Salvation Army Bonnets and Tribal Politics

At the risk of being entirely misunderstood, I must clarify for any old friends and for all Vaishnava readers that my post yesterday was not written as a campaigning shot against the traditional dhoti. Neither was it to promote the wearing of any particular item of clothing in place of dhotis. I have personally been wearing a dhoti for over 40 years and do not intend to stop any time soon.

Thank you.

I merely wanted to point out the obvious fact that religious garb, generally, has both a geographical and historical origin. Climate has affected the choice of raw material, for instance, and history, social milieu and fashion sensibilities have all conspired to how such items are worn.

That being the case, religious clothing styles often get a little frozen in the decade – or century – in which they were first adopted. The average monk or nun, when wearing their traditional habits, are more or less wearing the style of conservative clothing that was in vogue when their respective founders were teaching. So anywhere between the 13th to the 15th century. And I already pointed out that the Hasidic followers of the Baal Shem Tov, the great Jewish luminary and mystic have more or less frozen their any-colour-as-long-as-its-black clothing style somewhere in the mid-18th.


Just a few years ago the Salvation Army, the creation of one ‘General’ William Booth in 1865, in London, was confronted with something of a self-made crisis. The Victorian bonnets of the female members had not altered since the inception of the movement, was it alright to bring them up to date without losing the original spirit of the movement? For a short time it became a vigorous discussion, and then everyone relaxed – and changed their hats design.

Now, it could be argued (and I know that someone will) that the dhoti and chaddar, or shawl, are timeless. I agree. You can’t get anything simpler to wear than a single piece of undyed, un-stitched cloth fresh from the loom. It is designed to be free from ostentation and bows to no fashion sense whatsoever. Its a great piece of garb to demonstrate one’s commitment to simplicity and utter disregard for public opinion. And it is a piece of clothing that you can make yourself with some simple tools. The perfect outfit for a neo-Luddite.

But as Mahatma Gandhi found out when he turned up in England wearing one, when everyone else is wearing trousers, the dhoti practically screams: “Look at me!”

Be that as it may, when contemporary Vaishnavas wear the dhoti they do make an emotional connection with their purva-acaryas, their historical preceptors, and that does contribute to their feelings of commitment to the disciplines of their path, and that’s good. It has also become, ipso facto, a religious uniform whereby a devotee of Krishna, or a member of ISKCON specifically, can be recognised by the public.

Anyway, the point of my post was not to discuss religious clothing but rather the need to identify geographical, historical, ethnic and tribal origins of religious traditions. Those origins tend to get completely tangled up with the religion itself, and then have a habit of projecting themselves onto the consciousness of the uneducated observer. And people in general look at the packaging of the presentation first. If Islam has really nothing to do with Arabia, for instance, save for the fact that it was there that the angel Gabriel chose to speak to Mohammed, then let us separate the ideology from its country of origin, the Arabic language and 7th century tribal politics and discuss it. Its hard to do after 1400 years, but it would be a worthwhile exercise.

The ISKCON movement has had to do it. ISKCON has had the task of transplanting teachings originating in the Himalaya mountains to every country, language and ethnicity of the world. In a relatively short time. And in that it has had some success, above and beyond what was expected. The very existence of ISKCON as a world phenomenon has been possible only by making it accessible to a wide diversity of people. We can therefore talk about the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita without once needing to reference the land of India. The ideas presented by Lord Sri Krishna are not ‘Indian’ ideas, but universal knowledge worthy of serious consideration by anyone living anywhere.

Just as Christianity, in order to spread internationally, had to become loosened from its identity primarily as a small Jewish cult, a Middle-Eastern religion, and a power institution of the Holy Roman Empire, so Islam will have to make a similar transition in order to be of greatest worth as a form of pure God consciousness.





1 Comment

Filed under Community, ISKCON, Journal, Religion

One response to “Salvation Army Bonnets and Tribal Politics

  1. Bhakta Rankin

    I remember that we discussed wearing overlays, like some Christian monks, so the people would see our image in a more “normally understood” social visage. But, in the end, we thought that Vaishnavas should just dress nicely and in a tidy manner, so that THAT image would become pleasant for society to see. Dress real nice in devotional clothing; impress the public by your tidiness.

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