To Follow Our Forefathers: The Nature of Tradition –S.N.Balagangadhara

While reading this contribution and all the others ([1], [3]) I hope to write, we need to keep the context in mind. The context is this: many intellectuals, both in India and among the NRIs elsewhere, appear bent on transforming our multiple traditions into a single ‘religion’ called ‘Hinduism’. The problem does not lie in the transformation of variety and diversity into a unity. Rather, it lies in trying to fit our traditions into the straightjacket of ‘religion’. While calling ourselves ‘Hindus’ might be a convenient way of talking, the danger lies in going further and trying to develop ‘doctrines’, ‘theologies’, ‘catechisms’ and ‘Ten Commandments’ so that those around us in the West could recognize us as followers of a religion called ‘Hinduism’. (These reflections are also applicable to ‘Buddhism’, ‘Jainism’, ‘Saivism’ and all such entities.) In the course of my future contributions, I will look at some of the compulsions that force us to manufacture ‘Hinduism as a religion’. In this piece, I want to focus on the nature of traditions. What is a tradition? What differentiates religions from traditions? The second question will remain implicit until the end. By that time, we should have a better understanding of what it means to speak of a tradition.

Towards the end of my previous piece, I formulated the following reflections:

if someone asks ‘what is Hinduism?’ tell them that there is no such entity in the world outside the universities in the West. Tell them that when you call yourself a ‘Hindu’ (for the sake of convenience) that is because you continue your ancestral traditions. Tell them that you ‘keep faith with your fathers, who kept faith with their forefathers, and were blessed in so doing’. Tell them too that you need no ‘reason’ to keep your ancestral traditions alive and that the only reason to practice a tradition is the fact that what is practiced is a tradition, and that is what it means to be a ‘Hindu’.

I also asked the question whether such answers are adequate and suggested that they were, for the time being. In this contribution, I want to elaborate on some aspects of these answers. I can touch only on ‘some aspects’ partly because my research into the question of the nature of our traditions is not yet complete and partly because of the nature of the question.

In order to understand what it means to ‘belong to a tradition’ and what the notion of tradition itself means, let us begin by reflecting on how we were taught whatever we were taught. Here is how I grew up. Like most, I too learnt my tradition from my mother. She hardly went to middle school, never studied Sanskrit, but learnt stories, slokas and stotras from her parents. That is what she taught me, my brother and sisters. We went to the temples and subsidized the performance of ashtottaras and sahasranaamas whenever we had some extra money or because of some special occasion. Some purohit came and performed special ceremonies, whether they were the Shraaddhas of my grandparents or the Ganesha Chaturthi. My mother had perhaps never heard of ‘sarva darshana samgraha’ and she definitely did not read Patanjali. She could only read those puranas (in Kannada translations) which I managed to find in Bangalore all those decades ago. In order to keep track of which puranas I borrowed from other people and elsewhere, I started reading them at an early stage. I read them for their stories and, at the behest of my mother, copied many stotras from these puranas and learnt quite a few of them ‘by heart’.

By the time I was into my twenties, I had ‘rejected’ my upbringing. Having become a fire-breathing radical, I ‘discovered’ that our culture and traditions were conservative and primitive. I came across young people of my age, who showed withering contempt for the Indian traditions (most of them were brought up as Christians, which partly explains their contempt but I did not realize it then). I took over their attitude, their language and their ways of deriding my tradition. Our traditions were puerile, the ‘Brahmins’ were contemptible, and the caste system was a curse. It struck me only later that even though most of them were ‘atheists’, they never exhibited contempt for Christianity but demonstrated instead a healthy respect for the same. It had partly to do with the fact that their ‘teachers’ (whom I vainly tried to make mine), mostly from the Christian Churches, were talking about something I hardly understood: ‘the theology of liberation’. However, it did not matter to me that these teachers were Christian believers; what mattered at that stage was that they stood behind us in our attempts to ‘alleviate poverty and suffering in India’ and in our ‘resolute opposition to superstition and the caste system’.

Today, more than 35 years later, my life has come full circle. I have gone through the Christian scriptures; I have learnt much from their theologies and from their history and practices. I have also gone through many, many writings by Indians about their multiple ‘religions’, read and studied many commentaries and Bhaasyas, and so on.

Today, I realize that my family and I learnt more of Indian traditions from my mother than I have learnt from reading Pantanjali or Shankara. Reading the Bhaasyas allows me to discuss intellectually about them with my colleagues in Europe and America; no doubt too that I now know more about Atman, Koshas and such like than ever before. But my question is: where do I stand when compared to my mother’ I would have liked to know that; but she is not here anymore. So, I will have to be satisfied with my own guess work: as a practitioner and transmitter of my traditions, I am certainly no better than my mother was. Where do I stand with respect to my brother and sisters, whose knowledge of Indian traditions is comparable to any other ordinary Indian’ Not any better either, I firmly believe. If truth be told, I suspect I rank far behind them both.

In the first instance, this is what traditions are and this is how we learn them. They are simply sets of practices that our parents have passed on to us. The notion of ‘practices’ is wide: from stories through the visits to temples to performing rituals. They include the swamis, the muths and the Gurus, if and where they exist, but can continue fine without these as well. In the simplest sense, traditions are inherited practices.

How are they transmitted? In a variety of ways: through language, through imitation, through instruction, through repeated performances, and so on. There is no one way to transmit a tradition anymore than there is a preferred manner of doing so. The variety of ways is necessary because ‘tradition’ does not refer to any particular component but to a totality. In fact, some or another component could either be missing or barely present in a tradition; such absences do not make it any less of a tradition. Attempts to encapsulate traditions as ‘beliefs’ or ‘rituals’ or ‘festivals’ is to distort their nature, as I will argue.

What exactly is transmitted by a tradition? Even though we assume that a set of practices from time immemorial is transmitted, in principle, there is no way of establishing the truth of this belief. If we look at India, we believe that some rituals, some mantras, the ways of reciting the vedas and so on are accurately transmitted from generation to generation. We might even have good reasons to believe this (because of the pathashaalas and the teachers). However, we can go no further than this. Mostly, our grandparents (at best) and our parents (at worst) transmit these practices: there is very little external authority to go by. Changes will have occurred and practices will have adapted themselves to ways of living. In this sense, traditions are extremely dynamic and flexible. So, we receive our inheritance in the belief that it is our tradition. We modify (here and there) what we receive and transmit them to our children. Traditions can live precisely because of their adaptability; they are never static.

Who belongs to a tradition? Consider the fact that my father never performed any of the daily rituals, hardly visited temples and had some kind of an indifferent attitude (for a long time) towards festivals and celebrations which my mother performed. Consider the fact that I continue in his footsteps, smoke and drink, have consumed all varieties of meat but, unlike my father or my mother, I have gone deep into a study of Indian traditions and culture. Do we belong to our tradition or not’ Quite outside of the fact that there is no authority to pronounce on this issue, our traditions allow even such people as my father and me to belong to the Indian traditions. That is to say, belonging to a tradition is a fine-grained affair; it is not an all-or-none situation. When born into one, there is no way of determining who belongs to a tradition and who does not. By the same token, people not born into a tradition can also be inducted into it. The criteria of induction are fine-graded affairs as well.

However, the above does not suggest that traditions are either fluid or amorphous. They are anything but that. It is extremely crucial that traditions distinguish each other as traditions.The Veera Shaiva tradition is not just a Shaiva tradition; the Vishistaadwaitins are not merely Dwaitas. Each one of them is not only distinct from the other but also strives to retain its distinction. While Advaitins say that ‘all is Brahman’, they do so by being different from all the above traditions. Being different from the other traditions is crucial to being a tradition. To a large extent, the vibrancy of a tradition is indexed by the extent to which it is able to retain its difference from other traditions. Today, we are not yet able to make sense of the presence of these two properties: (a) the enormous flexibility in belonging to a tradition and the sharpness with which the boundaries between traditions are drawn; (b) the possibility that any element could be absent from a tradition and yet the necessity for it to maintain a sense of identity and distinction. Depending on where one’s emphasis lies, traditions appear both very elastic and extremely dogmatic simultaneously. If one uses these terms to describe traditions, we can conclude that one is describing them as though they are variants of religions or philosophies. They are not: traditions are neither religions nor philosophies; they are what they are, viz. traditions.

Why practice a tradition? Though this question appears reasonable at first sight, it is not: it is both loaded in favor of the Semitic religions and ill-formed. To understand why it is both, we need to take a short detour.

Suppose that you come across someone who says the following: ‘I have no reason to live.’ Would the recommendation, ‘go and commit suicide then’ be apt in such a case’ Quite apart from humane considerations, there is one reason why the response would fail to be appropriate. It commits a fallacy: from the claim that one does not have a reason to live, it does not logically follow that, therefore, one has a reason to commit suicide. Even if one does not have a reason to live, one can continue to live; an independent reason is required to commit suicide.

In more general terms, a practice does not require a separate ‘reason’ or ‘justification’ for its existence. In exactly the same way one does not require a reason to continue to live, one does not need a reason to continue a practice. The existence of a practice is its ‘justification’; the only ‘reason’ to practice a tradition is the fact that what is practiced is a tradition. So, to the question, ‘why do Ganesha puja?’ the following is an answer: ‘because I have learnt to do this puja.’ ‘Why wear bindis?’: ‘we wear them because it is our practice.’ Nothing more is required.

Does that mean that all practices are justified because they are ancestral practices? (For example, meting out inhuman treatment to fellow human beings: is this justified because one’s ancestors did something like this’) No, this claim does not follow logically: if there are good reasons why one should abandon or modify a practice, then, if one is reasonable, one either modifies a practice or abandons it altogether. That is to say, reason acts as a critical brake on the excesses of human practice. No Indian tradition has ever denied this crucial role to reason.

If, for example, one is a Jew or Christian or Muslim, then one believes that by worshipping idols, icons, and images, one is worshipping the Devil. Their (Biblical) God has told them (they claim) that if people worship the Devil, they will rot in Hell for all eternity. If someone believes this set of claims and does not want to rot in Hell, such a person has good reasons not to do puja to Ganesha. To a believer from these religions, idol worship is a Sin because God has forbidden it and threatened those who practice it with the ultimate punishment possible: condemnation to Hell. So, we can imagine them telling us that idol worship is one of the greatest Sins. But that is no good reason for us to abandon doing the so-called ‘murthipuja‘. It is a part of our tradition to do puja to the statue of Ganesha and we do it because it is our tradition.

So, those who challenge us and ask, ‘why practice a tradition” are asking us to commit a logical fallacy, if they presume that one needs a ‘reason’ for doing a practice. This makes the question ill-formed. But something else is present as well. They are also asking, ‘Why one ought to continue a practice?’ That is, ‘why is it obligatory to continue a tradition?’ The answer is fairly simple: there is no compulsion or obligation; no reason why one ‘ought to’ practice a tradition. Think of the answer your parents or grandparents gave, when you challenged them when you were twenty or older, why you ‘should’ go to the temple or why you should perform the rituals. They merely shrugged their shoulders, even if unhappy with your attitude. ‘Moksha‘ is not denied to you if you do not go to the temples or fail to celebrate Ganesha Chaturthi. This is also the answer to the query why one ought to do puja. No such reason and no such compulsion exist in the Indian traditions.

However, that is not the case with the Semitic religions. They worship their (Biblical) God in certain ways because this (Biblical) God has imposed on them the obligation to do so. If they fail, they go to Hell for all eternity. According to them, human beings exist on earth for one reason only: to worship and obey (the Biblical) God. This is the sole purpose of human existence. (The Biblical) God has created the Universe and human beings so that the latter might worship Him only in the way He wants to be worshipped. If you do anything else instead, you earn a one-way ticket to Hell. Therefore, they have a ‘reason’ to worship their (Biblical) God: His Commandment to worship Him and only Him in the way He wants. How do we human beings know how He wants to be worshipped? This is where their ‘revelation’ comes in: He has told how He should be worshipped in ‘the Scriptures’, which is the word of (the Biblical) God. Scriptures to them are (the Biblical) God’s revelations, i.e. they are (the Biblical) God’s commandments. To believe in the word of this entity is to hope for salvation; not believing it is to be doomed to Hell for all eternity.

Because this is their religion, they want to know what ‘the Hindus’ believe in. They think we have ‘Scriptures’ the way they have theirs. They think that our ways of ‘worshipping’ (which is what they think puja is) express our beliefs about how ‘God’ (they speak of ‘God’ in the singular and they have only their Biblical God in mind) ‘ought’ to be worshipped. Of course, they are convinced that we believe in ‘the truth’ of, say, Ramayana or Mahabharata the way they believe in the ‘truth’ of their stories about the Temple of Solomon, Jesus of Nazareth, and Mohammad. If the temple of Solomon had never existed in what is today’s Israel, if Jesus of Nazareth was never born in today’s Middle East, if Mohammad turns out to have been crazy, these religions would simply cease to exist. They need these claims to be true, if they have to exist as religions at all.

In contrast, how is it with us? Until about two to three decades ago, until, that is, people started transforming ‘Hinduism’ into a pale variant of these Semitic religions, the answer would have been pretty much the same all across India: ‘I do not know whether Rama and Ravana existed about a couple of thousand years ago or not; their existence or non-existence does not matter for Ramayana to be true’. (Of course, the attempt to portray Hinduism as a religion did not begin a few decades ago; it began under colonialism. But I will neglect that for the time being.) Some time ago, I came across a beautiful dialogue between a Balinese and a Swiss German precisely about this question. My mother could not have expressed it better (from Bichsel, Peter, 1982, Der Leser, Das Erz’hlenFrankfurter Poetik-Vorlesungen. Darmstadt und Neuwied: Hermann Luchterhand Verlag. Pp. 13-14, my italics):

When I discovered, or when it was explained to me, that Hinduism is a pedagogical religion, namely, that in so far as the best ‘good deed’ of a Hindu consisted of explaining something or the other, I lost my inhibitions and began with questions…

A young Balinese became my primary teacher. One day I asked him if he believed that the history of Prince Rama –one of the holy books of the Hindus — is true.

Without hesitation, he answered it with “Yes”.

“So you believe that the Prince Rama lived somewhere and somewhen?”

“I do not know if he lived”, he said.

“Then it is a story?”

“Yes, it is a story.”

“Then someone wrote this story –I mean: a human being wrote it?”

“Certainly some human being wrote it”, he said.

“Then some human being could have also invented it”, I answered and felt triumphant, when I thought that I had convinced him.

But he said: “It is quite possible that somebody invented this story. But true it is, in any case.”

“Then it is the case that Prince Rama did not live on this earth”

“What is it that you want to know?” he asked. “Do you want to know whether the story is true, or merely whether it occurred?

“The Christians believe that their God Jesus Christ was also on earth”, I said, “In the New Testament, it has been described by human beings. But the Christians believe that this is the description of the reality. Their God was also really on Earth.”

My Balinese friend thought it over and said: “I had been already so informed. I do not understand why it is important that your God was on earth, but it does strike me that the Europeans are not pious. Is that correct?”

“Yes, it is”, I said.

Of course, this attitude about Mahabharata and Ramayana is more intriguing than I can go into here. But let us notice that those with religion have great difficulties in understanding such an attitude. They think that we believe in the ‘truth’ of puranic stories and that we replace our histories and geographies with them. That is why Sir Babbington Macaulay, in his famous minutes concerning the need for a British education system in India, spoke in these terms about us and our ‘beliefs’:

It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information that has been collected to form all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy the relative position of these two nations is nearly the same…

The question before us is merely whether …we shall teach languages [Sanskrit and Arabic] in which, by universal confession, there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own; whether, when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, whenever they differ from those of Europe, differ for the worse; and whether, when we can patronize true philosophy and sound history, we shall countenance, at the public expense, medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier –astronomy, which would move laughter in girls at an English public school –history, abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long–and geography– made up of seas of treacle and butter (cited in Keay, John, 1981, India Discovered. London: Collins, 1988: p. 77, my emphasis).

Have the Indians ever believed that seas of butter really existed in some part of India (say in Bangalore of today) some two thousand years ago without either melting through heat or without milk playing a role in its production? Did we ever believe that some two thousand years ago, thirty foot high kings moved around (say in Delhi of today) and lived 30,000 years long’ How we talk of yugaskalpas and so on cannot simply be collapsed into some beliefs about the history of humanity of some two thousand years ago without making us appear as cretins and idiots. That is exactly what we do, when we start finding our ‘own scriptures’, our ‘own God’ and our ‘own Ten Commandments’ as an answer to the so-called critique of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We do not need a ‘religion’ of our ‘own’; we need no ‘Hinduism’ as a religion, in order to find out what we are and who we are. If we insist on this transformation, know this for certain: you will have to say that most Indians and your ancestors were exactly the kind of morons that Macaulay described not so long ago.

In other words, both the colonial and the contemporary western descriptions of India and her traditions transform us into something worse than children. They make us into the mental retards of modernity. No amount of ‘symbolic’ interpretation can take away the sting of the facts that one ‘interprets’: ‘the Indians worship the phallus, the cow, the monkey, the idol and the naked fakir.’ We cannot instill pride in our children about their culture and traditions by telling them that these are all ‘manifestations of the Brahman’. If you try talking that way with them, you will not be able to answer their question, ‘why then not worship this Brahman directly without having to worship these disgusting things?’ without making your ancestors and the rest of the Indians into cretins and morons. Often, truth liberates; and that is also the case now. Make them first understand that these questions have their roots in the Semitic religions and the contempt these religions have for the Indian traditions. Tell them subsequently that it is their task to figure out what ‘puja‘ is, because it is not ‘worship’. Of course, this requires honesty on our part: can we tell our children that we have failed in making sense of our traditions in the last few centuries and decades? Or, to save our faces, will we take recourse to feeding them with pseudo-answers about ‘Hinduism’ as a ‘religion’, which allegedly hides profound and sublime truths under the loincloth of Shiva? Only time will tell whether we can face the problems we confront or stick our heads in the sand hoping that they will go away.

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus was the last non-Christian Prefect of Rome around the end of the Fourth Century. In a letter to the Emperor Valentinian the Second, Symmachus requested a space for the Romans to practice their own traditions without being persecuted by the aggressive religion that Christianity was. Because this piece borrows his words for its title, I would like to end on a citation from that famous letter:

Grant, I beg you, that what in our youth we took over from our fathers, we may in our old age hand on to posterity. The love of established practice is a powerful sentiment…Everyone has his own customs, his own religious practices…If long passage of time lends validity to religious observances, we ought to keep faith with so many centuries, we ought to follow our forefathers who followed their forefathers and were blessed in so doing…And so we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe compasses us. What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for truth’ Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret. (Barrow, R. H., Trans., 1973, Prefect and Emperor: The Relationes of Symmachus. A.D. 384. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, Pp. 37-41; my italics.)

Check the next article in this series: Why understand the Western culture?, and the article that preceded the one you have just read: Translations or Travesty of Traditions.