Bṛhat

The Problem of Culture Transmission
Tradition is the bedrock on which civilization stands and culture flourishes. And tradition is that which continues. But how exactly does it continue? How is it transferred to the next generation?

Culture, Tradition and State

Tradition is the bedrock on which civilization stands and culture flourishes. And tradition is that which continues. For anything to be called tradition, it has to have continuity; an unbroken link with the past which has never disappeared. Tradition is not old. It is not new. It is that which is continuous; which flows like a river, something which is perpetually changing and yet has always been there in its form and spirit.

But how exactly does tradition continue? How is it transferred to the next generation? In the context of Bhāratavarṣa and Sanātana dharma, there are several big institutions which transfer Hindu culture like varṇa, jāti, clan, the Hindu temple, family etc. They have existed for a long time and some of them will remain there for millennia to come. But the secular nature of the Indian State today prevents most of these institutions from functioning properly.

The nature of this State, as discussed, is secular and it scarcely cares for tradition. The modern State is supreme and sovereign; accepting no authority above it. This was never so in Bhāratavarṣa, where knowledge, not power, had supreme authority. The king was always tempered by the wisdom of dharma represented by rajaṛṣi present in the court. The Kṣatriya would always have to listen to the Brahmin who had no stake in power as such. This made sure that the writ of dharma always ran supreme.

The modern State on the other hand is an actively anti-dhārmika state, where it prevents the education of dharma to be imparted to the future generations through any agency of the State.

Further it forces the dhārmika institutions to toe the writ of the State, forcing knowledge to submit at the gates of power, thus inverting the most fundamental paradigm of a dhārmika State.

However, that was scarcely a problem for Hindu society as it had managed to operate with a hostile State at the centre for hundreds of years. It had developed mechanisms and institutions, both mobile and permanent, which were capable of transferring culture orally almost with complete exception and often active opposite of the State.

Evolutionary Foundations of Multi-Generational Family

Most Hindu institutions operated independently of the State. But it was often the institution of family which was the greatest carrier of tradition. The fundamental unit of Hindu society was not individual but family – a multi-generational family – in which at least three generations lived together, from grandparents to grandchildren. For culture is not transferred by parents to children, but by grandparents to grandchildren. That is not just the cultural design of human society but the structure that is biologically ingrained in us.

Evolutionary biologists like Edward O. Wilson tell us that while most animals have some form of society, complex societies of hundreds of thousands of individuals is a rare thing in nature, achieved so far only by four known species. One of course is the Homo Sapiens; the other three are ants, termites and bees. And there are many common traits of these societies. All of them have division of labor with different sets of individuals doing different jobs; all of them live in huge concentrations; and all of them have three generations in the ‘nest’ at a time. The parents do the heavy-lifting, doing hard work outside, while the ‘grandparents’ stay home and take care of the grandchildren while they grow up.

Human society is also exactly like this. Parents do not have much time for art, literature and science, all the elevated aspects of human culture, for they have to earn their livelihood by working hard, be it an agricultural, industrial or a post-industrial society. The children are taken care of by grandparents who teach them all the nicer things about culture, things which make us human. They teach the grandchildren customs, traditions and rituals through stories, anecdotes and idioms while engaging with them playfully, even while taking care of them in daily life. And that is how culture is transferred, when three generations live together in the same home, in the same ‘nest’ as an evolutionary biologist would say.

Where the ‘Nest’ Breaks Down and the Mechanisms of Culture Transfer Stop

But in a modern society the grandparents are no more. Family has come to mean nuclear family which has no place for grandparents. Most countries of the West and many metropolitan cities of even ancient civilizations like India are at a stage where even the nuclear family and marriage is no more and individuals are truly individuals. Parents have no time for their children. Let alone grandparents, even parents can’t bring their children up as both of the spouses have to ‘work’.

It is virtually the institutions of the State and the corporate which ‘bring up’ the children, right from the time they are just six months old. The crèche, the kindergarten, the school, the college and the workspace claim and consume the children which are in a way ‘produced’ by individuals but then brought by the forces of the State and the market.

The mechanisms for transfer of culture, are thus, no more. As the grandmothers disappear from home, culture disappears from society. It is no longer being transferred. It is no longer continuous. That which does not continue cannot be tradition. And that is perhaps the greatest problem that we face today: the big institutions of cultural transfer are prevented by the State from doing their job and are under constant fire from the State and market forces; and family, the greatest and most widespread institution for cultural transfer is fast disappearing as the society ‘develops’, ‘progresses’, and adopts the modern lifestyle and attitudes.

The mechanisms for the transfer of culture are no more. Things are expected to deteriorate in this way for some time to come. But we need to make sure that culture and tradition continue, or at least simmer low until old and time-tested mechanisms are back.

Cultural Story-Telling as a Solution

What needs to be done is the universalization of Hindu traditions with an in-built design for customizations for individual and regional variation. How would this look in practice?

As we no longer have grandmothers who tell us what it means to follow tradition and culture, how to celebrate a festival, or how to perform daily rituals and be a Hindu, we need to create bards and story-tellers who tell the stories of tradition, taken from real life, told in a compassionate manner which becomes accessible to every individual. Especially to that individual who is seeking redemption from the pitfalls of life through guidance from tradition.

One respite of the contemporary world is the voice it offers to those who can tell a great story. The bards of yesterday are once again in vogue, as information becomes cheap and always available, and people become hungrier for a good story which at the same time illuminates and elevates them, and probably absolves them from their personal problems. These mechanisms of communication can amplify the voices of tradition many times over if its nuances are portrayed in the form of stories.

We need to tell stories about our tradition illuminating all its nuances and the material, psychological and spiritual comforts that it offers to individuals and communities. We need to take recourse in art, as art builds upon individual stories and natural metaphors, capable of reflecting great and eternal truths in simplest of anecdotes and symbols. We need to universalize Hindu traditions through stories by resorting to all contemporary means of communication and taking help of all audio-visual mediums. We also need to make sure that these universalized traditions lend themselves easily to individual customizations, so that they become individual and universal to each consumer simultaneously.

At Bṛhat we try to tell the stories of our tradition by tapping into the timeless Indic tradition of kathā paramparā so that story of tradition continues and the Hindu tradition is transferred to the next generation.

By no means do we say that this is the only way to transfer culture. Strong Hindu institutions are and will continue to transfer culture largely. Our attempt is focused to provide a helping hand to an individual at the mercy of modern job, education, medicine and housing and who is almost completely isolated from traditional institutions because of a modern lifestyle.

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Pankaj Saxena

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Co-founder and Director at Bṛhat, Pankaj is an author on Hindu temples, arts, literature, history and culture. His writing explains the beauty of Sanātana Dharma through stories about traditions, communities and culture. He has a deep interest in cultural anthropology, evolutionary biology and ecology, and has visited more than 1200 Hindu temples.

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