Friday, March 03, 2006

A Brahmin, a German and a Dame are in a room, right...

Upon reading UR Anantha Murthy’s first novel, Samskara, one cannot help but think lovingly of Kant and Hume. And Murdoch. Okay, so, one can’t help but think of an 18th century German philosopher, a portly Scottish philosopher, an Irish-born British dame, and a revolutionary South-East Indian Brahmin, together in a closed room discussing social class, beauty, morality, and sex. Right.

In the novel, Praneshacharya, a Brahmin of the highest Indian caste and most holy Hindu ceremonial rite, goes on a hero’s quest. When a plague breaks out, Praneshacharya wanders away from the sheltered village where he has passed all of his holy life, and stumbles into the forest wondering where his life will go from here. He encounters on the path, a young woman of a different cast. She bends to touch his feet in devotion after realizing that he is a Brahmin, and instead her breast bumps his knee. They have sex, blah blah blah, and it is the most meaningful thing the old chaste Brahmin has ever experienced. After he awakes, Praneshacharya begins a long and aimless journey of the mind. His worldview, that is to say his moral view, has suddenly been turned on its head and he cannot tell why or by what means. Aye, there’s the rub.

In the Hindu psyche, good and holy are not equal. Brahmins are born into a holy caste, but they are by no means guaranteed to be good. Thought, when they wander from town to town, people are expected to feed them, clothe and shelter them. Prostitutes are supposed to lower their prices for a Brahmin because they bear the mark of holiness. (Note that this is also outside the realm of Judeo-Christian-Islamic thought in which God is inarguably holy and good. Some Hindu gods are chaste, and some are practitioners of sensuality: so are their messangers.) The food freebies, cheap sex and consistent lodging are inarguably “agreeable,” they are “what gratify” the otherwise boring life of Brahminism (Kant, 102). And while this lifestyle, which is agreeable, may have the potential to be “good...and esteemed,” in a contemporary world it has come to be abused (Kant 102). That is to say the Brahmins don’t feed the poor or touch the lepers, they read texts and offer “the sacred balsam plants” to lifeless statues (Murthy, 14). Theirs is a life that consists mostly of the agreeable, and contains few moments of “objective worth” in which the participants have “some interest” invested in the “end” of their actions (Kant 102, 100).

As a Brahmin chaste to the core, Praneshacharya knows no act that is good, that “pleases on its own account” (Kant 99). Rather, all his acts are gratifying only because he knows that they commend him to the gods. He orbits the agreeable. His morality is outwardly chaste but inwardly selfish and absolutely contextualized, and when he is asked to answer a moral riddle without referencing the holy texts, he cannot do it. He has no “spiritual…instinct” or personal ethical values (Murdoch 83). Assuming, as we are, that beauty leads to morality, Murdoch might assert that Praneshacharya has no morals yet because he has not yet experienced the “‘unselfing’” so “popularly called beauty” (Murdoch 82). Hume might suggest that our hero has not experience beauty because he cannot “preserve his mind free from all prejudice,” including his selfishness (Hume 239). But Kant might argue that Praneshacharya is in the perfect position to be suddenly and radically transformed by beauty: he is in a state of “complete indifference” (Kant 98).

Using a conglomeration of our knowledge of aesthetics, beauty and morality gained thus far, we can form a hypothesis regarding the Brahmin’s sexual rebirth. First, the sexual experience is judged to be beautiful as it involves a “free play” between “the imagination and the intellect” (Kant 116). During the sexual experience, our hero is “bewildered” and imagines “a pair of doves” flying over his legs which “ebb like the ocean” (Murthy 63). His imagination suddenly conjures new images and potentialities. The act occurring is, in fact, beautiful. It is beautiful, too as a work of art, in the setting, tone, and form; and, if you’re into 60 year old Brahmins, content. Indeed, although our Praneshacharya once regarded himself as having been “born with a ‘Good’ nature” and having lived life as “a ‘Man of Goodness,’” he does not start to question his “beliefs” and “cultivate his salvation” until after his sexual experience (Murthy, 76). And the experience was able to receive him at such large consequence because he had no intention of having said experience. His actions were without expectation, anticipation or self. In short (and in fact) they were virginal.

In his meanderings that follow, Praneshacharya begins to wander into the world of non-holy life and is thus faced with a range of new experience that forces him to form his own ethical opinions. And, Kant tells us, because of the effort involved as he is moves toward his own constellation of ethics, he is moving toward his own good. His inner state is pure, Murdoch would note, and although his actions were estimable before, now his intent is estimable, just like our hypothetical mother-in-law, “M.” This rich inner ethic and the hitherto unknown sense of self is the “implication of [his] experience with beauty” (Murdoch 82).


Blogger Dolen said...

Mary, this sounds like a fascinating novel. And it also fits very very nicely into what we've been discussing. Your description and analysis are wonderful to read, really. Leave it Vatsyayana to explode all of our philosophical ponderings on aesthetic ecstasy! This turns western myth on its head, doesn't it? It is in the act of losing his "virginity" that Praneshacharya becomes good, a loss of innocence is a necessary precursor to his inner reflection. And yet, it sounds so much as if his sexual experience is passive (I haven't read this novel so I'm guessing). It sounds as if his imaginative and intellectual ecstasy is a gift given to him by the woman rather than a mutual exchange. Is this true? If so, is this really an "unselfing"? On the other hand, he does manage to acquire the "vision" that Murdoch cherishes so. I think this reflects Murdoch's own ambivalence on the importance of "self-regard" in the cultivation of morality. On the one hand, she eschews it, but on the other hand she acknowledges that "M" had to look inward in order to change.

5:27 PM  

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