Traditions and Values in Indian Society

by Rahul Srivastava

Summary from the Program

This paper will focus on:

  1. The multiple uses of the concepts of tradition and values in modernity, with particular emphasis on their centrality with regards to imagining the nation state.
  2. The complex ways in which technological change is incorporated within the discourse of tradition and values by political forces which are often conservative in their agenda.
  3. The challenge to popular notions of tradition and values from the vantage of feminism, environmentalism and class conflicts.

While these areas seem to be too vast in their scope - particularly so for the limited canvas of this presentaion - our contention is that they are the very minimum issues which can possibly be interrogated when discussing this topic and do justice to it.

Questions of tradition and culture always surface when there are political and economic contexts which dramatically juxtapose differing lifestyles, making people conscious of their own particularities. While the world has always witnessed populations changing addresses across vast tracts of space or people looking surprised at how different communities conceive of what is appropriate and what is against vital values, an empirical study will show that the scale of such experiences multiplied many times over during colonialism which provided a very special context of these processes. People were dispersed far and wide, cultures were juxtaposed in extremely contrasting relationships and a certain global norm emerged in the sense that the nation-state and democracy came to be accepted or challenged as important political variables within the global order. How tradition and values came to be central in developing a critique of colonialism is now textbook knowledge inscribed, often uncritically, in popular discourses on the freedom struggle. This paper will discuss the rival schools of political thought which dominated our understanding of these concepts with regards to imagining India as a political entity - defined in a complex way as plural, modern and historically enriched with contradictory narratives, and how these threw dark shadows on differing notions of traditions and values.

The intimately connected question of modernity continued to punctuate political processes even as post-colonial states developed their own ways of defining tradition and isolating values. Within the western world, the presence of non-Europeans threw many accepted notions out of gear. Ideas of multiculturalism and minority enclaves within the political structure paved the way for a vision of tradition that was more heterogeneous and plural. Yet they threw up their own selective notions of authenticity which also had to be critically re-evaluated. The question of authenticity is inextricably tied to notions of tradition but greater cross-connections globally have made it possible to keep challenging dominant notions of authentic voices. How does this reflect within the context of the Indian political process? How do political voices manage to manufacture so-called authentic tradition in spite of knowledge that proves otherwise? New technological changes have also been appropriated within discourses, which claim to come from ancient traditions. How did this happen? As modernity thundered through history it changed the way people perceived its origins and generated a mega-narrative linking itself to the genius and political superiority of Europe. As a response a multiple set of counter narratives emerged which invented alternative visions of this history and appropriate certain moments for their own glory. Ideas of Vedic mathematics, Sanskrit computers emerged from such visions. Our contention is that both these discourses must be challenged simultaneously, the mega-narrative and these counter-myths.

How do processes of justice and human rights get sabatoged in the process? The greatest challenge to those concerned with human rights violations and environment degradation comes from discourses, which place tradition and values in a special way within history. And this placement often pretends to be a counter-point to the political vision of human rights activists and environmentalists, bringing all questions of justice onto a roller-coaster ride of an argument, which eventually becomes an eternal merry-go-round of universal versus particular values. One sees this especially in the context of gender issues. It is our contention that this is the biggest challenge which one-dimensional visions of tradition and values throws up and one with a special relevance to this topic in the Indian context. This paper will raise a series of questions on this front to conclude the discussion. 
by giles