How does Aldous Huxley's Island illustrate how religion plays a central role in the imagining of cultural alternatives and futures? 

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Island embodies Huxley's belief that cultural alternatives and futures can exist if individuals possess the capacity to embrace something that might represent the opposite of their perceived understanding of reality. As opposed to the failure of Brave New World, Huxley is able to offer a vision where religion can play a central role in the imagining of cultural alternatives and futures in Island:

It's a kind of fantasy, a kind of reverse Brave New World, about a society in which real efforts are made to realize human potentialities. I want to show how humanity can make the best of both Eastern and Western worlds. So the setting is an imaginary island between Ceylon and Sumatra, at a meeting place of Indian and Chinese influence.

Certainly, the ending of the work can come across as very bleak and one where redemption is impossible.  Yet, given Huxley's desire to "make the best," the novel is one where transformation can be seen as possible.  It rests in the ability to reconfigure reality into what can be as opposed to what is, something that Huxley sees in religious notions of the good.

Huxley constructs the island of Pala upon this transformative power of religion. It is a setting in which a fusion of Eastern religions illuminate the reconceptualization of cultural identity through alternatives and futures. Farnaby's interest in the island reflects the capacity for religion providing a transformative sense of identity in the world.  Huxley creates Pala as a realm where human beings have recognized that which is wrong and have sought to make it right: "History is the record of what human beings have been impelled to do by their ignorance and the enormous bumptiousness that makes them canonize their ignorance as a political or religious dogma."  The avoidance of such dogma represents religion's attempt "make the best" out of human existence.

Such a re-imaging of cultural alternatives and futures can be seen in the philosophical mindset of the Palanese people.  In such a belief system, Huxley offers a vision that represents the antithesis of political or religious dogma:

Nobody needs to go anywhere else. We are all, if we only knew it, already there. If I only knew who in fact I am, I should cease to behave as what I think I am; and if I stopped behaving as what I think I am, I should know who I am.

Religion is a means through which individual identity can be understood, reflected in the Palanese idea of "minimum of strain" with "maximum of awareness."  These ideas are means through which cultural alternatives and futures can be realized through self- awareness and introspection.  Initiation ceremonies on the island are not dogmatic, but rather geared towards a holistic understanding whereby individuals recognize themselves as "One in plurality, the Emptiness that is all, the Suchness totally present in every appearance." Huxley shows the Palanese as being inner- directed and having been able to provide a distinct alternative to the outer- directed condition of being in the world.  It is here in which religion is shown to play a central role imagining cultural alternatives and futures.

While the ending is one in which "the work of a hundred years are destroyed in one single night," Huxley has presented a religion that seeks to "make the best" out of being in the world.  It is here in which Huxley suggests that transformation is possible and can be realized through a form of universalism.