Philosophy was probably born out of the need to answer some fundamental questions concerning human existence. Yet in due course of time Philosophy became so concerned with its own internal logic that it moved far away from the human experience. Tradition which is rooted in human experience is notorious for its resistance to change. The burden to marry philosophical thought to human experience and question traditional values falls on the shoulders of writers. S L Byrappa’s famous novel, ‘Vamsa Vriksha’ deals with the clash of Hindu philosophical ideas, traditional values and the human experience in a changing world.
The novel is about two families in the beginning of the twentieth century, who are linked through marriage. Srinivasa Shrothri’s family lives in Nanjangud, a town South of Mysore, very close to the bank of the Kapila river. It is this river which swallows up Srinivasa Shrothri’s son during the monsoon time, leaving behind the widowed daughter-in-law and her young son. Sadasiva Rao’s family lives in Mysore and his younger brother comes back to India after finishing his studies in London. Shrothri’s young widowed daughter-in-law and Sadasiva Rao’s brother, Raja Rao, fall in love with each other. Shrothri, though not happy with the development allows his daughter-in-law to decide if she wants to marry Raja. The need to decide tears apart the daughter-in-law Katyayani, who initially decides not to wed Raja but unable to bear the separation goes ahead and marries Raja leaving her son behind. Meanwhile Sadasiva Rao, lecturer in MysoreUniversity, embarks on a mammoth project to write multiple volumes on India’s Cultural History. While on a field trip, he meets a Srilankan student of history, Karuna. Rao is taken in by Karuna’s sincerity, her ability to take notes and help him in his work. Karuna has great respect towards Rao whose scholarship is being noticed by the western world. She is enamored by Rao’s intellectual ability and his deep understanding of history and culture. Rao asks Karuna to come to India and in order to continue their research and publication of multiple volumes, the already married Rao wants Karuna to become his second wife. Karuna agrees to come to India, marry Rao and work with him on the project, even though her parents oppose this move. How events unfold and how it affects all concerned forms the core of the novel.
‘Clash of Ideas’ could easily have been another title for this novel for this is exactly what the novel sets up through three key characters: Srinivasa Shrothri, Sadasiva Rao and Katyayani.
Srinivasa Shrothri is a Bhisma Pitamaha like character, a person who sees tragedies unfold in front of him and yet keeps his equanimity intact. A learned and highly respect Sanskrit scholar, he is a deep believer in the Hindu tradition. Life according to him must be lived as laid down by the shastras and the ultimate aim of life is sanyasa, where everything is renounced. To solve his dilemmas he always seeks out the ancient texts and his sense of dharma is the same as expounded by these texts. He does not see himself as an individual but as just a part a great tree, the tree of his ancestors, the ‘Vamsa Vriksha’. His job in this life is to ensure that the lineage continues and he keeps the honor of the house of Shrothri’s, belonging to the lineage of Rishi Kashyapa, intact. All his decisions are mainly driven keeping this in mind. The Bhisma like characteristic of Srinivasa Shrothri is emphasized when knowing that he cannot have any physical relationship with his wife (after the first child is born the doctor says that if she bears another child it would be fatal for her) he has the chance of having the same pleasure with his servant. He is torn between the need for sexual gratification and the question of whether it is right, even if it is done with the consent of the wife and the servant girl. After a sleepless night, Shrothri decides against it. Unlike Bhisma who vows not to get married in order to fulfill the desire of his father, Shrothri refuses all physical contact because that is what his ‘dharma’ says. It is this dharma which will take him on the path of righteousness. Shrothri fights a very hard internal battle and in the end emerges the winner.
Sadasiva Rao is an Arjuna like figure, who can only see the eye of the bird, everything else vanishes from his view. To Sadasiva Rao that eye of the bird is his five volumes of Cultural History of India and his whole life revolves around it. He is always surrounded by his books, always thinking of his thesis, debating about his interpretation, collecting material and sorting them out. Human emotions are something to be avoided since they are a drag on his work. He marries Karuna because he knows for sure that her help is needed to complete the work. He doesn’t care much the feelings of his first wife when he goes ahead and marries Karuna. The motive is not born out of selfishness. Rather it is born out of a very focused mind which is not trying to garner glory for itself but wants to leave a lasting legacy for mankind. The attendant fame is not the destination. Spreading knowledge is the ultimate destination. This sharp focus on the goal solves all the dilemmas for Sadasiva Rao. His every step is dictated by his grand undertaking.
Sadasiva Rao’s brother, Raja, is exactly his opposite. While Sadasiva Rao is taciturn and keeps away from people, Raja is talkative and enjoys the company of people. He is the one who is always talking to his sister-in-law and playing games with his nephew. He sets up a drama troupe in the college and writes dramas, which become very popular with the students. He is a modern man at heart and he is willing to marry Katyayani, a widow, in a time widow remarriage was a taboo.
While these men play an important role in the novel (the title too emphasizes that) the novel belongs to the three main women who populate its pages. Against the traditionalist Shrothri and the intellectual Sadasiva Rao, Byrappa lines up the emotional Katyayani. She represents the prakrithi (nature). She depends on neither tradition nor intellect to solve her problems. She approaches all problems emotionally. She is neither someone who wants to uphold a tradition nor is she someone who has a great goal in life. She just wants to live a happy life like most of us. Everytime she is confronted with a problem, the solution always comes via her emotions, which to her seem to be the most natural way to approach a problem. In that sense she is a true embodiment of prakrithi.
Nagalakshmi, the first wife of Sadasiva Rao, is a traditional India woman who cannot look beyond her family. Her only aim in life is to serve her husband and bring up the son in a good way. She does everything possible to keep Sadasiva Rao happy and is completely broken when Rao marries again and goes to live with Karuna. Religion provides the only solace for her and is generally puzzled by the turn of events.
Karuna, who belongs to Sri Lanka, is the mirror image of Sadasiva Rao. She is an intelligent and an independent woman who shares the same dream as Sadasiva Rao. She is thrilled initially that Sadasiva Rao is willing to take her as his student. Later when Rao writes to her telling her to come to Mysore and that he cannot complete his mammoth task without her assistance, she willing comes to India to be with him. Then onwards the goal is very clear for her and though she has her own doubts later in life, the goal provides her the necessary solution for her problem. Seen from a different perspective she is very similar to Nagalaksmi in the sense that she dedicates her whole life to Sadasiva Rao. While Nagalaskmi wants to be the emotional support for Rao, Karuna is the intellectual support. She is the support without whom the whole ambition of Rao would collapse.
These characters form the backbone for the ‘clash of ideas’ that happens throughout the book. The first important clash is between the traditional idea of life of Shrothri and the modern idea of life of Katyayani. Shrothri and Katyayani’s young life is very similar. Shrothri, due to medical reasons, is unable to enjoy conjugal bliss after the birth of his son. Katyayani is widowed after her first son is born. Shrothri confronts this issue by drawing upon philosophy and tradition and ends up controlling his sexual desires completely. Katyayani on the other hand wants to enjoy life with all the attendant physical pleasures. She wants her womanhood to bloom. Shrothri’s view is that life has a very specific purpose as expounded in the ancient scripts. The job of a householder is to ensure that the family tree is continued. Beyond that a person must strive towards renunciation. Katyayani on the other hand cannot understand this philosophy. (She tells her father-in-law that she read the Bhagavath Gita but she couldn’t understand it) To her the pleasures of flesh are real and the need for an emotional support is also real. She doesn’t believe that she is born to spend her life as a widow and that it is her karma that she has become a widow. She doesn’t shave her head (which was the custom of those days), she attends college and falls in love with her lecturer, Raja Rao.
When she expresses her desire to leave the house, Shrothri quotes the scriptures and tells her about the tradition and the family lineage and what is expected of her in the society. He also tells her how her life should be led using ‘dharma’ as the foundation. Finally Shrothri says he will let her decide what she wants to do. This poses a great dilemma for Katyayani. On one hand is family honor and in-laws who have treated her as their daughter. On the other hand is her love for Raja Rao and the promise of a future which will fill the existing void. Initially she decides against a remarriage and also informs Shrothri. Yet her love for Raja Rao and the whole concept of a new life are difficult to shrug away and she leaves the house for Raja Rao. The lure of the modern life or in other words, the lure of a life which would allow her to express herself more freely, finally wins against the suffocating traditionalism. Emotional intensity triumphs over philosophical thought and tradition.
Unfortunately it is the same emotional intensity which lets her down when she comes back to the Shrothri to reclaim her child. Shrothri believes that the child does not belong to the parents but the child is one more branch of the grand tree. He is part of the ‘Vamsa Vriksha’. Since Katyayani had decided to be part of another family tree she has no right to ask for her son, who is now part of Shrothri’s family tree. Katyayani doesn’t accept that line of argument because emotionally the son belongs to her. Shrothri once again asks her to decide and tells her that she is free to take away the son, who is sleeping upstairs. Katyayani goes to see her son but cannot get herself to take her son along with her, which would have fatal consequence for her. Here again the traditional idea of a individual being not just an individual but is just a small role player in a long lineage is played against the more modern interpretation of individualism. This does throw up a lot of questions about man’s place in society and about how individualistic one can be.
The central theme of the book though is not the clash of ideas but about belief and what happens to a person if the belief turns out to be wrong. Shrothri has always believed in tradition and a part of that tradition says that his duty is to uphold the glory of his lineage. You are born in this world only for that purpose. You must conduct yourself in such a way that the prestige of the lineage is enhanced. So all activities are dictated by this goal. Shrothri leads most of his life according to this philosophy. Unfortunately for him, a day before the ceremony to his ancestors he discovers that he was an illegitimate child and that he does not belong to the lineage of Shrothri. The edifice that he had built carefully till now completely collapses leaving him in a devastated state. The servant Lakshmi offers a counter-argument saying that even though he may not have been a Shrothri, he has done enough to uphold the prestige of the lineage. Shrothri refuses to accept that argument and instead of turning away from tradition, turns to the same tradition to find a solution. The dharma that he must follow now also comes from tradition and he does things accordingly.
Loss of belief does hurt the individual hard but a more pertinent question is about how the widely held belief had impacted others. Would Shrothri have behave different had he known the truth earlier? How would have been his response to Katyanani? Would he have sent her son along with her? We do get answers to this towards the end but by then damage has already been done. The belief system held closely by one person impacts others, as can be expected and when that belief system breaks, the person may or may not be equipped to deal with the catastrophe. Nagalakshmi’s belief system had taught her that as a wife her primary aim is to keep her husband happy and run an efficient household. She is a naïve person and for whom the home is the world. When Sadasiva Rao decides to marry again, her whole belief system breaks down and withdrawing into herself is the only way she can deal with the catastrophe. She now clings to religion, writing ‘Rama Nama’ daily and wanting to complete writing it a million times so that Rama will ensure that justice is done to her. It is this great fear of the loss of belief system which drives people towards a militant stance wherein the faith would be defended at all cost, even against truth.
Byrappa’s narration is top class. He alternates between the internal conflicts of the character and emotional scenes which he sets up very effectively. The external world makes it appearance in form of Kapila river, Chamundi Hill, a lake here and a garden there but Byrappa is more concerned about the internal landscape of his characters. He keeps the external descriptions to the minimum and concentrates on telling us what the characters are going through. The interior conflicts make for great reading but it the incidents that he sets up which draw you into the story. In this regard Byrappa is a true master. The incidents in the novel are filled with emotional intensity like when Katyayani tells Shrothri of her love towards Raja or when Katyayani comes to her son along with her. Byrappa keeps the intensity intact while ensuring that the heightened intensity doesn’t lead to melodrama or mushy sentimentality. Byrappa is also careful to ensure that no argument in the novel turns into a pedantic one. While there are some places where philosophy and tradition are discussed, they never become a scholarly debate outside of the story. He keeps all discussions well within the storyline so that interest is not lost and the story is always on the forefront and not the philosophical debate.
Like all great fiction, this novel too allows for different interpretations and multiple layers can be discovered in each reading. It asks more questions than it answers and I feel that is how a novel. It should allow us to think and the question this novel raises are important ones. Only when we reflect on these questions will we slowly go back into our tradition, trying to find meaning for our own lives. It is for this reason that Byrappa’s ‘Vamsa Vriksha’ is one of the great Indian novels.