Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2018

Samskara, a Rite for a Dead Man, by U.R. Ananthamurthy, translated by A.K. Ramanajan

The blurb tells me that Samskara, a Rite for a Dead Man is a classic of modern Indian literature but I bought it when the author U.R. Ananthamurthy (1932-2014) was a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.  In this edition the novella is only 118 pages long, but it offers plenty to think about and I’m not surprised that it enjoyed critical acclaim as well as popularity when it was first published in India in 1965.

The Translator’s Note tells us that Samskara  is a religious novella about a decaying Brahmin colony in a Karnataka village, an allegory rich in realistic detail.  That doesn’t sound immediately appealing, but the story absorbed me almost immediately.  A dilemma arises when a man has died and the Brahmin religious rites must be performed – but he has no son and none of the Brahmins want to sully themselves by doing it for him because he was a bad man who had flaunted his sinfulness for a long time.  And while the community deliberates over this, it is forbidden for any of the adults to eat, and what’s worse, the body is putrefying and making the whole village smell.

Naranappa’s sins are drinking alcohol, taking an ‘unclean’ woman as his lover, and breaking numerous taboos such as throwing a sacred stone into the temple pool.  There’s no doubt that he’s been provocative, and he’s been a very bad influence on the next generation too.  However, Naranappa remains a Brahmin despite all this because unless he is excommunicated he remains a Brahmin all his life – and Praneshacharya, (the spiritual leader of the community) never took that step because Naranappa had threatened to convert to Islam if he did.  Under the new secular laws of the Congress, Naranappa cannot be evicted from his house, so the presence of a Muslim among them would mean that they would all have to leave their nice houses and comfortable way of life in order to stay ‘pure’.

When I discussed this conundrum with The Spouse who is a student of philosophy, he thought that the solution was simple.  The risks to public health outweigh religious scruples: cremate the body and be done with it.  (And that, in fact is eventually what happens, though the Brahmins don’t know it and go on agonising about it.) But it’s not as simple as that for people of faith.  The problem for them, at heart, is the Brahmin fear of ‘polluting’ themselves because that would interfere with whatever karma they’ve accumulated towards their next reincarnation. (Karma is the universal causal law by which good or bad actions determine the future modes of an individual’s existence).  Praneshacharya has spent his whole life in self-sacrifice in preparation for his next rebirth, and failing to live in accordance with his dharma puts that at risk. (Dharma means law, duty, code of conduct, righteousness, and rules.)  (To put it crudely, he could plummet from being a highly respected sanyasi to being reborn as an Untouchable, or worse, some kind of despised insect…)

However, Samskara is not a simple religious parable.  Praneshacharya is not the noble holy man that he seems to be.  The author has set up this story so that these Brahmin are preferencing their own desire for comfort and status (i.e. their houses) above principle which (by their lights) should have led them to excommunicate the sinful Naranappa and go elsewhere if need be.  Praneshacharya has succumbed to arrogant vanity because he believes that his wisdom will persuade Naranappa to forsake his wicked ways and come back to the fold. Now that Naranappa is dead, their hypocrisy is revealed: with Garuda and Lakshmana loudest of all, each Brahmin has a reason why it would not ‘do’ for him personally to perform the rites, each hoping that one of the others will do it, at the risk of his soul.  They offload the decision-making to Praneshacharya (and the decisions are the men’s to make, the women are mere harpies on the sidelines) but they do not want him to do it either because their status depends on his purity as their leader.

There’s a rival bunch of Brahmins up the road, who are not as orthodox as these Madhvas are, but the Smarta Brahmins are a wily lot and they don’t fall for it at all.  That leads to a pilgrimage to a monastery farther away to seek advice – but en route some of the Brahmin become very sick indeed.  You don’t have to know much about medicine to guess what’s happening, especially since by now there are rats and vultures hanging about in the village. The existential crisis has morphed into something else as well.

The other complication is Naranappa’s beautiful and good low-caste lover.  Praneshacharya chose to marry an invalid so that he could devote his life to the good work of caring for her.  (He actually gloats about the benefits to his soul from his self-sacrifice). However, he has skipped stage two of a proper four-stage Brahmin lifestyle, that is, transitioned from a celibate student to a forest dweller and then an ascetic renouncer, without ever being a married householder i.e. he’s still celibate.  And when the lovely Chandri sleeps on his verandah (because she can’t sleep in Naranapp’s stinking house), well, let’s just say that the ascetic Praneshacharya discovers lust…

The Afterword explains the book’s trajectory in ways that I could not have known since I know very little about this culture.  It explains ‘samskara‘ as central to Hinduism, involving a rite of passage, self-realisation, and preparation’ and the story is really about the rebirth of Praneshacharya, who, in the course of solving the dilemma of an anti-Brahminical death, undergoes transformation through an unorthodox rite of initiation.  The story follows traditional patterns: question → delay → answer (or its absence), its pattern corresponding to changes of place within the story: going away → seclusion → coming back.

So I found Samskara fascinating.  It makes good reading even if you (like me) know nothing about Brahminism, and it raises questions that are relevant even in secular Australia.  There are religious groups here that observe urgent burial or cremation, but sometimes it’s in the public interest to hold post-mortems to identify the cause of death.  (Sometimes for medical reasons, sometimes because there’s been a crime.) I’d guess that police and medical authorities have developed protocols around these sensitivities but we sometimes see in TV dramas that the bereaved don’t take it well…

Samskara was made into a film in 1970, but (with English subtitles, that is) it has none of the sophistication of the novella.

PS In the essay by Susheela Punitha, she is critical of this translation by A.K. Ramanajan because it lacks the ‘natural voluptuousness’ of the original Kannada language.  She quotes the author as saying that Ramanajan was trying to write English like an Englishman.  Whatever about that, I thought that the translation was fluent and pleasing to read.

Update: 20/4/18 See also Melissa’s review at The Bookbinder’s Daughter – it goes into more detail about the plot than I have, but this is not really a book to read for the plot.

Author: U.R. Ananthamurthy
Title: Samskara, a Rite for a Dead Man
Translated from the Kannada by A.K. Ramanajan
Essay by Susheela Punitha
Publisher: Oxford India Perennials, OUP, 1976
ISBN: 9780198077145
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond: Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man (Oxford India Perennials Series), $25.99



  1. While a believer might take from this that hypocrites get caught out, it seems to me that the better moral to draw would be that it’s idiotic to use religion as a basis for decision making.


    • Well, that is the position of The Spouse. And it seems to me that the author is on that path too.
      But religion is certainly still an influence on decision-making in Australia. If you take the case of Halal meat, which is getting harder and harder to avoid, it is a clear case of animal cruelty but no politician is going to take it on…


  2. I really enjoyed this book as well. The religious beliefs and the dilemmas they lead to in the plot are fascinating!


    • Thanks, Melissa, I’ve tracked down your review too and am going to add it to my post:).


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