Tuesday, January 6, 2009


My encyclopedia says that hair is ‘long, narrow, filamentous growths made of keratin scales that protrude from the skin of mammals.’ Yak! Sounds horrible! Hard to believe that such a thing could be thought of as beautiful and be so fundamental to our self-esteem. Men will go to great lengths to stop going bald or disguise it when it happens. The worst thing the French could think of to punish woman who collaborated with the Nazis was to cut their hair off. The men of the Kandyian aristocracy all wore luxuriant beards, it being considered a sign of authority and power. Women regularly shave their legs just as most men shave their faces. Chinese men have difficulties growing beards so if they have a hair growing out of a mole on their face they let it grow. Seeing a smooth-faced Chinese man with a single six or seven inch hair on their face always makes me want to pull it out! Thai monks shave their eyebrows, probably because of a pedantically literal interpretation of the Buddha's requirement to shave the head. Young monks at Vidyalankara University in Colombo used to let their hair grow very long and sport impressive sideburns to impress the female students. That was in the 1970's. I don’t know about now. The Tipitaka is full of information about what people did with and thought about their hair at the Buddha’s time and I present some of it below.
The Buddha was not ‘into’ hair. He asked his monks and nuns to shave their hair every two months or when it was two finger-breadth long (Vin.II,207). Nuns were expected to shave their pubic hair which apparently all respectable women did (Vin.III,260). Monks were also asked to cut the hair in their noses if it got too long (Vin.II,134). Statues of the Buddha always show him with hair but of course he shaved his head like all other monks.
We have quite a lot of information about the hair styles of the time and this is supplemented by archaeological evidence. Certain ascetics wore jatas, what we call dreadlocks, i.e. the hair was matted into long braids and then allowed to either hang down or be tied together into various shapes. When the braids were tied into a bun on the top of the head it was called jatanduva (S.I,117). Centuries later Siva and Avalokitesvara were always depicted with their hair like this. Brahman men probably shaved their heads except for a small part at the back which was left to keep growing, just as they still do. Topknots or buns on the back or top of the head were also popular. Another type of topknot was the culaka. Boys would wear five of these (Ja.V,250) and women would sometimes have a jeweled diadem attached to theirs (Ja.I,65). Sikhabandha seems to have meant twisting long hair and a long cloth together and then tying it around the head into a turban (D.I,7). Women favored parting their hair in the middle (dvedhasira vibhatta) as they still do, wearing plats (veni, Ja.II,185) and applying sandal oil to their hair both to perfume it and make it glisten (Ja.V,156). The high-class prostitute Ambapali used to wear her hair glossy-black, curled at the ends, with flowers in it, well-parted with a comb, decorated with gold ornaments and adorned with plats (Thi.252-5). When Nanda left to become a monk, he looked back and saw his girlfriend with her ‘hair half combed’ (upaddhullikhitehi kesehi), an image that later he couldn’t get out of his mind (Ud.22). Perhaps it was something like in those shampoo ads where you see the woman’s hair blowing in the wind.

Bees’ wax was applied to slick the hair down (Vin.II,207) and later Indian works mention that the sap of the banyan tree was used as a sort of hair gel. Men trimmed their beards, grew them long, grew goatees (golomikam karapenti), and shaped them into four ends. They would sometimes shave shapes into the hair on their chest and abdomen or even have all their body hair removed (Vin.II,134). There were hairdressers (kappaka) and barbers (nahapita) to do all his coffering and the second of these usually doubled as bath attendants and masseurs. Just as today, both professions attracted homosexuals, as the Kama Sutra makes clear. The barber’s equipment (khurabandana) would include a razor (khura), scissors (kattarika), tweezers (sandasa), comb (koccha) and mirror (dasa).

The two pictures below, both of sculptures from Bharhut (150-100 BCE) throw more light on ancient Indian hairstyles. In the first the two women with their backs to the viewer showing their hair platted into numerous braids and then all of them tied into a single knot. The bottom picture shows a man arranging his turban (and hair?).


Vasile Andreica said...

Venerable, I see you're working on the encyclopedia. That site is all kinds of awesome, I was glued to it yesterday and probably I will be today. http://buddhismatoz.com was added in my links list under the tag "Dhamma from A to Z".
Keep up the good work.

Unknown said...

by chance i tuned into a fascinating two hour docco about former defence secretary robert mcnamara who oversaw the cuban missle crisis, the assasination of robert kennedy and the vietnam war.

Before accepting the job he was the highest paid man in the world as Ford CEO, all through his heyday he had the slickest hair, not a single hair out-of-place.

But this docco was filmed in his 70's, now he was an emotional man, tearful about his role in the wars, and now his hair was all over the place! a remarkable change of heart and hair!

And then just by sheer chance i watched a performance of 'Hair' the musical the very next day, and this was about the flower people of the 60's, the ones who had unruly hair - the very opposite of the chief war-monger himself!

I wonder if today many of those 60's hippies have become 'stiff suits' with very neat hair?

I think long hair is used by many a person as a sign of majesty and self-impotance, it is as it were, the physical manifestation of the size of 'one's ego'!

Konchog said...

You didn't mention Brother Upali!

Yuck about the Chinese moles.

Ser Ming said...

"Perhaps it was something like in those shampoo ads where you see the woman’s hair blowing in the wind."

This is funny!

Barry said...

In the Zen tradition, hair is known as "ignorance grass." I don't know the origin of this phrase but it encourages many Zen practitioners (lay people) to cut their hair quite short.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Vasile, thanks for including me in your blog list. And Artim, I heard about the Mc Namara documentary and the dramatic changes in the man. Reminded me of Dhammapada 15, 'He laments here, he laments their…he laments and is sorry when he recalls the evil he has done.' Having done that I then read and contemplated Dhammapada 50 just to check myself. Konchog, thanks for reminding us that one of the Buddha's senior disciples, Upali, was a barber, although there is no suggestion that he was gay too. 'Ignorance grass' that’s an amusing one. Thanks Barry. Given the interest in the subject, I might have another quick look at hair tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an interesting and amusing post about hair.
Some say that the Buddha indeed had round hair curls all over his scalp and that is why he is depicted the way he is. I don't know what you say about that Venerable...and speaking about hair (or lack of it) I found something interesting about the late Venerable Kruba Woon who had strange curls all over his scalp after death. Don't know what to say about that. See for yourselves here:
Venerable Kruba Woon

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Indigoblue,
One of the 32 signs of a Great Man is uddhaggani lomani jatani nilani anjanavannani kundalavattani padakkhinavattaka jatan. This can be translated as; uddhaggani = turns or points upwards, loma = body hair, head hair is always kesa, nilanianjanvannani = blue/black in color, kundalavattani = twisting around, padakkhinavatta = turns to the right. Now the first thing you will notice is that this does not refer to the Buddha's head hair but to the hair or down on his body, i.e. alms, leg, chest, etc. As said before, being a monk and following the Vinaya the Buddha always shaved his head. So if the hair on the head of a monk's dried corps preserved in a Thai temple curled to the right this would tell us nothing about the spiritual statues of that monk, because such a thing not one of the 32 signs of a Great Man. It might, on the other hand, tell us something about popular superstitions and the relic business that feeds on them. Despite what the suttas clearly say, most people believe that this sign of a Great Man refers to head hair. So if such a thing were found on a dead monk's body it would strongly suggest that someone has made it in the mistaken belief that such a thing is needed in order for the dead monk to qualify being a Great man. And why would someone do such a thing. To attract pilgrims and their donations perhaps? One more thing. I went to the link you provided and I had a good look at the picture of Kruba Woon's head. I couldn’t see anything that resembled hair or curled rounded shapes or even anything turning to the right. The only thing I could see was latticework-like protrusions on the skull. The whole thing looks to me like just another one of those clumsy fake relics which are, sorry to say, the stock in trade of many Thai temples.
Dear Indigoblue, please have a look at the picture again and let me know if you can see hair curling to the right. If so, I will go and have my eyes checked again.

Anonymous said...

I am of the same opinion as you and have seen such things myself in Thailand many times. Sad but true.
I was just interested in your opinion of such "miracles" or "signs of greatness":)

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Ah! I'm relieved. Now I won't have to go and have my eyes checked.

Unknown said...

Venerable, why did Bhagwan Gautam Buddha's statue, image has hair on the head when all monks are without hair? Why people say that Maitrey Buddha will take birth when Gautam Buddha has said that this is my last birth and I will not take birth again? Why we do not garland statue or image of Gautam Buddha?

Unknown said...
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