What should be the attitude to tradition of the reasonable man? There are those who demand adherence to tradition at any cost and ask that it be made the measure of all things. There are others for whom tradition is merely an encumbrance to be disposed of as unceremoniously as possible. The two attitudes are equally untenable, and, unfortunately, the prejudices of the diehard traditionalist and those of the unthinking modernist reinforce each other.
For the sociologist it is truism that no society can move into future without some attention to what was it has inherited from the past. Just as each generation does not create the language it speaks, so also does it not create on its own its everyday belief and practices. The significance of tradition is easily recognized in the domain of music, painting and the arts. But tradition is indispensable also for science which could hardly advance unless each generation of scientists built on the work of the preceding generation. In science as in the arts, a tradition is kept alive by being subjected to continual scrutiny and renewal. There is all the difference in the world between a traditional that is alive and hence forward-looking and one that is lifeless and backward-looking.
The problem in contemporary India is that ‘tradition’ is coming to be increasingly used as a weapon of offence and defence in the culture wars among politicians and politically-minded member of the intelligentsia. This is altogether different from the way in which tradition enters the life and work of the craftsman, the painter, the musician, the scholar or even the scientist. One can work within a certain tradition and build one’s work on it without being an advocate of traditions as such. One can, on the other hand, champion the cause of tradition in public without engaging actively in any tradition on either one’s life or one’s work. What has become a source of anxiety is that the champions of tradition in the political arena are backward- rather than forward-looking, and that tradition is increasingly becoming an alibi for backwardness.
There are three points that must be kept in mind if we are to proceed with a serious discussion of tradition. Firstly, when we speak of India as a whole, we have speak of tradition in the the plural in the plural and not just in singular. Secondly, tradition should not be equated with sheer antiquity; it is less a matter of old age than of filiation and continuity. Thirdly, some traditions decay and die while others are born and grow to maturity; there is no point of time at which a society declares a moratorium on the birth of new traditions.
It is natural that a country with such a large diverse population as ours and with such a long history should have plurality of traditions. India is home of more than a dozen important languages, each with its own literary traditions as well as some of the major religions of the world, each with its own traditions of piety and observance. It has in the course of a very long history incorporated into its stream of life beliefs and practices from many different parts of the world, and has been remarkable in the extent of its tolerance of diversity.
Many will say that it is not enough to point to the plurality of traditions in India. One has also to ask if these diverse traditions, some very particular and local and others of wide scope, are not related to one another and to something larger than each or any of them. No doubt the different parts are connected, but they are connected as in a kaleidoscope in which the pattern changes with every change in the angle of vision. The unity of national tradition in a country such as ours can at best be a loose one, and that unity cannot in any case be imposed or sustained by state power.
National traditions are not only loosely integrated, but the boundaries between them are always porus, enabling more or less easy and continuous interchange of elements among them. The receptivity of a tradition to new elements from outside is an index of its health. Traditions prosper and flourish when they are forward-looking and keep their frontiers open; they become atrophied and moribund when they close their boundaries and become backward-looking.
Today, new elements of belief and practice travel with unprecedented speed from one end of the world to the other. Is the Indian tradition, or, rather, are the various traditions that have grown in India receptive and resilient enough to cope with the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly changing world? Modernisation is by no means a painless process, and it does not spread its costs evenly among societies, and among the different classes and communities within the same society. But society as a whole play a higher price in the end by turning its back on the changes emanating from the outside world in order to safeguard all its ingrained beliefs and practices.
Classes, communities and parties that are unable or unwilling to cope with the strains of modernization invoke the sanctity and the inviolability of the national tradition in order to resist it. They use tradition as a shield to protect themselves from many things that cannot and should not be resisted. Their passions are fueled not by the love of traditions but the fear of modernity.
For those who use it as a political weapon, tradition is one single thing and not a multiplicity of things, and it is something that prevailed in the remote and mythical past rather than in recent and historical times. The traditions in science, pedagogy or even politics that have grown in the last hundred and fifty years have little meaning or value for them. They wish to do away with all modern institutions which they label as western or alien, but they cannot live without the fruits of those institutions; and they lack the imagination and the ability to construct effective alternatives to them. They create fantasies of the distant past in order to set at rest their anxieties about the present and future. Nobody who seeks to cancel out a society’s immediate and recent past and to do away with all the resources creating during this it can be said to take tradition seriously.
— Andre Beteille
Dec 14, 1998
The Times of India