Sunday, 21 April 2013

Cars & Religious Truth: Lessons from the Life of Pi

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ


Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel published in 2001.  The protagonist, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, is a Tamil boy from Pondicherry.  He explores issues of spirituality and survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.  Pi is raised a Hindu and a vegetarian.  At the age of fourteen, he is exposed to Christianity and Islam, and starts to follow all three religions as he “just wants to love God.”  He tries to understand God through the lens of each religion but incurs the displeasure of the orthodox religious leader of each.

Yann Martel, in Life of Pi, wrote, “Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.”

His father owned a zoo in Pondicherry.  Eventually, his family decides to sell their zoo over a land dispute with the government, and they decide to sell the animals to various zoos around the world before emigrating to Canada.  Pi's family embarks on a Japanese freighter to Canada carrying some of the animals from their zoo, but a few days out of port, the ship succumbs to a storm and sinks, resulting in his family's death.  During the storm, Pi escapes in a small lifeboat with a spotted hyena, an injured Grant’s zebra, and an orangutan.

The hyena kills the zebra, then the orangutan, much to Pi's distress. At this point, it is discovered that Richard Parker had been hiding under the boat’s tarpaulin.   The Bengal tiger emerges to kill and eat the hyena.  Eventually, Pi develops a relationship of sorts with the tiger and they both live in the boat.  After 227 days, the lifeboat washes up onto the coast of Mexico and Richard Parker immediately escapes into the nearby jungle

Two officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport speak to Pi to ascertain why the ship sank.  When they do not believe his story, he tells an alternative story of human brutality, in which Pi was adrift on a lifeboat with his mother, a sailor with a broken leg, and the ship's cook, who had verbally mistreated Pi’s mother before the ship sunk.  The cook kills the sailor and Pi’s mother.  Pi, in turn, kills the cook.  Parallels to Pi's first story lead the Japanese officials to believe that the orangutan represents his mother, the zebra represents the sailor, the hyena represents the cook, and Pi is Richard Parker.  After giving all the relevant information, Pi asks which of the two stories they prefer.  Since the officials cannot prove which story is true and neither is relevant to the reasons behind the shipwreck, they choose the story with the animals.  Pi thanks them and says, “And so it goes with God.”

I had a discussion with a friend about the movie.  I doubt the author intended anything more than what he wrote but we can still draw ideas and knowledge from it.  Perhaps every animal represents a part of the inner self, the desires and how in the end, they all left him.  There are a lot of reviews and thoughts from different people about what all this symbolises but some say they included points from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity in it.  Essentially, it brings across a strong point that faith is there regardless of the form of worship since the essence of faith is the knowing that there is a God.  It is only that some listen for it and others have made their ego a god.

Once we all have arrived at the point where we know our God, labels are irrelevant.  But can anyone live believing in God and not practise any organised religion?  Pi found faith but not in any single organised religion as a boy.  Actually, the answer is yes.  He was a Hindu, a Christian and Muslim all at the same time.  For people like him, organised religion would have destroyed his faith.  For Pi, he was alone with God in the end.  That was his place.  Organised religion is for the benefit for the community.  When Abraham (a.s.) was in the desert, looking at the star as a child, he did not need organised religion.  He needed to find God.  When he grew up, and was a patriarch of the clan, then it was different.  Organised religion was required to help others find God.  Not everyone is religiously inclined.  Many are too busy being enamoured with the world.

It has been said that sometimes the rules and obligations within organised religion can in fact turn someone away from God.  But without organised religion, there will only be organised materialism.  That is the inadequacy of the people, never the philosophy.  Many people own cars.  Some fancy, some not.  Some drive everyday and some drive less often.  It does not mean that they are automatically better drivers with more expensive cars.  Or that those who drive often have better records or vice versa.  When there are accidents, we blame the driver.  We seldom blame the car unless the car is obviously defective for such a car would cease to be produced.  We are those drivers and religions are cars.  Some religions are not appropriate.  Those defective cars are eventually part of failed production lines.  What are left are the ones we see now: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and so forth.  All are more than a thousand years.  There has not been a distinct major, new faith after Islam.  Religions such as Sikhism and Baha’ism are reactions of Islam and do not have hundreds of millions of followers.  That these major faiths have been around for so long means that there has to be something in them, some truth.  So people on the highway of life are arguing about who has the better car when they should be more concerned about who is the better driver.

Yann Martel gives a comical example of this when Pi’s imam, pandit, and priest converge on him during a walk with his family.  His parents have no idea that he is a ‘practicing’ Hindu, Christian, and Muslim and listen amazed as he is successively praised for being a good Christian, Muslim, and Hindu boy.  The three religious figures then begin to quarrel.

The imam tells Pi, “Hindus and Christians are idolaters.  They have many gods.”

The pandit responds, “And Muslims have many wives.”

The priest asserts, “There is Salvation only in Jesus.”

Soon insults are being traded.  Christians are called the “flunkies of a foreign god.”  The pandit is referred to as “the slave driver of the caste system.”  The priest calls their beliefs “Myths from a cartoon strip.”  This ends when Pi explains, “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’  I just want to love God.”

This does not satisfy them and they depart with grudging smiles.  Pi later reflects, “There are always those who take it on themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the Sustaining Frame of Existence, were something weak and helpless.”  He continues, “The degree of their indignation is astonishing.  Their resolve is frightening.”  These sentiments imply that no one of the religions has the ultimate truth about God.  The fact that these religious figures act as if their God were “weak and helpless” points to a truth that they both accept and conceal from themselves.  Each of their understanding is, in its narrowness, a projection of their inadequacy of their relationship with the Divine.  Man does not defend God.  He only defends his version of God.

The essence of the teaching is from Islam, an Islam that most Muslims do not even realise.  But this is not something palatable for most Muslims for they are people uncertain in their faith.  It would create pandemonium for them.  People love their illusion that they are better than others.  This is the Islam of the Knowers of God; of Shaykh Muhyi ad-Din ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.), Shaykha Rabi’ah al-Adawiyyah (q.s.), Mawlana Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi (q.s.), Shaykh Hasan al-Baswri (q.s.), Shaykh Tayfur Bayazid al-Bistami (q.s.) and so many others who are absent with the absent and present with the Present.  People quote the great scholars without understanding them.  What did the Prophet (s.a.w.) teach?  He taught us that we are one and he was Sent for all.  He never denied the Christians and the Jews their faith.  Islam is simply the most purified, concise understanding of God.

Yann Martel wrote, “I challenge anyone to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it.  It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.”

Nowadays, people see Islam but they do not see it.  Who are we to defend God and His Prophet (s.a.w.)?  People who claim to do so are only defending their way of life and claiming it to be better.  They are only defending their narrow understanding of God and their narrow view of the Prophet (s.a.w.).  They are essentially defending only their egos.  Because we cannot be Muslims as long as we are all too busy being right.


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