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Hindu Sacred Marks


"He who has no right to distinguishing marks, yet gains a subsistence by wearing false mark of distinction, takes to himself the sin committed by those who are entitled to such marks, and shall again be born from the womb of a brute animal."(Manu, iv. 200).

No mention is made in the Vedas of the pundrams or sacred marks, but the Smrities and Puranams take particular notice of them. Since, however, the Smrities are based upon the Vedas, it is inferred that some parts of the Vedas are now lost, and that those lost portions probably contain the injunctions on this point. It is said that these sacred 'marks were originally intended to distinguish the four castes ; but however that may be, it is clear that in the present day they are used to distinguish the members of the various religious sects or divisions.

All 'Hindus may roughly be divided into the worshippers of Vishnu and the worshippers of Siva. These, however much they may differ in general, agree pretty much in some main points, and they are all good Hindus. A man may leave the one sect and join the other, if he so desires and if he can at the same time bear the cost of the necessary ceremonies. Brahma, the first person in the Hindu Triad (Trimurti), is not, as a matter of fact, worshipped at all. Vishnu and Siva, in their various forms and incarnations, are the real objects of Hindu -worship.'

The sacred marks most easily seen are those worn upon the forehead. They are of two kinds—the trident shaped mark called urdhva pundram or upright pun-dram, worn by the votaries of Vishnu, and the three horizontal lines drawn across the forehead, called tiryak pundram or horizontal pundram, worn by the worshippers of Siva.

Besides these marks on the forehead some are also worn on various parts of the body, the number differing according to caste. The strict Brahmins have no less than twelve, namely, one on each arm and shoulder, one on the front and one on the back of the neck, one on the breast, one on the middle of the back, three on different parts of the stomach and one on the forehead. A thirteenth is sometimes worn on the crown of the head. The Kshatriyas should have only four, the Vaisyas two, and the Sudras one, the one on the forehead ; but practically many others besides Brahmins, if they wish to be very religious, wear all these marks on most of the parts mentioned.

The forehead mark is the chief and most prominent one. That of the worshippers of Vishnu is most unmistakable and, when put on by the very orthodox in extra broad stripes, has a most ferocious aspect. The ordinary Vaishnava uses a white clay called tirumani, found in various parts of the country, and sold at a very cheap rate in the ordinary bazaars. In the case of the Madhvas, however, of whom particular mention will be made further on, the 'clay used in making the marks is of a yellowish colour, and is called gopichandanam, which, to be of the purest kind, should be brought from Dwaraka in Guzerat. The ordinary Vaishnavas rub the clay in the palm of the left hand with a little water, and then with a finger of the right hand or with a strip of metal kept for the purpose, take it and draw a broad line from the centre of one eyebrow to that of the other ; then from the centre, or the outer end of each eyebrow they draw a perpendicular streak right up the forehead. This mark is said to represent the foot of Vishnu (Vishnu padam). In the centre of the two perpendicular lines, and in a line with the nose, a third but narrower perpendicular streak is drawn. The colour chosen is red or yellow according to fancy, but yellow is said to be the most orthodox. This central mark is in honour of Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, and is called srichurnam, the whole forming a trident. The marks on the other parts of the body are also made with three perpendicular streaks, two white and one red or yellow, but they are not so carefully made as those on the forehead, which are often drawn in quite an artistic manner. As a rule these body marks are merely a broad smear of white with a coloured dab in the middle, though the one on the chest is sometimes more carefully made.

All the wearers of this trident mark are worshippers of Vishnu, but they may be either worshippers of that deity alone, as the Ramanujas ; or they may be votaries of Vishnu and at the same time pay honour to Siva. The followers of Ramanuja are called amongst the Telugus Acharyas and amongst the Tamils they are called Iyengars. Some of the Smartha sect, that is, those who professedly worship Siva in particular, and yet pay reverence to Vishnu, also wear the trident marks of Vishnu, instead of the Siva mark which is usually worn by the Smarthas. The Ramanujas, a sect founded in the twelfth century by Ramanujacharya, hold the Visishtadvaita doctrine. They are very hostile to the worshippers of Siva, who are of the Advaita School. They carry their love for their sacred mark to an extraordinary length. They imprint their trident on the portals of their doors, on the walls of their houses, on their household utensils, and on their carts and boats and books. In the -same way they allow their dislike for the Saivas to run to extremes. If they come across a stone in a mouthful of rice, they call it the lingam (the emblem of Siva) and say, "Let us bite well, we have at least killed one wretched lingam."It is also a saying that, even if pursued by a tiger, a Ramanuja would not to save himself enter into a Siva temple.

Vaishnavas are divided into two great sects, the Vada galais and the Tengalais, the doctrines of which differ very materially from each other. The members of these sect's may be distinguished by the shape of the mark worn. The Tengalais carry the white mark some way down the nose, whilst the Vadagalais do not.

Whilst preparing the clay with which to daub on the marks, the devout are supposed to recite several mantrams, such as :—

"O Earth I do thou destroy my sin,

Whatever sin has been committed by me.

"O Earth ; thou gift of Brahma,

Thou had been purified with mantrams by Kasyapa."

These mantrams should be said by all worshippers of Vishnu, that is by all those who wear the trident ; but only the very devout say them. Probably a very large number say nothing at all. They simply put on the marks for appearance sake, as a matter of form ; or perhaps with the idea that the mere marks themselves will have some religious effect upon their soul, for the Hindu is extremely superstitious.

Besides the wearers of this trident, there are other worshippers of Vishnu who wear a different mark. They are called Madhvas, and they hold the Dvaita doctrine (the dual order of things) ; indeed they are the true Dvaitas, and they take their origin from the sage Madhvicharya who taught in the 13th century. These worship Vishnu, but they also hold Siva in honour. Their forehead mark is a straight black line drawn from the nose to the roots of the hair, and passing through a red round mark made with a mixture of turmeric and lime. The black line is made with charcoal, which, to be pure, should be taken from the fire before the god Vishnu. This black line is called angaram, from the charcoal with which it is made. In some parts there are those who also put on the two upright white facial marks with gopichandanam, only somewhat narrow : others again make these lines in red. Usually however the forehead is only adorned with the upright black line and red spot.

The Madhvas also impress on various parts of the body and on the forehead and temples symbols of Vishnu, made with copper stamps, dipped in moistened gopichandanam, to more clearly represent what the ordinary marks are supposed to signify. These are of five kinds, the conch (sankha), the wheel (chakra), the club (gads), and the sword (khadgam), which are the things in the four hands of Vishnu, and the lotus (padma).

The Madhvas, in putting on their marks, are supposed to repeat mantrams like the others do, but they have one special one :—

"Be he a murderer of a Brahmin, or of a cow,

A cruel tyrant, guilty of all manner of sins,

By contact with this gopichandanam

He immediately becomes an heir of heaven."

The Siva mark is three horizontal lines made with vibhuti, or the burnt ashes of cowdung. This, to be of the purest kind, should be obtained from the fire of a sacrificing Brahmin. These ashes are made up into balls or tablets and sold in the bazaar, but, if from poverty or from any other cause these cannot be procured, a little ash will be taken from the ordinary household fire-place and used for the purpose. The ordinary fuel is the cow dung which has been dried in the sun. All the worshippers of Siva wear these three horizontal marks on various parts of the body, as the Vaishnavas do theirs, except that the shape is different. They are always in horizontal lines and there are no coloured marks except on the forehead. The marks are made thus ; a little of the ashes is rubbed in the left hand with some water, and the mixture is applied with three fingers of the right hand. Those on the various parts of the body are, when worn, done somewhat roughly , but the marks on the forehead are drawn with more care. The Sivas are divided into two main divisions, the Smarthas, those who also honour Vishnu, and Lingadharis, or wearers of the lingam, who adhere solely to the worship of Siva. The latter of these may be distinguished by having the vibhuti marks drawn across the eyes and by the side of the ears. A round spot is made in the centre of the forehead which is usually red, and which is called akshatam. Theoretically this spot should be formed of a few grains of rice stuck on with sandalwood paste. A division of the Lingadharis, however, who are Sudras, and who are called Jangams, always have this mark white, made with the vibhuti. Sometimes, however, they make it with sandalwood paste, but this is against rule, and is not done by the very strict. All Hindus, both the worshippers of Vishnu and those who adore Siva, use sandalwood paste for the sake of its sweet smell. It is put on after the daily ceremonies are over, and just before sitting down to food.

In patting on the marks, the Smartha Saiva should say the usual mantrams. This is because he holds Vishnu in honour. The Lingadhari, however, who holds no allegiance to Vishnu at all, only repeats this one :—

"We worship that (the vibhuti) which appertains to the three-eyed one Siva ;

It is fragrant and increases physical strength.

As a cucumber is separated from its stalk (when ripe)

May this separate (or deliver) me from ever-present death."

At times, some varieties of these marks are seen. For instance, some of the modern Saivas wear, in public, only one horizontal mark of sandalwood paste, drawn through the centre spot across the forehead. This is sometimes made with the help of the yajnó-pavitam, but even this is supposed to be three, and at any rate, the three lines made with vibhuti ought to be worn when taking meals. Those Saivas Who worship Parvati, the wife of Siva, wear a small mark of vermilion under the central spot between the eye brows.

All the marks are supposed to be put on at least twice a day, in the morning on rising, and at midday after bathing before food. Many in these modern days do not put on the marks in the early morning. It is only the real orthodox Hindu who does this. Before taking food, it is imperative, and no one, even the most careless and irreligious, omits it then. No ceremony and no act of worship can be performed without these marks. In every Hindu house there is a receptacle of some kind, a basket or box, in which the ingredients for putting on the marks are kept, with any stamps or instruments that may be used, and perhaps a little bit of looking glass to assist in the operation. This receptacle is usually for the general use of the household, though a guest or visitor who may be staying in the house will have access to the same, if he should not have brought his own "dressing case"with him. Just as it is necessary for a European guest to comply with the usages of society as regards various details of dress and manners, so ,it is incumbent on the Hindu guest to conform to the habits of his fellows in such matters. Indeed it is not only a matter of conforming to the laws of good breeding, it is a vital matter of religion, and a Hindu dare not, at the peril of his soul, sit down to food without having first adorned himself with the marks of his religion. If it were possible for any ill-advised person so to forget himself, a thing difficult even to imagine, he would have to dine alone, for no one would dare to consort with so bold an Iconoclast.

As a mark of mourning the red or yellow line in the centre of the Vishnu mark (srichturnam), and the red. spot in the centre of the forehead of the Smartha Saivas (akshata) is changed to white for ten or more days. The Madhvas simply omit the red spot, wearing only the black streak. The Smartha Saivas and Madhvas also follow this custom on fast days.

No woman who has a husband has need of sacred marks, as she has no ceremonies to perform requiring them. Her husband does all her religious ceremonies for her and he is her god. The wife does, however, perhaps for ornament, wear a mark in the centre of the forehead. It is usually made with vermilion, but sometimes it is black. It varies a little in shape, being either somewhat horizontal or perpendicular, according as her husband is a Saiva or a Vaishnava, but it is generally merely a round spot. This spot is omitted altogether during mourning and also during a certain period. Widows have to perform certain ceremonies for themselves, and they wear • the same marks as their husbands wore ; only they must be those that exhibit mourning, that is to say, the marks must not be coloured ones. The Vaishnava widows do not wear the full white mark on the face, but only a line between the eyes and a little way on the nose. Some Vaishnava widows, in the present day, do wear the srichürnam, or coloured central line, only in that case they do not put on the side white lines. Probably, however, those who do this are comparatively few in number. Married women are in the habit of rubbing their faces and feet with water in which saffron has been mixed. A widow, to whom all enjoyable and pleasant things are denied, must not thus adorn herself.

These various details remind us of the Christian mark, the mark of the cross made upon the . forehead at baptism, or of that seal mentioned in the book of the Revelation where . the angel "Sealed the servants of our God in the forehead."1 And the servant of Christ, the true Incarnation of the Living God, cannot but rejoice that, though slowly still none the less surely, the Trident is giving way to the Cross, the marks of Vishnu and Siva to the marks of the Lord Jesus.

( Originally Published 1908 )

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