TRADITION – WHOSE TRADITION PLEASE?

 

 

 

 

Joseph Mani

 

Pope Francis is undoubtedly the most liberal Pope during the last half century. When he was asked if he would allow Catholic priests to be married, he said “Never, it goes against all the traditions of the Church.”  Whose tradition, Your Holiness?

 

There is a PIL in the Delhi High Court asking for same-sex marriage to be legalized. Opposing the PIL, Mr. Tushar Mehta, the Solicitor General of India, argued that same-sex union goes not only against existing laws but also against the age-old traditions of India. Which tradition, learned SG?

 

Let us take priestly celibacy. Was it always the practice in the Church?

 

Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism; the Old Testament, the holy book of the Jews, is an integral part of the Christian Bible. Jewish High Priests were married and priesthood was passed on from father to son. The same was true of the Levites, the class responsible for Jewish rituals. Zacharias, a High Priest and father of John the Baptist was married to Elizabeth, a relative of Jesus’ mother Mary. Jewish Rabbis are married people. We know of only the religion of the Aztecs which demanded that their priests to be celibates.

 

An adult male remaining unmarried was not common among the Jews. So we may assume that many of Jesus’ apostles were married. Peter the first Pope was a married man. It is speculated that after joining Jesus, his disciples gave up sexual relationships with their wives, with or without the wives’ consent. Paul, though himself without a wife and somewhat of a misogynist, still allowed Church elders and even Bishops to be married (1 Thimothy 3: 2)

 

It is only in the Second Lateraan Council held in 1139 that priestly celibacy was made compulsory. This means that for more than a thousand years Catholic priests could marry and have children. Some Popes were sons of Popes.

 

It was economics more than theology that made the Church finally impose priestly celibacy. Priests and bishops controlled enormous wealth and huge properties. The Church wanted this wealth to remain within the Church and not be given to the wives and children of the clergy. So the Church started ordaining monks as priests since monks had already taken a vow of celibacy. Then came an edict from Pope Benedict VIII (1012 – 1024) prohibiting children of priests from inheriting property (Benedict was a layman when he was made Pope). When even this did not stop the rot of clerical greed, a total ban on priestly marriage was imposed. There was also the question of who had control over the priests – the Church or the King and Nobles. If the Church controlled a priest’s sex life, it controlled his money, his employment and his income, total control over him.

 

Every other Christian denomination allows their priests and in some cases even bishops to be married. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, is the world head of the Church of England. He is married to Caroline and they have six children. Is he going against the Bible by being a family man? Is he distracted by his wife and children and not full-time devoted to the service of his Church?

 

That only men can be priests is a dogma of the Church which means not even a Pope can change it, but that priests should be celibates is only a rule of the Church. Tomorrow with the stroke of a pen any Pope can remove that rule. This happened in the case of Limbo. Belief in Limbo was centuries old in the Church. Then one fine day in April 2007 Pope Benedict XVI declared that the faithful are free to believe or disbelieve in Limbo because it was not a dogma of the Church. If priestly celibacy is on the same footing, what sacred tradition is Pope Francis talking about? The Aztec tradition?

 

Let us now turn to Mr. Tushar Mehta’s appeal to tradition to oppose same sex marriage. Were Hindu Scriptures and Hinduism consistently opposed to LGBT?

 

Unlike Christianity and Islam, Hinduism does not have one single authoritative Holy Book or one central authority to interpret the scripture. Each Hindu group has its own preferred text and preferred interpretation.

 

Most Hindu texts refer to non-heterosexual persons as “third gender”. Although a few Hindu texts contain injunctions against homosexuality, a number of Hindu texts have portrayed homosexual experience as natural and joyful. There are also numerous Hindu deities that are shown to be gender-fluid and falling into the LGBT spectrum. Same-sex relations and gender variance have been represented within Hinduism from Vedic times through to the present day in rituals, law books, religious or mythical narratives, commentaries, paintings, and sculpture.

 

In 2008, the state of Tamil Nadu recognised the "Third Gender" with its Civil Supplies department giving in the ration card a provision for a new sex column as 'T', distinct from the usual 'M' and 'F' for male and female respectively. This was the first time that authorities anywhere in India have officially recognized the third gender.

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Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik summarizes the place of homosexuality in Hindu literature as follows: "Though not part of the mainstream, its existence was acknowledged but not approved.” Historians Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, after analyzing Indian texts from ancient to modern times, conclude that Hindu texts have discussed and debated same-sex desire from the earliest times, in tones ranging from critical to non-judgmental to playful and celebratory.  Other Indologists assert that homosexuality was not approved for Brahmins and priests but accepted among other castes. The Vaishnava monk Amara Das Wilhelm demonstrates how ancient expressions of Hinduism accommodated homosexual and transgender persons much more positively than we see in India today: "Early Vedic teachings stressed responsible family life and asceticism but also tolerated different types of sexualities within general society”.

 

The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that in the ancient Hindu narratives heterosexual sex where the man ejaculates inside the vagina of the woman was considered the ideal because it leads to procreation. Other forms of sex like oral, anal and same-gender were varyingly disapproved, accepted or celebrated for the general population. So there is no consistent Indian tradition against same-sex union as Mr. Mehta seems to imply.

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In any case, tradition, however ancient, is not necessarily a good guide to what is right today. Bloodletting as a cure for all sicknesses was the traditional practice for many years. The personal doctors of George Washington performed bloodletting on their celebrity patient and caused his death. Sati, child marriage, polygamy and taboo about menstruation were all traditionally accepted and even had religious sanction in some cases. Should we be practicing these today?

 

Tradition also tends to carry with it cultural narcissism. Each culture or group thinks its traditions are superior, that its ancients had all the knowledge and wisdom that there ever was.

 

The Aztecs believed that if their priests did not perform their yearly sacrifices, the sun would not rise and the universe would disintegrate. The Greeks thought that history began with Homer, Socrates and Plato and all important ideas and inventions happened in Athens, Sparta and Alexandria. Chinese nationalists retort that history really began with the Yellow Emperor and the Xia and Shang dynasties and that whatever Christians, Muslims or Indians achieved are pale copies of the original Chinese breakthroughs. Hindu nationalists insist that plastic surgery, aeroplanes, missiles, nuclear weapons, the internet,  search engines and the theory of relativity were all known to their ancients. Jews are convinced that any human achievement we can name originated with them. There are yoga teachers in Israel today who in all seriousness tell their students that yoga was developed by Abraham. Evidence? All the yoga postures resemble letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It is the son of one of Abraham’s concubines who went to India and taught yoga to the Indians. Proof? Just read the Bible. “And to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country” (Genesis 25: 6). Mainstream Judaism maintains that if orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem, Kochi and everywhere else did not study the scriptures and extract wisdom from the Talmud, the earth and even the galaxies would disappear. Any Jew who questions these assertions or doubts these evidences will be declared an ungodly apostate and an enemy of Israel. For pious Muslims anything prior to Prophet Muhammad was irrelevant and nothing worthwhile has come after the revelations in the Quran. As the Caliph told his soldiers about the books in the great Library of Alexandria “Destroy all the books that don’t agree with the Quran because they are false; destroy also those that agree with the Quran because they are redundant.” Turkish, Iranian and Egyptian jingoists claim that even before the Quran, it was their nation which had all that was good in humanity and it is they who preserved the purity of Islam and spread its glory. British, French, German, American, Japanese and practically every other nation claims that but for them humanity would have remained in barbarity and ignorance.

 

The advantage politicians and preachers have is that they themselves don’t have to believe in what they proclaim. It is enough that there are other fools who believe it. Once our PM said Indians could do complicated plastic surgeries in ancient times, citing the case of Ganesha, whole lot of others, including “respected” scientists, jumped on to the bandwagon. These worthies didn’t seem to have realized that if they were right, then a God was fashioned by human plastic surgeons!

 

A nationalist says “My country is superior and my attachment and obligations are only to my country.” A patriot says “My country is unique, not superior, and I have a special attachment and special obligations to my country. I also have obligations to the global community.”

 

Harping on chauvinistic nationalism, narcissistic culturalism and atavistic traditionalism divide humanity when what today’s world needs is global cooperation among all countries to meet the threats of nuclear annihilation, technological disruption and environmental destruction.

 

 

 

 

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