‘Samskara’ by U.R. Ananthamurthy (originally written in Kannada) is a novel that raises multiple questions. As pointed out by A.K. Ramanujam ‘question is raised; kept alive, despite possible solutions; maintained, till profounder questions are raised. Answers are delayed until the question is no longer relevant.’ But my point of interest lies in the novel’s treatment of the very religious texts that form the basis of a socio-religious organization. One finds in the novel a pointed critique of a society where the religious text is allowed to become more important than the people living by its tenets. The interpreters, preachers as well as the followers are held captive by the words of the text leading to a consequent dismissal of the lives that breathe outside it.
Naranappa, a Brahman who drinks alcohol, eats meat and loves a ‘low-caste prostitute’ woman lives his life questioning the brahminical ways of the Agrahara. His death leaves the Agrahara perplexed as the Brahmins do not wish to do his death rite from the fear of losing their Brahmin hood. Praneshacharya, the Brahmin protagonist claimed to be the ‘Crest-Jewel of Vedanta philosophy’ is expected to find the answer to this problem in religious texts. He tries to find the answer ‘Among his palm leaf texts, riffling them for the right and lawful answer.’ This pursuit leads him to critique the very relevance of seeking answers to contemporary problems in texts that were written ages ago.
The world of the Agrahara is determined by laws, just like any other form of social organization. The conflict arises when these religious laws are received in isolation to the social context in which they were written. They are a product of a certain society that no longer exists and hence, one cannot find solutions for contemporary issues in their words. This problem finds an expression in the following words from the novel ‘Afraid of admitting that the book of Dharma had no solution to the present dilemma…it is because times are getting worse that such dilemmas torment us..’. Times are different and as social relations change, the society requires an interrogation of these laws.
Even the Brahmins who are the so-called upholders of these laws are bound by them. Brahmins derive power out of their authority to interpret these texts, but this is an attributed power instead of an acquired one and hence, is more vulnerable to damage. ‘The darkness of Brahmin heads filled with chants they did not understand.’ The desire and the ability to understand the texts is lost and as Praneshacharya in his moment of his helplessness points out ‘God has become to me a set of tables, learned by rote. Not an awareness, a wonder…’ It creates a stagnating society, a society that reads the Vedas, the Puranas but refuses to go beyond them. This captivity is what leads to intolerance whereby the text is seen as paramount to the human ability to reason.
Conflict is the essence of life. The odious decline of the Agrahara signifies that a social organization that is not amenable to change is doomed to extinction. If a society does not engage in a debate with the forces that hold it captive, it will eventually fall apart. Praneshacharya ponders ‘I didn’t try to solve it for myself. I depended on God, on the old law books.’ He finds his release in accepting his actions and being answerable for their execution. ‘We shape ourselves through our choices, bring form and line to this thing we call our person… I am not free until I realize that the turning is also my act, I am to answer for it.’ Hence, the answer to captivity is not just release, but the movement that this release causes. It is not about closures or conclusions but about conflicts and questions.
– Ashwini Rajpoot