In the wake of tradition

Sitting on a bench by Lake Ontario on a chilly autumn day, the thought struck me that countries in North America and Europe were covered by snow for many months in the year. Prior to the invention of electricity and facilities like freezers, what choice did they have but to be non-vegetarians?

snow clad
snow clad

Today, being a vegetarian or otherwise has taken on moralistic tones in some communities. Fact of the simple matter though is that, at times, circumstances dictate the choice. This is a point that was forcibly, even terrifyingly, brought home by Alive , the story of the survivors of the plane crash in the Andes. Like it or not, the survivors ate the flesh of their dead co-passengers to survive.

Pursuing the above line of thinking, it was on that one holiday in Toronto, when the realization dawned that perhaps the people of the Western world were forced into being hardy. And into developing the courage to constantly experiment and innovate by the beautiful but harsh weather conditions in which they had to eke out a living or perish. Think about it and maybe, like me, you will agree that perhaps the people of the West owe their prowess at progress and relatively advanced developed stage to their natural habitat.

Today, the modern conveniences we take so much for granted are owed to the technology advancements made by our ancestors over a period of time. If we stay warm and cozy inside the centrally heated comfort of our homes and offices in the midst of winter, it is because we stand on the shoulders of generations of ancestors who studied and then harnessed the power of the very environment which may have seemed so daunting to them at one time.

To come back to the example of vegetarianism or non-vegetarianism, the choice today is entirely up to individual belief. Now, that is progress where a long tradition of meat eating is being questioned by some. Perhaps because they can; now that they need not worry about the availability of food during long winter months. Drawing a parallel, think about the Israelis and how they developed drip irrigation to successfully develop agriculture in the arid region they settled in.

Married to tradition

The thoughts I am penning (perhaps I should be saying keying in and not stick to tradition/habit) down here are by no means original. Avid readers of history and anthropology will recognize these thoughts and conclusions. Nevertheless, I decided to write this blog because I never cease to be amazed at just how much we unquestioningly cling to traditions without understanding their roots.

In the Hindu community, tradition has it that one must take a bath after the cremation of a deceased person. My mother used to come home after going for a funeral and not allow anyone near her till she had purified herself through a bath and even the clothes she had worn for the occasion by personally hand washing them. This was a ritual she followed even when she had just gone for a condolence, and not a funeral. Her belief was that a dead body is impure or something to that effect. My mom was always vague in such explanations.

I pointed out to my mother several times that the tradition of a bath after a funeral or seeing a dead body was actually once rooted in science. In ancient times when many people died from infectious diseases, people were advised to take a bath as a means of sterilization to ward off potentially lethal germs or bacteria. Since that was no longer the case today, why persist? But persist she did. The tradition had become that deep rooted! Never mind that the reason no longer existed.

Like the above practice, there are many ritualistic traditions that are unquestioningly and blindly followed till today. I don’t know how far this is true but I was fascinated to learn that the Hindu practice of isolating a menstruating woman once had a compassionate reason and had nothing whatsoever to do with purity or impurities. We know that a woman’s body is weakened during the menstrual cycle. Well, so did our ancestors! And since women in ancient, agrarian societies had to toil in the fields besides taking care of household and maternal duties, the pundits wisely decided to prescribe that a woman should be totally segregated during this time. To hear this friend of mine tell the tale, it was to ensure that women were allowed to rest for those 3-4 days! When and why that became a belief that a woman’s body was full of impurities and, therefore, was untouchable during that time is anyone’s guess.

Many moons ago when my mind was musing over why people are so blindly wedded to traditions and age-old beliefs, the following couplet formed in my mind: kaaran tho chale gaye; reet rivaaz rahe gaye! For the benefit of non-Hindi speaking readers, that roughly translates to “the reasons no longer exist but the rituals and traditions remain” (sounds much better – more rhythmic – in Hindi).

Thankfully, with more women in the urban labour force now,  some traditions are now beginning to fast disappear into oblivion. Because life’s circumstances and economic needs/aspirations have rendered them highly impractical.

The divorce of tradition 

In one of the most brilliant films I have ever seen, Fiddler on the Roof, Topol asks, “You may ask how did this tradition get started/ I’ll tell you/I don’t know.” In one fell swoop, the song explains the why’s and the wherefore’s of traditions (for anyone interested in seeing the entire song sequence, I have shared the you tube url at the end of the blog).

Traditions were once societal rules to impose order and harmony. I have also read that many of the traditions we unquestioningly follow were once grounded in economics. For instance, the institution of marriage was founded to secure the inheritance of progeny or widen land holdings. Social norms such as the virginity of women and fidelity in marriage were developed as man had little means otherwise to determine if his offspring were truly his.

Today, DNA testing affords proof of paternity. Modern women are also less or not at all financially dependent on their spouses. The result? Marriage is no longer a case of ’till death do us apart.’ And legal systems are beginning to recognize live-in relationships and what not!

Here then is one, amongst many, examples of how and when we divorce tradition. When circumstances change and we no longer need them, of course! In other words, in the wake of tradition is…..progress. But only when circumstances bring about the change. Tradition then begins with environmental circumstances and ends with the same.

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