The churning of tradition

In the absence of explicit harm to any group of persons, the wisest course of action in matters of religion is to let communities of believers evolve norms on their own Midway through a documentary ( Kettukazcha ) by the filmmaker and scholar, Madhu Eravankara, a deep truth emerges: “The most obscure history is the history of the obvious”. Few social relations are more commonplace in Kerala, or much of India, as a temple and its devotees. Fewer histories are more obscure than that relation, the evolution of ritual, and the source of its vitality. In his methodically documented film, Professor Eravankara traces the life cycle of a temple festival in Chettikulangara, deep inside southern Kerala. Early on, we see men and women, young and old, across castes, work under the fierce tropical sun to construct large sized wooden structures on wheels. There is a physicality to this worship of the goddess, where human bodies struggle and sweat, where there is no reward but the very labour of ritual itself. It is hard not to be moved by this — ordinary craftsmen, traders and housewives in service of an ideal. For much of urban India, these rituals/ festivities are indistinguishable from chaos, exotica, and, ultimately, a form of mania. What is lost in this distancing is the recognition that these festivities and rituals are lived manifestations of answers to a question rarely asked: what is the ultimate aspiration that governs a Hindu’s world view? These rituals are the bedrock on which the edifice of Hinduism as a living practice stands. The ultimate value Asking similarly about the ultimate philosophical value of Western societies, we learn that their thought returns time and again to the question of the greatest social Good using Reason. Who is eligible to this Good has changed over time, but the preoccupation has remained consistent. From Plato’s Republic to John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance’, the question of maximal good has found frequent expressions. Over millennia, the resultant institutional manifestation of an answer to this question has taken various forms: from the cruel Spanish Inquisition to Hobbes’s Leviathan to social democracies, and so on. In Jewish and Islamic societies, the answer to the question about the ultimate value leads us to their steady commitment to manufacture, sustain, and regulate group solidarity. The great Maghrebi historian of the medieval era, Ibn Khaldun, calls this asabbiyah. This solidarity is not for solidarity’s sake, but rather a preparatory groundwork for the arrival of what Biblical scholars call eschaton , the Muslims call qiyamat , or the end of time. Thus we find institutions in these societies making efforts to regulate identities through circumcision, prayer laws, marriage, even death. The goal is to demarcate clearly who is within and who is outside the sphere of commitment and affiliation.

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