The word Samskara or Sanskara is from Sanskrit and is a central concept to many of the ideas embodied in Hinduism. There are several definitions for this word including: “A rite of passage or life cycle ceremony”, “forming well, making perfect”, “the realizing of past perceptions”, and “preparation and making ready.”
Samskaras are also, in one context, the diverse rites of passage of a human being from conception to cremation, which mark specific events in an individual’s journey of life in Hinduism. In U.R. Anathamurthy’s novel, Samskara specifically refers to “a rite for a dead man” and it is this compulsory rite which is given to Brahmins at their passing that becomes the central controversy of this book. When the story begins, a Brahmin community is presented with the dilemma of deciding who will perform the samskara for one of the members of their community who had become a heretic. The leader of this orthodox Brahmin community (agrahara), Praneshacharya, has to decide what to do with the body of his fellow Brahmin who drank, ate meat, fished in sacred waters and, worst of all, was living with a sensual, lower caste woman.
Praneschacharya has adopted an extreme form of asceticism by living with a sickly, invalid wife and having a sexless marriage. He cares for and baths his wife on a daily basis and views the denial of his physical needs as a form of penance that will garner him blessings in this life and the next. But when Praneschacharya has his first sexual encounter, a whole new world of pleasure causes him to question his orthodox beliefs. As he tries to make the best decision about the heretic’s burial and comes to grips with his crisis of faith, it is Praneshacharya who has his own samskara or rite of passage in his life.
Read my full review of this classic piece of Indian literature on Asymptote.