Samskara as an Existential Novel | Existentialism in Samskara

Samskara as an Existential Novel | Existentialism in Samskara

Samskara as an Existential Novel

Existentialism is a study of the unfortunate spiritual predicament of modern man:

The existential states of disappointment, isolation and meaninglessness have received adequate attention in the literature of the West. Eminent personalities like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bergson, Heidegger, Proust, Camus, Sartre and Beckett are the proponents and followers of the existential philosophy. Sensitive people, world over, have expressed their serious concern about the unfortunate spiritual predicament of the modern man. Man’s inner problems have been exposed in considerable detail in modern literature, more so in fiction. No emotional problem is more threatening today than the existential one. The moral confusion of modern Indians who live on an ad hoc basis and follow a dual code of conduct is alarming.

A few Indian novelists in English have made significant efforts to depict the existential dimension of the modern men and women. The novels of Arun Joshi and Anita Desai manifest the existential trend. Ananthamurthy in his celebrated novel Samskara depicts the inner crisis of his protagonist Praneshacharya by adopting the existentialist mode..

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.

The several levels of conflict interacting to produce a 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.

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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 Ananthamurthy, 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.

Samskara is a complicated thinking machine:

Murthy’s novel is a complicated thinking machine. It begins plainly enough, with the Brahmins of a celebrated (proud, and a bit decaying) agrahara (settlement) facing a tough choice. If they bury a dead Brahmin reprobate, they avoid the sin of leaving him untended (and can get on with eating and the rest of their routine lives); but if he is considered utterly reprobate and no longer “truly” Brahmin because of his many sins of word and deed, they hopelessly pollute themselves through contact, as they also do if they allow a true Brahmin to be buried by anyone else; aggravating their plight is that word of a mistake in such a matter would ruin their reputation as an especially holy, high settlement, a reputation based on the presence of Praneshacharya, winner of 15 prize scarves in religious debates. This crisis is complicated by a series of misfortunes that accrue while Pranesh is stymied: he contends with his long-standing rivalry with the victim, Naranappa, who turns out to have died from a plague which begins to spread in the village; he makes love after a day of fruitless fasting and prayer with the dead man’s lover, a beautiful former prostitute; he leaves the village after cremating his sickly wife and commits a series of ritual offenses while he is on the road having a crisis of spiritual identity. His neat, static, apparently stable world goes all to hell, and the novel ends before any “answer” can be dramatized, leaving us to deal somehow with how thoroughly each turn of the novel ripples out both into the plot of Tradition and the plot of Modernity.

Praneshacharya’s existential angst:

These two ripplings occupy the same pond because the “past perceptions” he must face work like those of Oedipus: he does not know himself or the terms and worlds in which he finds himself; his willful ignorance of his key events and decisions rise up to trouble him once a crisis shakes the routine of his preeminence. As in the case of Oedipus, one can think through his life in traditional terms, or translate it into modern existential terms. For example, he married a young girl crippled beyond functioning as anything but a patient. We are a little troubled at the first reference to this marriage: “The Acharya is filled with pleasure and a sense of worth as sweet as the five-fold nectar of holy days; he is filled with compassion for his ailing wife. He proudly swells a little at his lot, thinking, By marrying an invalid, I get ripe and ready”” (2).

But “dharma” now feels like the body of a mother monkey he, the baby, clutched and lost hold of. One could read this as does a rival pundit, as an excess of rigor, and Ramanujan in his Afterword notes that such a marriage might be thought to invalidate the purpose of immersing oneself in the world of the householder, of mixing in the world for that phase of life rather than intruding into it the student’s celibacy or the forest-dweller’s relative renunciation (146). One can consider that the Acharya must now live and feel Vedanta rather than merely performing its doctrines, penances, rituals, and teachings, adding some bhakti to his Bhagavata (fervor, that is, to his scriptures).

Or, one could play out the implications of likening himself to “a baby monkey losing hold of his grip on the mother’s body as she leaps from branch to branch” since “he felt he had lost hold and fallen from the rites and actions he had clutched till now” (75). In this reading, his rituals have functioned, like his marriage to an invalid, as ways of avoiding living his own life, of experiencing the real, of existing. Having made love to the beautiful Chandri, “now he wanted for himself a share of all that” beauty and sexual enjoyment (77). Sexuality awakens the “natural” man, brings him to a break with his in-authenticity, starts him on the road to authentic being. Are you Traditional, or Modern?

Praneshacharya’s relation to Naranappa:

Or consider his relation to Naranappa, Mr. Modernity, a booster of the arts, the Congress Party, alcoholism, sex with shudras, friendship with Muslims, and general free thinking including a devastating reading of why the Acharya and his young scholars like the sexy passages so much (Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, e.g.). “Why had he, the Acharya, objected to excommunicating such a creature? Was it fear, or compassion? Or the obstinate thought he could win some day ?” (21). He fears the “rebellious example” Naranappa sets (22), but he is also “angered at the way the man slipped from under his influence” (23). “Let’s see,” Naranappa challenges him, “who wins in the end-you or me. I’ll destroy brahminism, I certainly will. My only sorrow is that there’s no brahminism really left to destroy in this place-except you” (23). Does Naranappa function to summon the Acharya into his modern existentialist crisis, or does he prompt the Acharya to shed the obscurations of pride and the will to power and, instead, gain a fully realized form of “past perceptions”?

Chandri is the opposite of the Acharya’s ascetic outlook:

Chandri is another interesting case, though minor in the novel in her own right. Besides being beautiful, everyone’s sex object, a prostitute Naranappa brought back from a foray into the neighboring cities, she is “an exception to all the rules,” a “running river” that “doesn’t dry, doesn’t tire” (44). She is the opposite of the Acharya’s ascetic rulebook, and she doesn’t see her dead lover as a problem for the fine print of Brahminic law, but as “neither Brahmin nor shudra. A carcass. A stinking rotting carcass” (70). Since “that’s not her lover, Naranappa,” she can get him cremated by a Muslim whom Naranappa had bailed out from bankruptcy. Praneshacharya feels “compassion” for her when they come upon each other in the forest at night, is then “bewildered,” then feels “a thrill of tenderness,” then “faint,” then “hunger… raged,” and, finally, “he cried out like a child in distress, ‘Amma !” (the word means “mother”).

She feeds the infantilized Acharya some plantains and they make love. Is she the scriptural fisherwoman who awakens the kundalini energy that can rise and become the power of the gods in him? Or is she the midwife to an existential crisis, gifting him the plantain-phallus by which he discovers his own dormant, smothered individuality under all the prize shawls and Sanskrit sloka? Pranesh lives the contradiction between these two ways of understanding experience. Mukherjee reads this encounter as restarting him as a sensuously alive child. The difficulty, of course, will be to prevent in an ignited Praneschacharya a ruthless western-styled consumer self from emerging to use and abuse according to his appetites-a poor replacement for that equally reified ego attached to traditional rituals, knowledge, and status.

Was the quicker way of salvation through conflict: The Acharya’s dilemma?

At one point, thinking about his competition with Naranappa, he considers stories about sinners and antagonists who reach salvation sooner than the conventionally faithful. “The quicker way of salvation was through conflict” (49), a warning that his way has been too easy and protected to have developed a really knowledgeable sort of strength, or a realization that he has been such a creature of convention that he has had no being of his own. Tradition or Modernity? There are many passages that suggest the former, as in all the reminders that his present anxieties are karmic results-Putta, a clever youth, sticks to him like a sin of the past” (106), company clings to him like one’s lot earned in a past life” (108), and he thinks that “even my meeting (Putta) here must have been destined” (115). Karma is both an instructive reminder (of consequences) and an ethical discipline (of planting positive rather than negative seeds), but only for an individual committed to cultivating compassion and nonattachment. If the child emerging from Oedipal blindness is only a socialized patriarch, then karma degenerates into moral equivocation.

Praneshacharya, Murthy’s postmodern child:

Perhaps the confusion is not so much ours but Praneshacharya’s. Murthy’s postmodern child, he calls with equal frequency upon existential notions to guide him through his crisis.

Against his version of Brahminical Altäglichkeit (everydayness) he risks an assault upon the known, a venture into chance, an acceptance of what comes. “To be, just to be. To be; keen, in the heat, the cool, to the grass, the green, the flower, the pang, the heat, the shade” (83), burning with a hard gemlike flame under a peepul tree. But Murthy does not allow this existentialist hymn to finish without a spin into classical renunciation of ego and desire. The very next line reads, “Putting aside both desire and value” (83). Such nonattachment (both to ego’s desires and ritual’s value) is tradition’s authentic ground for compassion rather than the patronizing condescension his ego feels for the poor prostitute whose patron has just died He finds himself truly at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, confused as the authentic form of each contests the other’s inauthenticities. That is the spiritual tradition, faced with the modern’s consumerist, exploitative mastery over others, asserts its own value of relinquishing the modern’s egocentrism. And the responsible existentialist strives to escape the dead weight of empty ritual and static social identity. Each positive form is continuously liable to turn into its own negative alternative.

The existentialist rhetoric upsets the balancing act of tradition and modernity:

At times, the rhetoric becomes so specifically existentialist as to upset the balancing act of tradition and modernity. After testing out the theory that he’s not responsible for sinning with Chandri because he did not seek it, he reasserts an existentialist ethic: “Even if I lost control, the responsibility to decide was still mine. Man’s decision is valid only because it’s possible to lose control, not because it’s easy. We shape ourselves through our choices, bring form and line to this thing we call our person” (98). At the end of the novel when he anticipates explaining himself as a “new man” to his neighbors, he distances himself from a theological frame for his change: “When I tell them about myself, there should be no taint of repentance in me, no trace of any sorrow that I am a sinner. If not, I cannot go beyond conflict and dualities. I must see Mahabala (a college rival who abandoned religion for sex). Must tell him: only the form we forge for ourselves in our inmost will is ours without question” (135). Shaping ourselves through choices, forging our own form, these are heady notions about “leaving the ghostly stage behind” (123).

The Acharya tormented by conflict and dualities’:

Note how this language doubles modernist existentialism with traditional wisdom, however: “beyond conflict and dualities” could take you to arma, pure soul, or to the Sartrean zone where existence precedes essence. The “ghostly stage” is clearly one of confusion and inauthenticity, but neither its precise terms nor its actual achievement are at all certain. The quoted passage, after all, ends with “Perhaps, and he also calls himself a lost soul.” Lost to Tradition, adrift in Modernity, not yet accustomed to the self-creating mastery of the modern ? Or confused by his own timidity and theological oversimplifications, and very much needing the reality check of an engagement with the world that tempers the soul and transforms precepts to wisdom ? Ghost of self, or of religion ? He feels tortured by “conflict and dualities,” as we saw above, and he wants to escape this ambiguous Trishanku state” (101) suspended between heaven and earth. Perhaps we are ready just to dismiss him as whiny and duplicitous, throwing up a theological smokescreen around his neocolonial self. But in order to find our way through these perplexities, let us read further in the passage that began with shaping “ourselves through our choices”:

Quoting at such length samples the degree of confusion he feels and his scholarly habit of conceiving it in relation to sacred literature. To be “in the ocean like a river” is one classic metaphor for moksha, the formlessness beyond ego. To reach it by “living through” contradictions and dualities is the tantric way of transforming rather than renouncing the passions. To transform the passions is to capture their mutual resonance, the way his college friend Mahabala did through music rather than through Praneshacharya’s logic or philosophy (99), the way art works, as I’ve argued the vibration that includes all ways rather than leaving them as exclusive parts. On the other hand, to renounce the physical as in the ascetic tradition is to attempt to remove the distractions of the material realm in order to approach through the relative formlessness of the meditative life. These alternatives are related to what we earlier saw in the fast path through conflict versus the slow path through conventional faith and ritual. Engagement and equanimity have both their religious and their existential forms, and within each, both authentic and devalued possibilities. Dharma’s subtleties abound.

Both engagement and equanimity can lead to moksha:

The argument becomes delicately theological, but it hangs on the belief that ultimately both paths can lead to moksha; both can encounter the formless beyond these paralyzing dualities, thus offering different means to different temperaments. The “normal” Brahmin gets a sort of homeopathic dose of the tantric by living through the householder’s stage of life, living in the world without becoming of the world, and then passing through the dharmas of the forest-dweller’s retirement and finally, perhaps, the sanyasi’s complete renunciation, full circle with a difference to his celibate student youth. From the perspective of Tradition, Praneshacharya is none of the above, however much he conceives himself in traditional terms, and he is thus very much a “lost soul” caught by the illusion of dualities.” It seems appropriate that the melodramatic scene of self-advertisement, about which he is anxious, expectant” in the last sentence of the novel, will not take place (the Brahmins have fled the plague, the body is burned, no audience remains on the rat-infested stage): Praneshacharya will need a few more shocks to his system before he roots out his pride and delusory ego with enough rigor to attain genuine wisdom. Both his ritual habits and his emerging modernist

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