Why Try to ‘Preserve’ Tradition? Yes, it’s a Rhetorical Question.


What follows is derived and modified from my comments at various blog posts (written by me as well as by others). As those comments were in different contexts and not in continuity, some of the points have got repeated.

I do not understand why should I feel proud of something which was developed without my own individual involvement much before I was even born? Can we Indians feel proud of Australia winning the Cricket World Cup? Yes, it sounds ridiculous for simple reason that Australians live in a different continent, but they are our contemporaries and thus belong to the *same* generation. Likewise, I find it equally ridiculous to feel proud of things done and traditions developed by a different generation in a different time, and still worse, blindly follow them. Everyone forgets one simple thing – none of the prior generations have actually tried to preserve their traditions, at least, not successfully so. Otherwise, how did we turn from stone wielding cavemen into spacesuit clad astronauts?

Every generation makes modifications in their daily practices conducive to their survival and comfort. When we try to pass those practices on dogmatically to the next generation, they outlive their practical utility. Saree and dhoti, if you look at carefully, are reminiscent of times when needles where not used in India! Blouse was a later addition only when the art of stitching with needles was brought to India by Muslim rulers. [The assertion in last sentence, very likely is incorrect, as I discovered after some queries over twitter. I was under this false impression because one of my school teachers had told me the same and I had believed her as it did not sound an extraordinary claim. So currently I tend to think that the art of stitching was already practiced in India even before the Muslim invasions. But the basic point that influences ‘external’ to a civilization could also have perceptibly ‘positive’ impact, I believe, still stands].

But, the issue I am trying to get at is much broader. Why by default, someone’s unquestioningly imbibing old practices is looked at as a *virtue*? How is it (unquestioningly imbibing old practices) virtuous, e.g., like being helpful, courteous, honest, morally upright?

I am not implying that we should discard certain practices only because they would be legacies of older generations, but nor should we hold onto them for precisely the same reason. Most important thing is to use our discretion. Most of the etiquette (of mind you, ALL the cultures ALL OVER the globe) are based in better social interactions as an end, so if we find such etiquette and basic manners like courtesy, helpfulness, mutual respect tasteful and conducive to our society, we must certainly retain them in our daily conduct. Just that our judgement of certain practices should not be preloaded with obligation to preserve them.

—–

You are right about pointing out how some of the traditions might die out if people do not take pride in them. But, I would like to point out a few prejudices we hold in that regard.

First, we take it a default position that ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ need to be preserved. And that something grossly unfortunate will happen if they are somehow “lost”. Is there any basis to have that as our default position? Eventually, those elements of our culture persist that are conducive to our better survival. And where does one draw line as to what is our tradition and culture? In most of the colleges, we wear pajama-kurta and Saree on traditional days. But honestly, those kind of sarees and pajama-kurta had hardly been in vogue ever in the past! Culture was: (1) what our ancestors used to wear during British rule, (2) during Mughal rule, (3) Gupta dynasty’s rule, (4) during Harappan civillization or (5) during prehistoric ages when presumably, our ancestors used to roam about wearing hides of other animals?

So the problem with this position (of obligatorily preserving one’s culture) is what is ‘culture’ itself is not well defined. Today, we consider movies like Mughal-E-Aazam to be masterpieces, but believe me, in those times, there must have been sizeable majority who must have felt that that movie was crass, and that it encouraged youngsters to go against their parents’ wishes!

Also, I do not feel, any of the generations have tried hard enough to preserve their culture, otherwise cultures would not have evolved so much. But the greater problem with what you suggest (the concern that our traditional practices would die out if we do not take pride in them) is that it seems to bring an element of obligation on individuals to carry on their culture. You, by your confession, like a lot of (movies and music) what we could call ‘Western’. Do you watch those movies and listen to that music out of sense of duty? No, you do so because you *LIKE* it. My (despite not ‘trying’ to preserve my culture) favorite music is old Hindi songs – as old as of 1950′s and 60′s. Mughal-E-Aazam would be an example, and so would be songs from movies like Baiju Bawra. But on the other hand, I also like music of The Prodigy and Orbital (both are electronic rock/techno bands) as much passionately. I had very much liked Premchand’s stories and Harivanshray Bachchan’s Hindi poems, and would certainly read them later in life when I find time. I know of a brother-sister duo, who had been forced by their dad to learn Hindustani classical music, but none of them actually remotely likes it! The only thing I am trying to suggest is culture evolves, and elements of it also survive if they find favor among people, and not because people would take pride in them. I will give another example. I very much like the title song of ‘Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram’, but cannot bring myself to like ‘Jai-jai Shiv Shankar’ the same way. But both kind of songs will find followers well into next 50 years at least. And yes, I have absolutely not learned any kind of music.

You will find many people who would feel offended to hear someone criticize Indian classical music, but actually would have themselves never liked it much! Does that make sense? That is the irrationality I am trying to point out.

The problem is not so much with believing oneself to be best. The problem is with believing that we are as good as our community is, and that is unfortunate because one never gets to CHOOSE one’s community! Had you been born in Sweden, would you have ever said that India is the ‘best’ country?

—–

What is so virtuous about trying to preserve one’s culture? How does it in any way contribute to our becoming a good human being? A person wearing dhoti and khadi clothes can commit a cold blooded murder, whereas a guy wearing low waist jeans and black T-shirt with logo of some rock band printed on it may risk his life to save a stranger. Also, there is needless paranoia that if one does not try to preserve one’s culture, it will get destroyed. Cultural practices came in vogue because they suited the generations that inducted them into their daily lives because of limited availability of resources/technology, etc. – best example being clothes. Sarees were worn in the past not because wearing them made anyone any more pious, but because that was the only technology available. No one knew how to make jeans 200 years back.

Also, those aspects of cultural heritage that suit the contemporary generation are bound to be retained. There are countless youngsters that listen to old Hindi music because they appreciate and like it. Same holds true for poetry of Harivanshray Bachchan and stories of Premchand. But what is found crass would be rejected by the contemporary and future generations alike. So, merely forcing down our culture on the subsequent generations is not going to make them any more receptive to it. What deserves merit will definitely find favor with a niche within any generation depending upon their taste and ability to appreciate it.

One more issue – who defines what is our culture? Outside of northern India, wearing salwar-kameez would be taken as ‘loose character’ in villages.

And the most important point – none of the generations across any of the civillizations have actually tried to ‘preserve’ their culture, otherwise how has, for instance, Indian culture evolved so much that while studying history we have to divide it into ‘Harappan civillization’, ‘Ancient’, ‘Medieval’ and ‘Modern’ India? And yet, we say Indian culture is ‘alive’ and has not got destroyed? This only proves that even the prior generations were sensible enough to ‘change’ with times. We have become culturally more refined with time rather than more savage. And the current trend should not frighten us. It is nothing different than how humans have behaved in the past. So, at least parents must stop forcing their kids to ‘preserve’ culture and tradition.

—–

Just a small side-note from personal experience: My paternal grandfather used to be disapproving of my mother wearing salwar-kameez, whereas, my sister hardly ever wears salwar-kameez and instead wears ‘tops’ and jeans, and my mother has no objections to it. But I am also sure, that there would be a certain kind of dressing that my mother would be disapproving of (say, short skirts, half pants, excessively cleavage-revealing clothes or something that would be too transparent [see-through]). Also in most of India, a girl wearing a salwar-kameez would be looked at as more susheel (well-behaved) than one wearing what my sister usually wears. What this proves is salwar-kameez has now almost become a ‘benchmark’ of sorts for one’s ‘rootedness’ to the India culture in even those parts of the country where it was not accepted just one or two generations back.

And unlike what most traditionalists might be tempted to suggest that it is simply ‘foreign’/’western’ influences that ‘contaminate’ the Indian culture, salwar-kameez which is largely a North Indian phenomenon was also seen as a threat to the culture (by my grandfather). Which means my grandfather was not afraid of something ‘foreign’, but he was afraid of any kind of change. In other words, he favored stagnation, which may or may not be harmful depending on the context, but in no way, would I accept it as something ‘desirable’ or ‘ideal’.

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29 thoughts on “Why Try to ‘Preserve’ Tradition? Yes, it’s a Rhetorical Question.

  1. Honestly, I have read only the first two paragraphs. I am sure to come back to read the full post! But from what I read, I am excited, and once again in awe of your articulation skill! Excellent points!

    • Hahaha, Darshan! I’d have loved to know your views upon finishing the article, thought I must add that the points had got very repetitive. 🙂

      • Oh, I read the full article that day only. Didn’t comment again because what I would have said is pretty much the same as what I already said.

        I especially love reading your writing on these types of issues. On human irrationality, that is. And the ease with which you articulate, the arguments/points you make, and the knowledge it all reflects invariably puts me in awe. Mainly because I lack – and wish so much to have – these qualities. For articulation skill, I look up to you and Harmanjit. (Yes, you can feel flattered for being named with Harmanjit. Haha.)

        Anyway. And oh, I went through all the comment-replies also.

        …obligation to preserve it because of such affinity should be rather seen as a personality weakness and not as a ‘virtue’

        I remember being in a debate with someone over some issue and at some point I had to tell this exact same thing, but I was at a loss for expression! So you can see in what ways I learn from reading people like you and Harmanjit and why it would inspire awe.

          • Darshan,

            I had gone through that post when you had linked. I don’t remember much about it. What I do remember is that the author was bothered by the hate same people who were avid Orkut users had displayed when they had got comfortable with facebook. I could somewhat get why you linked that article, but on the whole the post did not generate any significant thought in my mind to ‘comment’. 😀

        • Darshan,

          Thanks! Harmanjit’s articulation skill is way superior to mine. But I guess, beyond a point, as long as one can express oneself clearly, without creating confusion in reader’s mind, this skill does not have much value. 🙂

          Curiously, it’s very rare that I would be at loss for what words to use for what I feel. Many do not realize, but just occasionally, my means of expression can be very oblique and ‘artistic’ (e.g., my poetry and some of the posts/stories with analogies). 🙂 So eventually, I do get the satisfaction of expressing myself, though I cannot say that everyone interprets exactly what I would have wanted them to.

  2. http://sites.google.com/site/vairavisca/Home/creations/basic-south-indian-clothing
    “into my life walked “Shillapadikaram” (alt. spellings Cillapadikaram), a 3rd century novel written by Prince Ilango Adigal, a Jain Prince of the Chera kingdom. Aside from it’s beauty as a story, it also provided a very detailed picture of life in Ancient India. One of the little tidbits, merely a sentence long, that made me quite literally fly from my bed rambling my poor Lord’s ear off, was a description of the belt worn by one of the characters, Madhavi. In it, the belt is described as being ‘of thirty-two strands of pearls, backed on blue silk, and embroidered all over with flowers.’ Whoah, said I. Not only did this back up the idea of the mekhala having a cloth base to it, but also refuted the piece of information I had recently gathered as to embroidery being virtually unknown in India before the Muslim invasions. “

    • I,

      Welcome to the blog!

      I don’t know if you had read the note in square brackets in the post. I had become convinced quite a few months back that the art of stitching/embroidering was indeed known to Indians before the Muslim invasions.

      But, thanks for confirming that nevertheless! 🙂

  3. Saying anything more would sure be repition ! But I will still try to say few things :

    1. Culture doesn’t mean to follow traditions without question. Know why some thing is done in a particular way , and then you sure will like to follow suit. I noticed this during a recent puja. Almost all puja’s i would sit bored but this time the purohit explained the merit of what we were doing there and each mantra . It was worth beign there and it felt nice following that tradition ..

    2. Do give respect to other cultures and tradition. If you notice carefully , all traditions have similar meaning and ideas. So why ridicule it ?

    And then , all these talks mean to some one who treat all as equal humans. and has the making of a good virtuous being 🙂 Not really traditional 🙂

    hope i made some sense 😉

    • ladynimue,

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      1. There is a difference between being given a reason, and being given a reason that is convincing. The ‘reasons’ given for most of the religious traditions are quite ridiculous, in my understanding. E.g., take the philosophy behind fasting. Some say it gives a “break” to the digestive system and hence it is good. To put it mildly, I find that reason laughable. Because quite to the contrary, any kind of fasting damages the lining of the stomach, and increases chances of getting gall stones. It further depresses the immunity. Then, some say, fasting the spirit of making sacrifices. Really? Unfortunately, most fasting is for selfish purposes and once the fast would be ‘broken’, people gorge on sweets and fatty food. Which means, fasts convince people that once one faces pain there would be imminent pleasure? I find that a very wrong thing to learn. But anyway, the fact that two widely differing “reasons” are offered for observing fasts itself is sufficient to convince me that those who try to show the rationale behind fasting sirf andhere mein teer chala rahe hain. 🙂

      2. I doubt all traditions have similar meanings. Compare Islam and Jainism. Former ‘celebrates’ brutal killing of lamb that would have been nurtured for a month with love and care. What does it teach to young children who observe all that? Whereas a few Jains I have known would be so averse to violence that they don’t even kill the same mosquitoes they know would bite them, spoil their sleep and maybe even cause diseases like malaria. I am not endorsing one over the other. The point I am trying to make is that traditions and religions have impact over personalities as well as they are can be very, very opposite in their underlying spirit.

      And no, I could not get your penultimate sentence. 🙂 My bad! 😦

  4. Times change , with that changes our life style and needs associated with the life style. Change is most important element of life which makes it dynamic.

    Regarding dressing, in fast track life of our times, women have to travel extensively to their work or study place. Jeans I think is a comfortable wear and doesn’t wrinkle easily in heavily crowded public transport. Religion and culture should have no part to play with dress and these so called dress codes have always restricted the growth of women in society. At the same time it is pertinent to point out that while wearing a dress one should understand the need for clothes. Besides, the clothes should suit one’s personality. Indian women and men do not have the same physical structures as their western counter-parts in general, besides the climatic conditions in west are different from India. It is very often we see people make a mockery of themselves by wearing something which is either not fitting their physique or something that does not go well with their age, but again if they want to it is their sweet will. All in all the issue relates to self regulation and one’s values.

    Drinking and smoking is equally bad for man and woman. Which shastra and puran says it is okay for men to drink while if women do the same culture tradition and values will come under great threat. Music is what relaxes you what you find euphonious , No custodian of culture can decide what I should like.

    still water of thoughts breeds reptiles of ignorance which can only crawl on the superficial ground of something called culture and traditions.

    Lastly , I am unyielding believer of personal freedom so I think no one has the right to dictate the terms of reference to some other person as to how they should live their lives. Personally speaking, what attracts me most in people is their mind and what that mind thinks.

    Humanity , respect for the individuality towards fellow inhabitants of the earth and compassion towards nature are the only traditions which should be sustained generation after generation .

    Nice post Ketan….

    • Sunil,

      Thanks for the wise words!

      I absolutely agree with everything you have said. Indeed some traditions are good, and to repeat, we must not follow them out of some sort of obligation, but because they would make sense and suit our purposes. Because every person’s purposes are different, it is obvious, they would like to take up different practices. Forceful homogenization is painful for the person in the long run.

      Just to digress a bit (and to also split hair 😉 ), I tend to take a slightly different look at your point about smoking and girls. Most of the girls in India tend to be friends more so with girls, at least around their high school life, and likewise boys tend to be more with boys. Also, the girls face greater expectation from parents as well as ‘society’ to not smoke. Also, to be added to the fact is that smoking among boys/men is lot more prevalent than it is among girls/women. So, a girl who ends up smoking needs to summon lot greater ‘rebellion’ to take to smoking. So, with the same temperament if a girl would have been a boy, perhaps she would have been more rebellious than an average boy – and would have gotten into a crimes or narcotic drugs. And these things might start counting once the said girl would enter a milieu where there would be absolute gender equality.

      Of course, I would not use above kind of assessment to judge people adversely, but it kind of helps me know the personality of a person, and furthermore, helps me in being able to predict their responses in given situations. All these things help me ultimately determine how much to trust someone and how much to allow someone to become a part of my life. 🙂

      Take care.

  5. Culture is emotion. Emotions make people soft. Sanskrit was a culture, now it is not, some felt bad when it disappeared [gradually] I dont know what to add here, I was thinking to do a blog post on it but could not move beyond the first line I have said in this comment. 😛

    • TG,

      You are right! Yes, some people do feel bad that Sanskrit is now no longer a commonly used language. Part of that is because (rightly or wrongly) believe that lot of wisdom is contained in words written in that language.

      But to be honest, we do not know why Sanskrit stopped being spoken. Some people say, it was because of the elitist attitude of Brahmins (perhaps, a byproduct of ‘tradition’?), because of which the common people did not learn it and then gradually it became obscure.

      Anyway, I won’t go into that. 🙂 Yes, people do develop an affinity towards the practices they would have been exposed to during the childhood. But an obligation to preserve it because of such affinity should be rather seen as a personality weakness and not as a ‘virtue’. 🙂

      Thanks! Take care.

  6. Thanks for the marvelous posting! I truly enjoyed reading it, you can be a great author.I will make sure to bookmark your blog and may come back someday. I want to encourage you to definitely continue your great job, have a nice day!

  7. Excellent article! I cannot add much more since you have summarized almost exactly what I feel about this issue.

    I feel that cultures and traditions are like ice-cream flavors in the large ice-cream parlour of human society. People have individual preferences and tastes and that’s how it should be! It is illogical for someone to force a particular flavour down someone else’s throat just because he himself likes it/or because his ancestors have been tasting only that flavour.

    What is however important is EXPOSURE to the various cultures and traditions of the world, starting from your own country. Once a person has larger exposure, he/she will be more enriched and will make a better informed choice.

  8. As a new visitor to this blog, found the author’s spirit of enquiry to be simply amazing. My rambling sort of comments below. thanks.

    The author said:
    1. “First, we take it a default position that ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ need to be preserved.

    The argument wrt tradition i get, but could u more clearly specify what you mean by ‘culture’ in the context of this post? maybe you already did this somewhere, if so, could u pls point that out.

    ——————–
    2. “And that something grossly unfortunate will happen if they are somehow “lost”.

    it depends on whether there are positive reasons for preserving something, isnt it? I was introduced to a lady from Iran who called herself ‘Persian’ with more than a hint of pride – even though no country called Persia exists today. Did something grossly unfortunate happen when Persian culture was lost?

    indeed, why do we take the following default positions on the some of these other issues:
    – film institutes all over the world must preserve and restore old “classics”?
    – we must even worry about some mostly unheard of species going extinct
    – we must try to “preserve earth” for future generations
    – to kill a mockingbird is a sin

    ——————–
    3. “Is there any basis to have that as our default position? Eventually, those elements of our culture persist that are conducive to our better survival.”

    You may have partly given the answer right there in the second sentence, no?

    In the Indian context, if my definition of ‘culture’ were to include the set of best practices and a fundamental guiding principle (“Dharma”) that helped a vast majority of the natives survive a thousand years of violent foreign onslaught and ‘cultural genocide’, then that ‘culture’ does look like a very strong candidate for preservation by bottling like Asterix’s magic potion 🙂

    ——————–
    4. “And where does one draw line as to what is our tradition and culture?”
    It’s akin to a distinction between a ‘rule of thumb’ and a ‘scientific principle’. A good chunk of ‘r.o.t’ are informal statements that have solid s.p hidden inside. Of course some are not, and some others change with time.

    Rote learning of ‘culture’, or indeed anything worth learning, is of immense transient/immediate use, but of little value in the long term. Ultimately, we draw the line by reasoning and researching for ourself and go with what we feel comfortable with.

    ——————–
    Ending on an highly non-serious note:

    a. Like Ravi Shastri, i’ve got this feeling that if India were not invaded and ravaged by barbarians for a thousand years, there would be very little of elders forcing sarees, dhotis, and a whole bunch of ‘traditions’ on others.

    b. Ancient does not mean ‘past expiry date’. The saree is considered an incredibly elegant dress outside India – there is a spontaneous ‘jaw open’ reaction from those who see it worn by an Indian woman for the first time. Anybody with a sound working knowledge of the mathematics of ‘conic sections’ and ‘principles of symmetry’ would be able to see why a saree and a bindi looks particularly good on Indian women. but of course, it must be their choice.

  9. Ketan,

    Do you believe in re-inventing the wheel even when it is freely available to you, courtesy of those who developed it before you were born and used it to their advantage?

    You could find many such examples where you *do* accept and use – blindly – certain inventions, traditions, practices etc. without questioning them. Your queries perhaps apply to *some* aspects of what you call culture, rather than to culture as a whole.

    You seem to reject x just because *others* have not been able to give you a satisfactory response. You also seem to make the assumption that everyone has to give the exact same reason for doing x, or that one single reason exists for doing x, and if that’s not the case, then x is useless or has no relevance (ref. your phrase “andhere mein teer chalana” re: fasting). Perhaps you need to examine the underlying assumptions in your queries, as some of them are hardly tenable. Or, do x for yourself and see how it feels, instead of rejecting it because you find fault with how/why others are doing x. Just because some others are screwing up the recipe for kheer (and you ignore those who are making delicious kheer and instead, focus only on those who screw up), doesn’t mean that the recipe is useless.

    Besides, culture has more to do with emotion rather than cold logic, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find One Single Convincing Logical Scientific Answer for why people do x. Perhaps you’re applying the wrong tool when trying to find answers to the relevance of culture – it has a lot more to do with the heart than with the brain. Or it could have to do with experience and finding x relevant. Maybe you need to engage your heart a bit more than you’re presently doing, and the answer might appear. Or maybe the answer will appear as you grow older and have some life experiences under your belt.

    Best.

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