Firecrackers and the Hindu religion

There was massive controversy in India last month when the Supreme Court banned the sale of firecrackers in and around Delhi, in an ostensible Move to cut pollution.

As one might expect, the move drew heavy criticism on the grounds that the court was ruling against a fundamental tenet of Hindu religion. In return, other people pointed out that bursting firecrackers on the occasion of Deepavali is a rather recent tradition, and thus has nothing to do with the “fundamental tenets of Hinduism”.

As it happened, the ban continued to stay, though reports say that both noise and air pollution levels in Delhi were unaffected by the ban. Here’s my humble attempt to argue that why modern traditions such as bursting firecrackers is important to religion,

As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, religion in general and festivals in particular are memes, in the traditional Richard Dawkins sense of the term.

Religion and festivals are basically ideas that compete in an ideas marketplace, and people propagate the ideas that they like the most. In one sense people like what they find useful – which is why imagined orders such as democracy or public limited companies continue to propagate and thrive.

At a more personal level, though, people will choose to associate with and propagate ideas that they simply like, and at a very basic level, enjoy. In other words, the more fun people find a concept, the more heavily they’ll adopt and propagate it.

Hence religions evolve, and (in what can be seen as parallels to mutation), pick up ideas from outside that can make them more fun. So the American Christians picked up and appropriated thanksgiving from the red Indians. Even further back Christianity picked up and amalgamated the idea of Christmas. Hare Krishna people picked up wild dancing. Bombay people picked up Ganesha processions. And so on.

By incorporating fun practices from outside, religions make themselves fitter, as they open up leeway’s for new recruits (such as kids). Short of coercion, without fun practices there’s little chance that religion can pick up new recruits.

Crackers on Deepavali, or colours on Holi, are aspects that have come into the hindu religion that have made it more fun. That theee aspects make the religion more fun mean that it’s easier to co-opt new recruits, especially the young kind. This makes the meme that is the hindu religion fitter.

So it doesn’t matter how ancient a practice is – as long as it’s fun, and increases the memetic fitness of a religion, it remains a fundamental part of the religion.

Without firecrackers the idea of Deepavali might lose its identity and people might stop celebrating it. And it being one of Hinduism’s most celebrated festivals, a weakening Deepavali meme leads to a weakening hindu meme.

So the banning of firecrackers in Delhi on the occasion of Deepavali was indeed injurious to the hindu religion.

Just keep in mind that culture (using memes) evolves much much faster than organisms (which use genes)!

24 October

Today it’s 24th October and it’s still deepavali. An earlier occasion when the festival fell on this date was in 1995, which I rank among my best deepavalis ever

24th October 1995 saw a total solar eclipse in India. In Bangalore it was only partial but clearly visible. We had procured special goggles (made of aluminium foil or something) to view the eclipse. I don’t remember any other solar eclipse during my lifetime of close to 32 years getting that much footage.

I don’t have too many cousins (total of 5 both sides put together) but a couple of them were home that deepavali. So after the eclipse we went off to see The Mask in galaxy. One cousin who was 18 them just couldn’t get enough of Cameron Diaz’s cleavage and legs, I remember.

We came back and burst crackers. The previous day too we had burst – deepavali is a three day festival in Bangalore and usually we burst lots of crackers on days 1 and 3. Back then I remember going to relatives’ houses and relatives coming to my house to burst crackers together.

On day three (25 October 1995) we went to see Rangeela in urvashi. I was quite enamoured by Urmila Matondkar’s assets but couldn’t do or say a thing since my dad was sitting next to me! Just quietly watched. And back in those days there was no YouTube or Internet to make amends later!

I remember ruling thulping food at MTR after the movie. Don’t remember what I ate though.

And again we burst crackers that evening – in a cousins house if I remember right (or it might have been the other way round – cousins house oh day 2 and my house on day 3. I don’t remember now). 

This was only the latter half of the five day deepavali weekend that year. On the first two days 21st and 22nd I’d gone for a chess tournament somewhere in Rajajinagar (one of my last tournaments before I retired from competitive chess). I remember starting the tournament nondescriptly but having a spectacular second day of the tournament to finish with 4 out of 6 points, losing out on a podium finish on progressive score.

It was a spectacular five day weekend overall. The variety in fun was significant, and the quantity too!

Of late though I’ve stopped celebrating deepavali – crackers don’t excite me any more and there is nothing else to the festival as far as I’m concerned!

As I’d remarked on this blog a year or so back – festivals are like memes. In the original sense of the word, as Richard Dawkins intended it when he invented the word!

Festivals and memes

We don’t normally celebrate festivals. We don’t particularly enjoy them. The only festival we celebrate to some degree is Dasara, when we set up dolls and invite people home to view the dolls. Of course, the last couple of years it’s been similar arrangements and there hasn’t been much innovation in what we do, but we enjoy it as a process and hence take forward the festival. Last year, we even got some fireworks during Deepavali and burst them. Again – it was a fun element. We aren’t too enthused by rituals and since most other festivals are little more than rituals we don’t celebrate them.

The wife, however, sometimes have existential doubts. “There must be a reason that our ancestors celebrated these festivals”, she pops up from time to time, “so it may not be correct on our part to simply stop celebrating. We should take forward the tradition”. This is question that comes up each time we don’t celebrate a festival (which you might guess is fairly often). Before today I hadn’t been able to give a convincing reply either way – whether it makes sense to follow our instinct or if it’s a cultural duty to take forward the tradition.

Towards the end of his classic book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins introduces the concept of the meme.  In fact it was Dawkins who “invented” the concept of the meme. It is meant to be a cultural analogy to the gene, and it’s a “cultural’ concept that propagates like biological concepts are taken forward through the generations via genes. Given the multitude of so-called memes that keep popping up every other day, I’m sure all of you know what meme means. I’m just providing the context here since my argument depends on the original Dawkinsian definition of the meme.

Let us say that there is a genetic attribute I inherited from my father, let’s say it’s my height (my father was 5 feet 10 inches, and I’m an inch taller than that). Now, it is not necessary that this particular gene is passed on to my progeny. It is not even necessary that the corresponding gene from my wife gets passed on – there might be a mutation there and despite the wife and I being fairly tall (by Indian standards) we cannot rule out producing a short child. The point I’m trying to make is that while genes propagate, not every trait needs to pass on from you to your offspring. Only a few traits (chosen more or less at random when your and your gene-propagating partner’s genes undergo meiosis) get passed on. Yet, through the network of you and your siblings and cousins and extended family, the family’s genetic code gets passed on.

Now, festivals and other cultural practices can be described as memes. We in the Indian society have a set of memes, which are called “Ganesh Chaturthi”, “Deepavali”, etc. That these memes have survived through the generations shows their strength – who knows about festivals that had been invented but didn’t survive. Now, the fact that we have inherited this meme doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to propagate it. Unlike genetics, the choice here is not random combination – it is our personal choice (we can’t decide what genes our offspring inherits from either of us or through a mutation).

So, just like every genetic trait doesn’t need to be propagated from a parent to an offspring, not every cultural trait needs to be passed on. If I were to pass on every cultural trait I inherit irrespective of whether it is desirable, even when circumstances change, undesirable cultural traits continue to exist. This is not efficient. As a society, we have bandwidth only for a certain number of cultural traits, and if traits are passed on without much thought, the bad ones won’t die. And will crowd out the good ones.

So if you were to look at it in terms of responsibility to society, you need to propagate only those cultural traits that you deem to be relevant and important. “So what if everyone stops celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi?” you may ask. If that would happen that would simply mean a vote of no confidence for the festival and an indication that the festival needs to be phased out. If everyone were to propagate only those cultural traits they find useful, traits that a significant proportion of society finds significant will continue to survive and thrive. For Ganesh Chaturthi to exist 30 years hence, it isn’t necessary for ALL families that have inherited it to celebrate it now. As long as a critical mass of families celebrate it, the festival will survive. If not, it probably doesn’t need to exist.

(the choice of Ganesh Chaturthi for illustration is purely driven by the fact that the festival is today).