The Hindu Philosophy of Life Through the Movie, “The Life of Pi”

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Vishal Agarwal

Vishal Agarwal is a scholar of Hindu shastras and a Hinduism teacher. A practitioner-student of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, he has authored over dozen publications on childhood spirituality, ancient Indian history and archaeology, and historiography as research papers in peer reviewed journals, and chapters in American and Indian school textbooks. He has also written several articles in American Hindu community newspapers. He has served on the boards of several academic associations and Hindu community organizations. Recipient of several awards, he has been invited as a keynote speaker in dozens of conferences, churches, synagogues, high schools and temples. He lives in Minneapolis with his family.

The Hindu Philosophy of Life

Through the Movie, “The Life of Pi”

 

This Q&A was prepared by the author to introduce the concepts of Jagat, Māyā and Samsāra in the Hindu worldview to middle school children in an interactive and an interesting way.

 

  1. Why did the boy get the name ‘Pi’? Do you find the explanation logical? Is it OK to name a child Piscine after a swimming pool?

lop-1The boy was named after the swimming pool Piscine Molitor in France where his parents first met. His classmates teased him by calling him ‘pissing’ and therefore the boy decided to change his name to ‘Pi’, due to his love for mathematics. The logic behind the naming of the boy is quite flimsy and weird. In other words, there is no sound logic behind why he was named ‘Piscine’ in the first place by parents who were not French, and it is an illogical name anyway. à The symbolism of this is that everything in life is not logical. A lot of things happen in our lives for which there is no sound reason. We must just take things as they come, and adapt to them (just as Piscine changed his name to ‘Pi’).

  1. What is the complete and exact value of ‘Pi’ in mathematics? Can you define it completely?

lop-2In mathematics, Pi is the fraction 22/7 used to calculate the circumference, area of a circle; or the volume etc. of a sphere. In decimal notation, Pi = 3.1415…… and is an irrational number because it cannot be defined completely, or its value cannot be described completely. à The symbolism again is that life is not perfectly rational (or logical) and we cannot completely describe it. There is always some part of our life that is illogical, or which we cannot describe.

  1. In the beginning of the movie, there is a scene of a Temple festival in which a Moorti of the Shri Vishnu is taken on a boat ride. What does the lake represent? What did the temple festival signify?

The lake is a miniature ocean, which in the Hindu imagery stands for this world, or the Universe in which we spend our lives (again, remember how Pi was set adrift in an ocean, and the movie is titled ‘The Life of Pi’) whereas the Moorti represents the fact that Vishnu is present inside the entire Universe. à This symbolizes that we are never alone in our lives. Bhagavān is always present with us, just as the moorti of Vishnu was within the lake.

  1. Two people come to visit the zoo. They have identical names but one is a devout Muslim and the other is an atheist. What does this signify?

lop-3The two people are opposites of each other but they have the same names. à This symbolizes that in our world, external similarities between two things do not mean that the two things are the same. We must learn to look beyond that external appearances and deep deeper to find the truth. Bhagavan takes care of everyone and the sun shines on atheists as well as in the believers. Therefore, the Vedas say, “Indra takes care of even him who denies that Indra exists.” (Rigveda)

  1. What does the zoo signify? How is the real world like a zoo?

lop-4The zoo also symbolizes the world. Just like the zoo has many different types of animals, our real world also has a lot of diversity with many types of people living together, and adding to the variety. In a zoo, these animals are kept apart from each other so that they do not kill and devour others like they would do in the jungle. Likewise, in a civilized society, the strong does not eat the weak, and they are protected from each other by laws, which are like the fences and the cages that separate creatures from each other. If these barriers of laws and protections fall apart, our society will become like a jungle and the weak would get devoured by the mighty. The traditional human being called these set of laws ‘Dharma’ or ‘Religion’. Peaceful co-existence and diversity within the zoo (as opposed to the violent chaos in a jungle) is the hallmark of a civilized society, and is a part of Divine design. Therefore, the Vedas say, with regard to our planet, “People speaking many languages and practicing many different Dharmas reside on this earth as if living within the same house” (Atharva Veda 12.1.45)

  1. What lessons did Pi learn from the three religions that he practiced – Hinduism, Christianity and Islam?

lop-5Pi learned about the magnificence of Bhagavan from Hinduism, faith from Christianity and the brotherhood of humanity from Islam. All these three values are present in Hindu Dharma itself, but our religion also teaches that, “May we accept good virtues from everywhere” (Rigveda)

  1. Which religion did he keep at the end of the movie? Do you think Pi would have learned from other faiths if he were not a Hindu?

Pi remained a Hindu in his life after his rescue and in his adulthood. His kids and his wife were Hindu, and he remained a vegetarian. Hindu Dharma teaches us to imbibe good teachings from other religions, but this does not mean that we give up our own. Whereas in the case of Islam and Christianity, they treat other religions as false and are worried when Muslims and Christians adopt the good teachings of other faiths.

  1. What was the difference in how Pi’s mother and father viewed the world? What were their views on science and religion?

SOREL_PI_02092.CR2Pi’s mother was devotedly religious, but she does not contradict her husband’s argument that Science is of vital important to the survival and progress of humanity. Pi’s father on the other hand is an atheist and believes that science has done more for us in 100 years than religion has in thousands of years. Pi does not adopt either of these extreme views of blind faith in religion or the dry rationalism or atheism of his father. When the ship capsized, both the parents drowned, only Pi survived. The message of this is that to flourish in our life, we should have both faith in Dharma, as well as in rationality and Science and not just in one of these. Hinduism also teaches us that “We should stitch our hearts (the seat of emotion and faith) with our minds (the seat of logic and rationality)” (Atharvaveda)

  1. In a scene before their ship journey, Pi was made to see how a tiger snatched the goat to eat it. What is the message of that event?

lop-7Pi thought that the lion was his friend because he saw friendliness in the creature’s eyes. But the tiger’s nature is inherently violent. It needs to hunt and kill creatures for its survival. Only humans can overcome their nature, and aspire for Moksha. When Pi saw the tiger grab the goat and kill it, he was shocked, and realized that he had been fooling himself to believe that the tiger had become his friend and was not going to be violent. We often believe what we see with our eyes; hear with our ears and so on. We also believe what we want to, not what we should. But the reality might be very different. A lot of things in our life are an illusion. We believe that we will live forever (because we never plan towards our final goal, Moksha, but waste our time in trivial things), or we tend to overlook the faults of people we love. This can be dangerous. We should try to overcome our weaknesses of understanding and see things the way they actually are. In Hindu scriptures, the Rishis have given many reasons as to why what we see with our eyes is not always true, and what we do not see is in fact the truth. For example, Bhagavan, that we do not see, the Supreme Truth. And the world, which we treat as real, is temporary like a dream. Hindu scriptures say- “He who does not know reality calls as useful what is useless, as permanent what is impermanent and meaningful what is meaningless. (Garuda Purāņa)

  1. What happens to the orangutan, the hyena and the zebra in the boat? How do the animals react towards each other?

The Orangutan is very scared. The hyena, not bothering about the trouble that they are all in, tries to take advantage of the situation and kill the other two animals. The limp Zebra tries to protect the submissive orangutan. The movie shows the hyena attacking the limb zebra’s leg most heartlessly and cruelly. First, the movie shows the zebra disappeared (so we can infer that the hyena attacked and killed it). Then, the two other creatures disappear. We can infer that the hyena attached the orangutan and then Pi killed the hyena in disgust and threw the carcasses into the ocean. In short, unlike when they were in the zoo separated from each other, the animals were now without any barriers between them and therefore the strong tried to eat the weak. Pi enforced the law of Dharma, and kept the animals apart. But when they did not come under his control they perished.

  1. In the ship, the four main characters were Pi, his mother, the Taiwanese sailor with a broken leg, the cook, and the kind gentleman who shared his food with the mother. In the boat after the ship sank, the four main creatures were the hyena, the tiger, the zebra and the orangutan. Which creature stands for which human?

lop-8The orangutan represents Pi’s submissive mother. The hyena represents the cruel and the heartless cook. The limp zebra represents the Taiwanese sailor or Pi’s father (both of whom were limp and who tried to protect Pi’s mother). The tiger represents Pi himself.

  1. What does the name of the tiger ‘Richard Parker’ mean? How is Pi indebted to Richard Parker at the end of the movie?

The name ‘Richard’ means ‘strength’. In addition to faith and rationality, the third thing we need to survive and thrive in our life is strength. If Pi were all alone in the boat, he would have given up his will to live. But in fact, he had to take care of the tiger so that the creature does not die of starvation, and this gave him a meaning or a purpose to live. Pi himself acknowledges at the end that Richard Parker was one of the reasons why he survived his odyssey in the Pacific. Likewise, when we are faced with great adversity, our faith, our rationality (showed in how Pi improvises with what he has available) and our inner strength are needed to live and not lose hope. The Hindu scriptures also teach us, “A person who has no strength cannot understand spirituality” (Katha Upanishad)

  1. When Pi, a vegetarian, catches and eats fish for the first time, he says, ‘Thank you Lord Vishnu, for coming to save me in the form of a fish.” Do you think he disrespected Vishnu by saying that? What do you understand from his “Thank you?”

lop-9In Abrahamic religions, this would be an act of insulting God. However, we Hindus see things differently. Bhagavan is not just a power that lives outside the world controlled by remote control from a heaven. Instead, Bhagavan lives within the entire Universe, in us, in the fish, in the tiger, the monkey and so on. In a way, this entire Universe of living and non-living entities is the very body of Bhagavan. Therefore, He helps us not just through miracles that oppose the laws of science, but in little things in everyday life. Therefore, there is nothing silly or blasphemous to say that Vishnu appeared as the fish to feed Pi. We tend to overlook the everyday blessings of Bhagavan and seem to realize his power only when something extraordinary happens, and this is not right. Hindu Dharma teaches us to see Bhagavan in everything, in the rivers, the mountains, the fisherman, gamblers, priests, women, men, children etc. (Atharvaveda). Bhagavan is not outside the Universe, He is also within everything. The Vedas put it very beautifully, “Devata Varun is within a drop of water, and the oceans are his loins.” (Rigveda)

  1. How does Pi keep the tiger under control while feeding him? What does this teach us?

The tiger represents Pi himself, and stands for his inner strength. Pi did not let Richard die, but it also did not let Richard eat him or overcome him. Pi kept a safe distance from Richard, and used the tiger’s company to find a reason and the strength to live. In the same way, we must never let our inner strength die, but at the same time, we must not let power overcome us. When we let power and strength overcome us, we become arrogant and cruel. We must keep our strength and power under control.

  1. They land on a mysterious island populated by meerkats. What was so strange about the island? Why did the tiger and Pi flee the island in the night? What are the similarities between a meerkat and humans? What does the island tell us about the nature of this universe?

lop-10Meerkats live in groups and take care of each other’s kids like human beings. They are also one of the few mammals that stand on their two rear limbs, just like humans stand on legs. The meerkats therefore represent humans. The island is a mysterious place that is lush with vegetation and full of sweet water lakes in the daytime. During night, the lakes turn acidic and anything that is on the ground is digested. One can even see skeletal remains in these acid lakes at night. Therefore, the tiger flees the lake and seeks shelter in the boat. Pi and meerkats survive on the tree branches. Like the island, this universe is also cannibalistic. The material constituting our bodies is digested by the earth upon our death, and is then used in a newborn body. Just as the island sees a night after day, and a day after night, this Universe also undergoes a continuous cycle of creation, destruction, creation, destruction. When it is time for the pralaya (destruction of the universe), the entire material universe dissolves as if some acid has chewed it. And when it is time for creation again, the same chewed up materials now bring forth life. Guru Nanak, referring to the doctrine of resurrection in Abrahamic religions (which the Dharmic traditions reject) puts it very bluntly (just like the ‘in-your-face’ appearance of the island), “The corpse of the Muslim has now become the clay of the potter.” (Guru Granth Sahib). The Gita too emphasizes, “These bodies of ours meet with an end.” In the Vedas, it said that the Lord created this Universe in this cycle of creation just as He had done it in the past many times. (Rigveda). There is a Hindu traditional story, in which Krishna grants a boon to Karna while he is dying on the battlefield of the Mahabharata war. Karna asks, “May my funeral rites be done in a place where no one else has ever been cremated or buried.” Krishna in an instant takes Karna through the various regions of this earth and even outside the earth. But wherever they go, they discover that the particles of matter in every spot had been a part of someone’s body in some creation or age! Karna learns his lesson, that the Universe continuously recycles matter, and only the soul is permanent and fresh. As the Hindu scriptures also say, ‘This world (samsaara) is very frightful, devoid of any meaning (saara) or essence (or substance)’ – He who enjoys the world with this attitude alone attains Moksha, there is no doubt about it. (Shankha Smriti)

  1. What qualities of Pi help him survive his journey?

lop-11Pi does not lose his courage, or faith or hope. Nor does he just sit idly waiting for his fate. He uses his intelligence to devise several contraptions to collect rainwater, catch fish, and keep the tiger at bay or just to keep himself busy. Likewise, to succeed and survive in our life, we must exhibit these very qualities continuously. A beautiful Sanskrit proverb describes the importance of hope, “Hope is a wonderful chain of human beings. He who is bound with this chain runs to reach his goal. But he who is not bound by hope stands still like a cripple.”

  1. What does the movie teach us about how we should deal with people of different types?

Even though the zebra was limp, it protected the orangutan, which in turn had motherly qualities. The hyena was a vicious creature that attached the orangutan and the zebra to satisfy its own selfish interests even though all the creatures were in a dire situation. The tiger did not come out till these three creatures showed their respective natures. Pi fed the tiger to keep it alive, and saved it from drowning. But it also kept the tiger under his control, and at a distance. This combination of creatures on the boat shows that this world is made of all types of people. Like the Orangutan, some creatures are motherly and loving. Others, like the Zebra, are nurturing and protective even when they do not have strength. But there are others, like hyena who take advantage of others even in a calamitous situation. In our difficult journey of life through this world, we all need to cooperate with each other to succeed and keep moving on. But amongst us, there are often some very non-cooperative and evil people with whom we have no choice but to leave them behind. The Vedas therefore say, “The stream (of life), filled with stones, flows on; move together. Stand erect, and cross over, my friends. Let us leave here those who are opposed to good; and let us cross over together to the powers that are beneficent.” (Rigveda 10.53.8)

  1. The boat drifts in the ocean for 227 days. What does the number of days signify?

lop-12The number 227 is a prime number, and also reminds one of 22/7, which is Pi, the name of the main character. The number 227 is not divisible, and likewise, our life cannot really be divided completely into compartments like childhood, teenage years, adulthood and old age. What we do in our childhood carries onto our later years. What we do in our young age, impacts us in our old age. Shyam cannot be divided into the child Shyam or the adult Shyam. They are one and the same person, although they may look different and are at different stages of their life. Also, 22/7 is associated with the circle which is never ending and has no beginning, and one can go round and round along the circle without an end or beginning. Our souls too go round and round from one life to another and the journey of the soul is really endless, continuous and repetitive.

  1. What does the Pacific Ocean signify in the movie? How is it similar to the lake in which the temple festival was celebrated with Bhagavan Vishnu on the boat?

lop-13The ocean is the largest ‘lake’. In Hinduism, this world is often likened to be an ocean, in which we are adrift and continuously facing many dangers like hunger, poverty, death. “Only the boat of Supreme Being can save us and take us beyond death” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad), and Bhagavan lifts us from this ocean like world in which are drowning when his devotees appeal to him for help (Gita, chapter 12).

  1. When the boat reaches the other shore, the tiger jumps off, without looking back at Pi, who had saved the tiger’s life. What does the indifference of the tiger signify?

The incident signifies that in our own lives, we come across certain people and get attached to them. But in an instant, these people leave us through death, or because they ‘move on.’ No relationships in life are permanent. In fact, he who is our enemy in our present life, might have been or might become our enemy in our future life, or might even not meet us. Therefore, we must not get attached to anyone too much. The Mahabharata says, “We individuals are like logs of wood floating in the ocean. The logs come together, only to get separated. And then they might come together again in future after a long period.”

  1. When the Japanese agent comes to interview Pi at the end, Pi tells him two stories. What is the second story? Which one does the Japanese agent believe and why?

lop-14The Japanese agent believes the first story involving the animals, and not the second story involving Pi, his mother, the cook and the Taiwanese sailor. Logically, the second story makes more sense, because how can four animals survive with Pi on a boat? But the investigator from Japan does not want to believe that the humans in the boat could have killed each other. To him, the killing by animals seems more real than the killing by humans. But if we analyze the facts of history, don’t we see that humans are more bestial than the beasts? We humans often become more cruel and murderous than creatures in the forest, despite the fact that we have more laws, intelligence and wisdom than animals. And yet, we consider ourselves as civilized and intelligent, and treat the animals as dumb creatures. Rishi Bhartrihari criticizes people devoid of human qualities and says, “Humans who have no good qualities of character, no wisdom, no learning are like deformed cattle whose tails are cut. Thank God that these humans do not eat hay, otherwise they would not have left any food for the cattle, who are better than them.”

  1. The Japanese agent says, “We have not been able to find that island on the map.” What does this mean?

lop-15It means that either the island was a figment of Pi’s imagination (like a mirage, or a dream), or that the island was temporary and was not present when cartographers mapped the ocean, and had ceased to exist when the Japanese investigator tried to find it. Or a third possibility is that the island was visible only to Pi. The Hindu tradition too says that like this island, the world is temporary, and in a way, illusory like a dream. Now it exists, then it does not. And the way we see the world is really unique, and no one says it the same way completely like us. Hindu scriptures capture this in a very pity way, “The Supreme Lord alone is real, and the world is unreal” (Vivekachudamani of Shankaracharya)

  1. When the Japanese agent(s) prefers the story with the animals, Pi comments, “And so it goes with God.” What did he mean by saying that?

lop-16In English, there is a saying that “Truth is stranger than fiction.” We often spend more time in reading about fictitious things and living in a fantasy world, when in fact our real lives are more interesting. Understanding this natural psychology of humans, the Rishis have written our scriptures in the form of fantastic stories which sound unbelievable, or too unreal. But it is their very nature that keeps attracting us to them, and because of that they have survived thousands of years. However, these apparently unreal stories convey very deep and real messages to us about the truths of our lives. Just has the fantastic story of Pi’s voyage conveys some very deep messages to us that are relevant to our real lives. Therefore, Hindu scriptures often say, “the Devas love the indirect and the mysterious, and they hate the straightforward narratives.” (Aitareya Upanishad)

  1. What is the central message of the movie? What does it tell you about the nature of life and the nature of this world? Is there any meaning in life?

lop-17The movie had many good messages for us that the Hindu scriptures also teach:

  • We must combine faith, rationality and strength our lives. He who has only rationality is limp like Pi’s father, and he who has only faith drowns, like Pi’s mother.
  • We must try to find the logic in everything that happens to us. Instead, we should learn from our experiences and move on.
  • This world is not what it seems to be. Just like the non-existent island, the world too exists only for some time. There was a time when it did not exist, and there will be a time when it will vanish without a trace. Its peaceful and stable nature is just a mirage, like the tiger that appeared friendly to Pi but attacked the goat.
  • All relationships are temporary. Therefore, we must not grieve too much over the demise of our near and dear ones (like Pi felt upset when Richard left without even looking back).
  • The Universe continuously recycles matter and energy (like the cannibal island). What is a part of our body was once a part of someone else’s. Everything physical is destructible. Only the soul is permanent and imperishable.
  • This world comprises all kinds of creatures and human beings (like the creatures in the zoo). Bhagavan showers his life on the believer as well as on the atheist.

 


Vishal Agarwal is a scholar of Hindu shastras and a Hinduism teacher. A practitioner-student of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, he has authored over dozen publications on childhood spirituality, ancient Indian history and archaeology, and historiography as research papers in peer reviewed journals, and chapters in American and Indian school textbooks. He has also written several articles in American Hindu community newspapers. He has served on the boards of several academic associations and Hindu community organizations. Recipient of several awards, he has been invited as a keynote speaker in dozens of conferences, churches, synagogues, high schools and temples. He lives in Minneapolis with his family.

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