Q&A with Hridayananda das Goswami on Veils and Female Chastity

Questions: Is the use of a veil by women a standard Vedic practice confirmed by scriptures? We see the word “samvita” and it’s translated as veiled, is this correct? What is the standard of chastity in the Vedas for women?

Answer by Hridayananda das Goswami:

“Samvita” does not rule out a veil, but it certainly doesn’t rule it in. The literal meaning, “well covered/dressed” is relative. We know for example that in many conservative parts of India, during various periods, chaste, respectable women did not cover the top part of their body, not to speak of their heads and faces. We see this clearly in exterior temple sculpture where even goddesses, presumably the most respectable ladies, are very scantily dressed. I have seen this myself, in certain rural parts of India.

As a general point, we see throughout history that the “indecent” part of the anatomy shifts over time. For example, during some periods in Europe, a lady’s neck, or arms, was considered more erotic than her bust, which perhaps was seen as maternal.

Certainly there is a long history of respectable women covering themselves, so as not to be seen by unworthy, lower classes, but this tradition is not universal either in time or geography. Thus, although we know that sometimes Greek ladies covered parts of their head or face, most Greek statues show those ladies bare-headed, along with the normal bare-headed goddesses.

My conclusion: chastity is an eternal principle. How chaste women dress varies according to time and place. We do know that Draupadi and other chaste women of Krishna-lila were “well covered”.

We also have stories of Indra and Candra [demigods of Sun and Moon respectively] seducing the wives of others. It seems that only sometimes there is punishment for this behavior.

We also have the cases of heavenly ‘society girls’, as Prabhupada called them, Apsaras, who serve Indra by seducing ambitious yogis and reducing their shakti. Of course there were also the famous prostitutes of Dvaraka.

Apart from that, there are also cultural variations between city and village culture. When Krishna entered a big city like Indraprastha or Hastinapura, the women would go to the roof and worship Him as He passed on the road. In Vrindaban, there is no mention of this. Rather we find much more informal village culture. Of course in big cities, Krishna’s entrance was accompanied by heavily armed troops, huge animals such as elephants and war horses, loud, pushing crowds etc. Thus the women wisely went to the roofs.

Direct evidence for the difference in city and village culture comes from the greatest devotees, the Gopis, who say, “Now that Krishna has gone to the city and become sophisticated, he will no longer care for village girls.” In the Mahabharata, we also find clear differences between different regions. There are frequent references to the unusual customs of the Uttara Kurus, Northern Kurus, referring to those living in the Himalayan foothills, and in the mountains themselves. Similarly, there are different marriage customs in different regions. For example, when Bhishma goes to the Northwest to secure Madri as a second wife for Pandu, Madri’s brother Salya tells him that, “in our kingdom, we don’t give dowries with our women. The groom must give a dowry.” Bhishma, without opposition, gives a dowry on behalf of Pandu.

Similarly, in dress and other cultural details, there is variation, not only geographic, but also in different ages. For example, the Bhagavatam states in the 4th canto that Prthu Maharaja introduced urban planning, which did not exist before him. Also, in the Mahabharata, great sages like Shukra and Shvetaketu declare new “dharmas”, such as monogamy and brahminical abstinence from liquor, based on unpleasant consequences of those activities.

And of course non-sanatana dharma varies in various yugas.

Conclusion: great Acaryas emphasize Sanatana dharma, which is Bhagavata dharma.

With best wishes,

Hridayananda das Goswami

5 Comments

Filed under HDG Uvaca

5 responses to “Q&A with Hridayananda das Goswami on Veils and Female Chastity

  1. AdiPurushaDas

    Dear Maharaj,
    Thank you very much for your many brilliant points!
    BTW, I did find a place where Sri Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura mentions a veil: SB 6.17.36 lajjayä paTäncalena mukham äccädvayämäseti bhävah, meaning that Sri Parvati covered her face in shame by “the end of her dress”…

  2. Giridhari Das

    Adi Purusha Prabhu, here’s Maharaja’s reply to your comment:

    “Two points:
    Parvati did not wear a veil, she covered her face in shame. All over the world, people lower their heads or put their hands over their face when they feel ashamed.

    Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, a great Vaishnava, often ‘modernizes’ the stories, he adds to them certain details typical of his time period.”

  3. In Vedic culture, women were scantily clad. There was no shame associated with it. Otherwise, Goddesses will not be shown as scantily class in the temples.

    samvita or well dressed is relative term. What is definition of well dressed can change with cultures? Can Draupadi or other women be considered well covered in Vedic culture and not considered well covered in current Hindu culture which is more influenced by Islamic values?

  4. I have a friend who is following Iskcon and also, has been raised in traditional Hindu values. He is home-schooling his daughter. Like traditional Hindu, he is against his daughter wearing western clothes like mini-skirts and also, against having romantic relationship with boys.

    I was raised in India and I did not interact with girls in India. Even though I externally I did not have any relationship with them, internally I had huge attraction towards them. Such environment causes more frustration, hypocrisy and cheating. I think my friend is creating the same Indian environment for his daughter in US.

    It is natural for girls to have attraction towards boys just like boys have attraction towards girls. Instead of suppressing it, it needs to be channelized in right way. Parents need to build high self-esteem and high self-confidence in their kids so that they don’t act in peer pressure. Kids are full of energy and their energy needs to be channelized in right way like doing some jap, sports, dance and music. If they are engaged in all these activities, then they will most probably do what is right for them.

    Kids need to be exposed to the world and they need to learn how to act in this world. They need to learn how to control the emotions and do what is best for them. They should have sense of mine-ness with Krishna and one should develop that sense from the beginning. They should have faith that Krishna will always protect and maintain them. After such kind of mine-ness is developed, I am sure kids will act right and whatever will happen, it will be in accordance with Krishna.

    Shunning the child away from society in fear is not the right way. I am raising devotional kids who actively participate in American society. We bought a house in exemplary school district and are very happy with kids. As general rule, people are good and my kids friends are also good. They have diverse friends. They go to play dates and sleep overs and make sure that they eat vegetarian food. They are very kind with their friends and I get compliments from many parents, teachers and coaches. They are devotees but they are actively involved in sports, swimming, dance and music along with studies.

    I would like to get your opinion on this issue. I think it may apply to many other Iskcon parents. I am very confident that interacting with American society does not affect our bhakti negatively. Bhakti is internal and it is dependent on our mine-ness towards Krishna. Doing jap and remembering Krishna is possible where-ever we are. What is the use of taking such extreme steps of shunning American society?

    • Giridhari Das

      Thank you for your inquiry. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita 6.17 that we should be moderate in all our activities. We should avoid extremes. If parents or teachers are too strict, the children remain innocent for some time, but then fall prey to sinful activities when older. In other words, children should be vaccinated against sinful life, and not merely quarantined. Children must develop cultural ‘antibodies’ so that they will be able to defend themselves against selfish predators.
      At the same time, modern culture is deeply decadent and it is the duty of parents, teachers and other guardians to protect those under their care.
      Interacting with modern society may be positive or negative depending on the nature of the interaction.
      With best wishes,
      Hridayananda das Goswami

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s