It has been so deeply rooted in the Indian consciousness for centuries that it has been continuously an operative force in everyday life—both private and public. Such is the veneration that an ascetic or sanyasi enjoys in our society that he finds an important place in every sphere of life. That is why Meenakshi Mukherjee observes: “Renunciation has always been an Indian ideal, be it renunciation of worldly goods and possessions or the renunciation of selfish motives, passions and emotional bondage.
Asramadharma is an important part of the traditional Hindu view of life:
Asramadharma is an important part of the traditional Hindu view of life. It takes a comprehensive view of human nature and human needs. It offers a pattern of organizing one’s life which aims at being physically, psychologically and spiritually satisfactory. Hindu tradition envisages four asramas or stages in one’s life. They are brahmacharya (the stage of the young celibate student), garhasthya (the stage of the householder), vanaprasthya (the stage of the forest-dweller), and sanyasa (the stage of renunciation), in the order of succession.
The Bachelor of Arts is one of the early novels of R.K. Narayan. It has for its theme the growth of Chandran, a young man towards emotional maturity and stability. It involves his going through an emotional crisis. Chandran is rudely awakened when he falls in love at first sight with a young girl by name, Malathi. Part Two of the novel deals with this experience of his life, which lies behind his subsequent attempt at becoming a sanyasi.
The sanyasi motif is already introduced in the novel in Part One through the amusing episode of the flower thief:
Part Three of the novel depicts Chandran’s disappointment in love and the resulting bitterness and frustration. His donning the robes of a sanyasi and becoming a mendicant wanderer for a few months is all part of this experience. And it is here that the theme of renunciation is brought in quite explicitly. But the sanyasi motif is already introduced in the novel in Part One through an amusing episode. Chandran’s mother is disturbed by the fact that every morning all the flowers from her garden intended for worship are being stolen by someone.
It becomes obligatory for his father to do something about it. Chandran too, in spite of his determination to devote himself to his studies, volunteers to join his father and brother Seenu in the adventure of catching the flower thief. Narayan describes the episode in mock heroic tones. On the first day, they are outwitted by the culprit.
The next day when they catch hold of him, they are shocked and surprised to find that he is no ordinary thief but a sanyasi. The father relaxes his hold on him and the mother, noticing his ochre-coloured robes desires to leave him unharmed for fear of incurring the curse of the holy man!
The episode brings out the veneration as well a» awe in which the saffron robed is generally held in Indian society:
The episode brings out the veneration as well as awe in which the saffron robed is generally held in Indian society. The spontaneous response of Chandran’s parents to the flower thief as soon as his identity is discovered is an indication of conventional attitude to the holy man. This episode also reveals the changing attitude of the educated younger generation towards such men. Chandran’s cynical attitude fairly reflects the attitude of his generation.
It is one of the ironies of his life that this very young man who chides the flower thief for cheating people by wearing the ochre-robes, under the stress of emotional crisis, impulsively takes to the robes of a sanyasi and wanders as a mendicant for some months. This fact indicates the hold that the sanyasi ideal has on the minds of the people of this country, in spite of changing generations.
Chandran flees form Kailas and decides to become a sanyasi:
Chandran on arrival at Madras does not go to his uncle’s house. He gives a slip to his cousin who has come to receive him at the station and takes a room in a lodge near the People’s Park. There a middle-aged man by name Kailas thrust his friendship on him. He takes him to the bar and then to a prostitute’s house in Mint Street.
This is the first time that he has been so close to a man in drink; this is the first time he has stood at the doorstep of a prostitute’s house. He is much terrified at this horrible experience. After leaving several streets behind, he feels tired and sits down on a pavement. He thinks about his home and wishes to be back there by taking some train.
But the memory of Malathi, horoscopes, astrologers, the piper piping Kalyani raga, his unsympathetic mother will all torment him if he returns to Malgudi. So he makes up his mind never to return to Malgudi. He is now like a sanyasi. No, he will become one by shaving his head and wearing ochre clothes.
He has finished with the gamble of life. Enough is enough. He gets up and wanders a little in search of his hotel. Then he realizes that it is a futile search. He is not going to achieve anything by it. He thinks why he, a sanyasi should bother about his possessions like bag and other things. He feels his luggage will require for the payment to be made to the hotel.
Chandran requests barber Ragavan to help him become a sanyasi:
At first Chandran boards the G.T. Express with a ticket for ‘Bezwada’. But he hates the name ‘Bezwada’ and jumps out of the train after throwing away the ticket. He crosses the road and got into a tramcar and settles down in a street comfortably. On learning from the conductor that the tramcar is going to Mylapore, he buys a ticket for that destination.
After half-an- hour’s journey, he reaches Mylapore. He goes to Kapaleeswarar temple and worships all the images on and around the holy corridor. He sees a barber by name Ragavan sitting on the steps of the temple tank. Chandran approaches him with a request to shave his head and get him a pair of cheap loin-cloths and a pair of upper cloths dyed in ochre.
He tells the barber that he will give his dress and purse if/the other accedes to his request. The barber is surprised at Chandran’s desire to become a sanyasi at this very young age. He tries to dissuade him. But Chandran is firm in his stand. He asks Ragavan that he shall not speak about it to anyone.
Chandran with the help of barber Ragavan writes a postcard intimating his decision to wander about aimlessly:
The barber takes him to his hut and asks him to sit on a mat rolled to him by his wife. He returns in the afternoon with a pair of loincloths dyed in ochre. He also brings a few plantains and a green coconut for Chandran. As Chandran is hungry, he does not refuse the hospitality of barber Ragavan. He then asks the barber to get him a postcard. He borrows a short pencil from the barber and writes a letter to his father informing him of his safe arrival in Madras; of his being happy and cheerful without being worried about the marriage and of his decision to wander a lot.
He asks his father not to worry on his score and report to the police if he does not hear from him for a long time. He requests his father not to make a fuss on his account and conveys his respects to his mother. He promises to his father that he will be all right soon. In the postscript he adds that he is going with some friends whom he has met at Madras.
Chandran becomes a sanyasi and wanders from place to place aimlessly and lived on public charity:
Chandran with his shaven head and ochre loincloth becomes a sanyasi who has renounced the world and is untouched by its joys and sorrows. He travels several districts on foot, and when he is tired gets a lift on a passing cart or even a bus. He never cares to know where he is going or staying except that it is not in the direction of his home town, Malgudi. One town is exactly like the other so he does not care to learn their names as they matter little to a sanyasi.
He appeases his hunger by begging in the houses nearby or by begging for fruits or coconut in the bazaar. In the beginning it is very difficult for him to control his craving for coffee but he disciplines himself to self-imposed suffering and soon gets over the craving for it. He sleeps under a roof if anybody invites him, if not; he sleeps in the open, or in the country.
Chandran becomes weak and dust laden with his looks becoming vacant and his lips smiling rarely:
Sometimes when he is hungry and there is none to give him food, he drags himself about in a weak condition, and enjoys the pain of hunger. His cheekbones stand out; he is covered with the dust of the highway; his limbs have become horny; his complexion turns from brown to dark tan. His looks become vacant and lips rarely smile. He shaves once or twice. But then he finds it easier to allow it to grow. So his hair grows unchecked; in course of time he develops a young beard and a moustache.
Chandran’s renunciation was an alternative to suicide:
Chandran is different from the usual sanyasi. The usual sanyasis may renounce with a spiritual motive. To them renunciation is a means to attain peace. They are perhaps dead in time, but they do live in eternity. But Chandran’s renunciation is not of that kind. It is an alternative to suicide.
He would have resorted to it but for its social disgrace. Perhaps he lacked the barest physical courage that was necessary for it. He is a sanyasi because it pleases him to mortify his flesh. Moreover, his renunciation is a revenge on society, circumstances, and perhaps, too, on destiny.
Chandran becomes the object of reverence and veneration at Koopal village:
After wandering for about eight months, Chandran reaches Koopal village in Sainad District. It is a small village at the foot of the range of mountains that connect the Eastern and the Western Ghats. It is a hot afternoon. He drinks water in the channel feeding the paddy fields. He is very tired as he has been walking since dawn.
He reclines on the root of the banyan tree and slept. When he wakes up, he notices that a crowd of innocent and credulous villagers standing around him. They begin asking all sorts of questions like where his worshipful master has come from and so on. As Chandran wants to avoid a conversation with them, he answers in them by signs.
They construe that he is under a vow of silence. As the news that a holy man has come to their village spreads, more people begin to gather round him. So Chandran closes his eyes to avoid their stare. This is taken by the others for meditation. An important man of the village requests Chandran to stay in his poor abode and bless him. Chandran by signs declines the offer. Soon the villagers feel pleased at the presence of a holy man having chosen to stay with them. They worship him and give him fruits and milk.
When Chandran decides to leave the village, they beg him to stay with them for a few more days:
When Chandran decides to leave the village, they beg him to stay with them for a few more days. Chandran accedes to their request moved by their touching devotion. When he goes back to his seat under the banyan tree, the villagers are greatly rejoiced. Men, women and children follow him to the banyan tree. News spreads that a holy man under the vow of silence for ten years has arrived, and that he spends his time in rigorous meditation under a banyan tree. People from neighbouring villages begin pouring to seek the blessings of the holy man. When night falls, somebody has brought a lighted lantern for him.
He finds that they have all brought gifts of milk, fruits and food. The sight of the gifts pricks his conscience. He feels that he is a fraud, and a confidence-trickster preying on the faith of the poor villagers. He eats some fruit and drinks a little milk with the greatest self-deprecation.
Sitting in the dark, Chandran subjects himself to a severe soul- searching self-analysis and finds that he is a fake sanyasi preying on the faith of the innocent villagers:
Chandran moves away from the gifts. He even blows out the lantern for he felt that he does not deserve this light. Sitting in the dark, he subjects himself to a severe soul-searching self-analysis. He feels that he is cheating the poor villagers and exploiting their faith in him as a sanyasi. He feels that he really does not deserve their gifts as he lacks spiritual worth. He realizes that his love for Malathi has brought him to his present degradation.
He is sorry that he has deserted his parents on account of his silly infatuation for Malathi. He feels that there is no such thing as love; it is a foolish literary notion. Driven by a non-existent thing, he has become a deserter and a counterfeit. He feels that he should summon all the villagers at once and announce to them that he is a fake. They may not believe him or they may take him to be mad or they may mob him for having fooled them. So he decides the best course will be to leave the village then and there.
With the help of the postmaster at Maduram Chandran contacts his father, gives up his sanyas, becomes a lay man and returns to Malgudi:
Chandran walks all night, and early in the morning he sights a bus and gets a lift. At his request the conductor stops the bus a couple of miles away from Maduram where there is a telegraph office. Chandran meets the postmaster of Maduram post office. He takes the postmaster into confidence and opens his heart to him.
He gives a clear account of his life and troubles. On hearing his story, the postmaster lends him the amount for sending a telegram to his father for money. With the help of the postmaster, Chandran cuts his hair, shaves his face, takes a refreshing bath and dresses himself in the postmaster’s dhoti and shirt. He throws away his bundled sanyasi robes in the adjacent lane.
He gets a little oil and a comb from the postmaster and brushes his hair neatly. He feels greatly excited at his change. At about four in the afternoon, his father sends fifty rupees to him, though he has wired for only twenty-five. Chandran catches a Madras- bound train at Maduram at one o’clock at night. After changing trains at two junctions, he gets down at Malgudi station in the morning two days later.
The significance of Chandran becoming a sanyasi:
As we have pointed out earlier, this episode introduces the theme of renunciation in the novel and endows it a typical Indian touch. In this episode Narayan describes the metamorphosis of Chandran, the Bachelor of Arts into Chandran, the sanyasi. This episode introduces a sudden twist to the plot. It accelerates the disorder already created by Chandran’s sudden decision not to go to his uncle’s house but take a room in a hotel near the People’s Part at Madras. We notice that Chandran is highly impulsive.
He takes a decision to become a sanyasi on a sudden impulse arising out of his disappointment in his love for Malathi. As he hates to go back to Malgudi to avoid the tormenting memories of the past, he chooses to become a sanyasi as an alternative to suicide. He avoids suicide because of the social stigma attached to it. Further, he lacks the barest physical courage for resorting to it. He was a sanyasi because it pleases him to mortify his flesh.
Chandran as a sanyasi is unlike others of his clan who resort to become one to gain inner peace or out of lofty spiritual motive of self-abnegation for a higher end. He becomes a sanyasi because he is disappointed in his love affair with Malathi. He wants to take vengeance on the society with its cruel customs and conventions; he wants to take vengeance on circumstances and even Fate.
He gets on well as a sanyasi and people respect his ochre-cloth, worship him and provide him with food. Things move on like this for some time. But then Chandran is an intellectual and given to self-analysis. He knows what is right and what is wrong. He feels that he does not deserve the devotion and gifts of the innocent villagers. He considers that he is a counterfeit who is exploiting their credulousness.
Chandran feels degraded in his own estimate, and realizes that it is his foolish infatuation for Malathi has brought him to such an ignoble status. He does not want to deceive any one any longer. So Chandran decides to reject his sanyasi status. He goes to Maduram and unburdens himself with a kind and generous postmaster. He sends a wire to his father through his help asking for money to return home; he crops his head, shaves his face, bathes and refreshes himself.
He borrows the dhoti and shirt of the postmaster and wears them. He discards his sanyasi robes and returns home again as Chandran, the Bachelor of Arts. This episode also throws light on the character of Chandran. His conscience pricks him when people offer him gifts believing him to be a sadhu. His soul-searching analysis makes him see the right and wrongs of his action.
He slips into the wrong by accident but at the earliest opportunity, he corrects himself and gives up his fake persona as a sanyasi and returns to his parents who do not deserve such a bad treatment from him for all their love and affection. His decision to give up his sanyas and return home restores order ý the plot. From now on the plot will move on to its proper resolution.
The reader cannot miss Narayan’s satire on the fake sadhus and sanyasis of India who exploit the faith of the people. There are sanyasis who have embraced the holy order out of conviction. On the other hand, there are sanyasis like Chandran who have embraced the holy order out of convenience. The fake and counterfeit sanyasis are parasites on the society. They get everything from everybody because of their ochre-clothes. Such fake sanyasis are a slur on the holy order because they make religion, spirituality and faith a big mockery.