Sruti, Smriti, and the Individual: Rethinking the Idea of Parampara in India



          This paper is an attempt to address the issue of parampara and the individual.  It has three parts.  In the first, I narrate a story to illustrate how I was forced to confront the problem of exactly what my tradition was as a writer.  In the second part, I try to formulate how I grappled with this problem, at least at a theoretical or philosophical level. Of course, the question of whether or not I have been able actually to live or manifest this resolution remains unanswered.  Finally, I come to title of this paper and the implications of retaining the Sanskrit word parampara in it. Does it serve what appears to be its intended purpose, which is to make my present discourse more in tune with our own traditions?  Is it, in other words, truly enabling? Or is it merely a token gesture, a sort of temporary measure at best? If so, what can we really do to connect meaningfully with our heritage?  What are the options that are available to us?

    Part I:  The (Dis)inheritance

          I was once offered the honorary Directorship of a Trust set up to promote Swaraj in Ideas.  Let me confess, at once, that I was greatly tempted by this offer, though it would have meant a lot of work with no monetary reward.  The sheer possibility of realizing one's academic dreams, of promoting the kind of work one always wanted to, made such an opportunity inviting.  But, by a peculiar turn of events, this offer was withdrawn.  I wish to share the lesson that I learnt from this experience because, I believe, it has a direct bearing on my topic.

          But first, a summary of that experience.  After several weeks of talking about the Trust and its activities, the Trustee thought that it would only be proper for her to read my books, now that I was to take over as the Honorary Director.  So, at her insistence, I supplied her the titles of all my major publications, which she promptly ordered.  In fact, one of these, she was already familiar with:  Decolonization and Development:  Hind Svaraj Revisioned (1993).  This was the book which had brought me to her notice in the first place, perhaps suggesting to her that I might be the right sort of person to head the academic programme of her Trust.  Now, what she sought to do was merely to make her acquaintance with my creative output, the books of poems and fiction, which she was not familiar with.

          After she'd ordered these books, I left Delhi on a three-week vacation.  When I returned, I happened to telephone the Trustee. I immediately detected from her tone that there was something amiss.  What could it be, I wondered? Within a few minutes of our conversation, I guessed that there would be a drastic change in our impending arrangements.  I was right.  When I visited my office, I found slipped under my door, an envelope.  It contained a letter from her aborting our project, terminating my association with her Trust before it had properly commenced. But, it was not her decision as much as her reasons which both intrigued and challenged me.

          She had written that she had been forced to change her mind after reading my novel, The Narrator (New Delhi:  Rupa, 1995).  I was quite struck by this, even to the point of being flattered, because few reviewers, let alone readers, seemed to have paid this unfortunate book so much attention.  I had always believed that literature makes nothing happen and was therefore somewhat nonplussed to discover how wrong I was.  As I read further, my surprise and discomfort grew.  The Trustee had written that she agreed with Ananda Coomaraswamy that the function of literature was to tell the stories of Gods and heroes.  It was therefore pointless to write about those aspects of life which are degrading, disturbing, or debasing.  All art should elevate, inspire, and lift the reader to a higher plane of reality.  Since my book was not of this type, she thought I would not make a suitable Director for her Trust.  If there was a deeper reason for her decision, then I shall not engage with it here.

          Well, I won’t describe what aspects of my novel might have triggered off such a response.  I don't propose to provide such easy appeasement to idle curiosity.  (Those who are curious, I suppose, will have to take the trouble of reading The Narrator for themselves.)  But to return to the Trustee's letter, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. In which century was all this happening or, at any rate, in which decade?  Was I dealing with a prude or with prophet?  The letter produced a profound unease in my mind and spurred off a process of self-reflection, which made me confront my own creative work in a new light.

          To cut a long story short, I began to detect a contrary impulse at the heart of the entire body of my writing.  In most of my criticism, I could sense an ache, a longing for, and in fact, a reassertion of some sort of tradition.  It might be seen as a need to return to an analytical framework which was integrated, which incorporated the moral, the spiritual,  the aesthetic, and the historical-material.  Most of my work was a reaction to the modern condition, an ongoing critique of it.  Because modernity seemed to enshrine a divorce between dharma and aesthetics, between morality and utility, between fact and value we had a society full of fear, violence, alienation, and suffering, all of which were reflected in literature as well.  It was a literature without rasa, or if you like, full of the rasa of separation from the Self.

          Of course, I am simplifying grossly, but isn't it true that the greatest literary works of modernity are those which portray loss, betrayal, denial, self-destruction, violence, and the collapse of values?  All this led to a clarification of my own position:  I was a sort of critical traditionalist.  The phrase is, I believe, Bhiku Parekh's in Colonialism, Tradition and Reform:  An Analysis of Gandhi's Political Discourse (New Delhi: Sage, 1989) and it refers to someone who follows tradition, but not blindly or rigidly.  This position would allow me exercise my critical responsibilities but yet seek to reconnect with the life-giving energies of the past.  Indeed, it was such a position which was articulated in my neo-Gandhian primer, Hind Svaraj Revisioned which the aforementioned Trustee had admired.

          Now, from such a perspective, when I regarded my fiction, especially, but also, to some extent, my poetry, I found in them a different kind of impulse.  Both were born and raised in what was already a modern literary landscape, free of the older constraints, scruples, and censorship.  I found a revelling in this freedom, a certain propensity to shock with a sort of explicitness that some readers would consider improper. Throughout, there seemed to be some sort of compulsive transgressivity, a tendency to violate auchitya or the bounds of respectability.  At least in The Narrator, the predominant rasa might be vibhatsa disgust or revulsion, if not karuna or pity.  And yet, on deeper reflection, I understood dimly what I was trying to do.  Finding myself in a world already defiled and de-sacralised, how was I to restore the lost innocence that sringara possesses in its pristine form?  In an age of internet pornography and a constant fetishization of the body as a object of desire, how was I to return to some kind of purity and simplicity?  I think The Narrator shows that it is only through a process of systematic deglamourization and demystification of sexuality that the purity of the body can be restored.  The book tried to do precisely that.  After the freeplay, or should I say, foreplay, of form and technique, I thought I detected beneath all the messy surface textures of my narrative, a calm and serenity that were really akin to sanata rasa.  This intuition seemed corroborated by the most unlikely source.  A great sage to whom I sent most of my books, once wanted to know if I had not sent him any.  I confessed that I had not sent him The Narrator.  I told him that I was ashamed to send it to him because of the sort of contents it had.  He burst out laughing and said, “But anything that Makarand Paranjape writes has to be spiritual, no matter what it may seem.”

          Obviously, the Trustee did not think so.  She clearly saw the vibhasta and reacted accordingly.  But, if she was insensitive in detecting the deeper design of my text, she was certainly right about its overt nature and features. This was obviously not a traditional piece of literature in the Coomaraswamy sense of the word.  It did not depict the lives of Gods or heroes and was, therefore, not directly amenable to the promotion of dharma.  If it did promote dharma, such a fallout had to be indirect, almost unintended, not because of, but in spite, of itself.  My novel was not sacred text, but very much a fallen, sinful one, bearing all the dirt and defilement of the age in which it had taken birth. To use a simile from one of my short stories, I could understand what Gandhari must have felt because I too had given birth to monsters, albeit literary ones.

          Now, I am aware that it is possible to argue that my creative and critical writing are less contradictory that they may seem at first, that both in fact reveal the same urge and longing for unity and truth, in the traditional sense of those words.  Perhaps, this may be correct, but they go about finding these values in two different ways.  While the criticism is overtly committed to a holistic and traditional vision, the fiction is so only covertly.  On the surface, the fiction seems totally to succumb to the fragmentation that modernity and postmodernity entail.  It seems to begin with its present fallen state, in fact to fall even further, before attempting to recover.  It's like saying,  "Look, even in the darkest of hell, there is a glimmer of the light of heaven.  No sin is great enough to block the grace of God."  On the other hand, the criticism starts with the assumption that we're not entirely fallen, that a tradition of resistance and continuity exists to which we may align ourselves.  While my didactic work may even dare to preach dharma directly, the creative upsurge dares not write a poem or novel of devotion or gnosis.

          Perhaps, I thought, I ought not to have written my novel at all.  What good did it serve?  Whom would it benefit?  Had I not written in only to indulge myself?  It was only fooling around, playing with words and narrative techniques; it was not sadhana, it was not written for the "greater glory of God and the salvation of humankind."  Indeed, such grand teleologies had been destroyed and discarded long back by the modernists.  From them we got a new manifesto:  away with all this false idealism; our job is to portray the ugliest truths of life.  The art object itself need not be beautiful for the art work to be beautiful. There is beauty and sublimity even in the horrors of violence, degradation, sexual abuse, murder, and so on, all of which are equally a part of our lives, even if they're unacknowledged and suppressed.  To foreground these, to report these, to tell the most unpalatable truths about society is also the artist's task.

          Had I inherited a literary tradition from ancient India, I could no more have written The Narrator than a temple sculptor would have sculpted nudes or a Kathakali artist danced the Salsa.  Of course, most of the Gods and Goddesses the sculptor carved out of stone would be at least semi-nude, but their nudity would not be of the modern, prurient sort at all.  Even the body would be sacralized, elevated, exalted in a way no modern work of art could succeed in doing. In other words, my problem as a writer was that of a lack of a parampara, a set of values and techniques which made up the sum and substance of a artistic genre, both its form and content, both its style and theme.  Such a tradition would have guided me as to what to write and how to write it.  Right now, I had found myself in a world where departures, ruptures, transgressions and violations--these were seen as hallmarks of creativity and originality--in opposition to the traditional view of conforming to and perpetuating received standards and norms.

          At this juncture, I hope I am permitted another aside.  Last year I had a very interesting conversation with the eminent danseuse, Leela Sampson, on precisely this topic.  I said to her that the sort of Bharatanatyam--or for that matter any other "classical" dance form--that she and others like her performed seemed to be rather static and repetitive.  Naturally, Sampson was very offended.  She said, "I couldn't disagree with you more. Haven't you been observing all the formal and technical changes that have taken place over the last few decades, not to speak of this whole century.  I myself don't dance the way I used to ten or fifteen years back.  We are constantly changing, constantly innovating.  If you watched how Balasaraswati danced and compare it with the way I dance today, you'll see such a great difference.  What we were taught at Kalakshetra when I was a student is quite different from what is taught there today or what I teach my students."

    "Yes, yes," I admitted hastily, "but, I was not referring to the formal aspects.  I mean the content, the narrative--the stories that you perform seem to be rather typical.  They are, moreover, all mythological stories.  I have never seen a Bharatnatyam or Kuchipudi performance on a modern text.  Can you, for instance, depict the divorce of a couple or--to cite a more extreme example--a murder mystery through this classical dance form?"

    Sampson paused for a moment before replying.  "Well, as you know, there have been some attempts to modernize our traditional dance forms.  Mallika Sarabhai or Chandralekha, for instance, have used it to depict modern themes like feminism..."

    "But, usually, they do this only by giving a modern interpretation to a traditional story, like Sarabhai's Draupadi, for example."

    "True.  But, let me ask you a counter-question.  Why should my dance be used to depict what every TV serial shows these days? Why should it engage with contemporary reality?  I think I perform a more meaningful and important service for my audiences.  They leave the performance enhanced, not diminished. Only a classical art form can give you that, no?"

    "Yes, but can't it do both?  I mean, why can't it be contemporary as well as traditional.  Why should there be this break, this barrier between them?  I know, of course, that Tagore's or Bharati's works have been performed in Bharatanatyam. They were contemporary poets, so you see it can be done.  But not very often."

    "What you're asking for is very, very difficult," Samson said with a sigh.  "Kumar Gandharva could do it.  He could innovate so effectively as to evolve a new style of singing.  But how many Kumar Gandharvas have there been?"

          The conversation ended there, the issue remained in a state of suspension, without our differences were not fully resolved.

          Both these anecdotes illustrate what I have been trying to show in this first section:  the great difficulty, if not impossibility, of combining and harmonizing tradition and modernity.  In literature, this is especially the case because the break between the two was most definite and far-reaching. The colonial intervention forever served a death-knell to the older kind of sacred literature and, indeed, the society which supported it.  In its place, secular modernity, aided by the printing press and the invention of modern prose, gave rise to what the British called our vernaculars.  The literature written in these new languages was usually modelled on European works and its content was totally different from that of traditional literature.  The difficulty for me as a creative writer is how to bring to my work the sense of the sacred which is available in my past but not in my present?  At the same time, the other problem is that even if writing in a purely traditional manner were possible, how is one to engage with contemporary reality in a contemporary idiom?

          Rather later in my career I have realized that both these options are possible, that there are one or two brave souls who have done it. In poetry the name of Sri Aurobindo comes to mind immediately. Savitri, one of the longest poems in English, is also perhaps the only contemporary epic which is read and recited daily in the same way as a traditional sacred text would be.  It is indeed regarded as a modern Veda by the devotees of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.  T. S. Eliot also tried to produced sacred literature in modern times; at first all he could do was to offer us The Wasteland, but later in “Ash Wednesday” and Four Quartets, something of the sacred is restored.  Yet, Eliot's works, though universally acclaimed, are still literary texts, whereas Sri Aurobindo's, though known and admired by only a few, have acquired the status of sacred books.  Similarly, in fiction, the name that comes most readily to mind is Raja Rao.  The Serpent and the Rope, Cat and Shakespeare, and The Chessmaster and His Moves are all about a quest for the Ultimate Reality.  In that sense, for Raja Rao, all writing is sadhana, a means for self-perfection.  The reader may also choose to view it in that fashion, but if not, the writer remains unconcerned, writing primarily for himself and his Absolute.  I am sure similar examples from other Indian language literatures may be offered.

          Yet, at least for me, the problem remains, though in a modified form.  Which one of us would like to write like Sri Aurobindo or Raja Rao--the two are of course very different in themselves--even if he or she could?  Instead, everyone wishes to write like Salman Rushdie or Vikram Seth or, to mention a more recent example, Arundhati Roy.  In The Narrator I tried to write a clever contemporary book which actually camouflaged a traditional perspective on life.  The result was a hodgepodge which failed to satisfy either faction.  A typical reaction came from a young admirer who exclaimed, "What a strange book you've written--the less said about it the better!" 

    II:  Sruti, Smriti, and the Individual:  The Argument

          The issue at the heart of this paper is: what is the relationship between the individual and tradition? Is tradition a source of knowledge or is it a source of ignorance? Does the individual, in his or her creative journey, discover new truths or merely reaffirm old ones? Finally, how can the individual benefit from the wisdom of his heritage, yet, at the same time, not be stifled by it? In other words, the central question is:  how can the individual both learn from the past and add something new to it?

          Immediately, we need to see that our answers will depend on how we view tradition, how we define it. Again, we can quickly see some opposing possibilities.  On the one hand, we have a traditionalist position which sees tradition as the repository of truth and virtue.  According to this view, we would lose our way and end up destroying ourselves if we did not have the help and support of our traditions.

          As opposed to this, we have the modernist view which basically sees tradition negatively, as the repository of much that is dead and destructive.  According to this view, tradition is the source of most of our present ills.  It is false thinking which cripples human beings and tradition is the source of false thinking.  Modernists, first of all, destroy and disavow, or, at any rate, reshape, traditions so that space may be created for something new to emerge and flourish.  It is only by breaking the oppressive shackles of tradition, say the modernists, that new creation can take place.

          I must hasten to add that this is not, as someone will quickly argue, the view of a pioneering-modernist like T. S. Eliot.  For Eliot tradition was what shaped, informed, even directed individual talent.  But, by tradition, Eliot meant something timeless, synchronic, even eternal in its essential greatness; when it came to his immediate predecessors, he certainly rebelled against them, both in the theme and form of his poetry.  Eliot, no doubt was a modernist poet, but he was also an arch-conservative.  In fact, neo-Marxian criticism never tires of reminding us how politically reactionary, elitist, and closed modernism was.  I do not, however, wish to enter into this debate right now.  Instead, I would like to revert to my earlier formulation regarding how tradition is view.

          Apart from an exaltation of tradition or its rejection altogether, there is a third, somewhat neutral, position which looks at tradition merely as what is handed down from generation to generation, which I believe is the dictionary meaning of parampara.  What is handed down, it stands to reason, can be both good and bad, both positive and negative, both live-giving and life-denying.  The difficulty with this position is that its own grounds for judging what is good and bad are not self-evident. These grounds must be derived either from tradition or from modernity or from a mixture of both. So this neutral position actually leads us to a critical position which would urge that we question our traditions as we do our modernities.  While such a critical attitude may appear somewhat modern, per se, it need not be seen in this manner.  Such attitudes are both historical and contemporary, available to our ancestors as they are available to us.  Criticism, which is the ability to discriminate, belongs properly to the human faculty of thought or buddhi.  Certain periods in history may encourage it but it cannot be totally absent from others, though it may appear to be subdued or curtailed.

          From where we are located, however, which is a predominantly modern terrain, both traditionalist and critical traditionalist positions have a special significance.  They imply not only an attitude to the past but also to our present. Because modern, Western civilization, which may be considered to be about 200 years old, is build upon a rejection of the past, to be traditionalists or critical traditionalists implies that we are either totally or partially opposed to this present civilization.

    I should reiterate, this juncture, the implications of my own position as a critical traditionalist.  I am a critic of modernity, but also, to an extent of tradition as well.  While my attitude to tradition is one of respect, not blind admiration. More specifically, I consider myself a follower of Sanatana dharma in its broadest and most uplifting sense.  I accept the authority of the Vedas, but not only of the Vedas.  I believe that the possibilities of revelation or realization are in our midst right now as much as they were when the ancient scriptures were heard by the Rishis.  The Vedas, ultimately, refer not only to a group of texts, but to transcendental knowledge itself. Therefore, while the Vedas embody this knowledge, they do not exhaust it.

    Similarly, I recognize the importance of smriti, or memory in constructing a tradition.  Not everyone has access to sruti or direct perception of the Ultimate Reality.  Most of us have to content ourselves with a description and a recording of this direct apprehension.  Though this record is not substitute for the real thing, it does help govern our more mundane actions and also orders society.  A society which has no smriti, then, is in great danger of moral relativism and utter confusion.  Modern times, in a sense, are smriti-less times because they offer unhampered freedom to each individual without offering guidelines for the best use of this freedom.  Also, this freedom is guaranteed only if the individual conforms to a set of economic and social obligations.  So the freedom that is offered is confined to what has come to known as the personal realm.*

    Tradition, in my view, is made up of a combination of sruti and smriti.  The former supplies the inspiration, the latter carries it forward.  In periods when the former is missing, the latter offers guidance.  Yet, we cannot survive too long only on memory.  That is why a reinjection of sruti is necessary and does occur to keep a tradition healthy. Ultimately, it is impossible to draw a very clear line of separation between them.  Where sruti ends and smriti begins is thus impossible to pinpoint. They slide and merge into one another.  At the very moment of revelation, another faculty of the mind starts recording it, turning it into memory, for future use.

          Obviously, then, the real challenge is how to keep smriti in consonance and conformity to sruti.  Every now and then, smriti seems to get corrupted and falsified, thus losing its capacity to guide and direct.  Instead, it becomes oppressive and rigid. That is why a continuous cleansing process is required. On the one hand, the individual must keep him/herself open to the possibilities of sruti, and on the other, strive to keep the memory pure and uncorrupted.  For the latter, a special class of dedicated keepers of the word was established.  Now that that class has been destroyed, all of us have become, to the extent possible, keepers of the word.

          Ultimately, the individual is both the product and the creator of tradition.  Just as our genes are already given to us, our traditions have already left their mark on our minds.  This is also true for traditions of discontinuity and rejection, such as modernity, as it is of traditions of affirmation and continuity.  And yet, our genes do not exhaust the possibilities of our physical and mental existence.  They provide the base, but not the limits.  Therefore, each individual recreates his tradition in the light of his own experiences.  This re-creation often involves a rejection of some aspect of the inherited past as it does a reorientation of others. 

    Part III: Smriti and Smriti--A Second Look

          After trying to define the relationship between the individual and tradition, I would now like to focus on what we might call the real predicament of the individual.  The problem of each individual, as I see it, is how solve the riddle of life, to understand herself and her world, to master both and thus to achieve a perfection--or at any rate, to strive for perfection, while still in an imperfect body. I consider this desire for self-mastery and self-realization to be inherent to every cell of the human body, nay, inherent in life and matter itself.  It is thus akin to a law of nature which is universal. It has nothing to do with a particular tradition or civilization, a particular religion or cultural outlook.  True, some cultures have expressed this aim more directly than others, but, ultimately, there is a species culture, a species reality to it, regardless of how many different ways it is expressed.  That is why such a multiplicity of quests came to be called dharma--that which sustains, upholds, supports, not just individuals, but all of life and nature, indeed the whole universe.  In fact, even those who seem to be acting contrary to dharma are doing so for the same reasons that those conforming to dharma:  both wish to attain everlasting happiness, total power, and immortality.  One set of people may be mistaken or misdirected, while the others may be closer to the truth, but both are motivated by a similar desire to overcome suffering, pain, and death.

          If we agree that this is the aim of life, we will see at once how a traditional framework like that of the Purusharthas serves and exemplifies it.  Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha are a fourfold expression of the general thrust of life itself.  The great thing about such a traditional understanding is that they were seen as a unity, in an integral fashion, not fragmented and piecemeal as we moderns do.  Thus, there is nothing other-worldly about Moksha or dharma--they are secular, practical, and worldly ideals--just as both Artha and Kama are actually aspects of the Divine, the sacred, the transcendent.  The dichotomy between the two, the sacred and the secular, spirit and matter, is thus inadmissable.  That is why paramartha includes, not rejects artha, even in the manner in which the word is constructed. Paramartha, then, is quite different from anarthaArtha is the base, the adhara, the material foundation upon which we raise the edifice of our personalities.  Cutting ourselves lose from it will not serve our end, but perfecting it, purifying it, and transforming it is the goal.

          If we agree that such a paramartha is the aim of life then the question is how do we attain it?  What are our resources? Where to we begin?  Again, we can see at once that this question is also linked to the earlier issue of the relationship between the individual and tradition.  In other words, does tradition give an individual the wherewithal to realize this paramartha, which is the goal of life?

          Again, there are different approaches to this problem.  One approach regards a direct apprehension of truth, call it revelation or realization, as the basis of any praxis to attain paramartha.  In religious traditions, usually, such a moment has occurred in the past, at the very point of origin of the religion. This is then encoded and enshrined in one or more sacred text. Therefore, the emphasis of most religions is to conserve the original purity of the inspiration or to recover it; that is why most religions are usually conservative and backward looking. The grand, transformative moment has already occurred some time in the past; now what remains is to (re)connect with it.  That is why tradition becomes so important.  It consists of what is handed down from generation to generation, the wisdom and knowledge of the past, without which the present and the future become meaningless.*

    But such a view immediately poses the problem of the fossilization, ossification, and, thus, distortion of the original inspiration.  There are also the attendant problems of interpretation and mediation.  The truth was revealed, yes, but how do I reach it?  How do I connect myself with it?  Hence priests, churches, and all the paraphernalia of intermediacy.  To overcome this difficulty, each revelation is also characterized by an accompanying assertion of its own eternity; each revelation is not only something of the past, but has the capacity to extend and renew itself through time, thus maintaining its eternal presence.  That is what the idea of Sanatana Dharma implies.  The Vedas, refer, as I said earlier, not just to a bunch of sacred texts, but also to transcendent knowledge, Gnosis.  The latter is greater than the former. This, however, is the esoteric meaning of the Vedas; the common, exoteric meaning, does take us back to the texts.  And yet, because these texts were to be recited and heard, they had constantly to be renewed and drawn into the present, not frozen into some book.  The same is the case with, say, the Koran or the Guru Granth Sahib, which are to be recited and thereby reiterated.

          Sruti, which refers to direct  knowledge of the Ultimate Reality is, thus, the basis of any religious tradition.  At its purest it implies that each individual experiences or apprehends truth himself or herself.  But history has shown that such a direct experience is not possible for everyone.  Only a few gifted individuals have access to it; or, to put it in another way, even if everyone apprehends it, not everyone recognizes it or is transformed by it or attains oneness with it.  What should such individuals do?  For them, the record or the memory of this truth suffices, until they themselves rediscover it.  This is where smriti or tradition comes in.  In a sense, the Vedas, if they do not become our own experience, remain merely smritis, remembered truths, derived second-hand from books or heard, but not understood.  All knowledge, the moment it is encoded, put into words, automatically passes into smriti.

          Our normal experience is that all that we have at our disposal is smriti--second-hand experiences or memories.  We see the world, as J.  Krishnamurti would put it, through our past conditioning, which is millions of years old.  We cannot see ourselves as we are and the world as it is because of this interference of the past sanskars.  In Krishnamurti's scheme, then, smriti or tradition is the enemy, the veil, the screen between reality and ourselves.  It is only when we rend the veil, when we begin really to see—or, more accurately, to hear--things as they are that we are liberated from ignorance.  All past, all received notions, all smritis, whether good or bad, are ultimately limited and binding. Nothing short of a radical rupture from our past will release us into the eternity of the present.  Smriti is caught up in the movement of time, while only sruti is timelessness and release.

          Though I concede the  importance of this view, I do not agree with it entirely.  For Krishnamurti, smriti, memory, and tradition is the problem; it is that which interferes with our seeing reality clearly.  To me the interference can easily be superceded by direct experience, just as the actual taste of the proverbial pudding is more effective than any description of it. If sruti is always more powerful than smriti, then we need not see the latter as the villain which opposes the former.  It can be a willing subordinate and collaborator.  They need not be theorized so dichotomously; rather, we can see them as a continuum.  Seeing things for ourselves is a sort of primary experience.  Remembering it is secondary. Both are complementary and need not be seen as oppositional. However, it is important to realize that sruti, direct perception, is primary, while smriti, memory, is secondary.  I interpret Krishnamurti's work as an attempt to restore this rightful order, even if entails a temporary denial of tradition altogether.  Krishnamurti reminds us that sruti is available to each of us, if we are alert.  He warns us not to be contented merely with smriti.  However, most of Krishnamurti's followers get by with listening to his tapes and reading his books.  It is smriti which is available; sruti remains beyond our reach.

          In direct opposition to Krishnamurti's position, the Gita says that loss of memory leads to the destruction of the intellect, which in turn leads us to total annihilation.  Here, memory refers to the seed of enlightenment, the knowledge of our own ultimate nature, which we already possess.  Here smriti is directly linked to sruti and does not function in opposition to it as in Krishnamurti.  The present is after all that when replaces not the past, but another present which has, from the point of view of time, just elapsed.

          We therefore have two distinct views of the relationship between sruti and smriti.  One view implies a continuity and agreement between the two while the other a discontinuity and opposition.  The former is, to my mind the traditional view, while the latter is the modern one.  Both are, to varying degrees, justified.  My purpose in this section is to try to examine and, if possible, reconcile the two.

          It seems to me that when smriti works against sruti, as is very often the case, then the modern view is right.  Then we need a Krishnamurti to cleanse and deconstruct tradition so that something new may emerge.  The stream of sruti cannot flow if its course is overrun with obstacles and silt.  Someone has to do the dirty job of cleaning the channels of grace again, throwing all the soil and mud out.  The modernist does such a job. However, often he goes too far considering all tradition to be intrinsically and inherently rotten.  Indeed, he defines tradition as a departure from truth. The traditionalist, on the other hand, defines tradition as that which is the custodian and conveyer of truth.  By the latter definition, anything that departs from sruti also departs from tradition.  Thus, our view of the problem will depend, as I said earlier, on which of the definitions we accept.

          I think that the most useful and enabling position is one that allows us to see tradition as the repository of both good and bad, both the positive and the negative.  A critical traditionalist, while leaning to the good in his tradition is, nonetheless, critical of what is bad, whether it is really a part of his tradition or goes by that name.  Equally, a critical modernist will have to capacity to critique modernity when it departs from its proclaimed objectives.  A traditionalist, when he critiques tradition, will have to take recourse to either tradition or modernity; likewise, when a modernist critiques modernity, he will have to take recourse to either modernity or tradition.  In either case, the two do not function dichotomously, but dialectically.

          From a certain point of view, sruti itself is the modern, because it is the contemporary, the ever new, the immediate, while smriti, properly, belongs to the old, the remembered, the once contemporary, but now historical.  However, while modernity, not of the Indian (that is, traditional) but of the Western variety, always needs something to oppose, something to Other, something to destroy, sruti is inclusive and self-sufficient. Similarly, tradition in its original, wider sense, does not require modernity, because it is self-renewing, because it is made up of both sruti and smriti.*

    Only a society entirely inhabited by enlightened beings can afford not to have smriti at all.  All other societies need both sruti and smriti.  Some societies think that they can function only on the basis of smriti, remaining content with some revelation in the past.  Such societies, too, are doomed to failure and destruction.  That is why so many civilizations have risen and fallen in time.  A healthy society combines the riches of both sruti and smriti. The possibility of "new" sruti should always be present, even if it communicates itself only through some chosen individuals, while smriti can be collective as well as individual.  Sruti is primary, while smriti is secondary; what is required, as I said earlier, is that the latter harmonize and serve the former.  When it, instead, departs from the former, a reform or revolt is necessitated to cleanse and purge it of its deformities.

          The problem of tradition can be solved if we see it as the basis of our own realization, not if we regard is as the sole custodian of ultimate truth.  Tradition can guide us but merely repeating what we have inherited will not suffice.  We have to add to it, to grow beyond it, to discover our own truths. Tradition is, indeed, the repository of truth, but it does not restrict or close truth's domain.  Truth, by definition, is limitless.  That is why only tradition will not suffice; it must be supplemented by sadhana.  Tradition, in fact, yields itself only to someone who undertakes the discipline to understand it. This process of tapas or askesis serves to duplicate or at least to replicate the conditions which made the original revelation possible. When those conditions are fulfilled again, the practitioner renews and reacquaints himself with an old truth in a totally new and unprecedented manner.  Thus, tradition is renewed; sruti flows again; smriti is revitalized.  Unless each individual undertakes such a process, the tradition will be lost. Like a path on which no one walks anymore, it will be covered with weeds and barriers.

          To sum up, smriti alone is not the answer; sruti, by itself can be provide the answer but, again, we see that it is not available to everyone.  So, for most of us, sruti is accessible only through smriti.  But this sruti, which comes really as smriti, has the power to draw a guideline, a road map as it were, which points to the destination.  When I undertake the journey myself, I shall reach the goal where the received smriti, once again becomes sruti.  That is the alchemy which every system of spiritual endeavour hopes to accomplish; the magical, miraculous transformation of the lower to the higher, of the material to the spiritual, of the human to the Divine, of earth to heaven. 

    Part IV:  Parampara vs. Traditon

          Though the underlying thrust of this paper is in favour of retaining the original Sanskrit word parampara, along with its different nuances, and although this paper has been written with an awareness of how parampara differs in both emphasis and essence from the English word "tradition," it is obvious that I have continued to use the latter word.  Why? To begin with, it seems to me that the English word, especially as it has come to be used by writers and scholars like T. S. Eliot, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and A. K. Saran definitely carries a wider sense, closer to that of parampara. According to this sense, tradition is not merely a dead weight, but a living, ever-flowing stream.

          Actually, my reasons for not making the substitution are deeper.  I wonder what might be achieved by piecemeal substitutions such as parampara for tradition, when we continue to talk in English and continue to live under the dominance of Western knowledge systems.  At the most, such substitutions help to offer us an alternate focus or direction, but will not in themselves be sufficient for the larger project of better self-understanding or a more equitable and dignified relationship with the West.

          It seems to me that there are at least two ways of doing the latter. One way is to try to overhaul our entire intellectual vocabulary, not just substitute one word.  Such an overhauling would mean, at the least, that we stop using English for such discussions. That, I am afraid, has proved to be impossible.  The persistence of English as the primary, if not only, language of our intellectual endeavours, is a fact, however irritating or humiliating it might be.

          Moreover, merely substituting English by, say, Hindi, will not do either.  I am afraid Hindi is almost as colonized a tongue as Indian English is, when it comes to being a viable medium for Swaraj.  What is true for Hindi is also true for our other languages.  Therefore, simply changing the medium alone will not be sufficient.  We need to change our minds.  This more fundamental transformation is more crucial than all the superficial changes that are usually advocated as remedies to our problems.

          This larger project of Swaraj, therefore, cannot be achieved merely by such substitutions, but by carrying the struggle into our adversary's territory.  Which is, to use the English language as a medium for Swaraj, just as we should also endeavour to use Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, and so on, to the same end.  Once we see our task clearly, we will also realize that we are not the first ones to use English with a Swarajist agenda. It has been consistently used, against the grain as it were, for the last 150 years or more in India.

          Once we understand that Swaraj is the issue, then we should ask if using parampara instead of tradition serves any special purpose. If it does, we should retain this substitution; if it doesn't, then we need not dwell upon it.  To me, this substitution only offers a better focus or emphasis, but not a fundamentally different perspective or point of view.  For the latter much more work needs to be done.  The struggle for Swaraj is far from over.  Those who believe in it will carry on working for it, in whatever they do.  As to the question of the tradition and the individual, the fact is that the question has been with us for hundreds of years.  The question, of course, is still relevant.  We need to offer our own answers to this important question, even if these answers are already available in our traditions.  Repeating these answers is, thus, to demonstrate both tradition and the individual's capacity to change or to reaffirm it.  This, I suppose, is what this paper is really about—yet another attempt to confront an old question.

          Before I close, however, I would like to mention an extraordinary sense in which the concept of parampara was explained to me by Dr. Baidyanath Chaturvedi of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.  According to him, parampara can never die because it predicts its own decline, even death.  Because of this foretelling, the breakdown of the parampara becomes a part of the parampara itself, because it has been foretold.  In that sense, parampara signifies the Ultimate Reality or Truth itself, beyond which there is nothing.  He cites the example of the Puranas in which the decline of Dharma is predicted.  In Kali Yuga, for example, the cow (or in some versions, the bull) of Dharma, stands only on one leg.  That is why, in Kali Yuga, people forged the Dharma.  There is wickedness and chaos everywhere.  Moral values are uprooted; social and family life lose its harmony.  What happens to Dharma in such a situation?  Only a few wise ones, who are aware of the parampara, are able to follow Dharma.  The rest go astray.  Even when a particular epoch comes to an end, as with the prlaya or the flood which submerges all life, the Vedas—or Gnosis—is saved for the next yuga, the next cycle of creation.  In this manner, parampara reigns supreme.  There is no question, therefore, of destroying or breaking or going beyond it. 


  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape