Why is religion important to Pi and how does it help him survive?

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hgarey71 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Yann Martel's novel The Life of Pi, the title character explains his feelings about religion in chapter seven. In this chapter, Pi describes an interaction with one of his teachers, Mr. Satish Kumar, who was an atheist. He used to visit Pi's father's zoo. Mr. Kumar tells Pi that the zoo is something like a temple for him. Pi responds with the words, "Religion will save us." Pi, who is narrating most of the story, goes on to say that religion had always been close to his heart. He is also a young person who loves learning and reveres authority. When Mr. Kumar says that religion is darkness, Pi feels like his world is being rocked. He admires and respects Mr. Kumar, but he learns that Mr. Kumar doesn't acknowledge something that is very dear to his own heart. When Mr. Kumar reveals that he was sick with polio as a child and cried out "Where is God?" Pi fears that Mr. Kumar's atheism is something that will destroy something that Pi loved, much like polio destroyed Mr. Kumar's health. Always a deep thinker, Pi concludes at the end of this chapter: 

He became my favorite teacher at Petit Seminaire, and the reason I studied zoology at the University of Toronto. I felt a kinship with him. It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them--and then they leap.

In chapter 17, Pi explains how he came to be a believer in three different religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Hinduism was his religion from his birth. He says he learned from it kindness and the security of a foundation. Then, he became interested in Christianity. He learned from a Catholic priest that the son of God had come to Earth and suffered and died to atone for the sins of man, so they could be restored to right relationship with the father. Pi couldn't understand a God who would sacrifice for man and says the story of Jesus of Nazareth would not leave him. He was drawn to the love and humanity of Jesus and asked the priest to help him become a Christian. Then, he met a Muslim mystic, and he was drawn to the beauty of the Islamic religion, which is filled with brotherhood and devotion. He loved the way that Muslims prayed five times a day. 

While he was shipwrecked, Pi drew comfort from all three of the religions he professed. He prayed to gods of each one. And it was the hope that he gained from this relationship of prayer that kept him steady and clear-headed. It was also the security of believing he was not entirely alone, that he could pray and his prayers would be answered, that helped him survive alone for so long. 

beateach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In order to survive his ordeal at sea, Pi called upon his beliefs from a number of different religious beliefs, including the lack of belief in atheism. The religions that he relied upon include Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Atheism. Pi prayed three times a day: morning, noon, and night, thus placing his survival in God's hands while still employing his scientific knowledge.

He drew from the Hindu religion when he remembered the story of Markandeya and falling out of Vishnu's mouth into the universe. This inspired him to see how small and meaningless his suffering actually was.

He compared things that he saw to icons from Christianity. The orangutan on the island reminded him of the Virgin Mary floating toward him. In addition, when that same orangutan was killed he compared it to crucifixion of Jesus Christ. His Christian beliefs lead him to accept that even if he did not survive this ordeal he would be redeemed because of his faith.

He employs the theories of Islam when he sees lightening and compares it to a strike from Allah. He believes that he has to coexist with all creatures because they are all one entity according to the teachings of Islam.

Although he depends heavily on his religious beliefs, Pi is scientific about his needs for survival. He examines situations on how to survive in different types of weather, how to meet his basic need for food and water, and how to deal with a wild animal. He hypothesizes, experiments, and attempts to solve the various problems he encounters.

poetrymfa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Pi begins the novel as a spiritually curious individual who is seeking a higher truth to guide his life. He is influenced by three of the world's major religions: Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam. Hinduism comes to him through his upbringing in India; it is the traditional faith of his family and provides connection for him to the beauty of nature. Catholicism is something he discovers when attending a church service and hears the fascinating story of Christ from Father Martin. He finds Islam through the Muslim mystic and baker Mr. Kumar, who shares it with him as the religion of the Beloved.

Although his interest in these three branches of religion create conflict for him on land, during his time at sea they serve as grounding points for his survival. They are reminders of his humanity at a time when he is isolated from humanity; they are symbols of hope in a desolate situation; most importantly, they provide hope, which allows him to persevere through suffering, a resolute sense of faith and nonattachment, and an ability to trust in God as the ultimate decider of his fate and survival.