Chandrashekhara acharya dasa: The word “karmi” means “fruitive worker.” The word “clothes” mean “items worn to cover the body.” By definition, then, the words “karmi clothes” mean items worn to cover the body of someone who is a fruitive worker. Similarly, the word “devotee” means someone who is engaged in the loving service of Lord Krishna. By definition, then, the words “devotional clothes” mean items worn to cover the body of someone who is a devotee of Lord Krishna.
It is a sociological fact today, as it was centuries ago, that Vaishnavas and Vaishnavis are not the only people who wear dhotis and saris. Indeed, the large majority of individuals who wore/wear dhotis and saris are non-Vaishnavas or, in other words, “karmis.” Muslims, tantrics, demigod worshipers, meat-eaters- millions of them- wear dhotis and saris. These people have little or nothing to do with devotion to Lord Krishna. Therefore, by definition, the dhotis and saris that these non-Vaishnavas wear are, in effect, “karmi clothes.” Similarly, there are Vaishnavas and Vaishnavis who dress in Western clothes. By definition, these devotees’ garments are “devotional clothes.” The dress does not define the Vaishnavas; the Vaishnavas define the dress.
In ISKCON, we often define the words “karmi clothes” and “devotional clothes” according to our constructed interpretation. For many of us, “karmi clothes” means Western clothes, and “devotional clothes” means dhotis and saris, irrespective of who is wearing them. Such definitions are erroneous, as shown above. They have serious implications.
One such implication is the misconceived theory that we can only practice Bhakti-yoga- a universal, trans-cultural spiritual science- while wearing a specific type of dress. It implies that there is only one permissible genre of devotional clothes, i. e., dhotis and saris, and that any other genre of dress is disqualified, even if worn by men and women who are devotees of Lord Krishna.
The doors to the pujari rooms of our ISKCON centers illustrate this misconception. They often have a sign hanging on the door that states, “devotional clothes only.” I ask my reader, “What does that mean?” It is not the subject matter of this short article to argue whether or not ISKCON should maintain a uniform, or to controvert about what uniform, if any, is appropriate for what members of which ashrams. It is also not my purpose to deliberate on the apparently contradictory statements by Srila Prabhupada regarding what he desired his followers to wear. However, it is a fact that our ISKCON definitions of “karmi clothes” and “devotional clothes” are imprecise.
Maybe the signs on the doors of the pujari rooms should say, “Traditional Indian dress only,” or “Vaikuntha dress only” [I do not know if United Colors of Benetton sweatshirts, Seiko wristwatches, Muslim kurtas, cotton socks, plastic sandals and other such gears are part of the decorum in Vaikuntha]. I argue elsewhere that if we are to emphasize a standard dress-code, we had better insist on principles such as chastity, cleanliness, and modesty. At any rate, our interpretations of “karmi clothes” and “devotional clothes” are flawed. We should get our definitions right.