The picture of a monk or a nun with a shaved head is ubiquitous. Have you ever wondered why this came to be? First, it’s interesting that the concept developed in both eastern and western traditions without any links. This anecdote points out that humanity’s spiritual endeavors have far more commonalities than differences, and yet it’s those differences that media and our cultures focus on. What a world it would be if the unique aspects of the world’s religions could be celebrated instead of vilified. But in any case, back to our question.
On the relative level, and according to religious historians, the general consensus is that the shaved head was an indication of renunciation and the commitment to leave the things of the world behind. As one left the material world behind and became a monastic, a brahmacharya, or a Buddhist monk or nun, then as a symbolic act, all of the hair would be cut off. Consider that much of one’s individuality and recognition is carried by the head of hair. Without hair, people do look somewhat more similar. And that was the idea – to strip away the individuality and outward signs of the ego. Then the inward work would begin – the much harder task of removing one’s karmic conditioning internally. If only diminishing the ego was as easy as getting a haircut!
But is there a more esoteric reason behind this? What do mystical and yogic traditions say? Consider what happens when you prune a tree. That branch will burst into sudden life – more leaves will appear on that branch than any other. It’s the same for us – energy fills the vacuum created by a shaved head and suddenly you are much more aware of the sensations around the head. There are two chakras on the head, and of course it houses the mind, so the head is especially important in the spiritual path. Yogis will typically use the darkest night of the month to enact this practice. There is a natural upsurge of energy on the planet on that night and the removal of the hair just makes that much more possibility to benefit from the flow of energy in that direction.
In Buddhism especially, the shaved head is maintained even in senior monks. But often for yogis, as one matures in practice, hair is allowed to regrow. According to that tradition, the two chakras above the body have become activated and now the head needs to be nurtured as such. Once the energies reach a certain level, the body needs to be protected. So older yogis will often grow long hair and tie it up, or if they have no hair, then they will use cloth to cover the head.
Of course these days in modern society, many men will shave their heads rather than have a balding look. This has become very popular, but obviously without spiritual sadhana, there is not much spiritual benefit – especially when the motivation is somewhat egoic anyway.
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