14 February 2014

Radicalism should tread gently on legend and tradition


The revolutionaries of the 20th century were, admittedly, influenced mostly by the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the Germanic notion of ‘stages’, the on-the-ground example of the Russian Revolution and the voluminous theories it engendered, Euro-Centric, deterministic and in other ways flawed of course. 

The formulation included an observation that the capitalist epoch would obliterate things ancient and even new-formed opinions and prejudices would themselves be antiquated instantaneously (Communist Manifesto: section on ‘Bourgeois and Proletarians’).  What we witnessed is the opposite, but perhaps we are still not yet as far into the capitalist age as warranted by the description ‘late capitalist’ frequently used by some Marxists. 

Marx also rubbished history and tradition and created the impression that revolutionaries and revolutions are ‘revolution-bound’ to abandon/destroy everything touched or smeared by the ‘past’.  In the ‘18th Brumaire of Louis Napolean’, Marx plays on Hegel’s claim, ‘all great world-historic facts and personages appear twice,’ offering that the first time it is tragic and the re-enactment a farce.   What he failed to anticipate was that Marxism and its adherents would end up creating their own histories, develop their own iconography, temples and holy cows, and consequently their own tragedies and farces, although not in the order of Marx’s formulation. 

What did make sense and indeed made for healthy revolutionary practice was the question mark that he stamped on ‘the past’, including tradition, customs, prejudices and opinions.  His know-all followers, handicapped by the yes-no, black-white, either-or logical frame on which their gurus built the theoretical edifice that they came to regard as temple and consequently worship, unfortunately read question-mark as revolutionary license to rubbish and destroy.  They’ve not progressed much either in the elimination of ‘tradition’ or in bringing the exploited closer to emancipation. 

What is pertinent to this discussion is the fact that Marx had a point, even though it was vulgarized by his followers.  Marx predicted or at least hoped that man would in the end be ‘compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind’.  There is very little in life that is ‘compelling’ and the compelling is as influenced by reason as by emotion, as much by cold logic as by burning blood.  The sobriety that Marx would have liked quickly gave way to fixation. The doctrine of approximation was replaced by the erroneous ‘finality’ of exactitude and consideration of context ditched for parroting of convenient quote and the inevitable abandonment of question mark in favour of exclamation mark.    

It is perhaps an indicator of colonial servility that prevented many Marxists from discovering and/or acknowledging that Siddhartha Gauthama, our Budun Wahanse, had in less dogmatic and therefore more ‘compelling’ and sober ways outlined the importance of questioning ‘tradition’ and ‘legend’.  ‘Do not believe in traditions and legends simply because they have been handed down for many generations,’ the Compassionate One told the Kalamas in outlining the pithy and telling Charter of Free Inquiry, the Kalama Sutta.  What is recommended is not the wholesale abandonment of tradition and legend, but an informed and critical engagement with these elements.

Marx wrote that the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living and warned that they are particularly heavy in ‘revolutionary’ moments, with ‘revolutionaries’ conjuring up the spirits of the past, borrowing from them names, battle slogans and costumes.  Marxists are as guilty of this error as any other ‘revolutionaries’.

It is true, is it not that we tend to treat legend and myth as fact?  Are we not reluctant to examine and determine the true dimensions of event and personality by stripping account of frill? Are we not selective when we refer to history, prone to valourization of that which feeds our political project and suppression of that which is uncomfortable or disconcerting?   How ready are we to obtain a narrative of some reasonable degree of approximation by peeling off rhetoric and poetry?  Is it not true that people whose accounts of community and lineage are short on acceptable evidence often depend on ballad and slogan while rubbishing history as irrelevant? Don’t those who belong to communities whose track record is made of bloodletting and pillage prefer political discourse to be limited to the here-and-now and do they not call for the virtual burning of books (that survived the arsonist adventures of fellow-practitioners of an earlier era) by outlawing ‘history’ from school curricula?  Is it not true that some faiths happily embellish the relevant doctrine by borrowing artifact, symbol and even tenet from other traditions and thereafter treat these as ‘god-given’, sacrosanct and exclusively owned by the faith from then to now and all time? 

The importance of questioning legend and tradition stems from a simple observation, i.e. such things are not cast in stone but are in fact products of contexts and histories.  That which makes sense in one context, i.e. in a particular time-space matrix need not necessarily have meaning in another.  The difference between the Marxian formulation and that of our Budun Wahanse is that the former is dogmatic and lends to finality whereas the latter advocates the exercise of reason and the application of logic taking into consideration all available facts pertaining to the context.  Underlining it all is the call for equanimity.  Budun Wahanse neither recommended the hard grip or fixation, nor did he advocate out of hand rejection. What is stressed is ‘critical engagement’. 

What is advocated is not blind acceptance of word (which is what legend and traditional amount to) or the callous rejection of something simply because it is a ‘legend’ or is ‘traditional’.  It is always a judgment call but one predicated on the exercise of reason and not a response to some emotional impulse.  This is the spirit in which ‘legend’ and ‘tradition’ should be considered by those who want to change things as they are. 

To the Kalamas he said, "When through the exercise of the intellect and the testing through observation and practice you discover that these things are bad, these things are blamable, these things are censured by the wise and these things when undertaken and observed lead to harm and ill, abandon them’.  That which is and that which was, by virtue of existence in the ‘now’ or in the ‘past’, respectively, are not necessarily good and/or wholesome.  In the case of traditions and legends, the revolutionary would do well, I believe, to assess their dimensions, relevance and benefits. If they are indeed good, if they are not blamable, if they are indeed praised by the wise, and if, when undertaken and observed, they lead to benefit and happiness, then, as Siddhartha Gauthama advocated it would be logical to enter on and abide in them.  Not otherwise. 

A revolutionary, accordingly, is by definition, called upon to apply his/her critical gaze not only on that which he/she seeks to change but that which he/she considers ‘articles of faith’ as represented by relevant legends, myths and traditions. 

Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukhitatta. May all beings be happy!

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com
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