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Dharma in Samskara

In Hinduism, a person is offered many paths towards salvation depending on his or

her caste. The only toll to pay on this path is that of dharma, or duty. If one fulfills
ones dharma, then one comes closer to liberation (moksa). For a woman, this means
obeying her husband. For a brahmin man, this means living his life according to the
four life-stages (asramas) and practicing the vedic rituals. In the novel, Samskara,
U.R. Anantha Murthy contrasts many possible paths to salvation including that of
Naranappa and that of Praneshacharya; at first glance, a sinner and a saint. However,
throughout the novel it becomes less clear who, if either, of these two is actually
performing their dharma. I do not believe that either Naranappa nor Praneshacharya
are successful at performing the dharma of a brahmin man because neither fulfilled
both the life stages and the performance of the rituals.
Dharma can be loosely translated to mean "duty... religion... justice... law... ethics...
religious merit... principle... and right." (Flood 52) It is the idea that each person in
society has a certain path or duty to follow and it is by following this path that a
person obtains salvation. It is most important in Hinduism to act according to your
dharma rather than just to believe that it is good to do so. (Flood 12) Dharma differs
for each caste in Hindu society. For the brahmin male, in particular, it involves
performing the vedic rituals and progressing through the four life stages, or asramas.
"The four stages are: that of the celibate student (brahmacarya), householder
(grhastha), hermit or forest-dweller (vanaprastha), and renouncer (samnyasa)."
(Flood 62). In Samskara, both Naranappa and Praneshacharya are brahmin males
living in the agrahara, Durvasapura. Praneshacharya is considered the wisest brahmin
in the agrahara because he studied the Vedas in Kashi. Naranappa, on the other hand,
cast off his brahminhood for more hedonistic ways. (Murthy 21) He leaves his wife
for Chandri, a low-caste woman and begins to eat meat and keep company with
Muslims. At the beginning of the novel, Chandri tells Praneshacharya that Naranappa
has died. Thus, the central question of the first part of the novel becomes whether or
not the brahmin men in the agrahara may perform the funeral rights for Naranappa. In
other words, did Naranappa still possess his brahminhood despite the way he lived his
In attempting to answer this question, Praneshacharya begins a spiritual journey in
which the question becomes whether or not he has truly fulfilled his dharma in the
way he has lived his life. Murthy makes it obvious to the reader that this is the most
important question in the novel by having Chandri secretly cremate Naranappas body.
Thus, the question of the funeral rites no longer exists and the reader is forced to turn
to the issue of Praneshacharyas dharma and path to salvation.

Praneshacharya obviously experienced the life stage of a celibate student. His

education is mentioned and praised many times throughout the novel. In the life stage
of the celibate student, a brahmin man is expected to abstain from sex and study the
Vedas. (Flood 62) The celibacy of this stage is necessary to retain energy for the study
of the Vedas. It is a Hindu belief that semen contains energy that "can be sublimated
for a religious purpose." (Flood 63) After a period of study is complete, the brahmin
boy is expected to marry and enter the stage of the householder. However, I believe
Praneshacharya never truly crossed to this stage because he married Bhagirathi, an
invalid woman.
Part of the householder stage of life is experiencing desire, including sexual desire.
However, with Bhagirathi as a wife, Praneshacharya was never able to experience that
desire. More importantly, he purposefully chose to marry Bhagirathi in order to
completely avoid sexual desire and intercourse. He attempted to move from the life of
a celibate student to the life of a renouncer or forest-dweller in which a brahmin gives
up desire. However, I believe that in order to make the life stages of the forest-dweller
and renouncer meaningful, one must first experience desire. He tries to skip the stage
of the "man-in-the-world" (Flood 89) and move directly to the life of a renouncer.
Praneshacharya tries to have the best of all worlds by combining all four life stages.
He attempts to exist in the social world among the brahmins while still attaining the
spirituality and separateness of a renouncer or forest-dweller. He never seems able to
give up the world of any stage in order to move to the next stage.
Naranappa, on the other hand, represents the other extreme. He sets out to experience
desire whenever he can. He sleeps with Chandri, eats meat, and drinks liquor. He
knows desire and gives into it at every moment he can. He leaves his wife, ignoring
his duties as a householder and casts off the traditions of brahminhood altogether.
Thus, neither Praneshacharya nor Naranappa completely fulfill their dharma.
However, only Praneshacharya is given the opportunity to discover his past mistakes
and perhaps learn from them.
The entire novel represents a samskara, or rite of passage, for Praneshacharya in
which he attempts to discern the correct path to salvation by becoming a part of the
world instead of a being beyond it. Praneshacharya had spent his whole life studying
the Vedas and the Puranas without once knowing for himself what the desire they
spoke of was like. He knew only of those things transcendent to this earth. Worldly
desires were foreign to him because he avoided them. Praneshacharyas samskara
takes place in three phases similar to those of other Hindu samskaras like the upanaya
for brahmin boys in which a young man is initiated into his time of learning the Vedas.

First, Praneshacharya is isolated from society. When he sleeps with Chandri, his
immediate reaction is that he has lost all of his authority in the community. He feels
that he is no better than Naranappa and that the other brahmin men should not pay
attention to what he says. The action of sleeping with Chandri is the moment of his
psychological separation from the community of the agrahara. He believes that he has
fallen from grace for giving into his sexual desires.
Praneshacharya compares this fall from grace to "a baby monkey losing hold of his
grip on the mothers body." (Murthy 75) In other words, salvation was something
Praneshacharya worked for his entire life. He laid out his path to salvation when he
was sixteen by marrying Bhagirathi and never allowed desire or any other obstacle
steer him from that path. The Lord did not choose Praneshacharya; Praneshacharya
chose the Lord. The gambler in Praneshacharyas story, however, was chosen by the
Lord. A brahmin gentleman addicted to gambling could not rid himself of his vice no
matter how hard he tried. After being shunned from his community he prayed to the
Lord: "O, Lord! Why do you make me a gambler?" (Murthy 48) The gods answered
his call instead of appearing to the brahmins in the temple. The life of conflict turned
out to be the quicker path to salvation than a life like Praneshacharyas in which
conflict was avoided at all costs.
After his psychological separation from the community, Praneshacharya experiences a
physical isolation, as well. He leaves the agrahara after he cremates his wife and
begins to wander the forest. At this point he exists in a phase of transition which lasts
the rest of the novel. This is the usual second stage to a samskara. During this time,
Praneshacharya becomes more aware of the physical world around him. He recognizes
beauty (in Chandri) and ugliness (in his wife) for the first time. But, at the same time,
his transition is not yet complete. He expects people to recognize him as the "CrestJewel of Vedanta Philosophy." (Murthy 115) He is still primarily unable to look at the
world from a view other than a transcendent one. He still sees himself as not yet of the
world but above it.
It is at the car-festival that Praneshacharya reaches a revelation about his place in the
world. Taking in all the spectacles of the festival he suddenly realizes: "That art
Thou." (Murthy 121) Everything around him, is also part of him; and he, in turn, is a
part of it all. The narrator in the essay, "All That is You," comes to the same
realization. At first it seems exciting and beautiful to the narrator. She sees herself in
all the good things of the world. But then she comes to understand that she is not only
part of the good but the bad as well. She cannot say to a butterfly: "That is you."
unless she also says of Hitler and the Nazis: "They are you." Up until this point at the
car-festival, Praneshacharya most probably did experience a sense of oneness with the
world, but only with the transcendent world. He certainly saw himself in the Vedic

teachings and in his teachers when he was a student. But he never allowed himself to
carry that feeling out to other parts of the world. At first he probably felt that way
about his friend Mahabala at Kashi but as soon as Mahabala fell from grace
Praneshacharya ceased to see himself as part of that "sinner." At the car-festival,
Praneshacharya finally realizes that he is not only part of the brahmin world but of the
low-caste world as well. In other words, he belongs not only to the transcendent but to
the earthly. This brings him one step closer to knowing that he is part of the whole
Praneshacharya comes to the knowledge that he is not immune to "desire," nor should
he be a stranger to its "fulfillment." (Murthy 121) Throughout his life, Praneshacharya
had struggled to avoid desire in order to attain salvation. He planned his path to
salvation while he was still a child and did only those things in life that allowed him to
continue on this path, including marrying his wife. At the very beginning of the novel,
Praneshacharya says that marrying Bhagirathi makes him "ripe and ready" (Murthy
2) the implication being that it made him ready for salvation. At the end of the novel,
it begins to become clear to Praneshacharya that he married Bhagirathi not because he
felt compassion towards the invalid woman to follow his path to salvation. He did not
marry Bhagirathi because he was compassionate but because he was selfish.
When the novel ends, Praneshacharya is still in his liminal phase. He comes to no
concrete conclusion about what to do. He merely gets on the cart to Durvaspara. It is
clear that Praneshacharya was unable to fulfill his dharma as a brahmin because he
never let himself experience any of the life stages fully. Naranappa did not completely
fulfill his dharma either because he did not follow the vedic rituals. Murthy makes the
point in Samskara that brahminism in must be a combination of the two forms
exhibited by Praneshacharya and Naranappa. A brahmin cannot afford to be
completely of the world as Naranappa was because he will lose the qualities that have
made him a brahmin since the beginnings of vedic tradition; namely, the rituals. But
he cannot afford to be completely beyond the world either as was Praneshacharya
because then he will not know conflict or desire and; thus, to renounce them would be
meaningless. To live either as Praneshacharya did or as Naranappa did is too easy and
will not lead to salvation. To be able to do both; to live part of your life as a
householder, experiencing the worldly desires, and then to be able to shun those
desires and live as a renouncer, is the hardest thing of all and perhaps the only way to
fulfill the dharma of a brahmin.