Monthly Archives: April 2009

“Avatar” Descending

A number of Sanskrit words familiar to all Kṛṣṇa devotees have become incorporated into Standard English. “Karma,” “mantra,” “yoga,” “avatar”—all grace the pages of current dictionaries, and show up in contemporary writings innocent of any italics, the ID statutorily pinned on foreign words. These words belong.

Among them, “avatar” shines most radiantly in the spotlights of popular attention. Just last week The New York Times took note: “Fan Fever is Rising for Debut of ‘Avatar.’” The article thus headlined described the scarcely containable ecstatic anticipations for director James Cameron’s SF film titled “Avatar”—slated for a December release—“which tells the story of a disabled soldier who uses technology to inhabit an alien body on a distant planet.” The film’s advanced, proprietary three-dimensional technology is expected to evince “the power to penetrate the brain in a way that movies never have.” The studio promises, as the Times puts it, a “transcendental 3-D experience.”

avatar_promo_artwork Avatar Movie News: The Unofficial Site

Maybe the word “avatar,” having itself descended from Sanskrit into common speech, still comes “trailing clouds of glory.” Does the very word cast its glow on the movie? Even the director fears his work may disappoint. After all, we all know that the transcendence proffered by Hollywood has ever proven elusive, evanescent, and illusory.

The word “avatar” entered English surprisingly long ago. The Oxford English Dictionary records its first usage in a 1784 article by the Indologist William Jones, who reports on the “ten Avatars or descents” of Viṣṇu. But the OED attests to a fairly swift adaptation of the word to a more general use—this to me marks its true incarnation into the English language—as in 1815, when Napoleon Bonaparte is described as an “avatar . . . of the Evil Principle.”

Other citations show the word being used of any individual who seems to exemplify or embody a higher power or force. In the same century “avatar” is used to indicate any ruling power or object of veneration. For example, the annual performances in Bayreuth, Germany, of Richard Wagner’s operas are described in 1883 as “the completest and most characteristic avatars of art our century can shew.” In addition, the OED records a looser usage, still in the nineteenth century, where “avatar” simply means a manifestation, display, or phase of something, as in this 1880 example: “Wit and sense are but different avatars of the same spirit.”

It seems that “avatar” was ushered into wider usage by the sixties counterculture. An underground magazine, for example, published in Boston and New York (1967 and ’68) bore the Avatar title:


Over time, the word got swept up from the underground by more mainstream concerns. I remember reading in the ’80s press reports of some financial wizard, revered for conjuring up money out of nothing, being called “the avatar of arbitrage.”

Yet the word really came into its own with the advent and ascendance in the ’90s of the MMORPG, otherwise known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. (You can find a list here.) Each human player must assume or create a distinctive persona for entering and acting in the virtual world of the game. That persona is called an avatar. Here is “avatar” as defined by

In Hindu mythology, an avatar is a deity that has taken on an earthly form, most often that of a human, in order to bring higher consciousness to the earth that the Hindu gods created. As humans create virtual worlds, it could be said that the computer avatar represents human incarnation into its own creation. Religious affiliations aside, the computer avatar holds a rich and conceptually provocative namesake.

With the airing of the award-wining animated television series (and subsequent full-length TV movie) “Avatar: The Last Airbender” on the Nickelodeon network (2005-08), the word—and even some of its traditional implications—became well established among the six-to-eleven year-old audience. The huge success of these enterprises engendered a projected feature-film trilogy, bearing the “Avatar” title. The next part of the story is conveyed in deadpan style in “the unofficial site for the Avatar 3D movie:”

In January 2007, Paramount Pictures announced a live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender under M. Night Shyamalan and said that the project’s name had been registered to the Motion Picture Association of America for movie title ownership, though a 20th Century Fox representative for James Cameron’s Avatar indicated that the studio owned the movie title. Paramount eventually retitled its film as merely The Last Airbender.

Eventually!” I’m sure this innocent-seeming word masks a soul-stiring, epic battle, worthy in itself of a gripping and edifying cinematic saga: Fox and Paramont in War of the Avatars!

Such, then, is the astounding apotheosis of the word “avatar.” This extraordinary cultural development did not escape the notice of the alert editors of The New York Times, who went so far as to call a hip guest authority to report the matter. Check out his account in the regular “On Language” column of its Sunday Magazine (August 10, 2008). You will find out even more.

Coming Attraction: “Avatar” Rising, or Where Do We Go From Here?


Filed under Addtional Writings

Miss Fashioned

Not everyone sees with as careful an eye as Kennedy Fraser, the fashion writer for The New Yorker, whom I quoted in last week’s posting. She extolled the costume of the Krishna devotees, “whose apricot robes come into their own when they are not swathed in mufflers.” The notable word here is “apricot,” remarkable for its precision. It’s the exact color we wore in 1971:


We devotees conventionally called it “saffron,” but this is saffron:


To this day you rarely see it in ISKCON, even in its lighter version:


Sometimes, in an effort to be more realistic, we used to call our robes “peach” or “orange”:



But our robes were neither of these colors. “Apricot” is the exactly right word.

Among the various misrepresentation of Krishna couture, I am most intrigued by the photograph that graces the cover of The Strange World of the Hare Krishnas, by Faye Levine. In researching her work, Ms. Levine lived in the New York temple—then located in a former Sisters of Charity nursing home on Henry Street in Brooklyn—during the month of December, 1972. A dedicated researcher, Ms. Levine followed the temple schedule, chanted japa with the devotees every morning, went out regularly on saṅrtana, and received confidences from a number of female devotees. To the envy of some of her fellow ashram residents, she was granted a lot of personal time by the sannyātemple president, with whom, she confesses, she eventually fell in love. Her narrative saw light as a straight-to-paperback publication by Fawcett Publications in March, 1974, when I picked it up for ninety-five cents off a Philadelphia drugstore bookrack.

Here is its cover:


I recognized right way, from the building looming over the trees, that the photograph was taken in Central Park: a shot of a saṅrtana party in the Park on a fall day. I noticed that the woman was not wearing a sari; instead an Indian-print bedspread was gracelessly draped around her. Nor did a pair of proper karatālas appear in her hands; a strand of gift-shop brass bells dangled instead. The fingers of the brahmacā on the left rested on a drumhead, but it was not a mṛdaṅga. The other shaven-headed brahmacā has no śikhā. The outer cloth on both was clumsily tied. But the real clincher was the tilaka mark on the forehead of the drummer—a wide V with arms diverging from the bridge of the nose over the crown of the head.

The photo was a fake. Staged with paid models by someone who had never looked closely at devotees, it tried to visually reproduce a standard verbal description: “You see them chanting outdoors, the women wrapped in saris with their heads covered, the men with shaven heads in pink robes. They ring bells and beat drums and paint a ‘V’ of clay on their foreheads. . . .”

The cover was clearly the job of the publisher. On her own part, Ms. Levine had become a keen appreciator of devotee apparel, both female and male:

According to the devotees the saris and dhotis are “spiritual garments,” appropriate for spiritual advancement. From my own experience I would say that when a woman puts on her first sari she gets a rush of understanding: so this is how the female form is supposed to be clothed! The diagonal drapery is quite interesting, very different from tighter-fitting western dress, which is monotonously organized along horizontal and vertical axes. . . . Though women in India make the sari sexy by wearing a great variety of colors and patterns, drawing it tightly across the hips, and showing a lot of skin, the Hare Krishna women handle the same garment puritanically. With long shirts and sweaters underneath, they never expose their midriffs, arms, necks, or hair—an extreme of dress style not seen in modern India.

Hare Krishna men in their natural habitat at the temple, on the other hand, usually do look sexy. Their flowing dhoti has a classical air. Often they are barefoot and barechested. Long expanses of leg can be seen when they walk, This virile effect is undermined by the overcoats, muffler, boots, and sneakers they wear to preach in the winter city.

But in midsummer, temple feasts go outdoors, and in public chanting parties need not encumber themselves with the paraphernalia of keeping warm. Then the devotees become a flower-like panorama, a gentle rainbow in white, pink, yellow, saffron. Their simple robes actually enhance their individuality. Cotton cloth floats in the sun and wind, fabric curves gracefully over the human form, and one is reminded of the lost purity of the ancient civilization.

There’s a nice concordance here between this appreciation and that of Kennedy Fraser, although it must be admitted that Ms. Fraser’s judgment seems to be the more disinterestedly aesthetic one.

Speaking of agreement, Faye Levine has recorded in her Fawcett paperback an appreciation of Prabhupāda’s early English writing similar to my own (November 25). Ms. Levine proffers an endearing comparison—one that never occurred to me. She writes:

In the first edition of his Bhagavatam, printed in India, there were many typographical errors. Yet an immense power shone through. The tone was as magical as, and occasionally reminiscent of, the tone of the young modern poet Bob Dylan.


Please therefore, go away immediately towards the northern side without any knowledge of your relatives because in the near future after this the time is approaching which will diminish man’s good qualities . . .

You must leave now/Take what you need,/You think it will last/But whatever you wish to keep,/You better grab it fast. Yonder stands your orphan,/With his gun Crying like a fire in the sun./Look out the Saints are comin’ through/And IT’S ALL OVER NOW, BABY BLUE.

No such appreciations mitigate the erroneous representation of the garb of a Hare Krishna devotee in George Romero’s 1978 horror classic Dawn of the Dead. Artistic license may be granted for the presentation of a devotee as a zombie—what offense could yield that fate?—but there is no excuse for the egregious errors in costume.

These can be studied most conveniently by examining the seven-inch action figure offered by Cult Classics Series 6: “Hare Krishna Zombie—Features Supply Boxes, Tambourine and Diorama Base. ” It is available from

I have this artifact before me as I write. The back of the packaging helpfully states:

Left to wander the hallways and stockrooms of the mall, the Hare Krishna Zombie almost makes Francine one of his victims. She narrowly escapes his grasp, leaving the Krishna Zombie clutching his tambourine and fumbling amongst the cardboard boxes.

You can get an idea from these:


As a devotee, I hope that ISKCON Communications will note these errors and see to it that all future Hare Krishna zombies are properly represented.

Of course, as an Iskconologist I am quite satisfied to immerse myself into the rich semiotics of misrepresentation presented by this artifact. There’s a whole doctoral dissertation in this seven inch figure—several, actually—and this is but a little part of a large and rich field of study, already being explored by intrepid pioneers.

Let me offer a final image for your meditation in Iskconology:



Filed under Fashion

Looking Good

For me, it was déjà vu all over again. One more episode in the Fashion Wars.

The Florida town of Rivera Beach, reported Monday’s New York Times, faced a legal challenge over its ordinance banning the “young men’s ‘sagging pants’ look, with trousers slung low enough to reveal a generous swath of boxer shorts.”

The defense put on the stand its star witness: Chelsea Rousso “a former New York fashion designer who is now a fashion instructor at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.” Ms. Rousso, described by The Times as “looking uptown chic on the witness stand in a three-quarter-length embroidered jacket and a knit black dress by Ellen Tracy,” displayed pictures of the soccer star David Beckham, Prince Harry, and others, all sporting drooping trousers.

The expert witness went on to testify that “the low-slung pants look is one that has gone from ‘tribal’ to mainstream.”

“It started out as an expressive concept, and it went mainstream,” Ms. Rousso said. “A lot of people picked up on it, with the social ramifications that went with it.”

I’ve lived through three fashion uproars myself, and I can back up Ms. Rousso. Fashion is indeed a very expressive language: it makes a statement. And it is often intended to provoke uproar. Call it a “loud conversation.”crackdown-on-indecency

It’s déjà vu all over. I remember my first fashion war of the late 50s: In my junior high school, blue jeans were banned. Why? “Nice boys” had inexplicably began wearing denim jeans—the disreputable garb of Negros, Mexicans, and “white trash.” Our teen-rebel blue jeans added their own grammar: They had to be worn tight, low, and beltless. Like Elvis Presley. The most desirable haircut (also Elvis’s) sent an even louder message. If you sported one, you were in danger, in some towns, to get your hair shorn off by the police:


No sooner had the fashions and music of the fifties youth rebellion entered the mainstream, than the next one sprang up to replace it. The sixties counterculture articulated its own “expressive concepts” in hair, clothing, music, and even transportation:




By the time this happened, I was studying religion in graduate school. I was into the counterculture; I owned a real pea coat; my hair was, well, longish; my friends were, by and large, hippies. Most of the religion department took me for a real hippie. But my friends didn’t mistake me for one of them: I was, after all, in graduate school.

It was one of my “hippie” buddies who took me to a Hare Krishna temple, and that led, to my everlasting surprise, to my next fashion change. I joined the Hare Krishnas: I wrapped myself in a dhotī; shaved my head, leaving the tuft of hair called a śikhā on the back, and showed up one day like that at the Department of Religion.

This last transformation naturally ignited an uproar with my parents and a somewhat more sedate one with the religion department.

In fact, most of the early disciples of Prabhupāda were drawn from the sixties counterculture, a feature highlighted in the first academic book about ISKCON, Hare Krishna and the Counterculture by J. Stillson Judah. At first, mainstream society took the devotees for a kind of hippie sub-sect.

But those who joined ISKCON in those days were, in reality, double drop-outs: from mainstream society into the counterculture, from the counterculture into the Hare Krishna movement. By going further out, the devotees came back around: they took vows of “no intoxication” and “no illicit sex,” and obeyed a routine that closely resembled medieval monastic life.

Krishna devotees were definitely not hippies, yet their first social niche belonged within the counterculture. Where they were very, very “far out.”

In the counterculture, “far out” denoted a highly valued state. The possession of far-out-ness empowered one to “freak out” ordinary citizens. All the hippies I knew referred to themselves, approvingly, as “freaks.” “Hippie” was an outsider’s word, a journalist’s word.

The mission of the freak, to “blow the minds” of the straight citizens, was supposed to detonate their mental barriers and open their minds to the ecstatic perception of the surrounding world as single vast intelligent living organism, of which we are all part-and-parcel.

The devotees of Krishna recognized that world—it was the viśva-rūpa, Krishna’s “universal form”—and went beyond it, far beyond it.

At my first meeting with Krishna devotees, it was clear to me that they had won the far-out-ness competition hands down. No one blew minds like the American Hare Krishnas. I assumed initially that they knew this, and I basely suspected them of showing off. But I quickly realized that they didn’t even think or care about being far out. They thought they were normal.

I gave some time to thinking about their tonsure. On the one hand, they shaved off their long hippie hair; when shaving their heads, the men used to take the razor across the scalp twice, first with the grain and then against it, thus achieving the smoothness of a ping-pall ball. And they shaved weekly. Even my Army officer father—who waged war on long hair and personally barbered the heads of all his sons—had not been so close, so exacting.

On the other hand, the devotees left the long śikhā at the back. And in those earlier days, they wore their śikhās very long and loose: it was what remained of their former flower-child locks.

This hairstyle expressed to what seemed to me to be the mind-blowing, transcendent synthesis of Krishna consciousness: the devotees were simultaneously further right than the most reactionary conservatives, and further left than the most radical liberals. And both sides achieved integration, a single coherent whole.

This is a tonsure of “expressive concept” with “social ramifications” that Chelsea Rousso should appreciate.

Here’s an ISKCON painting, circa 1969, made for the cover of Easy Journey to Other Planets. Showing a devotee going “far out,” it records how the men wore their śikhās in the early days:


It is interesting to note that the shaven-head-with-śikhā tonsure is actually a style of ancient vintage:


Here’s a contemporary ISKCON śikhā, knotted in the manner proscribed by ISKCON’s Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition:


When I moved into the ISKCON temple with my wife and children in 1971, I underwent the total Hare Krishna fashion make-over. It was the only way to join in those days. The style of a rigid and confrontational alienation from mainstream society was, I believe, something the devotees had unconsciously adapted from the hippie counterculture.

Still it had its distinct advantages. Withdrawing cold turkey from the consumer society facilitated the uprooting of the fabled American Dream from the heart.

My former affinities for the counterculture had not rendered me a freak and a drop out, but Hare Krishna had done the job, taking me beyond even the beyond.

Our expressive fashions—being “religious garb”—had legal protections not afforded ducktail haircuts or saggy pants. But deviance is still deviance, weird still weird. The police were alert. I heard about a group of devotees traveling in an old school bus through the deep South. A state trooper pulled them over. From the front of the vehicle, redolent with incense, the speechless trooper beheld for the first time the flowing dhotīs and sarīs, the foreheads marked with the twin-lines of white tilaka, the shining bald craniums sprouting luxurious pony-tails. Finally he announced: “Ah’m gonna do y’all a favor. Ah’m gonna put y’all in jail.” And indeed he did.

I suffered arrest with some other devotees while chanting on the sidewalk of a small town outside Philadelphia. After securing the volunteer service of a local ACLU lawyer, we returned for our trial. Preparing to give testimony, I was put under oath by the court clerk. Looking at me askance, he said: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you”—he paused a beat—“your God?”

We were different, and our fashion went out of the way to show it. The women in sarīs did not seem to cause much consternation, but men in dhotīs raised all kinds of alarms.

One devotee had reported for an Army draft physical in full Krishna regalia, earnestly courting rejection. Afterwards, he showed me the offical report on his appearance. An Army psychiatrist described his dhotī as “a large diaper.” That, taken together with the hairless head, suggested to the shrink a “highly infantilized appearance.” The Army did not want him.

I found it hard, in the beginning, to be a freak, and it took me some time to feel comfortable in my robes and shaven head. Especially because six days a week found me with the other devotees drawing attention to ourselves by chanting and distributing literature on the corner of Broad and Chestnut. There the large diapers raised eyebrows. In any case, in those days extreme bagginess was not at all in fashion. Some read the robes as a sign of sexual immorality. One suburban matron upbraided me for appearing in public “half-naked, draped in bed sheets.”

Even as I gradually began to like the style, growing into it, I feared my adjustment might be a kind of narcissistic self-delusion. Especially since the people passing by on the downtown sidewalks were starting to look more and more strange to me.

And then succor arrived from an unexpected source.

Enclosed in a letter my wife received from her sister Suzanne—who lived in the upscale Chicago suburb of Winnetka—was a clipping from a recent issue of New Yorker magazine (July 27, 1971). This was an installment of the regular feature “On and Off the Avenue: Feminine Fashions” by Kennedy Fraser, a writer highly esteemed for the excellence of her taste and of her prose as well. She began her piece: “During a slow walk along Fifth Avenue on Wednesday last, many thousands of costumes passed by me; I was struck by a mere handful of costumes that had any semblance of dignity, simplicity, or taste.” Among these few, she noted the outfit that “belonged to a follower of the Krishna Consciousness band, whose shaven heads are enviable on steamy days and whose apricot robes come into their own when they are not swathed in mufflers.”

Here was an expert’s confirmation of my own judgment. I wasn’t deluded. The devotees were looking good. And if the urban passers-by seemed to be looking worse—to me as well as to Ms. Fraser—perhaps it was because popular fashion was entering an era of more-than-usual gracelessness:



Since then, I’ve not changed my fashion much. But the world has changed. I got an inkling that something was afoot in the late 80s, when aboard a jumbo jet from London. The seat across the aisle from me was occupied by a boy of about thirteen or fourteen. He kept staring at me. Finally he blurted out: “Mister, you sure have a cool haircut!”

I thought: “Cool at last!”

Then a little later, the straight-edge Krishna band Shelter was staying in our Philadelphia temple and attracting a steady stream of youthful followers. One day I overheard a band member berating a fan.

It seemed the follower had worn a dhotī to a show without permission. Band members wanted to restrict dhotīs to those they considered serious and knowledgeable about Krishna consciousness. This kid had been told not to wear a dhotī, but he’d done it any way. The conversation went something like this:

Shelter member: Why did you wear a dhotī? You’re not ready. We told you no dhotī!

Boy: Well, I wanted to, you know, just to add more Krishna consciousness, to make things more Krishna conscious.

Shelter member: No! That’s not the reason! You just wanted to be cool!

Boy: People were coming to me and asking about Krishna consciousness, so I thought I could speak about it, you know, more authoritatively if—

Shelter: No, no, you just wanted to be cool. Admit it! Comon, admit it! You just wanted to be cool!

Boy (resignedly): Yeah, yeah. You’re right. I admit it, I admit it. I just wanted to be cool.

And then, on a flight to Los Angeles, a flight attendant stopped by my seat. “Look at you,” he said. “What is that you’re wearing?” I explained what a dhotī was. “It’s so attractive,” he said. (I knew he wasn’t coming on to me: the days anything like that happened were long past.) I told him a dhotī was extremely comfortable as well. Where could he get one? I directed him to Govinda’s Boutique next to our LA temple. Someone there, I explained, could teach him how to put it on.

The attendant returned to his duties. If the gays take it up, I thought, maybe it’ll become really fashionable.

Something was in the air, anyway. Around the same time, The New York Times carried a long piece about fashion designers turning to religion and spirituality for inspiration. One instance cited:

The designer John Bartlett created a rope-belted monk’s coat last season, which will be carried by Charivari, Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s New York and was recently bought by the actor Robin Williams. And this season Mr. Bartlett went Hare Krishna, with loose orange robes. “Personally speaking, there’s nothing sexier than a monk or a Hare Krishna,” he said. “They’re so inaccessible.”

Our fashion has a serious purpose: to remind us of Krishna. Every morning after my bath, I look in the mirror and decorate my body. I mark my forehead and eleven other places with the clay tilaka symbol of Viṣṇu’s temple. In this way, I consecrate my body to the service of God. My clothes, my tonsure, remind me and others of Krishna. That is our fashion’s “expressive concept.”

No fashion could be more expressive than tattooing. It’s another item, like blue jeans, that moved from the margins into the mainstream. Krishna devotees have engaged it to make their own statements:



krishna-tattoo-3This devotee’s devanāgārī tattoo reads, on the top line, “Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare,” and on the bottom, “Hare Rāma Hare Rāma Rāma Rāma Hare Hare.”

For many years I’ve worn the traditional chadars with mantra of Krishna’s name of on them. Last year something new happened: Whenever I went out with a chadar around my neck, one lady or another would invariably say, “That’s a nice scarf,” or “I like your scarf.” Sure enough, wearing the divine names is mainstream:


The year I joined the temple—thirty-eight years ago—National Geographic happened to feature an article on India. The cover photograph, showing a traditional devotee of Lord Rāmacandra, must have then struck most Westerners as very weird. Very “far out.” But nowadays, perhaps, no longer so strange:

ng-coverThis devotee’s tattoos, as well as her scarf, proclaim “Rāma Rāma Rāma Rāma Rāma Rāma Rāma….”

Now there’s an in-your-face fashion statement, for sure.


Filed under Fashion