“Tulsi says for one who doesn’t naturally love Rama it is useless to shave their head and leave home.” (Dohavali, 63)
tulasī jau pai rāma soṃ nāhina sahaja saneha |
mū'da mu।dāyo bādihīṃ bhā'da bhayo taji geha ||
A person formally initiated into the timeless discipline of devotional service typically shaves their head at the beginning. In an ashrama filled with initiated disciples, there are many shaved heads to be seen. The outsider will naturally wonder, “Is it necessary to get rid of my hair in order to find God?” The question they’re really asking is, “Does the external appearance make a difference when practicing spiritual life?” Goswami Tulsidas gives the answer. He says that what is on the inside matters more. On the inside there should be love for the Supreme Lord that flows easily.
Why the shaved head? Why needlessly go through something like that?
The simple answer is cleanliness. Just as students enrolled in a private school wear a particular uniform, so a person formally accepting the guidance of a spiritual master dresses in a certain way to begin their training. In the military as well, there are specific uniforms and the hair is generally kept short.
The shaved head, the tilaka on the forehead, and the tulasi beads around the neck also serve to make the devotee easily recognizable. If we get into a car accident, we know help is on the way based on the appearance of certain cars. The ambulance has a specific look and an accompanying siren. The same goes for the police car. If we run into trouble on the street, we can find a police officer based on their uniform.
Similarly, if we’re looking for devotees who follow bhakti-yoga, we can spot them with their shaved heads and the devotional paraphernalia on their bodies. An easier way to find them is by sound, as they are always blissfully chanting the holy names of the Lord: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
It’s important to remember, however, that the dress doesn’t make everything. Goswami Tulsidas makes mention of this in the verse quoted above from the Dohavali. The second part of the couplet addresses the shaving of the head and leaving home. No hair on the head is a sign of renunciation. You’re giving up vanity. You’re not trying to look attractive for anyone. In the same way, attachment to home and family is an impediment in spiritual life. Therefore in the past leaving home for the forest accompanied the shaving of the head. Today, often the same renunciation is accomplished through moving into the temple.
The first part of the couplet says that there must be love for Rama. Who is Rama? He is the Supreme Lord. That love should flow easily; it shouldn’t be forced. At the beginning the requisite level of affection may not be there; hence the training. The culmination stage is pure love for God. If there is no desire even to love God, then what is the point in shaving the head? What use is served by becoming an ascetic? In the opinion of the author, the effort becomes a waste of time.
Indeed, many famous personalities in the Vaishnava tradition did not renounce home. This means that the external changes are not a strict requirement. As Shrila Rupa Gosvami advises, anything favorable for devotional service should be accepted and anything unfavorable rejected. There is also the concept of phalgu-vairagya, or fake renunciation. The monkey lives in the forest, but no one would consider them to be an ascetic. An old man loses his hair and becomes bald, and that doesn’t necessarily make them spiritually realized.
The formalities recommended for advancing in the spiritual consciousness are not required, but many undergo them anyway. They do so for the benefit of others, to help spread the mission of devotional service, which is every person’s birthright. The soul should love without conditions. It is meant to be happy in that service, which it has forgotten since time immemorial. When the various external signs help others to remember their lost relationship to God, then the devotee’s tremendous sacrifice has paid dividends.. For this they are duly rewarded with increased love and devotion to the Supreme Lord.
Necessary to shave my head,
And into forest life be led?
Practice bordering on extreme,
Why devotion for others to be seen?
Tulsi saying for love of God meant,
Otherwise useless in rituals spent.
Preachers for others undergoing still,
So that in them bhakti culture to instill.