India: The land of traditions, not religions(Part 2)

Religion creates a configuration that creates western culture, a role that ritual plays in producing Indian culture.

India: The land of traditions, not religions(Part 2)

Disclaimer: This piece by Dr Pingali Gopal was created with permission from SN Balagangadhara. The ideas and the themes solely belong to the latter. Many of the passages in the article are excerpted directly from the writings and essays of Dr SN Balagangadhara without direct indications in each case. Dr Pingali Gopal claims no expertise or primary scholarship in the subject matter. The purpose of the article is to bring the ideas of Dr SN Balagangadhara to a wider audience and hopefully stimulate the readers to explore further.  

Continued from Part 1

Traditions- Flexible and Yet Dogmatic

This does not suggest that traditions are either fluid or amorphous. The Lingayat tradition is not just a Shaiva tradition; the Vishistaadvaitins are not a variant of Advaitins. Each is not only distinct and different from the other but also strives to retain the distinction. Importantly, traditions distinguish each other as traditions. Being different from the other traditions is crucial to be a tradition. In fact, the vibrancy of a tradition is by the extent to which it can retain its difference from other traditions.

Dr Balu says, today, we are not yet able to make sense of the presence of these two properties: (a) the enormous flexibility in belonging to a tradition and the sharpness with which the boundaries are drawn between traditions; (b) the possibility that any element could be absent from a tradition and yet it could maintain identity and distinction. Depending on what we emphasize, traditions appear very elastic and extremely dogmatic at the same time. Contrary to popular understanding, traditions are neither variants of either religion or are they philosophies. They are what they are- traditions.

Why practice traditions?

If one claims that he does not have a reason to live, it would be fallacious logic to say that he has a reason to commit suicide (which requires different and independent reasons). In the same way, we do not require a reason to continue to live, we do not need a special reason to continue a practice. A practice does not require a separate ‘reason’ or ‘justification’ for its existence. The existence of a practice is its own ‘justification’. So, those who ask, ‘why practice a tradition?’ are asking us to commit a fallacy, if they presume that one needs a ‘special reason’ for continuing a practice. This makes the question ill-formed.

Thus, for ‘why ought one continue a practice or tradition?’, the simple answer is that there is no compulsion or obligation; there is no ‘special’ reason one ‘ought to’ continue a traditional practice. There is no denial of ‘Moksha’ if one does not visit temples or do puja. Thus, ‘why do Ganesha puja?’: ‘because I have learnt to do this puja at home.’ ‘Why wear bindis?’: ‘we wear them because it is our practice.’ There is nothing more required for an answer.

Are All Ancestral Practices Moral Obligations?

Is slavery justified because one’s ancestors did something like this? No, this claim does not follow logically: if there are good reasons and we are reasonable, we abandon or modify a practice. Reason functions as a brake on excesses of human practice. No Indian tradition has ever denied this crucial role to reason. For instance, child marriage was a part of some of our traditions. The marriage age has progressively increased over generations.

Reason curtails ‘excesses’ of human practice and the traditional practices can adapt to the changing times. Modifying or abandoning a ‘traditional practice’ is an individual choice made, hopefully, on reasonable grounds. However, we do not even need reasons to abandon a traditional practice because there is no obligation to practice it. As a simple illustration, a Ganesha murti during the festival season in Mumbai may be seen riding on a motorcycle. One may find this ‘cute’ but there is no sense of shock, anger, or hurting of sensibilities.

Following a tradition is totally unlike following a moral injunction. When one says ‘Sati, Child marriage, Dowry, Untouchability, etc.’ are followed in India because they are parts of ‘Indian traditions’ the insinuation is that one ‘ought to’ follow these practices because our ancestors practised them too. This is how the colonial and western mind interprets ‘tradition’ and ‘practice’. To the colonial narratives, which Indian intellectuals internalised as colonial consciousness, following a tradition is akin to following a moral obligation written down somewhere.

To them, justifying a practice by referring to an age-old practice is equivalent to justifying a practice ethically. They did not think in any other way because they were captivated by the idea that ‘religious texts’ (whether written or oral) impose moral obligations on us, and we must obey them to be religious. This gross misunderstanding of tradition makes for silly questions about the nature of Indian traditions.  

Traditions as Individual Affairs

Traditions ‘change’ (i.e. undergo modifications) even during transmission and while learning. This makes traditions flexible and adaptive. Human practices conserve; we do not go around inventing new practices every other day. In this sense, traditions are essentially conserving in their nature. This is one reason we see ‘being traditional’ is to ‘be conservative’ as well.

Learning is an individual affair; the latter decides which practices to modify, retain, or abandon. Such changes might occur through reflection, discussions, advice from others, or because of sheer impracticability. What counts as tradition and what does not is also an individual affair. Individuals recognize some practices as traditions and to some extent, this varies from individual to individual. A common situation in those who follow traditions, which resonates with most Indian families, is, ‘this is the tradition in our family.’

From all the learnt/inherited practices, individuals might call a subset a tradition. Several such individuals might have overlapping sets of practices and many might create more distinct subsets. Most of us cannot enumerate what our traditions are, even if willing to call only some of these practices as our tradition. Is wearing a ‘banian’ at home, while wearing a ‘dhoti’ also a ‘tradition’? To some, it is; to some, it is not.

Human practices do not come with labels attached that identify only some practices as traditions and call others ‘non-traditions’. Individuals identify practices that they consider important as ‘practising a tradition’. Circumstances sometimes vary: singing a composition by using a specific ‘tala’ and ‘raga’ might be a tradition by a music teacher; another teacher might not think this way. To the laypersons, this issue is completely a matter of indifference.

In short, profound though it might appear, the question, ‘which is a tradition, which is not?’ is not interesting. Who ‘decides’ whether some or another practice belongs to a tradition or not? The individual, to whom it is a tradition, considers it so. Does he or she need a Guru or a Swami to decide? That depends not on the practice but on the individual. For instance, some individual might want to consult ‘swamis’ on issues of doing a specific puja; yet others might not and decide on their own. These do not matter.  Traditions vary from individual to individual and while simultaneously retaining a recognizable pattern and structure.

Beliefs, Truths, and Bad Questions About Traditions

‘Symbolic interpretations’ of our traditions while answering questions is a profound ignorance of the nature of the question and the answers too. In Semitic religions, the believers worship their God in certain ways because this God has imposed on them the obligation to do so. The scriptures tell this. For someone rooted in Semitic religions, one needs a reason to continue practising a religion, or switch between religions, or become atheists.

Because this is how religions are, they also want to know what ‘Hindus’ believe in the religion called ‘Hinduism’. The questioners think Hindus too have ‘Scriptures’ the way they have their own. Puja becomes a belief of how one ‘ought’ to worship ‘God’. What reason does a human being need to be religious and remain one in Semitic traditions? The answer is “truth”: one practices a religion because that religion is true. The claims of religions must be true if they are to remain religions at all. Thus, the followers need to believe in them; and they believe in them because these claims are true. Truth appears as a sensible predicate with respect to religion.

In contrast, how is it with traditions? Until people started transforming ‘Hinduism’ into a pale variant of these Semitic religions, the answer would have been pretty much the same all across India: “I do not know whether Rama and Ravana existed a couple of thousand years ago; their existence or non-existence does not matter for Ramayana to be true”. Rama or Krishna may or may not have existed but Ramayana and Mahabharata are always true.

Those with religion have great difficulties in understanding such an attitude. They are convinced that Indians believe in the truth of puranic stories and that these stories replace histories and geographies. Babington Macaulay wrote that famously in his appeal to convert an indigenous education system to an English one. He wrote, among other things, that our history abounds with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long – and geography, made up of seas of treacle and butter. Have the Indians ever really believed that seas of butter really existed some two thousand years ago on which the Indians set sail to discover other parts of the world?

By collapsing how Indians talk about their past into beliefs about the truth of their past makes them into idiots. That is exactly what we do when we begin finding our ‘own scriptures’, our ‘own God’ and our ‘own Ten Commandments’. We do not need a ‘religion’ of our ‘own’; we need no ‘Hinduism’ as a religion, to find out what we are and who we are. If we insist on this transformation, then most Indians are exactly the kind of morons of modernity that Macaulay described.

The notion of ‘truth’ to characterize practices is to commit a category mistake. We can use the predicate ‘true’ with respect to the linguistic descriptions of practices, but we cannot apply it to the practices themselves. It might or might not be true to say that one writes a book on a computer: it is a category mistake to ascribe the predicate ‘true’ to the act of typing on a computer. The act of typing itself is neither true nor false. As human practices, traditions are neither true nor false, whereas some descriptions of such practices could be either true or false.

Symbolic Interpretations and Theoretical Justifications of Traditions

Both the colonial and the contemporary western descriptions of India and her traditions transform Indians into mental retards of modernity. We cannot instil pride in our children about their culture and traditions by telling them that we worship ‘the phallus, the cow, the monkey, the idol and the naked fakir’ because these are all ‘manifestations of the Brahman’. Then, an unanswerable question comes, ‘why not worship this Brahman directly without having to worship these things?’ which makes Indians and their ancestors into silly beings.

These questions have their roots in the Semitic religions and the contempt these religions have for Indian traditions. We end up giving pseudo-answers about ‘Hinduism’, a storehouse of profound and sublime truths. This happens when are today accessing Indian traditions the way the West has taught us: through texts- religious, philosophical, poetic, literary. We practice our festivals too enthusiastically but are also willing to accept the criticism that these practices do not have a textual ‘foundation or justification’.

When a man gets the question of the Kumkum on the forehead, the response is either wiping it off or giving a supposedly scientific explanation relating to the interaction between the Kumkum and the brain. This attempt happens because, without it, we come across as stupid people. There is thus this strong belief that our practices should have a theoretical justification. Both criticisms and defences follow the same route.

Texts, Meanings, and Authorships in a Traditional World

Sanskrit generated systematic reflections on language and meaning much before such exercises occurred elsewhere. Sanskrit is very strict about the use of words and their meaning; it also developed construction rules for words and word meanings instead of building dictionaries. That is, the speakers of this language formulated linguistic rules to understand the meanings of words and sentences instead of seeking meaning primarily in authorial intentions.

Of course, one expressed one’s intentions, through language and appropriate linguistic units. However, ‘intention’ is not about texts but about why the author writes what he does. When Indian culture claims that the Vedas do not have a human author, it becomes impossible to ask questions about authorial intentions. That is, ‘why were Vedas written or spoken?’ is more difficult to answer than the question ‘why did God call Moses to Mount Sinai?’ God’s word, the Bible, itself answers these questions. However, for such questions about the Vedas, our texts do not raise answers, though many Indologists do.

Most of our texts have acquired authors only recently; it is often unclear who the author is. One of the facts that upset Indologists about Indian texts is precisely this question: who wrote it and why? These issues were never important in Indian traditions and hence, the dating, authorship, and intentions remained inconsequential.

Does Multiplicity of Traditions Imply Belief in Multiple Truths?

This does not express that Indians believe in ‘many’ or ‘multiple’ truths. The stance, ‘each to his own truth’ is a modern disease and it is not a part of Indian culture. The notion of truth in India is as robustly absolutist as possible. Ideas about meaning, understanding, and language are different from what we take for granted today. Understanding the Upanishad or the Gita or the Buddha has very little to do with an interpretation that allegedly gives us the ‘true’ meaning of the teachings or a ‘true’ representation of authorial intentions.

Heresy is significant by its absence in Indian culture despite the innumerable traditions, sharp disagreements, and polemics between people. Shankara and Madhva differ from each other on most texts (Gita, Upanishads, Brahma Sutras) and issues. Yet, Madhva did not consider Shankara a heretic; none of the pupils and students of Shankara ever criticized Madhva for teaching heresies. People do not end up in hell because they follow other teachers.  Madhva thinks that Shankara is wrong and that he is right; but not that he preaches the truth and that Shankara propagates falsehood. Such is also the case with the multiple Buddhist traditions believing in opposing things. Heresy is only about propagating falsehood instead of truth. In traditions, there is no anxiety to call other the ‘enemy’ or a ‘heretic’ despite sharp polemics.

The true power of this absence comes only when we contrast this with Christianity and Islam. In the Catholic interpretations, the Protestants only see the hands of the Devil; the Catholics considered Protestants as heretics; the Church has declared any number of interpretations as ‘anathema’. In this battle of interpretations, only one interpretation is and can be true; all others are wrong, misguided, and false. This fight between ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’ never raises its head in a land of traditions.

Culture and Cultural Differences

Indian culture is different from western culture. Learning a language and learning through actions is important for us to live successfully in a society. Any surviving culture thus builds two rich, complex, and interlinked storehouses of linguistic and actionable items, which are the resources for socialization. Languages embody poems, stories, theories, hypotheses, speeches, and talks. Human actions solidify in human institutions like family, marriage, rituals, child-rearing, schools, clubs, legal and political organisations.

In the broadest terms, Dr Balu says that ‘culture’ is the available resources for socialization and their use. Cultural differences would reside in how the culture uses or utilizes these resources. This how explains the cultural differences between India and the West. For example, despite the same type of institutions (family, daycare centres, schools) and same language of English, different child-rearing practices in India and the UK would account for some of the cultural differences.

The diverse learning processes (the socialization resources) coordinate and establish a pattern called ‘a configuration of learning.’ Cultures originate, reproduce, and transmit across generations by these configurations of learning and the differences between such configurations constitute these cultural differences. What is it that coordinates the ‘configuration of learning’ in a culture? Here Dr Balagangadhara comes with his strongest thesis: religion creates a configuration that creates western culture, a role that ritual plays in producing Indian culture.

These ideas are necessary because cultural differences are not along geographical, linguistic, or religious lines. This would mean that belonging to one religion does not differentiate people as members of a culture: one could belong to Indian culture whether a Jain, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Muslim. Thus, a Gujarati speaking Muslim in Ahmedabad, a Tulu speaking Christian in Mangalore, and a Bengali speaking Hindu in Kolkata are invariably a part of this Indian culture.

Understanding the Place of Christianity, Islam, and Other Religions

How do we then understand Christianity and Islam in India? Are these followers socialized differently and their presence a disturbing factor for Indian culture? Dr Balu says that the simple answer is that when these religions entered India, they met with an already formed culture. These religions adapted to the existing culture to survive. They held their beliefs and practices by adapting to Indian uses of the resources of socialization.

Thus, Indian Christianity and Indian Islam remain Indian irrespective of their religious beliefs and practices which had a space to flourish as one of the many diversities present in Indian culture. In this process, these religions undergo modifications in how the believers live their daily life which does not affect the content of their beliefs or their places of worship. It is exactly this kind of adoption and adaptation to Indian culture that many Madrassa schools and evangelical Christians militate against. Whether such ‘resistance’ has any effect at all or not depends not on their militancy but on the vibrancy of Indian culture. A vibrancy that allows a place for these religions and absorbs their drive to create other configurations of learning within its own multiplicities.

Conclusions: The Search for Solutions

In the Indian context, on a broader scale, the notions of secularism arise from a poor understanding of religions and traditions. Secularism was a solution for the European Christian world at a specific time of its history when its multiple denominations of Protestants and Catholics were fighting each other. The state separated from religion to bring harmony. It was a success for that period and in that specific context. Making it a universal solution for all cultures and across all times is a recipe for disaster as is evident in India.

As a first step to create this Indian brand of secularism, our intellectuals and politicians continued to understand traditions as religions when they should have fundamentally questioned the colonial understanding of Indian traditions. The post-independent India should have seriously taken up this question of whether religions truly exist in India. Traditions when they become religions lose their flexibility and absorptive power. It becomes intolerant and, when taken to the extreme, fanatical. Traditions with rituals at its foundation unite people; religion with My One True God against Your False Many Gods disrupts societies.

How do we rediscover these old solutions always existing in our society replaced by the noxious ‘secularism’ of post-independent India? India’s practical solution was to traditionalise the religions so that they lost focus on proselytization and made some genuine attempts at cultural syncretism. This adoption and adaptation to Indian culture allowed the different religions to merge into society and yet keep their belief systems intact.

In reverse, our thinkers are trying hard to convert our traditions into religions with their own gods, temples, doctrines, and commandments causing severe problems. As Hindu traditions become more of a religion, it becomes intolerant. Hindu fundamentalism is the outcome of this process which ultimately damages the philosophy of the nation. A philosophy, which in fact, is the solution to the pluralism and multi-culturalism of the world, now packed into smaller geographical areas.

A thick layer of ‘colonial consciousness’ is the Maya which hides the truth of our lived experiences. We dimly realize that what we all have is something different and yet continue to call it the religion of Hinduism (along with many others like Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism). We need to shed this Maya and realize that there are no religions in India but only traditions. Traditions do not fight for truth values and when we now look at the contemporary so-called Hindu-Sikh conflicts or the ancient Hindu-Buddhist conflicts, there is something inherently and deeply wrong in the way we understand India.



  1. The Heathen in His Blindness: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion. A classic text where Dr Balagangadhara explains his notions of religions and traditions in detail. It shows clearly how the entire process of converting our traditions into religions is at the root of all ‘religious’ frictions in India.
  2. Do All Roads Lead to Jerusalem? The Making of Indian Religions. Co-author: Divya Jhingran. Scholars and lay people did not understand the above book fully but that did not prevent the scholars to vehemently oppose the ideas of Dr SN Balu. The allegations included Dr Balu’s ‘more than justified belief’ in the power of secularized Christian discourses. This is a slimmer and simplified version of the above book written along with Divya Jhingran.
  3. Reconceptualizing India Studies. This book is about many problematic issues in the studies involving India and her past (Indian society, traditions, and its evils like the ‘caste-system’, ‘religious fundamentalism’, ‘corruption’, ‘poverty’ and so on). Dr Balu shows that the narrative has had an unbroken lineage from colonial times to the present. The present social sciences simply parrot the colonial discourses, albeit with the secularization of previous theological assumptions. Discussing issues like the concept of cultural differences, the role of social sciences, the alleged role of dialogues in reducing religious frictions, the improper transposition of Western secularism on Indian soil, Dr Balu shows how the dominant discourse was Western and completely from their perspective. A deep ‘colonial consciousness’ is the form of this violence that prevent us from looking at the West from our perspective. More importantly, we look at ourselves from a Western perspective, a fact which we do not know and do not even want to know. The point of the book is not to denigrate the West and riddle them with guilt-complexes, or promote the East in a rabid fashion. The West and the East are different; but they are equals.
  4. A one-stop site that gives access to many of the key ideas of Dr Balagangadhara. It is a storehouse of articles and covers many important points about the widest variety of subjects comparing cultures in his almost four decades of extraordinary work at the University of Ghent in Belgium.
  5. Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism. Author: Jakob de Roover. The author belongs to the Ghent school and this book expands greatly on the ideas of Dr Balu regarding secularism and its inappropriate Indian variant. The book should form essential reading for every English knowing person to understand religion, caste, and secularism in a much better framework than all the previous ones. The basic thesis of this book is that secularism worked for the European Christian world at a specific time of its history. India handled pluralism far better over centuries than Europe, and we should study our own mechanisms instead of dangerously and inappropriately importing Western solutions.

About Author: Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Neonatal and Paediatric Surgeon practising in Warangal for the last twenty years. He graduated from medical school and later post-graduated in surgery from Ahmedabad. He further specialised in Paediatric Surgery from Mumbai. After his studies, he spent a couple of years at Birmingham Children's Hospital, UK and returned to India after obtaining his FRCS. He started his practice in Warangal where he hopes to stay for the rest of his life. He loves books and his subjects of passion are Indian culture, Physics, Vedanta, Evolution, and Paediatric Surgery- in descending order. After years of ignorance in a flawed education system, he has rediscovered his roots, paths, and goals and is extremely proud of Sanatana Dharma, which he believes belongs to all Indians irrespective of religion, region, and language. Dr. Gopal is a huge admirer of all the present and past stalwarts of India and abroad correcting past discourses and putting India back on the pedestal which it so truly deserves.

About Author: SN Balagangadhara

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