Samskara- A Rite for a Dead Man
Samskara: A Rite For A Dead Man is a religious novel about a deteriorating Brahmin colony in a southIndianvillage of Karnataka.Samskaratranslated into English from Kannada by A.K.Ramanujan, is a novel about the people inanAgrahara, Brahmins, contemplating about the last rites of a dead man of Brahmin caste but who breached his caste limits during his life time. This is also the subtitle of the novel,Rite for a Dead Man.Characters:Praneshacharya – learned scholar and priest ofDurvasapuraNaranappa – a Brahmin who leads anon-BrahminicallifeChandri– adalitwoman who lives with NaranappaGarudacharya– a relative of NaranappaLakshmanacharya– a relative of NaranappaDasacharya– a poor Brahmin of theagraharaDurgabhatta– aSmartaBrahmin living inDurvasapuraAnasuya– wife ofLakshmanacharyaSitadevi_ wife ofGarudacharyaBhagirati_ wife of Praneshacharya, an invalid
The novel seems an accurate estimate of Brahmin society in the 1960’s or more correctly the Brahmin societies of all times which suffer from the serious problems of backwardness despite having intellectuals among them.Their energy is directed towards maintaining age-old convictions, beliefs, customs and superstitions.Ananthamurthyraises sensitive issues like rituals ,untouchability, sex, communal feeling and human weakness such asavarice,envy, selfishness.
The name of theagraharaisDurvasapurabecause of a legendary story behind it. It was believed thatDurvasa, a sage did penance on a hillock in the river,Tunga. The place became famous because of the legendary story and also because of Praneshacharya.Praneshacharya is the wise man in theagrahara. The entire colony came to his doorsteps every morning and evening to listen to his recitations of holy legends.
The story in a nutshell…
The novel starts with the death of a member ,belonging to an orthodox clan of Brahmins, who do not follow the established customs.Naranappa is the disreputed person of theagraharawho offends the whole community by indulging in forbidden things like wine and women, and meat-eating.When he dies without an heir nobody from the Brahmin community agrees to perform his last rites due to the fear of disgracing their caste.For getting a solution, they take the problem to Praneshacharya, the most revered person of the Agrahara.
One day before eating his meal, Praneshacharya is going about his daily routine. At that time, he hears the sound ofChandribehind him calling ‘Acharya’.Chandriisa dalit.If Praneshacharya talks to her, he would be polluted and should take bath before eating his meal. Nevertheless, he listens to her and she informs that Naranappa is dead after having fever for four days.There is a belief that it is wrong to eat food before doing the funeral rites for the dead. So, Praneshacharya runs toGarudacharya’shouse to stop him from eating his meal and then both of them inform others in theagrahara.Everyone in theagraharathinks, “Alive, Naranappa was an enemy; dead a preventer of meals; as a corpse, a problem, a nuisance.”The men and their wives assemble in front ofPraneshacharya’shouse to hear his directions to solve the problem ofNaranappa’srites. The women are with fear that their husbands should not accept to do the funeral rites.Praneshacharya informs the people that there are two problems to be solved.The first problem is doing funeral rites for Naranappa and second is deciding the person for doing the rites, since Naranappa doesn’t have children.Garudacharya,Dasacharya– a poor Brahmin of theagrahara, andLakshmanacharyaacknowledge to the words of Praneshacharya.
Allegations against Naranappa
People in theagraharacannot do the rites as Naranappa had relationship with a low-caste woman,Chandriand also ate the food she cooked.Naranappa abandoned his legal wife and when she died he did not attend her funeral.he does not observe the death anniversary of his parents.In addition to all these sacrileges acts, he has also brought Muslims to the front yard of theagraharato eat and drink forbidden things.
Praneshacharya is confused whether to proclaim Naranappa as Brahmin or non-Brahmin.Fearing that the Brahmins might not do the funeral rites for Naranappa,Chandriplaces all her gold ornaments in front of Praneshacharya, to be used for the expense ofNaranappa’sfuneral rites.While everybody thinks of a way out to do the funeral rites for Naranappa,Dasacharyasuggests the idea of requesting theParijatapuraBrahmins to do the funeral rites for two reasons.The first reason is Naranappa was friendly with theParijatapuraBrahminsthe other reason is that theParijatapuraBrahmins areSmartaBrahmins ,not as orthodox as theMadhvas. TheParijatapuraBrahmins are pleasure lovers and some of them are rich as they runbetelnutfarms.
The family ofLakshmanacharyaandGarudacharyaare perturbed by the decision of Praneshacharya because the golden ornaments would be taken away by the person who does the funeral rites.Praneshacharya goes through the palm leaf texts to find a solution toNaranappa’sfuneral rites while theMadvaBrahmins are inParijatapurato inform aboutNaranappa’sdeath.The thought ofNaranappamakes Praneshacharya realize how he has been a problem all through his life.Praneshacharya recollects a bitter conversation when he went toNaranappa’shouse to meet him.Naranappadisrespected and treated him with contempt.
He also remembers how Naranappa madeGaruda’ssonShyamaandLakshmana’sson-in-lawShripatito go astray fromBrahminicaltradition.Shyamaran away from home and joined the army, whileShripatialmost took the lifestyle of Naranappa.He even remembers the day when he brought Muslims with him to theGanapathitemple stream and caught the sacred fish. During their heated conversation Naranappa has said,“I’ll destroyBrahminism, I certainly will. My only sorrow is that there’s nobrahminismreally left to destroy in this place – except you.”
Praneshacharya does a detailed and prolonged search of the scriptures without success. Then he retires for meditating in theMarutitemple hoping for God's guidance for disposing the body.For solving the problem the Brahmins seek help from a colony in the neighbourhood (Parijatapura) and later, a monastery."Thebrahminismof your entire sect is in your hands. Your burden is great."
The stench of dead rats andNaranappa’sdead body makes the night sleepless for many in theagrahara.Naranappadied of bubonic plague (Black Death).Meanwhile, there is a break out of plague in theagraharadue toNaranappa'srotting corpse.
Praneshacharya becomes frustrated due to his inability to arrive at a decision. As he staggers out of the temple he seesChandri, the low-caste mistress ofNaranappa. Praneshacharya is physically attracted toChandriand the two make love, thus ending theAcharya’scelibacy.This incident is a turning point inPraneshacharya’slife. Meanwhile his wife dies due to the plague. He cremates his wife and then leaves theagraharanot able to confront the people who had respected him until then as a learned teacher.
Praneshacharya, long devoted entirely to the cause and tradition, is forced (and/or allowed) by circumstance to question it, freed, over the course of the story, from several of his burdens.However, Ananthamurthy does not offer a resolution here:Samskararemains open-ended.
Samskara – The Title
Samskara means religious purificatory rites and ceremonies for sanctifying the body , mind and intellect of an individual so that he may become a full-fledged member of the community.A rite of passage or life-cycle ceremony; therealizigof past perceptions.In trying to resolve the dilemma of who ,ifany , should perform the death-rite (asamskara), theAcharyabegins asamskara( a transformation) for himself.Praneshacharya undergoes the process of purification. He shifts from a hardcore ritualistic Brahmin to a realist.A rite for a dead man becomes a rite of passage for the living.In life as in death,Naranappaquestioned the Brahmins of the village, exposed theirSamskara( refinement of spirit , maturation through many lives)or lack ofit.
Naranappaa catalytic agent who affects change,favorsmodernism, rejectsbrahminhoodand brings homeChandri, a prostitute, fromKundapura, a nearby town. He drinks alcohol and invitesmuslimsto eat meat.He throwsSaligrama, the holy stone which is believed to represent God Vishnu, into the river, and spits after it.If the flowers in the backyards of the otherbrahminsare meant mainly for the altar, and if their women wear only withered flowers gathered from the altar in their hair which hangs at their back like a rat’s tail,Naranappagrows the night-queen plant in his front garden. Its intense smelling flowers are meant solely to decorateChandri’shair which lies coiled like a thick black cobra on her back.
Naranappa, with hismuslimfriends catches sacred fish from the temple tank, cooks and eats them. Otherbrahminsare aghast at this sacrilegious act. They have believed, till then, that these fish should not even be touched, that whosoever touches them will vomit blood and will die!Naranappahas even corrupted the youth of theagrahara. Because of him one young man leftDurvasapuraand joined the army, where he is forced to eat beef. Another young man left his wife and home, and joined atravelinggroup of singers and actors.Naranappa’sonly ambition in life seems to do everything that destroys thebrahminhoodof theagrahara. His only sorrow is that hardly anything of it is left to destroy, except for thebrahminismof Praneshacharya.
Orthodox society does its best t suppress the revolutionaryNaranappaand by excommunicating they want to get rid of him.But Praneshacharya is against this radical step. He still hopes to win overNaranappa, and lead him back to Dharma, the proper path.Ananthamurthy has investedNaranappawith reformative vigour and violence.Naranappais an active player in the novel. His death puts a big question mark on the ritualistic society.Naranappais an autocrat, he lives freely breaking all traditions and practices ofbrahminism.
He does what he likes without pretensions and hypocrisy. So he seems an anti-social. But an anti-social individual is eventually a reformer also.He re-orients the society – so also a spiritual man does not conform to society either and is a leader of society.
Samskarais a fine discussion on the caste and class structure of India.Through the novel Ananthamurthy explores the lack of human concern in the Brahmin community.The characters in the endfavourfreedom from the shackles of rituals and superstitions.In the beginningNaranappais the rebel , and Praneshacharya is the righteous Brahmin.
After the death of his invalid wife Bhagirathi he wishes to settle down with Chandri, the Dalit concubine.It is the death of Naranappa that brings out the humanity as well as the real man out of the Acharya.Until then he was living a life burdened with suffocating scriptural knowledge.At the end of the novel he decides to live like an ordinary man neither a righteous Brahmin nor ‘the crest jewel ofvediclearning’.
It isChandri, the concubine ,who brings theAcharyadown to the land of theordiarymortals.He even runs away from home after his wife dies of plague. But wherever he goes he is haunted by the fear of discovery and haunted byChandri’stouch.The novel ends as Praneshacharya decides to return toDurvasapura, and to own up his fall.But Ananthamurthy, does not answer the other important question. It is the question of what thebrahminsshould do when they are confronted with the confessions of Praneshacharya.What does one do when faced with such truth? As the translator A.K.Ramanujanputs it, the novel ends, but does not conclude.
Praneshacharya is a victim of his own fickle mind, practicing egotism, full of fear of losinghonour.As a normal human being he wants to enjoy all the material pleasurescenteredto woman and children. But he cannot do this because his wife is an invalid whom he nurses following the Law ofNishkamaKarma.The lack of sensual pleasure is creating psychological lacuna(a gap) in him. He perceives some truth inNaranappa’sways oflife.WhenNaranappaattacks theAcharya’sreading of lush, eroticPuranictales and his life devoid of sexual pleasure,Acharyastops telling the lusciousPuranicstories in the evening and starts on moral tales of penance .
The society ofDurvasapurarequires immediate reform. The novel presents a sexually suppressed society, where sex is considered taboo, yet everyone wants to enjoy it.According to the Vedic system ofVarnashrama, the Brahmanasthose who are by nature intellectuals, contemplative, and inspired by acquiring spiritual and philosophical knowledge, and motivated to work in this way for the rest of society.
In actual sense none of the characters in the novel except Praneshacharya stands in favour of Brahmanism strictly.All the BrahminsDurgabhattaandSripathi,Dasacharya,Lakshmanaand Garuda, are depraved and damned souls having insatiable lust for body, food, gold and property.The Brahmins of theagraharaare utterly decadent, narrow-minded, selfish, greedy, jealous. Theirbrahminhoodconsists solely of fulfilling rules, following traditions which are thousands of years without understanding reasons and logic behind them. They are afraid that if the rules are not followed disasters will fall upon them.