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On Vaishnava Culture and Customs

Submitted by on July 17, 2017 – 12:33 am9 Comments

By Satyanarayana Dasa, originally published at the Jiva Institute.

Question: Previously, was there any distinction of dress between Gaudiya Vaishnavas and the regular population in India, and for the different varnas? What did people generally wear? There seems to be no mention of grihastha dress in shastra, only sannyasa garb.

Answer: There is no such thing as Vaishnava dress specifically. It is Indian dress with Vaishnava identification-marks: a specific tilak and Tulasi kanthimala. Men also wore shika, but it was not specific only for Vaishnavas, but basically for every male member of Hindu society. It was shaved only when one took Advaitavada sannyasa.

Previously, before India had contact with the West or Western dress, there was no other dress code besides the normal dhoti for males, and sari and different types of skirts for females. Mostly, men did not have an upper garment except for a chadar, also called an uttariya or anga-vastra. Rich people and royal people wore different type of shirts called angarakha (or angaraksaka in Sanskrit, lit. protector of limbs, something like the bagal-bandi from the Vrindavan area). Muslims introduced the kurta. Men wore various types of turbans. The style of dhoti, sari, skirts and turbans varied from region to region and also from varna to varna. Most of these dresses did not need tailoring, and could be used by people of different sizes. They were easy to wash. In fact, the word dhoti implies a cloth that is washed after wearing it once. These dresses were especially suitable for warm climates.

Thus there is almost no specific mention in Smriti shastra, such as Manu Smriti, about a dress code for grihasthas. One thing it does mention is not to have two kacchas, (kaccha is the part of the dhoti or sari tucked in the back). This implies that grihasthas wore dhotis with a kaccha, and not lungistyle, as is the case with sannyasis and babajis. It is also forbidden to worship the deity without a kaccha. Thus you will see that sannyasis do not do worship in South Indian temples. The pujaris are grihasthas.

Almost all dress code is only specified for non-grihasthas, i.e., brahmachari, vanaprashtha and sannyasi.

Question: Sometimes the question is raised, “Why do we have to follow Indian Culture. God is not dependent on any culture, why do we have to put on tilaka, a dhoti and shave our heads?”

Answer: If you want to worship Paramatma, this is true. He does not care for any particular culture. But if you want to follow a specific form of God, such as Krsna, Rama or Nrsimhadeva then you have to follow what they like. If you want to be with them then you have to do what they like. If you want to be a devotee of the universal God, then you can be universal but if you want to be a devotee of a specific form then you have to follow their principles. “God” may not have a culture, but Bhagavan has. You have to understand the difference between God (Paramatma) and Bhagavan (for which there is no English translation). Don’t confuse these two. Don’t apply the principles of Paramatma to Bhagavan. Paramatma is universal and has no preferences. Bhagavan does have preferences.

“God” means Paramatma. Bhagavan is beyond God. Paramatma is a general manifestation of the Absolute Reality, and Bhagavan is very specific. Therefore Bhagavan has a specific culture which is related to his life and activities.

In his prayers to Krsna, Brahma said that Krsna was pleased with Putana because she was dressed as a gopī. She did not have the bhava of gopī, she was merely dressed as a gopī (SB 10.14.35). We shouldn’t misconstrue that simply wearing a specific dress constitutes the sādhana to attain Bhagavan, but this does show that Bhagavān has preferences.

Putana incidentally dressed in a way that pleased Bhagavan. Pleasing him was not her intention. Therefore his mercy on her is astonishing, and she is an exceptional example. The common thing is to intentionally try to please Bhagavan. That is bhakti sadhana. When bhakti is there, then one naturally does what is pleasing to Bhagavan. (anukulyena krsna anu shilanam BRS 1.1.11)

We may think of Bhagavan’s culture as “Indian culture,” especially those who are not Indian may think this way, but really, Krsna appeared on a part of the earth that was not called “India” at the time. Now we have divided the earth into so many countries. Even in recent history India alone has been divided. About 65 years ago, Pakistan was part of India and about 45 years ago, Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, but now the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh do not think that Krsna was born in their country, and they consider Indian culture foreign. Their forefathers did not.

Similarly, once upon a time, the whole earth was one unit, as can be seen from the shape of different continents. According to the Puranas also, the whole earth was known as Bharata Varsha, which is the official name of India. At that time, if somebody lived on earth he was part of the whole world. There was only one culture. Later on, it got bifurcated into so many parts and now we consider the culture of one country “foreign.” Thus we think that the culture in which Krsna is born is “Indian culture,” but in truth, there was a world culture at that time. There was no such thing as “India.”

And there were no other major religions at that time – neither Christianity, Islam nor Buddhism. And even in these religions, their traditional dress very much resembles traditional Indian dress. All the cultures of the world had similar simple dresses, basically cloth wrapped around the body, whether in Greece, Egypt or Israel.

Furthermore, Vaishnavas accept that Krsna-lilaas eternally unfolding in many different universes. That means the dress Krsna wore and the culture he lived in is not “Indian” – it is his. It is not that in our universe he happened to appear near Delhi so he wore dhoti, but in another universe, He wears jeans or something else. Like the Sun, which looks the same no matter what country you see it from, Krsna appears in different universes and different historical periods, but He always wears the same dress. So it is not Indian dress, it is His own eternal dress. It is not Indian culture, but His own culture.

Question: Srimad Bhagavatam says (11.14.3): “Those who give up the effort for attaining perfection on the path of jnana (brahman realization) and just bow down to you with their mind body and speech by hearing your pastimes described in the scriptures, though remaining in their social position (sthane sthita), they conquer you, O Krsna, who are unconquerable by anyone in the three worlds.”

What do you think about this sthane-sthita principle? And what would you recommend for Vaishnavas to wear?

Answer: I agree with the sthane sthita principle. I consider Osho as the most rebellious and unorthodox guru. Yet, even he had a dress code for his sannyasis. So sannyasis should always follow the dress code. Grihasthas can dress in whatever is convenient for them to function in the society. However, I will recommend that while doing puja in the temple one should put on the traditional Indian dress. And if time and circumstances permit, one should wear traditional Indian dress to worship one’s personal deity in one’s own home. It has some merit in it. While going out one can change into the dress accepted in the local society.

Question: When in the 10th Canto it says that Krsna liberated Putana because she came in the dress of a gopi, does that imply that only Krishna’s devotees dressed like gopis and that there were no other women in Krishna’s times not devoted to him who wore this kind of dress?

Answer: No. Putana’s dress reminded Krishna of the gopis. Any non-devotee gopi would have reminded Him of the gopis. So dress also has some role to play and this must be recognized. By this, I am not saying that Western devotees should go around in dhotis, but they should know its value and wear it whenever they can. There is no need to rebel against it, as seems to be the case sometimes.

Question: Is Hari Bhakti Vilasa a book for Gaudiya Vaishnavas or is it more for outsiders? I am asking because it is full of varnashrama dharmic rules, while real bhakti is supposed to be beyond those rules. In essence, Hari Bhakti Vilasa seems to be aropa siddha bhakti.

AnswerHari Bhakti Vilasa gives principles for Vaishnavas in general. It is a Vaisnava smriti not limited to Gaudiya Vaishnavism. It is not talking about aropa siddha bhakti. It gives principles for people who want to practice pure bhakti. However, it is assumes that one has varnashramabackground and therefore it may appear that it is speaking about varnashrama or aropa siddha bhakti. It should be noted that not everything it prescribes is applicable to Gaudiya Vaishnvas. It is a textbook. As with any textbook, one has to learn from one’s own teacher or school which principles are applicable and which are not, and to which extent. It is a book for practical principles which may need to be adjusted according to the circumstances of the practitioner.


  • Phillip Trier Rabe

    Sri Srimad A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada just says the opposite:

    “Now, just see. To satisfy Kṛṣṇa is not very difficult thing…It doesn’t matter that because Kṛṣṇa appeared in India, therefore He wanted Indian food. No. Patraṃ puṣpaṃ phalaṃ toyam. Leaf, and flower, and fruit, and water. Oh, that is available in America, that is available in Czechoslovakia and Greenland, everywhere.”

    [Bg 4.19-22 Lecture — NYC, August 8, 1966]

    * * * * *

    Allen Ginsberg: Yes, but what [IKSCON] requires is…an adaptation to Indian food.

    Prabhupāda: No, no… It is not Indian food. Are you not eating fruits?

    Allen Ginsberg: Yes, yes.

    Prabhupāda: Then that is Indian food? Do you mean to say it is Indian food? …It doesn’t matter that you have to take our taste. No. That is not the program, that to become Kṛṣṇa conscious you have to change your taste. No. We say from the Bhagavad-gītā… Kṛṣṇa says, patraṃ puṣpaṃ phalaṃ toyaṃ yo me bhaktyā prayacchati [Bg. 9.26]. “Anyone who is offering Me with devotion these vegetables, fruits, flowers, milk, I accept that.” But we are going to satisfy Kṛṣṇa. Therefore we are selecting foodstuff from this [vegetarian] group. That you are all already accepting. Don’t you take vegetables? Don’t you take fruits? Don’t you take grains? So where is the new item? Now, so far cooking, you can cook in your own taste. But…not meat…That is our program.”

    [Room conversation with Allen Ginsberg — Columbus, Ohio, May 12, 1969]

    • An example of very broad preaching, as opposed to the more specific focus of the article.

      • Phillip Trier Rabe

        With all respect, but I don’t think that teh example is too broad, but it explains a philosophical principle. Satyanarayan says, only Indian cowherd dress will satisfy Krishna, which is just his interpretation (it is simply not found in the verse). The same would be saying, only Indian dishes will satisfy Krishna, a concept rejected by Srila Prabhupada, see above.

        * * * * *
        Regarding clothes:

        Guru-gauranga Dasa: “Speaking about clothes, Monsieur le President says that he has been to India, and he understands that one dresses like this in India. But why would the disciples dress in America or in Europe in this way? Is it necessary?”

        Prabhupada: “No. It is not necessary. Dress you can have as you like. It doesn’t matter, because dress is a dead thing. Real thing is that we want a living being who can understand. That is the real position.”

        [Srila Prabhupada Welcomed by Governor at Hotel De Ville — Geneva, May 30, 1974]

        • I did not say it was “too broad,” just broad in comparison. The paradigmatic figures of raga bhakti are described with some detail, as is the object of their love. Such descriptions are empowered and should be employed in one’s meditation/visualization. It is not that we can replace Krsna herding cows with Krsna riding a mountain bike and expect the same result.The Vraja lila is a specific meditation and in this sense unlike meditation on Paramatma—God. Prabhupada preferred that his disciples not only think of Krsna as he is described in the texts but to also dress in ways reminiscent of Gaura lila when possible as an aid to their culture of Krsna consciousness. But of course when speaking to persons from the West who felt uncomfortable with such dress, he replied to them in the broadest of terms. Examples of Allen Ginsberg and the Governor of Geneva are one thing, while speaking to initiated devotees seriously pursuing the ideal of Vraja bhakti is another. I think the article was written for the latter and appropriately made a distinction between God consciousness and Vraja Krsna consciousness. At the same time the article does not say one has to dress in a particular way but suggests it may be helpful to do so. Prabhupada taught this as well. Indeed, the examples of the governor and Ginsberg by comparison are exceptions.

  • Paramshreya Das

    The word sat-veṣāt is the key term. Veṣa means dress, just dress. I have a problem with the following „logic“: First of all in the BBT translation it is said that Putana has disguised herself as a devotee, not particularly as a gopi. The wortd “gopi” isn’t in the Sanskrit of SB 10.14.35. Even if the term would be „gopi“, it is still universal, because „gopi“ simply means „cowherd girl“. You have gopis everywhere around this planet, in Switzerland, in Africa, in Pennsylvania. According to the author’s logic, any gopi or cowherd girl can please the Lord, that means also a German cowherd girl could please the Lord just by being dressed as a cowherd girl. Nowhere the author says that she must dress explicitly like an Indian cowherd girl. The Lord would be pleased seeing cowherd girls. Still apart of this, our translation says “diguising herself as a devotee”.

    • Putana dressed herself like a devotee—a devotee of Vraja—and thus as a cowherd woman—a gopi with tilak. She dressed like Yasoda and other gopis. Thus given the context, to say she dressed herself as a gopi implies that she dressed herself as a devotee.

    • Braja sundari

      Is it not obvious that when talking about Krishna we understand gopi from Vraja and not from Pennsylvania? He was not dating girls from Switzerland or USA,his mother was not American cowherd girl. Putana had to disguise herself as a local woman, otherwise she would look suspicious. And local women were devotees, so no harm to say she dressed like a devotee

  • Vāyu.

    Is that sat-veṣāt limited to a millenary and specific rural dress? If so, that clothing would be more proper for tropical country settings (such as Vrajabhūmi) or perhaps just an exclusive dress of intramural activities (especially in the West). It does not seem practical for modern urban areas or cold regions.


    By the way, are valkalāmbara and kṛṣṇājina considered sat-veṣāt and permitted at present?

    • Sat-vesat speaks of dressing like a devotee. Hence there is way to dress as Vaisnava. He or she wears neck beads of Tulasi and adorns his or her forehead with tilak. Without such markings, how would one be recognized externally as a Vaisnava? Wearing tree bark or deerskin was not approved by Mahaprabhu. Brahmananda Bharati understood this and abandoned such dress.

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