The Use and Abuse of Tradition: Newsletter #20

I am not much of a traditionalist. As far as I am concerned, the future is more important than the past. At the same time, human beings are shaped by history and geography; our past both constrains us and sets us free. As a result, I find myself caught between traditionalists and modernizers.

A few days ago, I posted a note on Sanskrit learning on Facebook and it attracted much more attention than I expected it to receive; clearly, Sanskrit has immense emotional resonance both to its votaries and to its detractors. Let’s set aside the political impulses behind Sanskritization in India (or Biblical learning in the US or Hebrew in Israel) and look at what thoughtful proponents might say on each side.

To the traditionalist, Sanskrit is the source of much wisdom, wisdom that’s been systematically denigrated and marginalized. The traditionalist would deploy scholarly resources toward the translation of Sanskrit texts and toward building a new community of scholars engaging with Sanskrit texts in the original as well as in translation. In other words, what European scholars did with Greek texts many centuries ago and continue to this day. In this view, Adi Shankara deserves as much attention as Aristotle. I agree with this view.

To the modernizer, Sanskrit is an elite language, forbidden to most inhabitants of the subcontinent by virtue of caste and gender. It is the language of a deeply unequal system. To the extent it has interesting ideas, the ideas are so far removed from modern concerns that there isn’t much in the way of practical wisdom to be gained from studying these texts. I agree with this view as well.

It does seem like a contradiction doesn’t it? Let me explain why it isn’t.

Creativity and tradition

To the extent that tradition is to be preserved rather than built upon, it’s dead. In other words, when someone says that all of us should learn the Vedas — setting aside the fact that such a practice would explicitly contravene the tradition itself — I hear someone clutching at straws.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume all modern scientific knowledge is contained in the Vedas. So what? How does that help us do science better? In fact, consider that Newton’s Principia contains a very large portion of modern scientific knowledge; yet no one is asking all school children to read the Principia. Instead, we teach them classical mechanics and the calculus. A living tradition has ways of translating texts into theories.

In fact, the core of the fundamentalists condition is a tragedy. They are tacitly aware that their tradition (independent of the religion or ethnicity involved) has lost its bearings, that it can no longer offer a credible response to the human condition and yet, as creatures of history, they know we can’t get out of the well into which we have fallen without using the tradition itself as a ladder.

Where there’s tragedy, there’s also hope. A deep tradition has the resources to spur creative responses even as it abandons some of the cherished assumptions of the past. That’s what scientists do when they set aside theories of matter; that’s what Carnatic and Hindustani musicians have done to keep their musical traditions alive. In other words, let’s treat our traditions as artists do, as creative resources. We build our castles on top of foundations dug by others. Even radical change needs a launching pad. A Picasso needs a Rembrandt; a Gandhi needs a Ramakrishna.

So my counsel to the Sanskrit traditionalists is this: inhabit the premises of this ancient house and see which beams need to be strengthened, which walls need to be torn down and which rooms need to be repainted. Be merciless in that vision. My counsel to the modernizers is this: do not think yourself outside this history.

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