December 06, 2020
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Confessions Of A Saffron Robe

A potentially explosive 'saffron debate' sans the terror element — on seminaries, sexuality and godmen

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Confessions Of A Saffron Robe

There has been a lot of scorn and semantics surrounding the colour 'saffron' in recent days. Conjoined with the words 'terror' and 'Hindu,' it has unleashed a phrase which nobody wants to patent, but everybody wants to apply. As much as the 'seculars' have found a use for it, the right-wingers too, have allowed its circulation, to send across the clandestine message of majoritarian pride and impatience. To that extent, the phrase has become a neutral political tool. It has helped both ends as well as the middle of the political spectrum. I have no intention here to further pursue the phrase and count its bands of grey, but want to draw your attention to a potentially explosive 'saffron debate' sans the terror element, taking place in a corner of Karnataka and reported in the neglected columns of the Kannada press.

Veerabhadra Chennamalla Swami is the pontiff of the Nidumamidi math (seminary), which is in Gulur of Kolar district. He travelled left from his spiritual seat and then a little up on July 25, to reach Davangere, the geographical middle of Karnataka. There he made a very bold, radical and progressive introspection about his own tribe of the saffron-garbed.

The swami and his math belong to the Veerashaiva Lingayat denomination, that is they are the upholders of the ideals and teachings of the 12th century saint and social reformer Basaveshwara. In short, for the uninitiated, Basaveshwara tried to remove divisiveness in society by forming a new casteless order. He put out his teachings in the form of 'vachanas' which were introspective discourses that did not demand a scholarly exegesis, but lucidly presented the sparkling wisdom of the 'soul' in a refined idiom of the everyday Kannada tongue. For their unique linguistic manoeuvring, the 'vachanas' even became recognised as a literary genre during the last century. Basaveshwara is also credited with creating an open forum or an informal academy ('Anubhava Mantapa') for some of the finest minds, mystics and philosophers of his time to share their 'experiences.' The debates witnessed here had the classical Athenian rigour. To say all this is important as a preamble and a larger context to what Chennamalla Swamiji said on July 25. 

It is also important to stress on the denomination of the Swami, because Lingayats are the power-elite of Karnataka. They have been so ever since India became independent and sitting chief minister B S Yeddyurappa belongs to the community. This community, which has the largest population in the state and was most active during the freedom movement, has produced maximum number of chief ministers since Independence (7 out of the 18, some holding more than one term - S Nijalingappa, B D Jatti, S R Kanti, S R Bommai, J H Patel, Veerendra Patil and now, B S Yeddyurappa). Some of the seminaries of the community, especially the Suttur math in Mysore, are among the richest in the state and perhaps even in the country and are known to peddle tremendous political influence. The Yeddyurappa government has also unabashedly, and with utter disregard to constitutional provisions, made budgetary grants for some of these maths to create an electoral edge. Many of these maths even run a clutch of educational institutions, including money-spinning professional colleges, possessing vast tracts of land.

Given this milieu of the maths in Karnataka the Nidumamidi seminary is a little-known exception. Since it is headquartered in an impoverished district of Karnataka (Kolar), with a sizable Dalit population, Chennamalla swami has mostly associated himself with the 'wretched of the earth'. This gives him a moral stature to say what he said on July 25 and thereafter when it stirred a tiny debate. What he says has a resonance for all the saffron-garbed across the nation and not just Karnataka. In my view it throws light on all colours of sainthood, not just saffron. However, the immediate context of his statement are the Veerashaiva Lingayat maths. Think of his statements in the light of all the controversies related to godmen [Nithyananda, Sri Sri Ravishankar etc.] we have been familiar with in the recent days. Here's a long paraphrase in a dozen points: 

  1. Children or young people are often ordained as swamis. At their age they have no idea of what ascetic demands are or what renunciation is all about. It has not been possible even for people meditating in the Himalayas to achieve complete celibacy. They have strayed at times. They are riddled with questions and have had to battle paradoxes. When such is the case, how can we expect our swamis, who live a life of luxury in maths, which have come to resemble palaces, to practice celibacy? Including the Nidumamidi math, there is no 'satvik' environment left in any of our seminaries to practice celibacy. If our society expects swamis to remain celibates for life, then it is better to appoint impotent people to head the seminaries. There is no sanctity left in our maths anymore. Instead of swamis, the married ones appear morally superior. In recent years, nobody has been hundred per cent celibate. It is very difficult to practice celibacy. Our society should come out of false constructs and expectations.
  2. Instead of ordaining half-baked and immature celibates, we should consider appointing people who have led a noble family life for many years; who are learned with high levels of integrity and who are willing to renounce for the sake of our society. This will prevent the further decadence of our religious institutions. 
  3. We have to make an important distinction between swamis and sanyasis. A sanyasi is someone who has totally renounced the world and spends all his time in meditation and deliberation of spiritual matters. He has no worldly possessions and social responsibilities. However, that is not the case with a swamiji. He has come to become a owner of a math. He has taken on social responsibilities. Over the years, some maths have given an institutional shape to the role of a sanyasi and have created a swamiji.
  4. Ordaining sainthood to children is as inappropriate and cruel as child marriage. It actually is tantamount to violation of child rights. It is inhuman to impose the rigours of sainthood on a young person.
  5. Among Veerashaiva Lingayats there is not much importance given to sanyasa. Many of our elders like Allama Prabhu, Devara Dasimaiah, Basaveshwara, Akkamahadevi and others were people had initially led family lives, but they later went on to lead the most admirable spiritual lives. 
  6. In this world full of extreme temptations we have to thoroughly revisit and initiate an extensive debate on the role of swamis, maths and the idea of celibacy. The reference to celibacy is not limited to the relationship between a man and a woman. The problem of homosexuality in our seminaries has also to be considered. 
  7. It is true and laudable that many maths came forward to impart education to many oppressed and backward communities before and after Independence. But our pontiffs became greedy after they started professional colleges. Their spiritual activities became only a front for the commercial flourish of their seminaries. Education has become a business for many pontiffs. It is a tragedy that besides caste divisions, the maths are also fomenting class divisions.
  8. The time has come to reckon as to how many primary and high schools were opened in the last three decades by these very seminaries that have made education a business and have started professional colleges? It will be interesting to know how much money was spent for primary education and how much for professional education by these institutions? Haven't they simply exploited the enormous goodwill of the people legitimately earned by their predecessors through genuine social work?
  9. Aren't the professional colleges run by these seminaries collecting huge donations for allocation of seats? How many children from poor families have been given seats in these colleges without a donation or at a concession?
  10. The moment some people become swamis they start believing that they are without a taint, are complete and contain an element of god inside them. This is false. Pontiffs should constantly subject themselves to review and should be open to criticism.
  11. If swamis lead a spartan life, automatically their followers will also lead a principled life. The society will also develop a conscience as a result.
  12. My statements are not empty statements. Being a witness to corruption in the society I speak with utmost pain, concern and anxiety. These are very serious matters and we have to have a serious public debate on them.

As I see it, this is the most damning and courageous indictment of a religious order in recent times. It is all the more significant because it does not come from an atheist like me but from a reflecting, sensitive and self-critical insider. The risks that Veerabhadra Chenamalla Swami has taken to speak out what he has spoken are enormous. He is sticking very close to the spirit of Basaveshwara's teachings. One can only plead for a sincere debate.

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