Samskara: A Rite For A Dead Man by U R Ananthamurthy [Review]

Girish Karnad As Praneshacharya 1970's Movie Adaptation of the Novella
U R Ananthamurthy's Samskara is one of the rare gems of Indian Literature and placed among the likes of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Originally written in Kannada, it was first published in 1965. And later, in 1976, was translated into English by A K Ramanujan. In 1970, the hundred pages long novella was adapted into a full-fledged film featuring Girish Karnad. Though it was banned initially, but goes on to win National Award for Feature Film.

At the surface, Samskara is a simple tale of a Brahmin scholar who is unable to decide whether to cremate a man who has given up Brahmanism or not. But at the core, it is a complex story of a man, in search of the truth (or meaning) of the life, i.e. whether there is a meaning of life or not, and if there is some meaning of life, then what is it?

Ananthamurthy offers the solution in two ways. First, there is no meaning of life, in form of Naranappa, and second, there is a meaning of life, but it is different from bookish (Dharma Shastra) meaning of life, i.e., to do good and attain salvation, in form of Praneshacharya.

Ananthmurthy has chosen the second option by developing Praneshacharya from a Brahmin of bookish knowledge to the Brahmin of extramundane experience (which is full of rasa).

Ananthmurthy arranges this development of Praneshacharya by making his ideology clash with Naranappa's ideology.

In the beginning, we learn, how Naranappa mocks Praneshacharya for his bookish knowledge and his inability to define the rasa of life in real terms, even when he teaches and talks about the rasa in a great detail. He attacks Praneshacharya's innocent (or ignorant) way of thinking by citing the example of his disciple Shripathi.

Though the Praneshacharya's real transformation begins when he tastes the rasa of life for the first and makes love with Chandri (the only person in the story with some practical knowledge). However, his denial of the fact (that there can be another meaning of life) challenges him and he tries to escape his village Durvasapura.

Here on this escape, his transformation really kick starts, when he encounters with Putta (who plays an aid like Krishna to Arjuna, but he is not Krishna, he is just a man with his own flaws) and his transformation completes when he accepts the truth and returns to Durvasapura.

Ananthamurthy points, there is some specific meaning to life but it is not written in the religious texts and written somewhere else, and probably we have this knowledge since our very origin. Probably, we know the meaning but we don't accept it and constraint it with the rules. Ananthamurthy rejects the Brahminic way of life and asks his readers to adopt a life of logic, and do things what one supposed to do in the time of a death, i.e. the Samskara.

There is another way to look at the text, and which makes it be ranked among the likes of Achebe's Things Fall Apart, the clash of modern and traditional values.

Moreover, it appears to be that text when we examine it after wearing the chasma of modern-versus-traditional-value-system. But there is one catch, though there is a tinge of modernity, but there is no external factor, like in the case of Things Fall Apart. Here in Samskara, the story is set in a fictional-isolated village of the Western Ghats.

The modernity, we are talking about in the Samskara, is within the traditional values, and one can say, it is repressed. These repressed values are evoked again with the touch of new modern values (or British rule).

Ananthamurthy display the rasa of life is forgotten by the people altogether and they have done it by imposing self-suffocating rules. Moreover, anyone who cherish these rasa is considered immoral, deviant, and renegade. We can see this in  Praneshacharya, as he teaches about the erotic love but he, himself, does not know anything about the erotic love. And when he eventually makes love with Chandri, he falls into the trap of guilt and tries to escape the fact.

Ultimately, Ananthamurthy's Samskara is not just a tale of tale of person, but a tale of every person, who is confused by man-made, self-imposed (so-called religious) laws, and in search of the real meaning of life or say more realistic life.


  1. I remember studying this for my degree; had too many things to think about while reading the novel.

  2. Sounds interesting. I'm gonna read it very soon. Thanks for sharing, Hemu. :)

    1. Yes, it is pretty interesting. You should read it.

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