offshore, the survivors of Ajira Flight 316 struggle to make their own group decisions, in the absence of any established social order. The first scene of the episode shows the plane’s final moments in the air, which also serve as the final moments of any defined hierarchy. The landing destroys the Ajira Airlines chain-of-command, as it kills Frank’s two direct subordinates, his co-pilot and his lead flight attendant. As with the crash of Oceanic 815, this new collection of strangers crashes from civilization and back to a state of nature. From these circumstances, newcomer Caesar establishes himself as the voice of Island law. The tools of leadership belong to those whoever uses them. He only needs a few minutes to undermine Frank’s authority and establish himself as the Ajira leader. In the preliminary stages of this society, Caesar follows in the footsteps of the famous Roman emperors from which his name derives. This Caesar apparently hails to no one. His loaded name serves as an ambiguous signal at present; some caesars acted as benevolent administrators for the Roman Empire, while others became brutal tyrants. Captain Lapidus never seemed like the type for mainstream politics, and he steps away during the power play. Having lost everyone else he knew from the plane, Frank feels determined to look after Sun, his only remaining friend.
SAWYER: Well, well, well. I don't know if you Islam's got a concept of karma, but I get the sense this island just served you up a heaping platter of cosmic payback.
Meanwhile, Lady Kwon stages her own coup d’état against the leadership of Mr. Linus. Ben wastes no time before heading back to his old group of cohorts on the main island. Even so, he cannot resist the prospect of adding Sun as another follower in the mean time. No matter where he goes, it seems Ben needs the powerful feeling that comes from stringing people along with the carrot of his superior Island knowledge. In a refreshing reversal, Sun in fact was manipulating Ben for her own benefit, in a rather Ben-like fashion. She uses a combination of deception and brute force to eliminate him, as soon as he reveals his destination. (Let this be a lesson to everyone: never underestimate a Kwon.) In doing so, Sun and Frank manage to trade away one enigmatic leader for an even more mysterious one. After a cameo from the Monster, the Dharma Processing Center becomes an inverted counterpart to Jacob’s Cabin. Christian uses artificial lighting for the first time, and then he answers Sun’s question with a dated photograph, empirical evidence of her friends’ whereabouts that requires no act of faith. Even after his death, Christian Shephard continues to live up to the role that his name implies. The shepherd is a protective figure, and also a modest leader, who guides the flock in the proper direction whenever one strays.
In his second tour of duty on the Island, Jack Shephard has given up any of his old responsibilities and become a member of the pack. Reincarnation is one of the central themes of Hinduism and Buddhism, often visualized as the soul replacing one set of clothes for another. According to some Eastern traditions, karma, the sum of a person’s actions in life, and the extent to which they fulfill their dharmic duties, determines a soul’s status upon reincarnation. Just after Dr. Chang greets him with a half-hearted Namaste, he humbles Jack with the news of his work assignment. In his rebirth into the Dharma Initiative, he has entered into the lower castes of their society. The Island does not appear too pleased with his previous work. Quite possibly, this same concept applies to Ben as well, who suddenly finds himself at the mercy of Sun and Locke. Both Linus and Shephard became ill toward the end of their respective reigns, and now karma has even more humbling experiences in store for them in the next life. Interestingly, the Dharma Initiative assigned both of the 2004 leaders to the position of Workman. This sign leaves two interpretations: either Dharma management is incompetent enough to let them slip through its administrative cracks; or the Island always wanted these two men to live as subservient pawns rather than powerful chess players.
BOONE: Red shirt. […] Ever watch Star Trek? […] The crew guys that would go down to the planet with the main guys, the captain and the guy with the pointy ears, they always wore red shirts. And they always got killed.
LOCKE: Sounds like a piss-poor captain.
Jack’s humility lessons continue when James delivers his own, less supernatural, brand of payback. Jack enters the LaFleur household with the vague ambition of fixing the Sayid situation, and he leaves relieved of any responsibility. Not surprisingly, the showdown between Shephard and LaFleur became the most heavily discussed scene of the episode. After three years, the two men have reversed their roles, with James established as the upstanding civil servant and with Jack demoted to the fringes of society. The conversation creates multiple feelings of déjà vu, not only from past Jack-Sawyer arguments, but also with shades of Benjamin Linus and John Locke. LaFleur’s entire demeanor seemed equivalent to the Linus style of putting others in their place: sitting down patiently, reading a book, preying on insecurities, and asserting his own superiority. James also described himself in Jack-like terms, as a savior of sorts. The lines, “I saved your ass today. […] I'm gonna save Sayid's tomorrow,” echoed some of Jack’s repeated promises to fix people. Moreover, because James assumes autonomous control over security, Jack now becomes free to find his own destiny, in the same way that Locke once forged his own path when Jack was in charge. Regardless of different leadership styles, the task of saving lives on the Island seems to be an impossible one. Despite all of Jack’s efforts, only a handful of people survived. LaFleur’s people will soon be wiped out completely during the Purge, no matter how hard he tries. The Island seems primed to teach the new James the same harsh realities that so many other characters learned: if you aspire to save people from Death, the Universe will find a way to show you who is really in charge.
Similarly, Dr. Juliet Burke was once regarded as the savior in that little yellow village, for all of its mothers and children. Despite her years of research, the cycle of birth and death had different plans for all pregnant women on the Island. In the previous episode, Juliet finally had the opportunity to deliver a child safely on the Island, the chance to feel that she had accomplished something good in her journey. Such happiness always proves to be a fleeting sensation for Lost characters. When Juliet holds the baby in her arms, Amy destroys that brief feeling of contentment, with an innocent mention of its name. The word Ethan does not carry the same connotations for Juliet as it does for the Oceanic group. Baby Ethan serves as a cruel reminder of her failure to solve the pregnancy problem, as he himself died to his obsession with Claire and her baby. Not one of Juliet’s infant patients has outlived her, and Ethan is no exception. Along with Richard, Ethan was one of the people who originally recruited her to the Island prison. Juliet and Ethan remain trapped in an infinite loop of birth and death, each one bringing the other to the Island. Currently, the life of Ethan represents the one tangible impact that the group of time-travelers has made in 1977, and it sets the precedent for all further actions. Any efforts to make the world of 2004 into a better place will accomplish nothing. Their influence on the universe will be neither positive nor negative, but only bring about the inevitable.
SAYID: What good it would be to kill you if we're both already dead?
For Sayid Jarrah, his symbolic rebirths always amount to nothing more than lateral moves. Sayid's own personal wheel of samsara is a series of wars, solitude, imprisonment, and torture. There is no peace for him. Sometimes he gets to inflict pain upon others, but sometimes others inflict pain upon him. While Jack, Kate, and Hurley all arrived together and assimilated into the Dharma Initiative, Sayid was all alone and in chains. Instead of a Namaste welcome, his old friend points a gun in his face and demands that he kneel. Later, LaFleur’s interrogation forces Sayid to admit falsely that he is ‘one of them’. Ultimately, the answer to that question is meaningless to him. As he has moved from one side of a war to another, or from one side of a cage to the other, his level of freedom never increases. The final scene of the episode reintroduces Sayid to the personification of his suffering, the emotionless and unblinking face of Benjamin Linus. The young Hostile-obsessed man in front of him will grow into the monster who caused the deaths of countless Oceanic survivors, quite possibly murdered Penny and Nadia, and slaughtered this idyllic Dharma community. Apparently, the downside of Dharma’s caste system is that it only takes one disgruntled and power-hungry Workman to destroy a utopia. Sayid’s lack of liberty extends beyond those bars and handcuffs. Any attempts to stop this dictator from succeeding will fail. The life of little Ben is as secure as the lives of all characters during their own flashback scenes (or, by the same token, the lives of any character already shown to be alive in flash-forward scenes). Worse yet, anyone who interacts with Ben will become complicit in shaping his personality into its adult form.
Aside from discussions of leadership, Namaste has also generated a heated debate that centers on the same question introduced in the opening scene of Season Five: can the past be changed? The popular interpretation seems to be shifting in favor of multiple timelines. Understandably, many people feel that the time travel plot would be meaningless unless something changed. Personally, I disagree with this argument (continuity issues aside). On the contrary, human actions are only meaningful, because each event occurs just once. If the Lost characters somehow changed the show’s history, then large portions of the story would disappear. Whether past, present, or future, every event in the universe is final, along with all of its consequences. Although the characters must have a limited impact on their environment, the characters themselves will continue to evolve throughout this entire experience. To borrow a concept from Hinduism, the cycle of reincarnation allows the human soul itself to move closer to enlightenment. A person cannot fix the universe, but we can heal ourselves. If their ultimate goal is inner peace, then these souls all have a long journey ahead of them.