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On Apparel

tat tvam asi – From Chāndogya Upaniṣad

Meaning: That Thou Art (“That” is identification with the Absolute unchanging reality). - Austin Sanderson

When you meet someone for the first time, what do you notice about a person? Maybe their hairstyle, the type of pants or top they are wearing; what style they are projecting into the world – casual, formal, hip, nerdy, sporty, sexy, cool, working class, ethnic, country, urban, funky, upwardly mobile, masculine, or feminine. Whatever it is, it’s important to understand that the person presenting the “costume” is using a “sign system” of clothing to project a personality into the phenomenal world. This projection is a defense mechanism that humans have been trained to undertake for thousands of years. The “sign system” of clothing has been going on for so long that we have convinced ourselves that it has true value, and we may never fully know the real essence of the person underneath the costume unless they wish to expose themselves.

“Clothing makes the man [person]. Naked people have little or no influence in society,” exclaimed Mark Twain. Mr. Twain, famously remembered by his white linen suits of the late 1890s, was seen as a dandy (a male fashion icon) of his day. Twain, wrapped up with the late-nineteenth century Western cultural obsession with dress codes and social artifices of polite society, rejected the spiritual concept that the value of a human being was not the person’s clothing but the depth of their spiritual awakening. Twain was not the first to observe the human propensity to judge a book by its cover or a person by their clothing.

As I stated, this “sign system” of clothing goes back thousands of years. If we work backward, the “clothing makes the man” proverb can be dated back 400 years earlier than Twain; during the Middle Ages it can be found in the works of Erasmus (Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus), a priest, theologian, and social critic. Erasmus published Collectanea Adagiorum (1500 CE), an annotated collection of 800 Greek and Latin proverbs. The proverb as recorded in Latin by Erasmus (Adagia 3.1.60) is “vestis virum facit,” meaning “clothes make the man [person].” In the Adagia, Erasmus quotes Quintilian’s (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus) work, Institutions: “To dress within the formal limits and with an air gives men [people], as the Greek line testifies, authority.” Quintilian is in turn citing the work of Homer, who wrote the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey (7th or 8th BCE): “At first I thought his [Odysseus’] appearance was unseemly but now he has the air of the Gods who dwell in the wide heavens.” This showcases the fact that fine threads and good outward looks were not lost on our ancient Greek ancestors; so we have to ask, “if clothing makes the man [person], what about the person without apparel?”

In the ancient spiritual tradition of India there have always been Naga Babas, meaning “naked yogis.” Throughout Eastern culture, rejecting clothing is a rejection of the false identity of cultural and social norms. Public nudity, not wearing clothing, for spiritual sadhana (an ego-transcending spiritual practice), is seen as a way for the yogi to project their true identity into the world, with the hope that others looking upon the naked body of the Baba will realize and understand that true identity. The naked, unclothed human body becomes a mirror or gateway into the soul. This is a raw, unmasked, and unapologetic approach to understanding the true nature of identity of a human being. To put it simply, the “sign system” of clothing, that culture and society demands gets in the way of see the true identity of ourselves and others because we start to believe that we are not only the body and the mind, but the clothing we are hiding behind.

But let’s face facts. In Western culture, if any one of us went into the streets in our birthday suit chanting Sanskrit mantras and practicing yoga asana, we’d be rounded up by the authorities and shipped off to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. The option of exploring the tradition of the Naga Baba is too taboo for Western culture. But what we can do is take note when we personally add to or deduct value from another human being based on the superficiality of fashionable clothing and good looks. We can start to dismantle pervasive social stereotypes that we have been trained to accept so we can look for the true identity of the soul inside.

The Sanskrit mantra tat tvam asi (“That Thou Art,” with that referring to identification with the Absolute unchanging reality) taps into the energetic of the Naga Baba. Apparel changes often, but the Absolute is unchanging: “I am not the body, I am not the mind [and I am not the clothing]; I have a body, I have a mind, [I have on a clothing that conceals my true identity], but I am the soul inside.” Unlike our clothes, our true identity is unchanging.

There is a Buddhist saying, “the body is nothing more than a placenta for the soul” and if this is true, and clothing only becomes another layer to veil the soul inside the body. Yoga is about cutting through all those layers we hide behind. Yoga gives us the strength and courage to expose our Self to the world.

~ Austin Sanderson Urban Sadhu Yoga


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