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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Symbolism

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

Images of Hare Krishna devotees clad in dhoti or sari with cloth mala bag hanging at their side appear throughout popular culture, for example celebrated in the hit musical Hair and lampooned in the satire Airplane.  The media's fixation with the attire of devotees parallels that of the movement itself. Bhaktivedanta taught that all Hare Krishna devotees ought to wear the clothing of a Vaishnava, since it identified them publicly as servants of God and helped spread Krishna Consciousness. The Hare Krishna handbook Devotional Practice has codified this perspective, teaching that ISKCON's "style of dress ... reminds the devotee of his position as an eternal servant of Krsna and helps others recognise him as a spiritual person."

The centrality of sari, dhoti, and mala bag, and to a lesser extent the sikha, the tuft of hair on the shaved head of a male devotee, have become powerful symbols within ISKCON. As increasing numbers of the movement's members began to seek employment and living arrangements outside Hare Krishna temples and their immediate confines, many found that non-devotees possessed strong negative feelings about their dress. Most of these congregational devotees began to reject wearing ISKCON prescribed clothing when in the outside world. Males grew their hair out rather than kept shave heads, and both sexes adopted clothing appropriate to their professions when attending work. By the 21st century, most devotees reserve their "Hare Krishna outfits" for attending temple or other ISKCON gatherings. Sari, dhoti, and mala bag remain powerful symbols, but ones reserved for explicitly religious purposes.


Study Questions:
     1.    What is darshan? Why is it an important ritual within temple worship?
     2.    How do images outside of the temple differ from those of the temple?
     3.    Why was a certain type of dress prescribed for ISKCON devotees? How did it become Westernized?

 
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