In his novella “Samskara”, an important work of the 1960s, U.R. Anantha Murthy has hurled a pungent attack on the contemporary Hindu Brahmin community. It is a religious novella about a decaying Brahmin colony in a Karnataka village, called Durvasapura. The author’s satirical picture of this community shows these Hindu Brahmins as the representatives of a generation in India, undergoing a sharp and inevitable process of change – a transformation from their rigid orthodoxy into modernity. The strait-laced village Brahmins are evidently caught between these two extremes; consequently, they are perplexed and confused. Pranesacharya is the central character through whom Anantha Murthy epitomizes the entire problem, the cobweb into which the whole Brahmin sect has been cast.
Utmost infertility and spiritual bankruptcy of this Agrahara- community have been portrayed through the pictures of the minor characters. They are shown as limited beings and are governed by the baser passions and instincts like material greed, voluptuousness, envy and voraciousness. They are devoid of any intellectuality; they believe in living by their hearts with powerful instinct rather than of mind. They are God-fearing people; yet on account of their lack of self-respect and self-restraint, they commit all kinds of moral sins. These marginal Brahmins who are simply swayed by passions are always rendered thoughtless and inert in critical times. They lack the dynamism and energy of the Acharya, Naranappa or even Putta. For every problem, simple or complex, they look towards Pranesh who always solves their problems after consulting the holy scriptures.
From its very title to the end, the novel allegorizes a concept central to Hinduism. “Samskara” centres around a dilemma as to who is the rightful authority to perform the death-rite of Naranappa, an anti-brahminical Brahmin. Naranappa was a modern man, totally defiant of the traditions and customs of the Brahmins. In fact, the heretic, Naranappa, by living the life of a libertine, questioned and challenged the Brahmins of an exclusive orthodox Agrahara, broke every known taboo and exposed their ‘samskara’ (maturation or refinement of spirit) or lack of it. He is truly the mocking anti-self of those greedy, hypocritical Brahmins, who are at heart jealous of his forbidden pleasures, of his modern way of life and craved for a mistress like Chandri protected fully by modern secular laws, more by the brahmins’ bad conscience, the rebel lived defiantly in their midst. The orthodox Brahmins had their own inmost unspoken libidinous desires as evident in their romanticized longing for Parijatpura but had to put a bridle on their desires. They were so much timid, nonvirile, afraid of their orthodoxy and traditions. They are now totally confused, faced with age-old human questions, arising from Naranappa’s death, treacherous and double-edged: once raised, they turn on the questioner.
Naranappa and Praneshacharya are binary opposites initially. But eventually, the Acharya becomes one with his opposite, in that contrary to all his “preparation’, he sleeps with Naranappa’s low caste-mistress, Chandri. All the battles of orthodoxy and modernity, of tradition and defiance, asceticism and sensuality, the meaning and meaninglessness of ritual, dharma as nature and law, desire and salvation have now become internal to the Acharya. The arena shifts from a Hindu village community to his body and spirit. The orthodoxy-modernity, religion secularism tension has been clarified in the novel through the polarity of characters and situations, which are ultimately merged. Praneshacharya and Naranappa are merged through Chandri; the Acharya is initiated into the mysteries of the crude modern world by Putta, the Acharya’s erotic description of a classical heroine rouses Shripati and he makes love to an outcaste woman. Thus, in Praneshacharya, brahminism questions itself in modern existentialist mode. The questioning leads him into the new and ordinary worlds of Naranapa & Putta.
In presenting these two opposing characters Naranappa and Pranesh, Anantha Murthy gives a detailed exposition to the thought crisis involving their whole Brahmin community. It is also shown that traditions and customs in any community are also flux-bound, liable to drastic changes and that the phase of such a transition is very crucial for the healthy growth of a community. Initially, though the Acharya is the object of reverence in the village and people have blind faith in his words like scripture, Naranappa as a foil shows that the Acharya actually lacks the dynamism and the true force of life. On the contrary, Naranappas is dynamic and forceful enough to trouble the orthodox villagers including Praneshacharya alive or in death. Ultimately, the Acharya has to accept the stark reality of a life of warm relationships. Ironically enough, he becomes what he has always opposed and disliked. The sad experiences with Mahabala and Naranappa have made him a moralist but eventually has to adopt the same route to discover his identity. Later, this bold acceptance of his present state serves as a clue to bring an end to his unrest and wanderings.
“Samskara” is a religious novel, but we must not oversimplify matters by calling it a mere criticism of a Hindu Brahmin community. With the Acharya’s final return to the village, the novelist explains clearly ‘the sense of dharma’ which had been so confusing so far. The problems of sin and salvation are resolved. The religious discussions assume metaphysical form, and the novel appears as a document of metaphysical thoughts and philosophical speculations. The hero’s dilemma bears clearly an existential tone. So, the novel offers something more than only criticism of Brahmanism or Hindu society in general. It’s a religious novel in its purpose and objective, i.e. the goal of human life.