Kim is the coming-of-age story about the orphaned son of a dead soldier growing up in British India. Before he died, Kim’s father left him a “prophecy” that one day a great red bull on a green field will come for him. While living the life of a street urchin he meets a Buddhist lama from Tibet and decides to become his disciple in order to help him search for a legendary river struck by an arrow that cleanses one’s sins. As they wander India, his father’s regiment discovers Kim and his true identity. Realizing they have found the long lost son of a member of their regiment, Kim must depart awhile from his beloved lama to be schooled in the ways of the sahibs (white men). Their regimental standard is a great red bull on a green field; so his father’s “prophecy” comes true. By growing up on the streets of India, Kim has developed good espionage skills and is drafted into the British secret service. Eventually he is reunited with his master to continue the search for the river, while serving as a secret agent for the British government, forcing him to continually mediate between two competing roles in his life.
One of Kipling’s great achievements in the work is the acuity in which he captures the diversity of British India. The work brims with different cultures, smells, tastes, complex social relations, governments–showing the vast diversity of India. Even the way he handles the complexity of religion is impressive, not simplifying Buddhism into one giant religion, but showing various iterations of Buddhism and Hindus as they travel throughout India, just as he shows the many different types of Christians, differing from each other in very subtle ways on issues of doctrines, practices, and superstitions.
Like most coming-of-age stories, the work explores personal identity, with Kim often asking himself repeatedly in the narrative, “who is kim, kim, kim?” Kim exists in a state of hybridity, part of the white and the native worlds, but never fitting in perfectly with either. On the surface, he is white and at times has all the privilege that whiteness confers, but culturally he fits in better with the various Indian natives, which is what makes him such an effective spy in the first place. Even his religious beliefs teeter back and forth, sometimes adopting the Islamic ideas of his friend, Mahbub Ali, while other times accepting the ideas of the Buddhist lama. The central internal conflict revolves around this problem of identity. For a while, Kim manages to be both the disciple of the lama and a servant of the British secret service, but as the work hints, you cannot be a true disciple of a religion that tells one to let go of the things of this world while trading in the secrets of the world. This tension manifests itself in the climax of his espionage activities after he robs some secret documents from a Russian and French spy colluding with some northern kingdoms; Kim notices that possessing these important documents weighs upon his mind and makes him feel sick in a way far worse than bodily sickness, so that he can get no peace. Allowing one’s desires and fears to weigh upon his mind is antithetical to Buddhism. This action also leads his friends in the secret service to plan to attack, rob, and kill the household of an old lady who is nursing him back to health, although this is prevented by Kim reawakening and handing the documents over to one of the other agents; this desire for the documents almost leads to unintended consequences, which the lama warns against throughout the novel.
The Great game, while a euphemism for the espionage activities of governments, has deeper symbolism representing the human desire to stay in power. Espionage is necessary to provide information for worldly governments to maintain their power in this world. One spy in the novel almost sacrifices his life for the sake of protecting a government secret. The spies constantly shift garb, cultures, language, and religions, both serving as the tricks of the trade we except from spy stories, but also symbolizing the delusion and illusions of the material world that the lama and his enlightened Buddhism warn against. The Great Game literally forces these people to abandon their identities and adopt superficial identities all for the sake of information that serves not the person in question, but the worldly ambition of governments, themselves a product of men’s worldly ambitions. From this we see that The Great Game is an endless battle of worldly powers whose goals are in stark contrast to Buddhist Enlightenment.
The novel ends after the lama discovers his long-sought river and has a religious epiphany that makes him certain he will finally be free from the wheel of life. In fact, he only returns back to this life after this great enlightenment in order to tell Kim this story and take him to the river so Kim, too, can be free. The reader doesn’t know what happens after this. Does Kim return to the Great Game and his service to the government or does he experience enlightenment, go to the river, and become a teacher of the way, like the lama hopes? While I do not think Kipling is suggesting we adopt Buddhism, he is using it to show us our choices in this world: a worldly life full of fear and pain or belief in some higher force to move towards an Enlightenment, or at the very least to help convince us not to put too much stock in worldly gain. On the other hand, Kipling’s portrayal of this issue is complex. In an earlier scene when they first meet the Irish regiment, a soldier remarks to the lama, after the holy man criticizes the life of warriors, that sometimes wars are necessary in order to get rid of evil men so that people like the lama can pray in peace. It is not hard to see how this comment would extend to the Great Game itself. Kim’s participation in it allows people like the lama to exist.
Kipling also seems to be extolling the power of love. The old lama turns away from his final enlightenment so he can save Kim as well, while the woman who nurses Kim back to health at the end is presented as a mother-figure. Meanwhile, Mahbub Ali and the lama represent surrogate father-figures to the orphan Kim, each representing one of the choices outlined above.