A senior disciple of Prabhupada has written a short essay to show why Krishna conscious women should wear the Indian dress known as the sari. I believe that this essay gives many false arguments and therefore I will give here a critique of her essay. I will refer to the author of the sari article as SA, Sari Advocate.
She begins her essay by relating that once she asked a Muslim man why Muslim women are hidden behind a curtain of clothes that often cover even their eyes. His answer, which SA presents without any criticism, is that “if you have a precious diamond…naturally you would protect it…where untrustworthy people cannot see it or steal it.”
Here are the problems with this justification for the Muslim custom of fully hiding women behind cloth:
- Women are not the property of men, and are thus not analogous to valuable property.
- Still, let us consider this women-as-valuable-property analogy. In civilized countries, or even in safe dictatorships, people in fact do not keep their valuables hidden. People wear jewelry and watches on their bodies, publicly drive expensive cars, build beautiful houses on public roads, publicly use expensive computers, etc. It is only in dangerous, uncivilized countries that one cannot expose valuable property to public view. In fact, even in many conservative Muslim countries where the female “treasure” is hidden, other treasures are publicly visible.
- We have solid evidence that in pre-modern India, many conservative, cultured women wore few clothes, at times were topless, and certainly did not hide themselves in Muslim garb.
- Women are attracted to handsome men, and a good man is a woman’s treasure no less than a woman is a man’s treasure. So by the above logic, we should also cover men so that women cannot see their faces, eyes, arms, legs, etc. Perhaps a male burka is the solution.
- SA provides Prabhupada anecdotes in which Prabhupada insists that women wear a sari in the Bengali style. However, we have numerous documented quotes from Prabhupada in which he states the obvious: clothes are not an essential part of spiritual life. Here are a few of these Prabhupada quotes:
Allen Ginsberg: “Yes, but what [ISKCON] requires is an adaptation of Indian dress…”
Prabhupada: “That is not very important.”
Indeed, Prabhupada often rejected the notion that Indian dress is an integral part of bhakti-yoga.
“Our only concern is to attract people to Krsna consciousness. We may do this in the dress of sannyasis or in the regular dress of gentlemen. Our only concern is to spread interest in Krsna consciousness.” [ŚBh 7.13.10 Purport]
“So if you don’t accept this dress, that does not mean you cannot be in Krishna consciousness. Krishna consciousness can be achieved in any condition of life. It doesn’t matter whether you are dressed in this way or in your American way or any way. That doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do… Krishna consciousness is different from this dress or that dress.” [Lecture — Boston, May 3, 1969]
“Dress has to be accepted according to the taste of others and foodstuffs accepted according to the eater’s taste. So if you think this kind of dress will attract more people, you can dress yourself in that manner.” [Prabhupada Letters: 1969]
“Sadhu does not mean a kind of dress. or kind of beard. No. Sadhu means a devotee, perfect devotee of Krishna. That is a sadhu.” [Sydney, February 16, 1973]
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]
“If karmi dress is favorable, then go on with karmi dress. We have to execute missionary activities; dress is not fundamental.” [Letter to Satadhanya — February 16, 1976]
Dr. Wolfe: “Srila Prabhupada, the dhoti is not important then.”
Prabhupada: “Not important. He can have dhoti, you can have pant, you can have… It doesn’t matter.” [Garden Conversation with Professors — Los Angeles, June 24, 1975]
“Prabhupada once saw a picture of Balavanta preaching into a microphone during a political campaign. Behind him sat the mayor and another candidate. Balavanta wore a suit and tie, tilaka, and tulasi beads… His hair was grown out. Around his neck he wore a bead bag… When Prabhupada saw the picture, he said that this is what we want, to preach in American dress. He said we should be known as American Krishnas.”
“You should use your own discretion; the garb can be Vedic or ‘American.’ There is no harm. Dress has nothing to do with the soul.” [Prabhupada to the artist Yadurani about painting devotees — May 19, 1971; Satsvarūpa dāsa Gosvāmī Prabhupada Nectar]
Prabhupada: “Oh, yes, oh, yes, you can become spiritual in your this dress. Simply you have to learn what it is from the books. The dress is not very important thing…” [March 5, 1975]
In her essay, SA uses the term “devotional clothes,” even though Prabhupada himself hardly used the term, and there is no evidence in thousands of years of Indian history that a sari was ever Vaiṣṇavī dress. In the first years of ISKCON, Indian mysticism was a raging fad. Those times are completely gone. ISKCON has failed to make significant missionary progress in the West for almost forty years. Yet SA believes, as in the Charlie Chaplin movie where he rips off the bottom of his pants but dances with enthusiasm till everyone rips off their own bottoms, that the world will imitate our ahistorical belief that Indian culture, heavily influenced by Muslim culture, will sweep over the world. Don’t hold your breath.
SA concludes by quoting Muslim, Arabian women in Kenya, Africa, who believe that the lusty gaze of men poisons them, and therefore they completely cover their bodies. Again, it is Muslim culture that is to be our guide, not the Bhagavatam where no such covering is advised or evidenced.
Rather than accept Krishna’s scientific cultural criteria of sattva-guṇa, the mode of goodness, we are to learn from conservative Muslim culture how to live human life. I have elaborately explained these fallacies and filtered presentations of Prabhupada in other essays. It would be absurd to say that only in India do we find goodness either in character or dress. Prabhupada makes clear that this is absurd.
Saris are not chaste or unchaste. It depends on how they are worn. It is common in India that prostitutes wear saris in ways appropriate to their profession. And we all know that the sari and choli can be worn to great advantage by women seeking to attract or seduce a man. Why doesn’t the Bhagavatam, or the Gita, teach us the importance of Hindu-Muslim culture, or of covering and hiding the treasure of the female form?
I certainly do not condone the wanton vulgarity of modern culture. But the solution is not conservative Muslim culture that turns women into mere property. We see terrible cruelty and violence toward women in that culture. Men are enraged when their “treasure” dares to think her own thoughts, pursue education, or live with individual dignity.