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The dictionary defines the word tradition as (tre dish´ en):
"1. the handing down orally of beliefs, customs, stories etc. from generation to generation.

2. any long established custom or practice."
Further: traditionalism means "...the following or clinging to traditions."

What is the problem? A lack of understanding of the word by both the majority of the people who use the word-tradition and the audience to whom it is intended is the problem. And who is affected the most? The people at the receiving end of such contorted interpretations of concepts. They have a vague familiar idea of a concept, yet they are not able to firmly oppose the misuse of a concept because their definitions are not clear.

A civilization preserves its culture by tradition. The passing-down of customs and beliefs to the next generation is through tradition. There is, essentially, one attribute deciding whether the 'next generation' will embrace the customs or will reject them. That is — the value which the people stand to gain from following the same customs, and therefore the moral and ethical aspects of such customs.

Not all long established practices are traditions. For e.g.. Indians have worn cotton clothes in the Thar Desert for long periods of time, this is not an aspect of Indian tradition. A hippopotamus eats only leaves and weed not because it is its tradition. In other words, tradition is not that which is related to matters of organic survival.

Is tradition a useful thing or a harmful thing?

This is a question in relation to the value of tradition to man. Tradition is a powerful and very useful concept in certain areas. Everyday practices and beliefs which are handed down to us can be a boon in that, the current generation need not generate a whole new set of actions and practices from scratch. It only needs to examine whether the same sets of beliefs and actions are suitable to be followed by them.

What does the next generation do in examining the 'suitability' of traditional elements? It finds out the moral and ethical premises of the tradition. And it finds out the relation of that tradition to man's survival. And a tradition which comes lacking in either of these questions will be (and should be) rejected.

Let me quote an example. The example of Sati (widow-burning). The practice of Sati originates from the belief that a woman has no identity outsite that of a man's wife, i.e. the personal identity of woman is lost when she becomes a wife. Add to this the body-soul dichotomy,stir a little and let it boil awhile — you get the concept that "since the soul of the woman is lost with the husband's death, of what use is the material body of the wife on earth?".

Thus the 'body' of a widow becomes excellent material for sacrifices. Immolation at the altar of the dead husband. This is the nature of Sati. Yet, Sati was followed for many generations at different places in ancient India. The practice is not dead even today (Roop Kanvar). Why?

The answer

The answer lies in the fact that subsequent generations didn't question the basic moral and ethical premises of a practice as Sati, and therefore its value to life. They didn't believe in the 'questionabilty' of traditions. They thought that inherent in the meaning of the word-tradition was its quality of unchangeability, at any cost.

The evil of Sati was thus perpetuated by moral default. And as in any case where the right doesn't speak up, evil spoke further. Voices that said "it is imperative that a widow be burnt because she may, otherwise cast aspersions on other men." and "...it is only to her advantage that she terminate her life after her husband's death, because the life of a widow in Indian society is comparable to life in hell" were listened to. Why were they listened to? Because they were told that Sati was an Indian tradition, practiced for ages

A thing of tradition doesn't have any intrinsic value, value has to be objectively demonstrated. Anyone who advocates traditional values without examination doesn't understand the meaning of the term-tradition, there is no necessity of listening to such an individual. As a conclusion let me quote Ayn Rand (Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal):

"The argument that we must accept 'tradition" as such, respect it merely because it is "tradition", means that we must accept the values that other men have chosen, merely because other men have chosen them — with the necessary implication of who are we to change them? The affront to a man's self esteem, in such an argument , and the profound contempt for man's nature are obvious."
Andre Beteille (Times of India) has a eloquent explanation for the use of tradition as a 'sheild against modernity'. I quote:
"...classes communities and parties that are unable or unwilling to cope with the strains of modernization invoke the sanctity and inviolability of the national traditions in order to resist it. They use tradition as a shield to protect themselves from many things that cannot and should not be resisted. Their passions are not fuelled by the love of tradition but by the fear of modernity

For those use it as a political weapon tradition is one single thing and not a multiplicity of things, and it is something that has prevailed in the remote and the mythical past rather than in recent and historical times...they wish to do away with modern institutions which they label as western or alien, but they cannot live without the fruits of these institutions...they lack the imagination and the ability to construct effective alternatives to them. They create fantasies of the past in order to set at rest their anxieties about the future [emphasis mine]"

Note how the "sanctity and the inviolate nature" of traditions in being used as a defence. To declare that an idea is inviolate because our ancestors originated it, and not because it is ethically and morally correct is to indulge in subjectivism. Is to evade. And therefore such traditions are morally repugnant. We dont need them.

1. Culture
2. Environment
3. Religion
4. Secularism
5. Society
6. Technology
7. Tradition

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