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Idea Of Kaal Helps Explain Cyclicality Of Indic Wisdom

Idea Of Kaal Helps Explain Cyclicality Of Indic Wisdom

Dr Rachana Bhangaonkar recently completed a project along with her doctoral student Anushree Gokhale – Anna He Poorna Brahma:  Sustainability in Traditional Food Ways and Eating Practices: A Retrospective Inquiry. Supported by Indica, Ms Gokhale has been a co-author in all the papers stemming from their project

In this interview Dr Bhangaonkar and Anushree talk about the findings of their study on the shift from regional cuisine to pan-Indian buffet outside the home while continuing to eat sustainable, regional cuisines at home. They also talk about how traditional knowledge is shared, imparted and at times questioned during transmission.

Often when studied through the Western lens, tradition is portrayed as something which is imposed on the next generation, not gifted. If tradition is viewed as something oppressive, it becomes easier to draw people away from their heritage and impose an outside view. How would this be interpreted in terms of the shift from right eating to buffets?

In our experience, the idea of heritage, culture or tradition was always explained by the participants of our study as something “co-created”. Our participants were elderly members of two Indian communities, all above 60 years. Their experiences around food (which was the focus of our project) were always contextualized. So they would explain why some shifts happened when they were young, by explaining factors from the context (pragmatics, rationing of food, introduction of new gadgets etc.). They did not experience tradition or modernity as something that “had to be done” as an imposition. They saw the shift to buffet dinners also as a pragmatic choice, because people don’t have time now. They were more concerned about the homogenization of the buffet menu (that was becoming the same in every wedding!) as compared to the past when regional, communal and religious factors played a stronger role. So the shift was less as a response to the oppressive mindset. The right eating habits by and large, were retained as a routine in homes….whereas buffets were occasional.

Could you talk briefly about the findings of your study in the context of the above questions? 

First of all, we are very thankful to Indica for providing the financial support for the study.

The findings of the study can be broadly divided into three parts:

  1. Context of eating
  2. What people eat and when?
  3. Values associated with food and changes over time in #1 & 2

All three aspects were fluid and contextualized when elderly participants narrated their “food memories” to us from their childhood to the present. We covered roughly 50-60 years of time through their memories. The most important finding was the reference to several values associated with food like how food was purnabrahma or had guna like tamasic or sattvic qualities. The karmic influences of food were mentioned, so were the values of santosh (satiety, satisfaction) and ananda (bliss) in eating together. Similarly, fasting and feasting both were celebrated very purposefully at different times of the year. Many sustainable practices of cooking, upcycling food, eating local and seasonal foods and not wasting food were emphasized across households. We could also document some recipes that were handed down to our participants by their families over generations. Lastly, we have case studies of 2-3 very old, commercial organizations in Vadodara that are famous for catering traditional foods to specific communities. The push and pull of market forces over time were evident in these case studies. The study uncovered various aspects of Indic foodways that remain largely untapped, making the study replicable in different parts of India.

You mentioned in a recent talk that rather than forcing people to be immersed in traditional knowledge in a rigid curriculum, a more voluntary, free approach works better in integrating several value systems. What are some other mistakes made by well-meaning people who are striving to spread indigenous and traditional wisdom?

If someone is well meaning, they will strive for something only after some scrutiny and planning. It might just be that they have a limited perspective or limited means, so each of us is at a different standpoint in our own journey based on previous experiences. The important part is that we need to remain open minded and non violent in protecting and propagating traditional wisdom. Rigidity of any sort, will be interpreted as a “bandhan” in everyday parlance by an average Indian. To grow or develop to one’s full potential; we need to transcend all kinds of “bandhan“….that is, movement towards mukti. True knowledge, as is well known, liberates. So, a regenerative (I am purposely not using the term sustainable here!) approach to nurturing traditional wisdom means to start with observing and documenting our lived realities, without excluding anyone….Our lived realities are culturally embedded in a composite culture, we cannot deny that…..our lived reality is not a monochrome, thank god! It doesn’t consist of only some rituals and shlokas or only some languages….although these aspects are very important in certain contexts and on some occasions. We must be very conscious of including diversity and common threads that constitute our lived realities in India. These factors have been responsible for sustaining order, multiplicity and harmony for many centuries because there is a certain civilizational wisdom supported by a variety of practices, making it available to even common people….our culture has survived like no other, in spite of every colonizing force.

For example, irrespective of the social identities or communities of origin, regional food practices were influenced by seasons. Every Indian child is multilingual, that is, knows or is exposed to more than one language, isn’t it!? Similarly, in the case of bhakti, can we afford to only focus on classical forms leaving out oral and folk forms like Abhangas, Dohas, Duha Chand (Kathiawad) etc.? Every region, every family has so much traditional knowledge to offer, in every sphere, especially in the rural and remote areas….we must just encourage young people to document these aspects well using the latest technology. This will introduce them to traditional knowledge – first hand. Textbooks alone cannot capture what India has to offer….they cannot and should not thus become a “bandhan”.

If Western civilization has had one enduring tradition, it is that of breaking and questioning tradition. On the other hand, Eastern societies are often viewed as more static. Is this a misconception? Is this stagnation less a character of Indic thought and more a result of the Eurocentricity of the concept of ‘modernization’?

Most Eastern societies have given holistic wisdom frameworks to understand life in a cosmic context – be it Dharma, Ikigai, Zen….And what we find fascinating is their in-depth, curious examination of time (samay, kaal). This child-like yet profound engagement with the concept of time has been exceptional in eastern cultures. They have understood both time and timelessness….thus there is very little encouragement to linearity and duality in thought, action etc. The kaal chakra is cyclical, continuous, what goes up, comes down….it is natural law… all our questions also must be open, non-dual such that answers can have infinite applicability…Thus, questions of being static vs fluid, stagnation vs progress may not be very appealing to the Indian mind.

For example, food was once abundant, followed by famines during colonization, which forced us to take some grave measures to combat hunger, now we are going back to millets and local foods…..So isn’t coming back to tradition progress in this case? Foods that are now called “super foods” were a part of our traditional diet, but were wiped away due to a variety of factors. We are now discovering the value of many local super foods. So, without bothering about Eurocentricity, we must have a razor sharp focus on understanding what is our own, how will this indigenous knowledge support our health and wellbeing in contemporary times? How will it empower us to contribute to the global landscape constructively? Unless we leave Eurocentricity as a thing of the past, it will never leave us.

Progress and development are often represented as a straight line, a journey from A to B, as you stated. Has this contributed to an indiscriminate rejection of tradition, the idea that something that is before is wrong and something that is after is correct? How can we address this in terms of dietary fads and modern food choices?

In continuation to my previous answer, fortunately tradition was not completely rejected, ever. It was always resilient in its tatva (essence), enough to co-exist with whatever influences came along….Having said that, what we are calling “tradition” is also not set in stone, it is not fixed forever….it has evolved over time, over eras….each era presenting its own set of constraints and contextual influences. We do not still have adequate information, evidences to understand how and why forms, practices and symbols changed so much….so we must be careful as to what exactly are we referring to when we say tradition.

In terms of dietary fads, we are actually progressing by going back to traditional food practices and foods as well. There are so many popular pages on YouTube and social media that show “village foods” or grandmothers and grandchildren cooking together to preserve family recipes. So, there is a good understanding that modern food choices are not healthy, even if they are tasty. They also will not be able to completely replace home cooked foods, ever. The bigger threat to home-cooked foods is ultra-processed ingredients that promise time-saving, nutrient-saving qualities and are marketed as such.

To a generation that has been brought up to question the status quo, tradition is often viewed as a burden. Just as ‘modernization’ has myriad colonial and Eurocentric implications, has the word tradition itself become too laden with subtexts of antiquity and being ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘outdated’? Is there a need to develop a new vocabulary not just to describe Indic concepts but also the way that the past and the present is spoken about?

Every generation is a thinking generation. We must approach them with that trust. The previous generation’s way of life is not emulated because either the next generation is convinced that it is not worth emulating or there is inadequate trust between generations about methods that lead to desirable outcomes. But, we often forget the context and the pace of change here. Past or present or future, it is of our own making and often a result of our own misgivings….so we must fully embrace it without judgement and own it. Unless we own it, we will not feel the need to understand it honestly and critically – “as it is” – however hurtful or pride-worthy that may be. Our inquiries are sharpened if we approach it like this.

In contemporary times, a new vocabulary will have to be “marketed” in a capitalistic system, isn’t it?? Do we want to get into that rat race, knowing everything? OR should we focus on correctly understanding what Indic concepts are and mainstream them on the basis of that understanding. The new vocabulary will not solve the understanding problem (this will need hard work!), rather it will complicate it because now, we can make new vocabulary “viral” and accessible to everyone in no time….but it will inadvertently so, promote an empty use of the terms that they are not backed by full understanding. This doesn’t seem a worthwhile risk at this point when we are still struggling with mainstreaming issues.

In the passing on of knowledge and tradition, Western viewpoint or not, there is actually often a lot of force involved. Has our society been straying from the actual self-realization and fulfilment that dharma is? In a response to Western attacks of tradition, has there become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts where in order to preserve tradition that is being rejected, the tradition is now being imposed?

Yes, this indeed sometimes seems like a catch-22 situation.

In any era, why should one follow Dharma? It is so that dharma can guide action, to achieve the personal and collective goals of Mukti or ultimately, Moksha. This process of constant self refinement and evolution of consciousness has a prerequisite and that is, ruthless, meditative self inquiry. Without this, there is no dharma, no mukti. So whatever our frame of reference, we must ask ourselves – is this restrictive or liberating in the real sense, for me or for all involved? Should I blindly follow rituals or should I do something novel that will ensure everyone’s wellbeing? How can I navigate this? Should I work from a place of fear or from a place of love and compassion for greater good?

Today we have the means to scale things up, but will scaling up solve problems or will we end up creating more problems? For example, the hyper commercialization of Ganapati festival (or any other, for that matter) leads to noise pollution, traffic jams, overcrowding and other avoidable problems that negatively impact the environment and quality of life. Should we not step back and think of descaling it or managing it more intelligently? Are we not enslaved by the capitalistic, exploitative principle here through hyper commercialization? How does this behavior align with Indic principles?

Let us not lose the tatva behind the practice if we want the younger generation to appreciate and follow it for a long time to come. We must understand the constant dynamism of person, culture and context to interpret change.