(Article by Rambhoru devi dasi, an initiated disciple of HDG Srila Prabhupada)
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 Even more often we see that the sari has been replaced by Western clothes in the name of "selling more books" or "collecting more laksmi."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.
MORE INSPIRATION TO COVER UP:
(taken from http://www.ezsoftech.com/stories/mis31.asp)
"If memory serves me correctly, I was wearing a little white tank top
and a short black skirt. I had been raised Orthodox Muslim, so I had
never before worn such revealing clothing while in my father's presence.
When we finally arrived, the chauffer escorted my younger sister,
Laila, and me up to my father's suite.
As usual, he was hiding behind the door waiting to scare us. We
exchanged many hugs and kisses as we could possibly give in one day. My
father took a good look at us. Then he sat me down on his lap and said
something that I will never forget.
He looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Hana, everything that
Allah (SWT) made valuable in the world is covered and hard to get to.
Where do you find diamonds? Deep down in the ground covered and
protected. Where do you find pearls? Deep down at the bottom of the
ocean covered up and protected in a beautiful shell. Where do you find
gold? Way down in the mine, covered over with layers and layers of rock.
You've got to work hard to get to them."
He looked at me with serious eyes. "Your body is sacred. You're far
more precious than diamonds and pearls, and you should be covered too."
One day, a brilliantly beautiful and fragrant flower with attractive
colors met a pearl that lives far in the bottom of the sea and has none
of these characteristics. Both got acquainted with each other.
The flower said: "Our family is large; roses and daisies are members
of the family. And there are many other species that are various and
countless; each has a distinctive scent, appearance etc."
Suddenly, a tinge of distress appeared on the flower. "Nothing
accounts for sorrow in your talk; so why are depressed?" The pearl
"Human beings deal with us carelessly; they slight us. They don't
grow us for our sake but to get pleasure from our fragrance and
beautiful appearance. They throw us on the street or in the garbage can
after we are dispossessed of the most valuable properties; brilliance
The flower sighed. And then the flower said to the pearl: "Speak to
me about your life! How do you live? How do you feel it? You are buried
in the bottom of the sea."
The pearl answered: "Although I have none of your distinctive colors
and sweet scents, humans think I am precious. They do the impossible to
procure me. They go on long journeys, dive deep in the seas searching
for me. You might be astounded to know that the further I lay, the more
beautiful and brilliant I become.
That's what upraises my value in their thought. I live in a thick
shell isolated in the dark seas. However, I'm happy and proud to be in a
safe zone far from wanton and mischievous hands and still the humans
consider me highly valuable."
Do you know what the flower and the pearl symbolize?
You will find that: The flower is the unveiled woman (who shows her
charms) and the pearl is the veiled woman (who conceals her beauties).
MODESTY IN MEN IS BEAUTIFUL TOO AND POWERFUL PREACHING
(more from muslim stories: http://www.ezsoftech.com/stories/mis31.asp)
"There was a companion of ours in Glasgow who became ill and was
hospitalized. He was admitted for three days and on the fourth day the
attendant nurse said, "Marry me".
He [the brother in Glasgow] asked, "Why? I am a Muslim, you and I cannot become companions."
She said, "I will become Muslim".
"What's the reason?" it was asked.
She said, "In all my time that I have served in hospitals, except
you, I have never seen a man lower his gaze in front of a woman. In my
life you are the first person who lowers his gaze when seeing a woman. I
come, and you close your eyes. Such great modesty can be taught by none
other than a true religion."