Tradition and religion

Invention of tradition

Print edition : February 01, 2019

The District Collector of Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, offering country liquor to Goddess Mahamaya at a temple on the occasion of Durgashtami during Navaratri festival in October 2010. Scholars have argued that despite the brahmanical claim of assimilation, such “non-vegetarian” gods and goddesses represent a different world view of the marginalised and oppressed people. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Tradition, often used to legitimise practices of religious inclusion and exclusion, is not a monolithic given but is shaped by social contexts. It has to change when circumstances change.

It has been assumed that Hinduism, as well as Buddhism and Jainism which took birth in the Indian subcontinent, did not follow any single book but generally depended on tradition. How and when did such a tradition come to be defined? Was there something that could easily be picked as “the tradition”, or do we see tradition itself as an invention, contingent upon social contexts? Given the recent controversy over the entry of women into sacred spaces and the manner in which “tradition” has been invoked, it is germane for us to look back at the way traditions have been taken recourse to in order to legitimise social practices.

The Sanskrit term aitihya refers to tradition, and has commonly been used as a reference point to locate the origins of a belief system in the hoary past while tracing its continuity into the present. Another common term, sampradaya, is generally used in the context of a specific system, religious or philosophical, that is passed down from generation to generation. For scholars of Indian religions and believers within these traditions, the historical dimensions have often been understood in a reductive manner as revealing the flow of tradition, implicit in the etymology of aitihya and itihasa, indicating a ceaseless stream that may meander but is never cut off from its source. Declaring such an original source in the Vedas and in Vedic society, a large number of vested political interests and, in recent times, the “breaking news”-centric media have tried to repose the originality and sanctity of many contemporary customs and practices through that original source. For this lot, despite the plethora of evidence to the contrary, presented by history, historians and other scholars for the last century and a half, every aspect of religious and cultural life of the Vaishnavas, Saivas and Shaktas is declared Vedic in spirit; even Buddhism and Jainism are yoked to the Vedas.

There is a different trajectory of interpreters of Indian civilisation, represented brilliantly in modern times by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, which argued for the openness of Indian religious traditions, with particular reference to Hinduism. Radhakrishnan would argue that Hinduism was based on the central truth of a comprehensive universal spirit, and that it could not be bound by inflexible dogmatism.¹ This attitude, for him, resulted in the absorption of diverse beliefs and faiths within the ambit of Hinduism, each of which had equal importance within the larger tradition as a reflection of spiritual pursuits. Despite its ostensible sensitivity to diversity, this view reifies and freezes the context and therefore negates the historical dimension through which the differences in beliefs and practices emerged and developed in specific contexts. In fact, a problematic view emanating from this position is that Buddhism and Jainism were very much within the broad sweep of Hinduism, and, at the most, represented a reaction to certain practices and a reform of the unitary tradition. Thus, serious scholarship as well as the more commonsensical view converge and are blinded by the myth of tradition.

Change was endemic to all religions across space and time, and we see this in ritual practices, ideas, myths and symbols. Social contexts obviously played an important role in bringing both inclusions and exclusions within the tradition. The idea of reform did occasionally appear in specific cases. For instance, the rules of Buddhism were codified in the first Buddhist sangiti immediately after the mahaparinibbana of the Buddha, where his closest disciples Upali and Ananda revealed the Dhamma (ethical teachings) and Vinaya (rules) as learnt from him. We hear of demurring by some followers and outright rebellion by his cousin Devadatta even during his lifetime.

It is interesting that the Buddha, according to later recorded tradition, was reluctant to commit his teachings to writing and codify it during his lifetime despite being asked by his close associate Sariputta. His argument was that only when the need arose should this be done. He also refused to appoint a successor—Dhamma itself was to be the leader of the congregation. A century later, during the time of the Shaishunaga ruler Kalasoka in the first half of the fourth century BCE, the elders in the Sangha convened a council to condemn the heretic practices of a substantial section of monks from the Vajji region. The complaint—the following of the dasa vatthuni, or ten points, by the heretics. These included eating two meals a day, drinking toddy, enjoying the luxury of a rug to lie on, and accepting gold and silver as gifts. The latter organised a larger council under Thera Yasa and separated themselves from the former, taking on the grandiose title of Mahasanghikas.

This split also led to two different canons developing, in the sense that the latter excluded parts of the Abhidhamma, Sutta and Vinaya Piṭaka, held sacred by the sthaviravadins. This is possibly the first major deliberate attempt at reformation, in the manner in which we witness in the Christian tradition almost 2,000 years later. However, history reveals that notwithstanding this “reformation”, both positions as well as several others emerged within Buddhism.

Jainism saw its share of controversy over what was original and how to accommodate change. The first schism in the monastic tradition established by the 24th tirthankara Mahavira was also about the disciplinary codes for monks. The Digambaras followed the established tradition of not wearing any clothes while the Shvetambaras argued in favour of it. This also led to some differences in doctrinal interpretation, mythology and ascetic practices.

Changes in the brahmanical tradition

The most spectacular changes in religious life can be seen in the brahmanical tradition, meaning the religious sects where the brahmana acted as mediator and carrier of the tradition. (The term Hinduism is a misnomer for the pre-modern period as it is essentially a colonial construct, although many scholars who are either non-historians or outside academia have been uncritically using this as a defining term, else they plead for its convenience as a signifier.) The shift from the public spectacle of the Vedic sacrifice to the sectarian worship enunciated in the Puranas is the most conspicuous of these changes. The concept of bhakti, or devotion, as the ideational frame through which this new religious structure was developing, the emergence of the sectarian cults of Siva and Vishnu, and at a later point of time Devi, as well as the temple as the locus of worship are the hallmarks of the emergent traditions. At the same time, other paths of salvation were not decried—jnana (knowledge) and karma (action) margas were equally valid ways to understand the divine according to the Bhagavad Gita.

The tendency to see these as all being one and the same, or emerging from one originary source, is not merely incorrect in terms of the ample evidence that proves the contrary; it also reeks of bias towards the unitary aspect of religious development. For instance, if we look at Vaishnavism, from the early emergence of the cult of Narayana, its amalgamation of the hero cult of the Vrshnis by including Krishna and Balarama in the pantheon, and the development of the avatara concept—all of these reflect changes and even transformations through assimilation of local cults. That these are harmonised through myths, practices and philosophical ideas only indicate the active agency of the brahmana mediators; we are not sure whether there was any reformative protest/reaction to these.

Similarly, Saivism appears to be an amalgam of quite different cults such as aniconic and phallic worship, along with the hunter and martial heroic figures. The myths of these sectarian deities weave the disparate imagery and icons together, mostly drawing upon regional traditions to provide a coherent, if meandering, narrative. For historians studying them, the non-Sanskritic sacred texts provide the local and regional dimensions of this amalgamative process. Many local heroes, cults, sacred spots and ritual practices that are distinctive of a region began to be assimilated as part of these sectarian traditions. In the Tamil region, the Sangam goddess of war and victory, Kotravai, began to be associated with Durga-Parvati, and her son Murugan came to be associated with Skanda-Karttikeya of the epic-Puranic tradition, and both were incorporated into Siva’s divine family. Durga herself is known as Vindhyavasini in the Puranas, indicating the provenance of what may have been a local cult, and her pan-Indian presence is an indication of the assimilation of this deity, who in turn became an assimilative symbol of other local goddesses in different regions.

Bhakti as one of the ways in which the divine is known and approached by the devotee finds expression in diverse ways. The Gita in Chapter 12 talks of complete surrender of the bhakta; the ones with faith who hold Bhagavan as their supreme aim are exalted. The bhakti extolled in the Puranas are of bhaktas like Prahlada and Markandeya, who, despite their travails (Prahlada at the hands of his father and Markandeya before the god of death respectively), retained their faith and devotion.

In the Tamil poems of Alvars and Nayanars (c. sixth to ninth centuries C.E.), similarly, this virtue is celebrated. There are moving examples from among the saints—Karaikkal Ammaiyar, Tiruppanalvar and Appar being prominent among them—where, despite the hardships faced by them, their unswerving bhakti leads them towards spiritual attainment. The story of Ammaiyar is that of any married woman in a conservative patriarchal society—she exists to satisfy the needs of her husband. A transgression, in this case the giving away of a fruit in alms to a fellow Siva bhakta, leads to her abandonment by the husband. Tiruppanalvar’s story is of caste discrimination, where his presence before the brahmana priest is so irksome and apparently polluting that the latter throws a stone to shoo the lower caste devotee away and injures Tiruppan. Appar, first a Jaina, converted to Saivism. At the behest of the Jainas, we are told in the 12th century hagiography of the Saiva saints, he was tortured in myriad ways. Other legends speak of self-mutilation, violent transgressions and the offering of one’s own life as acts of bhakti. The Kannada vacanakaras believed that work was worship, while the Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana provided a more orthodox view of devotion. In all the above, bhakti has generally been seen as more inclusive than the Vedic sacrifice-centred religion.

Inclusive Bhakti movement

Despite being part of the institutional structure of Sri Vaishnavism, the 12th century savant Ramanuja is credited with bringing the lower castes into the fold, allowing them to listen to and absorb the sacred dvaya mantra.² Medieval north Indian bhakti is more explicit in its espousal of equality, repudiation of caste hierarchy, inclusion of women, denouncing orthodoxy, and celebration of the individual’s liberation. Mirabai’s personal example of defying the patriarchal household (mere to giridhara gopala, dusara na koi; there is none other than Giridhara Gopala for me), Kabir’s simple faith in humanity (pothi padh kar jag mua pandit bhayo na koye, dhai akshar prem ke jo padhe so pandit hoye; reading does not make you any wise but love does), Nanak’s abiding repudiation of caste (jano jot, na puccho jati, agai jat nahi) reveal a deeper engagement with and eschewal of social custom that legitimised hierarchy and oppression. If at all a single thread of tradition can be identified here, it is that the paths leading to salvation are myriad.

It is in the matter of practices, which were not necessarily of a ritual character, that we see variations in tradition, indicating that no fixed pattern was followed. At a time when the Agamic prescriptions relating to sattvic offerings to deities were being codified, we have several instances in Shakta texts such as the Kalika Purana which talk of narabali as the supreme offering—mahabali. We also have mention of exotic meats such as that of the tortoise, crocodile, rhinoceros, etc. being made to the goddess. The bhakti saint Kannappar, a hunter and ostensibly outside the pale of the varna-ordered society, was a great Siva bhakta who offered in worship meat and vegetation available aplenty in the forest. For the Virasaiva Basava, his body itself was the temple:

The rich

will make temples for Siva.

What shall I,

a poor man,


My legs are pillars,

the body the shrine,

the head a cupola

of gold.

Impurities related to the body and blood in the brahmanical dharma texts as well as in Buddhism or Jainism, but in these instances they seem to have no bearing—these are selfless and passionate offerings by great bhaktas. Krishna bhakti is replete with instances of the offering of flowers, leaves and fruits and even ordinary processed food commonly available, best exemplified in the story of Sudama’s humble offering of puffed rice to Krishna. This is the lokacara or desacara, common social practice having a limited purview, as opposed to sadacara, or the more general principle, which would explain the overall diversity.

We know of the offering of alcohol, and in the case of some Siva temples in north India nothing less than Scotch whisky, to the gods and goddesses. Some scholars have argued that despite the brahmanical claim of assimilation by referring to them as forms of the brahmanical deities, such “non-vegetarian” gods and goddesses represented a different world view, that of the ordinary, marginalised and oppressed people, Dalits, visible in the nomenclature of the deities, local customs and practices. Tantric forms of worship, in addition to meat and liquor, also refer to sexual intercourse as part of ritual worship and several early medieval temples of Odisha and other parts of India have iconographic depictions of rajapana, or women’s sexual discharge, in addition to yoniabhiseka, mithuna and maithuna scenes. These are clear instances of diversity of practices, both in texts and the lived realm.

It is not that religions of the book in India (and possibly elsewhere) have had too different an experience of assimilation, change/transformation and diversity. Christianity is believed to have arrived within a century of its birth in Kerala via Syria and folk songs like Margamkalipattu speak of six settlements where the apostle St Thomas is believed to have established the faith. The Portuguese colonial presence in the region, which facilitated the firm establishment of the Catholic faith, led to the criticism of Syrian Christian traditions.

The Decree of the Synod of Diamper, convened in 1599, highlighted practices antithetical to the faith in the Syrian Christian community. Among the many things that were to be reformed, special mention is made of certain social practices, including wearing of the local mundu-veshti, sporting of punul (sacred thread) and cross-decorated kudumi (tuft of hair), training of boys in the martial art of kalari, commensality with non-Christians, etc. Ironically, at around the same time, Roberto de Nobili in his Madurai Mission was attempting just such a synthesis of social customs and practices revealed by Syrian Christian traditions as part of his proselytisation. Clearly, despite a well-known “established” Catholic tradition (or several traditions?), there were modifications, apparently deliberate and conscious, in custom and practice, at a time when reform was the buzzword.

Women’s place in religious life

It is with regard to women’s place in religious life and practice that tradition seems to be unequivocally resorted to, never mind which faith (and, as we have seen recently, which gender) the self-professed spokespersons of the tradition belong to. Although the presence of goddesses in Vedic texts and their manifold increase in Puranic tradition is well acknowledged, there has been a naive tendency to view these as reflecting the high position that women held in society. Presence of male deities and their dominance in textual traditions, especially myths, have not similarly been understood as reflecting the high position of men! Is this because men are seen as the ultimate arbiters of tradition?

At any rate, the Shakta worshippers brought centre stage the significance of the reproductive potential of women—Devi herself is Jagat Janani. Whether this was a vestige from the pre-Vedic past, as many scholars have argued, or a reflection of the lokacara finding a place in the sadacara mould is a moot point. That the decimated body of the goddess found a space on the subcontinent with different body parts falling in different places is a brahmanical myth.

At the local level, many of these Shakti pithas are seen as dangerous sthalas, where the powerful menstruating goddess dwells. Kamakhya, the seat of the yoni in Shakta literature, has the famous Ambubachi mela, when the temple is closed for three days in the month of Ashad while the goddess is menstruating. When the temple reopens, the prasad distributed is the angodak (bodily fluid) and angavastra (body cloth). In Chengannur in Kerala, the menstruating goddess is located within the Mahadeva kshetram. In what appears to be a reiteration of the brahmanical patriarchal notion of women’s impurity during menstruation, the goddess is moved to an anteroom for the duration of the three designated days of the Thripputhu. While it is a male priest who notices the onset, it is an elderly woman from the priestly family who moves the goddess out of the inner chamber. Lokacara also, like the so-called sadacara, keeps shifting. So what appears to have emerged from a social practice of celebrating the menstrual cycle, common even today in different parts of India, became a symbol of ritual impurity of not just women, but goddesses as well.

Something else that is found in all the traditions discussed above is the view that male celibacy is precarious. For the Buddha, the reason for disallowing women from entering the Sangha was because men in the fold, who had taken the vow of celibacy, would be threatened and disturbed. He also predicted that the life of the Sangha would be halved to 500 instead of 1,000 years because of the entry of women once he relented. The Digambaras and Svetambaras, despite their sectarian disagreements, agreed on one thing—nudity of women was a problem for the male monk.

Obviously, there is a social problem here, not with women but with men who, despite adopting a path of renunciation, remain tied to their bodies. On the other side, chastity is the ideal for women, particularly among the laity. The Buddhist and Jaina epics in Tamil describe their protagonists Manimekalai and Kannagi in this manner. In the brahmanical Dharmasastras as well as epic Puranic lore, women as ensnaring as well as chaste epitomes are decried and celebrated respectively. Ultimately, it leads us back to the central issue that men have difficulty in controlling their libidos. Patriarchies resolve this dilemma by attempting to exclude women rather than men when it is convenient to them. Prajapati Gautami, foster mother of Gautama Buddha, for example, did not accept this exclusion, and repeatedly petitioned to the Buddha to open the Sangha for women, thereby truly facilitating salvation for all.

I started off with tradition itself being an invention and that there are various changes resulting from inclusions and exclusions in religious traditions. Certainly, in modern societies predicated on equality, practices of exclusion of communities and women have to be dropped. The entry of non-savarnas into the temple was one major step in this direction, which had its roots in movements from amongst these excluded groups. That women, another excluded category in some spaces, are today staking their claim to religion and religious spaces is indication that tradition once again, as is its wont, will have to change.

R. Mahalakshmi teaches ancient history at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, and specialises in the history of early Indian religious ideas, institutions and practices.