Theme of Samskara Novel
Table of Contents
Few Indian novels have won such wide respect as U.R. Anantha Murthy’s Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978), a 1965 novel (a 1970 film) translated from the Kannada by no less than A.K. Ramanujan, used in many syllabi, and one of many accomplishments that have led its author to the presidency of the Sahitya Akademi. Despite its renown, the novel troubles traditionalists who don’t like the spectacle of mercenary Brahmins or of an acharya having sex with a prostitute; it troubles leftists for whom the book fails ever to politicize or historicize its issues, it troubles moderns restless with what can seem a nostalgic return to a pre-modern era, it troubles feminists frustrated by the absence of any women except withered effete and sexy Shakuntalas: the list no doubt, could go on, because the novel is, as its translator notes in his Afterword, “a movement, not a closure” in any traditional sense of the term (147). We don’t have an easy answer to a straightforward question; we end, instead, with a protagonist who is on the road, anxious, expectant” (138).
The tension between Tradition and Modernity’ in Samskara
Anxiety, expectancy … These words signify the crisis of contradictions and the intensity and urgency to one’s attempt to negotiate them. They certainly underlie all the fiction that must negotiate the relation between Tradition and Modernity, contending with the contradictions within each and between the two. In fact, we are made to think at times that this novel’s real protagonist was a version of Anantha Murthy himself, traveling into a pre-colonial idyll of a Karnatakan countryside devoid of British admixtures, and testing out a “modern” existential identity within the orthodox Brahmin discipline of (to recur to Marriott’s terms) an unmixed, unmarked, utterly matched ideal. Meenakshi Mukherjee’s discussion of the novel begins just here with the author’s attempt to exploit the tension between two world views” (166). She focuses upon the difficult and uneasy process of transition between the fixed settled order of life and the still inchoate stirrings of self (167). She pursues the novel as an allegory of an existential form of identity emerging from a static nonexistence ossified in ritual and dogma.
Complicated thematic structure of Samskara
But the novel insists upon several levels of conflict interacting to produce the complicated thematic texture of the book. The title, as the dictionary entry serving as epigraph instructs us, involves purification rituals (consecrating the king, but also any ritual act, including funeral obsequies and in this novel much purification comes to be required. But the term also more generally means perfecting or refining, and in its associations with “memory suggests the realizing of past perceptions. Both purification and the full implications of past perceptions are vital to the novel-but first things first.
For the protagonist, Praneshacharya (From pranesha, god of life or breath, acharya, teacher), the issue begins with how to maintain traditional Brahminical purity while still managing the proper burial of a reprobate, and then escalates into how he can transform his sterile erudition into a living faith. In this case, he must realize in himself the full living force of the articles of belief he has memorized and debated. For the existentialist, Pranesh’s crisis is how to achieve an authentic self despite the entanglements of his thoroughly defined and relatively privileged position as a high Brahmin pundit. In this case, he must come to understand what he had recognized in others but repressed in himself. Among the “he’s involved might also be the postcolonial Anantha Murthy, trying to realize the living implications of a cultural past that shapes the present perceptions and instincts of his contemporaries. Such a world is increasingly organized as individual selves defining themselves through their professional and personal achievements rather than through their actualization of collective identities or scriptural precepts.
Praneshacharya’s quest and his realization
But at least he knows that in this search, everything gets tangled up again” (100). He realizes that he is a thing constructed in whichever set of terms he uses. “Look at it, one is twined with the other. From Mahabala to Naranappa, from Naranappa to my willfulness, the holy legends I recite, their effects, finally the way I lusted for Belli’s breasts myself. The form I’m getting now was being forged all along, obliquely, unknown to me. I doubt now if even the moment 1 united with Chandri came unbidden. It must have been the moment for everything within to come out of hiding” (101). By both readings he was ignorant of how he was being forged all along.” by both readings his intensities are transmitted through these sublimations, by both readings he is shaped by forces that slip beyond conscious mastery and that can only be understood experientially, by both readings he is on the road, something of a refugee from the conflict between the decoded social subject and the authentic open subject of tradition’s spirituality or modernity’s insurgent self-creation.
By both readings, a sense of the self as a static essence gives way to what we’ve called formlessness” in deference to traditional terminology, but which is more like a sign in the diacritical model than anything westerners are comfortable attaching to “self” This form of form seems formless to someone for whom form seems like a rock, like the one thing or the other that Praneshacharya wants to settle on. But to become the bucket shape of water in the well, but without the bucket, is to achieve so radically existential a self that the Modern and the Traditional almost touch. Inside the Haveli positions these two readings as a timeline along which Geeta begins to resolve the difference Samskara sticks with the very individualist focus of Gera’s Bombay youth, but, like River Sun, these two planes are arrayed spatially perhaps as mirrors of each other as Murthy thinks out the contemporary inflection of tradition within modernity.
The pain of transcending one mode of existence to go into another
If we feel suspended between two readings, two kinds of time, two prefixes (pre- and post-) to “colonial, two or more) of any of these resonances with which we began thinking about this novel we repeat Praneshacharya’s confusion, we perform his crisis, we restage his drama. Both Ramanujan and Mukherjee are at pains to wrest this novel away from traditional binary reductions, and at times the effect is to leave room only for the pain of transcending one mode of existence to go into another” (Mukherjee 183). But transcending may be misleading. I don’t think the contradictions Pranesh finds between order and fluidity and between tradition and modernity are the kinds of contradiction one either resolves or transcends. The novel ends with Pranesh still on the road because these contradictions are ones you can only negotiate; resisting closures to keen open the margins to fluidity, to continuous and tactical change. Tradition would place you in but not of the world, compassionate but not attached, Modernity hyper develops the ego, making it a nomad across the corporately owned and maintained landscape, eluding the slow death of the settlements Pranesh has neither surrendered his old Brahminical ego nor owned up fully to the difficult art of shaping ethically his modern existential self, and so he risks the least enlightened of both modes.
The more richly we think this knotting together of traditional and modern themes, the more we find ourselves within a most inclusive whole in which “one” is “twined with the other,” each rings (with) the other, each vibrates with its others through a logic we approximate a bit clumsily in English. I find it interesting that A River Sutra and Samskara both animate the traditional storehouse of stories of wisdom for the dubious benefit of a relatively obtuse narrator who nonetheless feels sharp anxiety and even crisis, as if that obtuseness were a figure for the extreme difficulty of negotiating this historical crisis in the relation between tradition and modernity. It’s also noteworthy that both books create a living present for the mythic past, inflecting Tradition within a very troubled, fragmented, dispiriting (post) Modernity-inflect it differently, yes, but as a living language that is neither as moribund as the Acharya’s recitations nor as devalued, de-codified, as Mehta’s focal character or the buffoonish cartoons with which Anantha Murthy peoples the towns and villages along Praneshacharya’s route. Neither show naivete about how easy the project is. The task is daunting, and these novels we’ve encountered struggle, anxiously, to insinuate the resonance of Tradition within a sobered sense of modernity. Pranesh demonstrates that within both tradition and modernity, one finds versions of the rigidities of the orthodox and the formalist engaged with the fluidities and formlessness of the non-attached renunciate and the postmodern nomad.
The battle between Dharma and Adharma
The novel Samskara begins with the death of Naranappa in Durvasapura agrahara. He is anti-brahminical Brahmin and has lived all his life as a rebel challenging the ways and beliefs of his agrahara counterparts. He has been a headache to the fellow Brahmins of the agrahara by his reprobate ways openly holding the established customs and conventions held sacred by the Brahmins while alive. He has abandoned his legally wedded wife and lived with a low-caste prostitute by name Chandri in the heart of the agrahara and eaten the food cooked by her. He has mingled with Muslims by eating meat and denigrating the temple pond by catching and eating the fish dedicated to Lord Ganapati. He has thrown the sacred stone ‘saligrama’ held in reverence and worshipped for centuries by his fellow Brahmins into the river. This besides, he has consumed liquor with others openly in the front yard of his house in low company. In addition to attacking Brahmin beliefs he has corrupted the Brahmin youths like Shyama and Shripati making the former desert his home and join the army and the later going after the lowcaste woman Belli neglecting his wife Lilavati and becoming disloyal to Lakshmana and his Anasusya who have reclaimed him from an orphan.
The Brahmins of Durvasapura are afraid and sick of Naranappa. Left to themselves they would gladly tell their guru in Udipi to excommunicate Naranappa and thus get rid of him. But Praneshacharya is against this radical step. He still wants to hopes to win Naranappa over, and lead him back to Dharma, the proper path. He tries to reform him and bring him back to the mainstream. He has promised to his mother to reclaim him and for that he even fasts two nights a week. He personally visits Naranappa and tries to reason him out and advises him to mend his ways.
But Naranappa treats him with derision and mockery and challenges him saying that he will win over him hands down and raise the grave over Brahminhood. He even dares to give a piece advice to the Acharya. He wants the agrahara Brahmins to push their sickly wives into the river and get hold of some fish-scented lower-caste woman like the legendary Matsyagandhi. He advises them to taste her fish-curry and then go to bed with her. He tells the Acharya that they will experience God when they wake up in the arms of the lower-caste woman. The Acharya is very much disturbed by Naranappa’s words. He stops the practice of telling the erotic stories of puranic heroines and begins to lecture on moral stories. This makes the young Brahmins stop attending his discourses. Though Naranappa is a pronounced atheist all though his living days, he utters the names of all Hindu Gods during final moments of agonizing death. If we take the words of Chandri about Naranappa’s recantation during his last moments, we can safely conclude that he dies a believer.
In our Hindu puranas we find stories of the battles between the good and the evil or Dharma and Adharma. In our great epic, the Mahabharata, the Pandavas represent the good or Dharma and the Kauravas represent the evil or Adhamma. In the epic battle between Dharma and Adharma at Kurushetra. the Pandavas win a resounding victory destroying the Kauravas (Adharma) with the help of Lord Krishna. Here in Anantha Murthy’s Samskara, Acharya Pranesha of Durvasapura, the spiritual head and the moral guardian of the agrahara represents Dharma, and Naranappa, the reprobate Brahmin of the agrahara with his questionable ways and conduct represents Adharma. He challenges the Acharya that he will win over him hands down by ruining Brahminism. And in a way, he succeeds for in the process of solving the issue of performing samskara for Naranappa, the Acharya unwittingly falls a prey to lust and sleeps with Chandri, the concubine of Naranappa. And then on he slides down the ladder of his reputation and ascetic virtues. Here we have an ironic inversion of the traditional puranic stance that Dharma always wins over Adharma. But Anantha Murthy’s Samskara points out that is more an exception than a rule ! It looks that the spirit of Naranappa is having a chuckle at the Acharya with the unasked question: Have I not told you so?
Sin and its consequences
Samskara on account of its religious overtones deals with sin and its consequences. Naranappa, the arch-rebel of the agrahara deliberately chooses the path of sin with a malicious glee of Satan and takes pride in reveling in it. Again with the arrogance of Satan he derides the orthodoxy of the agrahara Madhvas to which he belongs. He denigrates the sacred stone ‘saligrama’ by throwing it in the river. He catches and eats the fish dedicated to Lord Ganapati with his Muslim friends. He leads the life of a debauchee taking a low-caste woman by name Chandri for his concubine. He leads a godless life in the midst of the agrahara with the gusto of Satan who proclaimed, ‘Evil, be thou my good. But he receives his punishment in the form of the dreaded disease plague and dies an agonizing death at a very age. But we have the testimony of Chandri that Naranappa during his last hours uttered the names of all the Hindu gods in atonement. In this he reminds us of Dr. Faustus’s last hour penitence and appeal to Christ to save him.
I Naranappa is a devil, the other Brahmins of the agrahara are no angels. Garuda is a cheat and a fraud. He is a grabber of the property of the helpless widow Lakshmidevamma and Naranappa. He is even said to be responsible for the ruin of Naranappa by employing black magic on him. Lakshmana is a miser. Both Garuda and Lakshmana fight for Chandri’s gold like dogs fighting for a piece of bone. Dasacharya is a glutton. Durgabhatta is lustful All the aorahara Brahmins who find fault with Naranappa for denigrating Brahminhood, do not contribute to its dignity by their conduct. They are onilty of jealousy, lust, anger. gluttony and adultery. Even the rest Praneshacharya is guilty of committing adultery and sustaining adulterous thoughts after tasting real sexual pleasure with Chandri, the concubine of the mich denigrated Naranappa. He commits the sins of his friend Mahabala and his opposites number Naranappa Shripati commits adultery with Belli and consumes liquor secretly with his friends after the drama rehearsal at Pariistapura. As a consequence of their sins, all the Brahmins of the agrahara are made to suffer hunger, privations, horror and bereavements. They are made to go from one place to another place in hot sun but they do not get any solution or peace of mind. They understand that they are chased by their sins of omissions and commissions and become penitent. In the process of performing samskara for Naranappa they undergo a samskara (change). Death in the agrahara chases them like avenging furies and brings them on their knees.