Samskara: How To Bury An Un-Brahminical Brahmin

The following is a book review I had to write for a history course titled, “Traditional Civilizations of India.”  The book is fictional, but deals with issues that helped to explain and give a starting point for research into the Vedic religion of India.  Essentially, a very un-religious person dies in a very religious village, and no one knows quite what to do with him.  The book focuses on the conflict between religious obligations and temptation and how to navigate between the two to do what’s right.  In the end, it leads to a spiritual awakening for the main character, going out into the world and seeing first-hand how the people actually live, which is somewhat reminiscent of what happened to Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha.  I have no idea what my grade was for this paper, because it was turned in on the last day of class, but my final grade for the course was an A+.


Samskara book cover.

“Alive, Naranappa was an enemy; dead, a preventer of meals; as a corpse, a problem, a nuisance” (Murthy 3).  The central issue of the book Samskara, by U. R. Anantha Murthy, revolves around the death of a Brahmin who broke all the rules and flaunted it.  In Durvasapura, a village of supposedly orthodox Brahmin, Naranappa stood out as the exact opposite of everything a Brahmin should be.  He was wild, partied, socialized and had sexual encounters with people outside of his caste, destroyed holy relics and ate sacred fish.  In other words, he broke every taboo associated with being a Brahman.  His behavior while alive seriously complicated the means of disposing of his body after death for all those around him.  The fact that he died from plague and his corpse was a health hazard to the rest of the group seems to have gone completely unnoticed in this story.  The focus, instead, is on the spiritual ramifications of dealing with Naranappa’s remains.  Who is responsible for performing the rites, and should the rites be performed at all?

According to the leader of the Durvasapura Brahmin, Praneshacharya, the “Crest-Jewel of Vedic Learning,” a deceased Brahmin’s funeral rites should be performed by a relative or, in the absence of a relative, any Brahmin will do (Murthy 5-6).  This would seem to solve the problem, since Naranappa has living relatives in the village.  Unfortunately, he managed to alienate them all before dying.  Naranappa and Garuda shared a common ancestor, but Garuda had quarreled with Naranappa’s father over ownership of an orchard.  When Naranappa’s father died, Garuda attempted to gain possession of the orchard by receiving a ruling in his favor from a guru.  Naranappa ignored the ruling and, according to Garuda, they swore they’d have nothing to do with each other for many generations after that.  Lakshmana, Naranappa’s other relative, is married to the sister of Naranappa’s deceased wife.  Lakshmana argues that Naranappa’s abandonment of the woman, and her subsequent insanity and death are things that he just cannot condone (Murthy 7).  So, there are no relatives willing to perform the funeral rites.  This causes the responsibility to shift to the Brahmin community as a whole.

Rather than create an easy opportunity to get Naranappa’s funeral rites done, this does nothing to solve the problem.  Naranappa’s behavior has caused him to become polluted in the eyes of the Brahmin.  Having anything to do with him would cause them to become polluted and lower their social and spiritual standing in society.  According to Jonathan Haidt:

Hinduism very explicitly places all creatures onto a vertical dimension, running from the gods above, to the demons below.  People rise and fall on this vertical dimension based on the degree to which they behave like gods or demons in this life. [1]

For high caste Hindus, proper behavior is regulated by The Laws of Manu.  It tells them how to avoid becoming polluted and part of avoiding pollution is avoiding people who are lower on the vertical dimension, those who are impure.  This is made evident at the very beginning of Samskara, when Praneshacharya mentally debates whether or not to answer the door for Chandri, since even speaking to her would pollute him and he’d have to wash again before dinner (Murthy 2).  If speaking to someone from a lesser caste causes pollution, then certainly handling the dead body of a Brahmin who spit in the eye of Brahminism would be excessively polluting.

The Brahmin in Durvasapura are aware of the risks of pollution involved with performing funeral rites for Naranappa, and rather than take on that burden, they are intent on finding a way to avoid it, even at the cost of slightly tarnishing their Brahminism.  Obviously, performing the funeral rites would be the greater evil, and the more polluting option.  With that in mind, one of the Brahmin, Dasa, proposes that they ask the Bramin of Parijatapura to perform the funeral rites, on the grounds that they were friends with Naranappa and shared meals together (Murthy 12-13).  This is important, because a person wouldn’t eat meals with someone that they consider polluting.  Unfortunately for the Durvasapura Brahmin, the Parijatapura Brahmin understand the precariousness of their social standing and are unwilling to perform the rites.  Praneshacharya says that “friendship is as strong a bond as blood,” but obviously the fear of pollution is the stronger force in society (Murthy 13).

With Naranappa’s body still lying unattended and no one volunteering to take responsibility for the funeral rites, the question of his status as a Brahmin is raised, perhaps in the hopes of pushing him off onto a lower caste.  If Naranappa were declared to not be a Brahman, then it wouldn’t be required that a Brahmin perform his rites.  Naranappa managed to break all the rules.  He drank liquor, ate meat, socialized with Muslims, engaged in sexual relations with low caste women and destroyed sacred objects and animals.  He completely threw out the concept of purity and pollution and even made remarks like, “If I were still a Brahmin…,” that indicate he clearly considered himself to be outside of the Brahmin caste (Murthy 23).  But, was it enough to remove him from the caste system in the eyes of the greater Indian community?  There is some social mobility in the caste system, in moving from one to the other, but is it possible to be removed from the Brahmin caste posthumously?  According to Praneshacharya:

…he may have rejected brahminhood, but brahminhood never left him.  No one ever excommunicated him officially.  He didn’t die an outcaste; so he remains a brahmin in his death.  Only another brahmin has any right to touch his body. (Murthy 9)

So, this brings things back around to the original problem.  Naranappa died a Brahmin and must be given rites as a Brahmin, but because he’s extremely polluted, no one wants to perform them.

Despite the fact that Praneshacharya is a Crest-Jewel of Vedic Learning, he is unable to come to a conclusion regarding the disposal of Naranappa’s body, which is all the while rotting and literally polluting the entire agrahara with plague and a horrible stench.  Without debating the reasons for Praneshacharya’s inability to make a decision, there are several options that were available to him, most of which he was aware of, and all of which he should have been aware of.

The first solution is one that is introduced at the beginning of the story, when the Brahmin first gather to discuss the funeral rites.  Praneshacharya says:

Garuda said: an oath stands between him and Naranappa.  Yet the Books of Law have ways of absolving such oaths—you can perform a rite of absolution, give away a cow, make a pilgrimage.  But this is an expensive matter and I’ve no right to ask anyone to spend his money. (Murthy 9)

Immediately after saying this, Chandri offered up the gold that Naranappa had given her to pay for the expenses of the funeral rites.  Why did Praneshacharya not state that the gold should be used to absolve the oath, as well as perform the rite?  It would have remedied the situation immediately, and since the gold was freely given for that express purpose, then there was no harm in it, only inconvenience to Garuda.  Would it have been polluting?  Perhaps, but on the other hand, if Praneshacharya had given the advice, then Garuda could have rested easy in the knowledge that the best learned person in the community had told him it was right.

Another option available to Praneshacharya would have been to take the gold and perform the rites himself.  As the head of the community, Praneshacharya is ultimately responsible for the well-being of all the agrahara’s inhabitants.  To leave a rotting corpse lying unattended, spreading disease, while people bicker over fine points of doctrine is wholly irresponsible.  Despite the pollution, he should have made the sacrifice for the greater good of the community.  To balance out the pollution of performing the rites, he would have restored the normal flow of life in the agrahara, including the worship.  Surely that counts as good.  Additionally, he could have donated the rest of the gold to a temple.

Outside the context of the story, the translator indicates in the afterword that as a Crest-Jewel of Vedic Learning the answer to the problem should have been obvious to Praneshacharya.  The translator says that the answer to the problem is found in a text called the Dharmasindhu.  He says that “certain simple ritual modifications and offerings would have solved the problem, as the guru of Dharmasthala clearly suggests” (Murthy 145).  In the story, Chandri’s gold made the funds that would likely be necessary for such ritual modifications available to Praneshacharya.  Why didn’t he know about the Dharmasindhu?  Well, the most likely answer is that Samskara wouldn’t have made for a very good story if he had known how to solve the problem before it began.  Besides, the real conflict of Samskara isn’t so much about the inability to find a solution to performing the funeral rites for Naranappa as it is about a conflict between traditional religion and modern life, but that is not the topic of this essay.

In the sort of situation presented by the story, some amount of pollution was unavoidable.  Praneshacharya should have realized this right from the start, and instead of trying to find a perfect way to solve the problem, he should instead have been looking for the least polluting solution.  Resolving the problem would have saved the agrahara from the stench and complete disruption of their lives.  It’s hard to believe that none of the villagers knew the danger of having a plague-killed corpse sitting in their village.  Removing the body would have likely saved the lives of some of the brahmin as well.  Taken together with providing the brahmin a way to resume their prayers, the pollution caused by performing the funeral rites would likely have been balanced out, whether the person that performed them was Praneshacharya or another brahmin.

[1] J. Haidt’s work is on a single web page.  As such, no page numbers are available.

Works Cited

Haidt, Jonathan. “Elevation and the positive psychology of morality.” 10 May 2001. University of Virginia: Faculty. Web. 13 November 2011.
Murthy, U.R. Anantha. Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1979. Print.

The Human Condition, Ch. 5 “Action”, Analysis

If you’ve never heard of Hannah Arendt, well, I wouldn’t be all that surprised.  I’d never heard of her and her writing is very, very dense.  Quite a few weeks ago I was given a writing assignment, to write an analysis of a piece of writing.  We had a set of options, and I thought I wanted a challenge.  I guess I was feeling brave that day, or maybe I just really wanted to try to figure out what it is that Hannah Arendt was trying to say in Chapter 5 of The Human Condition.  Her ideas, once you can figure them out, or at least make an interpretation of them, are pretty fascinating.  I just don’t care for the density of the language.  I’ve always been more inclined to use clear, direct language.  Even then, I swear people misunderstand what I’m trying to say half the time.  But, everyone interprets things differently.

Anyway, by the time I got through my paper, I realized that what I’d done wasn’t an analysis; it was more of an exploratory writing where I wrote out my understanding of what she said, rather than discussing how she said it.  There’s a fine difference, and I suppose I wouldn’t have realized it without all the great instruction I’m getting in the class I’m taking.  I was a little anxious to see what my grade would be, and sure enough, it wasn’t an A like I was used to.  Also, it had the comment I expected, that it was too much summary.  I also got a comment about being a little “long-winded” in some areas.  Between the composition grade and the content grade I wound up with a B.  Lowest grade so far, but hey, I decided to try to challenge myself, and it was definitely a learning experience.

Anyhow, if you’re trying to get an idea about what Hannah Arendt is talking about in Chapter 5 of The Human Condition, I hope this helps!

Prisoners of Others’ Perceptions

In “Action”, the fifth chapter of the book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt analyzes the relationship between action and what it means to be human. She leads the reader through a progression of logic that leaves one with the conclusion that man is ultimately subject to the interpretations of others. What a person attempts to do in life passes through the filter of other people’s personal interpretations, producing reactions that may vary widely from what was intended. Essentially, man is a prisoner to the realities imposed on him by others.

Hannah Arendt bases her argument on the conflict between the indefinable ‘who’ and the sea of other ‘who’s that exist in human society. Who are you talking to? Hannah Arendt begins to answer this question by telling us how speech and action relate to the revelation of man’s unique character to others. She tells us that humanity is a paradox of plurality and that, through speech and action, individuals distinguish themselves and become distinct, revealing the ‘who’ behind the what. She goes as far as to say that to a unique individual, no one existed before he did, because they had not revealed themselves through speech and action. Each person perceives the world differently and an individual’s reality is only as large as what he or she perceives. A person that the individual hasn’t met doesn’t exist in that individual’s mind. When that unknown person intrudes on the individual’s reality through speech and action, they become real in the mind of the person experiencing them. The ‘new’ person begins to define who they are, rather than what they are. The act of revelation transitions the person from being an abstract ‘other’, another body in the sea of unknown bodies in the greater world around the individual, to being a ‘who’, another distinct individual. So, the author tells us that speech and action are a necessary part of the human experience, because they define us in the eyes of others.

But do speech and action really express who a person is, or simply what a person is? Hannah Arendt tells us that “in acting and speaking, men show who they are, revealing their unique personal identities,” but she goes on to say that “the moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is.” Is it possible for a person to communicate who they are without being able to express it? The author tells us it is more likely that the ‘who’ remains hidden to the individual, but is clear to others. However, this ‘who’ that is clear to others is not the same ‘who’ that the individual wishes to express. There is a disconnection between what the person wants to express about themselves and what is perceived, perhaps because of the inability of language to express accurately who man is, rather than what man is. “He’s a kind man.” “She’s a devoted wife.” “This guy is well traveled.” These phrases express what the person is: kind, devoted, a traveler. They do not tell us who the person is. In other words, the essence of a person cannot be captured in language. The moment the individual opens his or her mouth to express themselves, they literally lose something in translation. The author indicates that the true self is something that is beyond expression, something that transcends speech, perhaps in the same way that the soul transcends definition. Hannah Arendt affirms this idea by saying that it is impossible to solidify in words “the living essence of the person as it shows itself in the flux of action and speech.” If the ‘who’ of a person cannot be quantified through language, then it is not possible to transmit the essence of that person beyond the self. If language cannot express who a person really is, then perhaps a person never really knows who they are, having no way to articulate it. Failing to articulate who they are, the people in close contact with that individual may glimpse a deeper truth about who the person is through experience of action combined with speech, but they could never verbally relay that information to another party. The essence of the person would be lost in the language, devolving into descriptions of ‘what’, instead of ‘who’.

She elaborates on this concept by discussing how the individual functions in relation to the people he interacts with, and how those people interpret the individual. She compares a person’s social relations to a web, where each movement (speech and action) a person makes causes the web to shake. In Hannah Arendt’s own words, “The disclosure of the “who” through speech, and the setting of a new beginning through action, always fall into an already existing web where their immediate consequences can be felt.” What are those consequences? Each person in the web of social relations is impacted by the movement, but it is felt differently depending on where in the web the person experiencing the movement is sitting. In the same way, a person’s speech and actions are interpreted differently by each person that experiences them, since each person is in turn a distinct individual that forms ideas and opinions based on personal experience. So, a person can make him or herself known to others through speech and action, but the exact interpretation of the ‘who’ is limited by the perceptions of those he interacts with. This is in addition to the already defined problem of using language to express ones self.

Hannah Arendt sums up this complex idea by telling us that “nobody is the author or producer of his own life story. … The results of action and speech … reveal an agent … but this agent is not an author or producer.” Though a man may act and speak with the best of intentions, his identity is subject to the interpretations of others. Those who know him personally may have a greater understanding of the ‘who’ behind the ‘what’, but they still interpret him through their own understanding. The truth that the individual projects is not the truth that is received by those he interacts with, and the legacy he leaves behind is one that will constantly be interpreted by others. The beauty of this argument is that while it makes man a prisoner in his own mind, revealing that man is so flawed that he cannot even express his true self to others, it also attests to man’s transcendence. Man is something so noble it is beyond his ability to even describe himself.

Citing ancient and respected thinkers like Plato and St. Augustine, as well as more recent medical research, Hannah Arendt has presented an argument that challenges a basic idea of freedom: that a person can choose to be the person he or she wants to be. She tells us that our freedom is limited, because we aren’t the ones that interpret what our speech and actions mean. Though we may be free to think and act, we are not at liberty to enforce how we are viewed by those around us.

New Semester, New Books

A stack of some of my college books for Fall Semester.

Fall Semester started yesterday.  I didn’t have much of a break, since I took courses over the Summer, but two and a half weeks off seemed long enough to me.  I spent most of that time rotting my brain with video games.  I haven’t sat around playing video games for hours on end in years and it was great!  Besides a game called Vindictus (by Nexon) that I’ve been playing casually since around March, I started using ‘Steam’ (My Profile) and played Team Fortress 2, Left For Dead 2, and Borderlands, among others.  Hopefully I’ll still have a little time to hack up zombies and make bandits’ heads explode with a shotgun, but considering how thick some of the books are, I’m glad I have one of those nifty book lights that clips on, because I foresee a lot of late night reading.

Some good news is, I finally decided what I want to do and declared my major as History.  I still have to figure out what particular area of history I want to focus on, though I’m leaning towards Islamic or Medieval History.  I’m also considering doing a double major since a history major only requires 11 courses (33 credit hours) out of the total of 120 credit hours required to get a BA. 

This semester I’m going to be taking two history courses that will count towards my major:  Middle East Under Islam and Traditional Civilizations of India.  The books in the picture above are for those two courses.

I’m also taking a 6 credit course involving English and Writing.  It’s called ‘Our City’ and focuses on literary perspectives on New York City.  I live here, so why not?  It might help me discover some of the history behind New York City.  Also, it fills a requirement.  I’d rather have taken a course that covers dystopian literature, but it wasn’t available and I want to get that requirement out of the way.

I also wanted to mention that Hurricane Irene is affecting the school systems here in NYC, obviously.  I got an SMS, an email and three phone calls from the CUNY alert system letting me know that CCNY will be closed today, tomorrow, and possibly Monday.  I don’t really care that the school is closed today or tomorrow.  In fact, it might not even be bad if it’s closed on Monday, since the first day of a class is usually a ‘get to know each other’ kind of thing.

Hurricane Irene has New Yorkers panicking.  By now, all mass transit will have shut down, including the airports and Amtrak.  There are mandatory evacuation zones and they may even cut power to prevent the power grid from being annihilated by salt water inundation.  I also looked at a map and discovered that the block my apartment building is on is just inside an evacuation zone.  The evacuation zone area cuts inland only for my block.  I don’t know how to feel about that, but if the block south of me and the one north of me aren’t in an evacuation zone, then WTF?  I can see them from the window and could hit them if I threw a stone.  They’re also on the same level as this building, altitude-wise.  I think I’ll stay put.

Why I Love My Kindle, And Why I Don’t

A Kindle 3 in the box.

Last year in October, I was given a Kindle 3 by my aunt in return for doing what turned out to be a LOT of yard work.  Well, a lot more than I expected anyway.  It’d been quite a few years since I’d lived anywhere that required yard work, so I wasn’t able to judge it properly.

Since then, I’ve used my Kindle fairly regularly.  Whenever I commute here in the city, I keep it with me so I can spend my time doing something constructive, instead of staring blankly at the wall like so many of my fellow commuters.  I’ve come to rely on it for entertainment, something I was reminded of today when I realized I left the house with a dead battery.  My commute is about an hour both ways, so … ya, I was bored.  There’s no cell phone signal in the subways here, so that meant I really had nothing to do but stare at the walls.

The Kindle 3 is light, very easy on the eyes, and makes reading fun again, especially since there’s so much available for free, but some recent events have caused me to see a few shortcomings.

The first problem is that there are still plenty of books being published that don’t have Kindle versions.  Even worse, some books are published and the price of the Kindle version is higher than the price of the physical book.  I understand that there are some costs that can’t be negated by simply producing a book as an e-text, but there should never be a time when an eBook costs anything near what the physical book does, since you’re cutting out the cost of the paper, printing and distribution.  It’s obscene.  An insult even.

The kicker that made me write this post, though, was a visit to Barnes & Noble at Union Square.  I’ve been going there frequently looking for particular versions of books I need for classes I’m taking at CCNY.  I don’t know what it is about physical books, but every time I go in there I find myself wanting to hold and touch them, and maybe just ‘adopt’ them all and bring them home.  The cover art is something that can’t be reproduced well on a Kindle, or any eReader.  You can’t touch it.  You just can’t appreciate it the same way.  I’m reminded of something my art history teacher said in class yesterday.  He was talking about how people go to an art museum and instead of stopping to appreciate the art, they take a picture and move on quickly.  He said that if that’s what you’re going to do, you might as well have just looked the images up on Google.  It’s not the same experience.  It’s also not the same experience as holding the book in your hands, or putting it on your shelf when you’re done with it.  I suppose that desire to collect books is something that not everyone has, but I like to see my books sitting on a shelf, so I can be reminded of how good they are and maybe pick them up and leaf through them to my favorite parts again.  Speaking of that, it’s really hard to scan through books on a Kindle, going back to re-examine material you read the a few days ago.

My conclusion is that a Kindle is still an awesome device that will encourage more people to read more often, myself included, but it has drawbacks.  I think my Kindle is best suited for ‘light’ reading.  You know, those books that you read purely for entertainment, the ones that you’re not worried about looking at again, because when you’re done with a Kindle book it gets lost in the list of available books on the device.  For those books that I consider my favorites, or anything heavier that might require thought and retrospection, the books that I would want to flip back and forth through to better understand the ideas being expressed, a physical book can’t be beat.

Sometimes It Pays To Dig In The Trash

Three books from on the side of the road, put out as trash.

Just yesterday I saw a copy of Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson lying on the street in East Harlem. I’d have picked it up if it weren’t wet from the rain. That’s a damn good book. I gave a copy to my wife as a gift one time. If you haven’t read it, it’s worth it, and it’s a short read so you don’t have to spend a lot of time with it, just a lot of time thinking about what it says!

So, what’s today’s book find? Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests; Is America Breaking Apart?; and Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. The last one will probably be the most interesting of the three, to me anyway. It covers interesting topics like “From Ashes to Cyborgs: The Era of Reconstruction (1945 – 1960)” and “”Gotta Catch ‘Em All”: The Pokemonization of America”. Is America breaking apart? is a discussion about American society and how it adapts to overcome social problems. That should be an interesting read.

Anyhow, that’s $67.75 worth of books (before taxes) that was just sitting on the street, heading for the city landfill if no one claimed them, and those are just the ones that we picked up. Thinking about it, I should’ve taken them all and put the rest on eBay. Not everything that’s sitting on the curb is really garbage, especially when it’s a book.

Of course, a book is about the only thing I’ll take from the curb. I’m not about to wear clothes from off the curb. That’s just gross. Now, let’s just hope these books didn’t have any bed bugs in them. If you haven’t heard, there’s a huge infestation of bed bugs in New York City right now, everywhere from private homes to public schools to 5 star hotels.

Disclaimer: Clicking the links in this post will take you to shopping pages. The links are affiliated, meaning I get a cut if you buy them from Amazon.