Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday on 15 March, 2009.
In Indian mythology, the absence of cloth means different things in case of men and in case of women. The reason for this is NOT gender bias. It is just that the male body and the female body lend themselves to communicate different ideas.
When aroused, the male body displays a dramatic shift in form, something which is not seen in women. The male body was therefore used to represent the mind in mythic art — the aroused male body represents the arousal of the mind while the unaroused male body represents the mind that was not aroused. The female body, then, becomes that which arouses the mind — the stimulus. What stimulates the mind? The world stimulates the mind. Thus while the male body represents the mind which can or cannot get aroused; the female body represents the world that arouses the mind.
The naked man in Indian mythology is called Digambara, the sky-clad man. If unaroused, he represents an ascetic, one who is not enchanted by worldly things. As soon as he covers himself, the naked ascetic can be Shiva or Vishnu.Shiva wears animal hide or clothes of bark — things that are available in nature and do not need to be manufactured. Vishnu, however, wears cloth — silk or cotton. The existence of cloth presupposed the existence of a civilization, of a culture, of a community of farmers, spinners, weavers, and dyers. Shiva’s clothing continues to evoke the mood of renunciation, but Vishnu’s clothing evokes moods of worldliness, of organization, of order, interdependence and harmony. For unless there is cooperation between people, the silk cloth cannot be manufactured.
The type of clothes worn, the amount of ornaments worn, then becomes symbolic of social hierarchy and status. When he descends as a priest, Vishnu wears simple cotton cloth. But when he descends as a king, Vishnu wears a bright yellow silk dhoti. Vishnu thus acknowledges the symbolic role of cloth in denoting social status. By choosing to wear particular clothes, unlike the indifferent Shiva, Vishnu displays his acceptance of worldly ways.
The naked woman communicates a totally different thought. She is Kali, wild nature, the untamed forest. A clothed women then communicates domesticated nature — the fields, the gardens, the orchards. Wild, she is Chandi, Bhairavi, ferocious and fearsome. Domesticated, she is Mangala, Vimala, Nirmala — auspicious, beautiful and pure.
Disrobing of a woman has many meanings depending on the context. This can be explained in two events from the life of Krishna.
In the first event, cloth is removed forcibly from the body of Draupadi, who is humiliated in public by kings who are supposed to protect her. There she is standing naked, helpless and angry. What does this represent? Is this simply an abused woman or a society where law has been abandoned? Clothes here represent the laws that domesticate the mind. When kings remove these clothes, they are effectively removing the laws that uphold civilization. By removing these clothes in a state of megalomania, the kings are not merely disrobing a woman, they are stripping society of its laws, thereby heralding lawlessness, anarchy, and chaos, a state where might is right and the weak are at the mercy of the strong. By covering Draupadi’s body with cloth, Krishna is symbolically restoring law and order in a lawless society.
In another event, Krishna himself removes the clothes of women. He hides these clothes while the milkmaids are bathing. The mood here is different. There is no lust but mischief. There is prank, there is love, there is affection. Here, the clothes represent not law but the mask we wear to survive in this world — the mask of pretence and politeness that enables us to engage with people. When Krishna removes the clothes of the maids, he is informing them playfully that what he seeks is not their public face, but their true, honest, private face. Wrinkled, fat, bent or ugly, he loves each one of them for who they are and not for how they decorate and present themselves.
When a man removes clothes, it is either a symbol of shame or a symbol of renunciation. In the story of Nala-Damayanti, the impoverished Nala loses the last piece of cloth covering his body as he tries to capture some birds, in an attempt to earn some livelihood. The birds fly away with the cloth. Naked, Nala symbolizes a man who has been stripped of all dignity. In Jain chronicles, great kings renounce the world voluntarily by disrobing themselves. This disrobing represents the stripping away of all attachments, all desires. The nakedness is visual proof that the world has ceased to enchant them.
Thus the presence of cloth, and the absence of cloth, in mythology, has much to teach us.