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Mainstream, VOL L, No 6, January 28, 2012

Is Tradition Reactionary?

Tuesday 31 January 2012, by Ashok Celly

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Tradition and modernity are supposed to be contraries: the former is seen as upholder of the existing order and inimical to all progress; the latter conducive to change thus leading to a more just and humane social order. The former is conservative, the latter progressive. The Hindu tradition, for instance, is supposed to be the upholder of the caste system—Manuvadi as the contemporary political lexicon has it. But is it really so? If we have a dispassionate look at the past, we may be in for surprises, even shocks.

For instance, Valmiki, the author of India’s great epic, The Ramayana, didn’t belong to any of the ‘higher’ castes and yet was held in high esteem. Sita, when she was forced into exile by her maryadapurshottam husband, supposedly stayed in his ashram. Also her twins, Luv and Kush, were brought up and educated by him. The phenomenon of Valmiki, the adikavi, and perhaps Sanskrit’s greatest poet, is also a spectacular demonstration of the truth that creativity is no monopoly of a particular caste. Even Vyas, the author of The Mahabharata, was the son of a fisherwoman even though his father was a Brahmin. Together these two facts of India’s ancient history—Sita may belong to mythology but Valmiki and Vyas are historical figures—are a fairly decent blow for a casteless society, for the “annihilation of the caste society”, in Ambedkar’s phrase. Only if one cares to derive the right conclusion.

Again, it is generally believed that the condition of women in ancient India was pathetic. There is the infamous and oft-quoted observation of Manu to the effect that a woman must be ruled by her father when she is a child, by the husband when she is married, and by her son when she is old. Quite possibly, the condition of women declined rapidly in the post-Manu India just as the caste system became extremely rigid. But in pre-Manu India women enjoyed a great deal of freedom and had great achievements to their credit. For instance, Gargi and Maitreyi, were learned women and could give the very best male scholars a run for their money.

THE most exhilarating ‘story’, however, is that of Jabala in Chandogyaupanishad. When questioned by her son, Satyakam, as to who his father is, she with remarkable courage and integrity admits: “I do not know, my child, of what family thou art. In my youth when I had to move about much as a servant (waiting on the guests in my father’s house), I conceived thee. I do not know of what family thou art. I was Jabala by name, thou art Satyakam. Say that thou art Satyakam Jabala.” (Cited from Nehru’s Discovery of India) Even the most ardent feminist of our times cannot stand comparison with Jabala. Jabala’s description of her son as Satyakam Jabala is bold even by contemporary standards and seems the only sane description of a young man’s identity. In a healthy society a child should be known by her mother’s name. Jabala’s story may or may not be a historical fact, but surely its historical significance cannot be denied.

If we turn to the middle ages, supposedly a period of superstition and obscurantism, we have the glorious saint-poets who denounced caste in no uncertain terms and believed in the fundamental equality of all men. Here the most outstanding figure is Kabir who in his poems underlined the essential oneness and humanity of Hindus and Muslims, and launched a no-holds-barred attack on the Pundits and Mullahs for reducing religion to external forms. Surely Kabir must have had a tough time surviving in Kashi, the city of orthodoxy, but in contemporary India, he might have landed in Tihar Jail!

No less striking is the saga of Mira, the Rajput princess, who carved her own identity as a woman and an individual in the very bastion of feudalism. Here is a Rajput princess who hobnobs with the common folk and has the audacity to choose Raidas, a cobbler by profession, as her guru. Equally significant is her refusal to commit sati when her husband died thus asserting her identity as an individual. Wouldn’t she be a better role-model for Indian women than the Germaine Greers and Kate Millets of the Western world?

The liberal elements are by no means confined to the Bhakti movement alone. Even in politics—a conservative realm generally—we have the refreshing example of Razia Sultan who was thoroughly secular in governance and had no inhibitions donning a male attire when she went into battle. The socialist leader, Rammanohar Lohia, was greatly fascinated by Razia Sultan and kept pestering his historian friend, Dr Roma Mitra, to write on Razia Sultan for Mankind, a periodical he edited. Maybe he thought she could be an appropriate role-model for the Muslim women in modern India.

THERE is no need to glorify the past. That would be disastrous, but we must not dismiss it altogether as a reactionary force. Only we need to identify the liberal strands in our tradition, connect with them, and derive inspiration and strength from them. Social change, that has the backing of cultural tradition, is likely to be more substantive and enduring.

In other words, tradition could be a vital ally of social change. The progressives, by their blanket rejection of tradition as feudal or bourgeois, have only betrayed their intellectual bankruptcy. Isn’t it ironical that political parties/formations that swear by the people are contemptuous of the values that they embody? The past for the most part lives in the people. To connect with the people in a meaningful way and thus hopefully to change them, one must speak to them in their language. To quote India’s most eminent social psychologist Ashis Nandy,

The crux of the matter is that people think within the framework of a tradition. If you want to intervene, if you want to change, if you want to change democratically, if you don’t want to use police methods or guns to enforce your ideas on the people, you have to enter their frame of reference. That frame of reference is another name for tradition.

By the way, isn’t Tagore saying some such thing in Gora?

If the progressives had engaged with tradition in a meaningful way, the present-day political scenario could well have been different. By dismissing the past as of no consequence or positively inimical to social change, they handed tradition on a platter to the Sangh Parivar who virtually became its sole spokesman and acquired enormous power in the process.

The author, currently a freelancer, retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi.

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