Summary and Analysis
Chapters 16–32: Religion
As Pi comes of age, he discovers spirituality. His first religion is Hinduism because of his natural love of its spirituality and beauty. Later he finds himself in a Catholic church, where he falls in love with the story of Christ. And even later he becomes a Muslim, after the second Mr. Satish Kumar explains to Pi that it is a religion of “the Beloved.”
Pi’s simultaneous belief in three religions meets with
skepticism and outrage from the religious leaders of his community and
puzzlement from his family. One day he is the center of a confrontation in the
marketplace involving his family and all the religious leaders and mentors he
has been worshiping with and learning from. None of the religious leaders believe
Pi can follow all three religions at the same time, and eventually he is chased
away from the temples, churches, and mosques. His family, however, apparently accepts
his threefold beliefs; they casually humor his religious needs and interests. His
father has no interest in religion whatsoever, and although his mother has been
brought up in both the Hindu and Baptist faiths, she also claims no religious
interest or practice.
Later in this section, the two Mr. Kumars meet at the zoo.
The two men with identical names and juxtaposing positions on the universe—science
versus belief—feed a zebra together.
The various religions Pi follows are introduced by The Author
as he describes Pi’s present-day home in Canada, referring to it as a shrine. Each
faith is represented by religious symbols, framed pictures of religious figures,
and the holy scriptures of each religion. Although the Hindu faith is the one
that comes to Pi most naturally, he contemplates the idea that we are all born Catholic—then
contradictorily insists that he was not born Catholic. This contradiction is
typical of Pi—after announcing a sweeping truth, he often then refutes it completely.
Pi describes his introduction to the Christ story by placing
himself in the role of a savior. In his retelling of a biblical parable, Pi’s father
feeds Pi to the lions to pay for the animals’ wildness and misbehavior. Pi’s
retelling of the parable is significant in that he sees himself as the
necessary offering for the sins of the zoo’s wild animals. He sees them the way
he believes God sees humanity: as creatures who cannot stop sinning and have no
power to redeem themselves. However, even with this newfound understanding of
the parable, Pi cannot see how it translates spiritually. In a moment that foreshadows
the final scenes of the book, Pi asks a priest for a second story, one that
makes more sense, but the priest cannot provide one. Pi then rejects the divinity
of Christ, pointing out that the Hindu gods have other-worldly miraculous
abilities and transcendental holiness. He cannot conceive of a Christian God
who allows hunger, thirst, and humiliation—suffering that Pi himself will soon endure.
For every one of his criticisms of Christianity, Pi is offered only the
conciliation of “love” as an explanation and reason. After much doubt, concern,
and demand for more clarity, Pi abruptly announces to the priest with whom he’s
been discussing Christianity that he wants to become a Christian. The priest
tells him he already is one, and Pi goes home to thank Krishna for helping him
find Christ. Pi’s actions reveal that he does not intend to give up one
religion for another; his dualistic belief is an example of his unwillingness
throughout the novel to believe in one idea—one reality—to the exclusion of
Pi’s introduction to Islam comes at the hands of the second
Mr. Kumar, this one a baker and a Muslim. As the priest does with Catholicism, Mr.
Kumar introduces Islam as a religion of love—although he calls it “the Beloved.”
Islam transforms Pi’s perception of the world. It has none of the doubt,
mystery, and questioning that brought him to Christianity. Pi claims to have
reached a level of personal immortality through Islam, which furthers the symbolism
of Pi as a savior. The theme of pluralism is also evident when Pi likens his
spiritual awakening through Islam to a moment later in his life in which he sees
the Virgin Mary, though he is quick to explain that his experience was more of
a certain “feel” than a literal sighting of Mary.
As Pi’s story unfolds, The Author is always present. The
Author’s intrusions within the text are interesting because we know that it is
he—The Author—who has written the words we are reading from Pi’s point of view,
yet he often interrupts this narrative to revisit his own experience of
listening to Pi tell his story. At one time The Author uses the present tense
to describe how he spent the afternoon with Pi—and is writing down the
highlights of his own thoughts about Pi’s understanding of religion. He finally
concludes that Pi is not on an intellectual journey but rather one of
understanding and purpose. Martel allows The Author to interject at times like
these to harness the narrative; the interjections offer small bits of clarity
and realism and strip back the parable-like voice that is present in the
material narrated by Pi.
The inevitable confrontation between the two Mr. Kumars,
each of whom represents a different system of belief, occurs one day when the two
men independently run into Pi and his family. Each Mr. Kumar claims to have
exclusive rights to the young man’s soul and religious interests, and as they argue,
Pi remains silent because he accepts both men’s opposing world beliefs. This
brief meeting between the two Mr. Kumars solidifies Pi’s dual beliefs in both science
and religion, something that most people might find confusing and mutually
exclusive. As they feed a zebra at the zoo together, the Muslim Mr. Kumar
speaks a blessing meaning “God is the greatest” and the biology teacher Mr.
Kumar says the zebra’s scientific name. Pi’s simple remark, “It’s very pretty,”
demonstrates that Pi does not have a problem with marrying together the two Mr.
Kumars’ conflicting belief systems: The zebra exists and can be identified
scientifically, and the zebra is a creation of God.