Is India's past ruining India's future?


It is not uncommon during discussions on mythology and the role of tradition in modern life, to be met with finger-wagging accompanied with protestations that go: “You don’t know the real story” or “There is a deeper meaning in the caste system” or “Ancient rituals have advanced science behind them” or “Modern society is ignoring the true meaning behind our epics”. People who start such arguments have been fed a steady diet of the pro-tradition narrative through television, books, and social media channels. Obvious examples of this include religious / spiritual television channels, popular gurus and babas, and the cultural Right wing. Less obvious examples are the so-called moderate spiritualists, English-speaking sadhus, mythologists, and authors like the gentleman I am talking about.

As things stand now, we have a generation growing up proud of the fact that their ancestors did mathematics, philosophy, and science. But at the same time, it seems that this pride they take in their past makes them immune to criticisms of present problems. Mention the caste crisis and you are told that in ancient India, caste was a fluid construct that was not hereditary. Bring up gender discrimination and sexual violence and you are told that in ancient India women were thought of as goddesses. It is a very curious form of denial, involving not a direct response but an invitation to travel back in time to a past that may very well be idealised beyond recognition.

It sometimes feels like I haven’t seen a rebellious Indian teenager in ages. People no longer talk about the generation gap. Tradition, which was once an enemy to the young, is now the default position from which young people launch attacks against their new foes — radical thought, non-compliance with mainstream culture — on social media platforms.

Don’t get me wrong. The past is important. But it is not more important than the future. And for all our sakes, I hope that the future does not turn out to be the same as the past. There is a reason friction between generations exists. It helps young people grow by flexing their wings and it tells the elder generation that maybe their way of doing things isn’t all that perfect.

Am I blaming this author for all this? Of course not. I understand he was trying to sell books. But I do think that he and others like him can do better when it comes to shaping the young minds that idolise them. Indian storytellers may not be doing India any favours by reinforcing a past-centric view of India. In fact, they may be doing some lasting damage.