Hair

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The traditional 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. In spite of the fact that nearly all statues and images of the Buddha include hair with tight curls and a top-knot on top, the Buddha was bald, just as monks and nuns today shave their heads. In the Sutta Nipata (Sn. 142) there is a story of a brahmin angry at the presence of a shaved monk, he told him, "Stay there, you shaveling, stay there you wretched monk, stay there you outcast." In another passage, "One day the potter Ghatikara addressed the brahmin student Jotipala thus: 'My dear Jotipala, let us go and see the Blessed One Kassapa, accomplished and fully enlightened. I hold that it is good to see that Blessed One, accomplished and fully enlightened.' The brahmin student Jotipala replied: 'Enough, my dear Ghatikara, what is the use of seeing that bald-pated recluse?'" (Ghatikara-sutta, MN 81).

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 ware 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 ware 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).

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