Looking Good

For me, it was déjà vu all over again. One more episode in the Fashion Wars.

The Florida town of Rivera Beach, reported Monday’s New York Times, faced a legal challenge over its ordinance banning the “young men’s ‘sagging pants’ look, with trousers slung low enough to reveal a generous swath of boxer shorts.”

The defense put on the stand its star witness: Chelsea Rousso “a former New York fashion designer who is now a fashion instructor at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.” Ms. Rousso, described by The Times as “looking uptown chic on the witness stand in a three-quarter-length embroidered jacket and a knit black dress by Ellen Tracy,” displayed pictures of the soccer star David Beckham, Prince Harry, and others, all sporting drooping trousers.

The expert witness went on to testify that “the low-slung pants look is one that has gone from ‘tribal’ to mainstream.”

“It started out as an expressive concept, and it went mainstream,” Ms. Rousso said. “A lot of people picked up on it, with the social ramifications that went with it.”

I’ve lived through three fashion uproars myself, and I can back up Ms. Rousso. Fashion is indeed a very expressive language: it makes a statement. And it is often intended to provoke uproar. Call it a “loud conversation.”crackdown-on-indecency

It’s déjà vu all over. I remember my first fashion war of the late 50s: In my junior high school, blue jeans were banned. Why? “Nice boys” had inexplicably began wearing denim jeans—the disreputable garb of Negros, Mexicans, and “white trash.” Our teen-rebel blue jeans added their own grammar: They had to be worn tight, low, and beltless. Like Elvis Presley. The most desirable haircut (also Elvis’s) sent an even louder message. If you sported one, you were in danger, in some towns, to get your hair shorn off by the police:

ducktail-hair

No sooner had the fashions and music of the fifties youth rebellion entered the mainstream, than the next one sprang up to replace it. The sixties counterculture articulated its own “expressive concepts” in hair, clothing, music, and even transportation:

hippie-portrait

frank-zappa

hippie-bus1

By the time this happened, I was studying religion in graduate school. I was into the counterculture; I owned a real pea coat; my hair was, well, longish; my friends were, by and large, hippies. Most of the religion department took me for a real hippie. But my friends didn’t mistake me for one of them: I was, after all, in graduate school.

It was one of my “hippie” buddies who took me to a Hare Krishna temple, and that led, to my everlasting surprise, to my next fashion change. I joined the Hare Krishnas: I wrapped myself in a dhotī; shaved my head, leaving the tuft of hair called a śikhā on the back, and showed up one day like that at the Department of Religion.

This last transformation naturally ignited an uproar with my parents and a somewhat more sedate one with the religion department.

In fact, most of the early disciples of Prabhupāda were drawn from the sixties counterculture, a feature highlighted in the first academic book about ISKCON, Hare Krishna and the Counterculture by J. Stillson Judah. At first, mainstream society took the devotees for a kind of hippie sub-sect.

But those who joined ISKCON in those days were, in reality, double drop-outs: from mainstream society into the counterculture, from the counterculture into the Hare Krishna movement. By going further out, the devotees came back around: they took vows of “no intoxication” and “no illicit sex,” and obeyed a routine that closely resembled medieval monastic life.

Krishna devotees were definitely not hippies, yet their first social niche belonged within the counterculture. Where they were very, very “far out.”

In the counterculture, “far out” denoted a highly valued state. The possession of far-out-ness empowered one to “freak out” ordinary citizens. All the hippies I knew referred to themselves, approvingly, as “freaks.” “Hippie” was an outsider’s word, a journalist’s word.

The mission of the freak, to “blow the minds” of the straight citizens, was supposed to detonate their mental barriers and open their minds to the ecstatic perception of the surrounding world as single vast intelligent living organism, of which we are all part-and-parcel.

The devotees of Krishna recognized that world—it was the viśva-rūpa, Krishna’s “universal form”—and went beyond it, far beyond it.

At my first meeting with Krishna devotees, it was clear to me that they had won the far-out-ness competition hands down. No one blew minds like the American Hare Krishnas. I assumed initially that they knew this, and I basely suspected them of showing off. But I quickly realized that they didn’t even think or care about being far out. They thought they were normal.

I gave some time to thinking about their tonsure. On the one hand, they shaved off their long hippie hair; when shaving their heads, the men used to take the razor across the scalp twice, first with the grain and then against it, thus achieving the smoothness of a ping-pall ball. And they shaved weekly. Even my Army officer father—who waged war on long hair and personally barbered the heads of all his sons—had not been so close, so exacting.

On the other hand, the devotees left the long śikhā at the back. And in those earlier days, they wore their śikhās very long and loose: it was what remained of their former flower-child locks.

This hairstyle expressed to what seemed to me to be the mind-blowing, transcendent synthesis of Krishna consciousness: the devotees were simultaneously further right than the most reactionary conservatives, and further left than the most radical liberals. And both sides achieved integration, a single coherent whole.

This is a tonsure of “expressive concept” with “social ramifications” that Chelsea Rousso should appreciate.

Here’s an ISKCON painting, circa 1969, made for the cover of Easy Journey to Other Planets. Showing a devotee going “far out,” it records how the men wore their śikhās in the early days:

easy-journey-sikha

It is interesting to note that the shaven-head-with-śikhā tonsure is actually a style of ancient vintage:

ancient-sikha

Here’s a contemporary ISKCON śikhā, knotted in the manner proscribed by ISKCON’s Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition:

sikha

When I moved into the ISKCON temple with my wife and children in 1971, I underwent the total Hare Krishna fashion make-over. It was the only way to join in those days. The style of a rigid and confrontational alienation from mainstream society was, I believe, something the devotees had unconsciously adapted from the hippie counterculture.

Still it had its distinct advantages. Withdrawing cold turkey from the consumer society facilitated the uprooting of the fabled American Dream from the heart.

My former affinities for the counterculture had not rendered me a freak and a drop out, but Hare Krishna had done the job, taking me beyond even the beyond.

Our expressive fashions—being “religious garb”—had legal protections not afforded ducktail haircuts or saggy pants. But deviance is still deviance, weird still weird. The police were alert. I heard about a group of devotees traveling in an old school bus through the deep South. A state trooper pulled them over. From the front of the vehicle, redolent with incense, the speechless trooper beheld for the first time the flowing dhotīs and sarīs, the foreheads marked with the twin-lines of white tilaka, the shining bald craniums sprouting luxurious pony-tails. Finally he announced: “Ah’m gonna do y’all a favor. Ah’m gonna put y’all in jail.” And indeed he did.

I suffered arrest with some other devotees while chanting on the sidewalk of a small town outside Philadelphia. After securing the volunteer service of a local ACLU lawyer, we returned for our trial. Preparing to give testimony, I was put under oath by the court clerk. Looking at me askance, he said: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you”—he paused a beat—“your God?”

We were different, and our fashion went out of the way to show it. The women in sarīs did not seem to cause much consternation, but men in dhotīs raised all kinds of alarms.

One devotee had reported for an Army draft physical in full Krishna regalia, earnestly courting rejection. Afterwards, he showed me the offical report on his appearance. An Army psychiatrist described his dhotī as “a large diaper.” That, taken together with the hairless head, suggested to the shrink a “highly infantilized appearance.” The Army did not want him.

I found it hard, in the beginning, to be a freak, and it took me some time to feel comfortable in my robes and shaven head. Especially because six days a week found me with the other devotees drawing attention to ourselves by chanting and distributing literature on the corner of Broad and Chestnut. There the large diapers raised eyebrows. In any case, in those days extreme bagginess was not at all in fashion. Some read the robes as a sign of sexual immorality. One suburban matron upbraided me for appearing in public “half-naked, draped in bed sheets.”

Even as I gradually began to like the style, growing into it, I feared my adjustment might be a kind of narcissistic self-delusion. Especially since the people passing by on the downtown sidewalks were starting to look more and more strange to me.

And then succor arrived from an unexpected source.

Enclosed in a letter my wife received from her sister Suzanne—who lived in the upscale Chicago suburb of Winnetka—was a clipping from a recent issue of New Yorker magazine (July 27, 1971). This was an installment of the regular feature “On and Off the Avenue: Feminine Fashions” by Kennedy Fraser, a writer highly esteemed for the excellence of her taste and of her prose as well. She began her piece: “During a slow walk along Fifth Avenue on Wednesday last, many thousands of costumes passed by me; I was struck by a mere handful of costumes that had any semblance of dignity, simplicity, or taste.” Among these few, she noted the outfit that “belonged to a follower of the Krishna Consciousness band, whose shaven heads are enviable on steamy days and whose apricot robes come into their own when they are not swathed in mufflers.”

Here was an expert’s confirmation of my own judgment. I wasn’t deluded. The devotees were looking good. And if the urban passers-by seemed to be looking worse—to me as well as to Ms. Fraser—perhaps it was because popular fashion was entering an era of more-than-usual gracelessness:

70s-lady

70s-models

Since then, I’ve not changed my fashion much. But the world has changed. I got an inkling that something was afoot in the late 80s, when aboard a jumbo jet from London. The seat across the aisle from me was occupied by a boy of about thirteen or fourteen. He kept staring at me. Finally he blurted out: “Mister, you sure have a cool haircut!”

I thought: “Cool at last!”

Then a little later, the straight-edge Krishna band Shelter was staying in our Philadelphia temple and attracting a steady stream of youthful followers. One day I overheard a band member berating a fan.

It seemed the follower had worn a dhotī to a show without permission. Band members wanted to restrict dhotīs to those they considered serious and knowledgeable about Krishna consciousness. This kid had been told not to wear a dhotī, but he’d done it any way. The conversation went something like this:

Shelter member: Why did you wear a dhotī? You’re not ready. We told you no dhotī!

Boy: Well, I wanted to, you know, just to add more Krishna consciousness, to make things more Krishna conscious.

Shelter member: No! That’s not the reason! You just wanted to be cool!

Boy: People were coming to me and asking about Krishna consciousness, so I thought I could speak about it, you know, more authoritatively if—

Shelter: No, no, you just wanted to be cool. Admit it! Comon, admit it! You just wanted to be cool!

Boy (resignedly): Yeah, yeah. You’re right. I admit it, I admit it. I just wanted to be cool.

And then, on a flight to Los Angeles, a flight attendant stopped by my seat. “Look at you,” he said. “What is that you’re wearing?” I explained what a dhotī was. “It’s so attractive,” he said. (I knew he wasn’t coming on to me: the days anything like that happened were long past.) I told him a dhotī was extremely comfortable as well. Where could he get one? I directed him to Govinda’s Boutique next to our LA temple. Someone there, I explained, could teach him how to put it on.

The attendant returned to his duties. If the gays take it up, I thought, maybe it’ll become really fashionable.

Something was in the air, anyway. Around the same time, The New York Times carried a long piece about fashion designers turning to religion and spirituality for inspiration. One instance cited:

The designer John Bartlett created a rope-belted monk’s coat last season, which will be carried by Charivari, Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s New York and was recently bought by the actor Robin Williams. And this season Mr. Bartlett went Hare Krishna, with loose orange robes. “Personally speaking, there’s nothing sexier than a monk or a Hare Krishna,” he said. “They’re so inaccessible.”

Our fashion has a serious purpose: to remind us of Krishna. Every morning after my bath, I look in the mirror and decorate my body. I mark my forehead and eleven other places with the clay tilaka symbol of Viṣṇu’s temple. In this way, I consecrate my body to the service of God. My clothes, my tonsure, remind me and others of Krishna. That is our fashion’s “expressive concept.”

No fashion could be more expressive than tattooing. It’s another item, like blue jeans, that moved from the margins into the mainstream. Krishna devotees have engaged it to make their own statements:

krishna-tattoo-1

krishna-tattoo-2

krishna-tattoo-3This devotee’s devanāgārī tattoo reads, on the top line, “Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare,” and on the bottom, “Hare Rāma Hare Rāma Rāma Rāma Hare Hare.”

For many years I’ve worn the traditional chadars with mantra of Krishna’s name of on them. Last year something new happened: Whenever I went out with a chadar around my neck, one lady or another would invariably say, “That’s a nice scarf,” or “I like your scarf.” Sure enough, wearing the divine names is mainstream:

chadars-2

The year I joined the temple—thirty-eight years ago—National Geographic happened to feature an article on India. The cover photograph, showing a traditional devotee of Lord Rāmacandra, must have then struck most Westerners as very weird. Very “far out.” But nowadays, perhaps, no longer so strange:

ng-coverThis devotee’s tattoos, as well as her scarf, proclaim “Rāma Rāma Rāma Rāma Rāma Rāma Rāma….”

Now there’s an in-your-face fashion statement, for sure.

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13 Comments

Filed under Fashion

13 responses to “Looking Good

  1. And for fashion conscious bathers, a $263 Gamcha (er, I mean Khadi Gingham Stole).

    http://www.rby45rpm.com/shopping/show_product.php?product_ID=441/Khadi+Gingham+Stole

  2. Pandu das

    Very interesting.

    I can’t tie my sikha, because tieing it makes the hair break, and then it becomes too short to tie. Oh well.

    Just yesterday a young man in a health food store remarked that my “rat tail is cool.” I told him it’s a Hare Krishna symbol, and he said he didn’t know what Hare Krishna. Fortunately I had my car trunk full of Srila Prabhupada’s books, so he got a few small ones. There’s a sticker on there with my e-mail in case he wants more.

    Shortly after I started chanting Hare Krishna, my mom ordered the National Geographic magazine that was current when I was born, maybe it was a special offer with a subscription. It was the same issue you pictured. I felt really cool.

    Hare Krishna.

  3. tulasi-priya dasi

    The range of possibilities available in sikha styles is vast, from dinner-plate diameter to almost on the nape of the neck. What to speaking of braiding, dreadlocking, or tying it in a knot.

    • rsdasa

      True. Yet it must be acknowledged that there is an “orthodox” Gauḍīya vaiṣṇava śikhā. Here is a description from ISKCON’s Deity worship manual Pañcarātra-Pradīpa:

      According to the Vedic culture, when a person undergoes the cūḍa-karaṇa-saṃskāra (hair-cutting ceremony) and upanayana (Vedic initiation), he must shave his head, leaving a tuft of hair called a śikhā. One must have a śikhā to perform any kind of yajña. Therefore in Indian tradition all the brāhmaṇas, Vaiṣṇava or otherwise, keep a śikhā.

      Although there seem to be no śāstric injunctions regarding the size of the śikhā, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas traditionally keep the śikhā about the size of a calf’s hoofprint, approximately 1.5 inches (5 – 6 cm.) in diameter. Śrīla Prabhupäda mentioned this in a conversation with some of his disciples in Hawaii: “Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava śikhā is an inch and a half across—no bigger. Bigger śikhā means another sampradāya… And they have to be knotted.” (May 6, 1972, Hawaii; Śrīla Prabhupāda Līlāmṛta V, page 93)

      The śikhā may be any length, but it should be kept tightly knotted and only untied when you are washing, cleaning, or oiling it. Also, when going to sleep, attending funeral rites, or observing a period of mourning, you should keep the śikhā untied. Since an untied śikhā is a sign of a death in the family, it is inauspicious to go about one’s daily duties with an untied śikhā. It is also said that if one keeps the śikhā untied, the body may become weak.

      While tying your śikhā after bathing, chant the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra, or, if initiated with Gāyatrī mantras, silently chant the Brahma-gāyatrī (first line of Gāyatrī). The śikhā should not be braided (traditionally only women braid their hair), nor should it be kept long and disheveled.

  4. mahojjvala

    Gurudeva, I love what you wrote. I can’t stop laughing…

  5. Great article. I laughed especially hard when I pictured the army recruiter’s desription of the devotee You just can’t make this stuff up. Thanks for the laugh.

    Good luck.

  6. Urmila devi dasi

    Kudos on this blog! Very very funny! Just imagine if it truly became fashionable to dress like a Hare Krishna.

    I’m sure you’ve noticed that fashion in the Movement has also changed. Note the pervasiveness of the gopi skirt, yogi pant, and “punjabi suit” or salwar kameeze. Neck beads have become like jewelry pieces, and pictures of Krishna are on shirts, bags, umbrellas, and so forth.

    Gone are the days when we all (men and women) wore pieces of poly-cotton cloth–saffron for the unmarried and either white or yellow for the married.

    Thanks for your writing!!

  7. gauraraya dasa

    As a confirmation of the experience of others, I have just begun teaching Visual Art in a secondary school in Auckland, the students think my sikha, shaved head and kanti mala to be so cool that they appear to respect me more and listen in class, even the other teachers like it .

  8. Urmila devi dasi

    Now you can achieve Bhakti by buying a jacket.

    Check out this link:

    http://athleta.gap.com/browse/product.do?cid=46753&vid=1&pid=682891

  9. Hladini Sakti dasa

    Wonderful blog (as always). Thank you, for the humor, of course, but even more for the thoughtful exploration of the powerful cultural influences ushered in by Lord Caitanya’s transcendental devotees! Satorial sankirtana, ki jai!

    Having first read “Miss Fashioned” I could not resist going back to read the “Looking Good” blog that preceded it. “Looking Good” reminded me of an encounter I had a few years back while visiting Chicago. At the famous Art Museum, I spotted from behind a clean shaven, tow-headed, sikha sporting young man whose neck beads were also prominent. Aha, a fellow Prabhupadanuga Krishnite, I surmised. Walking up to him from behind I let out a moderately modulated “Hari bol!”. Nothing. Probably hard of hearing, too many loud kirtans, I figured, and tried again, only this time louder: “Hari bol!”. Still, nothing. So I went round to face the chap directly, smiled by way of greeting, and again intoned an expectant “Hari bol!”, only to be met with a return gaze that bespoke bemusement and utter uncomprehension.

    Long story short, it turns out the fellow was an Irishman doing university studies stateside. The tonsure and neck beads, he explained, designated him as a practitioner of spiritual arts and sciences deriving from the Druidic tradition of the ancient Celts. He was aware of a connection with the ancient culture of India, and referred me to some interesting (and credible) Irish literature chronicling evidences of the same, but hadn’t, until I shared it with him, heard of Parasurama’s severe chastisment of the miscreant kshatriyas, and the consequent Vedic diaspora reputed to be the root of the Aryan culture of ancient Ireland. For some months an interesting and enjoyable correspondance ensued between us, begun by a remarkable hairstyle, a strand of beads, and a little blue boy who dwells in the forest and plays a flute, whom the Celts knew, adored, and worshipped as the topmost deity, Dyan Y Glas (aka Sri Krsna).

    Your humble servant,
    Hladini Sakti dasa

  10. Hari

    A Brahmacari friend of mine recently told me of a time when a jeep-load of Muslims pulled up next to him and another devotee in dhotis and black coats (traditional vaisnava winter garment since the 70s), and asked them where they got their ‘uniforms’ from.

    No joke, they were properly interested.

    I did always think there was something vaguely punk about an untied bottom-of-the-hair-length sikha.

  11. Wonderful

    I have a sikkha myself, the only difference is I don’t have the rest of the head shaved. The blog very inspiring and interesting to read.

    I have visited the ISKON Hare Krsna Temple at Devon, W Lunt Ave and it was one the most fascinating experiences I have ever seen. We should do everything to make this humble WAY of LIFE mainstream in the US.

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