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In Review: Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man by U.R. Ananthamurthy

2016/12/15 — 10:23

【Text by Melissa Beck】

Asif he had become a stranger to himself, the Acharya opened his eyes and asked himself: Where am I?

NYRB Classics’ reissue of this book comes at an opportune moment, as societies around the world face the dangers of religious extremism and its focus on ritual and regulation rather than humanity. U.R. Ananthamurthy, in A.K Ramanujan’s translation from the Kannada, tries to teach Indian society a lesson in this story about the trouble with prioritizing tradition over compassion.


Samskara begins with one of the central cleansing and purification rituals in the rites of Hindu worship. Praneshacharya, the most respected Brahmin in his traditional and conservative agrahara, begins each day by bathing the sickly and desiccated body of his infirm wife.  Praneschacharya has faithfully carried out this ritual for more than twenty years. He views sexless marriage as a penance and a sacrifice that will deliver salvation in this life and in the next.  But the death of an impious and sinful Brahmin, Naranappa, in the agrahara brings Praneshacharya to a spiritual crisis of his own that makes him question his long-practiced rituals and beliefs. The cleansing ritual that he performs on his wife at the beginning of the story is the last time that he will perform this expiating routine; this is the beginning of the end for Praneshacharya’s spiritual cleanliness and purity.

Samskara—the compulsory rite given to Brahmins at their passing—becomes the central controversy of the novel. Naranappa has renounced the Brahmin rituals of the agrahara and has carried out the most outrageous and offensive acts to show his disapproval of his fellow worshippers and neighbors. He’s taken up excessive drinking, spent time with Muslims and ate meat with them, and caught fish from the sacred temple pond. The most impious of his actions, however, was casting off his lawful wife and his choosing to live with a lower class, outcast woman named Chandri.  Despite his hedonistic behavior, the Brahmins never excommunicated Naranappa from their small, conservative village.


It is Chandri, Narranappa’s low-born lover, who delivers the news of his death to the agrahara.  This announcement causes an immediate conflict over the performance of the death rites for this blasphemous man whom they continued to allow to live among them. The Brahmins’ failure to act in the face of Naranappa’s sacrilege can be viewed as the first of Ananthamurthy’s many criticisms of the Brahmins way of life; their laziness or fear or lack of conviction, or a combination of all three, prevent them from expelling Narranappa from the agrahara.  Now that he has died, none of them want to be responsible for performing the death rites for his body.

The Brahmins’ inertia during Narranappa’s life is extended to the event of his death. Ananthamurthy slowly exposes their sins and shows how the erosion of their core values begins to disintegrate their traditional community; the rotting of Narranappa’s body as the Brahmins argue over ritual and duty mimics the rotting soul of their highly exclusive society. Praneshacharya addresses his village, thrown into great turmoil:

What’s the way out now? Can we just fold our arms and stare at a dead body laid out in the agrahara? According to ancient custom, until the body is properly removed, there can be no worship, no bathing, no prayers, no food, nothing. And, because he was not excommunicated, no one but a Brahmin can touch his body.

The stubbornness of wanting to follow sacred law causes Naranappa’s body to rot, which makes the agrahara unbearable to the living. Between the horrible stench, the abundance of rats and appearance of vultures, all members of the community must flee. The Brahmins place ritual above what is considered a basic human right: the decency of a respectful and timely burial, regardless of the deceased’s religion.

When the novel was written in the 1960s, many South Indian Brahim communities criticized the harsh portrayal of their conservatism in the conflicts over Naranappa’s death ritual. It is no wonder that these Brahmins would be upset by this depiction of their religious sect as ridiculous hypocrites with individual hedonistic obsessions. The Brahmins in the novel at least feign piety and self-control, while Naranappa openly flaunts his rejection of their strict practices. For example, Dasacharya is a miserly man who gets all of his food and nourishment from the meals that Brahmins receive at death ceremonies and anniversaries. He is distraught not because of the controversy over Naranappa’s, but because the mourning period requires strict fasting, and he doesn’t know when he will have his next meal. Another Brahmin, Durgbahatta, can’t stop leering at Chandri, who is rarely seen outside of Naranappa’s home. The description of Durgbahatta’s lust exposes the duplicity of these supposedly religious men:

For the first time his connoisseur eyes had the chance to appraise this precious object which did not normally stir out of the house, this choice object that Naranappa had brought from Kundapura. A real ‘sharp’ type, exactly as described in Vatsyayana’s manual of love—look at her, toes longer than the big toe, just as the Love Manual says.  Look at those breasts. In sex she’s the type who sucks the male dry. Her eyes, which should be fickle, are not misty with grief and fear, but she looks good that way.

Ananthamurthy does not hold back in his criticism of the Brahmin way of life; the portrayal of the Brahmins’ selfish reactions to Naranappa’s death—especially of Durgbahatta’s longing for this grieving woman—makes their outward show of piety even more perverse and ridiculous.

In order to entice the Brahmins to bury her lover, Chandri takes off her gold jewelry and adornments and offers these riches to the men of the village.  The lure of gold causes many of the Brahmins to change their minds about performing the death rituals for Naranappa; several of them decide that the material gain from the burial is worth putting their Brahminhood in jeopardy. Fighting begins over who will have the right to lay Naranappa’s body on the funeral pyre. The exposure of the Brahmins’ duplicity reads like a tragicomedy about a family that fights over the earthly possessions of the deceased before the funeral has taken place.

As a last act of desperation, Praneschacharya decides to go to the temple of Maruti the Monkey god to ask the deity to help him come to a decision about Naranappa’s burial. Praneschacharya performs an elaborate ritual and chants in front of the image of the god in the hopes of getting some answers. After several hours, he is exhausted, hungry, and frustrated because the Monkey god has given him no signal. He wanders out of the temple and into the forest, where he encounters Chandri, herself deep in mourning.  They fall into one other’s arms and the ensuing sexual encounter becomes the catalyst for Praneschacharya’s spiritual crisis:

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 ears, his head. Asif he had become a stranger to himself, the Acharya opened his eyes and asked himself: Where am I? How did I get here? What’s this dark? Which forest is this? Who is this woman?

Praneschacharya, in his forty years of life, has never experienced intercourse with a woman. Through the exploration of Chandri’s supple and healthy body, a new world of flesh and desire opens before him. His old life begins to feel strange and foreign to him. When he finds his way back to his wife, he attempts to perform the bathing ritual for her, but for the first time in their marriage, he sees her as a disgusting, shriveled up invalid; he no longer feels pulled towards this life of penance that he has forced on himself. The most shocking realization for Praneschacharya is his deeper understanding of Naranappa’s decision to live with Chandri despite incurring the disapproval of the entire agrahara.  Praneschacharya repeatedly states throughout the narrative that he never insisted on Narahappa’s removal from their community because he always believed that through example and teaching he could bring him back into his Brahminhood. Is it ironic that, through Narahappa’s death, it is Praneschacharya who is inculcated into the rites of the flesh?

The final part of the book describes Praneschacharya’s journey on foot through forests and cities in search of an answer for himself. Should he go back to the agrahara and confess all of his misdeeds to his fellow Brahmins? Or should he seek out Chandri and fully embrace this newly discovered world of the flesh? During his journey, he meets a young man named Putta who becomes Praneschacharya’s guru about the ways of the world outside of his conservative agrahara. Putta takes him to a carnival with games and acrobats, a gruesome cockfight, and finally to visit a local prostitute.

Putta embodies all of the worldly experiences that Praneschacharya has worked so hard in his life to avoid. Praneschacharya has denied himself pleasure and passion for such a long time that when he is faced with female flesh, carnivals, and cockfights he is overwhelmed to the point of inertia—he is paralyzed with indecision. The end of the novel still does not bring a resolution to Praneschacharya’s journey. His extreme asceticism has blinded him to the physical enjoyments of the world outside of his rigid rituals and cleansing baths.  What begins as a Samskara for a dead man becomes a Samskara, or a rite of passage, into a wholly different cycle of life for Praneschacharya.

Melissa Beck has advanced degrees in Lain and Classics and she teaches Latin in Northeastern Connecticut at Woodstock Academy where she is also the chair of the language department. She reviews literature in translation from around the world on her website http://www.thebookbindersdaughter.com .  She is a Special Correspondent for the literary magazine Numéro Cinq and she also writes book reviews for World Literature Today and Numéro Cinq.

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