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Why aren’t we asking if wearing Saffron is essential to Hinduism?


Despite the RSS’s projection of the saffron colour as a Hindu symbol, there is no Hindu connection to the Bhagwa flag. The Sangh took the saffron flag of Shivaji and the Maratha army, superimposed either an ‘Om’ or ‘Swastika’ and repurposed it for its own
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The High Court of Karnataka said that the hijab is not essential to the practice of Islam in its recent order upholding the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s ban on the garment in education institutions. Many eminent legal experts criticised the court for getting into the essential practices of a religion.
I, however, feel the court should have gone further and deeper into the question of religious faith and enlightened us about the Hindu religion as well. After all, this was a two way contest. The insistence of Muslim women on wearing the Islamic headscarf was met with a response from Hindu students who insisted on wearing saffron scarves. Couldn’t the court have also investigated if saffron scarves are essential to the practice of Hinduism?
Even as the belligerence over the hijab slowly picked up pace across Karnataka in January, with Hindu students sporting saffron shawls as a ‘counter’ to hijabs, another controversy broke out in early February, this time over a saffron flag.  A male student of Government First Grade College in Shivamogga city climbed up a flagpole on the campus and hoisted a saffron flag. It sparked a furore across the state. Questions were raised over whether or not a flag other than the tricolour could be flown on a flagpole where every year on Republic Day and Independence Day the tricolour is hoisted.
Justifying the student’s actions, Minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj KS Eshwarappa, who hails from Shivamogga district, said, “Not just schools, we will raise the saffron flag even at Red Fort.” In response, the Opposition Congress protested in the Assembly day and night, demanding Eshwarappa’s resignation. After this, the Belthangady MLA Harish Poonja chipped in: “Raising the saffron flag on Red Fort is the BJP’s pledge (Sankalpa) and we will definitely do it.The saffron flag will fly below the national flag at Red Fort.”
While ABVP students have taken to wearing saffron shawls as a ‘response’ to hijabs (which Muslims consider a cultural or religious practice), the question begs to be asked: What place does the saffron flag and saffron colour have in Hinduism?
I don’t know about the rest of India but I can surely speak about Coastal Karnataka or Karavali which is my home, and Karnataka which is my homeland. Two of Hinduism’s most influential philosophers — Shankaracharya (788-820 CE) and Madhwacharya (1238-1317 CE) — have strong connections with Karnataka. The Shaiva philosopher Shankaracharya established the liturgical practices that provided a formal structure for Hinduism. Nowhere among the practices he set up, does a saffron shawl nor a saffron flag have a place. The priests who join the monastic orders and matts (centres of learning) that he set up in Sringeri (Karnataka), Dwaraka (Gujarat), Badrinath (Uttarakhand), and Puri (Odisha) were prescribed ochre robes. As for a flag, Shankaracharya chose one which had two white swans, sans the saffron colour.
Even among the priests who joined the eight matts (Ashta mattas) of Udupi established by the Vaishnava philosopher Madhwacharya, it is the ochre robes which are prescribed, not the saffron colour used by the RSS. Ochre is an earthier color than saffron and far less striking.
The saffron colour is absent even in the indegenous religious beliefs in coastal Karnataka — the bhootaradhane (spirit or ancestor worship) — which have no Vedic basis.
Flags play an important role in the temples of various gods and goddesses worshipped in Karavali (coastal Karnataka). The region is home to several temples of renown, such as the Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara temple (Belthangady taluk), Kukke Subrahmanya temple (Sullia taluk), Kateel temple (Mangaluru taluk), and the Durgaparameshwari temple of Bappanadu (Mangaluru taluk). Each temple has its own flag which is raised on a flagpole which towers over the temple. The flag is usually raised during temple fairs and during the procession of the temple deity. During the temple fair, a puje is performed at the foot of the flagpole with the flower of the banana tree, coconut flowers, and arecanut flowers. Then, in the presence of the villagers, the flag is raised. However, in no Hindu temple is a saffron flag flown.
The other context in which the temple flag is flown is during the rath yatra of a temple when the presiding deity is taken out in a procession (called Bali in Tulu) and is one of the most important rituals associated with the temple. The ratha of the Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara temple has a deep red flag with a green border. The Kukke Subrahmanya temple has a white flag with a red sun in the centre, below which is a deep red flag with the sun and moon on it. The chariot of the Kateel Durgaparameshwari temple has three flags: at the top is a white flag, in the middle is a deep red flag with an image of the sun and moon and at the bottom is a yellow flag. The Bappanadu temple in Mulky, which is famous for having been built by a Muslim man named Bappa Beary, has a red flag with a white stripe. The Brahmin priests of the temple take out the procession with the deity propped up on the head, in a palanquin and in a chariot and pass through the whole village. The flag of the temple — which is usually a deep red — leads the procession. In no “Bali puje” of any temple is there a tradition of using a saffron flag.
In reality, the Hindu religion accords a preeminent position to the white colour. Even now, whether Shaivaite or Vaishnavaite, all archakas (priests), tantris (priests of higher ranking than archakas) and religious leaders in coastal Karnataka wear white. Before offering the temple puje, archakas (priests) have the ritual bath, for which they wear the white kachche (loincloth). Even during the archane, they wear a white panche (draped bottoms) and a white shawl. In Karavali, when priests perform any puje, ganahoma, or Satyanarayan puje, they are given a white shawl as daana (offering).
All Brahmin leaders of the RSS, including Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, wear white panche and white shawls. It is only Bajrang Dal and ABVP activists who wear the saffron shawl around their necks.
The saffron shawl and flag made an appearance in the coastal region in the 1990s, in the years after the RSS engineered riots in Surathkal (a small town 20 km from Mangaluru) over the demolition of the Babri Masjid. This coincided with the introduction of several Brahminical rituals into the indigenous religious practices of the region, such as the Brahmakalashotsava and Nagamandala rituals which have now become widespread. During these events, Brahmin priests dressed in white perform the puje for a fee while youth of the lower castes sport saffron shawls and handle parking and cleanliness arrangements, offer shramadana (donation of labour), and serve food for free in the name of god. These young men who wore saffron shawls eventually turned into activists of Hindutva organisations in Karavali.
Even now, Brahminical hegemony continues to perpetuate the tradition of priests wearing white performing puje during temple fairs for remuneration while saffron-clad activists offer their services for free outside the sanctum sanctorum.
None of the leaders of the RSS wear a saffron shawl day in day out. RSS leaders such as Hosabale Dattatreya, Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, BL Santhosh and others wear white clothes on a daily basis along with a white shawl. As recently as February 13, while speaking during a Brahmakalashotsava event at Sajipa village in Bantwal taluk, Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat said, “As long as Muslim women continue to wear the hijab (to college), our Hindu boys will wear saffron shawls.” As he uttered those words, he raised the shawl draped on his shoulder. The shawl that he waved was a white one.
If the saffron flag has no religious roots in coastal Karnataka, it has negative connotations in parts of Karnataka that border Maharashtra. Kannada activists in the border areas of Belagavi look at the saffron flag with animosity as it is associated with the Maratha king Shivaji, and by extension, Maharashtra and Marathi people. Last year in December, a group of Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti activists waving the saffron flag burned the Kannada flag in Halasi village, Khanapur taluk, Belagavi district. The Nandagad police station registered a  case against them under sections 153A, 295, 427, and 120B of the Indian Penal Code. In retaliation, Kannada activists vandalised Shivaji statues in several places across Karnataka, including Bengaluru.
Despite the RSS’s projection of the saffron colour as a Hindu symbol, there is no Hindu connection to the Bhagwa flag. The Sangh took the saffron flag of Shivaji and the Maratha army, superimposed either an ‘Om’ or ‘Swastika’ and repurposed it for its own ends.
The saffron shawl and panche are being used to manipulate Shudra youth into offering free service during religious activities while maintaining a colour-coded caste hierarchy. The Sangh capitalises on that to mobilise Shudra youth for participation in communal riots and to go to jail. Apart from these politics, the saffron shawl and saffron flag have no religious significance in Hinduism.
Naveen Soorinje is a senior Kannada journalist and the co-founder of Journalists Study Centre-Karnataka. Translated by Anisha Sheth, edited by Sudipto Mondal.
Views expressed are the author’s own.

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