Parampara and the Individual

CONFERENCE / SEMINAR REPORT – The IGNCA organised a National Seminar on ‘Parampara and the Individual’ from 21st to 23rd January 1998, New Delhi, with the express idea of clarifying terms like tradition, modernity, individual talent, the pressure of parampara, adhinikatva and vyaktitva. The English terminology does not always exhaust the nuances of the Sanskrit originals and such clarification is always a help in directing historical, anthropological and other scholarly investigation on a vast subject like Indian culture.

After B.N. Saraswati’s words of welcome, Kapila Vatsyayan, pointed out that there are various levels of parampara ranging from tribal rites to the highest flights of creativity and contemplation. Both the empirical reality (vyavaharika satya) and the transcendental reality (paramarthika satya) have to be taken into account. Instead of always looking at the terms as irreconcilable antonyms (tradition vs. modernity; tradition vs. the individual), one should perhaps look at the meeting points and learn how one helps the other form, grow and be sustained to help mankind get at higher levels of achievement.

The pride of place for the seminarial papers went to ‘Sruti, Smruti and the Individual’ by Makarand Paranjape who confessed that consciously or unconsciously he was taking up a traditionalist position as a critic but became post-modernistic when he was writing poetry or fiction. Very few seem to reconcile tradition and modernity and Shri Aurobindo composing Savitri and Raja Rao writing The Serpent and the Rope seemed to be exceptions. Going by popular taste, how is it that people go after the style of Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy? Though tradition is said to be a way of goodness and truth, the modernist viewed tradition as a force that crippled thought. His own attitude was one of respect but not of uncritical adoration. Sruti and smruti combine to give us tradition but these will be of no use if not experienced again by the individual. And a mere change in nomenclature (using parampara instead of tradition, for instance) will not help either. Tradition must be supplemented by personal sadhana.

In the lively discussion that followed it was clarified that the use of Sanskrit terminology was not just a cosmetic change. The Sanskrit terms carry coils of suggestion that help formulate concepts. Parampara signifies “layers of matter accumulated in time, as if in flood.” Further clarifications came from B.N. Saraswati’s paper, ‘Parampara: A Universal Paradigm’. A detailed presentation of how the Vedas have grown into innumerable texts (Shastras, Sutras, Puranas, Agamas etc.) which are “the weaker outlayers of parampara” was followed by a reference to “the orally transmitted customs and usages of the non-literate as also of women (which form an integral part of the living spirit of culture.”The paper also referred to a passage from the Markandeya Purana as an excellent metaphor for describing the sanatana parampara:

“Social and moral evolution of this primitive humanity has been attributed to some trees called kalpa which, until the beginning of the treta age, were producing houses and honey (not made by bees) and providing every kind of enjoyment and subsistence, clothing and ornament to those people; but afterward, in course of time when those people grew covetous, their minds being filled with selfishness they fenced the trees (vriksama), and those trees perished by reason of that wrong conduct on their part.”

The concept of parampara is thus necessarily a timeless one being a continuous process that passes through patrata (competence), pramana (criteria of truth), purnatva (fullness), paristhithi (compelling situation) and parisuddhi (purification). The timelessness of parampara, however, is not a transcendent one. It is rather “a certain mixture of cultural reality (vyavaharika satya) and tanscendental reality (paramarthika satya)”.

S.C. Malik’s ‘The Parampara and the Individual : Beyond Duality’ did not find the two terms to be confrontational. Neither of them is definite or mutually exclusive. Pointing out to the general neurosis of this technological age that has resulted from humanity’s losing touch with its “million year-old archetypal natures that is crucial to mental health and emotional well-being”, Malik said that the head and the heart had begun to lead separate existences and in this schizoid atmosphere, “it was not cosmic order but quantitative science which dictates life”. Today individualism reigns supreme, leading to spiritual isolation. But then, the individual is necessarily within a cultural context and is thus himself a carrier of tradition. The whole of science and philosophy says that we have to discover the energy that holds together all these separate entities. But why see that the individual is separate, since it is but an assumption that everything is separate?

R.C. Shah’s view of the seminar’s theme also saw the two terms as not mutually exclusive. Drawing sustenance from the work of eminent Hindi poets like Jaya Shankar Prasad and when it becomes ‘rurhi’ (a dead habit). The western impact has certainly brought us the virus of politicization of everything. At the same time, the resilience of Indian tradition to go forward with sustenance drawn from the western culture as well has been noted even by V.S. Naipaul. M.M. Agrawal also struck a positive note in ‘The Individual and the Indian Spiritual Tradition’. Setting up reason as the arbiter of the modern age has given the word ‘tradition’ a pejorative connotation. As the twentieth century fades out, there is a reaction to this dismissal of tradition. Tradition never dies and we can always gain innovative starting points by going back to it.

Keshav Malik’s ‘Patterns and the Pattern’ visualised a society that would reestablish the sacred to help the community, but the sacred cannot live where the individual’s individuality is crushed in its name as in the philosophy of National socialism propounded by Hitler. There is also the very real danger posed by science and technology without a soul-guidance. But the outlook need not be dismal for mankind has triumphed so far:

“One can foresee, that, all kinds of creeds, racial groups, and other natural or unnatural divisions will, with the growth and evolution of mind, through contact with familiarity, but also by conscious reflection undergo a slow but steady transformation; one can foresee that with knowledge of self, of literature, and of other arts, religions and the so-called races cannot be as sectarian as of old. Changes are indeed already afoot, a kind of liberalism, pliability and flexibility to moral vision is bound to arrive.”

Prema Nandakumar’s ‘Tiruppavai : A Living Parampara of Two Thousand Years’ opened with Shri Aurobindo’s positing parampara as one of the major instruments that had kept Indian culture vibrant and alive. The Tiruppavai of Andal which consists of thirty verses is about a rite that has its origins in the Thai Neeradal tradition of Sangham Tamils two thousand years ago. The observance enriched itself from the Bhagavata tradition of Katyayani Vrata and gathered to itself much of the Krishna legends. The Tiruppavai parampara has been enriched by a very strong commentatorial tradition beginning with Peria Vachan Pillai’s (12th century) Moovayirappadi. The exegetical as well as ritualistic traditions have continued till today and serial lectures are an inalienable part of the margasirsa month. Since the life of Andal and her poems are favourites for dance programmes, the Tiruppavai parampara flows on majestically, as a perennial, colourful and soul-sustaining river of spiritual at-one with the Supreme.

‘Parampara and Poetry : Ambiguity of the Charmed Word’ by the Gyanpith Award winner and poet Sitakanta Mahapatra explored the inlaid nuances of the word when illumined with the creative fire of the individual poet. The tragedy of our times is that social language is being desecrated and degraded and it is the poet who wars against this tendency to continue tradition in its royal movement, by re-investing words with new significances:

“The poet seeks to transcend the ambivalence by working out an upward movement for the words – from the language of commonality to that of poetry; from a wasteland of jargons to the dense forest of words in their sparkling shape and form. It is the loneliness of one who struggles to make the tradition, the history, the commonality unique and, through that alone, universal and not through any demographic jugglery or magic act of numbers.”

M.C. Joshi spoke of parampara in the early stages of Buddhism. The picture of dharma posited by Buddhism cannot be viewed in isolation from the definite background of historical events. There are realms upon realms of existence but the transcendent can be attained only on this earth-existence. A vast mythology has been formed around the historical Buddha but this mythology has been invented only to strengthen his message.

Sitanshu Yashaschandra’s ‘Pari Prasnena : Sampatti and the Self’ sought to lay down the differences between the daivi and asuri sampattis, the riches of divine life and a life of grabmanship. Towards the close of the Chhandogya Upanishad there is the legend of Prajapati being questioned by Indira and Virochana on the nature of the Self. Whereas the latter goes away satisfied with one answer (“That person who is seen in the eye – He is the Self”), Indira returns again and again with further questionings and learns at last that whereas the body is mortal, it is the standing-ground of the deathless Self. Thus, tradition is at its best only when it allows its members to question its initial parameters.

Ashok Kelkar submitted a detailed critique in ‘Tradition, Modernity and the Individual : An Indian Viewpoint’. Tradition is best understood when related to human life as it is being lived, an interaction “which maintains a certain harmony between the living being and its environment.” Man’s present is constantly merging into his past and man’s future becomes the present and “wipes the slate clean of what were earlier certain possibilities or near-certainties.” There is a constant desire to “find oneself” as also an impulsion to “lose oneself”. Today the individual is at the crossroads. Should he jettison parampara and embrace modernity? Or should he turn away from modernity? Or should he resolve the opposition? Kelkar concluded with a note of warning. Modern man must not be satisfied with “intellectual chic or quick-fix protection from the fear of order” by following the new gods of post-modernism. Certainly “the Indian philosophical tool kit” with its anekanta vada or the laukika-aupacarika-adhyatmika ontology could help us make some purposeful beginnings.

Raghava Menon drew plentifully from his first-hand experiences of growing up in a Kerala tharawad as one of a thirty-member family to prove that parampara is not mere tradition. Parampara is not a word but an experience, not a mere belief. One simply grew up in this ‘experience’, close to nature, in rhythm with its movement, drawing sustenance from its rich abundance. Alok Rai’s ‘Longing and Belonging : The Question of Tradition’ took up an etymological approach to the theme. A study of words reveals why nostalgia is a familiar note in modern writing. Each of us carries an urn of native soil within us which is warm, soft and comforting.

The final session of the seminar began with Prem Lata Sharma’s ‘Parampara in Indian Music with Special reference to Pundit Omkarnath Thakur in Hindustani Music.’ She found the concept of parampara as abstract as ‘society’. Usually the majority follows the beaten track but a miniscule few are inspired to go off the usual path but they never lose their way. Indian classical music is transmitted orally and hence a ‘good’ sampradaya becomes very important. Pandit Omkarnath was a sincere disciple of Vishnu Digambar Paluskar (who was himself a student of Balakrishna Bua Ichalakaranjikar of the Gwalior parampara) but he was also an experimenter with the received tradition. Among his special contributions is his composition of two musical dramas based on Jayashankar Prasad’s Kamayani (epic) and Dinkar’s Kamana (prose drama) wherein he proved “that innovation and deviation was possible and effective in the framework of parampara.”

Tan Chung’s ‘Survival of Tradition in the 21st Century : A Chinese Perspective’ gave an admirable summary of the manner in which the Chinese reacted to the western tradition. Unlike Indians who admired both the Indian and western traditions (Rabindranath Tagore, Raja Rammohun Roy), the Chinese felt humiliated and had a defeated-nation syndrome. They rated their own culture as a ‘cannibal culture’. When Mao came on the scene, he attacked both Chinese feudalism and western imperialism. Mao’s Sum Tsu contains sutra-like teachings which drew the admiration of the American army commanders who made it into an army text-book! Today there are Chinese who wish to go in for wholesale Westernization and a few Chinese who lead the New-Confucianism Movement. Since the Chinese have a struggle-ethic (no country has waged so many peasant wars!), we may not hope too much for an absolutely peaceful future.

Apart from the papers that were presented and analytically discussed, there were meaningful interventions too. Chie Nakane of the University of Tokyo complemented India for possessing an excellent, ancient tradition. She felt that India has admirably turned to creative use her direct confrontation with the West. H.Y. Sharda Prasad reminded the seminar of Mahatma Gandhi who was a traditionalist-cum-modernizer. Gandhi was a great vaishnava and also a great rebel. Anjali Capila made a brief reference to the Garhwali songs by women which reveal their pride in their Himalayan country that is richly endowed by nature. She also sang some of the songs that bring out the innovative genius of these so-called unlettered women; Prem Lata Sharma treated the seminar to a demonstration of how Pandit Omkarnath used the same raga to depict different emotions. The observers followed the discussions keenly and took part in them occasionally. The seminar proved that the IGNCA had rightly chosen the nyagrodha tree as its logo for Indian traditions. The branches come down to the earth and strike roots again and there is a constant enrichment while the main tree grows strong and lives long. Like Indian parampara that traces its roots to the vedas and looks into the future with faith and self-confidence, where the individual creates, transmits and himself withdraws into the Great Beyond.

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