I just watched the movie Life of Pi. In one word, "beautiful"! It is a beautiful picturization of a heart-wrenching, but eventually uplifting story. It is a beautiful work of art that is surprisingly accurate in its portrayal of Indian culture, though it was born out of the work of a Western (French-Canadian) author, Yann Martel, and a Far Eastern (Chinese-Taiwanese) filmmaker, Ang Lee. Most of all, it is a beautiful rendition of the profoundly abstract Hindu (which literally means Indian, political correctness apart!) philosophy of monism, which happens to be the dominant Hindu/Indian religion today (more on this another time).
Of all the things I liked about the movie, my favorite was this seemingly perplexing scene that shows Pi on a mystical floating island. Many people seem to think that this scene was weird at best, and pointless at worst. I beg to differ, since my analysis of that scene shows that it is a beautiful allegory about Indian philosophy (in keeping with the theme of the whole story).
This analysis was prompted by my discussion with my friend, Vijay, who saw the movie with me, and pointed out that the island was shaped like a human in a shot shown from afar. I thought it could be an allegorical reference to Vishnu, and after my analysis, it turns out to be much deeper than I thought.
While my analysis is somewhat speculative (only Martel can state the exact meaning), I support my interpretation with ideas expressed in the story, and relevant Indian philosophical concepts (for the interested reader, I have put in links to Wikipedia articles).
1. Metaphor: The island floating on the Pacific ocean.
Meaning: Vishnu, floating on the cosmic ocean (this imagery was shown at the beginning of the story).
2. Metaphor: The seemingly surreal happenings on the island.
Meaning: Our reality, which is a "dream" in the mind of Vishnu (this was also mentioned at the beginning of the story).
3. Metaphor: The carnivorous algae on which the island floats.
Meaning: Sesha, the five-headed snake on which Vishnu rests.
4. Metaphor: The numerous meerkats.
Meaning: Human beings. I know, what an unflattering metaphor! Possibly, they were chosen for their semi-bipedalism, semi-intelligence, social living, or some combination of similar reasons.
5. Metaphor: The island supports life by day, and causes death by night, again and again.
Meaning: Samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth - that which supports life, causes death, and that which causes death, supports life.
6. Metaphor: The meerkats live meaningless lives eating, running, and dying on the island, under the impression that this is all there is to reality.
Meaning: Maya / Avidya, the illusion about the false nature of reality, which ultimately arises due to ignorance, and causes people to be stuck in Samsara.
7. Metaphor: Pi realizes the true nature of the island, and recognizes its futility.
Meaning: Vidya / Sat / Chit, knowledge or consciousness of the ultimate truth, which dispels Maya, and enables one to achieve enlightenment and liberation.
8. Metaphor: Pi, recognizing the truth of the island, decides to leave it for good.
Meaning: Moksha / Nirvana, the ultimate liberation of one's self from Samsara, so as to attain union with Vishnu (in Vaishnavism, a monotheistic Hindu religion), or union with God (in Sikhism, another monotheistic Hindu religion), or attain supreme character (in Jainism, an atheistic Hindu religion), or to attain supreme serenity (in Buddhism, another atheistic Hindu religion), or union with the supreme oneness (in Advaita Vedantism/Smartism, a monistic Hindu religion). This constitutes the soteriology of the major Hindu/Indian religions.
The whole story is filled with many wonderful metaphors. And it is fascinating to me that the author managed to weave these complex concepts into the story so beautifully. It seems he must have diligently studied Indian philosophy.
I should also note that some people have pointed out similarities to Abrahamic (Judaic/Christian/Islamic/Bahai, all monotheistic religions) mythology, particularly the resemblance to the Garden of Eden. More importantly, I think Pi's story is remarkably similar in spirit to the Book of Job - a pious man being subject to unfathomable trials by his God, and yet his faith is unimpeachable, and he eventually achieves salvation (the soteriology of the Abrahamic religions). This is quite possible, again in keeping with the multi-religious, and monistic theme of the story that aims to blend philosophies. It would be great if someone can refer me to a similar analysis as above from the perspective of Abrahamic, or even Chinese (Confucian/Tao) mythology or philosophy. If I ever happen to meet Martel, I hope to remember to ask him how accurate my interpretation of his allegory is (and why exactly he chose meerkats!).