What does 'white-clothed laypeople' mean in Gihisutta?

According to Gihisutta

“You should know this, Sāriputta, about those white-clothed laypeople whose actions are restrained in the five precepts, and who get four blissful meditations in the present life belonging to the higher mind when they want, without trouble or difficulty. They may, if they wish, declare of themselves: ‘I’ve finished with rebirth in hell, the animal realm, and the ghost realm. I’ve finished with all places of loss, bad places, the underworld. I am a stream-enterer! I’m not liable to be reborn in the underworld, and am bound for awakening.’

What does ‘white-clothed’ mean?
Why didn’t the enlightment one just said ‘laypeople’?

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That they are wearing white clothes. I believe it was an indicator that they were especially devout.

They are also mentioned in MN 73:

This is followed by a passage about laywomen.


Odātavasana, “white-clad”, is simply the mark of any householder, just as kāsāyavasana, “ochre-clad” is the mark of any homeless renunciate. In the suttas the application of odātavasana gīhi is not limited even to Buddhist householders, let alone to a special sub-class of them:

“When the Tathāgata, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One … dreamt that white worms with black heads crawled from his feet up to his knees and covered them, this was a foretoken that many white-robed householders would go for lifelong refuge to the Tathāgata. This third great dream appeared to him as a sign that his awakening was imminent.”

The function of the word is merely that of augmentation like the tautologous adjectives in such expressions as “spear-wielding hoplite”, “turbaned Sikh”, “dreadlocked Rasta”, “namby-pamby Southerner”, etc.

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Is it possible that considering laypeople in ancient india,

  • Everyone wore white clothes?
  • Majority wore white clothes?

It doesn’t seem to be the case that all householders wore white, for the Piṅgiyānīsutta says:

Now on that occasion five hundred Licchavis were visiting the Blessed One. Some Licchavis were blue, with a blue complexion, clothed in blue, wearing blue ornaments. Some Licchavis were yellow, with a yellow complexion, clothed in yellow, wearing yellow ornaments. Some Licchavis were red, with a red complexion, clothed in red, wearing red ornaments. Some Licchavis were white, with a white complexion, clothed in white, wearing white ornaments. Yet the Blessed One outshone them all with his beauty and glory.

It may have been the case the majority wore white, but given the abundance of sutta references to cloth-dyeing I wouldn’t count on it:

“Bhikkhus, suppose a cloth were pure and bright, and a dyer dipped it in some dye or other, whether blue or yellow or red or carmine; it would look well dyed and pure in colour. Why is that? Because of the purity of the cloth. So too, when the mind is undefiled, a happy destination may be expected.”

What is likely, however, is that all or most adult male brahmins wore white, for this is something that the Manusmṛti requires them to do after they’ve completed their apprenticeship.

If so, then I believe this would be the likely provenance of the odātavasana gīhi expression, for it happens not infrequently that the style or colour of dress that’s perceived as most characteristic or emblematic of a particular group is not necessarily that worn by the majority, but rather, that worn by some social or cultural elite. Think, for example, of the top-hatted Englishmen in Nazi propaganda posters (though a top hat would actually have been way beyond the means of most Englishmen at that time) or the practice of 19th century illustrators of depicting all Chinese with pigtails (when it was in fact only the northeastern Manchus who wore their hair in a queue).