Sruti, Smriti, And The Individual
We live in smriti-less times. They offer unhampered freedom to each individual without offering guidelines for the best use of this freedom.
In the first part of this series, “Tradition And Modernity (Swarajya, May 2017)”, I illustrated the difficulties in reconciling or harmonising tradition and modernity in Indian creative arts. In literature, this was especially the case, because the break between the two was most definite and far-reaching. Perhaps, the colonial intervention severed forever our tenuous ties with the older sacred literature of India as, indeed, it shattered the society which supported it. In its place, secular modernity, aided by the printing press and the invention of prose, gave rise to a new wave of creativity in what the British called our vernaculars. The literature written in these new languages was usually modelled on European works and its content quite different from traditional compositions. Writing in a purely traditional manner was now impossible.
Yet, the question remains: how are we to engage with contemporary reality in a purely contemporary idiom? This is a question that exercised all major modern writers from Bankimchandra to Ananthamurthy. Without parampara, aren’t we lost, cut off from our nourishing roots, floundering in a world which is not of our making and in which we find ourselves as interlopers, not full citizens? The issue at the heart of Part II of this series is the relationship between the individual and tradition. Is tradition a source of knowledge or is it a source of oppression? Does the individual, in his or her creative journey, discover new truths or merely reaffirm old ones? Finally, how can the individual benefit from the wisdom of the past without being stifled by it?
Immediately, we notice that our answers to such questions depend on how we view tradition, how we define it.
We are confronted with opposing possibilities: on the one hand, we have a traditionalist position, which sees tradition as the repository of truth and virtue. According to this view, we would lose our way and end up destroying ourselves if we did not have the help and support of our traditions. As opposed to this, we have the modernist view, which basically sees tradition negatively, as the carrier of much that is dead and destructive. According to this view, tradition is the source of most of our present ills. It embodies false thinking which cripples us, binds us to social inequality and superstition. This latter view is dominant among a variety of modernists including Marxist, Dalit, feminist, secularist, and other “hard” modernists. These, first of all, seek to destroy and disavow, or, at any rate, reshape, traditions so that space may be created for something new to emerge and flourish.
It is only by breaking the oppressive shackles of tradition, say such modernists, that new creation can take place. Some, like Dr Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, invoke alternate pasts, alternate traditions such as Buddhism, to oppose what they see as the source of their oppression.
The West influenced, even shaped, Indian literary and cultural modernism. But a pioneering Anglo-American modernist like TS Eliot exemplifies the paradox of being the greatest champion of tradition. In his seminal and much-cited Tradition and Individual Talent, Eliot argued that individual talent was shaped, informed, even directed by tradition. By tradition, Eliot meant something timeless, synchronic, even contemporary in its essential genius. It is what is living in us that is tradition, not what is dead and gone. He gives us the image of all the great writers of English sitting together, around a table, in front of the poet about to write a poem. Yet, when it came to his immediate predecessors, he certainly rebelled against them, both in the theme and form of his poetry. Eliot, no doubt, was a modernist poet, but he was also an arch-conservative. In fact, critics never tire of reminding us how politically reactionary, elitist, and closed modernism was. In effect, though Eliot longed to write the kind of poetry that Dante, Shakespeare, Donne wrote, he ended up totally rejecting his immediate predecessors, the fin-de-siècle poets. For Eliot, when a good poet wrote or innovated, he had the weight of the entire tradition behind him, pushing him forward. As opposed to this view, Harold Bloom advanced his famous neo-Freudian thesis of The Anxiety of Influence in which every poet had to grapple with the strong predecessor and supplant the latter before he could really find his own voice.
Apart from an exaltation of tradition or its summary rejection, there is a third, somewhat intermedial position which looks at tradition merely as what is handed down from generation to generation, whether it be good, bad, or indifferent. This, I believe, is one of the obvious, but somewhat superficial, understandings of parampara. The difficulty with this position is that it does not offer grounds for judging what is harmful or useful. These grounds must be derived either from tradition or from modernity themselves, hence are already compromised. So this apparently neutral position actually leads us to a critical conundrum to solve where we must question tradition as we do modernity.
To me, it is this critical mediation that is crucial; that is what saves us from the extremes of binary oppositions, hasty judgements, and dialectical oppositions. While such a critical attitude may appear somewhat modern, per se, it need not necessarily do so. Such a critical stance is both historical and contemporary, available to us as it also was to our ancestors. The quality and aims of critical rationality may change; indeed, criticism itself must not be trans-valued, whether as a transcendental or transhistorical mode of being in the world. Rather, it is grounded and situated in its own time and place. Yet, criticism, which is the ability to discriminate and make qualitative distinctions, belongs properly to the human faculty of thought or buddhi, which we cannot deny to our predecessors. To construct the entire past as an area of darkness is both counter-intuitive and counter-factual, not to speak of counterproductive. Certain periods in history may encourage criticism, but it cannot be totally absent from others, even though it may appear subdued or curtailed.
From where we are located, however, which is a predominantly modern terrain, both critical modernist and critical traditionalist positions have a special significance. They imply not only an attitude to the past, but also to the present. Because modern Western civilisation, which may be considered to be about 200 years old, builds upon a rejection of the past. To be critical modernist or critical traditionalist implies that we are neither totally opposed to the past nor to the present; likewise, we may not wholeheartedly endorse either. A critical traditionalist position, thus, makes one a critic of modernity, but also of tradition. It affords us the freedom to appreciate certain aspects of modernity as it does to criticise and modify tradition, without going so far as to reject it altogether.
This is what Sanatana Dharma in its broadest and most fundamental sense implies. We accept the validity of the sruti, of the Veda itself, but not only of the Veda. We believe that the possibilities of revelation or realisation are in our midst right now, not only in the ancient scriptures “seen” by the rishis. The Veda, ultimately, refers not only to a group of texts, but also to transcendental knowledge itself. Therefore, while the texts called the Vedas embody this knowledge, they do not exhaust it. The knowledge is not trapped or confined to the texts; it ranges free of its captivity in the world. To that extent, the truth is not word made flesh; it remains beyond the flesh, even as it incarnates as flesh. It is both in and before and beyond the word. It is embodied in and by the sign, but escapes the totalising force of signification. It is available to us, within our grasp, but cannot be captured or controlled by us.
Moving from sruti to smriti, we cannot help but recognise the importance of memory, of mnemocultures, in constructing traditions. Even if everyone has direct access to sruti or the ultimate reality, most of us are quite unconscious of it on a daily basis. We content ourselves with its description and recording. We are quite willing to take someone else’s word for it, to receive it second hand as it were, but few venture, as the Gita says, to acquire it; fewer still succeed. Though this second-hand record is not a substitute for the real thing, it does help those who wish to have a roadmap before actually undertaking the journey. Moreover, smriti governs our more mundane actions and orders society. It is what we learn when we are instructed not to steal or kill. A society, which has no smriti, then, is in great danger of moral annihilation. In more recent times, the destruction of smriti has lead to relativism and confusion. Law has taken the place of dharma or ethics. We don’t worry if a thing is right or wrong, only if it is legal or illegal. We are enjoined only to conform to the letter of the law. As to what is right or wrong, who can judge? Modern times, in a sense, are smriti-less times because they offer unhampered freedom to each individual without offering guidelines for the best use of this freedom. This freedom, needless to say, is contingent, even subservient to multiple protocols. Ultimately, it is a form of coercion, compelling us to consume after enslaving us to the economic. In the guise of freedom, everywhere, the spirit is actually in chains.
What, then, is parampara? In my view, it is made up of a combination of sruti and smriti, in the broadest sense of both terms. The former supplies the inspiration, the latter the momentum to carry it forward. In periods when the former goes underground, the latter offers guidance. Yet, we cannot survive too long only on memory. That is why a re-injection of sruti is necessary and must occur to keep a tradition healthy. Indeed, it is impossible to draw a very clear line of separation between them. Where sruti ends and smriti begins is thus indeterminate. They slide and merge into one another. At the very moment of realisation, another faculty of the mind starts recording it, turning it into memory, for future use. Actually, they are akin, if not identical; the distinction is only for our convenience. They are both shades, grades, of spirit. The spirit is alive and well, still with us. It has not vacated our world and gone elsewhere, abandoning us to our own follies and to an uncertain future. Nor did it show itself once—and for all—in some far away, distant past, never to seen again. It is right in our midst, in the here and now, should we wish to acknowledge it. Parampara means the flowing of the spirit in present times.
Obviously then, the real challenge is how to keep smriti in consonance with sruti. Every now and then, smriti seems to get corrupted and falsified, thus losing its capacity to guide and direct; it becomes rigid and ossified, an iron law to grind us and curb the spirit. Then it has to be destroyed. Such destruction is actually creative. Better if a continuous cleansing process were possible.
But often, what happens is corruption, fossilisation, paralysis. Then breaking free of smriti, overturning it becomes imperative. On the one hand, the individual must keep him/herself open to the possibilities of sruti, and on the other, strive to keep its memory fresh and uncorrupted. For the latter, a special class of dedicated keepers of the word was established. Now that that class has been dislodged for its betrayal and disloyalty to sruti, all of us have become, to the extent possible, keepers of the word.
Ultimately, the individual is both the product and the creator of tradition. Just as our genes are already given to us, our traditions have already left their mark on our minds. This is true also of traditions of discontinuity and rejection, such as modernity, as it is of traditions of affirmation and continuity. And yet, our genes do not exhaust the possibilities of our physical and mental existence. They provide the base, but not necessarily the limits. Therefore, each individual recreates his tradition in the light of his own experiences. This re-creation often involves a rejection of some aspect of the inherited past as it does a reorientation of others. Socially, too, this process happens, as we shall see in the next part of this series, sometimes smoothly, at other times violently, in a cataclysmic rupture.
(To be continued)
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