The Philosophers’ Robes

What is the uniform? What does it represent? Why do you wear it?

The Basics

The uniform highlighted in the image comprises a dhoti, kurta, and mala.  The dhoti is simplicity itself: a rectangular sheet of white cotton, wrapped and secured around the waist.  The upper garment is the kurta, a long-sleeved semi-formal shirt with the distinctive nehru collar.  The mala is a beaded necklace and pendant.

The dhoti and kurta is a traditional Indian dress, worn across India by men in various situations – formal, semi-formal, and casual.  The ladies’ uniform (not pictured) comprises a kameez (essentially a kurta that extends down towards the knees), salwar (loose-fitting pants), and dupatta (a scarf worn over the shoulders and across the front of the body).  For students and alumni of the Vedanta Academy (in India), these garments constitute their school uniform. But why is it chosen in the first place?

Uniform as Symbol

Along with its practical simplicity, the uniform has symbolic significance.  Symbols are tangible outer forms representing something subtler, hidden.  They are used to inspire feeling and convey meaning.  For example, we use the form of the national flag to inspire attitudes of patriotism; a wedding ring conveys the commitment to our life partner.

The uniform represents the path of self-development.  This may be simply defined as the reduction of selfishness; reduction of egocentric desires and attachments.  The values that underlie the theory and practice of self-development are represented by the various aspects of the uniform. Let’s take several of them.

Oneness, Unity

A uniform is conducive for a feeling of oneness, an attitude of unity.  Feelings of division and demarcation towards others arise due to our attachments and biases.  Differences in material status, culture, political and religious affiliations, lifestyle, etc are often expressed through our comportment and dress.  And, while it is essential that we identify our individual nature and give it space in life to flourish and express, there are times when it is more important to emphasize a sense of shared experience.

A uniform helps us to see ourselves reflected in others.  It reminds us of a common identity, unifying us under the motto or larger mission that it represents.  This gently inhibits the distraction and agitation that the mind is subject to, and can allow for an enhanced learning environment.  A recent study 1 highlighted a number of benefits of wearing a uniform to school – as perceived and reported by students themselves: decreased disciplinary actions, gang involvement, and bullying; increased safety, ease of school attendance, confidence, and self-esteem.

Purity & Peace

Self-development can also be considered ‘self-purification.’  The impurities in the inner personality are our immature, egocentric attitudes and beliefs – in short, selfishness.  They destroy our mental balance by initiating worry and anxiety.  They promote disharmony in relationships as we use others merely as objects to satisfy our own demands.  And they inhibit our growth into a more mature perspective of life.  Self-development is the conscious growth beyond these impurities.

When we perceive an impurity, we naturally remove it.  A piece of food on the face, lint on one’s clothing, etc.  But there’s the rub: we can’t correct what we don’t perceive.  Thus our level of cleanliness is dictated by our awareness of dirt, our self-awareness at all levels of the personality (material, physical, emotional, intellectual, moral, spiritual).

Hence the uniform being white in color.  When a piece of cloth is white, dust and dirt are easily seen.  The stark contrast between the whiteness of the cloth and any impurity represents the consistent scrutiny of our own personality needed to make our impurities known.

White is also the color of peace.  We note as examples the white rose, the white dove.  Greater inner peace is the fruit of purifying the inner personality of selfishness.  A peaceful mind changes the complexion of life.  We see greater joy and beauty in the world, and naturally take that peace with us into all our relationships.

Modesty, Self-knowledge, Confidence

The uniform is deliberately designed to plain & simple, unadorned, and loose-fitting.  This indicates modesty.  Modesty is an attitude towards oneself and our relationship with the world.  It is not defined by any particular standard of behavior, speech, dress, etc.  It is the absence of vanity or boastfulness over one’s gifts, talents, or achievements; an attitude of humility.

Thus we may consider immodesty as intentionally seeking attention and accolades for wealth, beauty, skill, intelligence, virtue, etc.  It is, of course, not wrong to accept and enjoy others’ appreciation.  However, when this goes too far, we put ourselves in the position of a supplicant.  We become beggars, dependent upon the opinions of others for our sense of self-worth.  But the self-worth gained from outside ourselves is not genuine.  It has no intrinsic reality of its own.

We are in a precarious position when we depend on others’ opinions and attention.  Over time our dependency only grows.  Thus, even if we continue to receive the same degree of attention, we will still eventually feel a growing sense of lack.  However, the attention we receive is generally not stable.  Our qualities – however beautiful they be – become familiar to others over time.  As a result, the novelty for them wears off, and so does the attention.

Further, many qualities (e.g. physical beauty) are ephemeral. As Carrie Fisher succinctly put it:

As the quality fades so does the adoration, again leaving us feeling lost.  We struggle to find an authentic sense of self-worth: one that is generated from within, that is independent of circumstances.  Why do we need others’ recognition in order to feel complete and worthwhile? Because we lack self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-sufficiency.  Thus we rely on others for our sense of self.

By contrast, modesty is an effect of self-knowledge, and has no such need.  When we know something, we no longer seek confirmation of it.  Self-knowledge does not seek from the world a confirmation of who and what we are.  And from self-knowledge is born confidence, which is not merely the faith that I can achieve some future gain.  It is self-acceptance here in the present of all my qualities: strengths, weaknesses, the good, the bad, the indifferent.  Of course we continuously strive to improve, but for our own inner harmony.  Not because we are performing for others, or desperately trying to live up to their expectations.  Only with this attitude can we truly enjoy the full expression of our individual personality.

Modesty has another component which is relevant in many situations: empathy.  Empathy means considering others’ experiences, and may be understood as having three components.  Intellectually, we understand the experience that the other person (or animal) is going through, and remain objective to it.  We keep our head, even in the most intense circumstances.  Emotionally, we resonate with that experience, feeling it as they do.  Thirdly, we have the intention to act towards their well-being.

By demanding attention, we enter into another’s world without their consent, and try to make ourselves the focal point of their experience.  There will be times when this is appropriate, and times when it is not.  It may serve the other’s well-being, or it may be a distraction.  However, the failure to consider another’s experience is a failure of empathy.

Modesty recognizes that each one’s attention is intimate and sacred, and that we have no right to intrude unrequested simply to satisfy our own demands.

Knowledge, Meditation

The mala comprises a beaded necklace with a pendant showing the Hindu god Ganesh.  Importantly, wearing the mala does not indicate that the wearer is an adherent of the Hindu religion.  It is much like your local yoga studio being decorated with the mystic symbol OM, 🕉

It represents a universal principle of Self-knowledge, not a commitment to a particular faith or ideology.  The students of the Vedanta Academy, for example, represent all faiths, as well as atheists, agnostics, and everything in between.

In his book The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals, A. Parthasarathy describes the use of gods and goddesses to represent various worldly pursuits as well as human Perfection, the ultimate goal of self-development.  Ganesh signifies this state of Perfection, and is known as the Remover of Obstacles.  The fundamental obstacle to self-development, growth, and well-being is ignorance.

When we are ignorant of who we are and the principles underlying human experience, we make poor choices based on flawed assumptions.  As a result growth and well-being are hindered.  Knowledge alone can dispel ignorance, and thus Ganesh symbolizes the acquisition of higher knowledge.

The phrase ‘higher knowledge’ here refers to subjective knowledge.  All experiences comprise two factors: subject and object.  The object is the world that each one contacts. The subject is the individual: ‘me.’  Objective knowledge is gained through external inquiry.  Examples are the sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, politics, economics, et cetera.  Even the humanities – history, literature, cultural studies, etc – can be considered sciences in that they are all methods of external inquiry to make the unknown known.  Subjective knowledge is gained through introverted inquiry to understand the subject of all experiences:  Who am I?  Who is this individual experiencing this world?  Why do I experience my life the way I do?

Gaining higher knowledge does not simply mean having accurate information.  Information is only the beginning.  We must gain insight.  When the information causes a change in the inner personality – our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors – then we have gained higher knowledge.  This is often referred to as wisdom.  An integrated, living knowledge that more accurately reflects one’s identity and the nature of human experience.

How is higher knowledge gained?  Through sincere questioning, through liberal education on one’s Self.  This means that questioning is done is an atmosphere of humility, a recognition of our relative ignorance.  Secondly it means that we have no external motivation for gaining the knowledge: not to pass a test, to put it on a college application, to impress others, or any other gain from outside oneself.  We gain knowledge for its own sake, to quench the inner thirst for Self-understanding: Who am I?

This is the role of the intellect in self-development: critical thinking, questioning.  Wearing the mala thus represents our commitment to question everything, to gain higher knowledge, and move towards Perfection.  Not only do the various aspects of Ganesh represent human Perfection, but the incongruous nature of his appearance naturally inspires the intellect to question: Why?  Why an elephant’s head on a man’s body?  Why four arms holding four objects?  Why the rat at his feet?  Why one broken tusk?  Stay curious.

The mala’s physical structure – beads plus pendant – denotes the final practice necessary to reach Perfection: meditation.  The myriad meanings and practices associated with the word meditation has somewhat diminished its usefulness.  In this context, it is very specifically defined as:

the art of maintaining the mind in focus upon a chosen thought to the exclusion of all other thought.2

In meditation the mind repeats the chosen thought, and the intellect observes to ensure that it does not slip off.  This is a very difficult practice, and the mind will often slip off into other distractions without the intellect noticing. In the initial stages the use of a mala or similar beaded necklace can assist the concentration.

The mala is held loosely in the hand.  With each repetition of the chosen thought, we rotate the mala by one bead.  Thus the physical sensation is synchronized with the internal chant.  When the mind slips off the chosen thought, the physical rotation stops, and the awareness is jolted by this gross change.  We thus re-engage in the meditation before any time and attention is lost.

When the pendant is reached, we continue the practice in the opposite direction.  The pendant also acts as a reminder of the process, and ensures that we do not simply fall into a mechanical repetition of words.

Very few people are mentally prepared to engage in meditation as it is defined here.  In fact, for most people it would constitute a dangerous repression of the mind.  The mind must be calmed sufficiently through the three self-development practices before it is ready for meditation.  This will take many years of practice.  However, wearing the mala reminds us of the final practice towards which we are striving, and thus the final Goal.

But why Choose to Wear It?

Wearing the uniform is a personal choice.  Our clothing (as well as comportment, speech, etc) conveys who we are, both consciously and unconsciously.  The semiotics of the uniform has already been discussed, and thus an alumnus may wear it outside the Vedanta Academy to communicate these impressions.  This offers to others some clear information on his or her role and intent within a given situation, and in life in general.

This is a double-edged sword.  We all come to our interactions with preconceived notions, biases.  As such, the uniform may be misinterpreted, and the wearer seen as antagonistic towards another’s fondly-held cultural, religious, or philosophical beliefs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Philosophy in its essence is beautifully liberal in its approach to knowledge and belief.  The philosopher seeks wisdom for its own sake, and uses it to guide his or her own life – not to dictate to others how to live or what to think.  Philosophy is without thou shalts and shalt nots; it simply spreads a buffet of ideas, which we may partake of or decline as we see fit.

The uniform is also worn for the benefit of the wearer: as a reminder that we are life-long students.  And the primary quality of any student, the “premiere scholarly virtue”3 is humility. As Thomas Szasz beautifully describes it,

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.4

Learning is not merely the passive acquisition and retention of information.  It implies the conscious willingness to have one’s mind changed.  Learning starts at ‘I don’t know,’ the recognition that my lone perspective is incomplete.  Without this feeling the study and practise of higher values is a hollow charade.  By announcing the wearer as a student, the uniform serves as a constant reminder to live up to this great value of humility in all situations, not just in the classroom.

Finally, like all school uniforms it identifies the wearer with their alma mater and mentors therein.  Humility and common sense teach us that we cannot achieve anything alone.  Our self-development relies upon the emotional and intellectual support of others, a beneficial community of like-minded individuals.

Wearing the uniform connects the individual back to this community, sustaining the relationship even when individual members are nations apart.  This reinvigorates our conviction towards the values that the institution itself is built on; and upon which we intend to build our own lives.

1 Sanchez, J.E., Yoxsimer, A., Hill, G.C. (2012). Uniforms in the Middle School: Student Opinions, Discipline Data, and School Police Data. Journal of School Violence, 11(4). 345-356, DOI: 10.1080/15388220.2012.706873

2 Parthasarathy, A. (2004). Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities. (11ed). A. Parthasarathy, Mumbai. Ch.14

3 Musgrove, L.E. (2008). Mystery and Humility in General Education. Chronicle of Higher Education. 54(36), B28.

4 Szasz, T. (1973). The Second Sin: Some iconoclastic thoughts on marriage, sex, drugs, mental illness, and other matters. Anchor Press. New York. p.18