Monday Morning Greetings 2023 #22 – Should a Vaiṣṇava Dress Like One?

May 29th, 2023

About twenty-five years ago, my personal secretary was working as the chief secretary for a large advertising company on Madison Avenue. I don’t know how she pulled it off, but she arranged for me to visit on the afternoon of dress down Friday [1]. She told me her coworkers were sincerely excited to meet me and, sure enough, when I arrived there was a large computer printout on the wall behind the front desk: “WELCOME HARE KRISHNA”.  I was then escorted from office to office, meeting the writers, graphic designers and marketers who were all welcoming and respectful. By the time I reached the large open space at the end of the corridor outside the Vice President’s office, about thirty people had followed me there. When the Vice President came out of her office, I gave her one of those special, otherworldly rose garlands from Radha Govinda Mandir, something that money can’t buy, even in New York. She practically melted into the floor, and then quite deferentially asked me a question: “Why do you dress that way?”

“It’s a uniform. A uniform has two functions. A person can be identified, and it gives one a particular mood to do a service, just like a policeman. By their uniform they can be identified when their service is required, and it also gives them a martial mood. There are also police officers who can do the exact same job in plainclothes. In other words, although wearing a uniform serves an important function, it is not essential. Similarly, by these robes I can be identified as a Hindu monk. Its simplicity also facilitates a spiritual mood, but the same worship of God can be done in plainclothes.”

This Monday Morning Greetings was sparked by a commentary I was reading in the Tenth Canto of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam about the reason that the land of Vrindavan never erases Krishna’s footprints.

“As the tilaka worn by a devotee signifies ‘I belong to guru and Krishna’ the footprints are worn by Earth in the devotional mood that I belong to Krishna. The earth therefore never erases the imprints of Krishna’s lotus feet.” [2]

Reading about the pride which Earth feels wearing the imprints of Krishna’s feet gave me a deeper understanding of the connection between something external, like a devotee’s dress and bodily markings, and something internal, like imbibing the mood of belonging to Śrī Guru and Śrī Krishna. After reading this, the next morning I started marking my body with tilaka with a new mindfulness, devotion, and pride. Of course, there is a distinction between adorning the body with tilaka and wearing devotional dress, as marking the body with tilaka is a devotional item, where wearing devotional clothes is not. A similar principle is there, however, in that they both can, to one degree or another, foster the devotional identity of “I am a servant of guru and Krishna”, which is the raison d’etre or intention for everything that a devotee does.


Of course, I am a monk, where the principle of dressing for identification takes on more of a societal relevance, especially within a devotional community. Also, I lived most of my devotional life in India where the climate and culture give extra relevancy to simple cloth robes. What about devotees who are not monks or priests and live and work in the modern world? Should they dress as Vaiṣṇavas?  


Yes, all things being equal, a Vaiṣṇava should dress as one, provided other factors and circumstances remain the same, like they do for me, whose robes suit his occupation and who mostly lives in India where such dress is the tradition of the country and suited to the climate. 


“All things being equal” certainly means while doing deity worship. The first aspect of worshiping the deity is bhūta-suddhi, purifying the material identity, so at that time of deity seva one certainly does not want to wear clothes that invoke within one a strong material identification.


“All things being equal” generally means while visiting India for pilgrimage, where one has a chance to immerse oneself in an environment and climate that supports a simple and devotional mood of Eastern spirituality.


“All things being equal” usually means when one adopts the role of a priest or spiritual leader where even in the West such dress for such people is understood and even revered. 


“All things being equal” means anytime one is comfortable or desires to dress in traditional Vaiṣṇava garb, even in a foreign environment, to identify as a devotee and specifically to represent that tradition to others. 


I have been discussing here the relative merits of a more traditional garb. A basic principle, however, is that except for the dress required for essential occupational and social interactions, a Vaiṣṇava should dress simply, functionally, and cleanly, and they should avoid excess modern fashion meant to invoke a particular material identity, except in the cases where there is a legitimate psychological need to dress themselves beautifully and reasonably fashionable, which is the case for many women.  


The focus of a devotee’s life is to change the subtle body–the way one thinks, wills, and feels–from “I am the enjoyer and controller” to “I am the servant of my Lord.” As what we wear can influence or fortify our internal self-conception, a devotee also gives some thought to how they dress. For me, I like my uniform and my fresh tilak after bath. It invokes in me a mood more akin to my internal aspirations. But the most important thing for a Vaiṣṇava is not what they wear, but how they behave. I thus pray to belong to Krishna from the core of my heart.

[1] I don’t know if it’s a common practice in other places besides New York. But twenty-five years ago, there was still a formal dress code for businesses, even advertising, but on Friday one could dress casually.

[2] I am hundred percent sure of this commentary, but I was able to locate the exact reference.


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