Kabballah and “Life of Pi”

Pi and Richard Parker - Twentieth Century Fox

Pi and Richard Parker – Twentieth Century Fox

Life of Pi is a wonderful film, visually stimulating and intellectually profound. The phenomenal CGI tiger is what everyone’s talking about, but the subtle messages in the film will be far more enduring. My attention was drawn to the spiritual hints in the story, especially since the ship carrying the hero was named Tzimtzum. Clever, it even sounds authentically Japanese (he was travelling on a Japanese cargo ship), but the word is Hebrew and relates to a kabbalistic concept regarding the creation of the universe.

SPOILER ALERT – I reveal plot elements in this post, so if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, you may not want to read further.

The Good Ship Tzimtzum

Tzimtzum means “contraction.” According to the kabbalists (Jewish mystics), when God decided to create the Universe, He/She had to contract so there would be a little space for the new Universe to sit in. Imagine it like this: you’re at a holiday potluck, and you love potato salad, so you fill your whole styrofoam plate full of it. Oops. Now you see the chicken wings, and you would really like to have some of those too, but now your plate is all filled up. So what do you do? You scoop all the potato salad in a heap on one side of the plate, so you have room for the other food. That’s the contraction of Tzimtzum. God, who filled everything, contracted itself so the universe He/She was going to create had room to exist. So why is that important? Well, the kabbalists say that’s why God isn’t obvious in our everyday lives. Of necessity, God is “transcendent,” out there somewhere beyond us. If He/She filled the space we exist in, we would be annihilated.

In the film, Pi and his family and their zoo animals are on a journey from their home in India to Toronto, Canada, on board a Japanese cargo ship named Tzimtzum. During a storm, the ship sinks, and everyone drowns, except Pi and a few select animals who escape on a lifeboat. Pi has become separated from everything familiar he has ever known, and is adrift on a vast, dark ocean, a void, on which his whole life has contracted to a mere speck.  This is the beginning of his new universe, his personal Tzimtzum.

The Cosmic Catastrophe

Pi at Sea - Twentieth Century Fox

Pi at Sea – Twentieth Century Fox

There is Brahman, the world soul. . . Brahman saguna is Brahman made manifest to our limited senses, Brahman expressed not only in gods but in humans, animals. . . for everything has a trace of the divine in it. . . Brahman is no different from atman, the spiritual force within us, what you might call the soul.

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

The kabbalists say that after the Tzimtzum, God projected rays of creative light into the new void, in order to create our universe. But something went wrong. A scaffolding of vessels, layers of creation, which were intended to hold all this light from God, were stressed past their limits and ruptured. Shattered levels of creation fell down into a realm of matter. The physical world was created. We experience this catastrophe every time we say to ourselves, “How could God let this happen? Why do bad things happen to us?” because the world we live in is damaged. However, into our world also fell the shards of divine light, hidden, but all around us. These “shards of God,” in our world mean that in a sense, God is with us, all around us, but He/She is damaged. In order for the world to be repaired, God must be repaired. All the sparks of light must be returned to the heavenly realm.

In kaballah, everything that’s happening in heaven is reflected also on earth. Pi, alone in his void, in a lifeboat on an immense ocean, must also redeem his own shattered self.

The Twin Souls: Piscine and Pi, Thirsty and Richard Parker

Boy and Tiger - Twentieth Century Fox

Boy and Tiger – Twentieth Century Fox

The protagonist is named Piscine (French for swimming pool) because his favorite uncle loved to swim, but all the kids at school made fun of him and called him “Pissing.” This isn’t surprising since our sensitive, intuitive nature is often ridiculed. He finally overcomes this by inventing a sophisticated nickname, “Pi,” which he manages to get all his peers to accept.

Now, look at it this way: Piscine/Pi is telling you he has two natures (as do we all). He has a mystical or perhaps instinctual side, and a rational, more mature-thinking side. The pool of water is our intuitiveness; pi is a mathematical symbol, a calculated number (even if we can’t know its exact value), that allows us to measure and make use of the natural world. This is underscored by a scene in the book that doesn’t occur in the film. Pi is very interested in religion and is practicing three religions simultaneously: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. His Islamic teacher is a Sufi mystic who calls him Piscine (his intuitive, mystical side). His atheist schoolteacher (whom he admires for his rational sense) calls him Pi.

Pi tells us his father brought a Bengal tiger to their family owned zoo, who was captured as a cub when it had approached a lake of water to drink. The man who captured the tiger was named Richard Parker. The hunter named the tiger Thirsty, since the cub was trying to drink when captured. In a paperwork screw-up on the way to the zoo, the tiger was inadvertently named Richard Parker, and the man who captured him was recorded as named Thirsty. Pi’s father thought this was funny and decided that the tiger would be called Richard Parker from then on. So here again, Thirsty is one side of the tiger, and Richard Parker, the name of the hunter (and a name historically associated with cannibalism), is the other side of the tiger’s nature. Thirsty could be said to be the tiger’s “passive” side, Richard Parker his “aggressive” side. Thirsty is that part of instinct that seeks to find what it needs, Richard Parker is that part of instinct that seeks to defend what it has, or to destroy in order to conquer and control.

Since our world is a reflection of heaven, and we see that Pi has two natures, and the tiger that shares his lifeboat has two natures, it follows that God has two natures. When God shows His/Her humane, compassionate side, all is well. When God shows His/Her instinctual, “blind” force, we are left feeling abandoned to fear, and asking why. Because our world is damaged, we will always experience these two sides of God, since the vessels of God are shattered and not whole.

Pi’s Journey to Self

Pi - Twentieth Century Fox

Pi – Twentieth Century Fox

High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

As mentioned, due to his shipwreck tragedy, Pi is fractured, even as God became fractured in the kabbalistic myth of creation. In the first stage of Pi’s soul reintegration, Pi and Piscine must be merged again. Pi is the survivor, the one who figures out how to use the solar stills to create fresh water, how to fish, how to arrange the lifeboat so he has access to necessities. Piscine sees the intense beauty of the ocean world, and seeks divine direction. Although Piscine, raised Hindu, is a vegetarian, he eventually breaks down and begins eating sea-life to stay alive. It is his practical side, Pi, who learns how to  fish and kill. His mystical nature, Piscine, can only become reconciled this, and reintegrate with Pi, when he is able to absorb the necessity of evil in a fallen world. In the novel (which provides more detail than the film), he mentions that ever since, he has continued to pray for the first fish he killed (and over whose body he cried). It is this small act of redemption, of what the kabbalists call “raising holy sparks,” that enables Pi and Piscine to reintegrate into one personality. Pi/Piscine realize the world contains evil, but that by the constant act of conscious awareness of this, the constant effort to elevate the fallen pieces of divine light, the consistent prayer for salvation for divine light trapped in the dark world, Pi/Piscine can accept himself and his actions.

I wept heartily over this poor little deceased soul. It was the first sentient being I ever killed. I was now a killer. . . All sentient life is sacred. I never forget to include this fish in my prayers.

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Pi also realizes that in order to survive, he must tame and dominate the wild Bengal tiger that shares his lifeboat.  Pi makes the point that he could not have survived without the tiger, Richard Parker, who forced him to make efforts of will to remain dominant, to occupy his mind with problem-solving, and with raw energy.

It was Richard Parker who calmed me down. It is the irony of this story that the one who scared me witless to start with was the very same who brought me peace, purpose, I dare say even wholeness. . .He pushed me to go on living. I hated him for it, yet at the same time I was grateful. . .without Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story.

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

It isn’t until the end of the movie/novel that Pi reveals that the tiger is actually another part of himself. This part of his split self is much harder for him to accept and integrate, because it is even darker, more terrible, more subconscious than the Pi/Piscine split. Pi was initially a castaway on the lifeboat with the ship’s cook, a Chinese sailor, and his own mother.  The cook kills the sailor and Pi’s mother. Pi, in a fit of vengeance and moral outrage, kills the cook and viciously cannibalizes his body. Pi invents the idea of a tiger killing and eating the cook  (who he imagines as a hyena) in order to shield himself from facing his own darkness. Pi can only confess at the very end of the story that he killed the cook in this way:

I stabbed him repeatedly. . . His heart was a struggle. . . It tasted delicious, far better than turtle. I ate his liver. I cut off great pieces of his flesh. He was such an evil man. Worse still, he met evil in me – selfishness, anger, ruthlessness. I must live with that.

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

But earlier in the story, before Pi has been able to accept the wild beast in his soul as part of himself, he describes the killing as the act of the tiger:

This was the terrible cost of Richard Parker. He gave me a life, my own, but at the expense of taking one. He ripped the flesh off the man’s frame and cracked his bones. The smell of blood filled my nose.  Something in me died then that has never come back to life. . . I pray for his soul every day.

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Again, the commitment to remember and commemorate the dead man ever after, even if he was an evil man, was a “raising of holy sparks,” eventually enabling Pi to reintegrate the darkest part of his soul to consciousness and wholeness.

End of the Journey

Pi Finds Land - Twentieth Century Fox

Pi Finds Land – Twentieth Century Fox

After Pi has drifted at sea for several months, he and Richard Parker are near death. Suddenly, a strange island appears, made entirely of an exotic algae. Pi and his tiger are nourished by the island and return to full strength and health. All their needs are met. It is on this island that Pi is finally able to completely “tame” Richard Parker, to make him submissive to his demands. (Perhaps this is where the two parts of the tiger are reintegrated – Thirsty realizes the need to be submissive to survive, and Richard Parker accepts this as a necessary part of his tiger nature).

But Pi makes a horrifying discovery. While sleeping overnight in a tree, he finds a human tooth wrapped in leaves. He realizes that the island itself is a cannibal, that it slowly devours marooned life with acid excretions, and that the tooth he has found is the only remains of a previous man who had tried to live there.

In kabballah, the Hebrew alphabet letter Shin, which is shaped like a human molar and which means “tooth,” is considered a highly important symbol. It is associated with the fire of transformation and divine spirit, and harmony in the soul. When Pi is weak and ready to accept his death at last, he lets go. In so doing, the island that revitalizes him appears. Metaphorically, Pi has reached a stage in the spiritual development of his soul where he can rest, but not too long. Many people are lost on such islands: their spiritual pursuits take them to a place where they can go through the motions, be comfortable, and “know it all.” It is a false spiritual awakening. Pi’s discovery of the tooth awakens him to his complacency.

In tarot, the letter Shin corresponds to the card of Judgement. This card depicts people rising from their graves on the day of Final Judgement, even as the island brought Pi back from death. The card also indicates the need for life decisions to be made. Finding the tooth, Pi realizes that he must leave the island and throw himself at the mercy of the wild ocean again, or the island will dissolve him. Once his decision is made, he reaches true land not long after. He is rescued. His soul is transformed and whole, and Richard Parker disappears into the jungle.

Pi was at sea 227 days, a reference to the fraction 22/7, which corresponds to mathematical pi. As the rock band Rush described it on their album Hemispheres: “the heart and mind united, in a single, perfect, sphere.” The symbol pi describes the relationship between and circle’s diameter and circumference, implying that Pi has become whole.


To be a castaway is to be a point perpetually at the centre of a circle. . . Your gaze is always a radius.  The circumference is ever great. . . When you look up, you sometimes wonder if at the centre of a solar storm. . . there isn’t another one like you also looking up, also trapped by geometry, also struggling with fear, rage, madness, hopelessness, apathy.

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi


Suggested Reading: Carl Jung, Answer to Job; Ursula Le Guin, “The Child and the Shadow,” from The Language of the Night


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