Traditions can exert a powerful influence on us, either positive or negative.
By Dvijamani Gaura Dasa
Lord Krishna’s teachings on the modes of material nature can help us measure the relative worth of various traditions.

What would life be without traditions? Can you imagine? No festivities, no holidays, no jubilant get-togethers . . . no spice. But how can we know, objectively, the true value of various cultural traditions? And what is the ultimate cause of traditions? Such questions are pertinent in an age where people around the world are increasingly exposed to a wide spectrum of cultural influences.

The Purpose of Traditions

More than just amusements, traditions are an aspect of human existence which give shape to an individual’s identity as a member of a family, community, or nation. The word “tradition” comes from the Latin traditio and was originally used in Roman law to refer to legal transfers and inheritance. It signifies the handing over of something valuable. Thus, we can observe that the values of a particular community are preserved, in part, through the medium of traditions.

As human beings we are social by nature. We flourish by being a cooperative part of a community. Traditions are recurring practices which keep us connected to a community and its values. Community generates harmony – between men and women, children and adults, humans and animals, and indeed among all forms of life. Harmony gives a sense of fulfillment because it indicates the natural condition of the soul. And traditions, ideally, should support and expand the sense of harmony. But do all traditions lead us towards this high ideal?

For those without a leaning towards spiritual knowledge, the traditions of their country, family, etc., act to lock them into a certain culture and way of life, stifling their chance to develop higher consciousness. Srila Prabhupada writes: “As soon as he enters the human form, the living entity is entrapped by a family tradition, nationality, customs, etc. These are all supplied by the maya [illusory power] of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Thus the living entity, under the bodily conception of life, utilizes his intelligence to his best capacity in order to satisfy his senses.” (Bhagavatam 4.25.36, Purport)

Therefore, the central purpose of Vedic culture, the cultural system propounded by advanced spiritualists of ancient India, is to invoke a spirit of inquiry into the Absolute Truth. Athato brahma jijñasa – “As you’ve achieved the human form, seek out knowledge of the self” – rings the famous and essential aphorism of the Vedanta.

One who is not enamored of the local customs offered by his birth and karma may heed the natural longing of the heart to understand the absolute reality. He embarks on a quest to discover what “foreign” traditions have to offer. For the broad-minded, it becomes apparent that not all traditions carry the same value. So how can one properly evaluate various traditions?

In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna teaches an amazing, universally applicable method for evaluating practically any action, thought, or phenomena in the world: a simple analysis with respect to the modes of material nature. Since traditions are related to the transfer of knowledge and values, we can refer to Krishna’s explanation of knowledge in the respective modes of material nature to get some idea of how to measure the relative worth of traditions (Gita 18.20–22):

That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all living entities, though they are divided into innumerable forms, you should understand to be in the mode of goodness.

That knowledge by which one sees that in every different body there is a different type of living entity you should understand to be in the mode of passion.

And that knowledge by which one is attached to one kind of work as the all in all, without knowledge of the truth, and which is very meager, is said to be in the mode of darkness.

These three kinds of knowledge can be separately recognized by their potency to increase or decrease the tendency toward self-centeredness. In goodness, one’s knowledge reveals the divine origin of each soul. Such knowledge leads to the selfless disposition to treat others as you would want to be treated. In passion, one conceives of different types of bodies as representing different types of temporarily existing beings. This kind of knowledge leads to identification with a particular family, tribe, or nation, considering one’s own people of greater importance than others. The knowledge of those in the mode of ignorance causes them to be concerned only with bodily comforts, similar to the knowledge of animals. In this mode, one puts one’s bodily demands above other considerations, and thus totally loses awareness of any sublime goal of life.

Clearly, knowledge in the mode of goodness is more conducive to lasting happiness. Traditions which engender such knowledge can be understood to be relatively more valuable than others. And traditions resulting in an outlook conducted by the modes of passion and ignorance are of lesser value and lead to degradation. Let us consider a simple example.

In some cultures there is a tradition of respecting senior persons. This tradition inculcates the understanding that everyone is dependent upon the kindness and well-wishes of superiors. It instills the idea of being a member of a greater reality in which respect is essential for achieving peace. Some traditional usages may be seen in offering charity to teachers, bowing down before family elders, and addressing seniors using respectful language.

In cultures where such respectful dealings are lacking, or even totally absent, children may address their teachers with no honorary language, but rather speak to them as equals. The worldview communicated is that distinctions based on superiority and subordination are unimportant. “Hierarchy obstructs us in becoming all we can be! We are meant to enjoy life without the restrictions that go along with subordinating ourselves to some imagined ‘superior.’” Such an understanding places the individual squarely in the center of reality, defeating the natural human culture of submission to God.

Thus, instead of analyzing the complex myriad of traditions discoverable in many different countries, one may simplify one’s investigation by seeing through the wisdom of the Gita. Traditions may be a medium of delivering knowledge and values, but they are not the source of such knowledge and values. Behind traditions are particular worldviews, informed by a particular quality of knowledge.

Is Good Culture Enough?

But do proper traditions and high culture guarantee advancement towards the goal of life? What about the demonic forces portrayed in the Vedic literatures, such as Srimad-Bhagavatam? Demons (asuras) are entities opposed to the theistic way of life. However, we frequently observe that asuras are expert in adhering to scriptural codes. They often conduct themselves in what appears to be a highly cultured way, honoring carefully preserved traditions.

In the Sixth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, we find an episode in which Lord Indra committed a mortal mistake. During a gathering in which he was being honored as the most respected and cherished king by many great devatas (demigods), he failed to pay deference when Brihaspati, his spiritual master, came into the assembly. He did not rise from his throne to welcome and honor this great preceptor. Such a dire breach of etiquette led to a disaster in which the heavenly kingdom was seized by the asuras.

Previous to Indra’s offense, the asuras had shown proper respect in worshiping their own guru, and thus, by the auspicious effects of their worship, they gained the power with which to overthrow their enemies, the devatas. The Vedic tradition of honoring one’s gurus and teachers is meant to develop in the follower a mood of reverence for authority, culminating in a worshipful attitude towards God. But asuras cleverly adhere to the form of the tradition, knowing that it will generate power and prestige, but eschew its ultimate purpose. They behave as if loyal to their superiors, but in the ultimate issue they aspire to usurp the supreme, powerful position of Lord Vishnu.

We learn from this episode involving the asuras’ worship or their guru that although a tradition may be intended for the spiritual upliftment of its adherents, it can be misused. Asuras may expertly apply the injunction to honor the guru, but they do so in the pursuit of selfish ambitions. One may follow many traditions stemming from a high culture, but without purity of purpose the result can turn out disastrous. “By all the Vedas, I am to be known,” Krishna tells Arjuna (Gita 15.15). In the Vedic tradition, all performances of duty, the cultivation of knowledge, and cultural programs are meant to support the purpose of purifying oneself to finally meet Krishna face to face. The awakening of this understanding is possible only under proper guidance.

Thus, good culture and tradition alone are not enough to give enlightenment. The personal support needed to keep ourselves fixed on our highest self-interest is mercifully given to us by Krishna in the form of the spiritual master. Therefore, the tradition of traditions, the supreme guiding principle, is to accept the shelter of a genuine spiritual master. The spiritual master’s qualification is described in Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.3.21):

Therefore any person who seriously desires real happiness must seek a bona fide spiritual master and take shelter of him by initiation. The qualification of the bona fide guru is that he has realized the conclusions of the scriptures by deliberation and is able to convince others of these conclusions. Such great personalities, who have taken shelter of the Supreme Godhead, leaving aside all material considerations, should be understood to be bona fide spiritual masters.

We may conclude that the best purpose of knowledge-transmitting traditions is served when one comes under the shelter of a genuine spiritual master.

It may be said, therefore, that the supreme tradition is found in the transmission of divine knowledge through an unbroken chain of spiritual masters and disciples. Officially recognized successions of masters and disciples are known as sampradayas, and there are currently four of them: the Sri-sampradaya, the Brahma-Madhva-sampradaya, the Kumara-sampradaya, and the Rudra-sampradaya. By humbly approaching the current spiritual masters coming in any one of these four disciplic successions, one can revive his dormant Krishna consciousness and awaken to the unchanging spiritual reality. This is the best and surest way to regain one’s identity in the spiritual world, where love reigns supreme – and where there’s a festival at every step. Definitely this is tradition of the highest order.

The Source of Tradition

So let us consider the ultimate cause of our wanting to be part of a tradition. For souls under the spell of the Supreme Lord’s potency for illusion (maya), worldly traditions and customs act as a snare to keep one absorbed in activities of sense gratification. According to the Bhagavad-gita, however, all temporary phenomena of this world are perverted reflections of their original, uncontaminated counterparts in the realm of eternity. Accordingly, the origin of the idea of “tradition” must exist in its pure form in the spiritual world.

We learn from revealed scriptures that in Lord Krishna’s eternal abode of Sri Vrindavana, traditions abound. There is the traditional worship that Srimati Radharani and her gopi friends offer to the deity of the sun. There is the traditional honor offered to the brahmanas and the cows. And there are traditional ceremonies and festivals such as Govardhana Puja, where all the members of the cowherd community gather to glorify and make sacrifices to Govardhana Hill, the great, fully cognizant, mountain-bodied servant of Krishna. By such examples, we can understand that traditions add spice to life even in the realm of liberated souls.

By this investigation, I don’t intend that you, my readers, become callous to the idea of tradition altogether. Rather, we can appreciate that there is a transcendental source of it all, and we can rejoice in being a part of its wonderful, eternal traditions, though we may not always to able to remember that while still living in conditional life.

Traditions of the Absolute

In summary, we learned that traditions act to fortify a particular worldview. They act as carriers of knowledge and values within a culture. A culture shaped by enlightened followers of the Vedic wisdom is a culture rife with traditions which reinforce genuine knowledge of the true self. Even for those who have not transcended the bodily conception of life, the traditions of Vedic culture serve as supports to keep its members from devolving to lower modes of living.

Still, it is important not to be captivated by the form of a tradition alone. Even good traditions can be misused for ulterior purposes. As such, we are advised to systematically cultivate transcendental knowledge to give life to the tradition, as recommended by Krishna Himself in the Bhagavad-gita. Transcendental knowledge can be received and nourished by becoming a disciple or follower of a Vaishnava guru in one of the four authorized sampradayas. Having come to the human form of life (which is compared to a strong boat) and set the proper destination (revival of our lost Krishna consciousness), with the guidance of a proper captain (guru) our natural attraction to transcendental traditions will be aroused and we’ll progressively traverse the dangerous waters of material existence. Enriched with knowledge and detachment, we will view the relative worth of the traditions of this temporary realm as pale in comparison to the beauty of traditions related to Sri Krishna, the source of all happiness.

Dvijamani Gaura Dasa, a disciple of His Grace Sankarshana Dasa Adhikari, joined ISKCON in 2008 after earning a degree in international politics from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He currently resides at ISKCON Kaunas, Lithuania, where he serves Sri Sri Nitai-Gaurachandra and Their devotees as a resident brahmachari.