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Volume: V, Issue: I, January-December 2014



The present paper aims to examine the phenomena of tradition and culture with special emphasis on two related aspects: (a) the ontological/metaphysical bearings that any tradition has, and (b) the cultural and civic values the tradition offers to the society. Accordingly, the basic structure of the present study follows a three-fold path: (i) theoretical understanding of tradition and its dialectics; (ii) retrieving this concept in the Indian cultural tradition and finding out its ontological moorings; (iii) philosophical plea that the cultural tradition of India is rooted in the concepts of Dharma, ṛta and yajña. It is also intended to argue that Indian tradition has not accorded much importance and value to the notions of individuality, egoity, and personal accomplishments.

Keywords Content

As the tradition played a critical role in the ancient society, there had been a continuous endeavor to express and pass on the transmitted beliefs and customs in a specific form and expression to others. This process is characterized by a tension and the need to make it relevant in response to the prevailing (mostly changing) conditions. In a word, tradition is a way or pattern of thinking, doing or taking action which is inherited from the past. The origin of the word tradition can be traced back to the Latin noun traditio (handing over), derived from the verb tradere (handover, deliver). The word traditio corresponds closely to the Greek word paradosis, which also has the same meaning. In ancient times, Latin and Greek theologians used traditio and paradosis, in the sense of teachings preserved and handed down by the Church as “the Catholic faith”. Thus, ‘transmitting’ and ‘handing over’ had been the fundamental meaning of the initial Greek word Paradosis and Latin tradere. There can be no tradition without enactment. The enactment of a tradition involves certain regularities of conduct. Tradition can neither be adopted nor does it spread, but, it is simply handed down. Hence, a tradition cannot be instituted; at best, it can only be encouraged or fostered. Though, it is clear that tradition refers to an inherited body of customs and beliefs, yet, it is equally difficult to talk about tradition in terms of boundaries and essences as it embodies a process of continuity as well as change and discontinuity, which precludes any final word on this subject.


Tradition is a set of beliefs which are connected to each other both temporally as well as conceptually. The connection between belief and practice must be consistent and coherent. Both belief and practice must form an intelligible whole. Therefore, tradition cannot guide someone to move towards the integral aspects of tradition itself, which consists of the beliefs and practices that are integrated into a coherent whole. It must be noted that only a coherent set of beliefs and practices in a tradition reveal a degree of conceptual coherence, but, such a coherence may not be absolute. In other words, tradition is not just a set of random beliefs and actions which individuals normally practice. If, for example, historians discovered that some people believed that god came on earth and that our souls survived death, they could not talk of a tradition composed of these beliefs alone. But, if the historians take these beliefs along with other beliefs such as Christ, the son of God, who came on earth and taught his followers to have faith in afterlife, then, they could talk of a Christian tradition that is based on a set of consistent set of beliefs.

It may be noted here, that, the beliefs within a tradition must be related both temporally and conceptually, though, their substantive content is not central. All beliefs and practices must have their roots in tradition as tradition is inevitable. They must do so whether they are aesthetic or practical, sacred or secular, legendary or factual, premodern or scientific, or are valued because of their lineage or their reasonableness. It is not important whether they are transmitted in oral form or in written form. Furthermore, such details, like, whether people recognize these beliefs on other’s authority or through the vision of deriving them from the first principles are also unimportant. All beliefs and all practices must arise against the background of tradition. As for instance, a scientist trained in modern science does not work out appropriate procedures, reasoning, and accepted truths by themselves. Instead, he or she is initiated into a tradition of science by his/her teachers, and only after they have been thus initiated that he/she proceeds to advance science through further investigation. It cannot be denied that these scientists later can certainly challenge the accepted beliefs, but, they do so against the background of a tradition into which they already have been initiated.

Any description of a tradition will be incomplete without identifying a set of associated beliefs and habits that intentionally or unintentionally was transferred from one generation to another. Furthermore, if anyone wants to place oneself in a tradition, then he or she has to defend a particular expression of the temporal and conceptual relationship between the beliefs and practices of his/her predecessors. It means, that, our interpretation and understanding, its development and orientations, are dependent on the experience and insight of our predecessors.

Tradition: The immanent principles of universal order

The term tradition can be understood in terms of the spiritual relationship between a master and a pupil. Intended for the general mass of the faithful, the doctrine is split into three elements, such as, dogma for the reason, morals for the mind, and rites and ceremonies for the body. We recognize the privileged center as processing an inexhaustibly rich store of possibilities which are mediated to us by means of symbols. In existent life, tradition implies the sustenance of faith in eternal truths and values. When a cosmic power manifests itself in human life, those who experience the inevitable beauty, goodness and rightness of this cosmic power desire to continue its expression. Any true tradition is a sustained experience of the same vibrant aliveness. Tradition in its true sense implies adherence to eternal values or to certain aspects of these values depending on which particular tradition one is born. We should take into cognizance here, that, human responses to tradition are deeply embedded in one’s own personal orientation. All aspects of society are influenced by each individual’s attitude to tradition. A person may be aware of the true sense of tradition in the present situation or he or she may just be  repeating an act out of habit. We may also note here, that, there is a great deal of difference between these two situations. Politics and religion are very clearly influenced by and also reflect in a specific society’s approach to tradition.

Tradition and Society

It is assumed that a society is identified by its traditions, such as, a core of oral teachings handed down from the past. The continuity of the past with the present decides the very identity of a society. According to Shill, it would not be a society if it did not have duration; the mechanisms of reproduction gives the duration which permits it to be defined as a society (Shill 1981: 167).

Shill argues that tradition in its barest, most elementary sense means simply a traditum; it is anything which is handed down from the past to the present (Shill 1981: 12). The word traditum refers to ‘the transmitted thing’, the materials, whatever they are, which are handed down. Traditions are constantly undergoing changes, but the changes are not total. Certain essential elements remain constant while other elements change. Traditional and untraditional elements are intertwined (Shill 1981: 27-33). In spite of change and reinterpretation by the current tradition bearer (Shill 1981: 14), Shill also mentions the important role of folklorists in developing the concept of tradition (1981:18). Tradition is not something fixed and rigid. It is the mixture and interpretation of the past in the light of the present. Undeniably, traditional action may refer to the past, but, it is a symbolic rather than natural relationship, and as such, it is characterized, both by the discontinuity and continuity (Handler 1984: 273-290); it is by now, a well recognized fact, that, cultural revivals themselves change the traditions they attempt to revive.

Tradition: The Contingent and Evolving Entity

Tradition forms the inevitable background and the foundation upon which all other things rest. Although, tradition constitutes the foreseeable background to every thing we say and do, yet, traditions are contingent and evolving entities that operate through teachers as influences on pupils, where the pupils can extend and modify them in unlimited ways. Tradition, therefore, explains the set of beliefs and practices people carry on. It does not explain as to why they went on to change these initial beliefs and practices in the ways they did. But, it can be reasonably said that pupils sometimes remain faithful to their inheritance and hold to beliefs and practices that correspond to a tradition that is imparted to them by others. It undergirds the idea that tradition is the inevitable background to human beliefs and actions. As McLean suggests:


“tradition, then, is not as in history simply everything that ever happened, whether good or bad. It is rather what appears significant for human life: it is what has been seen through time and human experience to be deeply true and necessary for human life. It contains the values to which our forebears first freely gave their passionate commitment in specific historical circumstances and then constantly reviewed, rectified and passed on that content, generation after generation progressively over time. The content of a tradition, expressed in works of literature and all the many facets of a culture, progressively emerges as something upon which multiple themes can be drawn, provided it be accepted and embraced, affirmed and cultivated” [McLean 1994: 14]. 


Tradition: The Innovation

Even though, a tradition may have stability, it never stops changing or evolving. Some innovation must be a part of tradition in order to keep it alive. Innovation is just as essential as stability to the survival of a tradition, because, it gives new life, interest and variety to the tradition. Through innovation a tradition is made to adjust to a changing environment where survival is dependent on change and adaptation. Tradition may be defined as the dynamic balance of stability and innovation. The learning process has within it the seeds of both stability and innovation. When tradition is self-taught, it contains innovation, because a style is created by the individual according to his/her memory, skill and talents. But, the context changes when the tradition is taught by someone else to the individual. Both play a role in the survival of the tradition.

Formation of Tradition

The concept of formation is always a reference to the shaping or forming of human life. In some measures, every human subject is formed implicitly and explicitly by one or the other formative tradition or by the mixture of them. Formative tradition refers to the form directives that have been handed over from generation to generation. Foundational formative tradition refers to the universal directives and validity. It is no longer bound exclusively to the particularities of past or present socio-historical situations. Formative traditions have been the leading depositories of form guidelines for human life and society. Their continuity has been supported and nourished by the religious or humanistic belief systems in which they are rooted. Accordingly, formative traditions are sustained through letters, symbols, creative myths, rites and customs which rendered imperative and powerful into the ageless form directives. In a way, we can say that the formative traditions find their strength in symbols, stories, rituals, and writings that are deeply meaningful and nurture living faith, hope and consonance in the formation mystery. Such beliefs or convictions and their immediate symbols and implications are the heart of a religious or humanistic faith tradition. What distinguishes a formative tradition from a faith tradition as such is the fact, that, its practical formation answers have been developed in dialogue (Interaction) with the concrete everyday concerns and requirements of people within practical and social interactive situations. Formative traditions are defined by tension between two fidelities: the primary fidelity is to the foundational faith presuppositions concerning the nature and meaning of the formation mystery; the other fidelity is to the facts and meanings of changing formative situations and societies in which the faith tradition must concretely be incarnated [Miaoyang, Xuanmeng and McLean 1997: 118].

The central concern of the formative tradition which is developed on the basis of certain beliefs differs from the elements of their beliefs. The belief systems of specific formative traditions function as necessarily stimulating, inspiring and controlling predispositions accompanied by attempts at rational explications, explanations and legitimateness. They may develop into self-consistent and rational systems of an ontological or theological nature. Apparently, formative tradition is much more plastic or flexible and more open to change than the foundational faith tradition. This difference remains always true. The formative tradition as practical must change with the changing factual knowledge of the specific nature and demands of each human life, its form structure, its field of formation and the multifarious form dynamics.  

Tradition: Ontological Roots

Being basically a moral and social concept, tradition also plays a vital role as an ontological and explanatory one. In order to explain the features of various works, actions and practices, one has to locate them in the context of a particular tradition. The concept of tradition applies to every sphere of human culture including science, arts, letters, education, law, politics and religion, since, culture itself depends on teachings and learning which presuppose a tradition i.e. received from the hands, lips or the examples of others. Tradition, structure, heritage or paradigm all are, thus, integral to the understanding of human condition. Tradition penetrates every sphere of human life and culture. The process of socialization itself presumes an inherited set of shared understandings. Tradition can be extended, modified or even rejected in a way that might make it anything but constructive of the belief systems and practices of a given society.

It is a common practice in hermeneutic tradition to talk of tradition as integral to everything that the individual ever does. It seems valid until we consider it as a necessary part of the background to everything any one believes or does. But it is not a necessary presence in all that people believe and do. Though, tradition is unavoidable as a starting point, yet, it cannot be regarded as the final destination.

Essentialists equate tradition with fixed essences to which they ascribe variations. They define tradition in terms of an unchanging core that appears in different outer garbs from time to time and even from person to person. They might even identify a tradition with a group of ideas widely shared by a number of individuals, although, no particular idea was held by all of them. Or, they might identify a tradition with a group of ideas that was passed down from generation to generation, changing a little each time, so that no single idea persists from start to finish.

The bearer of tradition might think of it as a unified whole possessing as the essential core. However, it might be composed of a variety of parts, each of which can be reflected upon, and so accepted, modified, or rejected. Individuals can respond selectively to the different parts of the tradition they acquire as an inheritance. Indeed, people usually want to improve their tradition by making it more coherent, more accurate, and more relevant to contemporary issues; they often respond selectively to it; they accept some parts of it, modify others, and reject others. It points to the fact, that, traditions change as they are transmitted from person to person. Rather than a defining presence in everything people believe and practice, tradition is an influence that works through others on people. Individuals pick up their initial beliefs and practices by listening to and watching other people including their parents, educator, the authors they read, and their peers.

Indian Tradition and Ontology

The fact that every access to ‘culturality’ is made possible through a specific ontology should give us pause before generalizing the insights of one’s tradition. Despite its universal claims truths are valid only within the parameter of the ontological tradition of people or a country. In the case of western ontologies, the world of history is so serious that its approach to reality and truth are wholly determined by it. Indeed, here only the historical is true and, therefore, the historical is real. For what is not historical is illusory and, therefore, not true in this tradition. Accordingly, in the western world-view all things begin not only in time, they also develop in time. Hence, the concept of history is of paramount importance to the western mind.

In the Indian tradition, however, there is no such concept of specific beginning or end of all creation. Hindu metaphysics and world-view consider that all things are potentially embedded in an inexhaustible ultimate Reality, which periodically manifests itself in multiplicity and, eventually, takes that back into its unmanifest Being. But this taking back or destruction means not total annihilation of being but its transformation into another shape and another name; the new that is beginning now as being is organically related to the old which has come to an end. This is true of human beings as well; the law of Karma and rebirth ensuring that each new generation being born is a remodeling of the old that has died (except for the liberated few). It amounts to saying that Indian ontologies are built on the reasoning of ‘faith’ rather than in abstract reason itself.

Localized Faith: An Ontology from Indian Tradition

The early Vedic tradition offers a good example for such an ‘ontological’ approach. If western ontologies are built on a historical world-view whose flagship is history enlightened by reason, the Vedic world-view is based on a vision based on faith. This means that Vedic ontology is a sort of theological ontology, which suggests that its anticipatory structure is determined in advance by the Vedic faith-world. More specifically, the Vedic world of faith is steeped into the Vedic myth. In the case of western ontologies, they have been the products of the western myth of history. In the western world-view, reason has always been taken as reasonable to follow the reason. But there is no reason to justify the reason itself. Vedic world of faith negatively means that history is of no consequence for ultimate liberation and that the reason is not the main instrumentarium in the process of reflection. It neither starts from reason nor relies on reason as its main guide. The parameters of human existence and human understandings are not set by reason but by the world of faith. It is important to keep in mind that what is meant by faith is not merely an assent to what is revealed but an existential openness to one’s way of experiencing and understanding the reality as it is. More specifically, the Vedic way of experiencing and understanding reality demands an existential openness of the human self to itself. Vedic man lives, moves and has his being in the mode of such experiencing and understandings of Reality.

Speaking positively, the Vedic faith-world corresponds to the Vedic myth of yajña, ṛta and Dharma. Unlike the myth of history, the myth of yajña, ṛta and Dharma is trans-historical [Francis D’Sa 2002: 22]. That is to say, that, neither it concentrates on history nor considers history to be an important constituent of its perspectives. Whereas, in the myth of history, history is considered to be central as the criterion of reality. In the Vedic world, the word for reality is yajña. Yajña is reality and reality is yajña. “If one had to choose a single word to express the quintessence of Vedic revelation, the word yajña, sacrifice, would perhaps be the most adequate” [Panikkar 1977: 347].

Translated literally, the metaphor of yajña means sacrifice. But it is not sacrifice in the Judeo-Christian sense but ‘as the primordial act’, that makes beings to be and is, thus, responsible for their becoming, without the assumption of a prior Being from which they come. The yajña metaphor, therefore, symbolizes the way reality acts. It is the prajāpati sacrifice, in mythical terms, which gives birth to being and which also releases being from the burden of having to be the origin and the cause of beings. At the origin of every being, there is a sacrifice that has produced it. The texture of the universe is sacrifice, which is the act par excellence, which produces all that is [Panikkar, 1977: 348, 49].

Sacrifice is an ongoing act through which the universe comes into being. But that is not everything; there is also the process of death. Sacrifice comprises the dual processes of being born and of being dying; but, from death every time new life emerges; it induces an endless chain of life-death-life. The specific characteristic of the whole process is that all things are interrelated and interdependent in yajña. Speaking in other terms, yajña means a reality where every single thing is interrelated and interdependent. Hence, to be is to be real, and to be real is to be interrelated and to be interrelated is to be interdependent. To try to break away from this interrelationship and interdependence is to try to break away from the reality itself, and hence, to become less real as it were. Yajña as reality is basically a network of real interrelationships. The depth and extent of our reality is in proportion to the depth and extent of our interrelationships; this is so, because, we are constituted by such interrelationships.

Seen thus, yajña is primarily but not merely an ontological perspective; the ontological perspective is intimately connected with and accompanied by a ritual perspective. Hence, the myth of the cosmic Purua (which narrates the story of the cosmic sacrifice) embraces the whole of reality. After speaking of the all-embracing and all-comprehensive nature of Purua, it comes to the sacrifice of Purua and enumerates the major emanations from it. The philosophical point is, that, it is through sacrifice the reality is maintained in existence. Sacrifice is the re-building of the Purua who is dismembered in the primordial sacrifice. Interestingly, but less surprisingly, there is no ‘God’ in the world of yajña to whom the sacrifice is offered. The famous and most significant hymn of Puruṣasūkta (Ṛg-Veda X. 90) says:


“with sacrifice the gods sacrificed to the sacrifice” [Zaehner:  1966]. This hymn to the Puruṣa projects the vision of a universe, wherein, everything is interconnected. “By sacrifice Gods and Men collaborate, not only among themselves but also for the maintenance and very existence of the Universe. Reality subsists, thanks to sacrifice. But this truly primordial sacrifice is not left to the whim of either Men or Gods; it has an internal structure and mode of operation, namely ṛta. Without ṛta, the Vedic sacrifice would degenerate into a manipulation of the whole cosmic order by Gods or Men, and we would fall into a hideous world of magic, as men are sometimes prone to do” [Panikkar 1977: 351].


Individual things do not exist. The full identity of any thing is to be found only in its relationships to the total whole. Herein, lies the ontological rootedness of the interrelationship between individual and society, ethics and religion, spirituality and mysticism in the Hindu/Indian cultural tradition. Professor McLean has underlined this basic philosophy in a different context in the following words:


“It elaborates the distinction of the composite and differentiated from the incomposite and undifferentiated being, but avoids duality inasmuch as the very being or existing of the composite beings of the differentiated universe is nothing other than the participating- the sharing and manifesting- of That One. Further, it enters into the absolute in order to learn more of that wisdom and love which is the plenitude of perfection, unsublatable and creativity” [McLean 1977-78].


It becomes clear when this understanding of yajña is understood with two of its most important features: ta and Dharma.  

The process of yajña keeps going by the dynamic principle known asta, which sees to the harmonious running of the cosmos. ta is the soul of yajña which signifies the cosmic law that allows the universe to run smoothly. The Vedic Indians, like their Hellenist brothers, were struck by the law and order, rhythm and harmony prevailing in the universe. Behind the rhythmic occurrences of natural phenomena such as day and night, full moon and new moon, high tide and low tide, heat and cold, sunshine and rain, summer and winter, spring and autumn, the Vedic Indians detected the Eternal Law or Perennial Order which they calledta— Sanskrit Rhutmos, Greek Ordo, Latin Ritus, English  rite, rhythm, order.The universe itself is said to be founded on ṛta, and moving according to it. can therefore, be rendered as ‘cosmic order’, ‘moral law’, ‘sacrificial law’, ‘truth’, ‘righteousness’ etc.

There is further ontological development with the added significance of the metaphor of Dharma. Dharma refers to the specific relationships a thing has to everything in the universe in the context of ṛta and on the background of yajña. The implication here is, that, in classical literature, Dharma carries ontological weight, meaning thereby, that, being arises out of proper activity while improper action leads to non-being. This ontological aspect leads to the normative notion that, in the Sahitā literature, Dharma is the system of activity that guides the world in such a way that ṛta is not violated [Francis D’Sa 2002: 27].

Concept of Dharma and Harmony

Concept of yajña in Indian cultural tradition is the world process and if ṛta—the cosmic principle—ensures harmony and order in that process, then, Dharma is the unique ontological relationship that a thing has to the rest of the world in this world process. The harmony of the world-process is preserved when each thing remains true to its Dharma and when we respect the Dharma of every being. We might call the Dharma of a thing its very essence. On such a background, one needs to respect the Dharma of a particular thing because of its deeply dhārmic (religious) act. Accordingly, the practice of Dharma consists in the awareness of the Dharma of the universe and in a life that lives in consonance with this awareness. The above contentions obviate the necessity to appreciate and appropriate Dharma with its two aspects: the cosmic connections and the sacrificial effects. Integration into the cosmic sacrificial process demands that one respects the dhārmic relationships that are operative in the universe. And to respect the complex Dharma of the universe is to respect the law of cosmic harmony and to become part of the cosmic sacrificial processes. It also presupposes the idea that one discovers oneself only by discovering one’s relationship with the universe and the more one discovers the universe the more one discovers oneself.

Want of philosophical reflection and critical attitude that engineered the Hindu society owing to its political, religious and cultural factors made the Indian society hierarchical in character and confused the two different conceptions of Dharma—one corresponding to the nature of a thing as it is, relevant to the idea of physical laws—and the other—the norm things are required to achieve—relevant to the idea of social, political and religious laws. Dharma, when it functions as a natural or descriptive concept (the way things are) is quite different from the Dharma when it functions as a moral or prescriptive concept (the way things ought to be).  But, both may be referred to as the nature of things, particularly, when it means the essential nature, not accidental properties, so that the distinction between nature and norm disappears. Accordingly, there was a calculated and intentional confusion between the two uses of this term Dharma which took the purely descriptive as the prescriptive, that believes something as Dharma (morally commendable), because, it is Dharma (happens to be the way and, hence, its nature in the sense of what it is). It paved the way for the justification of caste system and untouchability on the ground that it is part of Dharma, the implication being that the irregularities of the system ought to be there as lawful, right and virtuous, because, it is in the nature of the Dharma. Since a religious and lawful sanction has been volitionally attached to it, the initial ideal was lost sight of and the system developed fissiparous tendencies and evolved the code of inequities, which has given it a bad name outside as well as inside India. Unfortunately, the cultural and religious supremacy of the Brahmaṇas  who were supposed to uphold the meaning and worth of the doctrine of dharma could not do the same and identified it with varṇa and jāti with privileges based on birth, and which prevented the concept of rights and freedom in this country. The essential basis of the varṇa system metamorphosed later into the caste system; the keystone of the structure was not detachment but union. The element of exclusiveness and untouchability was otherwise repugnant to the social philosophy and tradition of not only the Āryan race but also of their philosophy, which was rooted in the doctrine of Dharma

Indian Tradition and the Caste System

Caste is believed to be the defining factor of Indian tradition. It is the single most powerful symbol for the Indian social world, both rural and urban. Although ‘caste as India’ assertion has been questioned and critiqued during the last three decades by anthropologists and historians alike for distorting our understanding of Indian society [Appadurai 1986; Inden 1990; Chatterjee 1993; and Dirks 2001], yet, it remains alive in everyday consciousness in India and also abroad for the Indians. For social scientists, even when caste is not the sole emblem of ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ India, it is still believed to be central to understand Indian social reality [Fuller 1996a]. Two images of caste are central to this understanding of Indian society and tradition: caste as community and caste as maker of dominance and hierarchy laid down by birth[Newman 2006].

Caste may no longer convey a sense of community that confers civilizational identity to the Indian subcontinent, but, it is still the primary form of local identity and, in certain contexts, from Dalits to Brāhmaṇas, translates the local into recognizably sub-continental idioms of association, far more than any other single category of community [Dirks 2001: 5]. Barring recent postcolonial studies, scholars on caste tell us that local community structures in traditional and modern India are driven by the Hindus’ strict adherence to family-and-caste based collective identities. The latter are underpinned by the ideas and values (ideology) of the caste system. The leading exponent of this view has been Dumont [Dumont 1980: 34]. According to this view, the traditional hold of the caste-based groups on Indian social behaviour has survived all attempts to build alternate identities including the Indian national one [Béteille 1987]. Even authors critical of the centrality afforded to collective identities of caste, such as Béteille and Dirks, end up agreeing that caste acts as the central driver of the public and private actions of the majority of Indians. The latter, however, view caste as an evolving phenomenon influenced by colonial knowledge about India, generated by British administrators, postcolonial electoral politics, and prominent individuals in Indian society.

Indian Tradition: Reforming movements

In the Indian historical and cultural life there are processes of creating new realities and transformations—as evident in the various phases of its history—which have initiated various social and political changes. We may call it as revolt, but such revolts on the existing social conditions have marked the beginning of human creativity and, thus, of social changes. As for instance, in the Greek Islands of Ionia, Heraclitus preached his new doctrines; in Iran Zoroaster launched his protest against the prevailing religious superstitions; in China people welcomed the philosophic teachings of Confucius who gave them a higher conception of duties of life. In India people were disgusted with the old philosophical dogmas and were striving for simple methods of worship and easier means of liberation from the ills of the mundane existence. Consequently, new leaders of thought and religion sprang into vigorous activities and gave a new direction to life in India. They revolted against the old order of things, such as, the existing social patterns, the ritualistic form of religion, the absolute power of the priest-craft etc. They discarded the principle of social immobility, inequality and injustice; these philosophies of revolt were anti-caste in spirit. It upheld the sanctity of human spirit and its freedom, irrespective of the caste and creed. These reforming movements, both humanitarian and theistic, gathered force and momentum in the socio-cultural life of the Indians. They were ascetics and wandering teachers and some of them rejected the authority of Vedās and Vedic priests and denounced blood sacrifices, which constituted a large part of the Brāhmaṇic rituals and even denied the very existence of God. Right conduct, they declared, was the only way of getting out of the existing meshes of doctrines like Karma and Saskāra. The greatest of these wandering teachers were Vardhamāna Mahāvira and Gautam Buddha. The philosophy of the former took the shape of a reforming movement known as Jainism while those of the latter led to another movement in India’s cultural tradition called as Buddhism. They were not initially a creed but ‘an appeal for holier living in the bosom of the existing Hindu religion and society’. In other words, these movements revolted against the burdens of ritualism, belief in Mantras, extreme form of sacrifices, supremacy of Brāhmaṇas, caste system in the society and the like.

 Social Change and Reformation: The Non-elites

In the cultural tradition of India, there were other sects who revolted and taught various other doctrines and practices in the upward march of Indian social and cultural life. The Ājīvikas, for instance, were said to be the Śūdra Sannyasis whose leader was Makkhali Gosala. Born a slave himself, Makkhali was a radical teacher who denied even the basic doctrine of Hindu thought, so to say, the theory of Karma. He argued that man is subject to the laws of nature. Action, therefore, cannot lead man out of the inevitable and so a quietest view of life is desirable. Gosala’s followers were centered on Sāvatthī, the capital of Kosala, where Gosala preached and died sixteen years before Vardhamāna Mahāvira. Ājīvikism altogether disappeared from India in the 14th century A. D. after being shifted from province to province.

When we look at the cultural traditions of India, there were other sects like Ajita Kesakambalin and Purana Kassapo who were popular teachers and taught different ideologies and doctrines that were questioning the existing theories of Hinduism. Beside these sects, there developed within the fold of orthodox Hinduism some other sects, which did not distinctly repudiate the Vedās. The features of these sects were the worship of one particular God as the supreme deity. He was conceived as Viṣṇu, Śakti, Śiva or some other form. Salvation could be achieved through His grace and one has to follow the path of Bhakti for this. The devotees of Viṇu called Vaiṣṇava or Bhāgavata developed a sect called Bhāgavatism, while those of Rudra developed a sect called Saivism.

Apart from these, there were other philosophies and reformations that happened in the cultural and social development of India, notably the Bhakti cult, the Śākta cult, and the Tāntrism. India has produced great philosophers likeŚaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Mādhva, Vallabha, and Nimbārkawho interpreted the philosophical contents of the Upaniads in different perspectives. The cultural development of India cannot be summed up without the name of Guru Nānak, the founder of Sikh religion. Though, he was married and had children, he renounced the world, wandered over many lands, visited all holy places and gathered spiritual experience. His mission was to bring to an end the conflict of religions. He was the reviver of the pure monotheistic doctrine of the Upaniṣads. His followers came to be known as Sikhs who were hammered into militancy by the successors of Nānak who were known as the Gurus of the Sikhs.

Individual Rights in Indian Tradition

What is unique in the tantalizing experiential metaphysics of the ‘Indian tradition’ is the philosophy and world-view within which this tradition and culture thrived and progressed. Indian cultural tradition hardly ever took any interest in individual existences; instead, this tradition had always accorded much importance and significance to the collective social existences. As a result, unlike the western tradition, this tradition, to a certain extent, could not develop the concept of social justice based on the concept of social equality of man. Rather, this tradition emphasized on the concept of compassion and was sensitive enough to the distress and pain of the people at the personal level.  Justice compared to compassion is an abstract virtue and it is less dependent on personal involvement. Compassion is best exercised in one’s immediate circle while justice refers to society at large.  The traditional Hindu culture fosters a good deal of concern and affection to one’s relations, dependents and friends and even those who personally seek help but was not concerned with the idea of social justice [Velassery 2005: 133].

The above considerations obviate the necessity to understand and thematize the issue of individual rights, or what is known in today’s world as human rights, which is predominantly a western concept, from a different perspective in this culture.  An issue becomes a problem only when it is present in our awareness as a privation.  The issue of individual rights had never been a problem for the Indian masses, as they were leading an individual existence with the support, concern and care of their social existence. In view of the predominance of the social existence over the individual existence, conceptually and ontologically, the essential being of man was looked at as a part of the whole, the whole being the society or even the cosmos. Accordingly, it generated a sense of compassion rather than social justice in man towards all beings.

Individual and the Collective

The contradiction between individualism and collectivism is a long term issue in the socio-historical and cultural traditions of the world in general and India in particular. It is indeed, a 'historical mystery'. The history of Indian societies vividly tells us that the relation between the individual and the collective was not as harmonious as people expect; often, they contradict each other. So far, as the existential relation of the individual and the society is concerned, Indian tradition has gone through different social modes such as primitive, feudal, capitalist and socialist aspects. History tells us that there always has been an inherent contradiction between individual and the collective, though, India's tradition and world-view is claimed to be rooted in a philosophy of universal unity and harmony of all beings. The contradiction between the individual and the collective comes down to the realization of individual freedom and development. The pertinent issue here is: does Indian tradition accords the harmony and equality of men in its philosophy and culture?

As mentioned earlier, the philosophy of ideal unity, which this culture fosters, has its beginnings from gveda’s puruṣasūkta onwards and generated the desire for cooperation rather than rebellion and the desire for individual rights has never been an issue. Even the philosophical trend did not encourage struggle for power, dominance or self-advancement. Resultantly, the issue of individual rights, equality etc. among men did not take the shape of a problem, nor did any form of struggle for equality and individual rights became recognized as a legitimate moral activity. Given the philosophical background and the conception of man as a part of the cosmic Puruṣa and also because of the ideal of harmony and unity, the issue of rights could never attain the status of a genuine and independent problem in the Indian tradition. The individual grievances as well as the group grievances were sacrificed in relation to the value of universal unity.  Hence, not only were the actual experiences of human relations in terms of castes got ignored but also the issue of rights and humanization of societies as understood today  never arose as a problem.  As, for example, the idea of justice had never been regarded in this culture as the central idea while dealing with human relations. The harmony and the consequent equality of men were to be arrived at through compassion and the mutual conscious striving for harmony.

Such a line of thought and philosophy in this tradition sprouted the distinctive idea of social harmony and social democracy, which is rooted in the concepts of dharma, yajña, ṛta and varṇāśrama. They were meant to make the individual aware that the performance of one’s own good leads to the good of society.  Such a societal order, along with its required social, economic and political aspects, has to follow from dharma itself.  Thus, the presence of Dharma in the universe, underpinning the right functioning of things, sometimes thought of as their norm and sometimes simply as their nature, was taken for granted in India, not only by the Hindus but even by the Jains and Buddhists too.


We have been arguing that the core of Indian tradition and its philosophical vision is rooted in the metaphysics of the experience of Dharma, yajña, and ṛta, which we would like to call as the cultural ontology of India that had been deduced from its mythological thinking. From this tantalizing metaphysics of experience, Indian philosophy could generate a special realm of unity that binds not only the sentient but also the insentient beings. Thus, the Indian tradition by its generic nature could not underline a notion of separation as expressed in the western metaphysics, but, have highlighted the concept of unity. Accordingly, in its understanding of being Indian philosophy is radically different from the western concept of being.  In the western concept of being, what we see is the necessary emphasis on the separation guaranteed by the necessity of opposition; in its understanding of being, the concept of yajña is predominant in Indian thought, which necessitates the possibility of meeting the other as a necessary part of oneself. There is a specific Indian ontology whose understanding of being corresponds to a specific way of thinking. The crux of this specific way of thinking is expressed by different notions of time. If Greeks conceived time as the life of being, classical India perceived time as the life breath of reality. Hence, classical Indian philosophers contended that it is time that ‘matures beings and encompasses things’. According to them, time is the ‘Lord who works change in beings; time created earth; in time is consciousnesses and in a more explicit way, in time is life (prāṇa)’. In the earliest experience of the Vedic Indians, time was described as the actual existence of beings. This concept is rooted within the intimate relations between worship and time, and provides us with a key to the centrality of sacrifice and man’s participation in the unfolding of time. It amounts to saying that time and reality are same in the Indian tradition and the experience of time amounts to the experience of reality. The concept of yajña in the Indian tradition is to be understood as a re-membering of the dismembered Puruṣa whose sacrifice is meant for not only the re-integration and inter-dependent nature of reality, but, also for the interconnectedness of everything because yajña, is meant as sacrifice, wherefrom beings achieve both their unmistakable identity and difference. It can be concluded that the principles of yajña, ṛta and Dharma harmonize and regulate our interconnectedness and work as humanizing factors.


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