Vijay Lohitsa
Readers’ Corner: Tradition and Identity

Scientific temper and tradition can co-exist as they have for several millennia

Some  ignorant tweets and comments were made in reaction to the euphoria over the success of the Mangalyaan mission. My objective is not to criticize or educate people like Nikhil Wagle (see tweets below) but to inform lay men who may find such arguments valid and reasonable.

India is a land of contrast and paradoxes. Anyone who visits India from the West will tell you that. One thousand year old temples may be situated next to modern satellite communications complexes in Thumba, South India. A nuclear scientist may start the day by offering puja at a shrine and chant Vishnusahasranama (the thousand names of Vishnu) while driving to work. A software programmer at Google or Microsoft will code the most complex algorithms with an image of Ganesha adorning the soft board in the cubicle.

Our engineers will not build a dam without bhumi pujan. Scientific research centres in India, engaged in the most advanced hi-tech research conduct puja and homa within their facilities. An engineering or medical science student will visit a temple for blessings and apply tilak before his exams. Now what makes some of these brilliant minds engaged in rational, scientific work, perform these seemingly irrational, even superstitious acts. One word for this is ‘tradition’ and not religion as some may have us believe.

 Religio is what traditio is all about

Heathen in his Blindness, SN Balgangadhara

To establish that the above statement i.e. it’s tradition and not religion that we Hindus follow in our daily lives, we have to first understand the origin and meaning of the word religion. The world religion comes from the Latin word religio used by the Romans to describe practices, rituals, festivals, sacrifices etc. that collectively became Roman customs and traditions over the centuries. When we look at religion as tradition, that is a set of practices transmitted over generations, then the term appears as a minor variant of our intuitive nation of culture: to have a religion is to have culture.

Whenever there are people with a history, there tradition exists too. In other words they have religio too. This is how the pagans seem to have seen the issue. “Thus religio is what traditio is all about, religion falls together with tradition and continuing a tradition does not require any reason other than itself” as SN Balagangadhara a professor of comparative science of cultures at Ghent University in Belgium succinctly summarizes in his magnum opus ‘The heathen in his blindness’.

 The primary test of truth in religious matters was custom and tradition, the practices of the ancients…In philosophical matters one might turn to intellectuals and philosophers, but in religious questions one looked to the past, to the accepted practices handed down by tradition, and to the guarantors of this traditions, the priests (Wilken)

The republic was an age of rationalism; certainly as far as Roman nobility was concerned. But this tendency was never taken to its logical conclusion, rejection of tradition religious practices…Such respect for ancestral authority would assure the continuity of traditions rituals, just as the childhood associations, family traditions and the peculiar nature of pagan beliefs would be preserve traditional mental attitude. (Liebeschuetz)

It is wise and reasonable for us to preserve the institutions of our forefathers by retaining their rites and ceremonies. (Cicero)

This non-exhaustive list reads like who’s who in western classical philosophy and science (both Greek and Roman). They not only performed religious rituals but also were priests of religious order. Socrates, Plato, Epicurus, Lucretius, Cicero, Plutarch, Athenogoras the Athenian, Celsus, Cornelius Tacitus, Prophyry, were highly regarded philosophers, thinkers, scientists, polymaths, yet openly participated and led religious ceremonies. Socrates the father of western philosophy defended himself against charges of atheism and credited the Oracle at Delphi for his education.

Socrates and his student Plato proposed that the soul is immortal and believed in reincarnation. Cicero was on the Roman council of Augury though he really did not lay much stress on conducting ones life based on soothsaying. Plutarch was a priest at the Oracle of Delphi yet he attacked some Roman traditio. Thus these individuals were brilliant rational thinkers, philosophers and atheist in some cases yet were also closely attached to their respective temples and practiced to their religious traditions.

Cicero’s De Natura Deorum (On the nature of Gods) is a great classical work on the origin of god that has not been bettered till date in western philosophy. The work is a speculative dialogue on the existence of god. Many 18th century intellectuals such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume, Edward Gibbon etc. used Cicero’s work, written some 2000 years earlier as the arsenal to attack religion and come up with the idea of Secularism. Why the arguments in Cicero’s work were decisive to the inheritors of the Greco-Roman culture 2000 years later to make them turn away from god and turn atheist? The content of the Cicero’s work did not change but the cultural matrix in which it was understood had changed.

What the European intellectuals thought of religion was very different from the idea of Roman religio. 18th century Europe operated within a Christian cultural matrix and the intellectuals understood religion in the way Christian theology describes it (God, Son of God, Creed, Scriptures and other assorted dogmas). Thus the ancients could be perfectly rational, scientist, mathematicians, physicians, philosophers or atheist even and yet be closely attached to their gods and tradition without for a moment feeling any dissonance.


This Christian definition of religion has been passed on to our intellectuals through colonisation and through continuation of the colonial educational and cultural framework and thus they form misinformed or even ignorant idea of religion, which is far removed from the native thought. Religion holds a different meaning to the Hindus compared to the Christian definition of religion. The idea of religion to the Hindus is a collection of rituals and practices that have become a tradition over centuries just as religion was traditio for the Romans.

Drawing from the above its easy to see how in ancient India, brilliant scientist like Bhaskaracharya, Brahmagupta, Aryabhata, Varahamira, Susruta, Nagarjuna, and Charaka to name a few were not only rational and scientifically ‘tempered’ but also closely attached to their gods and traditions which does not mean that their work was less reliable or less worthy.

Going back to the tweet by Nikhil Wagle, a prominent Marathi journalist, does the achievement of the Indian space scientist is less worthy just because they prayed to Lord Balaji? What is scientific temper, is it a badge or a certificate? If Indian space scientist can send a spacecraft to Mars, is it not scientific temper enough that they have to further embellish it with rejection of their ancient traditions.


Ganesh puja before all rituals, Sandyavandane, Yajnopaveetham, Tulsi Puja, Dipawali, Holi, Dashera, Krishna Janmashtami, Ram Navmi, Surya Puja, Karva Chauth, Raksha Bandhan, Ritual bath before entering temple, applying Haldi on wedding day (turmeric) and all other such rituals have been transmitted over generations. If we lose these traditions, we lose our identity.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Swarajya)

Pics Courtesy – Keerthik Sasidharan and Anjali George