Category Archives: Vedic Culture

The Duty of a Vaiṣṇavī Wife

Question: Please clarify the siddhānta spoken in Bhāgavata Purāṇa by Kṛṣṇa Himself that the highest religious duty for a woman is to sincerely serve her husband, behave well towards her husband’s family and take good care of her children (SB 10.29.24). Women who desire a good destination in the next life should never abandon a husband who has not fallen from his religious standards, even if he is obnoxious, unfortunate, old, unintelligent, sickly or poor (SB 10.29.25).

Answer: This siddhānta is refuted by the very women to whom it was spoken. Why do you not read that part of this chapter, SB 10.29.32:

yat paty-apatya-suhṛdām anuvṛttir aṅga

strīṇāṁ sva-dharma iti dharma-vidā tvayoktam

astv evam etad upadeśa-pade tvayīśe

preṣṭho bhavāṁs tanu-bhṛtāṁ kila bandhur ātmā

“O Dearest One! You, who are the knower of dharma, have instructed us that the duties of women are to obey and serve their husbands, children, and relatives. So, let all these tasks be carried out accordingly, but in regard to You, who are the goal of all such instruction and our Lord, for You alone are the dearest beloved, the friend, and the very Self of all beings.” 

And these women have been praised for not following Kṛṣṇa’s teachings in SB 10.29.24, see SB 10.47.61:

āsām aho caraṇa-reṇu-juṣām ahaṁ syāṁ
vṛndāvane kim api gulma-latauṣadhīnām
yā dustyajaṁ sva-janam ārya-pathaṁ ca hitvā
bhejur mukunda-padavīṁ śrutibhir vimṛgyām

“Let me be a shrub, creeper, or herb in the forests of Vṛndāvana so that I might be blessed with a dust particle from the feet of these gopīs! They sacrificed even their unsacrificable relationships and morals to worship Mukunda; such sacrifice is sought after even by the Vedas.”

What Kṛṣṇa spoke was from the point of dharma and what the gopīs followed, was parama-dharma, also called Vaiṣṇava-dharma, which is beyond the regular dharma.

Question: So, as per Bhāgavata dharma, what should be prime duty of a woman, who is a sincere sādhaka? If she has to serve her husband and family, then should it be with or without attachment? In my opinion, without attachment, non-duplicitous, heart-felt service is not possible. Where there is attachment, the mind always thinks about that person. The Bhāgavata recommends that the mind always be attached to Kṛṣṇa (janma-lābhaḥ paraḥ puṁsām ante nārāyaṇa-smṛtiḥ, SB 2.1.0). The highest perfection that can be achieved in human life is to remember Bhagavān at the end of life. This appears to be a contradiction. So how is both  possible simultaneously?

Answer: The service has to be done seeing the husband as a part of Kṛṣṇa and not independent of Him. This is not just imagination. Everyone is part of Kṛṣṇa. Then there is no contradiction. Contradiction comes, when we make divisions between devotional activity and material activity. A devotee sees the relatives also as parts of Kṛṣṇa. This goes both for the husband as well as the wife. If the husband is indifferent to his wife, how will he take care of her, which is his duty? In her prayer to Kṛṣṇa, Kuntī asks to cut her bondage to both, the Pāṇḍavas and the Vṛṣṇis. 

Śrī Viśvanāth Cakravārtī Ṭhākura explains that Kuntī’s attachment to these two sets of relatives is twofold—as blood relatives and as Kṛṣṇa’s devotees. She prays to cut the first type of attachment and not the second one. In every relation and every activity, we have to keep Kṛṣṇa in mind. This is the formula to reconcile all contradictions.

Cultural Principles in the Gauḍīya line

Question: In Caitanya Caritāmṛta, Antya 12.37 it is said:

peṭāṅgi-gāya kare daṇḍavat-namaskāra

govinda kahe śrīkānta āge peṭāṅgi utāra

When Śrīkānta offered obeisances to the Lord, he was still wearing his shirt and coat. Therefore Govinda told him, ”My dear Śrīkānta, first take off these garments.”

In his commentary, Śrīla Prabhupāda quotes from the Tantra: 

vastreṇāvṛta-dehas tu yo naraḥ praṇamed dharim
śvitrī bhavati mūḍhātmā sapta janmāni bhāvini

Anyone who offers respects and obeisances to the deity while wearing garments on the upper portion of his body is condemned to be a leper for seven births.

We all pay obeisances to the deity by wearing dhotī-kurta. Of course, outside of ISKCON, I have heard and seen that bābājīs of Gambhīra, Rādhākunda, uncover their upper garments, if they wear any, while paying obeisance. One bābājī advised me not to pay dandavat-praṇāma in front of the deity while wearing kurta and instead to pay panchāngapraṇāma.

But I could not understand how the external wearing obstructs our devotional service logically? How scientific is the principle behind the offense if we do dandavat wearing our kurtas?

Answer: Why do you think that every devotional principle has to have a scientific background? Why can it not just be a matter of choice or liking without scientific background? You know that we have two sides of our brain—one is logical and the other one emotional. We make decisions on the basis of both. Some of our decisions are rational and others are emotional. Thus some of our actions are rational and some are based on emotions. In fact, between rational and emotional decisions, mostly it is the emotional that overtakes. Love is not rational, and if we are trying to follow the path of love, then don’t expect everything to be rational. So if you love somebody, you do what is pleasing to that person and avoid what irritates them. This is the rationale behind not doing dandavat praṇāma while wearing kurta.

Paying dandavat obeisance is a sign of full surrender. It is a principle that in Vedic culture a surrendered male does not bow down like a stick with upper cloth on. You can do panchāngapraṇāma.

Question: In CC, Antya 13.53 it is said:

kāhāṅ pāilā tumi ei rātula vasana?
mukunda-sarasvatī dila kahe sanātana

Where did you get that reddish cloth on your head?” Jagadānanda asked. Sanātana Gosvāmī replied, “Mukunda Sarasvatī gave it to me.

So, here and also in Hari Bhakti Vilāsa, it is strictly prohibited to wear saffron clothes for Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, since these are the dress colors of Māyāvādī Saṁnyāsīs, and thus Jagadānanda Pandita was immediately very angry and took a cooking pot in his hand, intending to beat Sanātana Gosvāmī.

But how is this an offense, because even followers of Ramānuja-sampradāya wore saffron? If it is an offense, then why do the ISKCON/Gauḍīya Maṭha sannyāsīs wear saffron?

Answer: The answer to this is similar to what has been said above. The colors are related to the guṇas. According to Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 1.2.23 Viṣṇu in charge of sattva, which is represented by white color. Therefore He may not be pleased by the red or saffron dress of His devotee. According to Hari Bhakti Vilāsa, Viṣṇu should not be offered red flowers but those Vaiṣṇavas who wear saffron, as mentioned by you, must have their own understanding and explanation for it. You need to approach them to clarify.

Question: In CC, Madhya 9.276, Mahāprabhu is speaking very strictly:

prabhu kahe karmī jñānī dui bhakti-hīna
tomāra sampradāye dekhi sei dui cihna

Both the fruitive worker and the speculative philosopher are considered non-devotees. We see both elements present in your sampradāya.

We know that we are connected with the Madhvācārya-sampradāya through Śrīla Mādhavendra Purī. But here Srīman Mahāprabhu is referring to “your sampradāya.” He indicates that Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas are not included in the Madhvācārya sampradāya. But how is this possible?

Could you please clarify what exactly Mahāprabhu wants to say? What is the proper meaning of the verse and how to understand it?

Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu

Answer: The meaning of the verse is that in the Madhvā sampradāya there is much stress on varāśrama (which is karma, householders performing nitya-karma, and jñānīs, saṁnyāsīs are renouncing), but in bhakti propagated by Mahāprabhu karma and jñāna are not included. He is just stressing that point. The intention is not to criticize the Madhvā-sampradāya.

Moreover, when Mahāprabhu spoke these words, there was no Gauḍīya sampradāya.

Question: In CC, Madhya 24.313 it is said:

ahaṁ vedmi śuko vetti
vyāso vetti na vetti
bhaktyā bhāgavataṁ grāhyaṁ
na buddhyā na ca ṭīkayā 

I know and Śukadeva knows and Vyāsa may or may not know. The Bhāgavatam can be [only] grasped by bhakti, not by intelligence or [speculative] commentaries.

How are we to understand that the one who has written Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and is an incarnation of Lord Hari—Śrila Vyāsadeva—who is also a representative of guru, may or may not know the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam as told by Lord Śiva?

Answer: These states of statements have an implied meaning and should not just be taken literally.The point is that one understands the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam by bhakti. Otherwise, without bhakti even if one is Vyāsa one will not understand it. It is like the verse where Kṛṣṇa says, “I am not in Vaikuṇṭha—nāhaṁ vasāmi vaikuṇṭhe—or in the heart of yogis, but wherever my devotees do kīrtan, I am there.” This does not mean that Kṛṣṇa is not in Vaikuṇṭha. It is just to stress the importance of kīrtan. Similarly, Kṛṣṇa says that one who is His devotee is not His devotee but one who is a devotee of His devotee is His devotee.



Does God Prefer Indian Culture?

Question: To be a devotee, is it really necessary to follow Indian culture? For example, is it necessary to wear a dhotī or sari, shave one’s head, or apply a tilaka?

Answer: Most people do not have a clear concept of God. If you ask them, “what is God?” the most common answer that I have received is that God is energy. If that is their belief, then naturally there is no specific culture associated with God; a God who is merely energy and who is universal would not be associated with a culture.

But, if you want to be devotee of a specific form of God, like Kṛṣṇa, Rāma, or Nsihadeva, then you have to do what They like. If you want to be with a specific form of God, then you have to follow the lifestyle which is liked by that particular form.

For example, look at the distinction Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī makes between Paramātmā and Bhagavān. Paramātmā is non-discriminatory, and He is equal to all. He is the controller and regulator of his universe. He is the one who supervises the result of one’s karma. But Bhagavān is a personal God. He discriminates between His devotees and non-devotees. Kṛṣṇa speaks about these two aspects in Bhagavad Gītā (samo ‘haṁ sarvabhūteṣu). In the first half of the verse, Kṛṣṇa is speaking about the Paramātmā aspect and in the second half about the Bhagavān aspect. So most of the time, when people are using the name God, they are only referring to an aspect of Paramātmā, not even to complete Paramātmā. But Bhagavān is beyond Paramātmā and hence beyond the concept of God that most people have.

So, Bhagavān, a specific, personal form of God, has specific likes and dislikes, some of which are cultural. When bhakti is there, then one naturally does what is pleasing to Him. If one is not born into India culture, one may attribute many of these “likes” specifically to Indian culture which is not quite true. (Of course, one cannot attain Bhagavān simply by wearing a specific dress or adopting particular aspects of Indian culture.)

When Kṛṣṇa came, He appeared on a part of the earth now called India, but which wasn’t at that time. Then the earth was not divided into so many countries. Even in modern times, many changes have occurred. About 65 years ago, Pakistan was part of India and about 45 years ago, Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, but now people from Pakistan and Bangladesh would not accept that Kṛṣṇa was born in their country; they would consider Indian culture as “foreign,” even though their forefathers did not.

When the Earth was created, the land mass was one unit, as can be seen from the shape of different continents. As time passed, the earth got divided into separate parts and then divided further into different countries and societies. We think that the culture in which Kṛṣṇa was born was Indian culture, but this is certainly not true. According to the Purāṇas, the whole earth was known as Bhāratavarśa, which is the official name of India.

Some of what you may think of as “Indian,” was common to all the old cultures of this world, for example, Greece, Egypt, and Israel. These cultures all had simple dress, just a plain cloth wrapped around the body.

Cow and sadhus at Krishna Kunda

Brāhmaṇa by Birth or Qualification?

Question: Upon study of the Gosvāmī literature it is clear that:

1) Brāhminical initiation is only meant for children born in brāhminical families;

2) Bhakti is meant for everyone;

3) Bhakti can give Kṛṣṇa but still not qualify one as brāhmaṇa in this life. Technically, nobody except Indians can take upanayana and recite Brahma Gāyatrī.

Yet, non-Indians are also under sattva, rajas, and tamas. Gītā 18.40 includes everyone in the universe under this classification and then goes on to classify brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas, vaiśyas and śūdras. (Gītā 18.41 – 43). It appears that the Gītā’s classification is not universally applicable, as mlecchas can become Vaiṣṇavas, but they can never become brāhmaṇas. Is this a limitation of scripture that it excludes anyone without Indian birth who might be sattvic as having the ‘right’ for brāhminical saṁskāras? I am assuming that such a non-Indian child could get all the requisite ritualistic saṁskāras if society so allowed and the parents so desired.

Answer: Yes, the first two points are correct. The third one needs a modification: Anyone born in a brāhminical family, whether Indian or non-Indian, can take upanayana and recite Brahma Gāyatrī because there are brāhmincial families living in Mauritius, the Fiji Islands, etc.

Regarding your next comment, scriptures speak of two types of principles. First, there are the eternal principles, such as the qualities of ātmā, described in the second chapter of Bhagavad Gītā, or the law of karma, explained in the third, fourth and fifth chapters of the Gītā. These principles do not depend on place or time. Then there is a second set of principles, which are primarily related to the application of the first set of principles in contemporary society. What Kṛṣṇa describes in Gītā 18.41- 43 is a universal principle that does not depend on birth in India or anywhere else. The difficulty arises in applying this principle in contemporary society. Unless these two points are understood clearly, there will be confusion about scriptural rules.

The truth at present is that the traditional varṇāśrama system, which flourished in India for thousands of years, has become dysfunctional because the propagation of this system does not depend on a single individual but on the whole society, which is managed by the state government. So, if the state government does not accept it, which is the case at present, it is not possible to apply this system in its complete form. It was the duty of the state government—the kings in the past, who had to enforce the system. You are probably aware of the story of Sudraka from Rāmāyaṇa who was beheaded by Lord Rāma because he was engaged in severe penance, although being a śūdra. Only brāhmaṇas were supposed to perform such kind of austerities, not śūdras, and if a śūdra did it, then there would be a disruption in the society because of not following one’s prescribed duty. At present, this story and many other such stories are the objects of criticism and derision by modern Indologists both Western and Indian, as well as by the Dalit scholars. The reason being that the critics try to impose their understanding of social mechanisms on society based on varṇāśrama system without understanding that these two societies had different goals to achieve. It is just like trying to criticize the etiquette of a particular society by another society that follows contrary principles. For example, in India, eating with the hand is acceptable, but in Western culture, it is a taboo. Or in Indian culture, a male member does not kiss a female friend or relative when they meet, but in the West, it is a norm.

From a practical point of view, if there is a non-Indian child who has brāhminical qualities, who would test that the child actually has brāhminical qualities? I don’t see any system at present for any such test to designate a child as a brāhmaṇa. Moreover, who will perform upanayana for such a child and what would be the purpose of such a ceremony? Why would such a child want to undergo this process? If the purpose is only to study the Vedas, then there is no need of upanayana saṁskāras because at present you can study the Vedas without any such saṁskāras. If the purpose is spiritual, then how does upanayana saṁskāras help? Is it to follow the smarta process, which is part of varṇāśrama? If yes, then the above-mentioned questions will arise and if no, then what is the purpose?

Satya DasThe most efficacious process in the present age is bhakti, which does not need upanayana saṁskāra. Bhakti is not dependent on any varṇāśrama saṁskāra. Bhakti and varṇāśrama are two distinct processes, although varṇāśrama can assist bhakti but is not necessary.

If, however, the purpose is to become a brāhmaṇa and perform brāhminical services, then it has to be thought over seriously. There are two opinions about it. There are some who say that anyone who has the qualification regardless of birth can be a brāhmaṇa. Indeed, this is how it was originally. There are, however, others who are very orthodox and do not accept this principle and go only by birth. Therefore, if someone really has the need, then one can find some qualified people belonging to the first category and undergo the ceremony. There is no point in debating over it because neither one of these two parties will change their opinion.

Now to go a little step further on this topic of a child taking birth in a non-Hindu family and desiring to take upanayana saṁskāra: It may be understood that the reality exists at three levels, adhibhautika (physical), adhidaivika (psychic), and adhyātmika (spiritual). When a child is born in a traditional Indian brāhmaṇa family and has brāhminical qualities, not only is he a brāhmaṇa at the adhibhautika level, he is also a brāhmaṇa at the adhidaivika level. However, a child born to Western parents may have brāhminical qualities and be a brāhmaṇa at the adhidaivika level but not at the adhibhautika level. To be born as a brāhmaṇa at the adhibhautika level, one must be born in a lineage coming from one of the sages mentioned in scriptures, such as Vasiṣṭha, Garga, Bharadvāja. etc. While doing a saṅkalpa in any varṇāśrama ceremony, such as sandhyā vandanam (a compulsory daily ceremony for a dvija), the dvija has to recite his name, gotra, ṛṣi, pravara, and śākhā. Without mentioning these, the ceremony cannot be completed. The child born to a non-Hindu family would not have the last four items. So, it has to be considered who would supply these items. (Note: Dvija, or twiceborn, includes brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, and vaiśya.)

Question: Can you please give some clarity on the term adhidaiva from Bhagavad Gītā? It is explained in one verse as cosmic governance and adhidaivata as the supreme deity of cosmic governance.

Answer: Adhidaivika can relate to the psyche as well as to the devas, who are the controller or the invigorators/potentiators of the psyche.


Eligibility of Brāhmaṇas and Vaiṣṇavas

Question: In SB 3.33.6, it is stated:

tyan-nāmadheya-śravaṇānukīrtanād, yat-prahvaṇād yat-smaraṇād api kvacit
śvādo ‘pi sadyaḥ savanāya kalpate,  kutaḥ punas te bhagavan nu darśanāt

“To say nothing of the spiritual advancement some who see the Him face to face, even a person born in a family of dog-eaters immediately becomes eligible to perform Vedic sacrifices if he once utters the holy name of Bhagavān or chants about Him, hears about His pastimes, offers Him obeisances or even remembers Him.”

I have head devotees saying that Śrīdhara Svāmī says, pūjyatvam means “he immediately becomes as respectable as a most learned brāhmaṇa and can be allowed to perform Vedic sacrifices.” Is that true?

Answer: No. Śrīdhara Svāmī does not say so. He only says the first part – anena pūjyatvam lakṣyate – He becomes respectable like a brāhmaṇa. Śrīdhara Svāmī does not say that he is allowed to perform Vedic sacrifices. That is an extrapolation of the statement.

Question: This is also confirmed in the Hari-bhakti-vilāsa by Śrī Sanātana Gosvāmī: “As a base metal like bell metal can be changed into gold by a chemical process, any person can similarly be changed into a brāhmaṇa by dīkṣā-vidhāna, the initiation process”.

Answer: This also does not imply that he can do yajña. Just think in practical terms. I am not sure, but let me assume that you are a brāhmaṇa by birth. The I also assume that you did not study Veda and did not learn how to do yajña, even if by chance you had upanayana saṁskārā, which often is the case in the contemporary Indian society. I assume that you have taken Vaiṣṇava dīkṣā. Can you do a Soma yajña? Can you chant SāmaVeda mantras? The answer is certainly categorically no because you have never learned the SāmaVeda and the chanting of the mantras.

So what is the point in saying that by taking Vaiṣṇava dīkṣā, one is qualified to do Soma yajña? How can one become qualified to do Soma yajña just by taking Vaiṣṇava dīkṣā? You need to study Vedas, learn how to chant mantras and then learn the process of doing a yajña. It takes years of training for a brāhmaṇa boy who may have saṁskārās from his family. Then how can one who is not even born as a brāhmaṇa do yajña just because he has taken Vaiṣṇava dīkṣā?  This is impossible.  Of course, you can make a show of doing it in the midst of people who have no idea how a Soma yajña is done.

Question: So if one does not take birth in a brāhmaṇa family, then can he become brāhmaṇa only by dīkṣā (brahma gāyatri) from a spiritual master?

Answer: Brahma gāyatri is offered in varṇāśrama dīkṣā, not in Vaiṣṇava dīkṣā. Do not confuse the two. If Brahma gāyatri is given in Vaiṣṇava dīkṣā, then what is the difference between varnāsrama dīkṣā and Vaiṣṇava dīkṣā?

Question: What is the opinion of our previous ācāryas regarding this?

Answer: You yourself have quoted the opinion of a previous ācārya. So which other “previous ācārya” are you referring to?

By Vaiṣṇava dīkṣā, one does not become a brāhmaṇa, but respectable like one. Varṇāśrama is inferior to Vaiṣṇava dharma. I hope you know this. So why should dīkṣā with Vaiṣṇava mantra make one a brāhmaṇa? It makes one a Vaiṣṇava, who is superior to a brāhmaṇa. Why do you want to pull him down to the brahmaṇa level?

Question: As stated in CB Adi 17.20:

tabe prabhu vyavasthilā auṣadha āpane
‘sarva-duḥkha khaṇḍe vipra-pādodaka-pāne’

“Then the Lord prescribed His own medicine, ‘If I drink the water that has washed the feet of a brāhmaṇa, My suffering will be relieved.'”

Here according to Śrī Mahāprabhu, what does vipra mean? Only a qualitative brāhmaṇa (by dīkṣā irrespective of birth) or one who is born in the family of a brāhmaṇa and who has upanayana saṁskārā? What is the opinion of Goswāmis and ācāryas of Vṛṇdāvana regarding this?

Answer: One who is born in a family of brāhmaṇa, has undergone upanayana saṁskārā, has studied the branch of Vedas belonging to his family and observes the brahminical duties.

Question: I heard that in Gambhira Maṭh, Puri, there is a custom that Vaiṣṇavas born in brāhmaṇa families only are allowed to do deity worship. But SB 7.11.35 says that:

yasya yal lakṣaṇaṁ proktaṁ,   puṁso varṇābhivyañjakam
yad anyatrāpi dṛśyeta,    tat tenaiva vinirdiśet

“If one shows the symptoms of being a brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya or śūdra, as described above, even if he has appeared in a different class, he should be accepted according to those symptoms of classification.”

Also supported by, Bhagavad-gītā (4.13), cātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśaḥ. Thus the four divisions of society—brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya, and śūdra—are to be ascertained according to qualities and activities.

Although Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī has not commented on this verse, elsewhere he says that if he has no seminal birth from a brāhmaṇa family but chants Hare Krishna, his purification starts and he shall be respected as brāhmaṇa. This means that although he has the qualification of a brāhmaṇa, still he is not authorized to perform brāhminical functions.  For this he has to take another birth again. This is even supported by Śrī Sanātana Gosvāmī as found in the Gaura kṛpā taraṅgiṇī commentary in Caitanya Caritāmṛta by Rādhā-govinda Nātha.

Here it seems it contradicts Śrī Śrīdhara Svāmī and SB 7.11.35 in respect of quality being not by birth.

Answer: There is no contradiction. Whether it is  Śrīdhara Svāmī or the SB verse 7.11.35 referred by you, it is very clear that such a person is accepted like a brāhmaṇa, not that that he can engage in brahminical duties without proper educational training. Even a person born in a brāhmaṇa family needs proper education and training to execute these brahminical duties. As far as the verse 7.11.35, who will ascertain whether that person has the symptoms of the brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya or śūdra. Who is the authority to give such a certificate? At present, I do not know of any such system and in the absence of such a system, the only viable choice is by birth. Unless there is a system or an authorized group of learned wise men who are appointed to ascertain the varṇa of a person, we are left only with the present custom of accepting varṇa by birth. You have only mentioned Gambhira Maṭh, but in all the major temples of India and even outside of India, this system is practiced.

Question: Śrī Sanātana Gosvāmī and Śrī Haridās Ṭhākura in their pastimes show respect even to a brāhmaṇa only by birth. Does this mean that they do so out of humility? So, please clarify this in a simpler way: how to understand this? What should be our vision regarding this?

Answer: Follow the example of Śrī Sanātana Gosvāmī and Haridās Ṭhākura. They are our ācāryas and very dear associates of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, who said amānina mana dena. It is quite amazing that you yourself quote these examples and then raise this question. Why not respect whom you are citing?


On Vaishnava Culture and Customs

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.

Vaishnava sadhus

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 lungi style, 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?”

Krishna and dopasAnswer: If you want to worship Paramatma, this is true. He do 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 sādhana. 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.

Krsna and Gopis / JIVAFurthermore, Vaishnavas accept that Krsna-lila as 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 ayone 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.

Answer: Hari Bhakti Vilasa gives principles for Vaishnavas in general. It is a Vaisnava smriti not limited to Gaudiya Vaishnavism. It is not taking about aropa siddha bhakti. It gives principles for people who want to practice pure bhakti. However, it is assumes that one has varnashrama background 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 practioner.

Women in Vedic Culture

Question: Are women less intelligent?

DeviAnswer: This is a vague question, I must say.  Intelligence is multifaceted; there are various types of intelligence. According to Howard Gardner, Professor of Education at Harvard University, there are nine types of intelligence. Similarly, according to Steven Rudolph of Jiva Institute, there are eight types of intelligence.

Somebody may be highly intelligent in one area but have medium intelligences in another. The whole idea of an intelligent person having a high IQ is very misleading. IQ testing is mainly related to mathematics and calculation. One could be intelligent in business, music or interpersonal relation but not have a very high IQ. I know many examples from my friends in college who had high IQ, were very good at studies, got a good job, and made a lot of money, but their personal lives are very miserable – broken families and taking to drugs. Would they be considered highly intelligent? Maybe, maybe not.

Indian scriptures mention 64 kalas or arts, and Krishna is expert in all of them. There may be people who are good in some of these and not so good in others.

So we cannot make a blank statement that women are less intelligent and men are more intelligent unless you speak of a specific area. As a simple example, women are very good at taking care of children, family and managing the house and this is a very important part of human life. Without these three a man’s life will be quite miserable, even if he is so-called intelligent.

The general function of intelligence, which is called buddhi in Sanskrit, is to discriminate between right and wrong. This discrimination can primarily be in two fields: material and spiritual.

Usually, spiritualists attack women because they think that women are less intelligent when it comes to being a spiritualist. However, if we study the scriptures in an unbiased manner, this premise does not hold ground. Let us look at the women described in Bhagavata Purana, which is considered as the highest authority for spiritual matters.


Kunti DeviThe first woman mentioned in the Bhagavata is Sri Kunti Devi. Is she a spiritual dull head? It doesn’t appear that way from her prayers to Krishna. From the material point of view she may be considered quite foolish because in the whole history of the universe she is the only one who prays to God to give her troubles:

vipadaḥ santu tāḥ śaśvat
  tatra tatra jagad-guro
bhavato darśanaṁ yat syād
  apunar bhava-darśanam

“Let there be calamities again and again, o Lord of the Universe, so that we can have your darshan again and again because by seeing You we will no longer see repeated birth and death.” (SB 1.8.25)

Spiritually, however, she is the most intelligent because she realizes that when calamities come to her it also brings her the darshan of Krishna. What can be a more intelligent conclusion than that?


Kunti Devi / painting by Raja Ravi VarmaThe next lady who comes into the picture is Draupadi. She was not only the most beautiful woman of her time but also the most intelligent. In the whole history of the universe she is the only one who could manage five husbands peacefully.

One can read about the great characteristics of Draupadi in Mahabharata and see how she was actually managing the whole kingdom of Yudhisthira Maharaja.

She is the one who asked a very technical question when she was dragged into the assembly of the Kauravas by Duhsasana. No one was able to answer her, including Bhisma. Her question was, “Does Yudhisthira, after losing himself in gambling, have the right to wager her?” Such a question cannot be asked by anyone of petty intelligence.

When Arjuna captured Asvathama, who had killed Draupadi’s five sons, and brought him    before Draupadi as a slave, Draupadi, although very aggrieved by the cruel murder of her five young sleeping sons, immediately told Arjuna, “Release him, release him! He is a Brahmana and son of your guru.” Such a statement can be only made by a person who is very balanced in her mind, stitha prajna, and not by a person who is full of envy, jealousy, duplicity, and craftiness.


Then there is a description of Devahuti, the service she did to her husband is exemplary. She was a princess, but she served her austere husband with utmost humility. Her character is described as being free from any material desires, hypocrisy, greed, pride, inadvertence, and hatred (SB 3.23.3). Modern women may think it was foolish for her to do this, but actually this was the most intelligent thing to do because by doing so she begot God as her son.


Then we have the example of Suniti, Druva’s mother, the one who intelligently advised him to go to the forest and worship Krishna.

The Gopis

GopisIn this way we can analyze the character of the many women found in the Bhagavatam and finally study the character of the gopis, who are considered to be the most intelligent of all beings.

So it is wrong to make a categorical statement that women are less intelligent.  Even in modern times, I find that wherever I go the majority of the audience consists of women. The same is true for churches, temples and Yoga associations. In fact, women are more reliable in performing service than men.


To be continued with: “The Place of Women in the Bhakti Movement”