On my current visit to Sri Vrindavan Dhama in April 2013 I am noticing many male initiated ISKCON devotees keeping beards. Is this in accordance with Srila Prabhupada’s instructions? By carefully reviewing his instructions in his books, letters, lectures, and conversations in this regard we can understand what is his desire and thus how to please him.
Srila Prabhupada has written in a letter to Brahmananda Prabhu dated 11 October 1967 from Calcutta: Kirtanananda is the first man in our society who cleanly shaved and kept the Sikha on the top of the head and now he has begun to keep beard again. This is not good. Whatever he is doing nowadays has no sanction from me.
In his purport to Srimad Bhagavatam 6.5.14 Srila Prabhupada has written:
In our Krsna consciousness movement, fashionable persons are taught to adopt one fashion -- the dress of a Vaisnava with a shaved head and tilaka. They are taught to be always clean in mind, dress and eating in order to be fixed in Krsna consciousness. What is the use of changing one's dress, sometimes wearing long hair and a long beard and sometimes dressing otherwise? This is not good. One should not waste his time in such frivolous activities. One should always be fixed in Krsna consciousness and take the cure of devotional service with firm determination.
What are some reasons why someone would want to grow a beard? Prabhupada explained on a morning walk that it is good for attracting women:
Sometimes the women like big, big beard. Yes, they like. And they keep. The Mohammedans, they say, “We keep beard. Women like it." --from Morning Walk -- June 23, 1975, Los Angeles
Srila Prabhupada explained the benefit of not keeping a beard on a walk in Vrindavana:
Prabhupada turned into an abandoned field where we saw many peacocks -- the resplendent males as well as the plainer females.
Guru Dasa remarked, "Among the birds, the males are more beautiful than the females."
"Among the humans the women are," said Prabhupada. "And among the Mohammedans a man with a big beard and mustache is considered very beautiful." "Then we are the least beautiful," said Guru Dasa. "We have no hairs."
"Yes, nobody likes us," said Prabhupada, smiling. "We are neither male or female. No one knows who we are. It is very good. If you are attracted to neither male nor female, you are liberated." --from Life With the Perfect Master: Chapter Four
Srila Prabhupada clearly states in his books that anyone who wants to join this movement should not have a beard:
The words bhadra karana are significant in this verse. Due to his long hair, mustache and beard, Sanatana Gosvami looked like a daravesa, or hippie. Since Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu did not like Sanatana Gosvami's hippie features, he immediately asked Candrasekhara to get him shaved clean. If anyone with long hair or a beard wants to join this Krsna consciousness movement and live with us, he must similarly shave himself clean. The followers of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu consider long hair objectionable. --from Srila Prabhupada’s purport to Caitanya Caritamrita Madhya 20.70
He reconfirms the same point in a lecture given on the same book:
According to the Caitanya Mahaprabhu's sampradaya, they keep themselves clean-shaven. And only single instance is there, Advaita Prabhu. He had his beard. And Caitanya Mahaprabhu never asked Him to cleanse. Because one reason is that Advaita Prabhu was just contemporary to His father, so He did not like to dictate. But otherwise, all His disciples, they were clean-shaved. --from a lecture on Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 20.66-96 -- New York, November 21, 1966
When a disciple who was keeping beard gave it up Srila Prabhupada was pleased:
I am so glad to learn that you have sacrificed your long beard.. --from a Letter to: Hayagriva -- Vrindavan 29 August, 1967
In Auckland in 1976 Srila Prabhupada was again preaching against beards:
Srila Prabhupada gave an evening lecture from the Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 20.98-102, describing the story of Srila Sanatana Gosvami to a packed audience in the narrow temple room. He made a special point of saying that when Sanatana approached Caitanya Mahaprabhu in Benares the first thing he did was shave off his beard and hair. “his is one of the items of our movement,” he said. “If one wants to be initiated, he must be clean-shaven.” Most of those in attendance were Tusta Krsna Maharaja's men and most were not shaven-headed. --from Hari Sauri Prabhu’s Diary: August 27, 1976: Auckland
We find the same point reconfirmed in the Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita:
Prabhupada asked Steve to shave his long hair and beard. "Why do you want me to shave my head?" Steve protested. "Krsna had long hair, Rama had long hair, Lord Caitanya had long hair, and Christ had long hair. Why should I shave my head?"
Prabhupada smiled and replied, "Because now you are following me." There was a print on the wall of Suradasa, a Vaisnava. "You should shave your head like that," Prabhupada said, pointing to Suradasa.
"I don't think I'm ready to do that yet," Steve said.
"All right, you are still a young man. There is still time. But at least you should shave your face clean and cut your hair like a man."
On the morning of the initiation, Steve shaved off his beard and cut his hair around his ears so that it was short in front-but long in the back.
"How's this?" he asked.
"You should cut the back also," Prabhupada replied. Steve agreed.
- From Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita Chapter 22: "Swami Invites the Hippies"
Again with a disciple named Ramanuja the instruction was given not to keep a beard:
Another American disciple joined Prabhupada-Ramanuja, from Haight-Ashbury. He had been initiated just before Swamiji had left San Francisco, and he sported a full black beard. Prabhupada didn't like the beard. Cautiously and indirectly he mentioned it: but Ramanuja's beard stayed. Ramanuja carried a book about Tibetan Buddhism, and he didn't seem fixed in Krsna consciousness philosophy. But here he was, one of the looser, sentimental San Francisco devotees, ready for Indian adventures with Swamiji. --From Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita Chapter 27: India Revisited: Part 1
Ramanuja's beard was huge. Looking like an ordinary hippie, he misrepresented Srila Prabhupada wherever they went. Prabhupada told Acyutananda, "Tell your friend to shave." Acyutananda and Ramanuja talked, but Ramanuja wouldn't shave. Wanting Ramanuja to agree on his own, Prabhupada didn't ask him again, but when a copy of the latest Back to Godhead magazine arrived from the States, Prabhupada got an idea. Two illustrations in the magazine showed Haridasa Thakura converting a prostitute. After her conversion the prostitute had shaved her head. Showing the pictures to Ramanuja, Prabhupada asked, "What is the difference between this picture and that picture?"
"I don't know, Swamiji," Ramanuja replied.
"No," Prabhupada said, pointing to the pictures. "What is the difference in this picture?
"Oh, she's a devotee."
"Yes," Prabhupada said, "but what else?"
"Oh, she has a shaved head."
"Yes." Prabhupada smiled. "A devotee has a shaved head."
"Do you want me to shave my head?"
Ramanuja shaved. But within a few days he began growing his beard and hair back. "From now on," Prabhupada told Acyutananda, "no more cheap initiations. They have to know something."
- from Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita Chapter 28: India Revisited: Part 2
Srila Prabhupada at first tolerated the beard of his young disciple, Mukunda dasa, but then later helped his disciple understand that to please his spiritual master he should give up his beard:
When Prabhupada first arrived in San Francisco in 1967, Mukunda dasa had a beard. The beard was very full, but it was not very long, and Mukunda kept it trimmed. Shortly after his arrival, Prabhupada said, "You look just like a sage." This left Mukunda feeling satisfied, and he did not think it necessary to shave his beard or his hair. Later, however, as more and more disciples shaved their heads, Mukunda felt unsure of himself. One day he approached Prabhupada. "Prabhupada," he said, "do you like this?" and he gestured to his beard. Prabhupada stroked his own clean face and said, "I like this." Then he smiled. Mukunda understood that the beard was not in order and he shaved it off the next day. --from Srila Prabhupada Nectar 5-1: Little Drops of Nectar
What about mustaches for initiated disciples? Are they acceptable? Here is Srila Prabhupada’s answer to this question:
Prabhupada: Now I say, I'll repeat that anyone who is keeping long hairs, he is no more my disciple.
Devotee (2): All right.
Prabhupada: This is the first condition.
Devotee (1): Does that apply also for householder dharma, or is that simply for brahmacari dharma? Even you... I have pictures of you on the Bhagavatam when you did not have shaved head, with a mustache when you were doing your business as a householder. So does that apply to householders, or only to brahmacaris, that a householder must also keep a shaved head or is that...?
Prabhupada: At that time I was not initiated. You were seeing my picture, mustaches, at that time I was not initiated. Since I became initiated, I have shaven.
Devotee (1): Well, in India where one can do business...
Prabhupada: I can... Why you are bringing this question? You ask, "Why you had mustaches?" I say when I had mustaches, at that time, I was not initiated. That answer is given. That's all.
- from Room Conversation -- June 26, 1975, Los Angeles
Srila Prabhupada clearly wants his disciples to be clean shaven as indicated in the following letter excerpt:
Regarding keeping the Mohammedans in our temple I have no objection provided they follow or rules and regulations. Our philosophy is that we are not this body, outer tabernacle, but one must stick to our principles and live with us like other devotees. The difficulty will be the Mohammadans will not agree to shave their heads and beards. Our principle is anyone can live with us provided he becomes clean shaved, dresses like us, follows the regulative principles and chants the beads regularly.
- from Letter to: Jayapataka, Bhavananda -- Los Angeles 9 May, 1973
But what about the possible exception of growing a beard for caturmasya? One could argue that beards are proper during caturmasya because sometimes our Vaisnava acharyas kept beards during caturmasya. In a letter to Dhrstaketu das dated 17 July 1976 from New York Srila Prabhupada explains:
“When the acaryas are seen with beard, that is during Caturmasya, July-September. If observed strictly there is not simply a beard. There are so many rules and regulations. One can't eat a variety of foods. Only kitri prepared and poured on the floor, and then licked up. There are so many other rules also. That is not always that they kept beard.”
So if one wants to grow a beard in the name of caturmasya he must also only take prasada once a day licking up kitri from the floor. Srila Prabhupada explained in Pittsburg in 1972 that one is only allowed five mouthfuls. And such a beard is only for during the caturmasya, not at other times. But Srila Prabhupada never instructed us to keep beards for caturmasya. In fact, to the contrary he instructed two sannyasis who had grown beards for caturmasya that they looked dirty and unclean. This pastime is detailed as follows in Hari Sauri Prabhu’s diary:
“After breakfast Prabhupada called for Yasodanandana and Mahamsa Maharajas who are both growing their hair and beards on the plea of observing caturmasya. Srila Prabhupada told them it was inappropriate that they look dirty and unclean on such an important occasion. His criticism had the desired effect for they both left and immediately shaved their heads and faces.” --from Transcendental Diary 4-3: Hyderabad
Why then with these clear instructions from Srila Prabhupada are so many initiated devotees keeping beards? Since the devotees are sincere we can only conclude that somehow or other they are not fully aware of Srila Prabhupada’s instructions regarding beards. Therefore this article has been written as a humble attempt to bridge the information gap.
Srila Prabhupada ki jaya!
Sankarshan Das Adhikari
Completed on Rama Navami—20 April 2013
Sri Vrindavana Dhama