Study Guide

Life of Pi Religion

By Yann Martel


Part 1, Chapter 4

But I don't insist. I don't mean to defend zoos. Close them all down if you want (and let us hope that what wildlife remains can survive in what is left of the natural world). I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both. (1.4.14)

Do zoos incarcerate animals in confined spaces and make them miserable? Pi doesn't think so: "Certain illusions about freedom" tempt us to this conclusion. In actuality, an animal's life in the wild is more circumscribed than "a knight on a chessboard" (1.4.8). Predator-prey relationships restrict the animal's movement. A zoo enclosure is actually more like a hearth for an animal: a place of comfort and rest. Likewise, most people think of religion as a restrictive cage. Actually, Pi says, it's home and hearth for the believer.

Part 1, Chapter 7

I'll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" then surely we are also permitted to doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation. (1.7.21)

Pi's education includes both science and religion; he comes to love both these disciplines. But agnosticism – the suspension of belief (e.g., "I don't have enough evidence to believe in God so I won't commit one way or the other.") – drives the boy bonkers. For Pi, belief is one of the most beautiful actions of human life. To live otherwise is to live statically. One can either choose a rich, dynamic life or a static, uncommitted life.

Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel

[Pi:] "Religion will save us," I said. Since when I could remember, religions had always been close to my heart.

"Religion?" Mr. Kumar grinned broadly. "I don't believe in religion. Religion is darkness."

Darkness? I was puzzled. I thought, Darkness is the last thing that religion is. Religion is light. Was he testing me? Was he saying, "Religion is darkness," the way he sometimes said in class things like "Mammals lay eggs," to see if someone would correct him? ("Only platypuses, sir.") (1.7.9-11)

For the first time, Pi learns his biology teacher, Mr. Kumar, is an atheist. Certainly Mr. Kumar confuses Pi. Mr. Kumar extols the virtues of science (see Themes: Science 1.7.12 and 1.7.16) and, on some level, convinces Pi. For Pi, however, the light of science doesn't cancel out the light of religion. Both coexist and simply shed more light on his world.

Part 1, Chapter 16

Brahman saguna is Brahman made manifest to our limited senses, Brahman expressed not only in gods but in humans, animals, trees, in a handful of earth, for everything has a trace of the divine in it. The truth of life is that Brahman is no different from atman, the spiritual force within us, what you might call the soul. [...]. The finite within the infinite, the infinite within the finite. If you ask me how Brahman and atman relate precisely, I would say in the same way the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relate: mysteriously. (1.16.3)

Said another way: The soul calls to God, and God calls to the soul. Although Pi relates here a tenet of his Hindu faith, his other two religious callings share this principle of divine intersection. In fact, much of the book builds toward these electric meetings between atman and Brahman (see Themes: Spirituality 2.85.6). We could also say much of the book – its degradations and tragedies – disrupt atman and Brahman. But isn't suffering, for Pi, a way to the divine?

I know a woman here in Toronto who is very dear to my heart. [...]. Though she has lived in Toronto for over thirty years, her French-speaking mind still slips on occasion on the understanding of English sounds. And so, when she first heard of Hare Krishnas, she didn't hear right. She heard "Hairless Christians", and that is what they were to her for many years. When I corrected her, I told her that in fact she was not so wrong; that Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims. (1.16.6)

Aw, isn't this cute? Pi charms the socks off everyone with this story. Pi uses his friend's mishearing to lay out one of his essential beliefs: Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are really all the same except for small differences in the practice of their faith. Hindus have a great capacity for love; Muslims see God in everything; and Christians are quite devout.

But we should not cling! A plague upon fundamentalists and literalists! I am reminded of a story of Lord Krishna when he was a cowherd. Every night he invites the milkmaids to dance with him in the forest. They come and they dance. The night is dark, the fire in their midst roars and crackles, the beat of the music gets ever faster – the girls dance and dance and dance with their sweet lord, who has made himself so abundant as to be in the arms of each and every girl. But the moment the girls become possessive, the moment each one imagines that Krishna is her partner alone, he vanishes. So it is that we should not be jealous with God. (1.16.5)

Pi remains unattached to any one interpretation of God. Sure, he believes each religion – but he doesn't guard their specific tenets jealously. Pi shares a rich parable: Each time the milkmaids try to possess Krishna he vanishes. Likewise, each time a religious faith tries to claim sole ownership of God, true religion vanishes. This story reveals a few of the workings of Pi's complex religious beliefs. You may have wondered how anyone could ever hold Hindu, Christian, and Muslim beliefs all at once. Pi's answer: without a trace of jealousy.

Part 1, Chapter 23

The pandit spoke first. "Mr. Patel, Piscine's piety is admirable. In these troubled times it's good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that." The imam and the priest nodded. "But he can't be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It's impossible. He must choose."

"I don't think it's a crime, but I suppose you're right," Father replied.

The three murmured in agreement and looked heavenward, as did Father, whence they felt the decision must come. Mother looked at me.

A silence fell heavily on my shoulders.

"Hmmm, Piscine?" Mother nudged me. "How do you feel about the question?"

"Bapu Gandhi said, 'All religions are true.' I just want to love God," I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face. (1.23.49-54)

In a hilarious scene, Pi's priest, imam and pandit accidentally meet on the street. Pi is a little embarrassed. But, in some ways, the three religious figures come out looking like the ridiculous ones. They all vie for Pi's loyalty and insist he must choose one religion. His response is a complex statement for such a young boy. Pi watches helplessly as the proprieties and customs of religion battle it out. Pi, of course, doesn't believe religion is about any of those things.

Part 1, Chapter 25

There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging for a few paise, walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, "Business as usual." But they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart. (1.25.1-2)

In this discussion of religion, Pi points out what he believes to be a major misstep by some believers. While God doesn't need their defense, those who do need their protection, the marginalized and poor, are ignored. Pi goes further: it's true God must be defended, but that place is in your heart. Think ahead to Pi's ordeal on the Pacific Ocean and his recovery in Mexico. How does Pi defend God in heart? Whom does he have to defend God against?

Part 2, Chapter 66

During those days of plenty, I laid hands on so many fish that my body began to glitter from all the fish scales that became stuck to it. I wore these spots of shine and silver like tilaks, the marks of colour that we Hindus wear on our foreheads as symbols of the divine. (2.66.6)

Remember earlier in the novel when Pi talks about atman and Brahman? How the divine in humans seeks the divine in the world? (See Themes: Religion 1.16.3). Here's an image of just such a connection: the fish scales, in a kind of silver-blue flame, draw out the divine in Pi.

Part 2, Chapter 74

I practised religious rituals that I adapted to the circumstances – solitary Masses without priests or consecrated Communion Hosts, darshans without murtis, and pujas with turtle meat for prasad, acts of devotion to Allah not knowing where Mecca was and getting my Arabic wrong. They brought me comfort, that is certain. But it was hard, oh, it was hard. Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love – but sometimes it was so hard to love. Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific and I would not be able to lift it back up. (2.74.1)

Pi continues to practice his religious faiths at sea. (And isn't it perfect, given Pi's earlier assertions about religion, that he can't practice them according to the letter of the law? That he must adapt, trusting his intentions and good will?) It may seem like Pi's faith – at least in the first part of the novel – is blissful and untroubled. But don't forget the great test it undergoes on the ocean. During his suffering (see Themes: Suffering and Themes: Fear), Pi often comes close to losing hope. In this way, his faith is hard-won and hard-fought. It comes to have both an element of lightness and the weight of struggle.