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Devotees of the Lord
Since ISKCON is also a cultural movement, devotees dress according to the ancient traditions. Sometimes people think that this is not practical in the Western world, but devotees feel that in time people will come to appreciate this traditionalism. By dressing in this way, the devotees may easily be recognized and approached for spiritual knowledge.

The dress

ISKCON devotees dress in a variety of ways, sometimes devotionally and sometimes in the contemporary dress of gentlemen and ladies. The devotional dress is traditional and is the accepted dress of the vaishnava culture (the spiritual mainstream of the Vedic culture of India).

For thousands of years, people in the Orient have dressed in what are called dhotis and saris. The saffron, or orange dress for men indicates that the man has taken a vow of celibacy. Those who have taken a lifelong celibacy vow wear the saffron robe like a long skirt, whereas those who are celibate monks but may marry in the future wear the robes like loose pants. White robes for men indicate that they are not in a renounced order of life. They may be either married or have plans to get married. A completely white sari for a woman indicates that she is a widow, and will not remarry. Women who are married generally wear colorful saris and some jewelry.

Tilak and Kanthi-mala (neck beads)

In the Padma Purana there is a statement describing how a vaishnava should decorate his body with tilak and beads: "Persons who put Tulasi beads on the neck, who mark twelve places of their bodies as Vishnu temples with Vishnu's symbolic representations [the four items held in the four hands of Lord Vishnu -- conch, mace, disc and lotus], and who have vishnu-tilak on their foreheads, are to be understood as the devotees of Lord Vishnu in this world. Their presence makes the world purified, and anywhere they remain, they make that place as good as Vaikuntha."

As soon as a person sees these marks on the body of the vaishnava, he will immediately remember Krishna. Lord Caitanya said that a vaishnava is he who, when seen, reminds one of Krishna. Therefore, it is essential that a vaishnava marks his body with tilak to remind others of Krishna.

Another statement is found in the Skanda Purana, which says, "Persons who are decorated with tilak or gopi-candana [a kind of clay resembling fuller's earth which is produced in certain quarters of Vrindavan], and who mark their bodies all over with the holy names of the Lord, and on whose necks and breasts there are Tulasi beads, are never approached by the Yamadutas."

The Yamadutas are the constables of King Yama (the lord of death), who punishes all sinful men. Vaishnavas are never called for by such constables of Yamaraja. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, in the narration of Ajamila's deliverance, it is said that Yamaraja gave clear instructions to his assistants not to approach the vaishnavas. Vaishnavas are beyond the jurisdiction of Yamaraja's activities.

The Padma Purana also mentions, "A person whose body is decorated with the pulp of sandalwood, with paintings of the holy name of the Lord, is delivered from all sinful reactions, and after his death he goes directly to Krishnaloka to live in association with the Supreme Personality of Godhead."

While marking the body with tilak, one should chant the following mantras, which consist of the twelve names of Lord Vishnu.

lalate kesavam dhyayen
narayanam athodare
vaksah-sthale madhavam tu
govindam kantha-kupake

visnum ca daksine kuksau
bahau ca madhusudanam
trivikramam kandhare tu
vamanam vama-parsvake

sridharam vama-bahau tu
hrsikesam tu kandhare
prsthe ca padmanabham ca
katyam damodaram nyaset

tat praksalana toyam tu
vasudeva iti murdhani

"When one marks the forehead with tilak, he must remember Kesava. When one marks the lower abdomen, he must remember Narayana. For the chest, one should remember Madhava, and when marking the hollow of the neck one should remember Govinda. Lord Vishnu should be remembered while marking the right side of the belly, and Madhusudana should be remembered when marking the right arm. Trivikrama should be remembered when marking the right shoulder, and Vamana should be remembered when marking the left side of the belly. Sridhara should be remembered while marking the left arm, and Hrsikesa should be remembered when marking the left shoulder. Padmanabha and Damodara should be remembered when marking the back. Whatever water is left after washing the hands should be placed on the head while remembering Vasudeva."

In India you will find many different kinds of markings, according to the particular path a person has adopted. The various vaishnava sampradayas can also be distinguished by their tilak markings. Gaudiya Vaishnavas, from the Brahma-sampradaya, have a tilak that consists of two thin lines that connect with a curve at the root of the nose and an almond-shaped patch on the nose. Followers of Ramanuja-acarya, from the Sri-sampradaya, have a similar tilak, but the lines are wide and have red markings in them. In a similar way the followers of the Kumara-sampradaya and Rudra-sampradaya have their own tilak markings.

Three horizontal stripes indicate a follower of the great mayavadi teacher Sankaracarya. This marking is never worn by vaishnavas, as it is considered an offense to appear before the Lord with such marking.

The neck beads, or kanthi-mala, signify the fact that one has made a serious commitment to following the instructions of a bona fide spiritual master, who is the direct representative of Lord Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In ISKCON it has generally been the custom that prior to formal initiation one wraps the beads around the neck twice, and afterwards three times. The beads are, just like the chanting beads, made of the sacred Tulasi wood.


The shaven head with sikha (a type of ponytail at the back of the head) is traditional for the men. It is clean and practical and signifies submission to the Lord and detachment of the material world. The women generally wear long hair, tied in a braid. It shows them to be chaste, as in Vedic culture the women only loosen their hair in front of their husbands, in private. Widows who will not remarry may choose to shave their heads. They generally keep very short hair for the rest of their lives. The dot between the eyes of a woman, called bindi, indicates that she is engaged. If married, in addition to the bindi, the women color the part of the head where the hair is parted red with kunkuma powder.

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