Milton Singer and Robert Redifield developed the twin concept of Little Tradition and Great Tradition while studying the orthogenesis of Indian Civilization in Madras city, now known as Chennai. Tradition means handing down of information, beliefs and customs by word of mouth in way of examples from one generation to another. In other words, tradition is the inherited practices or opinion and conventions associated with a social group for a particular period. This also includes attitudes of the people, durable
interactional patterns and socio-cultural institutions. Great tradition is associated with the elites, literate and reflective few who are capable of analysing, interpreting and reflecting cultural knowledge. Great tradition is a body of knowledge which functions as the beacon light of knowledge. In contradiction to this little tradition comprises the belief pattern, the institutions, knowledge including proverbs, riddles, anecdotes, folk tales, legends, myths and the whole body of folk-lore of the folk and /or the unlettered peasants who imbibe cultural knowledge from the great tradition. The unity of Indian civilization is reflected in the perpetuation of the unity of worldview of both the folk /peasant and the elites or the literati through cultural performance and their cultural products. Cultural performance are institutionalized around the structure of both great tradition and little traditions.
There are several centres of great tradition in India and there is a network of socio-cultural relationship. This relationship is based on cultural knowledge and ideology. There is a difference in cultural performances of great tradition and little traditions. The domain of great tradition represents the textual or the Shastriya nuances, whereas the universes of little traditions are folk/peasant and local versions of textual knowledge and cultural performance. Great tradition stands for persisting important arrangements of various roles and statuses appearing in such corporate bodies, like caste, sects, teachers, recitors, ritual leaders, priests, cultural performers, religions preachers etc. all of whom are engaged in incultation and regular dissemination of cultural knowledge. The body of knowledge which they includes is from various religious texts, such as mythologies and epics.
The versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharat are two important religious texts which formed the basis of cultural performances. These two great epics have their local versions which have been written in simpler languages with local examples for the easy comprehension of folk/peasant people. As the main hinterland of cultural performance are countless villages and the spectators are the peasants, the epics and other mythologies have been written in local languages with simplers style.
The little tradition consists of its own role incumbents : folk artists, folk musicians, story-tellers, tellers of riddles, street singers, mendicant performers, interpreters of proverbs and puzzles, street dancers, astrologers, fortune-tellers and medicinemen. In a village, the primary school teacher is a key person as regards little tradition knowledge. He himself performs multiple cultural roles and with the help of village leaders organises various folk performances, mythological plays, dramas, recitation of sacred language, saying of prayers accompanied by folk music which serve two purposes : (1) singing of devotional songs and (2) providing entertainment. The former activity is a sacred duty and the latter act is secular one, meant for relieving stress and strain to which the peasants are sometimes subjected to.
The practice of great tradition and little traditions foster collaboration, cooperation and unequal interaction between the two. Custom is what people follow and do or practise collectively and transmit the same from one generation to another. Through the regularity of interaction between the two the Indian civilisation marches forward. Changes in the great tradition are initiated by the literate or reflected few keeping in view the necessities of time and space. As great traditions in India are bound up with certain cultural ties any innovation or change, which takes place at an important centre influences similar changes at other centres gradually and once the centre of great tradition assimilates change, it also influences some sort of changes in the little tradition of its hinterland. Thus, the process of change is top-down or from the apex to the ground in Indian civilisation.
Tribal societies constitute a dimension of Indian Civilisation, but not a part as little traditions (peasant societies) are. Tribal societies are autonomous social systems. They have their own mutually adjusted and interdependent parts. They are autonomous because they do not require another system for their continued functioning. An anthropologist may see in such a system evidence of elements of culture communicated from others, but he understands that the system keeps going by itself and describing its parts and their workings, he need not go outside the small group itself. The exceptions, where the tribe relies on some other tribe for a commodity or service, are small and do not seriously modify the fact that culture is maintained by the communication of the heritage through the generations of those people who make up the local community.
The culture of the peasant community, on the other hand, is not autonomous. It is an aspect or dimension of the civilisation of which it is a part. As the peasant society is part-society, so the peasant society is half-culture. When we study such a culture we find two things to be true, better not to when we study an isolated primitive tribe. First we discover that to maintain itself peasant culture requires continual communication to the local community of thought originating outside of it. The intellectual and often the religious and moral life of the peasant village is perpetually incomplete; the student needs also to know something of what goes on in the minds of remote teachers, priests or philosophers whose thinking affects and perhaps is affected by the peasant. Seen
as a synchronic system, the peasant culture cannot be deeply understood from what goes on in the minds of villagers alone. Second, the peasant village invites us to attend with a long course of interaction between the community and centres of civilisation. The peasant culture has an evident history, we are called upon to study the history, and the history is not local; it is the history of the civilisation of which the village culture is one local expression. Both points in recognition of both generic aspects of the peasant culture. Thus, peasant culture is half-culture or part-culture. The story of isolated tribal communities is different. Understanding of tribal communities call for new thoughts and new procedure of investigation. For study of villages, it requires attention to the relevance of research by historian and students of literature, religion and philosophy. It makes anthropology very much difficult and very much more interesting.
Let us begin with the recognition which has been associated with discussions of civilisation, of the difference between great traditions and little tradition. This dichotomy in a way stands for ‘high-culture’ and ‘low-culture’ or ‘folk and classical culture’ or ‘popular and learnt traditions’. Milton Singer uses ‘hierarchic and low -culture’. In a civilization, there is a great tradition of the reflective few, and there is a little tradition of largely unreflective many. The great tradition is cultivated in schools or temples. The little tradition works itself out and keeps itself going in the lives of the unlettered in their village communities. The tradition of the philosopher, theologia and literati man is a tradition consciously cultivated and handed down; that of the little people is for the most part taken for granted and not submitted to such scrutiny and considered refinement and improvement.
If we enter a village within a civilisation we see at once that the culture there has been flowing into it from teachers and examplers who never saw that village, who did their work in intellectual circles for way from the village in space and time.
The two traditions are interdependent. Great tradition and little tradition have long affected each other and continued to do so. Great epics have arisen out of elements of traditional tale-telling by many people, and epics have returned again to the peasantry for modification and incorporation into local culture. Great and little tradition can be thought of as two currents of thought and action, distinguishable, yet ever flowing into and out of each other. A picture of their relationships would be something like those ‘histo-maps’ we sometimes see, those diagrams of the rise and change through the time of religions and civilisations. Teachings are invented and they are continually understood by peasants in ways not intended by the teachers. Therefore, great and little tradition can be thought of as two currents.
The two traditions are not distinguishable in very isolated tribes. Among the Andaman Islanders we find nothing at all about any esoteric aspect of religion or thought. An older person may be likely to know what there is to known as any other. There are differences between laymen and specialists in the understanding of the religion. In a primitive tribe this sort of dichotomy is similar to the difference between the great tradition and little tradition in respect of civilisation and peasant society, respectively. The folk or tribal society constitutes a proto-dimension of peasant society. As it has been discussed earlier, some tribal societies or sections thereof are under the influence of the process of Hinduisation.