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The Conflict of Tradition and Modernity in India

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The changes which the image of India in the western mind has undergone would in themselves offer a worthy object of study. While seventeenth century observer’s used to be impressed by India’s riches, India is now mostly known for its desperate need of economic development. The land Which the romantics visualized as the home of philosophers and sages is now predominantly considered as a backward area, whatever its potentialities. It seems obvious that the reason for these changing viewpoints about India lies with the subject rather than with the object of observation. Western perception has been conditioned by the changing conditions in the west. Not only has the western world gone, and is still going, through a process of fundamental changes, but it can also be held that western^ civilization attaches high value to change, in contradistinction to traditional civilizations where change, though present, is not valued.

Changing the Western Perception of India

In recent times, especially since the Second World War, a new image of India has come to the fore, an image in which the emphasis is on rapid change, on development and transition from tradition to modernity. However, our conception of what a modern India is to be like seems still very much in the strain of the notorious words of Lord Macaulay: ‘Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.’

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We naturally feels the urge to preserve the essence of his traditional culture so as to save his Indian identity under the changing circumstances; in other words to create an authentically Indian type of modernity which can both stand up to alien modernity and is in keeping with Indian tradition.

What is Hinduism?

But here we come up against another difficulty: what exactly are the contents of the Indian tradition? We usually speak of ‘Hinduism’, meaning a vague and proverbially elusive conglomerate of social and religious customs and beliefs. It is significant that whereas e.g. Islam (in a way also an Indian religion) can be defined in terms of its own orthodoxy, the term Hinduism is of alien make, a blanket term dependent for its meaning on its being different from other religions ? Islam, Christianity or even ”animism’. Although it is possible to take a unified view of Hinduism, our thinking about it is still largely in terms of elements whose interdependence often escapes us, not in terms of a coherent system.

Problem with Hinduism

For our knowledge of Hinduism we still rely mostly on the bra ‘manic Sanskrit sources. They, however, nowhere offer a coherent code of orthodoxy, but represent often conflicting currents and developments. Moreover these sources manifold though they are, do not offer a complete picture. They give different forms of brahmanieal theory that do not cover and often even contradict brahmanieal practice, not to mention the living practices and beliefs of non-bra manic Hindus. The importance of brahmanieal theory? Which for the sake of brevity we may call Brahmanism? Lies in the fact that it is recognized by the Hindu as the hierarchically highest form of Hinduism which carries greatest prestige. It has developed out of the living practice of Hinduism through a process of abstraction and intellectualization. The earliest instance of this process can be seen in the development of the old Vedic ritual. Rites, originally often of an orgiastic nature, were transmuted into a refined, highly technical ritual code, which was to be handled only by a small band of liturgical specialists.

How Hinduism Strengthen Itself

If these conscious attempts at saving and revalidating tradition failed in their ultimate object, it does not follow that tradition is helpless before the advance of alien modernity. Apart from these conscious, organized, efforts and largely uninfluenced by its traditional Hinduism has not only held its own but seems to have strengthened and developed itself. An illustration of this tendency can be seen in the Marathi speaking area (the present Bombay or Maharashtra State). There we find the relatively old sect of the Varkaris. Their sacred literature is formed not in the first place by religious Sanskrit texts? Though the Bhagavad-Gita? Is held in high esteem? but the emphasis is on the religious poetry of the old Marathi? ‘Saints’. Varkaras V. Prarthana Samaj

Alongside the Varkaris there existed in Bombay and Poona in the second half of the last century an influential Hindu reform movement, the Prarthana Samaj, connected with the earlier Bengal reformism. Although its members gave more prominence to the Sanskrit religious literature and were generally inclined to eclecticism, they invoked especially the Varkar (Tradition, incorporating their religious poetry in their worship). Among their leaders were found influential and eminent men such as R. G. Bhandarkar and M. G. Ranade. They were active in the field of social reform, especially in education, the widow-remarriage question and the uplift of depressed communities, The Varkans on the other hand were at that time only a rural sect of mostly uneducated peasants and artisans.

For the contemporary observer the future clearly lay with the Prarthana Samaj reformers. However, the Varkari movement has since the last fifty years spread further, the organization of the pilgrimages has been expanded and strengthened and the movement has, through the influence of some intellectuals, gained a foothold among the urban intelligentsia of Poona, next to Bombay the cultural and educational capital of the area. The reformist Prarthana Samaj on the other hand is scarcely heard of any more.

Protecting the Vitality of Traditional Hinduism through Anti-Reform Movements

The vitality of traditional Hinduism is also evidenced by militant anti-reform movements. The integral defence of tradition, as it stood, by B. G. Tilak proved to be a powerful instrument in organizing mass support and instilling it with nationalist fervour. The instauration of the modern public Ganapati festival, celebrated annually since 1893 and added to the festive calendar of Maharashtra largely through the efforts of Tilak, is a case in point. Its celebration is organized along traditional lines, but at the same time it provided an effective manifestation of a new Hindu religious and political consciousness. This does not mean that India would be incapable of change or that modern developments would be no match for the power of tradition. There is no doubt that India is changing but the question is whether these changes have necessarily to move in the direction of westernization.

Changes in Tradition Till Now

We should not make us lose sight of the historical perspective that is the commonplace truth that Hindu tradition has throughout the course of its history been subject to change. To mention only a few examples that seem relevant to present day developments : shifts in the caste hierarchy and even protest against it are not the monopoly of modern development; the traditional organization of the village, the immobility of which tends to be taken for granted, has, at different times and places, undergone incisive changes in pre-British times through government action or otherwise the growth of an Indo Muslim culture, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, though still little investigated, may be no less significant than more recent developments.

How Tradition and Modernisation Strengthen Itself

Whether the impact of modern western civilization will cause as incisive a breach with the past as one would suppose from the western point of view, is open to doubt. It seems possible that modern developments will not undermine Indian society and culture, but will fit themselves into the pattern of change that Hindu tradition has shown throughout its history. Seen in this perspective the conflict between tradition and modernity loses much of its importance. Modern developments more often than not go to strengthen tradition and give it a new dimension. To take a well-known example: modern means of mass-communication such as radio and film give an unprecedented spread to traditional culture (broadcasting of Sanskrit mantras or of classical Indian music, films on mythological and devotional themes). At the same time the traditional cultural performances have not lost their importance as is shown by the fact that the government as well as the political parties try, often successfully, to enlist dance drama, story-telling and such like traditional media for their propaganda.

Caste System Under Indian Tradition

Let us first consider the caste system. Although it is under attack from many sides it has remained vital. We can describe the caste system briefly as a number of endogamous groups, economically, politically and ritually interrelated and hierarchized according to the opposition pure-impure. In a given village, district or area we usually find a particular caste which possesses a large part of the sources of wealth, i.e. primarily land, and thus is in a position to dominate the other lower castes.

The other castes – tenants, servants, artisans, barbers, washer men, scavengers etc. – are partly or wholly dependent on the dominant caste in a client-patron relationship.

At the top of the pure-impure hierarchy are the Brahmins. Their function is the sanctioning of the status of the dominant caste through the acceptance of food or presents from the members of this caste and thus attesting to their purity. The dominant caste, though often according to strict brahmanical theory of originally low status, obtains in this way hierarchical prestige in exchange for material goods. In the classical texts this relationship corresponds to that between king and Brahmin.

How the Britishers Demolished Caste System and How It Came Back During Independence

Broadly speaking, it can be said that formerly social relations were to a large extent confined within the limits of the Kingdoms and that the castes usually did not extend beyond the boundaries of the kingdom. The sprawling provinces under British rule threw together the various traditional units with their localized caste systems.

When India achieved independence, however, the traditional pattern established itself in the form of the reorganization into linguistic states. The boundaries of these linguistic states tend. to coincide with the geographical limits of the dominant castes of the area. Thus it would seem that under the traditional as under the new dispensation caste is the backbone of the polity.

Lower Caste Dominating Upper Caste

It can be argued that whereas formerly only the dominant caste had a fully corporate political existence, nowadays any caste with sufficient numerical strength to make its demands heard can function as a corporate political body. Now for one thing, numerical strength seems not to be altogether absent from the traditional system. But the point at issue is, however, whether the dominant caste retains the resources to maintain the dependent castes. Conflict is likely to arise when it is no longer able to do so.

Here overpopulation and pressure on the soil may be weightier factors than the introduction of political democracy. On the other hand modern developments not necessarily go to break up the patron-client relationship.

A recent study of the impact of irrigation on village life seems to suggest that the resulting growth of the economy in a village which profited directly from the irrigation, scheme enabled the landowning dominant peasants better to employ and to remunerate a greater number of members of the dependent lower castes. The patron-client relationship in that village remained largely the same as before.

Conversely, in order to rise and assert itself a caste must become economically independent, mostly through the acquisition. Of landed property. If this condition is fulfilled the situation may arise where the dominant caste is challenged and two or more castes are seen to compete for dominance.

Rise of Lower Caste in the Political Hierarchy

Finally, whatever. the eventual development in India’s cities will be, it should not be forgotten that more than three quarters of the electorate live in the rural districts. One might even say that instead of being urbanized – the 1961 census seems to indicate a diminishing rate of urban growth – India is being ‘ countryfied’. It is the rural districts that dominate politically, socially and culturally. Now we may suppose that the caste system loses in its religious and cultural function what it gains in the political field, to wit that the hierarchical principle, the essential religious opposition pure impure, vanishes to be replaced by a class order based on wealth and political power. It is clear of course that the pure-impure opposition can be fully effective only in the limited dimensions of village life, where all know each other. On a greater stage it loses its sharp edges, becomes more diffuse.

Effects on Caste System Under Urbanisation and Industrialisation

Considering all this it would seem that the caste system, far from melting before the sun of western modernity, has become even more strongly entrenched. It is, however, often held that urbanization and industrialization will destroy the caste system. As to urbanization, we again take too much for granted by unwittingly equating urbanization and westernization. The city remains an Indian city, and it has been observed that the atmosphere of the modern Indian city is not necessarily hostile to caste. As to the effects of urbanization there is, however, still a lack of reliable data: the Indian city – in contra distinction to the village – is still very much treated ‘en parent pauvre’. The same applies to the effects of industrialization, but the indications which are available do not seem to justify the conclusion that industrialization breaks up the caste system. As to modern commercial and industrial entrepreneurship the role of caste is well known.

Conclusion to Caste System

For rising castes, especially for untouchable castes, modernization and sanskritization go hand in hand. Western modernity apparently has not provided here an independent standard, alien to tradition. On the contrary the Brahmanic ideal has been expanded into the national ideal of respectable behaviour, part of which (teetotalism) is even enforceable by law. It is clear that brahmanization is not an attack on the hierarchy but an implicit recognition. It might ‘be supposed that in this way, through this tendency towards cultural and religious uniformity, the hierarchy will tend eventually to abolish itself.

But here we should keep in mind that the same developments which accelerate braihmanlization give to the higher castes new possibilities to document their cultural and religious superiority. When the Indian intellectual gives vent to his feeling of up rootedness, his alienation from the people or from traditional culture, one will be inclined to view this as the conflict between tradition and modernity.


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