Why Traditions Must Evolve To Stay Relevant
Only a society entirely constituted by enlightened beings can afford to dispense with smriti. All other societies need both sruti and smriti.
Last month (Sruti, Smriti, And The Individual), we saw how the individual is both the product and the creator of tradition, though the latter possibilities are often denied to most ordinary people. But just as our genes are previously given to us, our traditions have already left their mark on our minds. This is true also of traditions of discontinuity and rejection. That is why it is possible to argue for a tradition of modernity, which we may characterise as disruptive and contra-distinctive from traditions of affirmation and continuity. Though tradition, in the broader sense of the totality of genetic information, does not exhaust the capacities or possibilities of our physical and mental existence. It provides the base, but not necessarily the limits. Therefore, each individual must reprocess his tradition in the light of his own experiences; some merely pass it on, while others change it, even to the extent of effecting a mutation. Any process of re-creation thus involves a rejection of some aspect of the inherited past as it does a reinvention or revitalisation of others. Socially, too, this process happens sometimes smoothly, at other times violently, in a cataclysmic rupture.
In Hindu culture, the relationship between the individual and parampara was regulated by a set of codes or purusharthas—dharma (virtue, ethics), artha (power, profit), kama (desire, pleasure) and moksha (freedom, transcendence), signifying the four-fold expression and general thrust of life itself. In our traditional understanding, they were seen as a unity, in continuum, not fragmented or divided. Thus, there was no dichotomy between moksha and dharma, on the one hand, and artha and kama, on the other. The opposition between the sacred and the secular, spirit and matter, was inadmissible. That is why paramartha (ultimate value) includes, not rejects, artha (immediate value), even in the manner in which the words are constructed. Paramartha, then, is quite different from anartha or wickedness and chaos. Artha is the base, the material foundation upon which we raise the edifice of self and society. If we agree that such paramartha or ultimate value is what calls for the persistent application of ourselves, then the question is how do we attain it? What are our resources? Where do we begin?
Again, there are different approaches to this problem. One approach regards a direct apprehension of truth, anubhava, as the bedrock of attaining paramartha. In some religious traditions, such a moment has occurred in the past, at the very point of origin or foundational moment of the religion. This is then encoded and enshrined in one or more sacred text, which in turn becomes a smriti, the official record book of the faith. Thereafter, the emphasis of most religions is to conserve the original purity of the inspiration or to keep going back to it; that is why most religions are usually conservative and backward looking. The grand, transformative moment has already passed; now what remains is to (re)connect with it. That is why tradition becomes so important. It consists of what is handed down from generation to generation, the wisdom and knowledge of the past, without which the present and the future become meaningless.
But can the handed-down record, however sacred, yield the original inspiration? What about the attendant problems of interpretation and mediation? The truth was revealed, perhaps, but how do I reach it? How do I connect myself to it? Hence priests, churches and all the paraphernalia of intermediacy. To overcome this difficulty, each revelation is also characterised by unique claims to truth, accompanied by assertions and exclusions.
In contrast, in other religious traditions, the revelation itself may claim the special capacity to extend and renew itself through time, thus maintaining its eternal presence. That is what the idea of Sanatana Dharma implies. The Vedas refer, as I said earlier, not just to a limited clutch of sacred texts, but also to transcendent knowledge or gnosis itself. The latter is greater than the former. This, however, is the esoteric meaning of the Vedas; the common, exoteric meaning does take us back to the texts. And yet, because these texts were to be recited and heard, they had constantly to be renewed and drawn into the present, not frozen into some book. They were, in that sense, not texts at all, certainly not scripture, but performance, invocation of presence. The same is the case with the medieval “Veda”, the Guru Granth Sahib, whose contents are a compilation of wisdom songs, to be recited, not merely preserved or fetishised as an object of worship in the form of a book.
Sruti, which refers to direct knowledge of ultimate reality, is the basis of most religious traditions. At its radical best it implies that each individual experiences or apprehends truth for himself or herself. But history has shown that such a direct experience is not claimed for everyone. Only a few gifted individuals have access to it or, to put it in another way, even if everyone can, not everyone does recognise it or is transformed by it. Most must content themselves with the record or the memory of someone else’s truth.
Even the Vedas, if they do not become our own experience, remain merely smritis, remembered truths, derived second hand from books or heard from others, but not understood. All knowledge, the moment it is encoded, put into words, automatically passes into smriti.
Our normal experience is that that is what we have at our disposal — smriti — second-hand knowledge, accounts of someone else’s primal experience. We perceive the world, as J Krishnamurti would put it, through the veil of conditioning, which is millions of years old. This is received knowledge, not fresh perception. We cannot see ourselves as we are and the world as it is because of this interference of the past. In Krishnamurti’s scheme, then, smriti or tradition is the obstruction, the veil, the screen between reality and ourselves. It is only when we rend the veil, when we begin really to see things in their true light, are we liberated. All past, all received notions, all smritis, whether good or bad, are ultimately limited and binding. Nothing short of a radical rupture from our past will release us into the eternity of the present — smriti is caught up in the movement of time, while only sruti is the release into timelessness.
For Krishnamurti, smriti, memory and tradition are the problems; it is they that interfere with reality. But such interference may be superseded by direct experience, sruti, just as the actual taste of the proverbial pudding is in the eating. If sruti is more powerful than smriti, then we need not see the latter as the villain. Moreover, without any direction or understanding from the past, many feel disoriented and confused. Finally, who is utterly free from conditioning, from memory, from the burdens of the past? No one—to that extent, being immersed in the moment can be only that, momentary. Then the action of memory, of the past, re-establishes itself.
We are, once again, inserted into older narratives, subject once more to the tyranny of time. That is why sruti and smriti are not dichotomous or oppositional but complementary and continuous. Sruti, direct perception, is primary, while smriti, memory, is secondary. I interpret Krishnamurti’s work as an attempt to restore this rightful order even if entails a radical denial of tradition. Krishnamurti reminds us that sruti is available to each of us, if we are alert. He warns us not to be contented merely with smriti. Such denial itself, inevitably, sets itself into another sort of tradition. After his passing, most of Krishnamurti’s followers get by with listening to his tapes and reading his books. It is smriti which is available; sruti remains beyond their reach. In time, some of these followers, listening and reading his work, also form their own rigid interpretations, including some who exclude others from their sampradaya (sect). In the name of radical freedom, freedom comes to be denied.
In direct opposition to Krishnamurti’s position, the Bhagawad Gita in Chapter 2 says that loss of memory leads to the destruction of the intellect, which in turn results in total annihilation. Here, memory refers to the seed of enlightenment, the knowledge of our own ultimate nature, which we already possess. It is anger that leads to delusion, delusion to memory loss, which in turn leads to utter destruction.
Directly linked to sruti, memory or smriti reminds us who we are and arrests our fall from grace. Smriti here is saviour, not sinner. The present is, after all, that which replaces not the past, but another present, which has, from the point of view of time, just elapsed.
We therefore have two distinct views of the relationship between sruti and smriti. One view implies continuity and consonance between the two, while the other, discontinuity and opposition. The former is, to my mind, the traditional view, while the latter is the modern one. Both are, to varying degrees, justified. When smriti works against sruti, as is often the case, then the modern view is right. Then we need a Krishnamurti to cleanse and deconstruct tradition so that something new may emerge. The stream of sruti cannot flow if its course is dammed or overrun with obstacles. Someone must perform the task of desilting the channel so that the flow or sruti resumes.
Who will cleanse the channels of grace, throwing all the soil and mud out? The critical modernist does such a job. However, the revolutionary or radical modernist goes too far in destroying too much, good as well as bad. But when smriti transmits what is right and good, then to overthrow it would be not just disruptive, but undesirable. The traditionalist defines parampara as that which is the custodian and conveyer of truth, wishing to preserve it at all costs. By the latter definition, anything that departs from smriti also departs from tradition. Our view of the problem will depend, as I said earlier, on which of the definitions we accept.
I think that the most useful and enabling position is one that allows us to see tradition as the repository of both good and bad, both the positive and the negative. A critical traditionalist, while leaning to the good in his tradition is, nonetheless, critical of what is bad, whether it is really a part of his tradition or goes by that name. Similarly, a critical modernist will have the capacity to critique modernity when it departs from its proclaimed objectives. A traditionalist, when he critiques tradition, will have to take recourse to either tradition or modernity; likewise, when a modernist critiques modernity, he will have to find alternatives either in modernity or tradition. In either case, the two do not function dichotomously, but dialogically.
In a certain sense, sruti itself is the ever-new, if not the modern, because it is the contemporary, the immediate, the instantaneous, while smriti properly belongs to the old, the remembered, once contemporary, but now historical. However, while modernity, not of the Indian (that is, traditional) but of the Western variety, always needs something to oppose, something to Other, something to destroy, sruti is inclusive and self-sufficient. Similarly, tradition in its original, wider sense as parampara is self-renewing, self-critical, and self-regulatory. Made up of both sruti and smriti, it is a broader system of integrated wisdom, which includes both tradition and modernity. That is why parampara cannot be identified with tradition; properly understood, it has no Other.
Only a society entirely constituted by enlightened beings can afford to dispense with smriti. All other social arrangements need both sruti and smriti. Some think that they can function only on the basis of smriti, remaining content with some revelation in the past. Such societies, too, are doomed to failure because they have lost the capacity to renew themselves or critically examine their pasts. A healthy society combines the riches of both sruti and smriti. The possibility of “new” sruti should always be present, even if its vanguard consists of a few chosen individuals, while smriti can be collective as well as individual.
The problem of tradition can be solved if we see it as the basis of our own realisation, not if we regard it as the sole custodian of ultimate truth. Tradition can guide us, but merely repeating what we have inherited will not suffice. We have to add to it, to grow beyond it, to discover our own truths. Tradition is, indeed, the repository of truth, but it does not restrict or close truth’s domain. In fact, it yields itself only to someone who undertakes the discipline to understand it. This process of tapas or askesis serves to duplicate or at least to replicate the conditions which made the original revelation possible. Thus, tradition is renewed; sruti flows again; smriti is revitalised. Unless such renewal takes place periodically, tradition is lost. Like a path on which no one walks anymore, it will be covered with weeds and brambles.
(To be continued)
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