The appearance and dress of a Brahmachari
“Carrying pure kusha grass in his hand, the brahmacäré should dress regularly with a belt of straw and with deerskin garments. He should wear matted hair, carry a rod and waterpot and be decorated with a sacred thread, as recommended in the shästras.” (SB 7.12.4)
This is Närada Muni’s description of a brahmacäré’s apparel. Shréla Prabhupäda, the äcärya for the modern age in the line of Närada Muni, dressed his brahmacärés in saffron and had them shave their heads.
ISKCON brahmacärés should have a shaved head with shikhä, and tilaka markings on twelve places of the body; wear saffron cloth; wear a kaupéna; be simple, neat, and clean; and look blissful.
Shaved head, shikhä, tilaka, and saffron robes are, after all, the very signs of a devotee brahmacäré. We’re famous for it. Never mind what people think (and often it’s not nearly as bad as some devotees imagine), if they see a devotee in Vaishnava dress, they think, “That’s a Hare Krishna” and thus make a little spiritual advancement.
If we’re bold enough to always present ourselves as devotees, eventually we’ll be accepted on our own terms. Sometimes it may be necessary for a devotee to wear karmé clothes. But if we make a habit of disguising ourselves, people will think we have something to hide. Therefore, as much as possible devotees should present themselves straightforwardly as devotees.
Dressing as a Vaishnava is good for us, too. It helps us to feel like we are devotees—we are different from materialistic people, and that’s the way we want to be. When we go out into the material world, we’ll have to remember that we are representing Prabhupäda and ISKCON, and behave accordingly. Dressed as Vaishnavas, we often provoke questions which get us preaching to people who might otherwise never speak to a devotee.
Dressing as devotees also acts as a shield against indulgence in sense gratification. Karmé dress is dangerous—a subtle license to do things we could not in dhoti and kurtä. For instance, brahmacärés are usually young, healthy, and bright, and therefore attractive to women; but a lot less so if they’re shaven-headed, with tilaka and saffron robes. The ultimate argument for wearing devotee clothes and tilaka, with shaved head and shikhä, is simply that Shréla Prabhupäda wanted us to do so.
Devotees who are obliged to wear karmé clothes in the course of performing devotional service should not become habituated to them. The best thing is, on returning to the äshrama, to immediately shower, apply tilaka, and don devotee clothes. For attendance in temple programs, there should be no question of wearing karmé clothes. For male and female devotees to regularly and unnecessarily be around each other in karmé clothes tends to create an unchaste atmosphere and should be avoided.
Hair means attachment, so unless it is really necessary to keep some hair, brahmacärés should shave their heads once a week, once a fortnight, or absolute minimum once a month.* Saffron cloth with long hair looks incongruous—the color of renunciation with the symptoms of attachment.
The face should also be kept clean-shaved, with no stubble, sideburns, or mustaches. It is good to keep the armpits shaved also, especially in hot climates where shirts are not always worn, and for devotees who go on the altar.
The shikhä should be small (Shréla Prabhupäda: “Gaudiya Vaishnava shikhä is an inch and a half across—no bigger. Bigger shikhä means another sampradäya.”) (Conversation, 05/05/72) and knotted. It should not be braided or allowed to become matted.
Just keep as many clothes as you need—say three sets of devotee clothes and, if necessary, some karmé clothes. Don’t build up a wardrobe—that is atyähärah, over-collecting, and is detrimental to devotional advancement. (NOI, Text 2)
Householders wear white, and brahmacärés and sannyäsés saffron. So the two should not be mixed up. Devotees should wear one or the other, and make it clear which äshrama they are in. Traditionally, saffron is the color of sannyäsa, renunciation. It should not be worn as a fashion, but by those responsible enough to uphold the seriousness it implies.
Clothes should not be dyed too red. Dark red cloth is worn by Mäyävädés and worshippers of Shiva and Kälé. And devotees wearing saffron look better if all their clothes are of the same shade—not that their dhoti is pale pink and their kurtä bright orange.
Some brahmacärés opt to wear white, considering the saffron dress and the responsibility that goes with it unsuitable for them in their present state of consciousness. They may have decided to get married, or are tending towards marriage, but have no immediate plan to actually enter into marriage. Or they may consider their consciousness too contaminated or their approach to devotional service insufficiently strict to merit their wearing of saffron. On the whole, it is better that those who are neither married nor strictly practicing renunciation wear white and not misrepresent themselves as renunciates. Certainly no one who accepts payment for services rendered should dare to don saffron.
When buying socks, cädaras, jackets, scarves, or hats, if pink or orange are not available, beige, brown, gray, or maroon are also acceptable. Red, white, yellow, and even black are also possible colors for auxiliary clothing for brahmacärés; green, blue, and multicolored are best avoided.
Brahmacärés wear a full-length dhoti with a kacha (the piece tucked in at the back). To go without a kaccha is for sannyäsés only. Similarly, the saffron knotted top-piece, whether worn to the front or to the side, is only for sannyäsés. However, there is no restriction on householders, especially those engaged in pujäré service, sometimes wearing a white knotted top-piece.
Kaupénas aid in sense control by regulating certain nerves that can otherwise cause agitation. They should be worn firmly, but not so tight as to hurt. Kaupénas are practical for brähmanas taking bath three times daily, because they dry quickly. They are also cheap. It is unfortunate that many of our devotees prefer to wear karmé underpants. The kaupéna should be tucked in at the back, not sticking out like a monkey’s tail. Kaupénas should be made of two pieces of cloth. The width should be equal to the distance between the two nipples, and the length should be equal to the girth of the waist plus two fists. According to shästra, the part that goes around the waist should be knotted on the right side.
T-shirts with nondevotional themes are useless and unnecessary for devotees. When wearing a T-shirt with the holy names or a devotional motif printed on it, or a harinäma cädara, be careful when paying obeisances not to touch them to the ground. And better not wash them (or your bead-bag) in a toilet-cum-bathroom, or along with socks, kaupénas or other contaminated articles.
A brahmacäré dresses simply and neatly and keeps himself and his cloth clean. In certain preaching circumstances there may be justification for “fancy dress,” but generally simple cotton dhoti and kurtä are most suitable for brahmacärés. But we should not look like poverty-stricken beggars. Badly torn or soiled cloth should be replaced. And we must have some kind of footwear. If we go barefoot people will take us for hippies. And, for preaching in formal situations, it is best that clothes be ironed.
Dress sensibly. If it’s cold, wear warm clothes. Especially the feet should be kept warm. Wear socks while standing or walking on cold floors.
Rings, bracelets, expensive watches, designer sunglasses, embroidered kurtäs, and dhotis with fancy borders are generally signs of someone who is promoting his body, or in other words, trying to attract women. Grihasthas may or may not use them, and no one is likely to say anything, but they are not suitable for brahmacärés. The same goes for strongly scented after-shave, deodorants, and soaps.
Sometimes it is postulated that people may be attracted by a show of opulence. That is especially true in poor countries, and therefore Shréla Prabhupäda built gorgeous temples in India. Our preachers in India often wear expensive cloth, just to create a good impression. But sometimes a display of opulence backfires—people mistake us for materialists in the garb of sädhus. And factually, unless we have sufficient realization, simply wearing silk won’t make us preachers.
Shréla Prabhupäda stressed that our greatest asset is our purity. So, devotees should always look blissful. (Have a look through the real old BTG’s—you’ll be amazed to see dozens of dazzling devotee photos.) Shréla Prabhupäda: “It is essential that a brahmacäré engaged in spiritual advancement look very healthy and lustrous.” (SB 3.21.47) If a devotee looks dull and morose we can understand that he is not relishing devotional service, but is contemplating sense gratification. The face is the index of the mind.
We can’t fake it, and if we try, we’ll look ridiculous. Cutting a profile never made anybody into a brahmacäré. But if we’ve got it, our genuine bliss is the best advertisement for Krishna consciousness.