Hinduism: Week Two: Sacred Marks
Hinduism is a faith defined by a rich tradition of artistic fluency dating back for millenia. In light of this, nothing–even the gods themselves–are what they seem. Manifold layers of meaning are embedded in everything from a simple hand gesture to an image of Shiva. One of Hinduism’s (and in fact India’s) most popular and best recognized symbols is that of the tilak and bindi.
The tilak and bindi are marks of auspiciousness placed on the forehead between the eyebrows. This area is said to be the location of the Ajna Chakra where spiritual knowledge and focus is said to derive. A cooling effect given off by the drying of the ash, sandal paste, or kumkum treats the heat generated in the Ajna Chakra by meditation. In fact, when a devotee reaches moksha (liberation) the Ajna Chakra is the window through which enlightenment is viewed through.
These marks come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. For religious purposes there are three basic forms: Devotees of Shiva apply sacred ash (bhasma, or vibhuti) in three horizontal lines across the forehead called the tripundra, devotees of Vishnu place a fingertip-sized dot of sandal paste on the Ajna Chakra (and sometimes a single, vertical line), while worshipers of Shakti or Devi use the iconic red sindoor or kumkum paste for the bindi spot.
Over the centuries the bindi has served as both a symbol of Shakti, the seat of wisdom/inspiration, and the mark of betrothal. It is a misconception that only married women wear the bindi, however as a wife, a woman bearing this mark has taken up her place as guardian of her family’s welfare and progeny. She is in effect taking on the role of Shakti, the manifestation of power and energy (particularly creative) in the household.
The bindi in particular has undergone a cultural revolution of sorts over the last century and now also serves as a fashion statement alongside its religious counterpart. Bindis now use elaborate crystals, gemstones, colored felt, and adhesive paper designs to adorn the foreheads of their wearers. Many celebrities such as Julia Roberts and Gwen Stefani have been seen wearing the bindi, bringing the ancient mark more and more into the mainstream of pop culture.
So there is your introduction into the world of sacred Hindu marks. Like all of Sanatana Dharma, there is much, much more beneath the surface of this deep and ancient tradition. Many people practice the use of holy symbolism in numerous ways, including its very application. Hopefully this intro will lead you delve more deeply into the world of this sacred and beautiful art.