Dharma and Modernity

by Jaideep A Prabhu - Jun 2, 2012 05:31 AM +05:30 IST
Dharma and Modernity

Vamshavriksha (ವಂಶವೃಕ್ಷ), by SL Bhyrappa; trans. K. Raghavendra Rao (The Uprooted); Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation, 1992; 341 pages.

Santeshivara Lingannaiah Bhyrappa is a legend not only in Kannada literary circles but is also one of India’s foremost contemporary novelists. A doctorate in philosophy, Bhyrappa suffuses his works with ideas from ancient Indian philosophy and teases out how ideas on parchment might translate into action. His Vamshavriksha (1965) is no different, a powerful story of the clash between traditional Indian values and modernity. Without pronouncing judgement on any of the characters, Bhyrappa sensitively portrays the merits and demerits of each intellectual position the main characters hold. An interplay of fate, tradition, desire, and intellect, Vamshavriksha is a story that is at once heart-rending, uplifting, and serene.

A quick comment on the book itself – the paper is of cheap quality and the binding poor. While I cannot judge the quality of the translation itself, the English is atrocious for countless spelling and grammatical mistakes – clearly, the publisher could have done with a good copy editor. However, let that not distract you from the philosophical issues the novel raises; what it lacks in presentation, it makes up in substance.


The story starts in 1924 with Kathyayani, widow of Nanjunda Shrothri, who lives with her in-laws Shrinivasa Shrothri and Bhagirathamma and their servant, Lakshmi, in Nanjangud. After the loss of her husband, Kathyayani did not take to a widow’s garb as her mother-in-law wished because her father-in-law thought it would be too much for the young woman to bear. Shrothri, a scholar in Indian philosophy and the shastras, is occasionally visited by priests and professors for his opinion on an intricate problem in the scriptures. In one such event, Sadashiva Rao, a college lecturer in Mysore, visits Shrothri to discuss some matters of Indian philosophy. Listening to the two men talk, Kathyayani’s thoughts turn to college. Despite a little protest from Bhagirathamma, Shrothri encourages his daughter-in-law to pursue her BA degree, which Nanjunda had been studying for before he had drowned in the nearby Kapila river. At the university, she meets the brother of Sadashiva Rao, Raja Rao, professor of Shakespearean drama and organiser of the Dramatics Club, with whom she falls in love.

Simultaneously, Sadashiva Rao embarks on a massive five-volume project that would detail the cultural history of India from the days of the Indus Valley Civilisation to present times. With an initial grant from Shrothri of Rs. 1,000 and funding from the Maharaja of Mysore, Sadashiva Rao embarks on a tour of India to visit various libraries, monuments, and archives to conduct his research. During his visit to Ajanta, he meets with a Sinhalese couple and their daughter, Karunaratne, a historian of Buddhism from Cambridge. Rao is enchanted by the woman’s sharp mind and dedication to her research, and invites her to continue her studies at his university. Ratne takes Rao up on his offer as she has some admiration for his work, and over the course of her doctoral degree and work with him as his research assistant, falls in love with him.

Sadashiva Rao, already married to Nagalakshmi, is concerned that society will see his interaction with Ratne, which by now had become quite informal, as improper. He is also frustrated with his wife for not being able to take part in his intellectual life, which was all that mattered to him. Rao offers to marry Ratne despite his earlier marriage and live in a bigamous relationship. Ratne is hesitant at firt, but only for a short while. She agrees, and the two get married. Needless to say, Nagalakshmi, a dutiful and loving wife, is devastated. Around the same time,  Rao’s younger brother, Raja Rao marries Kathyayani. The widow wrestles with the notion of remarriage, especially as she is aware of the dishonour it will bring to the Shrothri family, but ultimately gives in to the material pleasures of a married life. Unable to face her dharmic father-in-law, she writes him a letter and departs from the house with just the clothes on her back. The Shrothri family is shocked, even more so as Kathyayani has abandoned even her four-year-old son for Raja Rao, but Shrothri goads them back to some level of equanimity after the catastrophe.

As the years pass, Nagalakshmi, despondent, finds peace in religion, and the old Shrothris continue the burden of domestic life, denied the pleasures of retirement, first by the death of their son and then by the abandonment by their daughter-in-law. Kathyayani, after the initial enjoyment of marital bliss, suffers three miscarriages and wonders if her fate might not be in some way a divine judgement on her actions. Similarly, Rao falls sick as he churns out volume after volume of his magnum opus. Ratne, who had framed her marriage to Rao in intellectual terms, loses both her parents to old age and begins to feel the pangs of motherhood. Unfortunately for her, Rao is quite weak, and any time spent on her pregnancy and maternity leave might mean that their five-volume project may remain incomplete.

One day, Kathyayani suddenly comes across her son in her English class – after her bachelor’s, she had studied for an MA and become a teacher along with her new husband. Unable to restrain herself, she invites him home and inquires about his family. When he tells her that both his parents are dead, Kathyayani feels his rejection more keenly than had the boy hurled insults at her or demanded an explanation from her. Her health deteriorates due to her mental anguish, much to the worry of her doting husband. Rao also hovers near death as the strain of his work wears him down, as does the guilt of abandoning his first wife, Nagalakshmi.

In the meanwhile, sadness once again descends upon the Shrothri house with the passing of Bhagirathamma. Battered by fate, Shrothri barely manages to hold on to his mental calm. He decides that it is time he took sanyasa and begins to put his affairs in order. He arranges for his grandson to be married to the daughter of a  respected Sanskrit teacher in town, and bequeaths two acres of land to Lakshmi, who had served the Shrothri family from her father’s days. In the midst of sorting out his papers, Shrothri finds an old letter addressed to his father, cursing the man for cheating his brother out of his share of the ancestral property. Shocked, the old man investigates the accusation. As an old tale of greed, jealousy, and other human weaknesses unfolds, Shrothri is aghast to find that his father was not Nanjunda Shrothri, but some priest who had been chased off after impregnating his mother. This had been arranged so that Nanjunda Shrothri Sr. would have an heir to whom he could pass the ancestral property to, without having it pass to his brother. Shrinivasa Shrothri decides to track down his uncles descendants, but when any fail to turn up, he gives away all his property and wealth to needy people in the village. His grandson, Shrinivasa Shrothri Jr., is supportive of the decision, as he too would not like to taint himself with ill-gotten wealth.

In the closing act, Sadashiva Rao, racked with guilt, returns to live with both his wives under one roof. Within a day of his having made his peace, he passes away. He had just finished his five-volume work. Ratne, when she raises the topic of Rao’s research with his son (from his first wife), Prithvi, informs her that he doesn’t care for history or philosophy and that he is a science student. Shrothri leaves for his sanyas, but decides to visit his daughter-in-law to see her one last time – he hadn’t seen her since she left around 20 years ago. As he enters the Rao house, Kathyayani, no longer her radiant, beautiful, self but a pale emaciated shell, is in her final moments. Shrothri sends for her son, his grandson, and is shocked to find out that the young man knew of his mother but had rejected her – he had hoped that the junior Shrothri would have been raised better. While they await the grandson’s arrival, the old man is surprised to find out that Nagalakshmi’s aunt was his wronged uncle’s daughter. Shrothri Jr., or Cheeni as his mother called him so many years ago, enters, and as he tries to pour some water down his mother’s throat, she too passes away. Ratne has made preparations to return home to Ceylon, and Shrinivasa Shrothri finally leaves for his sanyas, telling his grandson that his first duty now was to perform the death rituals for his mother.


Vamshavriksha contains several issues – gender inequality, the purpose of marriage, the meaning if happiness, fate, individualism, the family – within the larger theme of society’s clash with modernity. Bhyrappa shows great sympathy to each character’s point of view, forcing the reader to go beyond merely nodding his/her head and moving on. However, a note of caution – modernity has come to indicate westernisation, for the West leads in the implicit material foundations of modernity. Why this is so is beyond the purview of this article, but it would be wrong to see the story as a tension between Eastern and Western views on the traditional family; that presupposes a Western disinclination towards the family, which is simply not true. While it is indeed true that Western cultures have celebrated the individual more in recent times and see that as the basic unit of existence, Aristotle and Plato (among others such as Plutarch and Didymus) both argued that the family was essentially a form of community grounded in the human capacity for rational virtue and hence indispensable for society. For Aristotle, the family exists by nature, based on the ethical friendship between husband and wife. Aristotle concedes that there is a physical and material necessity for the family, but that is not its moving principle – the moving principle is what Plato would call, the Good, as present in, rather than to, the institutions themselves. Thus, the family is essentially a spiritual institution, having for its true end the realisation of the ethical life of virtue and happiness.

The two characters around whom all these issues spin are Kathyayani and Sadashiva Rao. In Kathyayani’s case, we see a woman on the cusp of beginning her life struck down by a cruel hand of fate. Is it fair that society commands her to give up her life for this misfortune that was not even her own doing? And to what purpose? The issue of widow remarriage was a sensitive one in India, and many reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy dedicated their lives to changing the atrocious customs Hindu society had developed over time. On the other hand, does a person, widow or otherwise, not have a duty towards other members of the family? In this light, Kathyayani’s abandonment of her in-laws and son (and the way in which she does it) seems to be an issue of selfishness more than her right to be happy.

In Sadashiva Rao’s case, his bigamous marriage to Ratne throws Nagalakshmi’s life into turmoil for no fault of hers. Rao’s lofty goal, or perhaps justification, of his marriage to Ratne was to write the magnum opus on Indian cultural history. We must remember, however, that unlike ancient Greek society, ancient Indian society did not value knowledge for its own sake. Instead, Indian philosophy exhorts its readers not to see philosophy as merely an attainment of knowledge, but a consideration of its consequences. Rao’s disregard for Nagalakshmi, to the point of not even telling her about his marriage to Ratne until the last moment, cannot be condoned from this perspective. And yet, the honest reader must ask, is one to remain in a joyless marriage for decades to maintain appearances? As important as the family may be, what kind of family is it whose members feel suffocated or trapped? Is the purpose of marriage merely societally sanctioned procreation, or might one be allowed to hope for companionship?

Both Kathyayani and Rao, our primary actors, flout traditions to satiate their desires. Yet oddly enough, the community is harsher on Kathyayani than on Rao (perhaps not so odd in a culture that venerates one man who threw his pregnant wife out of the house and another who gambled his wife away). Kuppayya, one of the priests officiating at the annual memorial of Nanjunda Shrothri, openly glares at Kathyayani when she visits the Shrothris to collect her son. However, Rao’s second marriage and setting up a second household does not garner even a mention in the community. It is indeed an odd logic that allows a man to have two wives but does not allow a woman, if she becomes widow, to have even one! Kathyayani reflects on how her father remarried when his wife, Kathyayani’s mother, died. Lest the reader think that it was out of concern for the children, Kathyayani felt neglected by her step-mother and even her father afterwards.

Yet the saga of the two marriages is not so simple. Both Kathyayani and Rao marry to fulfill their desires, the former her physical and emotional needs, and the latter his intellectual thirst. As Shrothri argues, the two appear different and one might even consider the latter superior to the former, but both arise out of a sense of self. Because of this the foundation of both marriages is built upon the sadness of and injustice to others – in Kathyayani’s case, her in-laws (who she admits have treated her as their own daughter) and son, and in Rao’s case, Nagalakshmi and Prithvi. Both Kathyayani and Rao know this, and their conscience eats away at them, not allowing them any marital bliss. Both fall mysteriously sick as their minds take them back to what-ifs…even overlooking the superstitions on Kathyayani’s part (that her three miscarriages were divine punishment for abandoning her family), the regret is clear in both; regret for what they have done (and how they did it), and a helplessness for that which they can no longer remedy. ironically, Kathyayani and Rao both get what they thought they wanted – so whence lies happiness?

The revelations towards the end about Shrothri’s lineage acts as a disclaimer in some ways: nota bene, do not idealise the family, for it too can have a few skeletons hidden. This little episode, which strikes the reader from out of the blue, seems extraneous at first glance, but beautifully balances the primacy given to the concept of the family in the rest of the book. It is little gems like this that maintains a pleasing equilibrium in Bhyrappa’s novel.

The crux of the novel, however, is the notion of dharma and its role in an ever-changing world. Be it widow remarriage or polygamy, both evolved in a specific set of circumstances. It is important to understand those conditions before one evaluates the practices on modern sensitivities. What were the motives then, and the environment? Do they hold true even now? Without such an evaluation, we’d be guilty of the condescension of posterity. In many ways, Vamshavriksha is a meditation on how decline – and the attendant loss of self-confidence – can reduce the once grand ideas of a civilisation to petty rigidities. It is critical to understand that culture – language, food, religion – changes over time and is not a static entity that only cultural bigots believe in. In a country like India, where exceptions are the rule, this is even more true. In an ideal world, within some prescribed parameters, dharma can be defined. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and the boundary conditions keep changing. Even Krishna sanctioned Yudhishtira’s one lie on the field of battle, manipulated Arjuna into killing Karna when the latter was at a disadvantage, arranged the killing of Bhishma, and was the enabling agent in Bheema’s illegal manoeuvre in the gadha-yuddha. This should not be taken to mean that the ends justify the means. Krishna employs these means, kuttayuddha they might be called, as measures of the last resort at a critical juncture when a greater good was the goal. Nonetheless, it indicates that dharma is fluid entity, and it is this fluidity with which one must understand and apply dharma in modernity. Bhyrappa, like Shrothri, does not judge either Kathyayani or Rao, but leaves it to the reader. In this itself, is the author’s appeal to the reader not to declare judgement based on preconceived notions of propriety but consider them with respect to contemporary circumstances.


Dharma – religious values, morals – need regular updating to suit the times, or society risks becoming medieval in outlook. Changes are not based on convenience or sophistic arguments but on a full review of the factors involved. As Shrothri tells his daughter-in-law, dharma is never imposed from the outside but understood from within. Every generation bemoans the lax values of the next generation, and some of this may be ascribed to laziness and lethargy. Some changes may be due to a shift in our moral outlook, and yet others may be due to structural transformations in society.

What is striking about Vamshavriksha, ultimately, is that it is difficult to find fault with anybody. It is difficult to disagree with Kathyayani or Rao, but the devastation their actions leave in their wake gives the reader pause. New ideas will necessarily challenge the orthodoxy, and there is bound to be some resistance to changing the established belief. However, what one may find fault in is the impetuous manner with which Kathyayani and Rao proceeded with their decisions, not caring to think of the consequences their actions may have on others, and how they might achieve similar results with less pain. As mentioned earlier, Indian philosophy tells us that consequences are as important as principles. Or there is a risk of turning into a puritanical monster.

Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.
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