These days, in the Hindu household, it seems like the way the young woman of the house dresses carries a lot of meaning for the entire family. Revealing a bit too much of her back in a blouse could nearly defame her father!
She should be beautiful, but should not be too revealing. She should look youthful, but not too free in dress. It’s a balancing act many young women face when dressing for religious events, in deciding whether armless shalwar-kameezes are okay (“What if my arms are covered with my dupatta the whole time? Or will that be too much work? But it’s so hot out…”), or if they should just opt for jeans and a t-shirt, to the disapproving tut-tutting of their elders complaining about how “westernized” our youth is getting these days.
It can get frustrating! There are girls who avoid going to religious or cultural get-togethers altogether because of how judged they feel for what they are wearing. My friends and I often comment on needing to expand our “Hindu Wardrobe” when long-enough tops and loose bottoms aren’t in high supply.
One girl’s mother might be okay with her walking out of the house in an Anarkali-style chudidar-kameez with no sleeves – the arms are showing, but they’re “kind of” covered with the diaphanous fabric of the dupatta. And the rest of the garment is loose. Nothing is revealed from the ankles to her shoulders. (Besides those pesky arms, of course.)
Another girl’s mother might prefer that her daughter wear a sari, which she must pleat at the shoulder so as to simultaneously cover her upper arm and entire torso. The girls’ mother might also encourage her to pierce her nose and ears, as these are traditional adornments worn by Hindu women of her region of India.
Another woman might tell her daughter, “Nose piercings make girls look cheap.” But, unlike the previous mother, she might allow her daughter to wear a chiffon (read: mostly transparent) saree, pleated and tucked below the navel.
It’s a very difficult dynamic to make sense of.
I would just like to note that the idea of the “Good Hindu Girl” in title of this article is not meant to be taken seriously. I am not trying to promote one certain “look” for Hindu girls to adopt, nor do I believe that one Hindu girl is better than another based on how she dresses. What I am promoting is a bit more thought into the reasoning and intention behind why we dress the way we do, and a clearer look into what our shastras actually do say about dressing and the female form.
Being a Distraction
One of my very beautiful, dear friends told me an interesting story once about modesty. I would like to emphasize that by any standards, my friend’s physical beauty is unsurpassed by most. She’s the type of girl that makes other girls feel insecure about how they look – not because she makes fun of them, but because she is simply so pleasing to behold. She is easily what any person might call “a distraction.”
One day during the summer, she was romping around her house in her shorts. She went downstairs, only to find somebody sitting there wearing the modest saffron cotton of a swami. It was her guru! You can imagine how awkward she felt. She couldn’t run back upstairs, because he had obviously seen her, and she was more or less obligated at this point to go over and greet him. At the same time, she felt embarrassed that she was wearing such revealing clothing in front of him. As I mentioned before, she is very attractive, and her shorts no doubt accentuated her slender and lovely frame. At this point, she probably was planning out ways to passive-aggressively punish her parents for not warning her. Sensing her apprehension, her guru said, (and I paraphrase,) “It’s okay, you can come sit down with us here. Don’t worry about how you’re dressed. It is not your job to make sure that I am not distracted.”
I was simultaneously pleased and taken aback upon hearing this story. I was, as many other girls my age were, always told that I should dress modestly around purohits (priests), sadhus, swamis, and other men who were living a certain “religious life” so as to not distract them. Though these men are trying to learn their own ways of regulating their vairagya, or dispassion with the sensual objects of the world, it was often suggested to me by the women in my life that I should take some responsibility for a man being distracted by my body. None of these men told me outright that I should dress a certain way around them, but I most certainly was told by women that I should “dress modestly, for their [men’s] benefit.”
Yet, I am reminded of the famous story of Ajamila (from the Bhagavat Purana). He was distracted from his overall chaste life the day he saw a “scantily-clad” woman “intimately embracing” a man on the road. He was consumed with this image; he eventually hired her as a maid in her house so as to have “easier access” to her. When his wife found out, he ran away with the maid. However, this story did not end with the woman finally learning how to stop distracting men and cover up her body, so that Ajamila could get back to his chanting. At the end of the story, Ajamila finally remembered the name of Narayana again, and was able to gain the grace of Shri Vishnu, despite the many temptations around him. The person tempting him was not changed – his attitude towards temptation was changed. This was all without the woman covering up to make the change “easier” for him.
I am also reminded of a story of Gargi, a female sage who defeated many great rishis in philosophical debate. She was regarded as a guru to many, and was an advisor in the court of Raja Janaka. One day, she walked completely naked into an assembly of philosophers. Most of the men there stopped debating, and were enraptured by her bare body. She continued straight to Rishi Yajnavalkya, and proceeded to ask him a series of complex philosophical questions. He, with focus, answered all of her questions. She declared him the wisest in the assembly. Here, again, a man controls his physical urges so as to have a steady and sharp intellect. How a woman is dressed (or not dressed) has no effect on a wise man’s mind.
Avoiding an environment of temptation can certainly be helpful. But a truly mentally-strong man could be unaffected by a naked woman dancing right on top of him.
“It’s our tradition.”
We might also say that our idea of dressing to cover most of the body is something that is firmly planted in “Hindu tradition.” I would question the veracity of that claim.
It is true that in certain rituals, like the yajnopavitam ceremony, it is recommended that the navel stays covered. This is because the navel is thought, by many cultures, to be a delicate yet powerful spot connected to life and creativity.
It is also true that the genitals are regarded as very sacred spaces where extremely intimate connections can be made, that should be protected (by clothing) in a similar way from abuse and degradation. The word for the genitals (for both sexes) in many Hindu texts is guhya, which shares a meaning with the word “secret.” It shares a common root with the word for “cave” (guhaa). From the beginning of Hindu practice on Earth, caves were the places where sages retreated for intense meditation and powerful tapasya, and were religious centers before the construction of the palatial mandirs we are now familiar with. So, the genitals were covered from the standpoint of them being a very sacred and powerful spot, rather than something shameful and dirty.
But what about covering other parts of the body? What does “Hindu tradition” have to say about that?
Consider this famous 3rd century BCE statue found in Patna, India, of a woman. This was made during what is widely regarded as the golden era in ancient Indian art. (Remember that there were no photographs back then – sculpture, and rarely, painting, is our only clue to how women dressed during the height of Hindu civilization.)
You don’t need me to point out that her inviting, round, full breasts are totally uncovered. That necklace only serves to accentuate them. Not to mention her rolling, sensual hips. You might want to say, “Well, maybe this was a servant woman, so only they would dress like this.” (She actually may be a Yaksi.) Simple searches on the internet of statues before and well after this period will reveal carvings of Parvati Ma, Lakshmi Ma, etc. in similar breathtaking form. In pre-colonial India, the female form was freely worshipped and admired by all!
The popular images of Devatas and Devis that we see today (like this one, and all the ones similar in style) are prints that were created and popularized in the mid to late 20th century. In terms of history, they represent a very, very small fraction of Hindu art.
Similarly, the Tantras expound upon the sacredness of the female form. For example, in the Chandamahaaroshana-tantra, (equally regarded by Hindus and Buddhists at the time of its writing,) the Goddess states, “Wherever in the world a female body is seen, that should be recognized as my holy body.” This statement is not followed by, “Except if a young girl is not dressed properly. Or if an older woman is wearing something she probably should not be wearing. And adulterous women are definitely counted out of this one.” Devi reminds us that our female form, which we share with Her, is a means to realize an innate power. It is not a burden.
In terms of the clothing traditionally worn by Hindu women, one garment comes to mind: the saree. Though many women roll their eyes at the notion of the “orthodox, stuffy saree,” who can argue that the purpose of the saree is not in line with the Hindu ideas about the female form presented so far?
Sarees accentuate a woman’s body in ways that no shirt, dress, or even shalwar kameez can. It is not made to hide the body in. (Women who try to hide their body in a saree know how hard it is to do that!) It is made to emphasize (or even create) a waist, with breasts and hips sensuously curving divergently outward. In fact, it is worth noting that prior to the 10th century, the choli, or sari blouse, was not even invented. Even so, it was only worn in one small region of India. Wearing a choli was not popularized across India until after the coming of the British (and their Victorian ideals) around the 20th century. Today, there are still women in rural parts of India that do not wear cholis.
Along this vein, I would urge women to start probing into how much of their “traditional Hindu beliefs” surrounding clothing have been influenced by colonialism, and how much has firm support in Hindu philosophy.
Walk naked, or cover it all up?
So, what is the role of modesty in clothing for Hindu women? Is it to promote the idea that our body is a distracting, confusing, shameful thing that should be covered? Perhaps these words are never spoken outright by any women I know, but it is certainly suggested by the looks I see women glaring at a girl who, unfortunately, wore her saree tied an inch too low.
I would argue that this is not the role of modesty in Hinduism. I am not advocating that women should walk about naked. Nor do I believe that women should cover up for the sake of men, nor because they believe covering their body is a means to their own “spiritual upliftment.” Both of these views represent a degree of identifying with the body that simply is not expounded by Hinduism.
While alankaara, or adornment, has always been regarded as an essential part of one’s daily routine, becoming over-obsessed with showing off one’s body is just as dangerous as obsessing about covering one’s body. Both promote an attachment between one’s self-worth and one’s body that is completely opposite the message of Hindu philosophy (or, at least, the understanding of Advaita, or non-duality between the individual self and Brahman/”Supreme Consciousness”). If the true Self is something that is not “burnt by fire, nor destroyed by any weapon,” why do we get so intensely caught up with what this constantly aching, itching, sack of flesh is wearing, and what its adornment says about who we really are?
One woman who revels in revealing her nubile form assumes that her body must be praised for her to feel appreciated. Indeed, the female body is a beautiful thing – but it certainly is not all that a woman is. As many men know (and if you don’t know, I’m doing you a favor right now): “Always tell a pretty girl that she’s smart. Everyone tells her that she’s pretty.” Women who over identify with physical beauty as the self unconsciously translate “You look pretty” as “You’re a good girl.” But what happens when an affectionate boyfriend makes an innocuous statement like, “You feel extra soft and fluffy today”?
Another woman assumes that to be respected and loved for who she is as a person, she must cover her body, so that her unfortunately seductive breasts do not distract from her “real personality.” This, too, is dangerous, as it fosters the belief that a woman must hide her femininity to be truly appreciated. (And yes, femininity is connected to some degree to our physical form, though it certainly is not the full story!) I once heard a young Orthodox Jewish woman say, “Consumption with how I look and if I look too sexy takes over my life.” This form of “modesty” seems to punish a woman by forcing her away from embodying advaita. She sees her body as an obstacle that impedes her spiritual growth. The obsession with making the body less of a distraction ends up being a distraction in itself.
This dangerous dichotomy also fuels the “Madonna-Whore” complex of psychology, where women feel that they must either be completely virtuous and chaste to be respected, or else they must surrender to being a completely sexual and physical being in order to gain attention. There is no middle ground here: you can either be completely morally pure, or be desired by men. Not both. Sadly, society’s portrayal of women often perpetuates this “either/or” dilemma.
This is a very dangerous ideology to fall into, which is subtly propounded by those who claim that modesty is about reclaiming virtue.
For the Hindu woman, modesty is about protecting and preserving one’s sacred sexuality, with an eye to the power that the female form holds. There is no “either/or” for us. There is a balance to be found between enjoying the body we have been blessed with, and over absorption with the physical form.
There is no virtue to “reclaim.” Virtue is unconditionally there in every woman, despite what she may or may not “cover” it with.
And hopefully, we will find a place where our relationship with our body actually helps us on our spiritual journey, but where we also are not so attached to what happens to it.
In this way, modesty is not really about physical appearance. It is not really about how women dress. It is really about becoming aware of the intention and possible implicit self-judgment that drives the way present ourselves to others. Physical appearance is only a part of this dynamic.
Both men and women need to find a balance between arrogance and impotence, a place that we might call “silent confidence.” That is where freedom from judgment and restrictions is. When you think from this place, you’ll feel just fine whether your mother forces you to wrap your sari around everything but your eyes, or whether the pin you used to keep your pallu in place was not pinned quite as tightly as you thought. You can be “okay” either way.
As another one of my friends’ mother told me, slipping a gold bangle onto my friend’s hand, “When we worship Devi, we must look and feel like Devi. We should wear what makes us look and feel beautiful, because when we worship Devi, we are really worshiping ourselves.”
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