Tradition and Modernity

tradition is a belief or behaviour (folk custom) passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past. Modernity is defined as a condition of social existence that is significantly different to all past forms of human experience, while modernization refers to the transitional process of moving from “traditional” or “primitive” communities to modern societies.

Tradition: India is considered the birthplace of some of the world’s major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Today, other religions such as Muslim and Christianity have worked their way into the population as well, though Hinduism remains the most popular. For some visitors, the heavy spices and herbs used in Indian cuisine can be difficult to adjust to. Indian spices are legendary for their medicinal purposes, food-preserving powers and flavour kicks. Spices, such as cumin, turmeric and cardamom, have been used over thousands of years to make otherwise bland but nutritional dishes taste better. Though it varies from region to region, wheat, Basmati rice and pulses are staples of the Indian diet. Several religious groups are vegetarian or have certain limitations as to what meat they can consume, but lamb and chicken are most common for those who do eat meat. One most old tradition is wearing sari. Saris vary from five to nine yards long and two to four feet in breadth, and are wrapped around the waist and draped over the shoulder often baring the midriff. The sari may have originated among India’s temple dancers in ancient times because saris allowed them to maintain modesty while also giving their limbs the freedom of movement. A dhoti is an unstitched piece of cloth ranging from four to five yards in length and tied around the waist and legs. Gandhi used to wear a dhoti, and it was considered to be an attire that commanded dignity and respect.

Modernity: Modern Indian culture is a combination of traditional Indian customs, British heritage and other modern influences from around the world. It would impossible to cover every aspect of it, but let’s explore some important and interesting elements. The majority of the population practices one of the forms of Hinduism. This faith is a combination of several religious beliefs and traditions and is commonly perceived as a way of life. Islam is the second largest religion, coexisting with Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Christianity and others. Modern India is also a test of two middle-ground philosophies. As an early proponent of non-alignment in international politics, India has attempted to establish a [middle] position between Western and [communist] oriented states. Over the years, its leadership in carving out a Third World posture demonstrated that there is a viable route for nations who did not want to take sides in Cold War politics, an approach which many other nations in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East have followed and hope to sustain. 

Conflict between tradition and modernity: It might benefit us to engage with the idea of parampara, which is the Sanskrit word, also used in many other Indian languages, for what we call tradition in English. While tradition is not exactly an equivalent, it is also quite resonant. Methodologically, it is useful to make key concepts across cultures and meaning universes to converse with each other, rather than subduing or supplanting each other—in our case, the Western idea superimposing and superseding ours. Indian modernity is Janus-faced, even schizophrenic. On the one hand, it looks to the West and to the future, but on the other hand, it looks to India and its past. Arguably, the single most significant problematic in recent Indian intellectual history is that of tradition vs modernity. After nearly 200 years of debate and discussion, it seems fairly clear that India can have neither pure tradition, nor uncontaminated modernity. Whatever we are or have become has to be some combination or amalgamation of both

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