Life of Pi is a 2012 movie about a young Indian boy stranded in a boat at sea with none only than a Bengal Tiger as his companion on his journey. The film tackles several different philosophical ideas, but they are all interwoven to the film’s one core message: How to love yourself just as much as you love all living things.
The film teaches Pi and the audience about the gifts and burdens of being a parent, and the roles that fatherhood and motherhood both carry as a duty to the relationship of the family, as well as what role religion has for Pi in loving himself and others.
Before I continue, I want to issue a disclaimer. This analysis comes from the eyes of a Christian. I do not wish any ill will on any Atheist, nor am I a carbon copy of what the character of Pi believes and represents. I simply just love a phenomenal film and want to share my love of movies with the world. The religious aspects of this film are represented in Pi’s mind, and don’t necessarily reflect my own.
I would also like to clarify that the various representations of parenthood that I talk about don’t necessarily apply to everyone. Not everyone is going to be a traditional mother or father. None of the philosophies shown in this film are right or wrong. Everyone has different beliefs on life.
If you are an Atheist, I encourage you to leave food for discussion in a comment. That being said, Let’s move on.
Who is Richard Parker?
Life of Pi’s main character is Pi of course, but in my opinion, it is the much more handsome Richard Parker who steals the show. Once he is introduced in the film especially when they become isolated in their boat, everything the film’s been telling you starts to make sense. This is done this way (in a brilliant fashion I might add) because the audience learns just what Pi’s father was trying to teach him parallel to Pi’s own pace. So to explain what Richard Parker represents and what he means to Pi, I have to back up a bit and explain why his father was so hellbent on protecting him from Richard Parker in the first place.
Learning to Reason
Pi’s father didn’t want to keep his son an Atheist, he wanted him to start with logic and reason. Pi kept leaping from one religion to the next blindly because it was something new and foreign to him. In my own experience, I have found myself to leap to a different lifestyle or different belief in various parts of life because I was scared of being nothing. Not having a label on my face that said to the world “I am __” or “I believe in ___” was terrifying to me.
Pi practiced multiple religions because he was afraid of not believing anything at all. Pi does not know how to better himself so he turns to Religion to solve his problems for him.
Pi’s first encounter with real danger was with Richard Parker. Pi and his family own the zoo, so Pi took his brother Ravi to go see the infamous Bengal Tiger, Richard Parker. Pi wanted to show his brother that he could feed the animal without being attacked. So, he grabbed a slab of meat and stuck his hand into the cage demonstrating the power of his faith. Pi believed that the power of his faith could protect him from such danger.
When Pi’s father found his son he stopped him before the inevitable would happen. His father reprimanded him saying that a carnivorous beast like a tiger is an animal and not a friend. He also said that animals do not have souls, that all you will see when looking into their eyes is your own emotions reflected staring back at you.
What he was trying to teach Pi was that it is dangerous to be that naive. It is foolish to love all forms of life and expect that love to be reciprocated by anything with a heartbeat. Expecting love to come from a place filled with darkness will only get you killed.
Learning to Love
When Pi first met his sweetheart Amandi, he was filling in for a drummer to offer background music for a dancing class. In the class, Amandi did something the other’s didn’t. She made gestures in her movements that basically spelled out to “Lotus flower hiding in the forest. Something like a Lotus Flower hiding in the forest doesn’t make sense because a flower so beautiful should be showing off in the open for people to appreciate its beauty.
Amandi introduced Pi to love. Pi had the will to fall in love but not the will to love. He wanted purely the feeling of happiness and bliss when falling in love with a female, or the security and sense of purpose of practice of Religion. This simply goes back to Pi’s habit of looking for external sources to feel whole.
However, Amandi is different. She knows that she shouldn’t give out her love and trust like a flyer because that has to be earned. It would be dangerous and naive to expect that everyone is going to be worthy of your time and reciprocate the affection you give them. Why else would she hide a lotus flower in the forest?
Women, especially mothers are incubators and will give back to their partner what they receive twice-fold. Fathers are the rocks of the family, holding all of the family’s pain and suffering on his back so he can take care of them and keep them secure. However, the role of a woman in this relationship with her family is to love. The reason why we didn’t see much of Pi’s mother in the film is that women are the providers of love in the universe.
In fact for the majority of her screen time in the film, she supports most of Pi’s endeavors. This information is important because we see a polar opposite in the way his father behaves. In the majority of his father’s screen time, he is not speaking down to his son but teaching him lessons. His father loved his son just as much as his mother but couldn’t show it because he needed to be strong for the family.
Pi, The Mother, The Cook, and The Sailor
Now that we got that out of the way, I can finally talk about my favorite character in all of fiction. There comes a point in the story when Pi’s family is running out of funds and they have to leave India to Canada and sell their animals. On their way to Canada, their ship encounters a severe storm and ends up sinking. Of course, many of the animals on board escape their cages and four animals come aboard Pi’s lifeboat. Them being a zebra, hyena, orangutan, and of course Richard Parker.
This is when Pi starts to become confronted with the importance of his father’s lessons. Animals are not sentient and live for food and water. Of course, many animals have the ability to show affection even to humans but it is important to recognize that they act out of instinct and necessity. They lack the ability to love at the complex level of humans.
There comes a point in the film when the hyena attacks the zebra and sadly kills it. The orangutan gawks and scolds the hyena for having the audacity to kill something so beautiful. However, just like what Pi’s father taught him, the hyena killed the zebra out of basic necessity and reason. For if it kept the zebra alive out of pity for its life the hyena would have died with it.
The orangutan represents Pi’s mother. She wants to keep his father in check and make sure he’s not being too hard on his son. When the hyena becomes especially rambunctious she slaps him to the ground. Pi screams and hollers, praising her for fighting back, therefore, exposing his nativity. She just looks back at him, knowing that as much as she doesn’t want his father to be so hard on him, the lessons that Pi learns from him are going to be the ones that might save his life one day.
The hyena attacks and kills the orangutan. Of course, Pi’s father never was physically or even verbally abusive, but his mother often had to back down and let his father reprimand his son. There’s a reason why you always hear mothers after children do something wrong say “wait until your father gets home” because the role of a father is to challenge you, teach you, and show you the horrors of the world. The orangutan lets herself be killed because she knows that if Pi keeps going along the same path and giving out his love blindly to anyone, he’s going to be killed.
Of course, Pi yells and taunts the orangutan, pulling out a knife. Pi loved his father but he was still too stubborn to fully understand and accept his teachings.
During this scuffle in the boat, the tiger jumps out and kills the hyena immediately without any effort. Richard Parker represents Atheism. It offers no love, nothing to teach, and nothing to give. It is only there to scare you and challenge your existence. This is why he is scarier than the hyena because although the hyena kills out of necessity, the tiger killed to rid of a nuisance. Richard Parker even threw the hyena off the boat and ate the zebra instead. Atheism doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t hate you and it doesn’t love you either, it just wants to chip away at your soul until the time of your death when your soul leaves existence for all eternity.
The hyena was too weak to get to Pi and couldn’t actually get to him because there was a rise in elevation in the boat because of all the supplies. Of course, Pi’s father was an Atheist himself but he was scared that Pi would lose hope on that boat and lose faith, letting his doubt and depression take control of him and be his demise. Unfortunately, he was too late and the tiger got to him first.
Without Religion, Pi had no other interests that kept him busy and gave his life purpose. Pi even admitted that eventually, things like math and science became boredom and patterns without end. So, without Religion in Pi’s eyes, he would be a nobody, and that is exactly what his father was so afraid of. However, Atheism does not care what you think of yourself and it does not care if you are a nobody. It just wants to take your life.
Richard Parker gives Pi’s life purpose because if he hadn’t regularly taken care of him he would get too hungry and Pi would be his last meal. Reflectively, Pi’s fear of Atheism brought him to find purpose in his life. By feeding that tiger and keeping him alive Richard Parker ultimately saved his life because if it weren’t for him, Pi would have died in that boat wishing for someone to save him. The fear of there not being a God in the sky to watch over you, was too great for him to just ignore. By putting his faith in God Pi felt secure, and that’s the exact reason why he was drawn to Religion in the first place. When that security is removed then he has no purpose and no other interests or drives in life.
This is reflected when at the beginning of Pi’s journey with Richard Parker, Pi looks to God and says “I surrender myself to you”. Pi hasn’t quite yet fully understood the value of his father’s lessons of prioritizing reason and being self-sufficient, so he turns to God before he turns to himself. It is okay to believe in any Religion and worship the God(s) of that said Religion, but first, you need to know why you are practicing worship in the first place. In Pi’s case, it would be selfish and foolish to believe in a higher power for the sole purpose of taking care of a part of yourself that you are neglecting out of fear or laziness.
In fact, Pi really starts to take after his father when he has the opportunity to kill Richard Parker when he jumps off the boat. When Pi had an ax to his head he decided not to pull the trigger because ultimately he needed Richard Parker to survive, for if he had killed him he would not have the motivation to keep moving and would have killed himself. Not to mention he even brought himself to feed Richard Parker his first fish after sobbing over killing a living creature for survival.
Pi really starts to learn the value of Richard Parker in a scene where Pi sees him looking into the ocean and asks him what he sees. From his dad’s own words, if you look into a tiger’s eyes all you will see is your own emotions reflected back at you. However, whatever you aim at a mirror you see right back. When Richard Parker looked into the ocean we see hallucinations of sorts. Some we could assume are actual living creatures deep in the ocean like a giant squid, a shark, and even an angler fish. However, that’s exactly my point. By looking through the eyes of Richard Parker he’s able to appreciate how beautiful life really is.
By looking through the mirror of Atheism Pi learned that its okay to be scared because that’s what’s life all about. Life is about vulnerability and not everything has to be explained to you and that’s okay. The beauty of life is that there’s so much to explore and find in this world and there’s no reason to waste precious time to be afraid of something you ultimately have no real idea lies ahead of you. No one can really know for sure if there is a higher power, but that’s the beauty of faith. It gives us the motivation to move through our darkest hour because often times it feels like its all we have left.
The Wrath of God
Just when Pi thinks he had learned his ultimate lesson his faith is again tested. When he encounters a storm we something that even Richard Parker is afraid of. God. God does not hate us, He loves us. He puts us through terrible things and takes everything from us to test us and prove our will to Him.
Atheism can’t physically take anything away from him. In a sense, its only purpose is to live in your mind. It’s just a looming presence that challenges your existence and slowly drains you. God, however, will do anything in His power to tear us apart if He wants to if He wants us to learn a lesson. No matter how hard the beating is we have to surrender ourselves to him because we have to accept that God is perfect and He knows what is wrong from right.
To truly love God and prove your loyalty to Him, you sometimes have to do things that are terrifying, like embracing the hole of darkness that is Atheism with open arms. After the storm subsides and Pi and Richard Parker are well near death, Pi and Richard Parker embrace when he rests his head on Pi’s lap. To truly love God, you have to truly be vulnerable. That means fully accepting that even though you don’t have physical proof of God’s existence you must fully give yourself to Him, and that’s possibly one of the most terrifying things to accomplish especially when you have devoted all of your strength to prioritizing reason and thinking rationally.
Pi accepts this unknown future and the spontaneous nature of his fate, surrendering and accepting his death. He says “God, thank you for giving me life, I am ready now”. When Pi felt he was beyond the probability of being saved, God gave him rest. Pi arrived on an island for Pi to lick his wounds. However, this island was not exactly a paradise but another test given by God.
The Carnivorous Island
When Pi arrives on this island, he is immediately embraced by it. Much of the plant-life is edible and the only animals other than Richard Parker to keep him company are none other than Meerkats. The island also has freshwater springs built into it. However by night, a chemical turned the water into acid, and the plants, trees, the very ground itself was carnivorous akin to a Venus flytrap.
Pi ended up picking a fruit from a tree and found a human tooth inside of it. It was then that he had come to the realization that there was a poor soul who came upon this island thinking he could stay there forever, and when he died the island had digested him.
This island represents that of a mother. Often times, mothers will find themselves holding onto their children and inadvertently keep them from becoming more. Mothers are important gears in the confusing clockwork of life, but God built every living thing to be flawed to teach us an infinite amount of lessons. Life itself serves as a representation of a mother. It offers us so much beauty to explore in this world and cradles us with love offering us so many ways to live life to the fullest.
God personifies a father. Without a father figure in your life, there is no one to provide guidance. Mothers, of course, can be well suited as well, especially when they have had a wonderful father to teach them. However, there’s no denying that God built fathers to be better equipped to do this as well.
Mothers are nurturers. Their role is to provide their child with love and affection with all their heart. There’s a reason why its so difficult for men to show affection. Take a banana tree for example. It would be foolish to expect a banana tree to grow apples because that’s not its purpose.
God created this island for Pi to teach him of the importance of his father and the horrors of never leaving your mother’s arms. Fathers are important because they are always watching, getting involved with their children and disciplining them to become strong and confident individuals. You need to confront the challenge to leave the nest. As scary as that is, it is mandatory for living a fulfilling life. God as a father is there to build us into successful people. He was always watching over Pi. When He seemed to be indifferent to Pi’s suffering, He was still watching. When Pi felt he was beyond hope of saving He gave him rest.
There’s a reason why moms always say to their children after they make a grave mistake: “wait ’till your father hears about this”. This is because the role of the father is to give you a challenge, build you into a work of art, and show you the horrors of the world, but they are always watching. Fathers are always there for you and love you with all their hearts even when it seems they are punishing you.
In fact, we see this when Pi’s family departs from India. Pi says to himself that he realized that leaving India was harder on his father than it was for him. Although it may seem that his father is being too harsh in reality that is quite the opposite.
When Pi finally reached civilization at the Mexican shore, Pi had learned so much from Richard Parker from his father. However, Pi had been taking care of him for so long it was time for him to leave the nest so to speak. God had taught Pi the gift of fatherhood from his dad’s teachings and taught him about becoming a father himself.
Pi had learned how to find purpose in his life by using Atheism as a mirror to appreciate the grand scheme of what life is really all about, teaching him to love. However, when a child learns how to ride a bike he must learn to ride it without training wheels eventually. Now that Richard Parker is out of his life he cannot use him as a crutch anymore and must now apply his teachings to his own life.
Pi learned on the carnivorous island about leaving the nest and the dangers of staying in the comfort of your mother’s arms, never taking the opportunity to confront the challenge. So although it will be heartbreaking to see Richard Parker leave without the moment to say goodbye, it is what’s best for him for he is a wild animal and not a domestic housecat.
Overall, this film is phenomenal. I have honestly never loved a character as much as I have with Richard Parker. At the beginning of the film, he seems to be nothing more than a black hole of fear and nothingness, and the beautiful part is that never changes.
I feel the reason why I love his character so much is that Pi uses Richard Parker as a mirror, and the only reason why we see him become tamer is that Pi perceives him to be something he can learn from. Richard Parker only became tame when Pi saw the truth and saw how beautiful the world was. So, for Pi and the audience, Richard Parker is only a reflection of what you perceive him to be.
So if you want to see if you can apply this to the real world, just think. Something is only as scary or threatening only if you perceive it to be. After all, Atheists do not fear their belief of no afterlife and no one watching over them because they have already come to accept that. Just remember, mirrors always reflect what is in front of them. So if your fear obstructs that mirror, that is the only thing you will see staring back at you.