Tradition, Modernity and the Individual: An Indian Viewpoint


Demystifying Tradition


One can not understand tradition without understanding modernity (and of course the other way round) and one cannot understand tradition and modernity together without asking some basic questions about human life and the various forms it takes.


TRADITION is so much a part of human life that in order to understand what tradition is all about one simply has to understand what human life is like.


A human being is a living being like any other kind of living being, and human life is thus part and parcel of life on earth. (This is something that artists, naturalists, and mothers never lose sight of.)  As a living being, a human being is in constant interaction with the rest of the world – especially the rest of the world to which living beings have access, that is to say, the interaction is harmonious to the extent that it is conductive to the sustenance of life, the environment of that human being.  Living just consists in this interaction, which maintains a certain harmony between the living being and its environment.  This interaction is no mere replacement of body tissue and replenishment of body energy, no mere exchange of matter, energy, and information.  )’Information’ here stands for a certain patterning or sharable arrangement – as with shadows cast or footprints left by an animal or with shapes or sounds picked up by its retina or cochlea).  Rather, this interaction is action and reaction in either direction.  Whenever and wherever the interaction diminishes or ceases, life diminishes or ceases, life diminishes or ceases.  If life ceases, this island of some orderly arrangement within an ocean of comparative disorder merges with that ocean.  Absence of harmony between the living being and its environment spells danger or even failure for the particular living being, even for the kind it belongs to, or for the population it belongs to.  (’Population’ here stands for all the plants and animals inhabiting a given locality in a given period in symbiotic or competing or conflicting arrangement.)  The harmony can be achieved either by modifying the living being or by modifying the environment.


The interaction achieves this harmony through interaction between the living being and the environment.  The interaction consists of the following:


1.                  The living being deals with the environment in overt manipulation and coping and in covert monitoring and cognition.  Likewise, with the kind and the population the living being belongs to.  Thus it is that life actively modifies the environment and stands passively modified by it and so adjusted to it.


2.                  The environment affects the living being in covertly offering opportunity or resistance and overtly offering support or adversity.  Likewise, with the kind and the population the living being belongs to.  Thus it is that environment is supportive or neutral or hostile.



Harmonious interaction spells welfare and success.  Short of major catastrophes, life goes on in an even tenor: living beings adjust and the environment supports.  The earth proves to be a home.  The environment typically includes other living beings; typically, the ones belonging to the same kind or to the same population have a special status for the interacting living being.  Thus, any interaction with the other living being often leads to learning from that living being.


But then a human being is a living being unlike any other kind of living being.  (This is something that preachers, humanists, and dreamers never tire of reminding us of.)  To begin with, humans are mammals and so they are ‘higher’ animals with sexual and viviparous reproduction and physical play and intimacy with the mate and with dependent sucklings.  Active manipulation in response amounts here to behavior (cheṣhṭita) and passive monitoring in response amounts to experience (anubhava). Underlying their behaviour and experience are certain inner compulsions, namely, drives or abilities along with their modification through learning by oneself and from somebody.  The external compulsions from the environment are often modified by livings through selection (as of a locality with better water supply) and reshaping (as a beaver’s dam).


What is more, humans are no ordinary mammals.  They aspire to thrive in all sorts of environment: what is more, like rats or sparrows or cockroaches, they appear to have done so in spite of being weaklings when nature puts on a cruel face, their hereditary equipment falling far too short.  Just how do human beings manage this feat? They are islands of more intricate and so more delicate order, which is both a compensation and a liability.  


The young one of a human develops the capacities for bearing/begetting, for mating, and for parenting in that order and at intervals, which is awkward.  A human is born unfinished, so to say: there are few detailed innate programmes (comparable to nest-building), rather more of broad directions, that need to be activated and shaped by appropriate environmental condition (consider how clumsy human parenting can be).  The mating urge is round the year; the procreativity depends not on the solar cycle but the lunar cycle.  The day of this daytime mammal is not exhausted in feeding, resting, saving of the skin, and mating (ahāra-nidrā-bhaya-maithunam-ca) with time enough on hand to play and to explore the outer and the inner world.


Tradition, Modernity and the Individual: An Indian Viewpoint


            There is an inner world and that includes the inner or covert aspect of the outer world.  How is this possible? Behavior in human beings presupposes a certain readiness to manipulate, that is, alertness (avadh̉ūna). There is room not only for the sense of freewill (svādhīnatā) in acting or letting be, acting this way or that (khartun-akartum-anyathākartum).  Experience in human beings presupposes a certain readiness to monitor, that is, awareness or consciousness (cetanā/vijñāna).  There is room not only for the here and now but also for the there and then, even for what is nowhere and may never be, that is, for the fictive or virtual (aupacārika).  Visual imaging and outer/inner speech assist.  There is a covert outer world: play enters into mating and makes for play-acting and make-believe, for example.  Behavior often turns into result-oriented coping activity (karman) and experience often turns into problem-oriented thought (chintā).   


            Harmonious interaction between humans and their environment is promoted not only through short-term adjustment to and support from the environment but also through long-term restructuring of the environment (consumer goods and producer goods) and of humankind.  The restructuring of humans consists in the forming of personalities, societies, and cultures.  The inner compulsions (drives and abilities) are turned by learning conditions into inclinations and capacities and these add up to a personality.  Dependence of the young leads to adult intimacy and to interdependence.  The concurrent socialization and individualization of the child and the adult precipitates into a society.  Coping with life and cognizing of the world interact into a certain nurturing through experience and conditioning through actions of personality and of society.  That constitutes a culture.  (Higher subhuman mammals may sometimes evince rudimentary versions of personality, society, and culture.)


Give the intricacy and consequent delicacy of the fabric of human life, humans end up making and conceding claims that are often quite contrary to each other and this makes life even more intricate! (No wonder that Kant threw up his hands in horror at the crooked timber that humanity is made of.)  We are concerned here with two of these antinomies, because they allow tradition to step in, take over, and give succour to these weaklings, ‘higher’ weaklings to be sure.  These two are the antinomy of history and the antinomy of self-identity.  Let it be clear that the hallmark of any true antinomy is that neither of the paired truths has much meaning without the other so that the perplexity may be relieved but can never be resolved.


The antinomy of history helps human beings to deal with the arrow of time – which ensures that not all the king’s men can put humpty-dumpty together again.  (‘Dealing with’ covers both manipulating and monitoring, coping with and cognizing.)  The paired truths can be stated quite simply as follows:


                              (i )      There is never any wiping of the slate: man’s present becomes past and stays with him as memory and as the situation at hand.  At the same time –.


                            (ii )      There is no turning back: man’s future becomes present and ever wipes the slate clean of what were earlier certain possibilities or near-certainties.


The first perception yields the sense of an uninterrupted series of continuity: the same old set-up leaves you comforted or despairing by turns.  The second perception yields the sense of constant shift or open-endedness: the possibility of novelty leaves you hopeful or uncomfortable by turns.  In short, man has a sense of abiding inheritance and unending change whether as a person or as a member of society.  All ages qualify as ages of transition, whether in biography or in history.  Human beings have a story to tell and a story to live out.  They have to accept the seal of time and the arrow of time.


The antinomy of self-identity helps human beings to deal with the thorn of self-consciousness – which is consciousness turning on itself.  (The term ‘self-consciousness’ is not as obvious as it looks – it covers both being conscious of being conscious of something out there or some act on one’s part – that is, reflexive consciousness, and being conscious of referring events to one’s self – that is, inward consciousness – In the present context we are dealing with inward consciousness.)  The paired truths of this antinomy are as follows:


                              (i )      There is pride in the desire to find oneself, to preserve, accentuate, even celebrate our separation and our distinction from others: the smallest of us is important (‘always as an end, never merely as a means’, says Kant; ‘may whoever whatever deeply wants get it’, says Jňāneshvara).  At the same time –


                            (ii )      There is modesty in the deśire to lose oneself, to merge oneself in the life of the company one keeps and to recognize one’s resemblance to others: the greatest of us is unimportant (‘O! why was I born with a different face? / Why was I not born like the rest of the race?’ says Blake in some anguish).



The first perception yields the sense of every man being an island: man’s ability to tell one face from another rand inability to have access to another’s consciousness reinforces this perception.  Man has a tragic sense of proud isolation or a mystical bliss of kaivalya extinguishing the other.  The second perception yields the sense of no man being an island: man’s ability to recognize resemblances, shallow or deep, with oneself and drive to seek out the company of those that resemble oneself.  Man has a comic sense of unassuming conviviality or a mystical bliss of nirvā¸a extinguishing the self.


The two antinomies together elicit from human beings the hide-and-seek of tradition and modernity.  Today’s tradition was modernity the day before yesterday, and today’s modernity will be tradition the day after tomorrow.  Tradition and modernity are relative to each other: they constitute an opposition and not a true antinomy.  Clinging to tradition finds solace in the seal of time and feeds on the fear of freewill.  Hankering for modernity finds solace in the arrow of time and feeds on the fear of orderliness.


The word traditio in Latin means ‘giving across’, that is, handing over, delivering, or even betraying (the word treason being a derivative).  By emphasizing continuity, tradition supports a person and helps him to lose himself, and in so doing it could betray him or prevent him from finding himself by making a break with the past.  Tradition tends to be opposed to innovation or experiment and often lapses into letting things take their course.


The word paraparā in Sanskrit means, one following the other from ear to ear, from hand to hand, from teacher to disciple and so forth.  The Indian tradition is like a palimpsest and has unresolved tensions built into itself.  Depending on the context, paraparā is opposed as ra·hi to shāstra (conscious discipline), as mārga to deshya (regional or local), or as sanāana to adhunika/navya (recent/new).  The word smriti/smara¸a is sometimes a close synonym, given its primary meaning of ‘remembering or recalling’.  Being a palimpsest the Indian tradition never really bothers to wipe out the older mode before accepting the new mode.


The Arabic words silsilah (chain, series), rasm (marked out manner), or tariqah (manner) and the Persian word dastur (rule handed down) have varying underlying metaphors for conveying the notion of tradition.  Arabic hādith (recoilection) respembles Sanskrit sm¤tī in being second to Qur’ān/ šruti respectively.


Remystifying Tradition


But then one often uses the pairing of tradition and modernity not in the original relative sense in which they play hide-and-seek but in an imposed absolute sense.  One distinguishes between traditional societies (of Ancient or Medieval India or Europe and their present-day survivals, for example) and modern societies (of Modern Europe or India and their forerunners, for example).  In so doing one agrees to overlook certain palpable or even deep-seated differences between India and Europe (even in comparable phases, for example), or to overlook the chronological mismatch (modern India emerging much later than modern Europe, for example).  In recognizing survivals from traditional society there is at least historical continuity to fall back upon as with the ceremonial of British royalty or with the endogamy and group loyalty in the Hindu caste system or the gender masculinism.  But how does one recognize anticipations of modernity or throwbacks to tradition? Indeed if ‘recognize’ is at all the right word; perhaps ‘ascribe’ is the word to use in attributing modern sentiments to Saint Francis of Assisi or Kabir or interpreting as premature modernizing the transition from the Athens of Pericles to the Athens of Alcibiades (which so disturbed the conservative Socrates) or the liberalizing impact on the Brahmanical society of the culture of Buddhist and other shrama,as (which led to a Brahmanical counter-reformation).  Likewise, when one recognizes throwbacks in attributing traditional sentiments to Charles de Gaulle or interpreting Marxism as a latter-day religion with affinities to Judaism and Christianity.  In all such ascribing or, again, in recognizing a certain homogeneity between pre-modern Europe and pre-modern/India or between modern Europe and India, one chooses to focus on large abstractions.  One is not thinking of tradition and modernity in a relative sense so much as of Tradition and Modernity (with capital T or M) in an absolute sense as proper names for the two opposed slants that emerged in the course of human history.


How does one understand these two abstractions then? Any historically attested feature or cluster of feature or cluster of features of personality, society, or culture are seen as indices of whole ways of coping with life and whole ways of cognizing the world – indices of whole lifestyles and whole worldviews, so to say.  What is more, one is recognizing a major worldwide shift, a watershed so to say, give or take a couple of centuries, in the course of the major world civilizations of history such as the European or the Indian.  In thinking of Tradition and Modernity in this absolute sense as a fact of the history of humankind, one is thinking of two whole lifestyles and correspondingly two whole worldviews.  Spelling out a lifestyle or a worldview is of course a philosophical activity.  Now it will have been noticed that we have steadily moved from manipulating/monitoring through behavior/experience and activity/thought and coping with life/cognizing of the world finally on to lifestyle/world-view.  Earlier we have seen that any coping with life affects and conditions cognizing of the world and that any cognizing of the world affects and conditions coping with life.  It is this interaction between coping and cognizing that leads to the emergence of lifestyles and world-views, that is to say, that formation of whole schemata out of what Lévi-Strauss would call the bricolage of stray rules of thumb.  (Thus, beginning with stray, simple practical rules like ‘Feed a cold and starve a fever’ or simple cognitive rules like ‘Bleeding is profuse when it is full moon or new moon’, one ends up with whole philosophies of health and healing.)


In what follows, we spell out the schemata of Tradition and Modernity.  We shall begin with the world-views and move on to lifestyles and under each lifestyle we shall take up personality and society before we end up with culture and material culture.  (By ’material culture’ we mean the restructuring of the environment.)  We hope that that this order of presentation will justify itself: while all of these undoubtedly condition each other, the later-mentioned tend to depend more on the earlier-mentioned than the other way round.


World-view: Tradition: Non-sensory perception of some reality behind appearances is the foundation of valid cognizing (Greek episteme, Sanskrit prama) as distinct from simple opinion (Greek doxa, Sanskrit pratyaya / pratīti).  Man as we see him is but a train of apparent behavior and the world around man is but a scattered outlay of appearances.  Appearances are best cognized and gaps in apparent causal chains (action at a distance or after an interval or both) filled when the reality is seen as the manifestation of pervasive energy (Greek best dynamis, energeia, Latin potestas, Sanskrit shakti) latent in the unmanifest (say, a seed/ a young man) as potency or tendency that gets released by a trigger (say, soil and moisture/ a nubile young woman).  Changes in human life are best seen as a stationary cycle.  Man’s cognizing is so embedded in his lifestyle (personality, society, culture) that rightly coping with life presupposes rightly cognizing the world.


World-view: Modernity: Observation and inference, both appropriately elaborated, are the foundations of valid cognizing both of the world and of man in the world.  What has not been verified is best doubted, if not rejected.  The phenomena grasped through observation and inference are to be cognized by postulating causal regularities and forces (such as gravitation and e-electricity, strong and weak interaction, the eros and thanatos of Freud’s psychology) underlying the world and man in the world.  Changes in human life are best seen as an oscillatory progress.  Man’s cognizing may arise out of man’s coping with life.  (So claimed Marx.)  Once it has so arisen, it is so to say public property – and so disengaged from personality, from society, from culture.  (So claimed Wolfgang von den Daele.)


Lifestyle: Tradition: Man, being a living being like no other, needs to come to terms with himself through gaining contact with the pervasive energy that makes life possible.  And through arranging his coping with the world he is in to the extent needed (of which asceticism is the minimal strategy).  Such is the foundation of gainful coping (siddhi). Man’s freedom consists in the recognition of necessity, that is, the necessity of liking what he has got.  There needs to be absolutely one way or one set of ways of coping with something; questioning this is not freedom but dangerous anarchy.


Lifestyle: Modernity: Man, being a living being like any other, needs to come to terms with the environment through adapting himself to it.  And through adapting the environment to himself, necessity being the mother of invention, that is, managing to get what he likes.  Such is the foundation of gainful coping (success).  Man’s freedom consists in the opportunity to exercise his spontaneity, that is in external necessity not standing in the way of internal necessity.  There need not be one right way or even one set of ways of coping with something; being right is being right in relation to some external necessity and/or some internal necessity.


Lifestyle: Personality and Society: Tradition: This is the agriculture—oriented Society and the Family-oriented individual (what the social the arise Ferdinand Tünnies identified us the Gemeinschaftphase phase of the development of society).  (i) Let a person be humble, following the imperative ‘To thyself be enough.’  For a person to be mature is to be socially acceptable, orderly and conforming.  For a person to be immature is to be not socialized enough for want of individualization, and to accept immortality for a person/community with smug or panicky literalism.  (ii) Let interpersonal relations be governed by decorum and due distance.  In particular, let a person not do unto others what he would not be done unto and try to do unto others what he would be done unto.  (Compare the Golden Rule and atmaupamua.)  For any society to be orderly is to be bound by custom and status, and governed by the kindly ruler assisted by the upright official.  Law is, ultimately, community-wide custom.  The best polity is the imperium consisting of the ruler and his subjects (prajā-jana), possibly with the intermediate layer of the select few (ritual status or power status) who can be trusted to do good (noblesse oblige).  This leads to a clear distinction between gentry and common folk (Greek oligos/ hoi polloi, Latin patricius/plebs, Sanskrit Šisajana/prāktajana). For a society to be devoid of order (dharmasya glāni) is to have extremes of regimentation (eliciting obedience or shirking) or disorder (encouraging victim’s abjectness or criminal’s violence) or blind trust (with the credulous and the impostors).  (iii) Human peaks are seen in seers, saints, and heroes; human valleys are simple, conservative, ordinary people.  (A mystic could be a peak or belong to the valley.)  (iv) Happiness and sorrow are undivided.  Let external necessity be passively accepted.  One may identify internal necessity with external necessity (advaita) or refuse to do so (dvaita, Christianity) in one’s discourse.  (v) Women that are not docile are like children, being ignorant and unwise.  At their best, children are sealed-down adults.


Lifestyle: Personality and Society: Modern: This is the city-oriented open Society and Self-development-oriented individual (what Tünnies identified as the Gesellschaft phase of the development of society).  (i) Let a person have an unencumbered self, following the imperative ‘To thyself be true’.  For a person to be mature is to be socially responsible without ceasing to be free or even subversive,.  For a person to be immature is to be not individualized enough for want of socialization, and to accept mortality for a person/community with panicky or smug literalism.  (ii) Let interpersonal relations be governed by privacy between strangers and due intimacy.  Between 98?---  In particular, let a person surmise with caution what the other would or would not be done unto; inclinations differ.  For any society to be orderly is to be bound by alliance or contract and rôle and governed by the rule of law and its administration by efficient officialdom.  Law is, ultimately, community-wide contract.  The best polity is the civil society consisting of the law-governed and law-enforcing government and the self-possessed citizenry, possibly with the ballast of the select few (not ritual status but power status, where power derives from economic control, opinion control, or information control).  For a society to be devoid of order is to have extremes of fashion (eliciting conformity or eccentricity) or disorder (encouraging an indifference that permits no-holds-barred competition or smooth criminality) or blind mistrust (from skeptics or cynics).  (iii) Human peaks are seen in thinkers, artists, and leaders; human valleys are no-nonsense commonsensical ordinary people.  (A mystic can choose to be a peak if he likes.) (iv) Freedom and justice are undivided.  The good of the manyis the happiness of the many (the Buddhist bahujanahitaya bahujanasukhaya is a more satisfactory formulation than the problematic Benthamite formulation, namely, or/ ‘for the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers’).  Let internal necessity be actively accepted.  One may milate external necessity with internal necessity (optimism) or refuse to do so (pessimism) in one’s discourse.  (v) Women, to be equal, have to be twice as good.  Children are growing persons and future adults.


Lifestyle: Culture and Material Culture: Tradition: (i) The orderly and secure society moulds the individual and helps him to enter into bonds of loyalty.  Innovation is little more than renovation of tradition.  (Sense of on-going history is poorly developed.) (ii) The individual either acquires or proposes a modus vivendi (nÌti) or a modus operandi (rÌti or paddhati) and the community ratifies it. (The first is an agreed way of people coming to terms with one another—this may be the received way or something worked out, and may be may be either moral.  Person-to-person or political.  Persons-in-groups.  The second is an agreed way of people dealing with things and activities – whether received or worked out, whether an art-like or practical.)  Personal activism and community-level activism (For a example a MethodÌst revival among Christians) are recognized modes of social change.  The local community (such as a guild or a village) offers uniformity and solidarity; the larger community (such as a city or the imperium) offers diversity and assurance.  (Solidarity stands for the way of ‘each for all and all for each’; assurance stands for the way of each assuring compliance and insuring protection.)  The urban habitat is seen as a warp in a rural landscape.  There is a clear recognition of a distinction between a way of life nurtured with greater care or wider available opportunity of the select few and a way of life conditioned to be plain, affordable, of general appeal for the ordinary person and possible for the select few in their ordinary moments – by and large nurtured by the ordinary people (often by the culture professionals like popular-level priests, entertainers or craftsmen.  While the ordinary people tend to look upon the select culture with reverence, poor comprehension and upon popular culture with modest pride, the select few tend to look upon the popular culture with good-humoured or ill-tempered condescension and upon select culture with obvious pride.  (iii) A culture enshrines the world-view in myths and the lifestyle in ritual.  It codifies its cognizing into a scheme or schemata, that is, a doctrine (orthodoxa, shāstra) along with residual lore (mathema, vidya) and its coping into craft (tekhne, shilpa) and magic (abhichara).  The ordinary people not only paid the piper and called the tune, but even set or played the tune.    


Lifestyle: Culture and Material Culture: Modernity: (i) The orderly and secure society helps the individual to mature properly and to enter into bonds of love.  Tradition is no more than an innovation that has come to stay.  (Sense of abiding heritage is poorly developed.)  (ii) The individual acquires or proposes a modus vivendi or a modus operandi and the community endorses it.  Personal activism and community-level planning are recognized modes of change.  The local community (such as a neighbourhood or a profession) offers a diversity to choose from and loose-knit alliances, the larger community (such as a city or the civil society) offers the same diversified menu everywhere and the assurance of free access and anonymity.  The rural habitat is seen as gaps within or margins around the urban landscape.  While the ordinary people look upon mass culture with defiant pride and upon class culture either with indifference if not contempt or desire for ‘vulgar’ imitation, the select look upon mass culture either with open or concealed contempt or with self-conscious and upon class culture with modest pride or self-conscious dismissiveness.  (iii) A culture enshrines the world-view and the lifestyle in an ideology.  It codifies its cognizing in science and lore and its coping in technique and craft.  Mass culture is expected to be more homogenized, more subject to trade-manipulated fashion.  The culture professionals like god men act men, mass designers who may not consume what they produce.


We have come to the end of our skeletal inventory; there is, however, much more in it than the skeleton that meets the casual eye.  The inventory is spare for a good reason: we have resolutely employed high-level abstractions in preserving our philosophical stance.  In working towards the respective highest common factors of European and Indian Tradition and of European and Indian Modernity, we have entertained the hope that the other contemporary world civilizations, the East Asian and the South-West Asian, can be accommodated within this synopsis both in respect of Tradition and of Modernity without resorting to procrustean measures.  (The rubrics, Indian, European and so on, of course ignore the geographical fluctuations due to shifts in environment, demography, power distribution, and culture access.  For example, think of Indian Diaspora, the partition of India or again think of European colonization in America, Africa, and Australasia or the partition of the Church and the ‘Asian’ affinities of Eastern Europe.  I shall be happy if those more closely familiar with the East Asian and the South-West Asian civilizations find out whether the hope entertained is justified or not.


At the same time, the inventory is richer than appears to be the case.  Formulations have been made with a certain care.  Notice, for example, the difference between ‘man and the world around man’ viewed by Tradition and ‘the world and the man in the world’ viewed by Modernity; again, niti as modus vivendi  is being taken in the broader traditional sense and not in the later sense confining niti  to morality or sadharana niti and the two Latin legal terms are being only slightly stretched.  We have used high-level abstract rubrics like world-view, interpersonal, freedom, order – permitting us to give due weightage to certain matters that are ordinarily sidelined such as the identification of human peaks or immaturity in a person or loss of true order in society in Tradition and Modernity.  (Note how regimentation and regimented fashion are considered to be examples of disorder and not of true social order.)  Eurocentrism is consistently avoided, as is also ideology-motivated valorization (as implying that folk is authentic and mass is inauthentic).


We have certainly resisted the temptation of taking the easy way out and focus on European rubrics like Epistemology, Logic, and Cosmology; Family, State and Economy; Religion, Art, and Technology that are canonical in European Modernity.  If we wish to be truly anthropocentric rather than ethnocentric, we need also to resist the lure of ‘contemporary relevance’ and keep away from the idols of the marketplace or the corridors of power or the ideological roundtable of discussion.  Ecology, Feminism, market forces, controlled economy, forms of democracy, globalization, the fate of popular culture, and the rest are certainly useful low-level abstractions in their place.  The inventory embodies our reflections on the large revolution of our times, namely, the worldwide transition from Tradition to Modernity, give or take a couple of centuries.  These reflections may illuminate the contemporary issues in a surprising manner.  Thus, given the absence of the traditional involvement in the environment as seen in the peasant, modern ecology programmes may turn out to be no more than a plea for enlightened real estate management or weekend tourism for stress-reduction.  Rather than foreclosing the contemporary issues and toe the ‘politically correct’ party line, we could try and see how far they could be subsumed under the larger abstractions and the broader reflections.


The Individual at the Crossroads


If we have taken some care to avoid Eurocentricity, then why have we put forward an Indian viewpoint? An Indian viewpoint need not be the Indocentric viewpoint.  A present-day Indian can be, as in the present case, someone that enjoys a double heritage, the Indian tradition and the European tradition, in addition to participating in Indian Modernity.  Our preoccupation thus far with our shared Humanity (especially as we sought to demystify tradition in the opening portion) and with our shared Tradition and Modernity (especially as we wondered about remystifying them) must not blind us to our problem as individuals.


There is no putting the clock back in socio-cultural action any more than in personal action.  There is no going back from Modernity to Tradition against the arrow of time.  But then there is no wiping the slate clean in socio-cultural action any more than in personal action.  There is no simple jettisoning the baggage of Tradition to make room for Modernity.  The arrow of time is also the seal of time.  There is an issue all right facing us.


The individual of today, whether thinker, artist, or leader or (as carried over from Tradition) seer, saint, or hero, is at the crossroads.  (A person unselfconsciously inhabiting the valley faces an issue, but he has no problem unless he sees himself as rising above the rest ever so little.)  Does he turn his back on Modernity and embrace Tradition or try to? Does he try to resolve the opposition? (Recall that Tradition and Modernity is certainly an opposition, but it is not an antinomy.)  That is the problem.


The least satisfactory resolution is trying an uneasy compromise or a camouflage of Tradition as a version of Modernity or a camouflage of Modernity as a renovation of Tradition.  These no doubt present the easy way out, and many inhabitants of the valley appear to unselfconsciously adopt them: they are more keen on losing themselves than on finding themselves.         


How about more limited resolutions? An example of such a strictly limited resolution will be a resolution between Āyurveda, the doctrine of health and healing in Indian Tradition, together with a whole lore of healing on the one hand and the Science of health and healing in European Modernity together with a whole lore of healing on the other hand.  Indeed up to a point there is no problem at all – as when an Ayurvedic physician freely adopts certain diagnostic techniques from European Modernity or when a Modern physician incorporates Ayurvedic herbs into his pharmacopoeia.  And quietly discards certain magical practices, if one stops to consider how the doctrine of health and healing in the European tradition gradually transformed itself into the Modern science, one could see how more limited resolutions could be attempted.  Examples from other canonically recognized areas like the meditational or prophylactic practices of Yoga or Music or Business and Management lore could be thought of.  (Yoga as a world-view and lifestyle is of course quite another matter.)


How about more ambitious and yet more satisfactory resolutions? Such resolutions, if forthcoming, will be at once more demanding and more rewarding.  (Just think of the undesirable aspects of Modern law and jurisprudence and the desirable aspects of the discarded Traditional law and jurisprudence.)  I have no intention even to attempt such a resolution between Tradition and Modernity; the search will probably be on the agenda for another half-century, but I have certain broad observations to offer.  (Is the younger generation listening?)


(1)   Man may be a frail reed and Tradition has certainly offered a protective umbrella in certain world civilizations.  May be he has outlived its utility and so considered Modernity to be a better umbrella for the present juncture in the history of humankind.  Why a better cover? European Modernity, at least from the time of Hegel, has offered an answer: Tradition and Modernity are to be seen as stages in the story of man’s quest for freedom and order.  (Traditional India may translate this as a quest for mukti and dharma, nibbāa and dhamma.)  There is no sign that the quest is at an end; indeed  there are already signs that a search for a better cover is on. (Adapting the Gita saying to a novel context, one may say: vāsāsi jīrṇāni yathā vihāya navāI ghāni naro’ parāI) – even as a person discards old clothes and put on new clothes in the course of death and rebirth’.


(2)    This new cover may not turn out to be a resolution of the opposition between Tradition and Modernity at all, though it could very well be that, considering that this is not an antinomy but an opposition.  Personally, I often find myself defending Tradition in a gathering of Modernity-zealots and defending Modernity in a gathering of Tradition-zealots.  What do I do in a mixed gathering? I just proclaim: wake up from your dogmatic slumber, you have nothing to lose but your fear of freedom! (Or fear of order, as the case may be’.  Fear of freedom is liable to make you a Tradition-zealot; fear of order is liable to make you a Modernity-zealot.)


(3)   The philosophical tools of European Modernity are not quite satisfactory for resolving or transcending the opposition between Tradition and Modernity.  The major obstacles, as I see them, are two: the either-or approach arising from the verify-or-reject methodology with the endemic pendulum swing (it is to the credit of Kant and Niels Bohr that they spotted the problem—Kant resolved the empiricism-apriorism tussle and Bohr resolved the wave and particle tussle in respect of electromagnetic radiation and the matter/mind polarity of ontology and the objective/subjective polarity of epistemology (the problem has been spotted by modern physics and Russellian epistemology).  The Indian philosophical tool kit has something more promising, I think: (a) Indian thinkers have offered two platforms for transcending the either-or approach: the lower platform of the sighted man looking at the whole elephant and taking in a more inclusive view and the higher platform of anekānta (a useful parable will be the cartographer’s alternate projections for mapping the earth on a flat sheet). (b) They offer a three-way ontology of the mundane (lAukika), the constructed (aupachārika), and the transmundane (ādhyātmika).  (c) And a two-way aetiology of genesis (utpatti/pariati) and manifestation (abhivyakti) – comparable respectively to the relation of inferability (or functional relationship) and the relation of participation (Plato’s methéxis/koinonia in phaedo and elsewhere in Traditional Europe).  These tools offer greater flexibility in handling the complexities of human life.  (Modern Europe has hasily discarded the relation of participation.)


(4)   We have noted earlier that there are already signs that a search for a better cover than Modernity is on.  Since the emergence of Modernity in human history was closely associated with the European civilization, it was to be expected that the questioning of Modernity first occurred in that civilization and that the questioning often took the form of a questioning of the European civilization itself.  A radical questioning of the worldview and lifestyle of Modernity, unaccompanied by any proposal for a return to Tradition, started in late 19th century Europe – probably with Nietzsche, who proposed a ‘transvaluation of values’ d, at a more popular level.  Anby later, by Oswald ngler’s Decline of the West 20) The current wave of post-modernisms sounds more like adventurist whistlings in the dark than resolute attempts to work one’s way out; they typically attract such followers as are looking for intellectual chic or quick-fix protection from the fear of order.  The postmodernist thinkers are dealing with a certain cultural situation of the late 20th – century European civilization – a situation defined on the one hand by the perceived exhaustion of the whole Renaissance and Enlightenment projects (respectively of rationalism, individualism, nationalism and of utilitarianism, egalitarianism, secularism) and on the other hand by the perceived flood of momentary artifacts and mentifacts thrown up by the passing show of the proliferation of consumer goods and services of media, travel, and tourism, of fashion and pop-culture which imprisons the attention within the I, the here, and the now.  The anarchistic urge in many of these thinkers to celebrate the vanity of all cognitive and lifestyle claims (the slogans like there are no foundations; but anything, goes).


In any case, realizing that we are at the crossroads is a necessary first step.  Even the longest journey begins with a small step.




There are a couple of matters that do not lie in the main line of argument but need to be clarified.


I.                              In the section entitled ‘Remystifying Tradition?’ we have set up “schematic matrix of world history.


6-8 Century B C E to 4-6 Century C E

Ancient European civilization

Ancient Indian civilization

  The phase of  


4-6 Century C E to 13-17 Century C E

Mediaeval European civilization

Mediaeval Indian civilization


13-17 Century C E to the present day

Modern European civilization

Modern European civilization

The phase of Modernity



Indians are understandably inclined to comparing these two civilizations and to do so in an evaluative manner.  What is peculiar though is that they do so in a historically skew manner-comparing the Modern European with the Traditional Indian civilizations.  In evaluative terms, the traditionalists in India think that the European civilization comes off the worse (when asked what he thought of the European civilization, Gandhiji retorted, European civilization? Not a bad idea!).  The modernists in India think that the Indian civilization comes off the worse (when asked what he thought of the Indian civilization, a European hippy who had come to India said, I couldn’t find it, I realized that I came a few centuries too late!) ‘The comparison is rendered skew in one other manner: it is not fair to evaluate one civilization in its degenerate, atrophied or hypertrophied phase unfavourably as against another civilization in its healthy, peak phase.


In the present study, we have taken an Archimedean stance in order to understand the revolution that took the Indo-European man from Tradition into Modernity, in the course of global history. 


II.                            One might very well ask, How was the European man taken from Tradition into modernity a few centuries ahead of the Indian man? Let me offer a capsule of an answer.


III.                          Europe the peasant’s adherence to the tried and true ways past was challenged by the creeping technical innovations introduced around the 11th century by the Benedictine and find the Cistercian monks who were enjoined by their vows to their own food and clothing besides following their conventional scholarly pursuits.  They applied their minds to farming, sheep-raising, and wool-making.  Again, members of another monastic order, Jesuits applied their mind in the 16th century to the rearing of young minds and tried novel ways of doing so.  This way the grounds for the successive technological and educational revolutions that came with Modernity were well and truly laid-Innovation followed by its obsolescence in the face of fresh innovation came to be an accepted fact of life in the European civilization in place of the earlier conservatism.  Eventually, historical reality caught up with India and modernity came to Indian shores.  Other episodes in India such as the coming of the large empire and the emergence of a powerful ruler subduing warring nobles also helped Modernity in India.




I.                    Demystifying Tradition: one cannot understand what tradition is without understanding what human life is like.  If humans are living beings like any other, they are at the same time living beings unlike any other, with their dimensions of personality, society, culture, and worldview and their proclivity for antinomies.  Two of these, antinomies of history and of self-identity land human beings into tradition and modernity, using the terms in a relative sense.


II.                  Remystifying Tradition? : But then how about Tradition and Modernity as also names for a fact of human history? Regional differences between Europe and India apart, Tradition and Modernity serve to spell two alternate worldviews and lifestyles.


III.               The Individual at the Crossroad: There is no scope for embracing one and jettisoning the other.  The directions for working out a satisfactory resolution of the opposition in future are indicated.





It is obvious that I ought to be giving citation for attested traits from primary source (for example, for atmaupamya ant the Golden Rule under Tradition and the questioning of this under Modernity).  Then there are the citations for the various insights I owe to the secondary sources though I have not always wholly adhered to these (for example, for the foundations of the social order under Tradition and Modernity my immediate debt is to Auden and indirect debt is to Tonnies and Maine).  It is interesting to note how some of the details of the opening account of life and human life drawing upon modern science have been partially anticipated in the tradition (for example, death as dissolution into cosmic elements or as reduction to dust).  Tracking all these down will take a while: I hope to do that later.  I crave the reader’s indulgence for this lacuna.


An earlier version was presented at an international seminar on Parampara and the Individual at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi.  January 1998 and published in The Nature of Living Traditions: Distinctive features of Indian parampara, ed. Baidyanath Saraswati, IBNCA and D.K. Print World, New Delhi, 1998, p 91-104.


This a carefully revised and slightly amplified version.