In the yagna of modernity

Update- 6/6/14: Have included my interaction with Devdutt Pattnaik-popular mythologist and author - on the movie below. 

When I was seven years old, I was initiated into Brahminhood through the sacred upanayanam ceremony. The word sacred, I admit, finds its place here after a long, circuitous journey of introspection which taught me the true meaning of profundity through unconditional embrace of profanity. Back in those days, I was taught to respect what's  profound only by abhorring what's profaneI remember doing my sandyavandanam rituals religiously, until my hormones began to treat callously the traditions and values I bequeathed from my parents. Like many others in their teens, I began to question the traditions, especially the way it was presented to me, in its ossified form, enforced through parental authoritarianism. As I followed my way through the questions, I could only find reasons which appealed to my intellect. Along the way, I also witnessed the hypocrisy in which traditions, despite their high handedness, were appropriated as means to the entitlements defining the modern life - money, good job and a well settled life. 

I couldn't find an iota of visceral meaning in my tradition which rooted these rituals to my life. It felt pointless to perform them without any moorings in the ocean of my inner self. I simply couldn't pull myself to do it. Even if its sole purpose was to appease my parents' misplaced sense of fear that I might desert the tradition and sever the atavistic roots of my upbringing.  

I began to ponder over my relationship with tradition, I must admit, after being deeply moved by Svahaa ,a short movie I found in the Web, directed by Pratibha Nandakumar. Based on a short story by Mahabala Seethalabavi, this movie, a beautiful elegy to the eternal Brahmin traditions, asks a deeply unsettling question: What do we to have to offer in this yagna of modernity? The narrative frames this question in a manner resembling the paradox confronting the ship of Theseus:
Buffeted by the winds of modernity, the planks of the ship of tradition were replaced part by part, upto a point where not a single part from the original ship, remained in it anymore. Is it, then, still the same ship? 
The movie explores these questions in context with the ancient Hindu funeral rites. If the economic conditions forces the next generation of Hindu priests to take up different professions, How will the dead receive salvation?  Given how "development" destroys storytelling, how will after-death rites (done in an electric crematorium) acquire any meaning? To state that tradition will be inevitably swept off by the unstoppable forces of modernity is rather naive and simplistic. Calling this movie an exercise in nostalgia would be a huge injustice. It deeply examines the way in which we are reinventing some of these traditions to suit our modern economic predicament. How do we recreate these old traditions without diluting its essence to suit the vicissitudes of the times we live in? I strongly recommend this movie if anyone is interested in exploring these questions. 


surya g said...

I could not uphold the burden of traditions either! And so will not be so many others of this generation. At the cost of sounding very philosophical, I will admit that, this is how probably the race degenerates ( strictly proverbial use of the word with reference to our scriptures). Mild reference to how at the end of dwapara yuga, yadava kula is washed out as the members of the clan indulge and lead to self destruction. My reference could be wrong, but psycho-historic analysis shows that humans tend to this to their traditions...

Venkataraman said...

Thanks @surya g for dropping by! I don't think I meant to write that I have given up on traditions. It's just that I find my present relationship inadequate. I follow few customs/practices which resonate deeply with me. People leave one kind of tradition when they have already latched on to another. Not sure, if I can explain this using the example you have given, but you get the drift. How we move through one yugas to other is fairly a long, complex process where the societies disintegrate due to host of reasons beyond traditions!

Venkatesan G said...

Venky, Wonderful article. I loved reading every bit of it. Here are my thoughts on the current situation which i observed,

" I see this situation from other side of the table, where the "Karthas" are .. Even in this movie, they give away the bed of the dead. Its always the "Dharbam " that is laid as a mattress and not the cotton based one. So, there itself its a big leap taken by the earlier generation. Secondly, a brahman / purohit has to have a "sathvig " mind set where as he / she never entertains "bodily " pleasures , thoughts that doesnt involve worldly good. I specifically mentioned "she " as there were women who performed rituals in good old days . There is always a very clear border line between the need and desire. Any educated will easily figure out that and pass it on to his / her next generation through his actions. of course, not everything can be passed on as this is individual's knowledge based but mostly [ DNA ] . Also, a brahmin should use his intellectual brain to keep questioning every act of his / her's in reference with the old scripts while understanding and interpreting the rituals.

In my understanding, in all the yugas' Brahmin is the one who sails along with the wind knowing that nothing is / can be done by him as everything is pre-determined by the almighty. So, he / she need not to worry about the current state considering that everything is going to be as per the book at the end as it has always happened earlier. "

P.S : Whereever I have mentioned "Brahmin " here, is not the one by birth but by his deeds.

I really appreciate your efforts put on that lovely short film. I wish and pray that you keep doing this and will do my best to support you all the times .



Venkataraman said...

Thanks @Venkatesan G for dropping by and sharing your thoughts! I see few contradictions in what you say, especially, when you say that "brahmin" is determined by his deeds, and also include that few things do get passed on through DNA. I have thought about this in passing, although not in depth, few years back over these things.I don't have clear answers though. Who is a brahmin? If a priest's son is also called as priest, does he get the honour by his deeds or birth? I was born into Brahminhood. But, I lead a life, like anyone else, doing everyday things. Shouldn't the question "Who is a brahmin" be asked in every lifetime, as generations move?

Venkatesan G said...

Thats a good point . Let me put it across this way, a person is "called " a Brahmin if he follows Sanathana Dharma in every aspect of his life. So, brahmin is not a name tag that is given to a person by his birth rather by his actions. for example, almost 90% of the alwars considered as the gurus in Srivaishnavism are not brahmins by birth. They were either "Shatriyas or vaisyas " . But they have been given high regards on account of their life style aligning with Sanathan Dharma.

Regarding the DNA , our ancestors found that certain qualities in a man / woman gets passed on from his / her grand parents. And thats one of the reason they used to name the child with either the child's grand father or mother's. So, the child was born with certain qualities and remaining he/she develops by learning and executing sanathana dharma.

No one calls a priest's son " a priest " unless and until he preaches or does the same work as his father. If someone does, then its their ignorance. Do you call doctor an engineer ? No. its because their actions are different. On the other hand, to what depth a priest's son follows the tradition or his rule book is a question to be asked. Since a common man cannot decide on that, he blindly calls him a priest or a Guru.

When you say that you lead a life like anyone else, whom are you referring to. If you drill down your thoughts, they you will figure out the answer for that. Everyone may be doing the same thing but how they do it differentiates every individual. If i can extend my freedom, I would suggest you to look into the book / audio version of " Srimadbhagavadham " . I am sure it will enhance your thinking process.

did my best to share my thoughts, let me know

Venkataraman said...

Really appreciate you taking time to share your thoughts here. I have never read scriptures. Of late, I've become interested to learn sanskrit. Will see where does this lead me to. When I say..I lead life like anyone else, I am referring to my observations that my life is driven by certain interests which I may have inherited. But, how I respond to them lies within my level of awareness. Some of these things are hard to communicate. We can only leave an essence of it in this virtual medium.