The short novel "Samskara" by U. R. Anantha Murthy, professor for English at the Mysore University, created a big furore in Karnataka when it was published more than thirty years ago. With this novel Anantha Murthy, a brahmin himself, held aloft a clear mirror to the brahmin community. He raised the question "What is actually culture (Samskara) - is it achieved by blindly following rules and traditions, is it lost when they are not kept?" The background for this eternal question, which actually remains unresolved even in this novel, is the samskara (funeral) of Naranappa, a brahmin who rejected his brahminhood. (Among the several meanings of the word samskara, some of the important ones are culture, funeral and ritual.) In 1970 "Samskara" was made into an award-winning film, one of the few art films of its kind in the Kannada language.
Samskara is the story of life in an agrahara, a narrow street in which brahmins belonging to the Madhwa community (followers of guru Madhwa; Shankara, Madhwa and Ramanuja are the three most famous philosophers of ancient India) live. The agrahara of Samskara is situated in a tiny hamlet called Durvasapura, somewhere in the western ghats (mountain range) of southern India. The brahmins of this agrahara are utterly decadent, narrow-minded, selfish, greedy, jealous. Their brahminhood consists solely of fulfilling rules, following traditions which are thousands of years old. They do not understand why they follow the rules. They do not care to understand. They are afraid that if they do not follow the rules, disasters will fall upon them. They feel safe as long as they follow rules and traditions. In this way the agrahara of Durvasapura is nothing special. Until a few years ago many villages and towns in South India had such agraharas.
Still, Durvasapura and its agrahara are famous in the surrounding area, because of two brahmins who live there. One of them is Praneshacharya and the other one is Naranappa. Praneshacharya went to Kashi (Benaras), studied there, and returned with the title "Crest-Jewel of Vedic Learning". He is the local guru of all the brahmins, not only of Durvasapura but also of those living in the surrounding villages. He believes completely in the saying of Bhagavadgita, "Do what is to be done with no thought of fruit!" Praneshacharya wants to attain salvation, and is ready to undergo all kinds of tests on the path to salvation. He has deliberately married an invalid and sick woman. He leads a celibate life and is proud of his self-sacrifice. His life is pure, totally devoted to religion, utterly devoid of selfish motives.
The other "famous" brahmin who lives in this agrahara is Naranappa. He is brahmin who has actually rejected brahminhood. He has brought home Chandri, a prostitute from Kundapura, a nearby town.
He lives openly with her, drinks alcohol sitting in his front veranda, invites muslims to his house and eats meat with them. He has thrown Saligrama, the holy stone which is believed to represent God Vishnu, into the river, and has spit after it. If the flowers in the backyards of the other brahmins are 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, Naranappa grows the night-queen plant in his front garden. Its intense smelling flowers are meant solely to decorate Chandri's hair which lies coiled like a thick black cobra on her back. Their smell haunt the brahmins of the agrahara.
Naranappa, with his muslim friends, has caught sacred fish from the temple tank, has cooked them, and eaten them. Other brahmins are aghast at this sacrilegious act. They had believed, till then, that these fish should not even be touched, that whosoever touches them will vomit blood and will die! Naranappa has even corrupted the youth of the agrahara. Because of him one young man left Durvasapura and joined the army, where he - the agrahara believes so - is forced to eat beef. Another young man left his wife and home, and joined a travelling group of singers and actors. Naranappa's only ambition in life seems to do everything that destroys the brahminhood of the agrahara. His only sorrow is that hardly anything of it is left to destroy, except for the brahminism of Praneshacharya.
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.
Who knows how long this battle between Dharma (adhering to the right path) and Adharma (rejecting the right path) would have otherwise lasted? Some days ago Naranappa went to Shivamogge, a town far away, and returned with high fever. Soon he developed a big lump, and died within a couple of days.
When the novel opens, Chandri is hurrying to Praneshacharya's house to inform him of Naranappa's death. Because one of the rules that is followed by the brahmins is that when someone dies, the body should be cremated immediately. As long as the dead body is lying around nobody should eat food. Samskara deals with the complications which arise due to Naranappa's death. The immediate question is, "Who should cremate Naranappa?" Every brahmin is afraid to volunteer, because he fears that his brahminhood would thus be polluted. Neither can they let a non-brahmin cremate the body, because Naranappa was theoretically a brahmin when he died. Alive, Naranappa, was an enemy; dead, a prevention of meals; as a corpse, a problem, a nuisance.
The brahmins look to Praneshacharya to solve their problem, to find in the holy books an answer to their question. Reading the holy books he had during the entire night does not help Praneshacharya find an answer. Next morning he goes to the Maruti temple to pray to the Monkey-God to help him find the solution. But neither does an entire day spent in the dark, damp temple bring a solution. With broken spirit Praneshacharya leaves the temple and walks through the forest homewards. On hearing steps behind him, he stopped. It was Chandri who, overcome with compassion for this helpless brahmin, bent down to touch his feet in devotion. Praneshacharya, bewildered by the tight hold of a young female not his own, bent forward to bless her with his hands. He felt her breath, his hair rose in a thrill of tenderness as he caressed her loosened hair. The Sanskrit formula of blessing got stuck in his throat ... It was midnight when Praneshacharya woke up. His head was in Chandri's lap. Her fingers were caressing his back, his ears, his head....
Praneshacharya decides to speak out in front of the brahmins, to tell them that he slept with Chandri, that he has fallen from the height of Dharma. He returns home.
Chandri goes back home, sees that the dead body of her former lover has started to rot, gets hold of a muslim, who unknown to anyone carries the body and cremates it in the dead of the night. After the cremation, Chandri leaves Durvasapura, and returns to Kundapura.
In the morning as Praneshacharya helps his wife as usual to bathe, he is full of disgust at the body he sees in front of him. It was as if for the first time he was aware of beauty and ugliness. He had of course read all the classics. But until then he had not desired any of the beauty he had read in them. Till then all earthly fragrance was like the flowers that go only to adorn the god's hair. All female beauty was the beauty of Goddess Lakshmi, queen and servant of Lord Vishnu. All sexual enjoyment was Krishna's when he stole the bathing cowgirls' garments, and left them naked in the water. Now he wanted for himself a share of all that. ...
The novel "Samskara" deals with eternal questions; with the question of who should cremate Naranappa, a brahmin who has rejected brahminhood, with the question of what Praneshacharya, a pious man in whom life is finally stirred by the female contact, should now do. Should he be courageous and say openly what he did, should he hide it and live as if nothing has happened? Initially Praneshacharya decides on the second course of action. 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 by Chandri's touch. The novel ends as Praneshacharya decides to return to Durvasapura, and to own up his fall. But Anatha Murthy, the author of "Samskara", does not answer the other important question. It is the question of what the brahmins should do when they are confronted with the confessions of Praneshacharya. What does one do when faced with such truth? As the translator A.K. Ramanujam puts it, the novel ends, but does not conclude.
Holm / 2000