Is tradition akin to following moral obligations?

Traditions are inherited practices, which mean two things: they are both transmitted and learnt. The learning occurs through imitation, following instructions, through stories and so on. Consequently, traditions `change’ (i.e. undergo modifications) even as they are being transmitted and learnt. This makes traditions flexible and adaptive.

Human practices conserve, that is, we do not go around inventing new practices every day. In this sense, traditions are essentially conserving in their nature. This is one of the reasons why we see `being traditional’ as `being conservative’ as well.

Because learning is an individual affair, it is the individual who decides which practices to modify drastically, which to retain and which to abandon altogether. Such changes might occur through reflection, in discussions, due to advice from others or because of sheer impracticability. In other words, changing of the tradition is an intrinsically individual affair. By the same token, what counts as tradition and what does not is also an individual affair. Each individual recognizes some practices as traditions and to some extent this varies from individual to individual. This situation is recognized by those who follow traditions as well: “this is the tradition in our family.”

This makes it obvious that what counts as tradition and what does not is not a matter of providing some set of criteria beforehand. Any inherited/modified practice is a tradition or it is not: that depends on the how the individual views it. Is drinking water a tradition? That depends: while people drink beer in Europe when they are thirsty, I drink water under similar circumstances. Drinking beer or wine while thirsty increases my thirst; whereas it is common to notice people enjoying beer as an antidote to thirst during warm summer afternoons in Europe. Is this a tradition? To those it is a tradition, it is, but not to those to whom it is not.

From all the learnt/inherited practices, individuals might call a subset of them as traditions. Several such individuals might have overlapping sets of practices and many might create distinct subsets. Most of us cannot enumerate what our traditions are, even if we are willing to call only some of our practices as traditions. Is wearing a `banian’ at home a `tradition’? One could go either way: to some, it is, to some it is not. While we are willing to recognize that wearing a cotton shawl on a naked upper torso was the tradition of our grandparents, we might or might not want to call our fathers wearing a `banian’ as a tradition.

Human practices do not come with labels attached, identifying only some practices as traditions and others as `non-traditions’. It is individuals who call some or another practice, which they consider important, as `practicing tradition’. Perhaps, in the course of our learning, we also learn how or why we isolate some practice as an important one. However, the circumstances of individuals vary: singing a particular composition using a particular `tala’ might be considered as a tradition by a music teacher; another teacher might not think in this way. To those of us who are not musicians, perhaps, this issue is completely a matter of indifference. In short, profound though it might appear, the question, `which is a tradition and which is not?’ is not an interesting question. Who `decides’ whether some or another practice belongs to a tradition or not? The individual, to whom it is a tradition, considers it so. Does he/she need a Guru or a Swami to decide? That depends not on the practice but on the individual. For instance, some individual might want to consult `swamis’ on issues of doing puja in the US; yet others might decide on their own. One might defend both these practices as traditions as well. Why do any of these matter?

Traditions vary from individual to individual and retain, at the same time, a recognizable pattern and structure when we look at them inter-individually. This is has to do with the fact individuals learn and that learning is creative; and with the fact that what one learns is a practice, which conserves.

Are Sati, Child marriage, and such like traditions? Yes, they were and are to those who practice(d) it. Are they my traditions too? As far as I know, Sati is not; but my mother did get married at a very young age, my grandmother at even an earlier age. However, the marrying age of my sisters changed over a period of time: my eldest sister got married when she was 16 (my aunt when she was 12), but she was also the last in my family to be married off so early. As I have said, reason has the role of curtailing the `excesses’ of human practice and my mother decided to abandon the tradition of marrying her children off early because, she said, `times have changed’. My eldest sister did not think of marrying her children off until they were well into their late twenties and I am going to let my children decide if, when and whom they want to marry. This ability to modify or abandon a `tradition’ is a choice left to an individual based on some kind of reasoning. However, as I make it clear, one does not even need reasons to abandon a traditional practice because one is not obliged to practice a tradition: a shrug of shoulders would do as an answer to the question, `why do you not do Ganesha Puja?’

Following a tradition is totally unlike following a moral injunction. When one says `Sati, Child marriage, Dowry, Untouchability, etc’ are followed in India because they are `Indian traditions’, one could have the following understanding of tradition in mind: these are practices that one `ought to’ follow because one’s ancestors practiced them too. This is how the colonial and the western mind interpret the notion of `tradition’ and `practice’. To them, following a tradition is akin to following a moral obligation written down in some or another text. Except that, when speaking of `following a tradition’, they are willing to make the concession that one is following `oral texts’ (of sorts). To them, justifying a practice by referring to an age-old practice is equivalent to a moral justification of a practice. They have difficulties in thinking in any other way because they are captivated by the idea that `religious texts’ (whether written or oral) impose moral obligations on us and we have to obey them if we have to be religious. This understanding of tradition (more accurately, this misunderstanding of tradition) makes them come up with silly stories and even sillier questions about the nature of Indian traditions.