Life of Pi: Hindu, Christian and Muslim

At a recent preview screening of the new film Life of Pi by director Ang Lee, based on the novel by Yann Martel, I was relieved to discover that the film preserves  a key theme of the book: multiple religious belonging. The filmmakers have transformed a rather dense and philosophical read into a rollicking 3D adventure tale, focused on the survival of a young man and a tiger in a lifeboat on the high seas. But the film very clearly depicts the protagonist Piscine (“Pi”) Patel as claiming not one, not two, but three religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.

The venerable Interfaith Alliance sponsored the screening, which gives me hope that advocates for interfaith dialogue are beginning to feel more comfortable engaging with the idea that people can and do claim more than one religion. Some of us who who feel connected to more than one faith come from interfaith families. I envision a day when interfaith activists will actively include the perspectives of interfaith families in the interfaith conversation. And with Life of Pi in theaters, I look forward to a lively conversation about how claiming more than one religion fits into the push for respectful religious pluralism.

In the book, the clergy of all three religions challenge Pi’s right to multiple religious belonging:

The pandit spoke first. “Mr. Patel, Piscine’s piety is admirable. In these troubled times it’s good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that.” The imam and the priest nodded. “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.”

In the film version, it is Pi’s father who insists that his son must choose one religion, while his mother points out that he is still young, and has time to choose a path. And yet, at the end of his adventures, despite wisdom and experience, a middle-aged Pi still defines himself as Hindu, Catholic and Muslim.

The example of Pi challenges the assertion that dual-faith or multiple-faith adherence is simply immature, or a temporary state. For those of us in interfaith families celebrating both family religions, this debate is all too familiar. Often, we are told that interfaith children “must” choose one religion eventually. And yet, some interfaith children insist in adulthood on maintaining connections to both religions, having grown accustomed to the benefits of claiming both.

While many religious institutions find the blurring of boundaries threatening, academic theologians have been discussing both the challenges and opportunities of multiple religious belonging for some time. They acknowledge that religious double-belonging has been the norm through much of history in many parts of the world, whether in Asia, Africa or Latin America. In Europe and America–areas dominated by the more exclusivist Abrahamic religions–claiming more than one religion has been less common. But as religious flux and fluidity (and intermarriage) rise with globalization, dual-faith adherence inevitably rises as well.

In the introduction to the book Many Mansions?: Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity theologian Catherine Cornille writes, “…widespread consciousness of religious pluralism has presently left the religious person with the choice not only of which religion, but of how many religions she or he might belong to.”

But interfaith families claiming two religions are not simply inspired by a consciousness of religious pluralism: they are living this pluralism on an intimate daily basis. Rather than choosing religions as in a cafeteria, interfaith children raised with both religions are are growing up celebrating the dual faiths already present around the family dinner table.

Some interfaith children raised with two religions choose a single faith identity in adulthood. And some, like Pi Patel, will insist on claiming dual or multiple religions, even in maturity. I am glad that the movie version of Life of Pi is bringing this theological discussion to the big screen. I hope that it will bring together interfaith activists doing the important work of trying to calm the seas of religious misunderstanding, with those of us who insist on riding the waves of more than one religion.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

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6 Replies to “Life of Pi: Hindu, Christian and Muslim”

  1. I, too, would have been so disappointed if the scene on the boardwalk with the pandit, priest and imam had been omitted!! It is a powerful piece on its own, as are the scenes in which Pi discovers his love of each tradition. His description of prayer on a muslim prayer rug blows me away every time. As one of my favorite novels of all, all time, I cannot wait to see this movie.

    The election of Tulsi Gabbard, US House Representative from Hawaii is further proof we have reached a new dawn. She has said, “I was raised in a multicultural, multirace, multifaith family” in which she was allowed to “spend a lot of time studying and contemplating upon both the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita and the teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.” The multi-faith identity is with us to stay — and with it, may many walls come tumbling down…!

    As always, thanks for these nourishing, nourishing blogposts!!!!!

  2. The scenes of Pi discovering each religion are there–and his thoughts on the prayer rug! But the push to make Pi choose one religion is transferred from the boardwalk to the dinner table, and the clergy aren’t there. And while the priest is depicted clearly in the “religious discovery” scenes, the imam is essentially omitted. Hmmm. Of course, omissions and condensation were inevitable–it’s a dense book. But I would have loved to have been a fly on the studio wall in the discussions on how to treat the religious themes of this book. I hope Ang Lee will describe some of this background at some point. It is interesting that the movie is being screened for interfaith groups now.

  3. Dear Susan,

    Thanks for your blog, and for your witness. I’m a retired Presbyterian pastor. Two years ago I asked my presbytery to commission me as an interfaith peacemaker. They did, voting unanimously. Part of my job description is to visit local communities of faith and make friends. I’ve visited Jewish, Muslim, and other Christian communities so far. I have a much larger group of local online interfaith friends, from 12 traditions. I spend most of my worship time with Quakers and Presbyterians. I find that it’s hard to be a helpful member of a congregation if one spreads oneself too thin. In terms of spiritual ideas one may comfortably range very widely, but in terms of the dedication of time I’ve realized that it’s not kind to any community of faith to participate so infrequently that one is merely giving lip service. Religious life is, after all, communal, and good community requires personal investment. I think that a dual commitment is quite doable, and probably enriches both of the communities one belongs to. But a tripartite devotion would be stretching it, IMHO.
    Again, thanks for what you’re doing, and writing! Please visit my interfaith blog, interfaithreflections.com.

    Peace,
    TCDavis

    1. TCDavis–
      I absolutely agree about the importance of community, and of not spreading yourself too thin in that regard. Honestly, that is one reason many interfaith families end up devoting themselves to a single interfaith families community, rather than trying to double-belong to a church and synagogue. Though some manage to do it, and evidently find more benefits than drawbacks, or they would not be doing it. It definitely helps to have defined bridges and communication between the different communities. The communities themselves benefit from this bridge-building, and certainly interfaith families or other double-belonging individuals benefit when the institutions have a dialogue going. Thank you for your efforts to build these bridges.

  4. As much as people may find difficulty in the choice of choosing just one religion, having three religion that you claim to belong to itself, like said in the movie (Life of Pi).For example in Islam we believe tht Isa (Jesus) was a prophet and messenger, whereas in Christianity it is believed that Jesus is the son of God.

  5. There is a common mistake propagated by both theologians and academics : casting Hinduism as ONE religion. If you ask any Hindu “what is Hinduism?”, he or she will answer that Hinduism is a way of life – a way of life that gives one the freedom to choose
    Bhakti Yoga (any form of workship (or none), to choose Raja Yoga (commonly referred to as Yoga), Karma Yoga – path of duty to other human beings or Gnana Yoga (path of knowledge): out of that
    freedom, a framework that accomaodates differences has already risen and that framework itself is Hinduism and that is why the Hindu looks at the whole universe as one “Vasudeivaka Kudumbakam”.

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