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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Prabhus and dreadlocks

Recently there was a ‘prabhu’-debate going on on the internet. Here's my two cents -

The title Prabhu is highly watered down and devalued - in śāstra it has been used only for the likes of Vyāsadeva and Sanātan Goswāmī, but I have heard devotees addressing dopy bhaktas, sly Vrindavan-shopkeepers and meat-eating lifemembers as Prabhu and I really dont think the honorific is meant for them. Nārada calling his own disciple Vyāsa 'Prabhu' (in Śrīmad Bhāgavat 1.5.5) is a special case, as what would you do if God Himself (or His literary incarnation) becomes your disciple? This does not set a standard for calling every Tom Dick and Harry ‘Prabhu’. Prabhu is really just for those – Vyāsadeva, Sanātan Goswāmī (called ‘Prabhu’ in Vilāpa Kusumāñjali, verse 6) and the other great ācāryas.

Returning to the topic of why Vaiṣṇavas have shaved heads - (though it is not prescribed in śāstra) - it has been the custom of the bābājīs for a few centuries, and the Gauḍīya Maṭh, founded in 1918, also introduced it for its brahmacārīs and sannyāsīs. For Iskcon, however, there have been more than just such customary reasons. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami wrote to Brahmananda on October 11, 1967:

"Regarding change of dress, I beg to inform you that every Krishna conscious person must be clean shaved, must have Tilaka on the forehead and other eleven places and must have the Sikha on the top of the head besides beads on the neck as usual. Rarely one can continue to keep beard but it is better not to keep it to distinguish oneself from the hippies. We must let the public know that we are not hippies''.

And to Kirtanananda October 16, 1967:

"They must continue to have robes and tilak and flags and they must distinguish themselves from the hippies."

Another letter:

"Up to date gentlemen are all clean shaved so if we do not keep long hair and dress ourselves nicely with tilaka, flag and beads on the neck, apart from our devotional service, then certainly we shall be distinct from the hippies."

Of course, Sādhu Bābā was a different type of sādhu and he wore long matted locks (jaṭās), which is a respectable appearance in India, but is a hippy appearance in the west. Unfortunately this has led to a misunderstanding in the western public that comes in contact with Sādhu Bābā - they tend to believe that, because of his appearance and some of his activities, he is the 'hip Guru' who will allow his disciples everything (unintentionally, Sādhu Bābā does have Osho’s looks). As a consequence I am repeatedly approached for dīkṣā by people who think Sādhu Bābā is some type of clean-out-drain, that will accept those whom no one else will accept. This is not the case. Long hair in the Indian context does not mean being dirty, unchaste, disrespectful, lazy and addicted to intoxicants. In January, 1982 I was in Nepal, witnessing the Shiva Rātri festivities there - sādhus wearing matted locks [jaṭās] slept naked in the snow – hardly comparible with the comfy lives of dread-locked hippies in the west, lying on their warm waterbeds with their illicit girlfriends. We are not responsible for westerners’ cultural conditioning of linking dreadlocks with hippyism. The four Kumāras had jaṭās millions of years ago. The Bhāgavata (3.8.5) states that they had matted locks, too – svardhunyudād ardraiḥ sva jaṭā-kalāpair - and they are the school-example of celibacy. Those who want to take shelter of Sadhu Baba must follow all the rules like in any other Vaiṣṇava school.


  1. You have called Satya Narayana das of the Jiva Institute "prabhu", and there was an explanantion but I don't remember what it was. I think very highly of SN myself, but not as high as Vyasadeva and other such prabhus. So, would you mind to let us know again why SN is "prabhu" to you?

  2. Anon -
    Next to deep affection I feel also profound respect for Satya Narayan Prabhu, that is why. I did not mean to say that Vyasa and Sanatan Goswami are the only persons worthy of the title, but on the other hand I don't think that every bum who comes in the way of a devotee should be just cheaply addressed like that either, while this is happening all too often. That was the overall point of the blog.

  3. Thanks for the reply let me assure you the overall point of your blogs are usually clear. And the overall point of some of the comments are not necessarily always related to their main theme. Just related. But thanks again for answering.

  4. Yes, when I became a devotee I used "Prabhu" in the same way I used "man"--as in "hey man" or "man that was something." Now I am much more judicious.

    What do you think of the use of Prabhu when addressing women? Didi seems too familiar, Mata just seems silly for one woman to call another.

    What honorific should we use for each other? When approaching someone humbly, Prabhu still seems appropriate.

  5. I agree in essence with what you said concerning the title 'prabhu' - I think it is bandied around a bit too much and way to liberally nowadays.

    Besides the Hindi "Ji" - what other appellation is there to address somebody who is on the devotional path but is not of such a high calibre of devotion?

  6. Satya,
    Sadhu Baba called all women 'Ma' - also the young ones. The Bhagavat says mAtRvad para dAreSu 'All ladies other than the wife are to be treated as mother'.

    Ladies among each other in Sadhu Baba's family (his disciples) call each other Didi, which is both affectionate and respectful.

    'Prabhu' is not only a male word, which cannot be used to address females, it is, according to shastra, and as I explained in this blog, also meant for really superior saints, not for those who may be just slightly superior to oneself.

  7. Anon 2:
    "Besides the Hindi "Ji" - what other appellation is there to address somebody who is on the devotional path but is not of such a high calibre of devotion?"

    Calling someone by name and adding the suffix 'ji' usually does the job - this is sufficient respect for a slightly superior or equal devotee.
    Or just calling someone by name.

  8. Our main problem in the West is that we do not know enough about the Vedic Culture and history and when somebody presents us with water down philosophy it takes us years to weed out all the nonsense. Such nonsense starts with faulty outlook on saints that live/ed in India practicing devotion for centuries. It starts with small things, such as the examples you just described in your post.

  9. Thank you. I've always heard that Prabhu was masculine, yet Monier Williams has it listed as mfn (masculine, feminine and neuter). Is Ji appropriate for both men and women? (Monier Williams has it listed as masculine. Hmmm, Hindi?)

  10. Satya,
    Yes, I got the same entries in my online Cologne dictionary. Strange. It leads one to wonder how reliable these dictionaries are: Prabhu is grammatically impossible to be feminine, because no female Sanskrit word ends with an u (someone correct me if I'm wrong) - the feminine for prabhu is prabhvi. And as for jI, that may have just been imported into Sanskrit by those dictionary-makers - to the best of my knowledge it is imported from Arabic. Time will tell, because my daughter just embarked on a study of Arabic and she will undoubtedly soon find it out. Fact is that the suffix jI is mentioned absolutely nowhere in Shastra, either as an honorific or anything else for that matter.

  11. "Fact is that the suffix jI is mentioned absolutely nowhere in Shastra, either as an honorific or anything else for that matter."

    So why should we use it at all? Is there no other word in Sanskrit which was used by the acaryas and Goswamis?

  12. What was exactly used in everyday speech I dont know - shastra's narrations about such vyavaharika [everyday, customary] matters are usually in poetry and quite concise. As I said earlier, in everyday Vaishnava-life persons are either addressed by name (first name in familiar case and surname in polite case), Dada (brother) and Didi (sister) is used (this is also not Sanskrit btw) or titles like Maharaj or Mahashay are used (which I personally find also a bit cheapened often). Using the suffix 'ji' does seem to be another good solution. Speaking of 'ji', it does seem to be a modern interpolation in the Monier Williams and Cologne dictionaries, because it is not mentioned in my hard copy of VS Apte's dictionary.

  13. What about the title "Prabhupada?" My experience in India is that it is only used for Prabhu Vamsha Vaisnavas. I always thought that iskcon and GM using that title and the title "Goswami" was just their way of thumbing their noses at the "bogus caste-goswamis". Iskcon and Gaudiya Math have no appreciation of the descendents of Advaita Acharya and Nityananda and thus accept these titles making themselves look arrogant and making aparadha in the process.

  14. I have been pondering this lately. It is said somewhere in BBT books that the acarya can be titled visnupada or prabhupada, but I cant remember if any evidence was provided from shastra. prabhu-pAda means the feet of the master, and is seen as the representative of the Lord. In the case of Prabhu SantAns, of course it means they are representatives, or images of either Nityananda or Advaita Prabhu. I am not sure if the GM adopted the title Prabhupada as a snub to the Prabhu SantAns - I think it was meant for Bhaktisiddhanta only. Remember how incensed they were - and are - when A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami accepted the title, too......

  15. "Iskcon and Gaudiya Math have no appreciation of the descendents of Advaita Acharya and Nityananda and thus accept these titles making themselves look arrogant and making aparadha in the process."

    This is a polarizing point of view. Iskcon and Gaudiya Math consist of many members with different implicit points of view and attitudes, some are....
    1) disagreement, but respect.
    2) some have no opinion on these matters
    3) some partake in the polarizing debate
    4) and some yes, unfortunately show disrespect.
    5) there are also many friendly exchanges charged with spiritual inspiration back and forth as I have often witnessed to my pleasure.

    It is a matter of focus

    1. "prabhupAda" means the actual position of actual prabhu.

      Agree with the responder rejecting polarization.

      Of course. Being someone's offspring does not mean automatic qualification. 😊
      By the way vyasadeva was a Major jata dreadlocks. jorgie in miami

  16. I feel that to call another prabhu is a reminder to one's self that you are dasa. In knowing others to share qualities of the lord you lessen your ego as a devotee and you remember your obligation to serve others as an act of serving Krishna. One who calls everyone brother sees everyone as their equal, one who calls you as son sees themself as superior, but one who calls you as baba is expressing their own humility.
    ॐ तत् सत्

  17. Silvanus, this is not correct. The word 'dada' means 'elder brother', while the word 'bhai' means equal or younger brother. 'Didi' means elder sister and 'bon' or 'bhen' means younger sister. Dada and Didi is respectful. Also mostly we address each other as āpni [Bengali] or 'āp' [Hindi], less so as 'tumi' or 'tum' [familiar case]. So respect is given without calling totally fallen souls 'prabhu', a title for Vyāsadeva or Sanātan Goswāmī. This is cheap [sahajiya].