Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man
Made into a powerful, award-winning film in 1970, this important Kannada novel of the sixties has received widespread acclaim from both critics and general readers since its first publication in 1965. As a religious novel about a decaying brahmin colony in the south Indian village of Karnataka, "Samskara" serves as an allegory rich in realistic detail, a contemporary reworking of ancient Hindu themes and myths, and a serious, poetic study of a religious man living in a community of priests gone to seed. A death, which stands as the central event in the plot, brings in its wake a plague, many more deaths, live questions with only dead answers, moral chaos, and the rebirth of one man. The volume provides a useful glossary of Hindu myths, customs, Indian names, flora, and other terms. Notes and an afterword enhance the self-contained, faithful, and yet readable translation.
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Paper on the Novel 'Samskara'
The Quest after Divinity:
Praneshacharya and Putta in
T.P. Mohamed Shareef
Lecturer in English
Sir Syed College, Taliparamba,
Kannur District, Kerala
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.
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 Paneshchaarya 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 the feet of Praneshacharya 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.
Pranesha charya couldn’t find a solution to the dialemma 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