The Assault on Tradition

The Assault on Tradition

by Professor Subhash Kak

Modernity is associated with the idea of industrialization, a strong nation-state system and identity, progress, rationality, reason and objectivity that emerged in the mid-eighteenth century Western Europe. All this sounds great, but there is a price to pay. Mechanistic logic in human affairs results in oppression and regimentation, objectification of life, and alienation and loss of freedom. From it arise self-hate and destructive behaviour.

The end of the Cold War led some to announce the end of history; in reality, it only intensified the struggle in different societies between modernity and tradition. In the US, the right has exploited the deep unhappiness with the oppressive aspects of modernity by promoting its economic and social agenda as a palliative, when, in reality, its policies promote further ‘industrialization’ of human affairs. The right’s prescriptions may be false; but it is winning because the left has not come up with a consistent argument to counter it.

Meanwhile, the ‘industrialization’ of human affairs marches on, facilitated by new technologies. This globalization is not only in the spread of American pop-culture or control of increasing public space by the multinational corporations, it is also in the practice of law, which in traditional society was quite decentralized. Modernity in the legal sense is the notion that only the state or the sovereign can lay down the body of rules for citizens to follow. Here it draws from the tradition of the Christian Church with its claim to be the sole interpreter of law.

The resistance of Muslims to westernizing modernization is natural, given that it sees itself as a revelation that supersedes Christianity. But the agents of westernization have been surprised by the claims of other non-Western societies for validity of their culture and attachment to their own social and legal arrangements. This explains the puzzlement of the westernized elite at the continuing affirmation of many for the Hindu tradition.

The Matter of Law

The modernist is puzzled because he does not understand the Hindu tradition, a situation getting worse due to the declining knowledge of the classical foundations of this tradition. According to Werner Menski in his path-breaking ‘Hindu Law: Beyond Tradition and Modernity’ (Oxford University Press, 2003), “Hindu law today must be seen as a postmodern phenomenon, displaying its internal dynamism and perennial capacity for flexibility and realignment.” Menski argues that the modernist reading of the tradition is a caricature, perpetuated because “studying Hindu law is often seen as regressive activity.” Menski adds:

“Anything ‘Hindu’ is quickly denigrated in many ways, not only by many followers of the monotheistic religions, but also those who imagine and assert that a modern world, by which is often meant a Western-inspired world, can do without so-called primitive religion and cultural traditions. Lawyers (as well as more recently whole cohorts of diasporic Indian scholars)… have had specific reasons to argue for modernity. Colonialism added its own ideologies and arguments to subjugate not only Hindus, but also Hindu law, all in the name of universalistic legal constructs.”

In the complex process of scholarly manipulation, many scholars have engaged (often unwittingly) in misleading and sometimes simply wrong representation of Hindu ‘tradition’. Prominent amongst these misrepresentations is the assumption that ancient Hindu texts prescribed’ certain rules, which even infects the most intricate subaltern writing.

In recent years, arguments such as Menski’s (or those of Triloki Nath Madan and Ashis Nandy before him) have been criticized by the modernists as being dangerous because they provide support to the political right. But that is a false argument because the political right in India has not analyzed civilizational dynamics in terms of the push and pull between modernity and tradition. Indeed, the right’s insistence on a common civil law for all Indians is inspired by the modernist ideology, as are its many policies that promote centralization. The right has mostly been reactive, fighting at best for symbolic gains, hoping — erroneously, as it found to its grief — that these would suffice to ensure victory at the next election.

The stakes are very high since they have implications for the manner in which India will be able to respond to the pressures of globalization. Menski reminds us:

“Arguments about the inherent political incorrectness and modern irrelevance of Hindu law have conveniently forgotten that the so-called modern traditions have their own roots in specific Western cultural and religious traditions. So how could Indian be called upon to ‘modernize’, if that simply meant, at one level, shedding the social and cultural concepts that make up the fabric of the various hybrid Indian identities? How can hundreds of millions of Hindus be expected, let alone forced, to abandon Hindu law?”

Modernity, calling on all ‘others’ to assimilate to the supposedly higher, apparently secular and ‘modern’ value system represented by the West, amounted to thinly veiled pressure to abandon various indigenous traditions and convert to the supposedly universal notions of modernity. In other words, modernity expected and demanded unidirectional assimilation to alien lego-cultural norms and models, and a stepping outside of one’s own inherited traditions. It demanded de-Hinduization, abandoning of Hindu customs, habits, and traditions. While modernity was, at one level, not concerned about religion, it expected the modern world citizen to be of a secular disposition, thus seeking to prescribe one particular religious perspective as appropriate for modernity.

Since the modern university is a vehicle for westernization, with hardly a representation for those who are schooled in the Indian classics, there hasn’t been a proper debate on identifying the proper tension between modernity and tradition in the Indian context. This is one reason the state has been paralyzed in making legal reforms, and has ceded decision making in many spheres to the judiciary.

Modernity and Temple Administration

It is in the relationship between the state and religion that the lack of clear thinking becomes most apparent. Observers of recent Indian history express incredulity at how the Indian state (whether ruled by the left or the BJP), which professes to be secular, has taken over the management of most Hindu temples. This has proceeded in the face of corruption, and diverting of the temple income for non-religious purposes, or even for the maintenance of religious institutions of rival religions.

Typically, the government creates trusts to run these temples, with active management entrusted to officers of the Indian Administrative Service, with the government’s representatives sitting on the board taking decisions regarding where the income is to be banked (gaining kickbacks from the banks in the process) and how it is to be invested, and even the sale of temple properties. Naturally, these bureaucrats have no interest in any larger vision associated with the temple.

In spite of its numerous shortcomings, the medieval temple included all jatis as stakeholders in a complex system of obligations under the yajamani system. But that is not the case with the government controlled modern temple, where the bureaucrat is the supreme authority. Operating in a system without appropriate checks and balances, it is easy for him to succumb to greed. For such an officer, who is on a temporary assignment as a temple chief, there is no incentive to look at the larger role of the temple in the community, and he, at best, is an instrument of the status quo. Such temples are not the harbingers of social change that they should be.

A few months ago, I heard from one of the government trustees of the Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu, who was visiting the United States. He wanted some advice on how to go about recruiting faculty for the newly established Mata Vaishno Devi Temple University, of whose existence I was not aware until that moment. He explained that the government had decided to create this university with the income of the Vaishno Devi Temple; this university, it had been decided, would focus on information technology and biotechnology.

I asked him why the university, which is being run on the donations of the pilgrims, did not include Hindu religious studies on its curriculum. He said since the university operated within the parameters of a secular state, it could not teach any subject related to Hinduism. The bottom line: the donations of the pilgrims support activities that have nothing to do with the pilgrimage.

The control of the Hindu temples by the government, when the mosques or the churches have not similarly been taken over, is defended on the ground that the modern Indian state is the successor also to the earlier pre-British Indian states where much of the great temple ritual was around the person of the king. The chief ministers, being the democratically elected successors to the kings, are within their rights to continue with this tradition irrespective of what the Constitution says.

Meanwhile, many Hindu groups have begun agitating for the Hindu temples to be restored to the Hindu communities. If there is need for a better legal and administrative framework for the running of temples, they demand that all Hindu communities are made stakeholders with complete separation between the government and the management boards, with the judiciary to act as referee in case of dispute.

Globalization and Body and Soul

The seizing of the temples by the Indian bureaucracy is only a small part of the larger war for individual freedom. Friedrich Hayek in his classic The Road to Serfdom (1944) warned that government control over production led to totalitarianism. Now the danger is much greater.

Technology makes it easy for the state and multinational corporations or even guilds to assume unprecedented power over not only production but also distribution. This power is likely to be exercised in neocolonial control of national economies and natural wealth; meanwhile, it is being increasingly applied to the last frontiers before man, the human body and the mind.

Western medicine has become a handmaiden to pharmaceutical firms, resulting in the vast majority of Westerners becoming dependent on some sort of medication, as documented in John Abramson’s Overdosed America: The Broken Promise of American Medicine (HarperCollins, 2003). The philosopher Ivan Illich once said: “Modern medicine is a negation of health. It isn’t organized to serve human health, but only itself, as an institution. It makes more people sick than it heals.”

The other force of globalization is the use of media and marketing theory to sell organized religion and to separate individuals from their traditions and cultural history.

But our age of confusion is also an age of enormous promise. One hopes that out of the current conflict will arise better understanding and compassion and more freedom for people everywhere. But this will be, at best, a rocky road.

About Dr. Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak is an Indian American computer scientist, most notable for his controversial Indological publications on history, the philosophy of science, ancient astronomy, and the history of mathematics.