Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa’s Novels – Part 4

This article is part 4 of 7 in the series Myths, Legends and Rituals in Bhyrappa’s Novels

Legends, Stories from Mythologies - Religious Rites, Rituals

As legends, mythological stories, religious rites and rituals intertwine with each other in many instances, I would like to present these under one title.

In ‘Vamshavruksha’, where we come across many excerpts from the ‘Dharmashastra’, there are descriptions of the annual rituals that are performed in a Brahmin family in the memory of the dead (the shraaddha). This annual ceremony is depicted twice, along with the specific mantras and the rituals. The first is the ceremony of Nanjunda Shrotri, son of Sreenivasa Shrotri. The house and the courtyard are cleaned, washed and wiped clean, but the auspicious ‘rangoli’ will not adorn the threshold or the courtyard on the day of ‘shraaddha’. The food that had to be prepared, the manner in which they are to be served, and the way of offering ‘tarpana’ (gingeli seeds and water), wearing the sacred thread inverted, all these are described elaborately along with the sacred mantras and religious rites. At the end of the novel we come across another depiction of the ‘Shraaddha’,  of the supposed father of Sreenivasa Shrotri, namely, Nanjunda Shrotri. By that time, the truth about Sreenivasa Shrotri’s birth had come out. To the pious and orthodox Sreenivasa Shrotri, these rites and rituals of shraaddha, seem to be meaningless acts, for he was not performing these for his real father. Thus, the rituals, rites and myths, which had been meaningful all these years, become totally meaningless at this juncture. So, it is the state of mind and the real meaningful relation with the dead that make the rituals meaningful, and not the mere rituals themselves. This is how Bhyrappa makes use of the rituals, rites and myths in their positive, meaningful aspect, as well as with their negative, meaningless aspect. It is considered a bad omen if the rice ball (pinda) breaks during a shraadha. (These are rice balls or dumplings made by mixing cooked rice, gingely seeds and small amounts of the other dishes that are prepared. These  are worshipped as representing the ancestors, in a shraddha ritual). When Sreenivasa Shrotri held one such ball in his hand, he felt faint, the ball slipped down and crumbled. Sreenivasa Shrotri became unconscious. This symbolic shattering of the rice ball conveys the breaking of the relation between Sreenivasa Shrotri and his supposed ancestors. The same rituals which were binding him to that ‘Vamsha’ all these years have now become the factors that sever him from that Vamsha.

Usually the shraaddha rituals begin after midday. Darbha grass is worn on the middle finger instead of on index finger. After the invited brahmins, who are compared to the rishis Vasistha and Vamadeva, have eaten, ‘thilodaka pinda’ is offered, darbha grass is spread and these rice balls placed on it (the grass should point towards the south). Specific mantras are  chanted while performing these rites.

Death being one of the preoccupations of Bhyrappa,  thoughts of death, life after death, funeral rites, the many rituals associated with death, the many sided effects of these rituals and of death on the survivors, are vividly depicted in many of his novels like ‘Nele’ and ‘Saakshi’. In ‘Vamshavruksha’, the two-fold effect of these rites and rituals are delineated. ‘Nele’ picturises another function of these rituals. Kumara, who had asked his father Javarayappa why he ever begot him, ranting that it was his mistake to beget a son etc., after his father’s death, is totally transformed. Performing the funeral rites, and observing all the rituals Puttajois asked him to perform, Kumara feels a sort of revelation about the relationship between a father and a son.

Malathi and Kumara living in the light of the "myth of progress”, overlook the main purpose of marriage, that is, begetting children and continuing the family line. Kalappa’s words and the news of Javarayappa’s death cause confusion, sorrow, regret, and a sense of guilt in Kumara’s mind. The rituals conducted after the death rekindle his love and affection for his father. Kumara has to perform the ritual of atonement on behalf of his father. This is a ritual which has to be performed by a person, while living, to atone for the sins that he has committed knowingly or unknowingly in his lifetime. As Puttajois explains to Kalappa, this rite may be performed with the help of the mantras by a person while living, and this is also the best method. As it is not possible for a person to perform these rites when he is on the death bed, they may be performed by the son too, with the formal dedication or ‘Sankalpa’ that he is doing this to assist the comfortable passing of the father. This is the second, alternative method. If is not possible either, then, these rites may be performed by the son even after the death of the parent, wishing and willing a comfortable death for the parent (page 39-40 ‘Nele’). This is the third method. The person should be declared as dead only after this rite, and the subsequent rites can follow (This religious rite reminds us of the belief in Christianity that a dying man must confess his sins before a bishop). Kumara’s mind was slowly beginning to understand that the truth of the relation between his father and himself, that it involved more than the love and affection that he had showered upon the son, that it was loftier than mere biological kinship. Then he goes through the rituals of bathing the corpse, discarding the old clothes and anointing it with sacred ash, garlands of rudrakshis and basil, placing it on the bamboo bier and binding it. As the oldest son, Kumara had to lead the final procession, holding the pot of fire. The pier would be lowered to the earth three times before reaching the cemetery, to test whether the ‘dead’ man might still be breathing. By this time, Kumara’s mind has become so soft, so anxious that he imagines that his father is still breathing, that he will now cut the ropes, offer his father tender coconut to revive him. When Putta Jois asks Kumara to cover the exposed private parts of his father’s naked and dead body with a plantain leaf, the sight of the frozen genitals cause a great tumult in Kumara’s mind. For ten days, an oil lamp is placed in the place where the corpse had been, and is kept burning constantly. On the third day, the bones were gathered from the heap of ashes to perform the remaining rites.

All these rituals and rites constantly bring the memory of his father to Kumara’s mind. He remembers his father’s love towards his children, how he used to bathe his son, how he brought him up, etc. Dormant love for his father  surfaces. He has a vexing dream of his father’s frozen genitals growing higher and higher, and himself on top of it. All these, and Puttayya’s words about the growth of spirits, help Kumara to understand his father better in death than when he was living. By the time all the rites and rituals were over, Kumara is a different son altogether, cherishing the memory of his father, and ready to spend generously on the ceremonies, and demands from Malathi a son by the next year or be prepared for a divorce. This transformation of the minds and relations could be seen as another function of the rituals as portrayed in ‘Nele’.

‘Nele’ describes many more rituals and rites that are performed after a person dies, and the effect these have on the people who had been closely related with the dead man. Puttajois informs that it is written in the shastras that a dead person attains the state of a spirit first, and   acquires the status of the ‘pitru’ or ancestor only after all the rites and rituals have been performed adequately. At the beginning spirit stage of existence, the head is believed to be hanging downwards, with legs stretched upwards. On the first day, the eyes and the stomach are formed. The ears and the nose take shape on the second day, while the shoulders, sides and neck come into existence on the third day, followed by  the navel, anus and the genitals on the fourth day. In this way, all the organs are believed to develop completely by the tenth day. Once the body has taken shape, the spirit begins to feel hungry. On the tenth day it feels an immense hunger, and a large quantity of food - prabhootabali - should be offered to it. After the son has completed all these rituals, the dead person’s spirit acquires the state of ‘pitrutva’. Through these rituals and the knowledge of the state after death, the relatives in the house feel that the spirit of the dead person is still hovering about the house, making them feel that death is just a different state of existence. Besides this, they also engender a sort of respect and love the minds of the close relatives, mixed with a mystic fear and awe. This change of attitude is seen in Kumara and in Subbalakshmi, Javarai’s wife too.

Recitation of the ‘Garudapurana’ when an elderly person dies is a tradition that has almost become a ritual in lndia, which is still followed in many house . ‘Garudapurana’ is a mythological text, which describes the plight of a sinner after death, and the severe punishment a sinner will have to undergo in hell. Interestingly, the text mentions the names of all the stations that a dead person visits on his way to hell. The descriptions of the punishments and the various hells are reminiscent of Dante’s ‘Divine comedy’. The reference to this ‘Garudapurana’ in ‘Nele’ is an allusion to the religious text that unveils the myth about hell. Here are some of the descriptions: There is no shade for the spirit to rest. There is no food when it feels hungry, no water to quench its thirst. Twelve suns will be blazing on it, as if it is the end of the world itself. A sinner might be tortured with chilly-spiced air at times, bitten by scorpions, sometimes poisonous snakes -, pierced by thorns, or devoured by terrible lions, tigers and dogs. The ‘Garudapurana’ describes in detail the path to Yamaloka, where the Vytharini river flows, full of pus and blood, with heaps of bones on one bank, and mounds of flesh on the other. As the sinner approaches it, the river begins to boil like ghee in a cauldron.. And so on.

When Subbalakshmi, the wife of Javarayappa, hears these, her heart softens towards her dead husband. Though she remembers Javarayappa’s relation with the hat nurse Parvathi, and frets over it, many good qualities of her husband, and his love for her and for the children come to her mind. She broods upon certain incidents in her past. Though she has not done anything wrong, a sense of guilt haunts her. She decides to make her husband’s journey in that world comfortable by donating a cow and other things. These rituals, the reading of the ‘Garudapurana’, stirring fear and pity, broaden  the minds of the next of kin and dispose them more gently towards the dead person.

‘Dharmodaka’ is an important rite performed on the 10th day following the death of a person. It is believed that the relatives and friends of the deceased ease the latter’s journey in the other world and lessen the burdens of his sins in this world by offering the fruit of their virtuous deeds to the departed. The person who offers this ‘Dharmodaka’ has to make a vow to transfer the fruit of all his good deeds to the departed one. He then pours water and sesame seeds through his open palm, three times, to fall on the small stone that is installed in  between two other stones on an altar. After this, a chick pea is chewed and spat out. A drop of ghee is smeared on the head with a pinch of soapnut powder, dried gooseberry and mud, and the person has to bathe in the tank or near a well. A person who offers ‘Dharmodaka’ should keep a fast all morning.

Along with these rites and rituals, Bhyrappa delineates another traditional ritual on the that is performed 10th day, which is heart rendering and exposes the plight of women after the death of the husband, in a society that rigidly follows the rites and rules prescribed in the texts. On the tenth day, all signs of happy marriage, like the marks of turmeric (haldi), kumkum, bangles and mangalya of the woman are removed. Though some of these rituals and customs have become obsolete at present, some of them still survive. As it is considered the last day on which the wife is permitted to use haldi, kumkum, bangles etc., the women relatives and friends offer these to her on a piece of paper (which is not done otherwise on auspicious occasions), a saree without material for a blouse, a single fistful of rice, a piece of jaggery, one betel leaf and one betel nut. This is followed in many places even to this day. The rites that are performed by the wife in the cemetery are not observed these days. The description of these rites show the rather unkind, harsh process that used to exist in society, exposing the negative aspects of the rituals which were followed blindly through generations, though absent in the time of the Vedas.

As per the rituals, the wife had to go to the cemetery accompanied by an old, tonsured widow. There she had to offer worship to the three stones installed on an altar. These stone represented her dead husband and two other ancestors. She had to go around these stones thrice and offer the things she has brought the loose end of her saree to the stone in the centre, representing her husband. The officiating jois plucks away the flower in her hair, breaks her glass bangles, cuts the thread of the mangalasutra with a quartz stone which is also used to smash the bangles, and the black beads on the mangalasutra are also heaped on the stone. If the wife wanted to tonsure her head after bathing in the tank or near the well, the son offers her a red saree. As Subbalakshmi decided not to go through the tonsuring, this was spared. These aspects of the rituals show us the grim world of grief and helplessness of women during certain eras in our society.

Like these strict and grim rites, there are rituals that make married life happier even in old age. One of these happy celebrations is the sixtieth birthday of a man. If the wife is still living, the couple will go through the marriage ritual once again, accompanied by all the religious rites and rituals like tying the mangalsutra (thaali), exchanging of garlands, etc. The sixtieth year is believed to be a crucial stage in a man’s life. By performing homas and havanas, it is believed that a person will get blessings and good health. Rituals like these have come into existence to bring joy to life which is anyway full of uncertainties.


(To be continued…)



Prof. Shantakumari is a teacher, writer, translator and literary critic. Her seminal work ‘Yugasaakshi’ is a critical and definitive study of S. L. Bhyrappa’s Kannada novels. ‘Chaitanyada Chilume’ and ‘Nenapu gari bicchidaaga’ are her autobiographical works. ‘Satyapathika-Socrates’ and ‘Kaggada-Kaanike’ are some of her major works. She has co-translated many of Bhyrappa's novels into English and parts of Will Durant's 'Story of Civilization' into Kannada.

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