By Devdutt Pattanaik

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday on 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.

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