Pi then explains how he became a Muslim at age fifteen. It began when Pi met a Muslim baker and mystic, a second Mr. Satish Kumar, who, in the middle of a conversation with Pi, excused himself to pray. Pi watched the routine and returned later to ask the baker about his religion; the baker explained that Islam is about the Beloved. Pi began to pray with Mr. Kumar and to visit a local mosque.
From the animalistic rites and rituals of the earlier zoo section of the novel, the novel has transitioned into a section about religious rites and rituals. In these chapters we witness, through Pi’s eyes, many examples of pious routine, from Christian church-going to Muslim prayer and chanting. We also see the objects that lend comfort to the faithful on a daily basis: paintings of religious figures, like Christ on the cross or of Lord Ganesha, and devotional articles such as sticks of incense and a copper spoon. A central message of the book is becoming clearer and clearer: religion is a method humans have developed of making their lives more pleasurable, more meaningful, and more understandable.
But lest the reader interpret Pi’s focus on rites and objects as merely superficial, Pi lets us know that he understands there is more to faith than ritual. He is well aware that without something bigger and more significant, a religious custom is a hollow act. He says as much when he calls the miracles of Jesus Christ “minor magic, on the order of card tricks,” and Muslim prayer “hot-weather yoga for the Bedouins.” These slights come before he has gained a true understanding of and appreciation for the heart and soul of each religious faith, and once he embraces the essence of each religion, he embraces their rituals with enthusiasm as well.
As is made abundantly apparent throughout the text, both Martel and Pi are fascinated in particular by the intersection of zoology and religion. Pi studies both subjects at college, and chapters on zoology are interspersed throughout Part One with chapters on religion and philosophy. Pi makes multiple references to the ways in which zoos are like religion—both are in people’s bad graces these days, he says at one point, because of prevailing notions about freedom. In other words, people sometimes resist what they perceive as constraints on their liberty. Religion, with its many dictates and rules, may be seen as intrusions on personal freedoms. But Pi defends religion the same way he defends zoos earlier in the book, by examining the very definition of freedom and imagining what life would be like without religion. Life inside the walls, as it were, is cozy and comfortable, and people prefer not to leave; life outside is bleak by comparison.
Tucked between these chapters on Hindu, Christianity, and Islam and the earlier chapter on the atheist Mr. Kumar, of whom Pi is extremely fond, falls the section on the ferocity of tigers and the intense territoriality of animals. The placement of this chapter might seem odd, but in fact it is very relevant to its neighboring scenes. Pi’s father allows a tiger to attack a goat in front of his two sons to teach them to never get too close to the tiger cage. Wild animals, even if they’ve been domesticated and trained, are still wild animals at heart. Their intrinsic nature is deep-seated and always ready to boil up to the surface.
The dramatic violence of the tiger-and-goat chapter leads naturally to Pi’s declaration that he once believed that Christianity was about great violence, and Islam about even greater violence. Martel establishes a vague and yet undeniable connection here between the feral acts of wild creatures and the sadistic brutality that humans have inflicted upon other humans for centuries, often because of religious conflicts. Pi soon comes to see that Christianity and Islam are, in fact, about love rather than hatred or violence. But he remains puzzled by certain religious tenets that seem to go against the foundation of love, such as God’s decree that Christ be punished for man’s sins. Pi senses this ominous and mysterious aspect of religion even as he embraces God in all his guises.