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Spiritual Samsonite: The unrelenting invention of tradition in India

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on: 24 May 2018, 18:14 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

Academic wisdom says that as societies grow economically complex and urbanise, religious bonds loosen their grip. In the anomic anonymity of a society where god is dead, the human soul is reborn and free to do as it wants, even though, in the absence of god, it’s riddled with existential angst. This is what the sociologist Emile Durkheim tells us. This is what Camus and Sartre tell us.

But in modern India, religion is the cutting-edge of society, across strata. The more wealth you accumulate, the more religious you get. Even a minor rise-up in the class ladder is celebrated by the taking on of more rituals (what MN Srinivas called ‘sanskritisation’). One doesn’t shed unnecessary religious baggage but, on the contrary, invests in yet more heavenly Samsonite.

The innovative (and entrepreneurial) energies of Indians are channelled into religion. We reinvent tradition according to our personal whimsy. A new ritual added to ones spiritual repertoire is a way of expressing one’s individuality.

In the west you might grow a mohawk to tell the world who you are; in India, you wear an extra ring on your finger or tie an extra thread on your wrist.

To misquote Philip Larkin’s ‘This be the Verse’: "Your parents fill you with the rituals they followed/ And add some extra just for you." To these, you add your own.

Like all cultural trends (and as Billy Joel sang), no one knows who started the fire, but once started it spreads. Beggar boys started approaching me at traffic lights, holding an aluminium pan. Initially it was on Tuesdays (‘mangal’), in a couple of years it had been extended to Saturdays (‘shani devta’). Even the impoverished innovate in religion.

Another such invention was not eating meat on Tuesdays. Earlier barbers would remain shut on Tuesdays because apparently, religion prohibits Hindus from cutting their hair on Tuesdays (for Sikhs every day is a Tuesday). Then, as years went by, we added a new one to this: Hindus don’t eat meat on Tuesdays. All ‘chicken points’ in North India are shut on Tuesdays.

All-night jaagrans became all the rage in the late 1980s. It just happened. Middle-class Indians, usually early to bed and early to rise, decided that staying up all night listening to loud music was the in thing to do. When Paul Weller sang ‘In The Crowd’, he was talking about teenaged Mods in Sixties London.

Here, jaagrans became a way of signalling to the neighbourhood that you had arrived. You had money. You were cool. YoYo Honey rapped in rebellion: ‘Aunty police bula degi/ Lekin party yoohi chalegi/ Party all night’. But in jaagrans, it was the same aunties who partied all night, with police sanction. Devotional songs set to contemporary Hindi film tunes (another innovation) blared on loudspeakers till the crack of dawn. Everyone was invited. No one was spared.

Similarly, Navratra became a big thing almost overnight. I grew up in Allahabad. My mother in the Gujarati suburb of Vile Parle, Bombay. Through her, I heard stories of garba and dandia raas. But in the last decade, Navratra has become like Indian fashion weeks. It happens all the time. Earlier there was one, then another Navratra was slapped on. Restaurants see a dip in profits with people not eating meat. I can’t get the muffins I want because the market is flooded with eggless muffins. And Navratra thalis.

In Delhi, in the Noughties, I observed a new phenomenon. A Hindu woman decked out in a sari, a sleek Honda city parked next to her, always on a flyover, trying to catch a glimpse of the moon through a steel strainer. For some reason, the cars were always parked on a flyover. Does the moon appear closer from a height? This whole ritualistic business of fasting for your husband and making a show of it, gradually trickled down to small towns, and to the lower classes. Karwa Chauth: another splendid sanskari innovation.

Here, I have to mention the kanwariyas. While aunties had jaagrans, what did young disenfranchised cool Hindu men have? Introducing: the Kanwar Yatra. While there is the odd genuine kanwariya trekking barefoot in heat and rain, spurred on by genuine belief and devotion, for the rest it became one big travelling trance-rave party, a kind of The Burning Man for the non-English speaking youth. Drink, smoke, roam the land in biker gangs, let off steam, then go back to arranged marriages and disguised unemployment.

The Kanwar Yatra and Navratra can be called the disruptors, or, following Milton Singer and Robert Redfield, be seen as belonging to the Great Tradition of Religious Innovation. But there is also the Little Tradition of Religious Innovation. This latter is up to the individual.

A Muslim friend of mine, a Bollywood buff, declared that he doesn’t watch Hindi films in theatres during Ramzan. The pet dog can’t enter the house. A Hindu friend said one cannot drink at his place because it’s Navratra. Other Hindu friends say they don’t drink on Tuesdays.

A businessman I know came into money. As we say in India, ‘He’s doing well for himself.’ He began organising an annual Ganesh pooja at his house. The number of loudspeakers: four. Duration: four to five days. He built a new two-storey house on a plot next to ours. He took me to see it.

Next to the drawing room is a large pooja room. He said that no portion of the first floor was constructed immediately above the pooja room. This was to ensure that no one ever walked on the gods.

When a family member dies, everyone seems to do their own thing. The traditional period of mourning -- called the teravi -- was thirteen days when you couldn’t set foot out of the house. The street sweeper told me that ‘hamare yaha’ (in our community), one is not allowed to do any paid work for sixty days after the person dies. But one is allowed to step out of the house.

To these, one can add countless more instances where we have been leaders in religious R&D. The rise and rise of ‘spiritual’ channels on cable. Our insatiable appetite for personal gurus and their ‘organic’ products. Some gurus fall from grace and are imprisoned on proven criminal charges. This doesn’t diminish our appetite. Far from it.

Being a guru remains a viable career option if you have charisma and no educational qualifications. It’s a growing market at all times and promises to remain so for centuries to come.

Then there is religious tourism. It’s the biggest form of tourism in India, and that property prices are linked to something called vaastu. Bengalis devote all their creative energies to the reinvention of the pandal, year after year. In Tamil Nadu, new temples are constructed to honour film stars.

One wonders, with all our energies and spare money being poured into the cutting edge of blind faith, if there is time left for anything else. If one’s moral centre is not within but a moon in the sky, then our lives have as much meaning as the blankness of cosmos.

Traditions anywhere are invented. Nothing is timeless and god-given. This is what Bernard Cohn and Eric Hobsbawm tell us. The only difference from the rest of the world is that with us Indians the invention of tradition remains an all-encompassing, all-consuming passion. Having invented so much tradition already, we can afford to go a little easy on it. There’s enough good karma in the sack already.

(The writer is a social commentator and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India, published by Speaking Tiger)

First published: 24 May 2018, 18:14 IST