Hunting for my tradition

ways and means

Stepping onto Duke’s campus almost a week ago was like stepping into the future. Stepping into a new start, a new path forward. At the same time, I couldn’t help but pause and think about the past. Not just my past, but the past we all share — our history. Who originally built the Duke Chapel? Who were the first to attend a service there? Soon, these questions expanded into broader ideas. Ideas regarding traditions and how they are started. Who creates traditions? But then two questions came to mind that instantly captivated my attention given their relevance to the present day:

What happens to traditions over time? Where do they go? 

For some, this question is irrelevant. We are living in the here and now; the people of the past will never matter. But for others, like me, traditions carry a heavier weight. The stories, lives, and traditions of the past are just as real now as they ever were. It’s a difficult time to believe in tradition. Our world is all about progress and change—freedom from the shackles of the past. But at what cost?

It is true we are shackled by the past. Sometimes, we are bound to evil and arcane ideas about how people should behave or how others should be treated. But modernity doesn’t just throw off the shackles. It is a blind executioner, burning traditions indiscriminately. Do we even know what we are losing? What does it mean for religious rituals to be forgotten? Does it matter if local traditions die out? I have tried answering these questions by searching for my own traditions, my own heritage.

This is, luckily for me, a good time to be a person of South Asian descent in America. There are more of us here than ever and we are continuing to increase our outreach. I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer number of Indian dance/cultural groups at Duke during the Activities Fair. These groups bring out the vital parts of identity: community, art, and food.

At the same time, where is one supposed to go to discover Indian history? Indian religion? These topics are far more obscure than others. They have to be searched for, dug out of their hiding places.

But it isn’t really a search: it’s more of a hunt. Tradition, culture, history; for whatever reason, these things have been hidden away, almost forgotten. Even with hours of time and the resources of the Internet at my disposal, rediscovering my past is difficult. At age eighteen, I’m still not really certain what it means to be Hindu. I’m also not sure what it means to be Indian. Those titles hold a vast amount of subtext and history within themselves. The same goes for other identities. 

What parts of my past am I missing? It was only recently that I realized there was an intangible obstacle preventing me from understanding the core of Hinduism and the essence of being Indian—language. To delve into my religion and my nation, I had to uncover the ancestral language of India: Sanskrit.

After hours of research and tracking down classes online, I am several months into my journey with few results. Although Duke offers a number of classical languages, Sanskrit is not among them—due to lack of student interest. So, I turned towards online resources. Luckily, I found plenty of Internet resources: guides, dictionaries, lectures, and practice sheets. Unfortunately, however, Sanskrit happens to be a very complex and esoteric language that does not come easily to native English speakers. Just my luck, of course.

But that’s not fair of me. Even if Sanskrit is a difficult language to learn, it is not as obscure as I thought. To this day, tens of thousands of people know and speak Sanskrit, it is studied academically, and it even has a revival movement hoping to expand its usage. Sanskrit may be difficult for me to learn with only Internet resources, but at least those resources exist. For many cultures, that is not the case.

In reading the Duke Common Experience book, There There, I realized that for many people, those resources don’t exist. In some cases, they can never exist. By now, hundreds of languages have gone extinct; hundreds more will go extinct soon. Each one is another piece of human history gone forever. And for the descendants of those languages, it is a piece of their tradition to never be recovered. As a lover of tradition, I can’t imagine being so irrevocably cut off from the past.

What did I end up finding in my hunt for tradition? Although I only have English translations, my Hindu scripture has given me wisdom in dark moments. Learning Indian history revealed where I belong in the world. And my own search has given me something special: a fragment of my traditional culture. 

The truth is, I can’t regain all of it; I was born and raised in a different nation in a different time with a different language. I’ll never fully understand. 

None of us can fully understand the traditions of the past. Luckily, we have some of our own traditions alive right now. For me, the best I can do is keep a little piece of the past with me—just so it doesn’t get lost. Perhaps, if we all worked to hold onto small bits of tradition, we might share them with the future.

Akshaj Turebylu is a Trinity first-year. His column, “ways and means,” runs on alternate Fridays.


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