In Life of Pi, how does Pi's biology teacher contribute to his survival on the lifeboat?

Quick answer:

Pi's biology teacher, Mr. Kumar, helps Pi survive on the lifeboat by inspiring him to study zoology and teaching him about the nature of atheism.

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Mr. Kumar is important to Pi in several ways. As a biologist and animal lover, Kumar inspired Pi to study zoology in Toronto. But as a rationalist and skeptic, Kumar taught Pi about the relationship between faith and reason. Kumar's assertion that religion is "darkness" is puzzling at first to Pi. His appreciation of animals as expressions of a overarching rationality is equally puzzling. What Pi comes to realize is that Kumar's atheism is simply another spiritual path. Like other kinds of faith, atheism also requires a final leap.

The idea that rationalism and faith are not opposed is important in Pi's predicament on the boat. The tiger is a dangerous animal, without doubt. But it is also a symbol with many meanings. One meaning is doubt. This doubt cuts both ways: doubt in the sense of questioning God and doubt in the sense of questioning the deadly nature of the tiger. It is by understanding the dual nature of the tiger that Pi is able to survive.

This ability to experience contrary conceptions of reality at the same time is central to Pi's experience on the boat. After he is rescued, the authorities find Pi's account unbelievable, so he provides an alternate story, which is equally unbelievable. The point, however, isn't that Pi is making things up; rather, that both accounts are different and equally valid ways of describing a central truth.

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