Book Review: Samskara by U R Ananthamurthy
Book Review: Samskara by U R Ananthamurthy

Post by Falguni Chaudhary

The book Samskara: A Rite For A Dead Man sheds light on the hierarchical structures that stretches from the Brahmin head to the Shudra limbs following the varna dharma analogy of Brahminic Hinduism.

Samskara depicts disintegration of values, acting as a mirror to the mundane reality. Keeping in mind the current scenario, as we are entering a post-COVID world, the news around discrimination against lower caste volunteers/social workers are rising. A report by Outlook stated how a man in Uttar Pradesh refused to eat food cooked by a Dalit woman. Given how caste-based discrimination continues to be prevalent in people’s minds leading them to demonstrate the same in degrading ways, it is time we sensitize ourselves. Ananthamurthy in his novel offers a post-structuralist approach to the rigid caste ideologies prevalent in the Hindu discourse.

Samskara: A Rite For A Dead Man, 1965

Author : U. R. Ananthamurthy

Publisher : Oxford University Press

Translator : A.K. Ramanujan

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Genre : Fiction

Major Themes In Samskara

Ananthamurthy portrays the narrow minded and conservatism of the Brahmin community, through the rise and fall of the protagonist Praneshacharya. The narrative has Miltonic undertones,where a man is “tempted” to get the “forbidden fruit”, which in this case is Chandri – a lower caste woman, and how the actual acts leads to the man’s downfall. Just like in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Samskara also has a narrative wherein women bear the weight of the blame. Here, Chandri, who is a victim of the predatory heterosexual male gaze, is blamed for corrupting the chaste Acharya.

Samskara also has a narrative wherein women bear the weight of the blame. Here, Chandri, who is a victim of the predatory Brahminical heterosexual male gaze, is blamed for corrupting the chaste Acharya.

Praneshacharya’s hamartia is a result of several personality traits which are revealed as the story progresses. Acharya’s delusion of grandeur and adamant self-renunciation to remain chaste as means for attaining salvation leads to a denial of his own desires. This leads to a pent up catharsis in him, which eventually interferes with his cognitive and emotional reasoning, as Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also emphasises on while explaining human behavior.

Caste And Social Position As Markers Of Identity

Majority of people in the community of agrahara are Brahmins. They are traditionally orthodox and conservative and strictly follow the rules defined by their religion. Praneshacharya completed his Vedic education and is considered as the most learned man of the Brahmin community. The main goal of his life is to attain liberation or moksha. To him, it is an act of self sacrifice when he marries Bhagirati, an invalid woman and remains celibate.

Polar opposite to Praneshacharya is Narappa. Brahmins of the village have revolted against Narappa. Apparently, Narappa lost his status as a Brahmin because of his deeds he brought home a lower caste women named Chandri, he eats meat and fish, is acquainted with Muslims and has fished in the sacred pond. The Brahmin community implores Praneshacharya to banish Narappa from their idealistic community, but Praneshacharya believes that Narappa can be convinced to get rid of immoral acts and turned back into a true Brahmin. However, Narappa’s sudden death due to plague complicates things. It gets especially chaotic when the time comes to light his funeral pyre and his status as a true Brahmin is questioned.

Also read: Hatred In The Belly Review: A Critique Of Brahminism

The book explores themes such as caste system, greed and self discovery. The protagonist is shown strictly following the Manusmriti. Everyone within the caste system are seen justifying and internalising their individual roles, thus getting caught in a vicious cycle of anarchic caste-based hegemony.

When Narappa dies of plague, people question his purity as a Brahmin on the basis of his past actions and in the process, expose their own shortcomings. The book of Dharma offers no solutions to the dilemma that the Brahmins are facing. A perplexed Praneshacharya is shown imploring god Maruthi for divine intervention.

Pranesharacharya’s Enlightenment And Transformation

Praneshacharya’s journey as a perfect idea of a preconceived notion only to be transformed and returned from his own purificatory sacrament as a new man. Chandri, who was waiting in the darkness to know what Acharya learnt in his prayers, made love to him that night. This transgression of boundaries stem from three forces: erotic, mythic and untouchable. Here the erotic disregards boundaries and crosses the bodies across a sacred/carnal divide. In this event, an internal event meaningfully coincides with an external event.

This disjuncture between the real and the symbolic becomes problematical, as Praneshacharya is now no more sure of his identity, status or authority. As a ‘subject’ he is no longer seen as the source of meaning but instead, he was the site of meaning. He would now undergo a radical loss of identity and coherence.

In a Lacanian universe, Praneshacharya’s development of identity negotiates with three elements: Imaginary, Symbolic and the Real. Despite his “preparations” Praneshacharya’s sexual intercourse with Chandri transcends his conceptions, ideas and notions of what “he should be”. Lack of sexual pleasure is creating a psychological lacuna in him. Deep in his unconscious desires as unfolded later in the story, Praneshacharya also wants to enjoy pleasures centred around women and children but was thwarted by his ascetic responsibility and duty to his religion.

Praneshacharya is not able to figure out if his erotic desire was his conscious choice at one point, the ‘lapsed’ and putrefying body aggravated his moral dilemma, now it is the voluptuous body of a woman that incites it.

Unhindered by Bhagirathi’s death, Praneshacharya then enters into the unhinged and feral world of Putta – signifying the death of his earlier self. He is now able to justify his disruptive unconscious. He watches a cock-fight, visits Padmavati – the sex worker who only entertains Brahmins. He also consciously participates in the temple feast being unclean violating the norms of religion. Praneshacharya’s return to the village is symbolic of a journey from external to internal. In the last few pages of the novel, we see Acharya yearning for a male child. “If I had a son I could have brought him up lovingly.”

In the last few pages of the novel, we see Acharya yearning for a male child. “If I had a son I could have brought him up lovingly.”

Also read: The Cunning Casteism Of The Brahmin -  Ravi Shankar Etteth

To sum up, the act of uniting binary opposites by embracing the non-traditional side of the separation, Samskara seems to promote a new paradigm. It focuses on the social questions of the caste system and highlights the cognitive dissonance created in the minds of its followers. I personally believe that this genre should be explored more by readers today and drive forward the impeding social change built on the foundations of equality and equity.

Falguni is a PR specialist and communication strategist who thrives on brand building and creating the right PR mix for brands. Apart from the daily grid, she loves doing photo-walks, read feminist theories and bake. You can find her on Instagram.

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