A study of 'Samskara', a novel written by U.R.Anantha Murthy, Indian novelists.
U.R. Anantha Murthty’s ‘Samskara’ was first published in 1965 and it was made into a film in 1970. Since then, it had created a lot of controversy in academic and non-academic circles. The theme of the novel is the story of a decaying brahmin agrahara in the old Konkan region.
The title of the novel ‘Samskara’ has different meanings. According to ‘A Kannada- English Dictionary’ by Reverent F. Kittel, the word ‘Samskara’ has the Following nine possible meanings:
1. Forming well or thoroughly, making perfect, perfecting; finishing refining,
2. Forming in the mind, conception, idea, notion; the power of memory,
faculty of recollection, the realizing of past perceptions.
3. Preparation, making ready, preparation of food etc., cooking, dressing...
4. Making sacred, hallowing..
5. Consecration, consecration of a king, dedication etc.
6. Making pure, purification, purity.
7. A sanctifying or purificatory rite or essential ceremony (enjoyned on all the first
three classes or castes).
8. Any rite or ceremony. Funeral obsequies.
Interestingly enough, the novel incorporates most of the meanings of the word ‘Samskara’ in its scope and content. According to A.K. Ramanujan, who translated the novel into English, the title refers to a concept central to Hinduism. The sub-title of his translation, ‘A Rite for a Dead Man’ , is the most concrete of these many concentric senses that spread through the work.
The central theme of the novel is the death of Naranappa and the complications connected with the issue of his burial. Naranappa was an anti-Brahminical Brahmin who spent all his life in defying Brahmin beliefs and lifestyles. He brought a lower-caste prostitute to the agarahara and lived with her in his house. He even invited Muslim friends to the agrahara and openly consumed alcohol and non-vegetarian food so as to insult the other Brahmins.
When Naranappa died, his burial became a complicated issue. The Brahmins did not want to do the last rites of Naranappa because they were afraid that the guru at Shringeri might excommunicate them for burying a heretic. At the same time, they wanted the burial to be over as soon as possible because they were not even permitted to eat or drink anything while a Brahmin corpse awaited cremation in the agrahara. Finally they left the issue to Praneshacharya who was the head of the village.
Praneshacharya searched all the holy books to find a solution to this problem. Chandri, the concubine of Naranappa, submitted all her jewels at his feet to meet the expenses of the burial rites. This act of Chandri further complicated the issue because all the Brahmins suddenly turned greedy on seeing such a large quantity of gold. Now they all wanted to do the rites so as to get the gold. Praneshacharya became afraid that the love of gold might corrupt the whole agrahara.
Praneshacharya couldn’t find a solution to the dilemma of the burial issue even after consulting Manu and other holy texts. So he went to the Hanuman temple and prayed for some divine direction. But the monkey-God refused to enlighten him in anyway. While he was returning from the Hanuman temple, Chandri tempted him in the darkness. He fell to the temptation and made love to her then and there.
The sexual relationship with Chandri totally transformed Praneshacharya. He felt that he no longer had any moral right to continue as the spiritual leader of the agrahara. So he refused to direct the Brahmins in the issue of the burial.
Chandri became desperate and she approached the lower caste people to do the burial. But they refused “to meddle with a Brahmin corpse even if she gave them all eight kinds of riches”. Finally she went to the Muslim section and pleaded to Ahmed Bari, the fish merchant. Ahmed Bari accepted the challenge and secretly cremated the dead body at midnight.
Chandri wept for her dead lover and returned to Kundapura, her native village.
2. The Character of Praneshacharya
Praneshacharya is the leader of the Durvasapura agrahara. He is in his late thirties. He was a great Sanskrit scholar and got 15 lace shawls and silver platters by winning arguments on religious topics with other super-pundits. He learned Sanskrit from Kashi and knew the Vedas and the scriptures thoroughly.
Praneshacharya married an invalid woman called Bhagirati so as to get greater opportunities to purify his soul. In spite of 20 years of married life, he could not enjoy the pleasures of sex; nor could his ailing wife give him a child. But he was not disappointed. He believed that Lord Krishna wanted to test him on his way to salvation.
Every morning the Acharya started his day by bathing his wife Bhagirathi. He took his breakfast only after feeding his wife and the cow in his house. These routine works filled the mind of the Acharya with pleasure and a sense of worth as sweet as the five-fold nectar of holy days. Thinking about his own lot he proudly swelled and felt “By marrying an invalid, I get ripe and ready”.
The death of Naranappa created a controversy in the agrahara and the Brahmins were divided in their views on the burial of this anti-Brahminical Brahmin. They left the issue to the decision of Praneshacharya. Everyone was ready to accept his verdict.
This situation put heavy responsibility on the shoulders of Praneshacharya. He consulted Manu and other holy texts and tried to reach at a decision. But he couldn’t find any right direction from any of these holy texts.
This incident revealed the weaknesses in the personality of Praneshacharya. He studied the Vedas from Kashi itself and established himself as one of the most respected Brahmin pundits of Karnataka. But when a real situation came, his vast knowledge didn’t prove useful. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The body of a dead Brahmin lied awaiting cremation in the agrahara and he, the head of village, couldn’t give any guidance to his people even after several hours of waiting.
The reader of the novel placed him in high esteem in the beginning but this incident was sufficient to drive away all our fascination for him.
By evening, Praneshacharya became desperate as he couldn’t arrive at any conclusion. So he crossed the river and went to the Maruthi temple where the Brahmins of this agrahara worshipped Hanuman. Inside the temple, he waited desperately for the god’s favour, His solution. “Without a proper rite, the dead body is rotting; O Maruti, how long is this ordeal going to last?” - he pleaded. “If it shouldn’t be done, give me a sign, at least the flower on the left, please”, he begged. He entreated. He sang devotional love-songs to the god. He became a child, a beloved, a mother. In the lamp light, the flower-decked Maruti didn’t yield; gave neither the right flower nor the left.
The experience at the Hanuman temple disappointed Praneshacharya very much. “I didn’t get the answer in the Books, and I didn’t get it here”, he cried, “How can I face the people who have put their trust in me?”.
Finally Praneshacharya returned from the Maruthi temple because it was time for his wife’s medicine. He walked out of the temple into the dark forest outside. Chandri stood there in the darkness to learn the result of his prayer. She overflowed with Compassion for him and fell on his feet. They came closer, unconsciously embraced and caressed each other in the darkness. As if in a dream, Praneshacharya made love to Chandri then and there. It was midnight when the Acharya woke up. His head was in Chandri’s lap. His cheek was pressed into her low naked belly. Chandri’s fingers caressed his back, his ear, his head.
Praneshacharya lost his senses for sometime and asked himself :
‘Where am I?’
‘How did I get here ?’
‘What is this dark?’
‘Which forest is this?’
‘Who is this woman?’
After his sexual experience with Chandri, Praneshacharya became a changed man. He lost interest in guiding the other Brahmins. Very soon his wife Bhagirathi died. After the cremation of his wife the Acharya did not return to the agrahara. He did not want to take any of his possessions or money from his house. Intending to walk wherever his legs took him, he walked to the eastern side. He walked for a long time without thinking about the place or the direction.
It was during this aimless wandering in the forest that he met Putta. A young man joined him in the walk and introduced himself like this.
“I am Putta, of the Maleras. Going for the car-festival at Melige.”
Praneshacharya didn’t want to talk and want to be left alone as his mind was in a disturbed condition. But Putta persisted and continued to give companionship to the Acharya in spite of the latter’s continuous efforts to shake him off.
The friendship with Putta was the beginning of another complicated experience for Praneshacharya. It was to reveal before him further secrets of God’s blessings, which lied unknown to him in spite of his vast knowledge of the scriptures.
3. The Character of Putta
Putta is the second most important character of the novel ‘Samskara’. But the novelist does not give any clear idea of Putta’s native place or other details. We are only told that he belonged to the Malera community. This community is considered low in others people’s esteeem because they were the offsprings of brahmins and their lower caste mistresses.
Putta and Praneshacharya met each other for the first time on the forest path between Durvasapura and Melige. Putta took the initiative and introduced himself to the Acharya. But the Acharya was not in a mood for conversation. He tried to discourage Putta by talking as little as posible. But Putta was an extremely talkative person. He went on talking to the Acharya and never left him alone from that moment. He was oblivious to the fact that Praneshacharya was trying to get rid of him.
When the Acharya said that he came from down the valley, Putta replied that he knew people from that place. In fact, his father-in-law lived there!
Praneshacharya wanted to be left alone. So he tried to shake off Putta by sitting under a tree as if utterly tired. But Putta also immediately sat down under the same tree. To make himself comfortable, he even took out matches and bidis from the pocket and started smoking one.
Praneshacharya decided to escape while Putta was busy with his bidi. He rose to his feet and started walking again. Seeing this Putta also got up and started walking and said:
“You know if you have someone to talk to on the road, you forget the road. I, for one, always need someone to talk to”.
The Acharya tried his best to get rid of Putta but Putta “stuck to him dike a sin of the past. That way his way: if you stop, he will stop too; sit, he will sit. Walk faster, he will walk faster; if slower, slower; won’t leave your side.”
Putta not only followed the Acharya closely, but also started giving him many pieces of advice. Putta had no idea that this gentleman was a great Acharya, the very Crest-jewel of Vedanta. He noticed that the Acharya was walking barefooted and so advised him to buy a pair of sandals. After that Putta started asking riddles to the Acharya so as to pass time. “A river, a boat, a man with him, the man has a bundle of grass, a tiger, a cow. He is to cross the river one at a time in the boat....” Thus went the riddles of Putta.
Praneshacharya could easily find out the solutions to the riddles. But he was in a dilemma: If he gave the answers, he would be holding out a hand of friendship to Putta. If he didn’t, Putta will think him dull-witted. As they approched Melige, Putta moved on to more familiar terms. He offered coconut pieces and jaggery to the Acharya. He even narrated the quarrels with his wife.
Through the character of Putta, U.R. Anantha Murthy depicts the simple lifestyle of the lower caste people. Certainly they do not have the knowledge, class or aristocracy of the brahmins. But Putta is a very frindly and helpful type of person. He extended his campanionship to the Acharya and insisted on remaining with him throughout the journey.
4. The Quest after Divinity
The two characters Praneshacharya and Putta are very intelligently placed to explore the concept of divinity. Praneshacharya’s quest after divinity began in the mainstream Brahmin scholarly pattern but he arrived at any acceptable results only after meeting the lower-caste character Putta.
Putta is introduced only towards the end of the novel but even then this character is crucial to the development of the central theme. The total length of the novel is 138 pages (O.U.P. 1978. Second Edition) and Putta appears only from page.101 onwards.
Putta appears to be so low in social status that he shouldn't even be a walking companion to Praneshacharya. The Acharya is very eager to shake off Putta because he wants to be left alone in his present psychological condition. But Putta is very unreserved,chatty and amiable, and he clings to him like a leech.
Praneshacharya spent all his life studying the Vedas and the Puranas. He was a principled man and always stood rooted in these beliefs. He willingly married an invalid woman to accept the challenge of implementing the principle of selfless service in his life. Every morning and evening he gave a recital of Vedic stories to the people of the agrahara. He spent his days by worshipping God and in looking after his ailing wife.
Even after 20 years of married life he never experienced the pleasures of sex. He believed in abstaining from carnal pleasures and fulfilling his duty which, he expected, would lead him to salvation. ‘His duties in this world grew lighter and more fragrant like sandalwood rubbed daily on stone.’
All the knowledge he acquired became futile when the problem of Naranappa’s burial popped up. Naranappa led an anti-Brahminical life and so no one was prepared to perform his last rites. At the same time something had to be done immediately as Naranappa's dead body lied rotting in the agrahara. Being the village head, it was the Acharya’s duty to take a decision.
He was caught in a life-changing changing dilemma. “Is Naranappa, who drank liquor and ate meat, who threw the holy stone into river, is he a brahmin or is he not? Yet it is not at all right to keep a dead brahmin’s body waiting, uncremated”. Praneshachrya was supposed to be a man of great wisdom, insight, strength and willpower. Nobody would've expected him to succumb to temptations. But when Chandri seduced him in front of the Maruti temple, he took only a few seconds to acquiesce to the temptation and his belief in the strength of his spiritual personality was shattered.
After the sexual relationship with Chantri, the Acharya became a changed man. He lost faith in his position as a great Sanskrit scholar. With the death of his wife, he lost all roots in the village of Durvasapura. He left the village and started walking through the forest path with no specific destination in his mind.
The novelist introduces Putta at this juncture. Putta is a loquacious man and is always in need of good listeners. He is not a bore, he speaks interestingly and intelligently about various things around him. He has a naturally friendly personality and offers coconut pieces and jaggery to the Acharya who had not eaten anything for several hour. Even when the Acharya tries to avoid him, Putta continues to give him companionship. When the Acharya and Putta reached the temple-town of Melige, it was three o’clock in the afternoon. They climbed down into the temple tank and washed their hands and feet. It was very difficult to walk along the temple road, the crowd was so thick that, if you scattered a handful of sesame, not a seed would fall to the ground’, But Putta very carefully led the Acharya along the streets like a little child.
The novelist uses the example of the Bombay Box to illustrate the personality of Putta. There was a man in the festival ground who showed the people various pictures for just one coin. Putta immediately got interested in the peepshow. He gave a coin to the Bombay Box man, pulled the black curtain of the box over his head and sat there looking into the pictures. Putta was a person who lived in the present. He gave importance to enjoying the little pleasures of life. He did not pretend to be very spiritual or high headed.
As they neared the temple, beggars sat on either side of the narrow road. There were beggars with stumps for hands or legs, blind men, people with two holes in place of a nose, cripples of every kind. For the Acharya, this was a disgusting sight to see. But even this unpleasent sight was an interesting experience to Putta. He behaved as if he was the judge in a pageant competition and threw a coin to the most attractive of the cripples’.
The temple town was filled with people. The shops were full of village women, shyly drinking soda-water, farmers, children. To them the whole festival was a matter of enjoyment, experience and contentment.
Through all this excited activity and movement, Praneshacharya walked as one entranced, following Putta. He was the only person who could not enjoy the festival since he was incapable of being involved in anything.
Finally Praneshacharya found a pretext to get rid of Putta. He said that he wanted to sell some jewellery. But instead of leaving him alone, Putta volunteerily offered his help in negotiating the price with the goldsmith. In fact Putta personally knew the goldsmith and wanted to ensure that the Acharya was not cheated.
Thus we find that Putta extends his hand of friendship to the Acharya upto the very end of the novel. Even when the Acharya returned to Durvasapura, Putta didn’t leave him. “How can I send you alone?” he asked. But Praneshcharya did not have the capacity to appreciate and honour the friendship of this helpful human being.
Praneshacharya spent all his life in intellectual and spiritual pursuits. He married an invalid and tortured himself so as to purify his soul. His wife advised him to marry another women so as to get a child, but he refused to yield. He believed in Lord Krishna’s advice : ‘Do what is to be done with no thought of fruit’.
The novel begins with this admirable aspect of Praneshacharys’s personality. But very soon he falls in our esteem because he is not able to take any decision regarding the burial of Naranappa. As the spiritual leader of the Durvasapara village, it is his duty to guide the Brahmins in this difficult predicament. But he simply went through the holy books umpteen times without reaching at a definite conclusion.
The defects in his personality are further sublimated when he falls to the attractions of the prostitute Chandri outside the Hanuman Temple. The Acharya’s great faith in God and his vast knowledge of the scriptures did not give him enough willpower to overcome the temptation. Just like any other ordinary man, he made love to her and even ate taboo food from her hands. The Acharya was not able to recover from the shock of this incident. He wandered aimlessily along the forest footpath until he met Putta.
Compared to the Acharya, Putta had a stronger and more pragmatic kind of personality. He was chatty, amiable and eager to help. He belonged to a lower caste community called Maleras. His knowledge and intelligence was limited. But in spite of all his limitations, he had the capacity to carry an interesting and intriguing conversation. It would seem to the readers that Putta was wiser than the Acharya in some aspects.
The earth is the only planet that has water resources and an oxygen envelope around it. The rivers and the mountains , the meadows and the lakes were all beautifully built by God for our enjoyment. People like Putta lived in this world, enjoyed it and found meaning in God’s kindness. For people like Praneshacharya, divinity was something you found by indulging in holy books and scriptures. Praneshacharya searched for divinity all his life. But when God himself appeared before him in disguise of Putta, he could not recognize Him. He even could not feel comfortable in the heartfelt friendship of Putta. His only desire was to get rid of Putta. Putta is like a lottery ticket. Your scratch the aluminium foil and the prize comes out. Your scratch Putta and God comes out of him and all you have to do is to fall down at His feet. For Putta, the festival ground is a source of infinite joy. He makes use of each and every element of festivity. When he sees a soda-pop shop, he drinks a soda. When he sees a coffee-shop, he enjoys a cup. When he sees the Bombay Box, he peeps into it. Even the ugly beggars do not dampen his spirit. Instead, he made the most of the situation and enjoyed himself. Praneshacharya, on the other hand, cannot enjoy anything in the Melige town. Though he is thirsty, he cannot come in terms with drinking soda at the roadside shops. Ribbons and pipes mean nothing to him because he has noone to send a gift to. Even a cup of coffee cannot be enjoyed because he fears that it might be impure with lower-caste contact.
When they reached the Melige temple, Putta suggested that, being a Brahmin, Praneshacharya could eat the temple dinner. The Acharya relunctantly went inside the dining hall and sat before a leaf; he was afraid that someone would recognize him. He was very much irritated when the Smarta brahmin sitting next to him started asking questions:
‘Can I ask from where you come?’
‘From where exactly?’
‘What is your descent-line?’
Praneshacharya was very much agitated at his inquisitiveness.He had a feeling that he would find real happines only by living with Chandri. But how can he do it? Chandri belonged to the extreme lower caste and the Acharya was a Brahmin. Not an ordinary Brahmin but a Smarta Brahmin who is renowned all over Karnataka as ‘the Crest-jewel of vedic learning’. Even if the Acharya married Chandri, it is not sure that he might be allowed to live with her peacefully. On any day, someone might stop him on the way and ask:
‘Who is this woman?’
‘Why do you walk with her?’
U.R. Anantha Murthy does not make things clear even at he end of the novel. We find Praneshacharya getting into a bullock-cart that is going to Agumbe. He will travel for four or five hours. What comes after that? He did not know the answer. The very last sentence of the novel is like this: ‘Praneshacharya waited, anxious, expectant’. According to A.K.Ramanujan, the translator, ‘the novel ends, but does not conclude’.