The value of wearing saris and dhotis in the execution of our devotional activities
By Hari-sauri dasa
Dear Hari Sauri Prabhu
Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada
Recently I was involved in a conversation with several devotees regarding vaisnava clothes. Some of them were proponing the idea that sari and dhoti are actually not vaisnava clothes that devotees in spiritual world wear, giving as evidence pictures made by Sharma. Others were saying that Srila Prabhupada didn’t insist on vaisnava clothes but his western disciples wanted to be like him, therefore they were pushing this way of dressing. Some of the ideas expressed were that we do not actually need such clothes for cooking for the Deities or doing some other services, and what to speak about dressing like that in the street.
Some of the devotees involved in the conversation developed their ideas after the visit of one of your Godbrothers who had not been speaking in favour of dressing in sari and dhoti.
Since you have spent lot of time with Srila Prabhupada and have carefully noted down his attitudes in many situations, could you please enlighten me about this topic by giving his verdict in this situation? Personally I always thought vaisnava clothes to be significant part of our process of becoming Krsna conscious but in the conversation with the abbove mentioned devotees I could not find the right arguments to convince them in the importance of this dress. Therefore I beg you to clear my doubts in this regard.
Thank you for your text inquiring about the value of wearing saris and dhotis in the execution of our devotional activities.
I have heard a little of this argument before but only in brief, so I will try to answer in a general sense but please excuse me if I do not cover all the points you have encountered.
Its a fact that devotional life, in its essence, is not dependent on anything external. Surely our aim is to simply purify our existence by chanting of the Hare Krsna maha-mantra and thus go back to Godhead. Chanting can be done in any place, time or circumstance-there are no hard and fast rules. I agree with this, if this is the argument.
However since we are not situated on the platform of pure devotional service and we are not absorbed in the holy name to the exclusion of all things external, we have to be careful how we apply this in practice.
Here the question is about dress. According to this argument, whatever we wear is not essential. As you have said: “Some of the ideas expressed were that we do not actually need such clothes for cooking for the Deities or doing some other services, and what to speak about dressing like that in the street.”
If dress is not essential, then presumably one can wear whatever one likes. How far do we want to take this? Can a woman do arati wearing a tight skirt six inches above her knees and glitter lipstick and a bra? Can a man wear board shorts while dressing the deities? Or just his kaupin while he cooks for the Lord in the kitchen? Can he dye his hair purple and green and mold it into fifteen centimeter long spikes while at the same time give Srimad Bhagavatam class; or simply never cut it, matting it in cow dung until it hangs down to his ankles as some sadhus in India do.
Some exalted sadhus (and some not so exalted) wear nothing at all. Vamsidas Babaji used to wander naked because he was so absorbed in Krsna’s holy names. Sukadeva Goswami was also doing the same thing. If someone wants to emulate that standard, is there anything wrong with that?
Clearly there has to be some standard otherwise the whole process becomes absurd. My proposal is that we should follow Srila Prabhupada’s standards and not try to change them. Whatever was established by His Divine Grace should be accepted by us as being the best way to sustain our spiritual lives.
As far as dhotis and saris are concerned, you have said that some say that the inhabitants of Goloka Vrndavan don’t wear them. Personally I don’t know. It would be good for someone to research this. I do know that in Srila Prabhupada’s translation of Srimad Bhagavatam he refers repeatedly to Mohini-murti as wearing a sari. Also in SB 10.9.3 he describes Mother Yasoda thus: “Dressed in a saffron-yellow sari, with a belt tied about her full hips, mother Yasoda pulled on the churning rope,…”
One can argue that in both these examples the word “sari” does not appear in the original Sanskrit verses. It is ‘vastra’ or ‘usat-dukula’ or ‘ambara’ etc. But if Srila Prabhupada chooses to translate that as ‘sari’ why should we not accept that?
Again, we find in Caitanya Caritamrita Madhya 8.166 these comments by Srila Prabhupada about Radharani wearing a sari:
“This description (found in verses 165–181) is based on a book by Srila Raghunatha dasa Gosvami known as Premambhoja-maranda. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s translation of the original Sanskrit reads as follows: … She sleeps in Her room with the aroma of pride, and when She lies down in Her bed, the transcendental variety of Her loving ecstasies is like a jeweled locket in the midst of Her necklace of separation. Her transcendental breasts are covered by Her sari in the form of affection and anger toward Krsna. … ”
Madhya 8.168 “After Her midday bath, Radharani takes another bath in the nectar of bodily luster, and She puts on the garment of shyness, which is Her black silk sari. PURPORT Over and above the other baths, the bath taken in the afternoon is taken in the nectar of full beauty. This nectar represents the personal qualities of beauty and luster. Thus there are three baths in different kinds of water. Radharani then puts on two garments — a lower and an upper garment. The upper garment is pinkish and is Her affection and attraction for Krsna, and the lower garment, a blackish silk sari, is Her shyness.”
Madhya 14.195 TRANSLATION “When Krsna comes forward and greedily snatches at the border of Her sari, Srimati Radharani is actually very pleased within, but still She tries to stop Him.”
Similarly, King Prthu, an incarnation of God, is described by Srila Prabhupada as wearing a dhoti, although the Sanskrit term in the verse is a little different:
SB 4.21.17 dukula-agrye — dressed with a dhoti; TRANSLATION “The black, slick hair on his head was very fine and curly, and his neck, like a conchshell, was decorated with auspicious lines. He wore a very valuable dhoti, and there was a nice wrapper on the upper part of his body.”
In all the paintings done by our ISKCON art department, Lord Visnu is depicted as wearing a yellow dhoti. Again the Sanskrit usually says ‘pita-ambara’ ‘yellow dress or garment’ but this is depicted as a dhoti. Why? Because Srila Prabhupada instructed the artists to show it that way. Srila Prabhupada personally supervised the paintings, down to small details. If he chose to show Lord Visnu in a yellow dhoti, how can we argue that a dhoti is not a spiritual dress?
You have said that some have mentioned BG Sharma’s paintings as a reference point. I don’t know BG Sharma, and I don’t know what his reference points are for doing his paintings. I personally doubt that he has personally witnessed the activities of Krsna and His associates in Goloka firsthand, but I might be wrong.
But I would have to ask why Goloka is being used as the reference point? A better reference, in the context of our preaching, is certainly Lord Caitanya and His associates. We are after all a branch of the Gaudiya Vaisnava movement. Before Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s appearance, there was no Hare Krishna Movement as such. We are acting under the orders of Sri Caitanya and his associates. They are our immediate exemplars and our immediate reference point. Our identity is as the followers of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, at least as much as it is as devotees of Sri Sri Radha and Krishna. As far as I know, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His followers all wore dhotis and saris. In the section of Goloka in which Lord Caitanya’s pastimes are manifest, do They wear saris and dhotis? If that dress was good enough for Them, why is it not good enough for us?
You say that others have said that in the early days of ISKCON Srila Prabhupada did not insist on his followers wearing Vaisnava dress (dhotis and saris). Its true that he did not specifically introduce the dress as a requirement and there are quite a few references for that which, to save space, I will not cite here. However, once his followers adopted it, his mood was to enthusiastically endorse it, to the point of sometimes criticising disciples who did not wear it.
A primary example was Kirtanananda Swami. Just after taking sannyasa in 1967 he returned from India to America and began telling all the devotees not to wear Vaisnava robes nor shave their heads and keep a sikha. He had his rationale for this, saying that the robes and sikha would put people off and hamper our preaching work.
A devotee called Damodar wrote to Srila Prabhupada and asked him for his opinion. Prabhupada replied on October 13 from Calcutta [note: ‘flag’ here means sikha]:
My Dear Damodara, Please accept my blessings. I am in due receipt of your letter of Oct. 9. I am very sorry to hear that Kirtanananda is advising you to give up the robes and the flags on the head. Please stop this nescience as I never instructed Kirtanananda to act like that. I am not at all satisfied with this action of Kirtanananda. Kirtanananda has no right to instruct you in that way, without consulting me. People are being attracted to the chanting of Hare Krishna & not to Kirtanananda’s devices. Kirtanananda suggested to me when he was here that the Americans do not like the robes & flag. I told him personally if you think that Americans in great numbers will follow you, simply for not having robes & flag, I therefore advised him to drop for a few days in London & test this theory. But he has gone directly to N. Y. & is now causing these disturbances without consulting me. I have not sanctioned these methods. In my opinion, Clean shaved Brahmacharies & Grhasthas in saffron robes look like angels from Baikunta. Translation of prayers into English is good & if somebody dresses like nice American gentleman without any robes, I have no objection; but every one of my disciples must have the flag & marks of tilak on forehead. This is essential. Besides that, nobody should do anything without my sanction. I am very sorry to hear Kirtanananda, without doing anything practical, changes his ideas constantly. He was first man in our society to take the robes, shave cleanly, & take flag & now he is changing his position. You have asked me to tell you whether you are right or carry on by the following the foolish advice of Kirtanananda, & I say straight that Kirtanananda is wrong and you are right when you say that the movement will come to nothing if I am not satisfied with your actions.”
Here we see that within only one year of the formation of ISKCON Srila Prabhupada is strongly endorsing the wearing of robes, although he does not object if someone wants to dress like an American gentleman. But tilak and sikha are essential.
Sometimes when outsiders would criticise his disciples for wearing ‘Indian clothes’ Srila Prabhupada would defend them, as he did in a conversation with a priest on June 9 1974 in Paris, France:
Priest: Why do you dress in that way which is an Indian way and not the European way? …..
Prabhupada: I have not said that you dress like that. You like, you do it. Did I say that you do it?
Priest: It’s like the Indian Catholic priest dressing like a (indistinct) priest or like a European priest. I mean, they look as if they had a disguise with them.
Prabhupada: No, no, just like when the English were ruling, English national. So the Englishmen never said that “You dress like Englishmen,” but they automatically dressed. You know very well. They do like that. The Englishmen, they went there to get some money by trade, by politics. But they never went there to change their dress. But they thought that “If I dress myself like Englishman, I will be more honored.” That is their point. Similarly, we never preach that “You dress like this.” But the student, they like this dress. That’s all right. What is the wrong there?
Priest: It’s not wrong. It’s funny.
Prabhupada: Rather these girls, when they dress in Indian way, they look more beautiful. That you will have to admit. Yes. The same girl will dress in your…
Prabhupada: So the girls, the women, they like to be more beautiful. So if by dressing in other way they look beautiful, why should you ask them not to do it?
Priest: Maybe for ladies and girls certainly, but for the dhoti and…
Prabhupada: But we are not concerned with the dress, we are concerned with the advancement of spiritual understanding, that’s all.”
So Srila Prabhupada’s preference was to support the wearing of dhotis and saris by his disciples. He wasn’t absolutely insistent on it, but it was a preaching consideration. We want to advertise that we are persons who can be approached for information on spiritual life. It was often explained to others that such dress was spiritual, and just as a policeman can be distinguished from ordinary persons by his dress, similarly a devotee can be distinguished from a karmi by his dress. If a priest can dress in a particular way, why not a devotee? Generally it is an advantage for one who wants to preach.
Sometimes by circumstance wearing a dhoti and shaved head might be a problem, so Srila Prabhupada would advise to dress ‘like a gentleman’ as he did with the Bhaktivedanta Institute scientists, or the devotees who were preaching in communist countries.
And in a conversation on a train to Allahabad, in which Ramesvara Swami was discussing devotees forming a popular music group with the intention of performing to live audiences, Ramesara stated that the group members would not be able to wear dhotis. Srila Prabhupada had no objection:
Ramesvara: No. I’m just saying that it is a little difficult if they wear their dhoti.
Prabhupada: No, dhoti, I don’t say. You have nice coat-pant. I don’t say that you have to… I never said that. You have adopted it. (laughs) I never said that “You put on dhoti.”
However, he added the caveat: “But those who are sannyasis, brahmacaris, their dress is different. But it doesn’t require that one has to become a sannyasi.”
In other words, he wanted brahmacaris and sannyasis to uphold the dhoti and shaved head standard. When Adi Kesava Swami came to see him in Mayapur during February 1977 to discuss the New York court case, it came to Srila Prabhupada’s attention that they were going to the court dressed in karmi clothes. Srila Prabhupada didn’t like that. He advised Adi Kesava to keep his sannyasi dress because he was representing ISKCON, a religious body:
February 18, 1977, Mayapura
Prabhupada: [break] And now don’t go to the court with any other dress. Preach like this. Preach there with this dress. Have they any objection with this dress [as a sannyasi]?
Hari-sauri: In this dress.
Adi-kesava: I agree. I think it is very good that they see us dressed like this in court.
Prabhupada: Yes, we should…
Adi-kesava: They will understand what we are.
Prabhupada: We shall…
Hari-sauri: We have to represent our religion properly.
Tamala Krsna: A priest will not put on a suit.
Adi-kesava: In fact one time… Even the last time I went…
Prabhupada: No, whatever is done, done. Now you make a difference. In any case, we shall go in this dress.
Hari-sauri: Tell Ramesvara that, too.
Srila Prabhupada added a humorous footnote to his request to Adi Kesava by citing his own experience when he first went to America:
Prabhupada: They requested me to change the dress. I have… The Ramakrishna Mission, that “Unless you dress yourself…” “I have no money. You give me three dress for public.(?) Then I shall do it. I know how to dress. In my business life I was dressing like that, but now I have no money. You give me money.” (laughter) I told them that. (laughs) “I know how to dress like a gentleman. Every day it must be changed, must be nicely ironed. But I have no money. You need not required to teach me. I know how to dress like an European gentleman. And I have no money.” [break] … coat, same pant, same hat — I do not like that. If I dress like a European, I must change daily. Do they not? A respectable European?
Tamala Krsna: Oh, every day.
Prabhupada: Yes, morning and evening.
Tamala Krsna: Just like a Deity.
Prabhupada: Yes. “So I know that, but I have no money.” I replied to that Mr. Mukerjee. He lives near that University, Columbus? Columbia? He’s a teacher there. So he came to see me in the 100th Street West, and he requested me, “Swamiji, if you move in this dress, nobody will respect you.” “It doesn’t matter.”
So Srila Prabhupada never compromised on his Vaisnava dress and he liked it when we didn’t either.
Quite apart from the preaching value we get from dressing as devotees, and the impact it has on the consciousness of others, there is also the question of our own consciousness. As I mentioned at the begining, if we are in full transcendental consciousness then our external trappings will not affect us. However, if we are not fully on that platform, our associations will have a definite effect.
By association, I don’t mean just other people. We tend to associate ourselves with our bodies. Our bodies mean our gender, our country, our social standing etc. Thus even our way of dressing can reflect our bodily associations. Because we tend to identify ourselves with a certain class of person, we show this by dressing, talking and acting like them. We see this prominently in younger people, in the way they take up certain fashions of hair style, clothing, speech etc.
Therefore Srila Prabhupada was very cautious about allowing devotees to go back to wearing karmi clothes because he knew it would affect our consciousness:
May 29, 1977 – Vrndavana room conversation [note: I had just arrived and Srila Prabhupada saw that I had a short growth of hair. He had also noted Bhagavat das was growing out his hair.]
Prabhupada: [break] … keep hair. Look very beautiful by keeping hair. What is that explanation?
Bhagavat: I was advised that because I was going to the European countries for preaching for some time, that it would be required to keep these hairs.
Prabhupada: But they, they, they owned victory with the court [NY] by keeping shaven hair.
Hari-sauri: They won a victory in the court by keeping a shaved head.
Bhagavat: I asked their advice, whether I should shave or keep the hair.
Prabhupada: Who is that nonsense advice? Who is that rascal? “Advice.” By keeping hair you become beautiful and become victimized. “Advice.” This is… Without advice, this mentality is going on outside, to keep hair. We are known as shaven hair, whole society.
Hari-sauri: I’ve been shaving my head once every month. It’s just about three weeks since I’ve…
Prabhupada: Every fortnight. At least. Before going to Europe, six years ago, you were keeping hair: “I have to go to Europe.” That I have seen. Everywhere. Those who… You like to keep hair. That hippie mentality is going on. That’s right. That is good, very intelligent reasoning, actual, long hair by keeping…(?) Everyone is giving some advice. Gurudasa is giving. “He’s keeping. He’s…” Gargamuni. Everyone has some explanation. I do not know how you can give up this hippie mentality. Hippie. Lavanyam kesa-dharanam. Kali-yuga. Victim of Kali-yuga. It is… It is not yet whole, but weak men, victimized by Kali-yuga… There are so many things to victimize over the living entities in Kali-yuga, and one of the item is that he will take that “I have become very, very beautiful, attractive by keeping long hair.” Kesa. That is already stated there. You are victimized by that Kali-yuga. That’s all. No explaining. Our trademark is clean-shaven. We are known as shaven hair. Why you should be victimized? You are known as shaven hair. Are you not? Hm? They say that “Hare Krsna people, shaven hair”?
Prabhupada: Shaven hair. So why you should be victimized by keeping hair? What victory you will gain? Conquer over the whole world, Roman Empire, by keeping hair? Hippie mentality, that’s all. That is within the core of the heart. As soon as get some opportunity… Just like during summer season the field appears to be dried up. And as soon as there is some rain, oh, it is green, immediately green. So things are already there. Hm? Is it not?
Prabhupada: Now you see to the field. They’re all dry. But as soon as there will be rain in the village, all green. So the seeds are there, hippie seeds. As soon as there is some opportunity, come out, green: “Yes, I am beautiful. Come on.” But in the court room they never addressed. Judge never asked that “Why you are shaven-headed?” Was there any question like that?
Hari-sauri: Actually, when he first went to court, they were wondering why he had hair.
Hari-sauri: When Adi-kesava went to court the first time…
Prabhupada: Yes. Hari-sauri: … he had suit and hair, and they wondered why he was dressed like that.
Prabhupada: Yes. Then cheater. Hari-sauri: Yeah, they accused… Prabhupada: That means, of course, indirectly hinted that “Now you are cheating. You are known as shaven-headed. Now you have kept hair. What is the purpose except cheating?”
Here it is very plainly stated by Srila Prabhupada that the tendency to keep hair, and by implication, revert back to karmi dress etc. is actually due to our conditioning, not for some transcendental purpose. Because we identify with our bodies, and with the time, place and circumstance that we live in, therefore we feel embaressed to dress as devotees. In the above example, Srila Prabhupada says this tendency is due to ‘hippie seeds’ within the heart which ‘come up green’ at the first opportunity.
Of course, as I have pointed out above, there are circumstances when it may be advantageous to not appear immediately as devotees. As a conclusion to the discussion on ‘hippie seeds’ I pointed out to Srila Prabhupada that our book distributors were increasing their sales due to wearing ordinary karmi clothes:
Hari-sauri: On sankirtana all the distributors wear wigs and like that to…, because it’s much easier to distribute, to distribute books.
Prabhupada: I do not know all this. Formerly, shaven-headed, they used to distribute. Now it is not possible.
Hari-sauri: It’s increased since they did plainclothes distribution.
Hari-sauri: Yeah. The distribution has increased.
Prabhupada: Then why don’t you dress like European, half foreign dress and half hair? Who is that foreign and European and gentleman? What is the use of wig? Keep regular gentleman’s hair. There is no need of saffron dress. If by ordinary dress you can sell more book, there is no need of saffron dress.”
Such preaching considerations aside, one wonders what the real motivation is for arguing against the wearing of dhotis and saris, and keeping shaven heads (although nowadays it has become a fashion among some of the men to keep a shaved head but without a sikha). If such things help us to identify ourselves as devotees, why should we reject them?
Especially in the temple setting-you have mentioned cooking in the kitchen-there is no reason for not wearing ‘devotional clothes’ because such outer dress definitely helps us to identify internally with Krsna. Therefore it should not be rejected.
Psychologically, we need to make external adjustments in order to change our consciousness to a devotional one, because by and large, our consciousness is generally externalized. It is absorbed in the external and therefore we need to also adjust our external condition in order to begin cleansing our hearts i. e. decreasing our attachment to the external settings. Our external appearance and behavior will, in general, reflect the condition of our hearts. If we want to wear current karmi fashions, it is surely a reflection of an identification with that social clime. Similarly, if we want to wear dhoti or sari, it is because of a desire to identify with the spiritual.
On the whole, I find that the tendency to reject what have long been ISKCON standards is just another sign of slippage. As time goes on, standards slacken and rationale is found for abandoning non-essential but nevertheless important cultural and social supports for our devotional lives. ‘Hippie seeds’ as Srila Prabhupada said, or just plain ‘karmic seeds’ coming up green.
One final observation. There are some persons who are expert at deconstruction. By clever word play they can minimize to non-existence even the Personality of Godhead. By argument we can minimize our practices and standards but if these things are meant to help us sustain our devotional lives, we may end up with nothing. Or as mayavadis.
Your humble servant, Hari-sauri dasa
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