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These saffron fields of our faith

Imagine saying that the peacock is not our national bird because Sri Krishna wore a peacock feather on his head and so it is a ‘Hindu’ bird. Next, the falcon will be described as a ‘Sikh bird’ because of Guru Gobind Singh’s iconic portrait, writes Renuka Narayanan.
Hindustan Times | By Renuka Narayanan
UPDATED ON MAY 30, 2008 11:53 PM IST

I’m so cross at seeing headlines on the Karnataka polls like ‘Saffron in the South’, that I want to loudly protest: Why do we repeatedly give away our colour to one political party? For the sake of easy alliteration? For shame, confreres. Saffron belongs in common to the Indian people. The Sufis of Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah in Delhi have worn a kesariya kulla (saffron cap) as the mark of their order since medieval times. The Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs, too, have deep religious and cultural affiliations with saffron. Who’s left out? Christians? Jews? Parsis? Well, they use the herb saffron in cooking, don’t they and they’re welcome to share the colour, who’s to mind? The BJP? Kis aukaat se? Why on earth do we let politicians hijack our lovely Indian colour? Sure, it was Hindu originally in its importance, but it belongs to us all now as a shared cultural birthright. If not, it’s like saying that white is a Christian colour so Shvetambara (white-clad) Jains can’t have it, though they’ve worn white since ancient times. Or like proposing the absurd notion that the peacock is not our national bird because Sri Krishna wore a peacock feather on his head and so it is henceforth a ‘Hindu’ bird. Next, the falcon will be described as a ‘Sikh bird’ because of Sobha Singh’s iconic portrait of Guru Gobind Singh with the baaz on his wrist. And will the dove be a Christian bird? (I know what my fun-loving Sikh friends will sms after reading this: ‘Hey, the Sikh bird is a tandoori chicken!’).

You may wonder why we all need to throw the hugest hissy fit about such things. It’s because it’s important that we stay alert to such ownership games, when politics uses religion and culture to play with our emotions and makes us needlessly quarrel. It’s like how the Wahabis have hijacked Islam by capturing the political patronage of the al Saud dynasty that rules ‘Saudi’ Arabia, custodians of Mecca and Medina.

It now seems to brainwash Muslims around the world into adopting their particular extreme form of Islam. My first clue about this was nearly eight years ago when young maulanas of my acquaintance switched over from saying “Khuda Hafiz” to “Allah Hafiz” and some young men I met in Srinagar, where Sufism is integral to Kashmiriyat, refused to accompany me into important local Sufi shrines. Their companions, also Kashmiris, shrugged and silently mouthed “Wahabi” to me as we went in, heads covered.

Now there’s nothing technically wrong in saying “Allah Hafiz” just as there’s nothing technically wrong in casually picking up the ancient Hindu colour and the lotus as political symbols. So it’s a question of your intentions, of how you mean to use these expressions of creed in your deeds. If your purpose is to wall up one group of people against others, then your intentions are no longer pure in the eyes of man and presumably in the eyes of God. For we contain each other. I have used this example long back but I feel it’s worth recalling now: in the al Asma al Husna (the Beautiful Names, meaning the Ninety-nine Names of Allah), a name of great beauty and honour is al Haq, which means ‘Satyam’, ‘Truth’, the highest Hindu name for God. There is an Islamic tradition of associating a mystic number with each name (like how 786 stands for ‘Bismillah-ur-Rahman-ur-Rahim’) and a perfume. Well, the number for al Haq is 108, the holy Hindu number, the number of beads in a japamala and its perfume/colour is: saffron. Amazing, is it not?

Which brings me to another pet illustration, the place of religion in a news package. I tend to think ‘farm’.

The news sections are the staple crops like wheat, rice and dal, needing the most acreage. The sports, lifestyle and entertainment sections are spice crops, the mirch masala without which life would be dull indeed. The business section, broadly speaking, is the subzi mandi, with wholesale-retail news.

The edit, op-ed and book sections are orchards, offering the ‘fruit of thought’. Amidst them, is religion/spirituality. It is the kesar bagh, literally the ‘saffron garden’, meaning the garden or field of rare and precious herbs. Its space is relatively small. But its perfume can be potent soulfood. That’s why it’s important, don’t you think, that we watch how we use those religious and cultural nuances, both as media and as fellow citizens?

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