While following a Sikh lifestyle in today’s age, we often find ourselves questioning our culture, tradition, and philosophy. With much of the world having adopted western clothing, the way we dress has become an interesting topic of discussion. At some point in your life, you might have gotten told off or admonished by an elder for wearing shorts or not wearing a suit to the Gurdwara. What’s the big deal anyways? One day a friend of mine asked me why I wear a cholaa and it got me thinking. Is there any good reason for us to wear cholay, kurte pajamay, or even suits for that matter? I mean, what really matters is what kind of people we are on the inside, right?
Right. I mean, I know plenty of amritdhari Gursikhs who wear “western” clothes all the time, and I still respect them a lot. The core essentials are having our kes, dastar, and other kakkars on us at all times. I’m in no position to argue that any additional apparel is absolutely essential. Many people have to dress a certain way for work or school, which is perfectly fine. The Panthik Rehit Maryada (Code of Conduct) doesn’t really talk about our clothes beyond the panj kakkars either. In fact, it seems that Gurbani condemns these outer religious garments:
ਅਖਰ ਪੜਿ ਪੜਿ ਭੁਲੀਐ ਭੇਖੀ ਬਹੁਤੁ ਅਭਿਮਾਨੁ ||
akhar parr parr bhuleeai bhaekhee bahuth abhimaan ||
Reading their books over and over again, people continue making mistakes; they are so proud of their religious robes.
ਤੀਰਥ ਨਾਤਾ ਕਿਆ ਕਰੇ ਮਨ ਮਹਿ ਮੈਲੁ ਗੁਮਾਨੁ ||
theerathh naathaa kiaa karae man mehi mael gumaan ||
But what is the use of bathing at sacred shrines of pilgrimage, when the filth of stubborn pride is within the mind?
ਬਾਹਰਿ ਭੇਖ ਕਰਹਿ ਘਨੇਰੇ ||
baahar bhekh karehi ghanaerae ||
Outwardly, they wear various religious robes,
ਅੰਤਰਿ ਬਿਖਿਆ ਉਤਰੀ ਘੇਰੇ ||
antar bikhia uthree ghaerae ||
but within, they are enveloped by poison.
ਅਵਰ ਉਪਦੇਸੈ ਆਪਿ ਨ ਬੂਝੈ ||
avar oupdhaesai aap na boojhai ||
They instruct others, but do not understand themselves.
ਐਸਾ ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣੁ ਕਹੀ ਨ ਸੀਝੈ ||੩||
aisaa braahman kahee na seejhai ||3||
Such Brahmins will never be emancipated. ||3||
The above makes it very clear that according to Siri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, religious robes (be it cholay or kurtay or anything else) are of no value.. if they are worn in ego, or the person wearing them doesn’t practice the teachings of gurmat. Therefore the focus here is on controlling our ego, and following the teachings of Guru Sahib, rather than merely looking like we are great Sikhs. Clearly, its how you act, not what you wear, that defines you as a person. A person wearing pants and a t-shirt can be a great Sikh, and a person wearing baana could be a horrible Sikh too! So then the question arises – if religious robes aren’t necessary, why do some people stress the importance of wearing baana, chola, kurta/pajama or salwar/kameez? What you wear in and of itself does not make you a better or worse Sikh. So how could it affect your spirituality? Why should we dress a certain way when we go to Gurdwara Sahib? Why do we need to wear these clothes at all?
Although they may not have any direct links to our spirituality, there are actually a number of ways that wearing these clothes can be conducive to our spiritual progress. Over the past few years, I’ve realized that there are so many practical reasons to wear these clothes. Its actually quite amazing! Every time I realize or notice one of these things, I appreciate our clothing even more. We need to be aware of how we are dressed in the presence of sangat or Guru Sahib. When going to Gurdwara we should be dressed simply, modestly, and comfortably. In my opinion, these are the 3 main reasons for wearing Kurta Pajamas and Suits. Lets examine these one by one.
First is simplicity. We go to sangat to focus on Kirtan, Katha, and Gurbani. If we wear clothes which are overly fancy, bright, and colorful, we are seeking other peoples attention. Even if it isn’t our intention to make people look at us, they still will. A fancy highly decorated suit catches everyone’s attention. This is distracting to the sangat. I read in a book once that if you distract the sangat or cause their mind to wander elsewhere, you are accountable – in a way, it is your fault. People come to Gurdwara and sangat to connect with Guru Sahib. Of course they shouldn’t be looking around, and yes, they should try to control themselves, but why make it harder for them? There are enough distractions in the world as it is, if we distract people here too, then the Gurdwara loses some of its sanctity. When we wear colorful printed t-shirts that have big logos, messages, or designs, the point is for people to look at them – to read them or laugh at them, so we can express ourselves. But we go to saadhsangat to receive the Guru’s message, not other messages! And what do you know, Kurte and Cholay are usually plain or solid colors. Even suits can have designs and be pretty without being too distracting.
I was once attending a Sikh wedding where all the women were dressed in super fancy suits (actually that’s pretty much every Sikh Wedding), all of them trying to be fancier than the other. Some were even more decked out than the bride herself! I remember someone made the remark “they look like a bunch of christmas trees!”. That’s actually a great analogy, since they were all so highly decorated. It is sad that this has become a cultural expectation – when attending a wedding we have to be as fancy as possible. It is the special day of one girl, why cant we just let her be the one that stands out? We don’t need to compete! Save that for the reception.
Next is modesty. Why do we sometimes get in trouble if we wear shorts to Gurdwara? What about t-shirts? Why cant we wear skirts, tank tops, or other clothes? Sometimes people wear revealing clothes so others will look at them, to flaunt or showoff their body. Others wear them because of hot weather or because they find them more comfortable. Once again, even if we don’t have any bad intentions – people will inevitably be distracted by us, particularly if we are showing more skin. Why distract people when they are trying to focus on Gurbani? If we don’t have any sleeves, or our legs are bare – of course people will look at them! Its natural! We can’t complain about people checking us out or looking at us in a certain way if we give them something to look at. Especially when its out of place like in this type of environment. That is why those clothes are looked upon badly – there’s nothing against anyone personally. We cover our hair out of respect – we should cover ourselves and be modest too. Wouldn’t we feel weird going in front of Guru Gobind Singh Ji like that?
Clothes can be distracting if they show too much skin or if they are too tight. This is once again where suits/kurtay come in. Kurtay and Cholay are usually loose and have long sleeves. Suits come with a chunni which, aside from covering the head, also helps cover the upper body for women even if the suit is tight or has a large neck. Unfortunately it seems these days that suits are becoming tighter and shorter to follow fashion trends and becoming more like dresses. Our traditional dress has cloth that extends down to your knees from the front and back, a feature we may take for granted. I didn’t appreciate this until I saw people in small t-shirts matha teking. When they bend over to matha tek their shirt goes up from the back and you are greeted with a sight not everyone likes to see. I myself feel like this when I wear a T-shirts to the Gurdwara – I have to keep pulling it down before I matha tek so the same thing doesn’t happen to me! Our traditional clothes cover our butts and fronts so that we don’t have to worry about things like this! Even though the pajama or salwar covers it, we get an added layer of cloth that prevents people from looking at the wrong places. If we were wearing tight jeans, I’m sure many people would be looking somewhere we wouldn’t want them to.
The final reason is comfort. I remember listening to a Katha where the Bhai Sahib was talking about loose and tight clothes. He said tight clothes disturb our concentration and invited the listeners to try an experiment. He asked us to try to sit in meditation and focus whilst wearing tight-fitting clothes, and then try the same with a loose cloth wrapped around instead, like a shawl, and see the results for yourself of which helps you focus more. It makes sense that Gursikhs are often depicted wearing a shawl or other loose cloth over them when sitting in meditation. I don’t know about girls, but at least as a guy – tight clothes usually aren’t comfortable. In addition, they limit mobility and flexibility. Many people who wear tight clothes in public change into sweats and t-shirts at home because they feel better. When you are going to be sitting for an hour or two, you want to be comfortable. Most pants and jeans aren’t very cooperative with sitting cross-legged. I’ve seen many guys who cannot cross their legs completely because their jeans are too tight and restrict their movement (Why they wear tight jeans, I don’t know!). If you can’t even sit down all the way properly, how will you be able to focus on Guru Sahib’s message? You are going to want to stand up and leave the darbar! For this reason many people half cross their legs with their arms wrapped around and knees in the air. Some pants may even rip if you stretch your legs and sit like that. But how ingenious are our pajamay, salwars, and kachheray which are created extra wide to begin with, so you have plenty of cloth that enables you to sit however you want! It doesn’t restrict you, and the looseness doesn’t reveal anything, all while keeping you comfortable! They even have good ventilation. Another great feature is the adjustable waist size! We don’t have to worry if its going to be too tight around our waist because we tie it according to our size. So gaining or losing a few pounds doesn’t render our suit or kurta useless. And the naala system destroys the need for any belts! We don’t have to worry about sagging pants or anything. It is really amazing how many things our cultural clothes were created to take care of!
Those are 3 practical reasons why we should try our best to wear traditional clothes to Gurdwara and Sangat. I understand its not always possible as we may be coming straight from school – I myself often come in western clothes when I drop by on my way from work. I think its more important to go into sangat at all, than to worrying about what you’re wearing. But we can still try our best to change if the clothes are available. Some people even keep a shawl or chunni in the car in case they go and don’t have proper clothes. And it’s true that other clothes can also be simple, modest, and comfortable too. But if most people expect women to be dressed modestly and in suits when they come to gurdwara, then guys should be expected to wear Kurtay too. Why is it okay for us to wear pants but not girls? It’s not really fair to have a double standard like that.
This is not just about practicality or identity, our dress affects our focus and mindset too. Why else do so many different activities require special ways of dress? When we go to learn karate or any other martial art, we have to wear a special uniform. When we work in a professional environment, we dress formally. When we go to PE, or yoga, we are supposed to wear certain clothes. Police officers, and firemen all have special uniforms. Why then, shouldn’t we wear certain kinds of clothes to Gurdwara to put us in the right mindset, help us focus, so that we can be comfortable when receiving the Guru’s teachings? When you are dressed for a certain activity, you might be slightly more aware of your language and behavior than if you were not.Wearing our cultural clothes not only helps us avoid distractions and discomfort, it also puts us in the right mindset.
I didn’t want this to get too long so I’m leaving discussions about baana/chola and some other reasons for a later article. Once again, I don’t mean to be preachy or to offend anyone – I’m just sharing some thoughts. I think we as a community need to re-evaluate ourselves and our goals in coming to the Gurdwara. Are we just attending as a ritual, or to see our friends or have langar? Or are we coming to learn something, do seva, and seek the blessings of the Guru and Sangat? I have to admit that it’s very easy to lose sight of our primary objective and get distracted. So let’s all try our best to maintain a level of awareness and consideration that will enable us to reap the maximum benefit of joining saadhsangat and being in the presence of Guru Ji.