When I was in college, we had a debate competition and the topic was, ‘Are traditions a hindrance to progress’? It sent us teenagers scurrying to research on the traditions of our country. That was several years ago when traditions were by and large not questioned, but it was also an era of awakening, with the Periyar movement of ‘Self-Respect’ and ‘Assertion’ and the resurgence of Dravidian culture gathering momentum in Tamil Nadu, a conscious effort to break free from the shackles of centuries-old beliefs and the customs based on them. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then.
Now, in the 21st century, we are still at the crossroads, looking backwards and forwards like the double-faced Roman god Janus, both literally and figuratively. The recent Sabarimala issues and the revival of Hindutva ideology point in this direction.
Traditions are intrinsic to every culture. They evolve out of the beliefs and customs of a culture that are of special significance and have their origins in the past. They are preserved in the form of unique symbols, stories and memories that give every culture an identity and a status. Traditions are also an inheritance, passed on over generations for safekeeping, to be preserved and not lost in the face of a changing world. But like other forms of inheritance, it can also be squandered away, misused, multiplied or modified. So many of the heritage buildings of our country are good examples of this.
Traditions have their roots in the past. Does that mean they are opposed to innovation and modernity? The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss divided society into two categories — ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ societies. Cold societies are those that believe that the present is built on the past, that every generation should recreate the past to secure its identity for the future. They view life as a cycle that keeps repeating itself, based on the dictum that there is nothing new under the sun. There is a sense of acceptance of what has already existed for so long as proof enough of its validity and justification.
Hot societies are those that are conscious of change brought about by the irreversible direction of history. They are not cyclic but evolutionary, moving forward, while making adjustments and accommodating changes along the way. The past is viewed only as a point of reference when something needs to be verified or modified.
Historical conquests, geographical alterations and scientific innovations always lead to inevitable changes in the structure of society and a rigid adherence to the strictures of the traditions of the past is viewed as a hindrance to progress.
Traditions are looked at as ‘accidental survivors’ from an earlier age. A progressive society should neither be bound nor weighed down by the past.
The 18th century saw the emergence of the age of enlightenment, reason and science in Europe and the rise of the social sciences. A conscious study of the structure of society led to the realisation that society could be rearranged for the calculated benefit of the majority if it could break free from the shackles of hierarchical structures, feudalistic systems, patriarchal attitudes, superstitions and illogical beliefs, all validated under the banner of tradition and culture. However, this views traditions in a wholly negative light.
The rise of democracy, as against monarchy, as the form of governance in a move towards building a more egalitarian society also ushered in a new era of awareness and self assertion.
In this context, it is distressing to see the issue of women of reproductive age entering the Sabarimala temple become a sensitive bone of contention. To me, as a woman and not from the Hindu religion, it is neither tradition nor religion that are of paramount importance in women being allowed into the temple. Neither is it a political nor a gender-related issue for women to see it as a matter of equality with men or an assertion of individuality, to be sorted out in the court of law. After all, I am sure, all individuals are equal in the eyes of god as the creator of both men and women.
The entire issue revolves around the question of faith, which is different from religion. Religion is the structured worship of god while faith is something personal between god and every individual, based on conviction and a personal encounter and relationship with god.
Women wanting to or not wanting to enter Sabarimala temple should do so out of the conviction of their faith and not as a matter of establishing their rights; and the others who want to keep them from entering the temple should not use tradition as a reason for it. Traditions are not meant for stoking up controversies and contentions, leave alone perpetuate prejudices and preconceived notions and, least of all, for manipulation for personal or political mileage.
Traditions are like a reservoir — meant for storage and supply during times of need. They should be a strength to draw upon, a source of historically defined identity and pride and a beacon for the future. A reservoir that is stagnant becomes stale and lifeless in course of time. There has to be a steady and periodic inflow and outflow of water for its maintenance. So it is with tradition.
Traditions unchallenged, unthought out and unwilling to adapt to other structural changes in society become a hindrance to progress. On the other hand, creative and innovative modifications of existing customs and beliefs can add a richness and vibrancy to any culture. The past is not a threat to the present and traditions are not the opposite of modernity. In a rapidly changing world, traditions are essential to give stability to society and are one of the essential sources of meaning of life. In that respect, they are modernity’s strength not weakness.