Tyranny of traditions

Amal Chatterjee
8 min readJan 22, 2017
Source : Google photo

When I was 16 years old, I was told by my parents that I will have to undergo the ceremony that will proclaim me as a Brahmin. It is like a baptismal ceremony for the Christians when they dunk you in water to make you a good Christian as if the ceremony itself is paramount that will define you from then on.

They said that for me it was a necessary tradition because they had an obligation to anoint me as the good Brahmin because that is what the tradition called for. So the invitations were sent and food was prepared, gifts bought and the priest came to turn me into a good Brahmin in one shot.

On the given day a barber came to shave my head leaving a bit of rat tail that was a sure sign of a Brahmin and pierced my ears with a silver ring sharpened at the end but it hurt the same though I put up through all these inconveniences just so that the tradition was maintained.

I had to cover my head with a saffron cloth and ask for alms that people gave that was mostly money but I was not supposed to look at anyone just don’t ask me why because that too was the part of the tradition so I had to play my part. The girls who normally were shy to look at you and talk had a field day and I could hear their whispers but not see their faces because of the stupid veil and could not answer back so I let it pass. My day would come later when I will not have to cover my head in the cursed saffron cloth.

Then an uncle came to teach me some mantras in Sanskrit that I had to memorize and repeat everyday on demand like during the meal time. This is where it gets weird. I could not speak for one year during the meal time and could only nod or shake my head if I wanted something and I had to place bits of food in five places like a dice marked with dots for the ancestors before I ate my food. This was all part of being a fully fledged Brahmin now.

But the accoutrement that signaled my status of Brahmin was my sacred thread that I had to wear for the rest of my life. This thread with 14 strands in it signified that I was a Brahmin and the rat tail ensured it when people could not see my sacred thread which was hidden behind my undershirt. Don’t ask me why there were 14 threads and not more or less and what it meant because honestly I do not know because no one told me. So much of Hindu tradition entails a blind belief and people just have to follow the tradition without asking why. Those who ask too many questions are regarded with suspicion so it is better to keep quiet and get it over with so that you don’t rock the boat so to speak.

But the worst part was yet to come in the form of a wooden shoe called kharam that you had to wear while going to the holy river Ganga for some ceremonies. That too is part of the tradition but try walking in these infernal wooden shoes and you will know how hard it is to maintain this tradition in this day and age.

To make the matter worse, this piece of tradition was designed perhaps intentionally to make life difficult for the Brahmin just to remind him that being a Brahmin meant making some sacrifices. I had blisters to prove that I made more than my fair share .Walking several kilometers to the river was not only painful but extremely awkward because the shoe had only a platform and a peg that you had to hold with your big toe and the next one to it and no straps so the damn thing kept sliding left or right under my feet which was really an experience I will not wish my enemies to go through as a punishment.

Luckily like some traditions, it lasted only a short time just to satisfy the traditionalists so I never wore those infernal wooden shoes again because I did not have to. That is the funny part of tradition. No one will ask you later why you discard all the traditions like wearing the sacred thread and wooden shoes and cut off your rat tail because once you are a Brahmin, you remain one just like the Christians after the dunking in the cold water.

This was brought home when one day I happened to be bathing in the Ganga river when a fellow asked me to fetch some water for him so I took his brass pot, filled it with water and handed it to him when all of a sudden he realized that OMG I was a Brahmin may be because my sacred thread was showing and fell on his knees because he felt that he had committed a sin by asking a Brahmin to fetch water for him and was inconsolable.

This is the power of being a Brahmin that the Hindus try to perpetuate through the ceremony because the Brahmin is at the top of the society where he commands respect and certain benefits that accrue from it although it seems so archaic these days. The constitution does not favor the Brahmins like in the old days but go to any river in South India to bathe, and you will be chased away by the fanatics who say that the ghats are reserved for the Brahmins only.

For female Brahmins, they must wear silk saris and a nose pin of diamond otherwise they are not Brahmins. This happened to my sister who was not allowed to bathe just because they did not believe that she was a true blooded and very respectable Brahmin because she did not have a nose pin and was not wearing silk at that time.

Thus the tradition continues generation after generation perpetuating a myth that some people are born in the caste and cannot change it. This leads to all kinds of mischief because a higher caste policeman will not look into any complaint by a low caste woman who says she was raped and needs their help to find and arrest the culprit. Instead they will blame her for her rape because they may believe that the low caste women are unchaste and perhaps consented to sex for money and calling it a rape if the money was not paid or enough.

The caste system that has been practiced since who knows when is strictly maintained by the self declared guardians of the society who see advantages in maintaining the system perhaps just like the white supremacists of South Africa who maintain that they are a superior race therefore entitled to certain privileges. This is playing out again in many countries where the racist people are claiming once again their God given right to rule over other less fortunate mortals.

Now I see the tyranny of tradition in many countries where in the name of tradition people perpetuate certain privileges they expect from others just because it has always been so. But the younger educated generation has started to question the validity of these traditions like in India where the so called lower caste people are getting education and jobs and no longer feel that they are inferior to anyone.

The Brahmins conspired to keep the education to themselves and made it punishable for lower caste people to learn to read and write that would threaten the status quo and may diminish the power of the educated Brahmins. This was also true in many ancient civilizations like in Egypt and Mesopotamia but it has no meaning in this day and age.

The idea of continuing a ritual or a practice just because the tradition demands it eventually erodes the foundation of that tradition because you cannot ask blind obedience from a person with education because he will ask what and why of these traditions and discard them if he does not get good and convincing answers.

I know I have discarded them because no one could answer my questions and believe that they themselves did not know and followed blindly what their forefathers taught them.

One tradition that is still being followed blindly is the Sanskrit chants during the religious ceremonies. The priest says something that everyone must mimic even if they do not understand what the chants mean because no one understands Sanskrit. I suspect that many rogue priests do not know it either but no one can question their authority.

The Mollahs are smarter because they teach Arabic to the kids in their madarsas so that later they can read and understand Koran but the Indians learn some basic Sanskrit in high school that they soon forget. They are not required to read their religious Vedas and Upanishads in Sanskrit because no one does.

The Roman Catholics were required to hear the mass in Latin not too long ago so they mimicked without understanding a word of it until the Vatican relaxed the rules so now the mass is heard in their local languages which they understand.

But the Hindus believe in tradition so they continue their obsolete traditions and language like Sanskrit. It even convinced some people to start reading the news in Sanskrit that no one understood so was discontinued. This is the tyranny of tradition I am writing about.

You have to move with the times and not insist on traditions that have seen better days and are not being followed by the more educated and savvy generation that uses Google when looking for answers.

But in many countries, the tyranny of tradition continues. In Egypt it is the tradition to force females to undergo genital circumcision although it has been outlawed by the government there. Especially in rural areas such laws are not implemented so this barbaric practice continues even today. In other countries like Burma, they put brass rings around the neck of women to stretch them in the name of beauty. In Southern Ethiopia they have the tradition of inserting discs in the lower lips of women that their government is trying to discourage but to no avail. The welts created on the face and the body on some tribes in South Sudan to distinguish one tribe from another is also a tradition that continues although there are easier and less painful ways to gain distinction.

But I think the worst tyranny of tradition is found in India where the caste system is practiced and where the lower caste people are treated as untouchables and are denied their basic rights by the upper caste people.

May be someday this practice of discrimination will be discontinued as India modernizes and opens schools and job opportunities to all irrespective of their caste. The old people will die with their hateful traditions and the younger generation will learn to treat others with dignity and respect they deserve.