Study Guide

Life of Pi Spirituality

By Yann Martel


Part 1, Chapter 1

I am not one given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals, but many a time during that month in Brazil, looking up at sloths in repose, I felt I was in the presence of upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer, wise beings whose intense imaginative lives were beyond the reach of my scientific probing. (1.1.7)

Pi often sees a deep spirituality in the animal world. At one point, Pi compares Richard Parker to a yogi (see Themes: Man and Natural World 2.61.19). It's the calm and engagement of sloths and tigers that Pi admires. Even though science leads Pi to these discoveries, it doesn't quite explain them. Pi needs religion and imagination to usher him into the spiritual lives of other beings.

Part 1, Chapter 3

I remained faithful to my aquatic guru. Under his watchful eye I lay on the beach and fluttered my legs and scratched away at the sand with my hands, turning my head at every stroke to breathe. I must have looked like a child throwing a peculiar, slow-motion tantrum. In the water, as he held me on the surface, I tried my best to swim. It was much more difficult than on land. (1.3.7)

Don't forget, on a practical level, how important Pi's swimming lessons are. If Pi never learned to swim, his survival wouldn't have happened. We're not saying that Pi's survival, on a more allegorical level, doesn't have to do with faith or a journey of faith. The lifeboat, Richard Parker, and the ocean all test Pi's faith. Or, put another way, they test his ability to swim in a foreign element.

Part 1, Chapter 16

A germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed, was sown in me and left to germinate. It has never stopped growing since that day. (1.16.1)

Pi Patel embraces all aspects of the world. For some, a germ of religious exaltation would mean conversion to a particular religion. For Pi, such a germ means multiple religions and an all-encompassing faith. He can't get enough of faith, so he adds one religion after another. If Pi's faith were a dessert, it'd be a banana split. If Pi's faith were a piece of cloth, it'd be a crazy quilt. We'll stop there.

Part 2, Chapter 53
Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel

I was giving up. I would have given up – if a voice hadn't made itself heard in my heart. The voice said, "I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen." (2.53.5)

Each day Pi survives is a miracle. We watch as Pi's daily routine of survival takes on the quality of spiritual exercises like prayer or fasting. His feasts, especially turtle blood, become sacramental. The everyday – at least if you're on a lifeboat for 227 days – is miraculous.

Part 2, Chapter 57

It was Richard Parker who calmed me down. It is the irony of this story that the one who scared me witless to start with was the very same who brought me peace, purpose, I dare say even wholeness. (2.57.1)

Richard Parker, the creature who constantly threatens Pi's life, eventually provides Pi with rich companionship. Pi takes a major tribulation and turns it into a spiritual gift. It's as if Pi is also saying: God, who has a very, very forbidding presence, can be peace, wholeness, and a lot of other happy things.

Part 2, Chapter 58

I had to stop hoping so much that a ship would rescue me. I should not count on outside help. Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway's worst mistake is to hope too much and do too little. Survival starts by paying attention to what is close at hand and immediate. To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one's life away. (2.58.9)

You can imagine reading a slightly altered version of this passage in a mystical text: "Reside in your own soul. Peace is within. Keep to the task at hand and the spirit will follow. To do what is immediate and close at hand is to experience God." OK. We admit we're getting a little carried away. But Life of Pi does at times seem like a survival manual for the spirit. And this is one of those times.

Part 2, Chapter 78

Much becomes expendable. You get your happiness where you can. You reach a point where you're at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel you're the luckiest person on earth. Why? Because at your feet you have a tiny dead fish. (2.78.9)

Pi gets pretty lofty and spiritual, but he always remains grounded. It's a like the Buddhist master telling his student to contemplate a sandal. Hours pass. Suddenly the master smacks the young charge across the face with the sandal. The master shouts: "Did you forget about the existence of the sandal?" Pi has similar revelations. Hunger, thirst, the realities of everyday existence actually contribute to his spiritual enlightenment.

Part 2, Chapter 85
Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel

"Praise be to Allah, Lord of All Worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Ruler of Judgment Day!" I muttered. To Richard Parker I shouted, "Stop your trembling! This is miracle. This is an outbreak of divinity. This is...this is..." I could not find what it was, this thing so vast and fantastic. (2.85.6)

Lightning has just struck the ocean. It is fantastic. One infinite thing – the sky – has come in contact with the seemingly infinite ocean. Earlier, Pi describes (see Themes: Religion 1.16.48) the way the divine in humans seeks the divine in nature. He gets giddy about the connection between the spiritual force within him touching the spiritual force of God, which is expressed in animals, trees, or a handful of earth. We're not sure Richard Parker is as amused.

Part 2, Chapter 92

By the time morning came, my grim decision was taken. I preferred to set off and perish in search of my own kind than to live a lonely half-life of physical comfort and spiritual death on this murderous island. (2.92.143)

The seaweed island has brought Pi and Richard Parker back from the brink of serious malnourishment. But Pi sees the island as rapacious – and full of loneliness – which amounts to spiritual death. Physical comfort isn't enough for Pi. He needs companionship and human contact. Richard Parker isn't cutting it anymore.

Part 3, Chapter 99
Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel

[Pi:] "The arrogance of you big-city folk! You grant your metropolises all the animals of Eden, buy you deny my hamlet the merest Bengal tiger!"

[Mr. Okamoto:] "Mr. Patel, please calm down."

[Pi:] "If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn't love hard to believe?"

[Mr. Okamoto:] "Mr. Patel – "

[Pi:] "Don't you bully me with your politeness! Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?" (3.99.109-113)

Pi loves to argue with Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba (well, mainly with Mr. Okamoto). Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba doubt Pi's story, which really insults Pi. In response, Pi asserts one of the guiding principles of his life. The most beautiful and important experiences are "hard to believe," but that doesn't mean they're illusions. Love and God are hard to believe. The existence of human beings also seems like a miracle. Whether or not Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba agree with the rest of what Pi says, Pi's own existence – at this point – is a miracle.