Life of Pi

Life of Pi

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Religion and Faith Theme Analysis

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Francis Adirubasamy first presents Pi’s tale to the fictional author as “a story to make you believe in God,” immediately introducing religion as a crucial theme. Pi is raised in a secular, culturally Hindu family, but as a boy he becomes more devoutly Hindu and then also converts to Christianity and Islam. He practices all of these religions at once despite the protests of his three religious leaders, who each assert that their religion contains the whole and exclusive truth. Instead of dwelling on divisive dogma, Pi focuses on the stories of his different faiths and their different pathways to God, and he reads a story of universal love in all three religions. In fact, it seems that faith and belief is more important to Pi than religious truth, as he also admires atheists for taking a stand in believing that the universe is a certain way. It is only agnostics that Pi dislikes, as they choose doubt as a way of life and never choose a “better story.”

When he is stranded at sea, Pi’s faith is tested by his extreme struggles, but he also experiences the sublime in the grandiosity of his surroundings. All external obstacles are stripped away, leaving only an endless circle of sea and sky, and one day he rejoices over a powerful lightning storm as a “miracle.” After his rescue Pi returns to the concept of faith again. He tells his interviewers two versions of his survival story (one with animals and one without) and then asks which one they prefer. The officials disbelieve the animal story, but they agree that it is the more compelling and memorable of the two. Pi responds with “so it goes with God,” basically saying that he chooses to have religious faith because he finds a religious worldview more beautiful. The “facts” are unknowable concerning God’s existence, so Pi chooses the story he likes better, which is the one involving God.

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Religion and Faith ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Religion and Faith appears in each chapter of Life of Pi. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Religion and Faith Quotes in Life of Pi

Below you will find the important quotes in Life of Pi related to the theme of Religion and Faith.
Author’s Note Quotes

He took in my line of work with a widening of the eyes and a nodding of the head. It was time to go. I had my hand up, trying to catch my waiter’s eye to get the bill.
Then the elderly man said, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”

Related Characters: The Author (speaker), Francis Adirubasamy (speaker), Francis Adirubasamy
Page Number: x
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the "author"--a stand-in for Yann Martel himself--meets with a man named Francis, who claims that he's heard a story that will convince the author that God exists. As we'll later see, Francis's story isn't actually about Francis at all--he's heard it from Mr. Pi Patel, whom we'll meet later on. Furthermore, the story is only indirectly about God, and isn't what you'd expect from such an introduction. In short, the wondrous story we're about to hear has been filtered through several different storytellers, making us wonder how accurate it is in the form in which we're hearing it, as any one of the storytellers along the way could have exaggerated or distorted it. (But this also brings up the idea of storytelling and relative "truth," a central theme of the novel.)

The passage is also important because it brings up themes of spirituality and faith. Martel doesn't endorse any particular religion, but his novel is intensely religious, asking readers to suspend their disbelief and embrace the truth of a fantastic story that probably isn't "true" on a literal level, but that certainly achieves a kind of truth on a spiritual or aesthetic level.


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Chapter 1 Quotes

Sometimes I got my majors mixed up. A number of my fellow religious-studies students – muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, who were in the thrall of reason, that fool’s gold for the bright – reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the author begins to interview Pi, the protagonist of the story. Pi explains that as a young man he was an excellent student: he studied both zoology and theology at university. Curiously, Pu thinks that theology and zoology aren't really that different--they're both about respect for the mysteries of the universe, whether the mystery of life (zoology) or existence itself (theology).

Pi is a thoughtful young man, adept at seeing the beauty in unfamiliar things and breaking down boundaries between seemingly disparate world-views. He can translate the strangest of phenomena into an intelligible, wondrous form. Pi doesn't try to "explain" the phenomena that he sees (here, for instance, he doesn't seem to try to break down the sloth's life into its biological explanations)--rather, he embraces the sloth in all its strange glory.

Chapter 4 Quotes

In the literature can be found legions of examples of animals that could escape but did not, or did and returned… 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.
The Pondicherry Zoo doesn’t exist any more. Its pits are filled in, the cages torn down. I explore it now in the only place left for it, my memory.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Pi continues to defend zoos (but also denies defending them) from accusations of cruelty and imprisonment. Zoos do not, he insists, imprison animals at all--rather, they at least protect them and allow them to live relatively normal lives by making them safe and giving them a stable, unchanging environment in which they can develop a new territory for themselves.

The passage is interesting in that it makes an analogy between zoos and the belief in God. Those who dismiss zoos as cruel and backwards are the same kinds of people, Pi suggests, who dismiss God. Just as God is the being who gives people boundaries and rules by which to live, the zoo gives animals boundaries in which they must survive. It's easy to dismiss God as a "tyrant," just as it's easy to say that boundaries of any kind are imprisoning--and yet Pi claims that some boundaries are vital to happiness and, ironically, to freedom.

Chapter 7 Quotes

It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them – and then they leap.
I’ll be honest about. 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… But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Pi remembers a teacher of his, years ago, who turned out to be an atheist. Pi was shocked by his teacher's atheism, but later, he came to terms with it--indeed, he came to think of atheism as having a lot in common with religion.

What could religion and atheism possibly have in common? Pi argues that atheists are just like Christians or Hindus: they've chosen to believe in something, to accept a worldview beyond the limits of reason (as there is no way to define to a certainty whether some kind of god exists or not). In essence, Pi embraces all belief systems as long as they embrace something--the one ideology he won't tolerate is the ideology of uncertainty, agnosticism (the skepticism of whether or not a god exists). Sooner or later, Pi insists, people have to come to terms with reality and believe in one, definite thing--they can't just keep changing their mind. Put another way, people can't realistically live their lives in a state of constant doubt--they have to choose a "story," whether that story involves God or not, and live according to its tenets.

Chapter 22 Quotes

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words… and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Pi goes off on a tangent (not the first, nor the last) about what it must be like for an agnostic to die. An agnostic, because of his constant doubting of both religion and atheism, would probably dismiss his dying experiences with psychological causes--when he saw the proverbial light, he would just suggest that he was hallucinating, not seeing his own entrance into Heaven (or accept his own journey to nothingness).

The passage reinforces why Pi has more respect for atheists than agnostics. Paradoxically, an atheist is more likely to make a "leap of faith," because an atheist at least believes in something, even if that something is rationality and reason--an agnostic, by contrast, hasn't committed to any worldview, and therefore will continue to doubt even on his deathbed. Note also that Pi continues to characterize religion as a "story"--whether or not a story is literally true, we should recognize, it can be productive to those who believe in it. Thus, the passage foreshadows Pi's theories of religion (and later his interpretation of the entire novel): even if a religion isn't literally true, it has redeeming spiritual value: the value of its "story."

Chapter 23 Quotes

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…”
“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.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker), Gita Patel (speaker), Gita Patel , Santosh Patel
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

In this rather comedic scene, Pi--here, still a young man pre-shipwreck--goes with his parents to speak with his various religious leaders, who are concerned that Pi has dabbled in too many religions at once. Worried, the religious leaders insists that Pi must choose between them: Pi has been practicing as a Muslim, a Christian, and a Hindu all at once! Pi shyly insists that he sees the beauty in all religions, and just wants to love God--so why shouldn't he embrace them all at once?

Who's right here, Pi or the religious leaders? Most people choose one religion because it's enough to give them a sense of satisfaction and peace with regards to the universe's mysteries. Pi seems to have a looser, more experimental relationship with religion and truth, one based more on storytelling than fact. Pi recognizes that the stories of the various world religions have spiritual truth, even if they're not literally true. By the same token, Pi finds that he can embrace many different religions, looking past their literal rules to find true spiritual value. In short, Pi is a mystic and universalist who refuses any single identity--but he's surrounded by people who try to force him to choose one identity, thus excluding all others.

Chapter 45 Quotes

I didn’t have pity to spare for long for the zebra. When your own life is threatened, your sense of empathy is blunted by a terrible, selfish hunger for survival. It was sad that it was suffering so much… but there was nothing I could do about it. I felt pity and then I moved on. This is not something I am proud of. I am sorry I was so callous about the matter. I have not forgotten that poor zebra and what it went through. Not a prayer goes by that I don’t think of it.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker), The Zebra
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Pi experiences a turning point in his coming-of-age. Suddenly stranded at sea, Pi witnesses two of the animals trapped with him, a hyena and a zebra. The hyena has attacked the zebra, and the zebra, wounded but still alive, writhes in pain. Pi is sorry for the zebra, but he doesn't have the luxury of compassion at this time--he has to focus on his own survival first, and compassion comes later.

Pi is an enormously compassionate person, but at the end of the day he's also a human being--which is to say, he instinctively cares about his own survival above anything else. Pi wants to cling to life in a deadly situation; thus, he ignores the zebra for the time being. In the process, Pi's notions of nature and beauty are changing rapidly. Nature, symbolized by the zebra and hyena, proves itself to be savage and self-destructive--thus, Pi is miles away from the calm, innocent beauty of the zoo and religious stories.

Chapter 53 Quotes

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.”

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

Pi, still stranded in a tiny boat, here comes to terms with his own death--but then resolves to struggle against it to the last. He's trapped only a few feet from a huge tiger, Richard Parker, that could easily kill him. Pi is frightened and sure that he's going to die. Yet paradoxically, in the very instant that Pi comes to accept the fact that he will die, he suddenly finds the inner strength to fight for his life--and, in the end, he survives his time on the boat.

The irony of the passage is that Pi finds the courage to survive because he accepts that he's going to die. Pi is a tremendously brave, courageous person. Because he has so much control over his thoughts and feelings, he can calm himself, even in times of crisis. The overall message of the passage is that accepting one's death and giving up are not the same thing at all. On the contrary, Pi begins with death, and then moves past it. He's a gifted reader and storyteller who's used to accepting the impossible in fiction and religion--and here, Pi will put his imaginative powers to use, envisioning a future in which he survives his time at sea (and, in light of the novel's ending, even reimagines his time at sea itself).

Chapter 74 Quotes

Despair was a heavy blackness that let no light in or out. It was a hell beyond expression. I thank God it always passed. A school of fish appeared around the net or a knot cried out to be reknotted. Or I thought of my family, of how they were spared this terrible agony. The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain, a shining point of light in my heart. I would go on loving.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

In these chapters, Pi crafts his own religion--a religion that focuses on the day-to-day"rituals" of fishing, eating, and generally surviving in his desperate circumstances, and revolves around the acceptance of one's fate in life. Pi endures great despair during his time on the raft--there are many times when he's sure he's going to die, or is simply depressed at being so alone. But he always turns to God in his times of darkness: Pi's faith in the existence of God gives him the confidence to continue fishing and waiting for a rescue boat.

The passage shows the relationship between survival and religion. Whether or not it's literally true that God exists, the belief in God is an important survival mechanism: Pi needs to believe in something larger than himself in order to find the strength to save his own life. Some people criticize religion for being nonsensical or irrational, but the passage suggests that religion is actually the most practical thing in the world: it's a way to inspire people to keep on living, and to give their lives meaning.

Chapter 78 Quotes

Life on a lifeboat isn’t much of a life. It is like an end game in chess, a game with few pieces. The elements couldn’t be more simple, nor the stakes higher. Physically it is extraordinarily arduous, and morally it is killing… 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.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

As Pi's time in the lifeboat goes on, he becomes more aware of the spiritual dimensions of his existence. His entire life is only a few "moves" from death--a couple bad days of fishing and he'd starve to death. And yet Pi's "imprisonment" on the life raft is a blessing as well as a curse. The very danger and frugality of Pi's existence puts him in touch with the spiritual side of existence, removing all external distractions and teaching him to savor the tiny pleasures of pure survival, such as catching a "tiny dead fish." Pi goes through a series of incredible challenges and dangers--and yet there's a grander point to the dangers he faces. His time on the boat teaches him to embrace life in all its complexity and ugliness, and to truly be confirmed in his belief that life itself has meaning and value.

Chapter 85 Quotes

I was dazed, thunderstruck – nearly in the true sense of the word. But not afraid.
“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… I remember that close encounter with electrocution and third-degree burns as one of the few times during my ordeal when I felt genuine happiness.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker), Richard Parker
Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Pi thinks he's getting a sign straight from God--a bolt of lightning that strikes the surface of the ocean in the middle of a storm. Richard Parker the tiger is frightened of the lightning--a purely instinctual, self-interested beast, Richard naturally recoils from such a dangerous natural phenomenon. Pi is a different kind of creature altogether: because he lives so close to death, and in some ways has accepted the inevitability of his own death, he embraces the savage beauty of the bolt of lightning, and even gets happiness and a sense of the religious "sublime" from witnessing it.

Even in the midst of a crisis, Pi is a curious person. He respects the beauty of the universe in all its forms, even when the "beauty" comes in an unusual or terrifying form (a tiger, a lightning storm, etc.). He sees God in the most unlikely of places, and gets great pleasure from doing so--experiencing joy in seeing that there is something larger than himself, forces far more powerful and vast than his own tiny lifeboat.

Chapter 92 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Algae Island
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

In one of the strangest chapters in the book, Pi finds a temporary home on a floating island made entirely of algae, and inhabited only by docile meerkats. On the island, life is easy--there's plentiful food and placid beauty everywhere Pi looks. And yet Pi eventually comes to see through the shallow pleasures of the island. At night, the island becomes a dangerous place, its algae-filled ponds turning acidic and dissolving anyone or anything ignorant enough to swim in them. The island itself is carnivorous, and Pi even finds proof (in the "tooth tree") that another human has been killed by it before. Pi could live on the island, always avoiding the ponds and returning to the lifeboat at night. But instead of living such a stunted, fearful life, he decides to return to his boat and search for human contact once again.

What does the algae island symbolize? Critics have suggested that the island is a symbol of the shallowness of physical pleasure. There is no such thing as a "free lunch"--even the seemingly endless joys of the algae island inevitably "dissolve" (literally) into suffering and death. Life itself, Pi seems to conclude, is a dangerous place. The only way to redeem life, then, is to seek out spiritual or emotional enlightenment through interpersonal connection. (Notice that the island episode also mirrors the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden--Pi leaves terrestrial paradise when he achieves knowledge of death.)

Chapter 93 Quotes

High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker)
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Pi describes what his life was like after he left the island of algae. He doesn't give many details, having already offered much description of his daily rituals of survival, but he makes a profound point about God and sadness. It's the lowest, most miserable people who turn to God first, he argues. The very practice of worshipping God, one could say, is a product of sadness and suffering: people in the throes of despair want to believe that their lives have meaning, and so they turn to religion.

Pi's religious faith is tested many times during the novel, and yet instead of doubting God, Pi reshapes his religion in response to each new challenge. He's the very embodiment of humanity's capacity to survive and maintain its sanity through hope, resourcefulness, and creativity.

Chapter 99 Quotes

“If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?... Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”
“We’re just being reasonable.”
“So am I! I applied my reason at every moment… Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.”

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker), Tomohiro Okamoto (speaker), Tomohiro Okamoto
Page Number: 297-298
Explanation and Analysis:

In this crucial section of the book, Pi is confronted by a two interviewers who want to know how a young man could survive such an incredibly long and dangerous journey across the oceans. The interviewers find it nearly impossible to believe that anyone could survive in a boat with a tiger. Pi fends off the interviewers' criticisms for a while--but then he becomes exasperated. There's no point, he insists, in poking holes in the truth of his story. His story might not be totally reasonable, he admits, but it's still a good story.

Pi's defense is as interesting for what it doesn't say as for what it says. Pi never claims that his story is literally true--indeed, he even hints that he's been making up the story all along. And yet he makes an eloquent argument for the usefulness of believing in his story: people need to maintain their faith and their sense of wonder and meaning. To rely too excessively on truth and science, as the interviewers do, is to lose one's reason to live--to throw out the whole "universe with the bathwater."

“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”
Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question…”
Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”
Mr. Okamoto: “Yes. The story with animals is the better story.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

Related Characters: Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) (speaker), Tomohiro Okamoto (speaker), Atsuro Chiba (speaker), Tomohiro Okamoto, Atsuro Chiba
Page Number: 317
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Pi has revealed a surprising twist: the story of the animals (i.e., the book we're almost finished reading) was never exactly "true." In other words, the story of Pi and Richard Parker may have been a metaphor for what literally happened--Pi was stranded on the lifeboat with a group of other people, who turned to increasingly violent and dangerous means to survive. It's possible that Pi was so disturbed by what he's witnessed on the boat, and by his own actions, that he transforms his experiences into a more satisfying story of animals--i.e., creatures who aren't answerable to the law or to religion for their acts of violence.

In the true climax of the novel, Pi's interviewers are faced with a tough decision: print the story of how Pi came to be stranded in a boat with people, or print the story of how Pi survived with animals. In the end, they choose the story of the animals, because it is a "better" story.

What makes the story of the animals "better?" In the absence of total knowledge (i.e., the interviewers can't possibly know for sure which story actually happened, as Pi is the only survivor) they choose to embrace spiritual truth, with some redeeming religious value, rather than literal truth, which reveals nothing but the ugliness of human nature. The passage sums up everything the novel has been suggesting about the value of religion and storytelling. Reality is ugly and often depressing--stories, by contrast, have the power to inspire humans to achieve better and behave better. This idea of choosing to believe the "better story" is then intimately equated with religion, particularly in Pi's words--"so it goes with God."