Making a Case for Traditions in Modern India: Reflections from the Inside

An ode to indigenous tribes, cultures and communities trying to preserve their legacy and traditions in this singular world.

Modern India has grown out of its bloody past, from the roots of its Mughal subjugation after the advent of Babur and later travesty at the hands of its colonizers starting in the 1600s. Despite the setbacks, the pagan civilization has not only survived but has broken the shackles of its derision by the external actors and is now relentless in its pursuit for excellence. But what has changed substantially in this post-colonial India is this newly adopted ignorance towards something as precious as traditions, which made this civilization a perennial force under immense efforts of subversion by the invaders and former autocratic rulers.

Traditions are the formative backbone of any society. They act as the building blocks for the consolidation and unification of a society without compromising on its diversity and sanctity of thought. For example, most of the pagan societies of South-Asia in the pre-religious codification era used to practice a set of traditions that were intrinsic to their faith/beliefs. We had an India that housed several societies with varying characteristics, yet these societies were connected by a spate of traditions that were distinct but unifying in their appeal.

Balagangadhara Rao in his book ‘Reconceptualizing India Studies’ paints a comprehensive picture of the lineage of ‘Traditions’ and how they act as a catalyst in transforming society without the need for indoctrination superimposed by the extensively static ‘religions’ such as Islam and Christianity.

With quite some ingenuity, Prof. Balagangadhara weighs in on the stream of traditions (and their pursuant plurality and diversity) that we often overlook in the race to characterize ‘Hinduism’ as a ‘labelled religion’ and posit it’s standing from the singular perspective of its perversions, such as the dreaded caste system or the ‘Sati Pratha’.

We as a society have to come to associate traditions within the ambit of their geographical relevance or religious sanctity, largely because we have inherited the dogma of traditions being associated with a religion or an area or nationality perse. For example, the 1821’s ‘Moral and political chart of the inhabited world’ published by William C. Woodbridge categorized the whole Indian subcontinent as half-civilized, primarily due to the local culture and traditions of India being inferior in his eyes to that of a more rigid but so-called ‘modern developed’ Christian society. Unlike the traditions followed in Semitic cultures, Indian traditions are not a compulsion or an obligation on the one practicing it. Now, this must not be construed as a compulsion to not practice traditions at all, but rather a practice that is based on choice and contextual interpretation. This means that an individual has the power to interpret a tradition as per one’s moral standards and social environment or at times reject a tradition that has turned obsolete with time. Indian traditions, in general, have to be looked into from three perspectives:

• What?

• Why?

• How?

With time, we have grown rigid with our traditional values and this has turned into step brotherly treatment for those values, which are alien to us. For an Islamic or Christian individual, the practice of donning Janeu may seem confusing and archaic, but it is an intrinsic part of the Brahmin culture if not absolute. Now there is a solid reason behind this interpretation and it somewhere lies in the middle of the three perspectives stated above and the modern religions’ overt reliance on standardization.

• What does it entail to describe Indian Traditions?

Indian traditions are nothing but inherited practices. Unlike their western counterpart, Indian traditions are accepting and act as a medium of learning and unlearning. Keeping this in the framework of our thought, we can say that these are essentially ancestral practices that we inherit, learn, and apply/reject. As we keep on learning these diverse traditions, we tend to replace the new ones with the old ones and this practice is nothing but unlearning. This is why the increasing western theological imposition on the diverse and plural Indian society is a red-flag, what does it entail? It encapsulates the distrust and denigration of Indian traditions at the hands of western critics who are blinded by Semitic obligations imposed on them by their religious doctrines, in the name of traditions, which are neither plural nor accepting.

• Why do we need to follow Indian Traditions?

This is where it gets interesting in terms of Indian traditions. We neither have a compelling case to follow or practice them, as it is or at all nor do we have an obligation to learn them from an appointed authority like a priest or rabbi, or a superficial source of supreme knowledge. Interestingly, as inheritors, we do not need a reason to practice them or not, and we can even choose to believe in them or reject their authenticity. Can the West do so? No, because the compartmentalization is so rigid, that there is no space for an individual to prosper or practice without cause. This is the reason why myths around abortion and vaccination are still prevalent in the West despite the end of the Christian clergy’s hold over the political affairs of the masses.

• How do we get associated with it, whether it’s different from its Atlantic brothers, and do we get to change the wrongs?

Indian traditions do not have divisions, and there is no obligation of being a part of a ‘religion’ to follow or unfollow the Indian traditions. Consequently, it does not mean that Indian traditions are devoid of any sort of imperfections, with Child Marriage, Sati & Caste System being a few from the long list. However, despite being used as a bait to ill inform practitioners, the caste-system, in particular, is a mere perversion and not the reflection of the entire social structure. Hence, a lot of other such practices that were incoherent with modern values were gradually discarded by the followers of the traditions. Similarly, we are not associated with Indian traditions, nor we identify with them, but we are born into them and inherit their virtuosity. To answer the question on the comparison, I would say, traditions can’t exist, if they cannot be distinguished. No one set of traditions are better than others, but they have to be different. Indian traditions are different from the west in providing leeway to practitioners to denounce the worse and accept the best.

As we have seen, Indian traditions are not obscure or archaic, they have the ability of transmutation, making them adept in transcending time barriers and appeal to the audience of every age and era. Hence, they are not only perennial but existentially capable of self-molding as per the modern requirements.

Rajiv Malhotra in his book ‘Indra’s Net’ argues that, ‘A classical concept in Hinduism has been that a true proposition has to be consistent with sruti, yukti (reason/logic) and anubhava’.

A westerner post reading this statement would comment that how does one knows ‘what is true’ and even if some proposition is true, ‘they can exist without reason or logic’. Now there is no clear answer to this comment, but one thing is clear, that this same analogy fits perfectly in the larger debate between western culture and Indian traditions as discussed ahead.

Indian traditions neither have a coherent structure nor represent a totality. This is what the bone of contention is. Western culture tends to evaluate localized Indian traditions from the narrow prism of their theological doctrines and pyramidal structures. This makes them question practices such as ‘wearing of bindi’, ‘draping of sarees’, and ‘engaging in puja’ as absurdities because they fail to understand the meaning behind such traditions, and instead try to find a reason behind them, based on their own experiences which are further drawn from their religion.

Indian traditions are not bounded by the four corners of such ‘religious dictates’, but when ‘Hindus’ act as reactionaries to the constant barrage of questioning over the lack of logic and rationale in their practices, they commit the same mistake of equating the morals of their own culture and traditions with that of the western culture. This in turn stonewalls the fluidity and dynamism of Indian traditions, similar to how the traditions have been locked in the West within specific books or dictates such as the ‘Ten Commandments’.

To better understand the western culture and create a defense for our values, one must propagate the ancestral traditions to the posterity, maintain genuine optimism about these traditions and imbibe the power of acceptance within their kin over time. This can be better understood in the context of homosexuality. Unlike the west, Indian culture, scriptures, and traditions do not historically detest homosexuals. Instead of propagating the myth of our culture being against homosexuality, we could better teach our offspring to be more receptive and accepting towards such individuals. Now to understand the basic premise here, we have to roll back and try to answer what exactly is a ‘true proposition’ and whether something can exist without being based on logic and rationality.

Well honestly, for something to exist, there has to be reason and logic behind it but there is no need to answer that question in-depth, because in terms of Indian traditions, there is no one truth, and anyway faith (in traditions) should ideally be not confined to the principles of one-single truth. But contrastingly the truth (as the West sees it in their ‘God’ and ‘His Commandments’) has made them complacent about the colonial and imperialist ideals, normalized within their discourse. Herein, if we understand the perspective of the western truth, (which is nothing but an excuse to avoid diversions on their religious principles) we would be able to better guide us and our posterity to respond to such indifferent claims and critical attitude (made and adopted respectively by the western culture) towards our so-called ‘inferior traditions’.

The core factor (which has been stressed quite a lot throughout) is that Indian traditions do not impose liability if a practitioner runs amok and that the mode of transmission is effervescent. So when the Indian Hindu reformers went on a tirade to ‘prove’ their western critics, that ‘Hinduism’ is no less moralistic or scientific than the Semitic religions, they played into the hands of the western culture to make ‘others’ accept what they believe is the right thing to do; what constitutes the most appropriate knowledge; and whether something is scientific or not. This is antithetical to what may have been a genuine response from the reformers. A genuine response would have been to transmit the idea of a deeply ingrained study of the ‘western culture’, not being biased against our ilk based on ‘western ideals’, and avoid imposing liabilities on the adherents of Indian traditions and culture, because they are different.

The three factors essentially constitute the imminent need of avoiding being reactionary to an alien set of traditions and highlight the requirement of understanding the ingredients of other traditions. The latter would not only help us to answer the flurry of questions being raised against us but would also rather improve our understanding of the localized traditions and probably reform them as we progress towards modernism.

India does not need to borrow or accustom itself to the needs of its western counterparts, it’s rather free will and choice, upon which individuals as part of the Indian society must timely reflect on the outlook of the traditions they practice and follow.

jñānaṁ te ’haṁ sa-vijñānam idaṁ vakṣhyāmyaśheṣhataḥ
yaj jñātvā neha bhūyo ’nyaj jñātavyam-avaśhiṣhyate

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