When I was 12, I watched the Fiddler on the Roof for the first time. A song in the film caught my fancy: “Tradition!” it was called. To the uninitiated, the song was a take on how life was governed by these unwritten rules that all of us followed in every step, and attributed that these rules were, well, tradition. The word interested me doubly so, now: I thought it was an incredibly Indian thing to say that something was “tradition” and “traditional”. One particular line the character, Tevye, sang: “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years!” drew my attention.
I spent some time after the movie, building a list of all the times when I had heard the word tradition in the Indian context. And here’s where it got doubly interesting: nearly all my entries centered around “traditions” that were spelled out for women to follow. I had many questions for the people in my family that enforced these traditions, and expected the rest of us to follow them. One of these questions was, “Who started all this? Where is it written that we’re supposed to follow these traditions?”Quite like Tevye goes onto sing, “You may ask, how this tradition got started. I will tell you. I don’t know,” no one knew. Finally, a few claimed that it was “religion”.
This made me realize that much of our idea of traditions and culture are rooted in our warped interpretations of religion, much of which is heavily patriarchal. How many times have you believed or been led to believe that a religion has been the reason for a certain action, or a certain practice? How many times have you heard religion being cited as a basis for the prohibition of abortions, no matter how grave an issue it might be?
Stop for a moment.
Have you gone through the religious texts of the world’s religions? Have you seen the common thread running through them – that they only preach the values of goodness, truth to your conscience and to remain adherent to goodness in thought and action? Have you seen that each of them propagate only simplistic values that talk of truth, earnestness, sincerity, goodness and peace? This, is Religion speaking.
And then you’ve seen and read, doubtless, of women being oppressed and confined in their houses. You’ve seen and read of women being subjected to violence in the hands of their husbands, their fathers, their sons, their villages and their societies in the name of religion. You’ve seen and read about women being killed to save the honour of their family. You’ve heard how men use religion to wage war. You’ve read how women are beaten, raped, abused, kept in brothels against their will and subjected to genital mutilation in the name of religion. You’ve seen how man kills man and wages war on man in the name of religion.
This is NOT Religion speaking: but a tradition, a culture that is built out of impunity-ridden fallacious interpretation that is enforced and reinforced by practice.
Let me give you an example.
The Quran does not encourage Polygamy. It reads thus: "If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice."
This verse is said to have been revealed in the aftermath of a war, when there were too many widows and orphaned children that needed support and protection. But look at how this is being interpreted by those who don’t look at the Quran in the right way. Is that Religion? Or Tradition?
Let me give you another example.
The Caste System in India is perceived among Hindus as an ascription – as a fact inherent in the birth that one takes. Therefore, a person born to a man of a particular caste is believed to belong to the same caste. And this identity is used to enjoy and reap benefits, and is used to perpetrate a constant state of caste-based discrimination. But the Bhagwad Gita says that the caste system is a creation based on occupation: “The four-fold Varna been created of GUNA and KARMA; though I am the author thereof know Me as non-doer and immutable.” Guna implies qualities and skills, karma implies actions done. And yet, today, vote-bank politics thrive on the caste system. People fight in the name of caste, kill in the name of caste. Is this Religion? Or Tradition?
There is a thin red between Religion and Tradition. Religion is a path to god. Tradition is a cumulative set of practices that comprise an ethos. Clearly, as it stands, this thin red line has evaporated in the face of ignorance: A culture of ignorance thrives as an obstacle in the path of understanding Religion truly.