One of the most interesting elements of Far Cry 4 is a series of side quests that unfold in the mystical realm of Shangri-La. By acquiring pieces of a religious painting, hero Ajay Ghale is transported into the role of Kalinag, who has been sent to rid the land of invading demons. These lush, stylized segments are positively loaded with symbolism and iconography; much of this is drawn from the Buddhist and Hindu traditions that permeate the real Himalayan region where Far Cry 4’s fictional country of Kyrat is set. Since those traditions are not exactly second nature to many of us here in the West, here’s a quick primer on some of the most significant features of this fascinating storyline.
Though the concept of Shangri-La has come to mean a sort of mythical, heavenly place, it was originally conceived as a location on Earth. In the 1933 novel Lost Horizon, author James Hilton described an isolated valley where the inhabitants lived unnaturally long lives in harmony with nature. Though a fictional invention, Shangri-La is thought to have been influenced by the mythological kingdom of Shambhala – believed in Hindu and Buddhist tradition to be a land of perfect peace, tranquility, and happiness.
You can understand, then, why it being invaded by rakshasas would be a problem. These demons of Hindu mythology are portrayed as cannibals, blood-drinkers, and earthly incarnations of various elements of evil. In Far Cry 4, they can be found feasting on corpses, among other acts of nastiness. The fact that they’ve come to infest Shangri-La is very, very bad.
Bells of Enlightenment
Though a Bell of Enlightenment per se is not an element of Eastern mythology, ceremonial bells are a common element in Hindu and Buddhist practice, with both the sound and the physical form representing different concepts. The sound of a bell can indicate “Om” – the fundamental sound of the universe – and the shape can reference emptiness or void-ness. Handheld ceremonial bells, like those represented in Far Cry 4, tend to include a face on the handle, which is often claimed to be the face of Transcendent Insight.
While in Shangri-La, you’ll need to set some oversized prayer wheels spinning. These devices of Tibetan Buddhism are inscribed with mantras; spinning them is thought to be analogous to reciting the mantra aloud. Thus, a practitioner can send a whole row spinning and, in effect, multiply the effect of the mantra more than simply reciting it aloud. Far Cry 4‘s enormous prayer wheels generate enormous results.
In Far Cry 4, you gain access to each Shangri-La mission by collecting a piece of a thangka. In Buddhist practice, a thangka is religious painting, usually on silk or cotton. They are used both as teaching tools – as they tend to feature deities as a centerpiece – and as meditation guides. The art form originated in Nepal, but gained its religious significance in Tibetan Buddhism.
And what of Kalinag, the hero whose persona you take on while exploring Shangri-La? As far as we can tell, he’s not based on any specific mythological character. The name, however, brings to mind nāgas, which in Hindu and Buddhist mythology tend to be snakes or dragons – wise protectors of nature who can assume human form – and Kali, the Hindu goddess of empowerment, time, and change.
Kalinag’s tiger companion also does not appear to be drawn from any direct source. However, tigers play significant roles in both Tibetan and Indian mythology. In Tibetan mythology, the tiger represents unconditional confidence, disciplined awareness, kindness, and modesty (interestingly, some Buddhist mythology paints a less flattering picture: The tiger is considered a symbol for uncontrolled anger). Tigers are also prominent in Hindu mythology, serving as mounts to deities Durga and Ayyappan. So, basically, the Protector is just an all-around mystical kitty.
You can experience all this mysticism yourself – not to mention a whole lot of good old-fashioned first-person shooting – in Far Cry 4, available now on Xbox One and Xbox 360.