The offering of hair

Myth Theory 13 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, April 17, 2011

So there is the photograph of our cricket captain with his head shaved. The hair has been offered to the gods. So here is the youth icon admitting that it is not all about skill or talent or leadership; it is also about divine grace. And for that you have to be grateful.

In past five years, one has observed MS Dhoni’s hair change from long and streaked to neat and short to now fully shaved! And in many ways it reflects the growing up of a boy from a raging leonine individualist to a responsible team player to a sensitive leader.

Hair is a powerful metaphor in Hindu mythology. A lot has been said about hair. Krishna has curly hair. Balarama has straight silky hair. Shiva has thick matted hair. The Goddesses – Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga – have loose unbound hair. Hair has long been used in India to convey a message.

Unbound unruly hair represents wild nature. Well oiled and combed hair represents culture. That is why the wild Kali’s hair is unbound while the domestic Gauri’s hair is well bound and in her temples devotees make offerings of gajra, a string of flowers to tie up the hair. In the Mahabharata, Draupadi’s unbound hair represents her fury. In the Ramayana, the last jewel of Sita is the hairpin that she gives Hanuman to convey to Ram that her honor, and his reputation, stand in a precarious position. Shiva’s dreadlocks represent the potent power of his mind that enables him to catch and bind the unruly and wild river-goddess Ganga.

Shaving the head is associated with asceticism. Buddhist monks shaved their heads. Jain monks plucked their hair from the roots; to survive the pain is to convey that one is willing to suffer the challenges offered by monasticism. Brahmins shaved their head but left a tuft in the end, an indicator that they were not monks but very much part of worldly life. This Brahmin tuft is tied up to show control; Chanakya of legend famously untied this tuft to display his rage and tied it only when the Nanda dynasty of Magadha had been brought to its knees. The hair of widows was shaved to enforce monasticism on them. It was this or the pyre, in medieval India, for those unfortunate women. The head is shaved to display bereavement as well as devotion, as in case of Dhoni.

It is the Roman army that introduced the crew cut into this world. Before that men had long beautiful hair that the enemy could hold to pull you back and cut your throat in the battlefield. It is the Romans who associated the long hair of man with barbarians.

In orthodox Judaism, Chrisitianity and Islam hair is associated with sensuality and so is covered especially when one is praying. This applies both for men and women which is why the cap is worn by orthodox Jewish and Muslim men at the time of prayer, a practice observed even by Sikhs whose women cover their head with a veil. To display hair is to display vanity. And modern men and women are okay with it. And so men and women color their hair and allow it to grow, to make individualistic statements – until they want to be leaders and want to be taken seriously.

  • Suresh Chirra

    Good explanation about offering hair.I feel It’s been a custom to people that before visiting god they want to convey a message to god that he doesn’t get anything better than god’s darshan.

  • :-)

  • Girish Kaundinya

    I have become a avid fun mythology, Hindu Scriptures, Mantras and devdutt’s analysis of the same.
    A very good point of view on offering of hair. I also think that hair defines the characteristics (Beauty) of a person. And along with it comes pride, ignorance, proudness etc. and offering of hair is a symbolic act to show that you are shedding such characteristics (or probably it really helps shed those characteristics). It represents emptiness, which is a kind of requirement when you want approach God in a meditative form.

    This is just my point of view towards why the offering of hair in Hindu Culture is made.

  • Darshan

    A very good perspective… what about the naturally Bald? also this will now allow me to analyze characterstic of people I interact. Thanks a lot.

    • pointninenine

      “ has observed MS Dhoni’s hair change from long and streaked to neat and short to now fully shaved! And in many ways it reflects the growing up of a boy from a raging leonine individualist to a responsible team player to a sensitive leader…”

      Bald men are naturally sensitive leaders!

  • A good combing operation -amidst so many types of hair!They said that Samson’s strength was in his hair.Hair also uses up the body’s vitality to grow. Once fully grown, this vitality is now available for other functions- and strength as in the case of Samson. So, what is the effect of periodic hair cuts ?

  • aarthi raghavan

    Hi Devdutt,
    You said that,”To display hair is to display vanity.” But in South India we never cover our head. Covering your head shows that you are sad or something is wrong. Could explain how in South it is that hair displays vanity?

    • aarthi raghavan

      Sorry, I made a mistake. How in South it is different from North?

      • Even in North, the ladies never used to cover head. But this changed when Muslims started invading there. Even today, Kashmiri Hindu ladies do not cover head but Muslims ladies they do.

        • Aarthi Raghavan

          Hi Raj Arora,
                               Thank you so much. I didn’t know this. I asked this question because I’ve seen a lot of ladies covering their heads while going to a temple or doing something auspicious.

  • Silent Observer

    Thank you so much for this article!
    As a child, until now I never understood ‘The offering of hair’.

    I just watched a documentary on Al Jazeera yesterday.

    Hair India: in the cult of beauty in the era of globalization.
    Watch it here:

  • I am an avid reader of your Management Mythos published in Economic Times. Almost on every reading, I am able to draw close interpretations of these articles to my own personal and corporate life. Your writings are indeed thought provoking and a true homogenous mix of mythological philosophy and contemporary management principles

  • Deep Biswas

    I don’t agree that displayiing your hair is vanity. Hair is a part of you. It maybe vanity to color ones hair etc but displaying it is not. It is for the sake of display. Thus is nature.