All around the world, everyone practices a religion of some kind. These religions range from Hinduism and Buddhism to Christianity and Judaism. There are some who don’t even know what to believe and are on their quest to discover the truth. Pi Patel, the protagonist of Life of Pi, finds himself on one such journey in the novel. He is raised as Hindu, but later branches out to Christianity and Islam in an attempt to explore his beliefs. Eventually, he practices all three together. Pi believes in a universality of religion, which is evident throughout the book as a result of author Yann Martel’s clever writing. In Life of Pi, Yann Martel uses the animals, the journey at sea, the adults in Pi’s life, and the writing style to draw numerous religious parallels and create a story that emphasizes the universality of religion that Pi believes in.
When Pi is shipwrecked towards the beginning of the novel, he finds himself surrounded by his zoo animals. In particular, there is an orangutan named Orange Juice, a zebra, a hyena, and a tiger named Richard Parker. The animals each carry symbolism for religious figures. Orange Juice the orangutan is symbolic for Mary, the mother of Jesus in Christianity. Pi even calls her this, exclaiming, “Oh blessed Great Mother, Pondicherry fertility goddess, provider of milk and love, wondrous arm spread of comfort, terror of ticks, picker-up of crying ones, are you to witness this tragedy too?’ (Martel 111). Of the animals, she is the gentlest and kindness in presentation. Later on in his fake retelling of his journey to detectives, Pi says that Orange Juice was his human mother. In regards to the zebra, the zebra’s black and white stripes represent the Yin and Yang symbol in Chinese philosophy and religion. The idea of Yin and Yang is that opposites play an extremely important part in life.
This means that the zebra is foreshadowing loss in its death, but the gain of knowledge and self-exploration for Pi as a result. This balance of opposites is painful at times, but ends up helping Pi grow and become a new person by the end of his journey. As for the hyena and Richard Parker, they represent aspects of Hinduism. Richard Parker is Pi’s Atman, which means he is Pi’s inner self. The hyena can then be said to represent Pi’s inner ego and negativity, which is holding him back on his journey. The darkness seems to prevail when the hyena kills the zebra, but the light of Pi’s freedom restores balance when Richard parker kills the hyena. These animals all serve as the reader’s first introductions to religious symbols weaving and intertwining in the story to show that the higher power Pi respects so highly exists, but does not exist concretely in one religion as many think. The reader sees this expand to the environment as Pi spends more time at sea.
As Pi continues his journey at sea, he has a number of experiences that can be interpreted to have religious symbolism. When Pi is first adjusting to life with Richard Parker, he waits for a while until he feels comfortable to move around. He is amused by the fact that he has “a tiger aboard and [he] had waited three days and three nights to save [his] life,” (Martel 102). This is a reference to the three days and three nights that it took for Jesus Christ to rise from the dead in Christianity.
Eventually, Pi has a run-in with flying fish. He notices that his “body [begins] to glitter from all the fish scales that [become] stuck to it,” (Martel 217). He then compares the scales to Tilaks, symbols of the divine that are worn on the forehead in Hinduism. Pi feels blessed by a higher power in a time like this where fish are abundant and he is at peace. Towards the end of the novel, Pi and Richard Parker run into an island of groves. They board the island and find fruit, fish, and other foodstuffs to enjoy. They then discover that the island is carnivorous and leave.
This island actually represents both Christianity and Hinduism. For Christianity, this island is like the infamous apple for Adam and Eve that provided humanity with Original Sin. The good nature of the island seems too good to be true and Pi almost loses his life for it. For Hinduism, this island represents reincarnation. Reincarnation is very important belief within Hinduism that says that we have past lives and future lives that people live. Similarly, the creatures that die on the island are absorbed and become other things like fruit, trees, and groves. These events show that Pi is taking the stereotypical religious hero’s journey, however it isn’t contained in one religion. He is taken a journey driven solely by his faith and not by any particular higher power. The universality of religion in the story is in just about everything Pi does while trying to find his way home, including the adults in his life.
The adults in Pi’s life influence him heavily and test his religious strength many times. His religious leaders in Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam symbolize Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Greek mythology. Cerberus is tasked with keeping the dead from leaving the underworld. In their own way, these three stubborn men are trying to keep Pi from waking up and seeing the truth, or essentially “walking amongst the living,” by trying to convince him that he should only follow one religion and that it is wrong to practice more than one. In addition, the two Mr. Kumars serve a religious purpose as well. The biology teacher Mr. Kumar is a hard atheist and serves as a typical “non believer” of classic religious cautionary tales. His job as a science teacher further indicates his significance as a character grounded very firmly in reality. The baker Mr. Kumar serves as a guiding hand of a higher power working in mysterious and shielded ways to guide Pi towards religious enlightenment. The fact that this Mr. Kumar bakes bread shows his connection to religion seeing as bread is an important part of many different religions and their rituals.
Pi’s religious journey and experiences with differing religions shows that religion has an aspect of universality to it that we cannot quite grasp. Different rituals and ideas from religions may make more sense or be more meaningful for someone, so why is it so controversial to praise a higher power using aspects of many instead of one? Faith in a higher power has no specific religion attached to it. Pi’s faith is incredibly powerful, as exhibited by his resistance to those telling him he is wrong about practicing multiple religions. To have faith in something is incredibly special, and Pi’s faith in the higher power of the universe that breaks religious boundaries is proven time and time again in the book to be understandable by the varying religious symbolism.
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