The Samskara of Being
Samskara according to Hindu karma is the performing of one’s duty of cleansing the soul. In ‘Samskara’, the novel by U.R Ananthamurthy, he gives the epigraph as “A Rite for a Dead Man”. While the novel is about the various profound issues of existential paradoxes and the inherent contradictions that plague the human soul; I would like to dwell on the significance of samskara in the context of Hindu ethics.
Sanskara or samskara is derived from the root-word ‘samsk-‘ from which also comes samskrit/Sanskrit. Sanskar in the Indian moral philosophy stands for the ethics of right conduct in the public domain. Such a life would be commandeered by staunch idealism and indomitable will of abidance to the right path in terms of words, deeds and thought. The revered sages of the Indian lore are the precedents that parents list out to their progeny ever since they start acquiring the powers of understanding. Leading a virtuous life is the goal of every being. Yet, it is a quality left much coveted and aspired for.
What then is virtue? Is it the ideals of non-violence and truth that Gandhi professed; the adherence to celibacy that sages keep to; the swallowing of anger and containment of desire that Buddha discovered; or compassion to the subaltern as Mother Teresa practiced? Undoubtedly yes. But then how many Gandhis, sages, Buddhas and Mother Teresas has civilization produced? Does virtue then, become a quality unattainable to the masses? Should virtue, as a characteristic, then be ousted from the human domain?
Being strictly virtuous is an impossible project for humanity. We don’t need an anthropological or psychological survey to inform us that desire, lies and deceit are inherent features of the human psyche. Why then this façade of purity leading to an epidemic of hypocrisy? The example of Praneshacharya from Anathamurthy’s ‘Samskara’ presents the quintessential moment of self-realization for all of us as we experience the unmasking of ourselves through the experiences of Praneshacharya. The novel is not about the fall of the paragon of virtue; but the coming to fore of the essence of being human. If the so-called vices are to be abhorred; yet are constitutive of the being of every human individual; the scheme of its banishment becomes a futile venture and makes a mockery of human limitations. Praneshacharya’s acts of transgression thus signify the fall of virtue as a human construct; for, if after committing the acts of ‘sin’ as he comes to condemn himself for; yet tries to appraise the motivations of his deeds, just as we would do, it signifies the fallibility of virtue. In contrast, Naranappa, who is in the eye of the storm and the subject of controversy facing excommunication, in an ironic reversal, comes forth as being virtuous in the true sense for the stark forthrightness of his acts and words. This character is replicated in Mahabala in the novel. These characters function for the questioning of virtue as that unattainable element in the quest for which characters end up losing their virtues.
Thus, virtue should me made more accessible to human beings. Purity and merit should not be estimated in the degree of goodness that one possesses; but rather in the quantity that one gives out. Salvation lies not in the samskara of one’s soul; but the ability to incorporate and integrate the vices of one’s nature with the understanding of how it is an inextricable part of the essence of one’s being, and to accept it yet balance it so that it is not inimical to others around one. It is by such an assimilation of the anomalies of one’s being, that human nature triumphs over virtue.