Follow by Email

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Interpreting the Meaning of Richard Parker and the Life of Pi

Who and what is Richard Parker? Perhaps you already know that Richard Parker is the name of the 450 lb Royal Bengal tiger that appears in Yann Martel’s book, Life of Pi (and also in the film of the same title). This one might say is a literal answer to the question just posed, but what of the figurative one?

First I will say that, what is written here in this blog entry, is founded on the book and not the film. As with most films based on books, material is often left out, rearranged, and new content added, so I highly recommend a reading of the book if you are intrigued by the messages in Martel’s story.

If you are not familiar with the book, then it has the same structure as the film. Part 1 is Pi growing up in India, Part 2 is the story of what happened with the tiger in the lifeboat in the Pacific, and Part 3 is the interview with the two investigators from the Japanese Ministry of Transport. Intermingled among the story are chapters which present the perspective of the writer, who is researching Pi’s tale. There is also an Author’s Note – a Prologue – at the beginning of the book, where the reader encounters these words: “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”

Before proceeding, I want to explain that I am looking at the Life of Pi from the perspective of an author and writer, and one who engages in allegorical story telling (e.g. see A Tale of Two Deserts). I also mention here that in my stories there is invariably a reference to God. Perhaps you think therefore that I am a religious person? Think again! Over the course of my life I have explored Hebrew, Christian, Islamic and Buddhist theologies, as well as more esoteric and exotic spiritual practices. Why I have done this I will not say, but I will mention that, as result, I can well understand Pi and his comprehension that being a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim, all at the same time, may well be illogical from the viewpoint of the mind, but is not so from the perspective of the soul!

Finally, I make an observation about the writing process. No doubt Yann Martel had many conscious themes in mind when he wrote his story. But, writing is not just the act of the conscious mind, but also the sub-conscious as well. Often I have written stories, and then looked at them and realised that they speak of matters that were not at all on my mind. And so it is with the Life of Pi. This is one of the great beauties of the book, as many interpretations are possible, as well as the literal reading. One can say that this is the point of the book – there is no single reality, just different interpretations of reality (some individual, some collective).

So what of the literal reading of this book? One answer is that the story can be seen as a tale of epic endurance and survival, and also self-discovery in the process. One can also see the story in the light of the central character, Pi, explaining in palatable terms, how he survived. At the end of the book, Pi encounters the two Japanese maritime investigators seeking to understand the reasons for the loss of the ship upon which Pi and his family and their zoo animals were being transported from India to Canada. These two people do not believe the story about the tiger and the other animals in the lifeboat, and push Pi for a more believable account, which he duly delivers, not necessarily because the story with the animals is untrue, more because the investigators want something that their rational minds can believe. But this alternative story is a tale of individual survival at any price, with brutality, violence, killing and cannibalism. So in the end, when asked which story they prefer, they chose the one with the animals – most of us would!

Evidently though there is more here than just a choice between two stories, as the opening of the book strongly indicates: “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”

Part I of Life of Pi sets the scene for what follows in Parts II and III. Here, in this scene setting, one can see that the book is about God, spirituality and religion, and the soul and the mind, and also the biological business of surviving, without which the soul would have no human place to reside and there would be no mind. Life of Pi is also a story about animal behaviour and the strange relationships that can exist among animals, particularly that which sometimes happens between a predator and its prey.

Part I places a lot of emphasis on names. The tiger has a full human name (prename and surname) Richard Parker. It is the only non-human animal in the story to have a human name, as all the other animals have pet names (e.g. the orang-utan is called Orange Juice). The giving of names to people is something that is very human, and this suggests that Richard Parker represents some aspect of humanity.

Also encountered in Part I are two people with identical names: Mr Kumar. Both are devout believers that have taken a leap of faith. One is a Muslim, whose act of faith is to believe in God, the other is a scientist whose act of faith is believe that science can explain everything, so belief in God is not necessary. What we can see here is a pointer to something that comes again later in the story: the coexistence in one person of apparently completely different beliefs, which is illogical from the standpoint of the rational mind. The soul however knows differently, that beliefs, often contradictory, can be just different ways of coming to know God, but, I would add, only if spirituality is present.

This issue arises again, when Pi, being a Hindu, discovers Christianity, and then next, Islam. He wants to be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim, but is told that he cannot be all three. Yes, there are theological differences, many incompatible, but the soul knows that these religions are just different ways of coming to know God, and Pi quotes Ghandi, who said that all religions are true.

The argument that one cannot at the same time be a follower of three very different religions, is, self-evidently, a reasoning that comes from the mind, and this is vividly displayed when Pi encounters, while out walking with his parents, his three religious guides: the Hindu pandit, the Christian priest, the Muslim imam. All three end up arguing among themselves about the truth of their own beliefs and the nonsense of the others’ beliefs. This one can say is the darker side to religion and earlier there is also reference to this, for when Pi first enters a church he mentions that “it (Christianity) had a reputation for few gods and great violence.” And then later, when first entering a mosque, “Islam had a reputation worse than Christianity – fewer gods, greater violence.” And when explaining Hinduism even earlier in the book, Pi mentions the curse of fundamentalism and literalism, and also recounts the Hindu story of Lord Krishna, who makes himself so abundant he is available in the arms of all the milkmaids with whom he dances, only to vanish as soon as any of the girls becomes possessive and imagines Krishna is her partner alone.

This can be seen later in the figurative tale of the time spent in the Pacific Ocean with the tiger. Pi encounters a mysterious island, which seems to be composed of tubers of algae. The outer parts of these tubers are edible, but the inner cores are inedible, being bitter and salty. Also on the island there is plenty of fresh water, and also, millions of meerkats (one can see these as representing the billions of religious people in the world). So it seems that both Pi and Richard Parker have found a place where they can be refreshed and their lives can be sustained. But, the island, just like religion, is not all that it appears, for it has a dark secret which Pi does not immediately discover.

Choosing only to spend daylight hours on the island and the nocturnal hours on the lifeboat, Pi observes that Richard Parker will not spend the night on the island. Pi only discovers the reason for this when he decides to spend a night sleeping in one of the many trees on the island. Then he learns that the meerkats will not remain on the ground during nocturnal hours, but at dusk, head en-masse, for the trees. And the reason for this? Pi discovers that the island and the fresh water, become at night, acidic, and consume anything that comes into contact with them. And so it goes with religion too, once spirituality is lost, religion consumes people. They become no better than animals. Which one can say is also the same for the fourth religion, science, which, being Godless and soulless, lacks the spiritual understandings of humanity’s uniqueness among life on earth, and the lack of such understandings and respect for human life, inevitably leads to … that which is described in the second story, survival at any price, with great brutality, violence, and killing. This we have seen aplenty in the 20th century, and here I refer to the godlessness and soullessness of communism and fascism, and their links to rational thinking, social Darwinism, conceptions of people as just being part of a nameless mass, and so forth.

Next day, Pi leaves the island, preferring life in a small boat with a tiger, to that which the island offers.

Now I come to the point in my commentary, which I feel is the most important, and this relates to what Pi and Richard Parker represent.

Here I mention that in Part I there is much made of relationships between predators and prey, and how dangerous animals can be trained and why this is possible: in essence it is a matter of territory and who is the boss. This is knowledge that Pi puts to good use in the Pacific Ocean when he begins to train Richard Parker, so that Pi can stay aboard the lifeboat, and not have to retreat to the makeshift raft that he is forced to construct to keep a safe distance from the tiger.

More now on the matter of names, and Pi, who is, quite oddly, named after a Paris swimming pool: Piscine Molitor. So Pi is, Piscine Molitor Patel, but at school he was called Pissing Patel. Naturally, on starting at a new school Pi was keen to rid himself of this phonetic corruption of his given name, and he introduces himself as Pi, that number from geometry, 3.14, that is the constant which is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. But, the number Pi is not 3.14, but 3.1415…. In other words it is a number without end. Pi in fact is known as a transcendental number. And what aspect of humans is transcendental? It is of course the soul.

Here one has the crux of the story, which is not literally a young man alone with a tiger in a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific Ocean, but a soul, with its curse, the human mind, apparently alone and adrift in the great ocean of life. And the human mind (represented by the tiger) is dangerous, just like Richard Parker is dangerous, for if the mind is allowed to, it will dominate the soul, which, if not sustained, will perish. But in fact, both need each other. The soul needs the mind, for it is this aspect of humanity that is capable of devising the ways that delivers sustenance and also material comforts for the body, but without the soul, the mind is just part of an animal, and if the mind is not trained to respond to the soul, it would on its own, create a Godless and soulless world (as modern science and industrial era capitalism are presently doing). This is also the world that results from religion without spirituality, science without spirituality, and capitalism without spirituality. And the outcome is clear to all, for the madness of the mind can be seen in everyday life across the planet and across history: the horror and brutality than men create comes from the mind, simply because they have lost their souls or their souls are dying.

Out in the Pacific, Pi does battle with the tiger, or figuratively the soul battles the mind. He knows he has to do something about the tiger, but what? Pi runs through five plans to deal with Richard Parker, all of which are unrealistic. Then he hits on plan number six: wage a war of attrition. Time, Pi thinks, is on his side. Without food and water the tiger will weaken and eventually die. Seems like the right way forward, only it is not! Pi quickly comes to realise that hunger and thirst will drive the tiger from the lifeboat, into the sea, to swim the short distance to the raft, where a meal (Pi) is waiting.

Then Richard Parker does something unusual – he makes the prusten sound, which is a communication a tiger makes, indicating non-threatening harmless intention. Then Pi realises that there is plan number seven, which is to keep Richard Parker alive. So he sets about training the tiger, showing it that, Pi is the boss, and that they both have their own territories. This is partly what spiritual development is about.

What this story ultimately says, is that there are many religions, including science, none of which are the sole source of the truth. Just as there are many religions, there are many paths to God. All religions (except science) involve a battle between the soul and the mind, and if the mind wins, hell usually follows in the wake of its victory – here I will just mention one example: The Crusades. With science there is no battle, for the mind dominates and the soul begins to die, and hell will, without doubt, follow – here I will just mention one example: Auschwitz. But it is also possible to move on from religion, and for the soul to engage in this battle on its own and ultimately to come to know God on its own.

And there you have it – my interpretations, which are in fact, I admit, the underlying themes of my own writing. So perhaps what I see in this book is what I want to see, but perhaps not. Who can say?


  1. This is a delightful, thorough exploration into a dense and vibrant plot. Thank you for a piece of writing that strings so many intricate thoughts together so cohesively!

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. If the battle between the soul and the mind interests you and want to read a related allegorical story, then see my new short book A Tale of Two Deserts. It is available open access which means that you can read all of it for free, online:

  2. Really enjoyed reading this!

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. If the battle between the soul and the mind interests you and want to read a related allegorical story, then see my new short book A Tale of Two Deserts. It is available open access which means that you can read all of it for free, online:

  3. I could'n agree more sir.
    As an example, I would add the fact that during the second storm (a metaphorical storm between our soul and mind) , Pi after seeing God in the storm, tried to show Richard the God, but the tiger was afraid to get out of the shelter, like our minds are reluctant and afraid to accept God.

  4. Alina - Thank you for your nice comment. Yes it is true that the human mind is reluctant and afraid to accept God, especially in this modern world - this age of science. This something that is part of my writing, especially this rather special book called A Tale of Two Deserts (see to read online for free), in particular the second story in the book. You might also be interested in the blog that will be published later today (Sunday) which is called "The God Delusion or the Science Delusion?" Paul.

  5. Thanks for your interpretation. It answers all the possible questions that I had on the significance and meaning of "Richard Parker". Thank you

  6. Great illustration and depict of the tiger's meaning. I always think of it, as the part of PI, which strives for survival (guided by instincts)a dark side that sleeps in all of us. The one who kills the Hyena, then fights for survival at all costs, the part of him which was awakened by the murder of the orang-utan, the mother. But this interpretation falls short to certain aspects and dimensions of the film, which is about God. And through the reading of this article, I would have one question :if the tiger, which is the mind, leaves him on the shore at the end without looking back- does it means the mind has left? Please I would love to have your interpretation on that last moment of the book

    1. Thanks for your comment and interesting question about the tiger leaving, returning to the jungle, and not looking back. I see this as a comment on the animalistic nature of the human mind, with its roots in nature, which is where the mind developed, tens of thousands of years ago, and as for the tiger not looking back, I think this symbolises the mind’s rejection of the notion of the human soul. The mind often does not want to know about such things, which one can see in many people. In this respect the job of taming the mind never ends, and one has to be constantly working to ensure that these animalistic tendencies do not come to dominate. Religion is supposed to be the means to do this, but as one can see from history, often religious people have forgotten this and succumbed to the animalistic. And secular approaches have faired no better. This one might say is the nature of being human – a constant battle between mind and soul.

  7. Thank you, I completely embrace your symbolisation of the tiger as: the human mind. It gives all the fellow readers and followers a deeper understanding of that mind VS soul battle, that on a conscious level at least, so many of us are not aware of. Thank for bringing a light on the subject and i'll be definitely reading your blog, which is a fantastic one. Great work, thank you

    1. Thank you for your nice comments. You can find more to read on my web site, which is a work in progress! Here you will find links to my books which can be read on-line for free. These books touch upon issues related to Life of Pi.

  8. Great food for thought in your comment above Paul. Here is an idea that occurs to me after reading your ideas. Pi arriving on the shore of Mexico represents his death and the separation of mind and soul. Richard Parker walks into the jungle with out regret, he does not look back. The transcendental Pi goes on to review his time in the life raft. The life raft is just life! The raft, or the body ties the mind and soul together where the battle between them occurs. Richard Parker represents the animal part of us in the physical world which must be tamed and trained.
    And so it is with God.....Does God prefer to send us on this fantastic journey we call life? This is not the real world. That appears when we die as it did when Pi arrived in Mexico. This journey of life presents us with challenges and we learn and we have pain and we witness great beauty.
    The island represents a life of material comfort that is enticing but leads to spiritual death. Pi realises this and leaves the island to go back to the challenge of taming Richard Parker within the confines of the life raft. It seems that by the end if the journey Pi has succeeded.
    A great story with deep symbolism that is relevant to many religious themes. Your clearly expressed thoughts have given me greater insight. Thank you.

  9. Thanks for your comments which contain very valid insights.

  10. Oh my God! This was incredible! I looove the book and the movie and always wondered what was the meaning behind this whole story. And you amazingly found it! This just makes perfect sense and it's such a beautiful interpretation!
    While I was reading the comments some thoughts came into my mind. In part I, when Pi was a little boy and wanted to "be friends" with Richard Parker in the zoo by giving him a piece of meat, and his father caught him and then showed him what Richard Parker would do to an animal, it seems to me that his father would represent reason, Pi would represent the soul trying to connect with the mind that was represented by Richard Parker and the animal represented another soul(maybe a not so faithfull one?). And reason showed the soul what the mind could do to it if they started the inevitable Mind versus Soul battle you talked about.
    I know this was a little confusing but what are your thoughts on that? Does any of this makes sense?
    Thank you. I'm loving your work! :D

  11. Hi

    Thanks for your nice comments. One of the messages of the book is clear - all religions are true. Hence all interpretations are true. This is in essence, a Taoist perspective, which is quite different from the Western mind which tends towards the belief in a single truth. Hence all the violence, death and destruction among those battling to establish their sole truth as the right one. Even Western science is founded on this belief. The dogma preached by Richard Dawkins demonstrates this point very well, as do extremist atheists, who are often full of hatred towards other religions. This is such a familiar refrain in the Western world.

    The Tao is something worth discovering. It teach the Western world much about how to live in peace and harmony.

    Best wishes