Friday, December 24, 2010

Folk traditions: Sometimes we must let them die

I initially imagined this as a one-line preface to a paper that I have written on the folklores of Bhutan. Then some reflections struck me that could make this piece an essay by itself. It is about some elements in our society that we conveniently cling to as parts of our tradition, but are actually excuses for our debased ways. As it is, not all that are old are gold.

Evolution dictated that we lived our lives by certain principles and standards. Over time, these became a way of life for us.
They became an all-encompassing preoccupation that we had to live with. Some of these have become so old, become tradition and we can now no longer think of our lives without them. There is a traditional way of doing anything and everything related to our lives.
Tradition has been the corner stone around which our lives revolved. They have served us in times of hardship and in troubled times when we might have otherwise broken down. Traditions have made us considerate of the wisdoms of our parents just as much as they have made us value the goodness of our own soul. Traditions have made us value our environment for they were the stuffs that alone made life possible during the early days of human evolution. Traditions have taught us to be gentlemen and treat our women folk with care for in the wilderness of the yore, the strength of even the strongest man was often too insignificant. Traditions have given us a common faith and a common direction to forge for ourselves a common future.
Yet, sometimes, we must let go of our traditions. Some of them have outlived their purpose, some have become redundant, others no longer serve the purpose they were meant to while others are plain rust on our souls. They not only add to the already excess burden of cultural baggage that we carry even as we as we struggle through a new leg of evolution but worst, they blind us from reaching out to newer possibilities that human ingenuity affords us.
New times dictate new solutions or at least adaptations of the older ones. It is neither prudent nor desirable to hold onto things simply because they are ancient. There are many practices, beliefs, customs and superstitions that go by the name of tradition in our society today.
When women are made subservient to their men and deprived of privileges taken for granted by men, when they are both made pawns in the fiefdoms of the affluent few, when children are fed alcohol for traditional nutrition, when national sport is drunk deadly, when bad hygiene is tolerated as old habits, when bribes goes by as traditional gifts and when social miscreants go as upholder of these traditions, it is time to see how long we can live with these ghosts from our past before we bury them for good.

These traits in our traditions stick out like a sore thumb and their flaws are obvious for all those willing to see. However, there are emerging trends which are more subtle and need careful introspection before pondering their demise.
Every element in a society has relevance. They serve a purpose that furthers a society’s cause. In the days of the yore when everything came by just a little harder and scientific knowledge as we now know was still in its bud, people’s faith in divinity alone kept them alive. Practices and rituals emerged to propitiate the divine thus amplifying their faith. And when all you have is your faith and a strong deference to it, things worked out or so the people like to believe. Some of these were animalistic while others derived from Buddhism. Either way, time has now provided us with newer possibilities to life and has rendered these expressions of faith unrealistic at best and redundant at worst. We have now technological answers to most of our questions.
Everything has a shelf life and for the part that advancement in knowledge has enlightened us on our life questions, tradition has past its sell-by-date. Together with these solutions, our attention and preoccupation must increasingly be diverted towards furthering our knowledge. Things we now know were just make-belief must give way to scientific study to increase our chance of survival when a moment of complacency or a wrong step could push us to the brink.
We have come to a stage when we as individuals and as a nation face multiple issues of evolution some of which concern our very survival, on both counts. In such a scenario, we must make rational choices that must of course take into account our sentiments that have thus far been revered, choices which must shun elements from the past that we can no longer afford to carry into the future, never mind those which are crude or plain malignant.
We are already becoming aware of our ancient traditions and rituals which far from serving their original purpose of faith has become spectacles put up for the viewing pleasure of people who cannot care less for their intrinsic value and put up by people whose sole motive has become money. It is simply demeaning to our past heritage which was no doubt great in its time. These things happen because it is no longer possible for us to value them as we had in the past for the other preoccupations that have naturally come up. If only we could understand that anything is better than such cheap commercialization. Our past deserve better than that. We must come to terms with the fact that some part of our past has been irrecoverably lost while others are going down the same dreary path, and acknowledge as much.
We cannot possibly hope to maintain our rituals, practices and heritage in its original form with the same good faith without running the risk of being overwhelmed by commitments we cannot reasonably oblige. But we can always let them die and ‘rest in peace’ as we do with our ancestors. We can preserve their remnants as antiquated exhibits with befitting epithets in the museums for the benefit of anyone who might be interested. We would be fooling ourselves if we think that what we put up for tourists in their five star venues is tradition. Needless to say, it is a mockery of ourselves and an otherwise proud part of us.
At this point, distinctions must be made between faith which for us is our Buddhist leanings and traditions which are propped up as faith and which has been conveniently done by people who stood to benefit from it. There are very few things in Buddhism that cannot stand up to scrutiny, but very few of our folk traditions will actually measure up to the rigorous modern standards. I am not for a moment suggesting here that we should get rid of our proud tradition all together which has nourished our soul and continue to be our guiding star even today. However, we must believe that with the advantage of hindsight and wisdoms that we have landed over so many centuries, we can now find better ways of accommodating traditions that are still relevant to us and preserve the rest as part of a tradition that was once us.
I am fully cognisant of the fact that I have been ill-informed at times which resulted in undue generalization resulting in confused reading at times. However, my effort has been to provoke a thought and if you have come till here without skipping too many lines, I would think it’s quite a success.

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