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Friday, March 16, 2012

Vaiṣṇava dress

This is my 2 cents about the ongoing discussion about whether Vaiṣṇava dress is spiritual or cultural (and can be compromised or even totally abandoned).
This discussion took place during Kartik of 2010 -

Purva-pakṣa -
You mention in your interesting blog about Sankīrtan that "dhoti is a sacred garment". I have my doubt about this statement and would like to present a few points for discussion if you don't mind:

1. The terms "dhoti" or "sari" are not Sanskrit words and not mentioned in scripture. We don't know exactly what Kṛṣṇa was wearing (even though I tend to believe that it resembles what we call dhoti)
2. There is no evidence that Lord Caitanya asked any of his followers to change their regular dress when they went out on harinama.
3. "Vaiṣṇava dress" as mentioned in Caitanya Caritāmṛta could just mean the simple garment the followers of Lord Caitanya used to wear as opposed to royal clothes.
I certainly agree that clothing affects our consciousness and has certain connotations if we use it like a uniform. It can uplift (or degrade) us. However, in Indian villages some people wear dhoti and sari without any religious sentiments. It is just village clothing for them. In certain places in India suit is considered a Christian dress. For me the main principle, if we choose to go on Harinam, is to attract people to Kṛṣṇa through beautiful singing, dancing (and possibly also dress). If they get bewildered by weird foreign clothing (which they may at best connect to India, but not to spirituality) we may not reach our goal. Just my two cents ...

Advaita Das -
1. Probably Vaiṣṇavas always wore dhoti and shari so they did not need to change cloth.
2. Haribhakti Vilāsa speaks of wearing white garments as opposed to red/orange. That certainly applies to dhoti not to pants.
3. Mahāprabhu is described as wearing tri-kaccha in Caitanya Bhāgavata, it means ' three-folded'. That certainly applies to dhoti. f.i trikaccha vasan (Caitanya Bhāgavat Adi 8.197)
4. Indian villages have a very pious regime, even if people do not practise any sādhana. Most Hindus are devotees in the heart. In contrast one never sees Muslims wear a dhoti. If it were purely cultural and regional, why South Asian Muslims do not wear dhoti?
5. A devotee would not dare watch peepshows on the street in dhoti, whereas he would be inclined to do so wearing pants, because not only the garment influences him, he would also look absurd wearing the dress of a priest while watching a peepshow.

Thanks for your reply. Since the words dhoti and sāri are not found in the Sanskrit dictionary, how would they appear in any Sankrit text (unless it is interpolated)? What we do find in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is dukūla-agrye, which just means cloth. Certainly Mahāprabhu and his devotees wore dhotis, as was the custom back then. We just don't know how exactly the Vrajabāsīs and Kṛṣṇa wrapped their clothes around their bodies 5000 years ago. The gopīs are described as wearing belts in the 10th canto which indicated they were not wearing sārīs, but some kind of skirts. I don't doubt that it is uplifting for one's consciousness to wear dhoti /sari in that spirit, but I still hold that there is nothing INTRINSICALLY spiritual to it.

Advaita Das – “There is nothing intrinsically spiritual about being a teetotaler either – it is just healthy to be so. Does it mean we should jeopardize our sādhana by getting loaded on drink and drugs then? It would make sādhana a lot more difficult, right? One can do sādhana in America but it is much better to do in Vraja. Similarly one can also do sādhana with baseball cap, T-shirt and Bermuda shorts but why would you make it more difficult upon yourself? dhuti and śārī are indeed not in the dictionary, but the Kṛṣṇa Bhāvanāmṛta 4.35 mentions the word śāṭikā [corrupted into 'shari' nowadays] - kanaka bindumati nava śāṭikā. Why would a belt not fit with a sharee, by the way?

Thanks Prabhuji, interesting and a beautiful description. Of course even from that we still don't know exactly how that dress looked like. It is obvious that Rādhā doesn't wear mini-skirt, but the opinion of some devotees that saris as they appear now are "Vaikuṇṭha dress" is still not substantiated by that description.

Advaita Das – “Subhadra devī dressed in gopi dress to appease her co-wife Draupadi. It was a skirt, blouse and a top as described in Vilāpa Kusumāñjali 22. Draupadi was probably dressed in a shari at that meeting, so yes it seems like sharis were Vaikuṇṭha dress and gopi dress is a skirt. In that you are right. I am short of evidence from Mahābhārat, where the pastime is described.”

Just recently I received this support from my friend Ananta Govinda –

Ananta govinda - Some devotees insist that there is no such a thing as Vaiṣṇava dress in śāstra.”

Advaitadas: “Haribhakti Vilāsa says that if you do not wear uttarīya (cador) you are naked. Wearing a chador is as purifying as wearing dhoti - 'nuttarīyaśca nagnas cāvastra eva ca - [Haribhakti Vilāsa, 4.148] – “Not wearing uttarīya [chador] is like being naked.”

Ananta govinda: Without Haribhakti Vilāsa I found refutation of this

Advaita Das: Did Mahāprabhu wear suit and tie, in a college office?

Ananta Govinda: The word vaiṣṇava-dress is in sastra: in Caitanya Caritāmṛta Madhya 14.5

sārvabhauma-upadeśe chādi' rāja-veśa
ekalā vaisnava-veśe karila praveśa

sārvabhauma — of Sārvabhauma Bhattācārya; upadeśe — under instructions; chādi' — giving up; rāja-veśa — the royal dress; ekalā — alone; vaisnava-veśe — in the dress of a Vaisnava; karila praveśa — entered.

“Following Sārvabhauma Bhattācārya's instructions, the King had given up his royal dress. He now entered the garden in the dress of a Vaisnava.”

Ananta Govinda: look here:  vaisnava-veśe . If they don't accept Haribhakti Vilāsa they should not accept Caitanya Caritāmṛta either: so, what is vaiṣṇava veśa, blue jeans and t-shirt? They say Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism is not about the clothes. But why then Jagadānanda Paṇḍit wanted to beat Sanātan Goswāmī because of the clothes point and nothing else? (see Caitanya Caritāmṛta Antya līlā, chapter 13)? Even without considering the color of the clothes, the point was about the clothes - and if it doesn't matter then why śāstra speaks about clothes with so many ślokas?”

Advaita Das – Clothes matter. A transvestite feels feminine when he cross-dresses, a woman with pants feels more masculine than a woman in a dress. And those postmodern devotees who preach ‘the substance vs. the form’ are invited to show me this philosophy or attitude anywhere in Vaiṣṇava-śāstra or history. There is nothing external in bhakti – sevā sādhaka rūpena.  Mahāprabhu instructs Sanātan Goswāmī in Caitanya Caritāmṛta (Madhya 22.156): bāhya antara ihār dui to sādhan - There are two types of sādhana - external and internal." “The substance vs the form” is actually sheer māyāvāda, thinking that something in bhakti sādhana is false. The bottom line is - it is very hard for western devotees to give up their western saṁskāra, even if they are in the top league and supposedly 'seniormost'."


  1. Advaita Das – Clothes matter. A transvestite feels feminine when he crossdresses, a woman with pants feels more masculine than a woman in a dress.
    Prabhuji very correct. Appearance influences our psychology.
    And those postmodern devotees who preach ‘the substance vs. the form’ are invited to show me this philosophy or attitude anywhere in Vaishnava shastra or history. There is nothing external in bhakti – seva sadhaka rupena. “The substance vs the form” is actually sheer mayavada, thinking that something in bhakti sadhana is false. The bottom line is - it is very hard for western devotees to give up their western samskAra, even if they are in the top league and supposedly 'seniormost'."
    Did'nt understood. Could you pl elaborate. Radhe Radhe.

  2. Partha, mayavadis believe that Krishna or Krishna bhakti are false, inferior or external aspects of the Absolute or just totally false. So thinking that Vaishnava dress, which is an integral part of bhakti practise, is an inferior, dispensible, external matter, is similarly mayavada. Hence I quoted Sri Rupa;s verse 'seva sadhaka rupena' - one must serve with the external form as well as with the spiritual form.

  3. So what exactly is standard vaishnava dresscode?

    can an uninitiated aspiring devotee wear these clothes?
    is it taboo?

  4. Anon, for men the dress code is two folded or 3-folded white dhoti for householders and non folded white cotton for renunciates. Top of the body is covered with uttariya or long white scarf.
    For married ladies colored saree and for widows or single ladies white saree.
    Yes uninitiated devotees can wear that too.

  5. thanks for the reply, look out for my friend request on fb.
    we spoke in the past maybe you might remember when you see my photos.

    thanks for the excellent articles.


  6. Hello. I am a disciple of Prabhupad Srila Ananta Das Babaji. What is a devotee supposed to do if wearing a dhoti is frowned upon in the workplace.? About 3 times I have gone for job interviews wearing dhoti, it resulted in me not getting the job. Your guidance will be greatly valued on this topic. Looking forward to your reply.

    1. If you live in India it may be possible to get a job wearing a dhoti on a job interview, in the west never. We must be practical. If you need a job you will have to put on a pair of pants during those hours.

  7. Also would like to befriend you on facebook. My name is Seetanath Das (alias Siddharth Gupta).

    1. Sorry I may have deleted your friendship request. Please send another one and I will accept.