Samskara A Rite for a Dead Man by Mr. U R Ananthamurthy

Program Recording  :

Samskara A Rite for a Dead Man by Mr. U R Ananthamurthy


  • Runa Mukherjee.

This is novel written in 1964, instantly invited global recognition for its vivid depiction of the hypocrisy underlying a society bound by customs and rituals of purity and piety .  It enthused the theatrical  world into producing a film  starring Girish Karnad in 1970 with immediate success and gained the award for Best National Picture.

Specifically dealing with the caste bound culture of a rural village in Karnataka, it raises fundamental moral and ethical issues of the individual in relation to the society in which he lives and substituting any other kind of differentiating behaviour for the caste system, can be applied to any human society in the world .

The cast of characters is small and the scope of the story is simple and limited. Praneshacharya, the most respected Brahmin in his traditional and conservative agrahara, begins each day by bathing the sickly and desiccated body of his infirm wife.  Praneschacharya has faithfully carried out this ritual for more than twenty years. He views sexless marriage as a penance and a sacrifice that will deliver salvation in this life and in the next.  But the death of an impious and sinful Brahmin, Naranappa, in the agrahara brings Praneshacharya to a spiritual crisis of his own that makes him question his long-practiced rituals and beliefs.

Naranappa has renounced the Brahmin rituals of the agrahara and has carried out the most outrageous and offensive acts to show his disapproval of his fellow worshippers and neighbors.  He flouts every   rule of his community  in terms of his choice of food, friends , observance of ritual purity and  the ultimate rebellion, an informal  conjugal relationship with Chandri ,a low caste woman .

This is the mise en scene

The drama begins when Naranappa  falls ill and dies. Society is faced with an urgent dilemma: because Naranappa is considered impure, none of his family and neighbours want to perform the last rites as they risk compromising their own ritual purity. The body rots while the Brahmins argue,symbolizing the rot and decay  of their community.

At this juncture, Chandri comes and offers all her gold jewellery to whoever will  perform the last rites . The lure of gold causes many of the Brahmins to change their minds about performing the death rituals for Naranappa; several of them decide that the material gain from the burial is worth putting their Brahminhood in jeopardy. Fighting begins over who will have the right to lay Naranappa’s body on the funeral pyre. We are treated to a uncompromising view of the hypocrisy and venality of  pious high caste people.

As a last act of desperation, Praneschacharya decides to go to the temple of Maruti the Monkey god to ask the deity to help him come to a decision about Naranappa’s burial. After hours of rituals and prayers he is none the wiser . Exhausted he wanders out of the temple and into the forest, where he encounters Chandri, herself deep in mourning.  They fall into one other’s arms and the ensuing sexual encounter becomes the catalyst for Praneschacharya’s spiritual crisis .

The final part of the book describes Praneschacharya’s journey on foot through forests and cities in search of an answer for himself. Should he go back to the agrahara and confess all of his misdeeds to his fellow Brahmins? Or should he seek out Chandri and fully embrace this newly discovered world of the flesh? During his journey, he meets a young man named Putta who becomes Praneschacharya’s guide and shows him how to navigate  the world outside of his conservative agrahara. Putta takes him to a carnival with games and acrobats, a gruesome cockfight, and finally to visit a local prostitute.

Putta embodies all of the worldly experiences that Praneschacharya has worked so hard in his life to avoid, and he confesses that he is overwhelmed by it to the point of inertia and indecision.  We see him returning to the village where though Chandri is within sight, there is no unambiguous conclusion.

The end of the novel does not bring a resolution to Praneschacharya’s journey.

What begins as a Samskara for a dead man becomes a Samskara, or a rite of passage,  questioning  the whole foundation  of  Praneschacharya.’s  erstwhile way of life


Ms. Bhatia has brought out succinctly the fundamental issues raised by the author and the many layers on which it operates : the metaphysical,  the social and  the individual. The  fundamental issue is of the sacred vs the profane and that personal transformation is achieved only through Grace.  She also highlighted   that the style and structure of the book   is very cinematic:   as if dialogue and scenes are depicted on a screen, with the audience privy to the thoughts of all characters whereas their actions and words convey something very different .

The ensuing discussion   was lively with many   agreeing with the relevance  and   authenticity of the story . Truly a book of our times because  it expresses the politics of differentiation.  In the  context of this novel it is caste , but in another country or another setting it could be  religion, ethnicity , or gender.   In an era of globalisation when the world has indeed shrunk and brought closer many diversities ,  the politics of differentiation gains even more importance  in the face of our interdependence and common humanity.   A view was  expressed that the book has a very narrow and limited perspective , confined only to a small rural community and in  much older times .  From a certain world view , this may be valid.

But t considering the visceral appeal of the novel, it appears that this slice of life transcends its limitations to represent, almost allegorically, the  moral conflict of Everyman and society  in our current times .

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