Recently in India I inquired from a Mohammedan gentleman why their women are ardently concealed behind a curtain of cloth, which often completely covers their faces? He replied, “If you have a valuable diamond, which to you is precious and dear, how will you keep it? Will you store it in an old cardboard box in the backyard rubbish heap? No, naturally, you will protect it by putting it safely and securely in a place where the untrustworthy can neither see it nor steal it. Our women are very important to us; they are the personality behind a happy household. We know that if they flaunt themselves in public, they will be mislead, and then the foundation of our society will be ruined.”
My mouth dropped open; I was speechless. The Muslims, like the Hare Krsnas, obviously have this question repeatedly asked to them by the “non-believers”, and this gentleman had a very poignant answer. He was not intimidated by the query, rather, he proudly made this presentation on behalf of the women in his community.
I have observed that ISKCON women more often are replacing the sari with other kinds of “more practical” attire. Many wear Punjabi suits, long skirts (or even short ones) dresses, moo-moo’s, jogging suits or shorts to putter around the house or go shopping. Often the only time a sari is worn is to come to the temple feast on Sundays. Even more often we see that the sari has been replaced by Western clothes in the name of “selling more books” or “collecting more laksmi.”
As a mother and an experienced frontline preacher, I can appreciate the points made for wearing western attire, particularly in a western country. Sometimes the sari may make us feel awkward, too cloistered, or separated from others. However, as my Muslim acquaintance indicated, we would be more inspired to wear devotional clothes if we have a proper understanding of its benefits.
Srila Prabhupada wanted the women in his movement to cover their bodies in a chaste way. Although in the beginning, while living in the temple, most ladies wore long skirts and blouses, his instruction was that the breasts should be covered twice. Therefore, some ladies wore sleeveless maternity smocks over a long sleeved shirt, and perhaps a scarf on her head. Srila Prabhupada, not satisfied with this attire, taught his spiritual daughters how to wear the sari. He also specified which wrap they should use.
Once while preaching in Gujarat, Srila Prabhupada saw two of his women disciples, Malati and Kausalya, wearing their saris wrapped like the Gujaratis. He became furious. “Where have you learned this? I did not teach you this?” Wanting his followers to represent the highest class in the social order and to set an example for the rest of the world to follow, he had taught his women followers to use the sari-wrap worn by Brahmins for temple service.
Srila Prabhupada mentions in the Caitanya Caritamrta that devotees can wear the attire of the materialists for preaching Krsna consciousness, especially while distributing books. However, Srila Prabhupada himself, although preaching, never changed his devotional dress to gain some supposed advantage. Rather, he taught us to turn apparent disadvantages into advantages.
Srila Prabhupada gave the example shown in a Charlie Chaplain movie where a young “bucking bronco” and his girlfriend were at a formal ballroom dance. When the man rose to dance, the long coattail of his tuxedo caught on the chair and ripped half way up his back. Unperturbed he gestured to his girl to wait while he proceeded to the men’s room, removed his jacket and ripped it all the way to the neck creating 2 long blackstreamers. Unabashed, he swept his dance partner up in a rigorous waltz, whirling in circles all over the ballroom floor. All eyes are focused on them, as they became the center of attention. Awed and dumbfounded, the by-standers admired the confidence of this enthusiastic dancer. One by one the other men on the ballroom floor retired to the men’s room. After a few moments they emerged with their coat tails ripped up to their necks. Srila Prabhupada commented that the devotees should be confident and enthusiastic like the dancer and then people will follow their example.
The intimidation a devotee feels while wearing devotional attire is often a projection of his insecurity at being a devotee. He doesn’t want to be confronted and defend Krsna’s message or movement from seeming discrepancies in the philosophy or adverse media propaganda. Such a devotee should analyze within himself why he joined Lord Caitanya’s movement.
As food prepared by materialists is contaminated by their consciousness and will infect one who eats it, similarly, clothes fashioned by persons catering to the whims of lusty people, will degrade our consciousness. Srila Prabhupada, therefore, encouraged cottage handloom industries, so that even a devotee’s physical necessities could be satisfied purely.
A Vaisnava should wear only pure fabrics, for example, cotton, wool or silk. Since synthetic fabrics are derivatives of plastic and will not absorb water, they are virtually impossible to clean. That “cleanliness is next to Godliness” encourages a devotee to surround himself with the purest environment possible. This protects him from the modes of passion and ignorance, which can bewilder his intelligence and keep him bound in this material world.
Several years ago, I discussed this issue with Arabian Muslim women in Kenya. I asked them “Why do you cover yourselves completely in such a hot and stuffy robe?” They replied, “The gaze of lust will make us dirty and we will become sick from it. Lust is a poison that attacks like a poison gas and affects our minds and makes us unclean.” ISKCON devotees understand that even while making an offering of food to the Supreme Lord, if the plate is not covered before being placed on the altar, it could be spoiled by the lusty glance of an animal, a child or an unqualified person. If a greedy person lusts over our food it becomes poisoned and we risk falling sick from eating it. So, like a plate of food, a woman might be seen as a sense object and should cover her body so as not to be the object of lust. In this way, she will remain pure for the Lord’s service.
A woman’s covering her body chastely in a sari is a declaration that because she is Krsna’s maidservant, she is not interested in capturing men by her material form. In that sense she is no longer a “devil in disguise”, someone out to capture the weak, but someone who is a well-wisher, a “mother” or one who cares for others. She especially becomes concerned about men’s spiritual life. She desires that they achieve the highest goal in life, to go back home, back to Godhead; that they not remain conditioned by material illusion, mesmerized by the decorations of her dead body.
The sari is not only a chaste covering for a woman’s body, protecting her from unwanted lusty gazes, but, it is also a “spiritual uniform.” Just as the policemen are identified by their uniform, the devotee’s dress identifies her as a person who can give spiritual instruction and shelter. Therefore, people should be able to identify the devotees as members of a spiritual institution.
I find that wearing a sari enhances my preaching. Practically each day I have to explain why I wear it. Wearing a sari helps me be a proper spiritual example and forces me to consider how my activities affect people who have faith that ISKCON devotees are sadhus.
One simple reason I continue to wear a sari is that I know it is pleasing to Srila Prabhupada. He was fond of saying “The dhoti makes thedevotee!” which indicates that wearing devotional clothes effects a spiritual transformation. Knowing that Srila Prabhupada is our ever well-wisher and eternal protector, to please him, I tolerate seeming inconveniences of wearing a sari.
Rambhoru devi dasi (wife of HG Prithu Dasa and a senior disciple of HDG Srila Prabhupada)