The Buddha wore a robe to make a statement

By Harsha V Dehejia

Clothes, both sacred and secular, have a protective function, they ornament the body, state the social and economic status of the person, store memories, express the wearer’s persona and are markers of a tradition.

Weaving is a very ancient tradition in India and weaving and philosophy share many common words, words such as sutra, yantra, grantha and tantra. Sutra is a thread, and it is also a condensed thought in verse; yantra is the loom and it is also a diagram for meditation; grantha means to tie or string together, as also a compilation of ideas in a book. Tantra is not only the warp but also a system of philosophy. In the Rig Ved, the concept of time is understood as the warp and the weft.

Threads or sutra are an important part of Indic traditions, both religious and secular. There is a sense of wonder in creating a thread from a cotton pod and then weaving a fabric from it. And it is from threads that fabrics of all kinds are woven. Weaving has often been compared to music, both are fine arts and done with a dedication and latifa, pleasure.

To fully understand a certain piece of textile, its colour and texture, design and motifs one must bring to it not only one’s sight but touch as well. Just as music begins with a single note, textile begins with a single thread. And like the many notes of the musical scale, there are many types of threads and they can be combined in many ways to produce a fabric.

When the weaver fills his bani, weft, and throws his shuttle, it is as if the musician has started the alap, and like a raga, weaving has a certain laya, rhythm. And just as a raga has a certain rasa, the weaver infuses a certain feeling in what he weaves, and each fabric like each raga requires a different technique.

A fabric of both aesthetic and metaphysical interest is the robe of the Buddha. The Buddha wore a robe of tattered and fragments of cloth stitched together. In wearing this, he was making a statement not only of poverty and asceticism, but even more, that our life is a coming together of fragments of time. Nothing is continuous or unfragmented to the Buddhist, but the cultivated and chastened mind brings these fragments together and makes it whole.

It is said that King Bimbisara wanted to pay homage to Buddhist monks but was having trouble picking them out of the crowd. One day, he complained and asked the Buddha to make a distinctive robe for his monks. They were walking by a rice field in Magadha at the time, and the Buddha asked Ananda, his personal attendant, to design a robe based on the orderly, staggered pattern of rows of the rice paddy fields.

Theravada Buddhist monks wear saffron or ochre-coloured robes, which date back centuries. It is believed that this is the closest to what the Buddha and his disciples wore originally. The most elaborate Buddhist robes are found in Tibet and throughout the Himalayas, in the esoteric form of Buddhism known as Vajrayana.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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