Traditions are dynamic!
Indias paradoxes, its thriving and vibrant democracy, and the thread of tradition, culture, convention and morality that run through its social fabric have remained an enigma to the most brilliant minds in the world The crowning glory of this pluralistic society is its hoary tradition of embracing differences and accepting novel streams of thought to enrich its own
India’s paradoxes, its thriving and vibrant democracy, and the thread of tradition, culture, convention and morality that run through its social fabric have remained an enigma to the most brilliant minds in the world. The crowning glory of this pluralistic society is its hoary tradition of embracing differences and accepting novel streams of thought to enrich its own.
From pre-historic settlements to the great Indus Valley Civilization, the Vedic period which was a precursor to the emergence of religions, proliferation of powerful dynasties, the series of invasions, the establishment of the British Empire and finally the struggle for Independence, leading to an independent nation, Indian history is a chronicle of an indomitable spirit and a distinct culture. But not all of it is glorious.
Several anomalies, aberrations, and social evils perpetrated in the name of tradition caused untold suffering at various points in history crying out for reform and repair. People and movements thrown up by the demands of the time spearheaded change and proved that our traditions are not cast in stone but evolve to meet societal demands.
The winds of change sweeping the country today and are all aimed at breaking ‘‘gender stereotypes” and undoing the great paradox of a culture that worships women as “Shakti’ and yet turns a blind eye to the many evils perpetrated on them. Gender equality is the new buzzword propelled by a generation of educated and empowered women rebelling against patriarchal mindsets and stirring up unending debates about tradition pitted against equality.
Tradition is often seen as a word synonymous with all that is retrogressive and against freedom and yet it is a tradition that provides us with roots to the past. However, it cannot be used as a tool to compromise the dignity of an individual. “It is good to swim in the waters of tradition but to sink in them is suicide” Mahatma Gandhi’s words of wisdom are an acknowledgement of this truth and a caution that tradition when ossified can become a liability.
Traditions are forever recharging themselves and are dynamic says scholar, activist Madhu Kishwar in an insightful article on tradition. “The tradition of keeping women in purdah has rapidly given way to letting them outperform men in valour and bodily strength—all because India’s culture does not allow any one set of people to become thekedars (caretakers) of what they arbitrarily choose to define as “tradition” and certainly not enforce their writ on others through brute violence,” she adds.
Reform movements that emerged in India arose in response to the challenges that colonial Indian society faced. Social evils that were carried on as part of the tradition and plagued Indian society included Sati, child marriage, widow re-marriage and caste discrimination. What spurred these movements were the modern context and mix of ideas. Something as basic as education for women was a subject debated intensely with reformers arguing that for a society to progress women had to be educated.
There were several discussions then revolving around tradition and modernity with Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Phule recalling the glory of the Pre-Aryan and Aryan period where women were the epitome of intellectual and spiritual attainment. Gargi, Maiteryi, Lopamudra and Ghosha were significant figures among 27 women seers, who contributed to hymns encapsulating Vedic knowledge.
The lowered status of women during the post-Vedic period was a part of the turmoil in the medieval ages in the aftermath of repeated invasions. The establishment of Moghul rule brought with it an amalgamation of cultures but a new set of challenges that pushed women to a zone within the confines of their homes. Education and employment were not a requirement in this social milieu.
Rammohan Roy’s crusade for the abolition of the inhuman practice of “Sati” (wherein women immolated themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands), Ranade’s writings on the lawfulness of the re-marriage of widows, Kandukuri Vereshalingam’s work for education and widow re-marriage and Sir Sayyad Ahmad Khan’s interpretation of Islam emphasizing the validity of free enquiry (Ittihad) are all part of a process of reform set in motion by extraordinary men and women attacked by proponents of orthodoxy in the name of tradition before change was ushered in... In his book ‘Modernisation of Indian Tradition’ (1992) author Yogendra Singh says, “In Indian society traditions maintain their continuity but at the same time undergo changes. There is in the process of change, modernisation of traditions also.”
“To treat women as children of a lesser god is to blink at the constitution itself,” Justice Chandrachud’s observations in 2018 signal the changing times and path-breaking judicial pronouncements relating to triple talaq, archaic laws related to adultery and temple entry that some women perceive as discriminatory. Places of worship have become the focal points of gender equality with high voltage campaigns, protests and court rulings leading to symbolic entries as witnessed in Shani Shingnapur and the Haji Ali dargah two years ago.
The latest temple to attract heated arguments and protests is the hill shrine of Sabarimala, where the ban on entry of women was removed in an unprecedented Supreme Court judgement that has divided women into two camps, the devotees and votaries of gender equality. Devotees are adamant that restrictions on the entry of women is because the presiding deity Ayyappa is a “Naishtika Brahmachari” (perennial celibate) and menstruating women are not be allowed because of “issues of purity”.
Critics are categorical that it is discrimination and denial of fundamental rights. Rebellion against genuinely oppressive situations is fine but protest for the sake of it is dangerous according to believers who feel that certain sentiments and sensibilities have to be respected. Dr Ananthalakshmi known for her insightful religious discourses opines that using temple entry to make gender statements does not make sense.
“Don’t we see our politicians wear skull caps when they visit mosques and kneel down at churches? They do so because the place they visit demands it. The Sabarimala temple similarly follows certain conventions in accordance with the Tantrik methods of worship wherein negative forces are attracted to menstruating women. Why insist on flouting these rules?” she asks.
Kerala, a State that has within it several extremities had decades ago witnessed a break from tradition with the temple entry proclamation by the visionary Maharaja Chitra Thirunal Balarama Varma in 1936 abolishing the ban on the “so-called” low castes or avarnas from entering Hindus temples in the Princely State of Travancore. This is a milestone in the history of Travancore and Kerala and although unrelated to Sabarimala speaks of breaking away from tradition. It had also created a ripple at that time with the Maharaja of Cochin declaring the people of Travancore as untouchables and forbidding them from entering temples under their government.
Universal temple entry became possible in these places only after India attained independence in 1947. Subramaniam Swamy the firebrand BJP leader sees the present clash as a struggle between Hindu Renaissance and Hindu Obscurantism. “Supreme Court has made a decision, but now you are saying that it’s our tradition. Triple Talaq is also a tradition in that way. Everybody was applauding when it was abolished. The same Hindus have now come on the streets,” he says.
A break from tradition is never easy and one has to watch how people adapt to it. There is no denying that one change inspires another as evident from the decision of the Kozhikode-based Progressive Women’s Forum to approach the Supreme Court. The organisation seeks entry for women into all mosques in the country and appointment of women as Imams of mosques. As one change propels another, the wheels of tradition roll by, covering new ground and making new conquests. Truly tradition is not cast in stone.