Since ancient times, it was the custom of the inhabitants of this holy land BhaarataVarsha to display a distinctive religious mark on their foreheads. Until a couple of generations ago, this custom was considered mandatory. However, just as our style of wearing clothes has undergone a change due to the influence of western culture, there has been a transformation even in the manner of donning this laanchana (religious mark) on our foreheads. Nevertheless, even now people from different religions continue to apply these marks according to the custom prevailing in their respective religions, although their number has become sparse. From the point of view of culture, this situation is regrettable, since displaying one's religious mark is not a meaningless custom as is believed by the modern generation. We are not aware as to how old this tradition is. For, there is no reference to this practice in the vedas and the ancient upanishads. Perhaps, since the vedic tradition was more committed to performing rituals, there was no place for these religious symbols. In due course, various aspects related to the Supreme Knowledge and devotion to God, which were taught by the upanishads surfaced and revealed themselves through various religious sects of our country. Among those religious sects, Vaishnavism and Shaivism are notably prominent. It may not be out of place to state that wearing the laanchanas is very closely associated with the evolution and development of these sects.
Let the history of sporting these symbols rest as it may, there can be no doubt that this practice is a reflection of the supreme spiritual advancement of the inner soul (Atman) that manifested in the ancient Seers of our land. Tatvajnaana and yoga are embedded in them. Supreme knowledge and devotion to God are entwined with them. Behind these divine symbols, are the recollection of the experiences and inner vision of our accomplished ascetics. In it there exists an inner spiritual dimension of a human body becoming the path to illumination. To summarize, these laanchanas are capable of revealing profoundly the essence of the secrets of the Atman that are essential for the upliftment of mankind.
That is exactly why our ancestors placed such a great emphasis on the laanchanas. They declared that without the laanchanas, the performance of traditional rituals like puja, homa, japa, etc. would not yield the desired fruits. They also provided a sense of identity for the spiritual community. But it is also true that these symbols of identity sometimes led to excesses and meaningless hatred among different spiritual communities. The lack of mutual respect for other traditions (distinguished by these symbols) often resulted in various disputes, vilification and derision. But this was the handiwork of a few senseless and ignorant individuals. If only they had been aware of the inner consonance of the laanchanas, perhaps they would not have indulged in mutually denigrating these symbols.
We wish to consider here one such distinctive divine symbol and elaborate on its majestic intentions and implications. That symbol is what is known as Urdhva pundra. This urdhvapundra enshrines within itself the very essence of Vaishnavism. If one were to dwell at length on it, it would be necessary to establish the fundamental and underlying principles of Vaishnavism. Our intention in this article, however, is to present only an overview on the subject.
The materials used for Urdhvapundra which is in a powdery form, are pure white earth (mud), turmeric powder (called arasinapudi or manjal), rice flour, tulasi, sandal powder, kumkum (vermillion powder). The urdhvapundra is the distinctive symbol which a Srivaishnava wears on his forehead and also at specific locations above the navel. Urdhvapundra is more familiar to all by the name Naama. When the paste is being applied at different locations on one's body, one utters with reverence the different sacred Namaas (names) of Mahavishnu and meditates on Paranjyoti, Paramaatman and Mahavishnu. Hence, it is also known as Naama. The extent to which the Lord's name occupies a pre-eminent position in Vaishnavism, can be inferred from the following:
sarvEShAM aghavatAM idamEva suniShkRutaM
nAma vyAharaNaM viShNOH yataH tadviShayAmatiH (Bhaagavata–6.2.10)
sAMkEtyaM pArihAsyaM vA stOBaMhElanamEva vA
vaikuMThanAmagrahaNaM aSEShAgha haram viduH | ||14||
patitaH sKalitObhagnaH saMdaShTaH tapta AgataH |
harirityavaSEnAha pumAnnArhati yAtanAM|| ||15||
(ಸರ್ವೇಷಾಂ ಅಘವತಾಂ ಇದಮೇವ ಸುನಿಷ್ಕೃತಂ|
ನಾಮವ್ಯಾಹರಣಂ ವಿಷ್ಣೋಃ ಯತಃ ತದ್ವಿಷಯಾಮತಿಃ|| (ಭಾಗವತ 6.2.10)
ಸಾಂಕೇತ್ಯಂ ಪಾರಿಹಾಸ್ಯಂ ವಾ ಸ್ತೋಭಮ್ಹೇಲನಮೇವ ವಾ|
ವೈಕುಂಠನಾಮಗ್ರಹಣಂ ಅಶೇಷಾಘಹರಂ ವಿದುಃ || ||14||
ಪತಿತಃಸ್ಖಲಿತೋಭಗ್ನಃ ಸಂದಷ್ಟಃ ತಪ್ತ ಆಗತಃ|
ಹರಿರತ್ಯವಶೇನಾಹ ಪುಮಾನ್ನಾರ್ಹತಿ ಯಾತನಾಂ|| ) ||15||
(Just by uttering the Naama of Vishnu, a person would have atoned for however heinous a sin he may have committed. The moment he utters the Naama of Vishnu, his mind drifts towards God. It is said that even if one has an indifferent view about Vishnu, or utters His Naama with an intention of jeering at Him or disgracing Him, even then all his sins are sure to vanish. A person just by uttering the name “Hari”, under any situation whatsoever, such as while falling down, slipping, loosening his muscles for relaxation, bitten by a snake, burnt by fire, beaten up by someone, and is himself not in his control, becomes absolutely undeserving to enter Naraka (hell)!”)
Uttering such sacred names of the Lord, which assures Moksha to mankind at all times, the urdhvapundra which is in the form of three vertical lines, is applied from the centre of the eyebrows upto the junction of the forehead and the hair (ದ್ವಾದಶಾಂತ). Although this shape is most commonly used, there are other methods of representing the urdhvapundra according to some texts. For example, there was a practice of representing it in the shape of the tip of a flame, leaf of bamboo, a lotus bud, a fish, a tortoise, or a conch.
The technical texts describe in detail the method of preparation of the mud mixture for urdhvapundra. It has to be prepared out of the soil collected from the top of a mountain, or the bank of a river or from the roots of a tree. For application of this mark, one can also make use of red, black or yellow (gopichandana) mud. According to the sacred texts, soil having various colours rewards a person with benefits like peace, wealth and power. The white earth has been accorded a special title as “Vaishnava”. The Shaastras declare that satvaguna (virtuosity, serenity) is white in colour and Vishnu is the Supreme Lord (adhipati) of sattva; this may perhaps be the reason for according such prominence to white mud. Ancient texts tell us that Bhagavad Raamanujaachaarya discovered a mine containing such sacred white mud at Melukote and popularized its use.
While applying this Urdhvapundra at various locations on one’s physique, one has to contemplate as follows: Keshava in the forehead, Naaraayana in the abdomen, Maadhava in the chest region, Govinda in the neck (centre), Vishnu in the abdomen (right side), Madhusudana in the right arm, Trivikrama in the neck (right side), Vaamana in the abdomen (left side), Sridhara in the left arm, Hrishikesha in the neck (left side), Padmanaabha in the lower back, Daamodara in the back of the neck.
Our ancient scriptures ordain as follows: While offering puja, performing homa during dusk and dawn, the urdhvapundra shall be applied uttering the above names as prescribed, and with a serene mind. Further, a spiritual guide Satyavrata proclaims, “A person on whose forehead clean and clear urdhvapundra is seen, is pure and deserves to be worshipped even if he is a chandaala (an untouchable)”.
These are the customs in vogue since ancient times relating to urdhvapundra. There is a need to direct our attention to the knowledge and science behind this tradition. It is necessary to reflect on the reasons as to why these symbols have to be applied on the forehead and other specific parts of our body.
That the spiritual architecture of our body has played a significant role in the quest for truth by the seers of Bhaarata, has been established elsewhere (in a series of articles on Yoga, for example). The Maharshis of this Bhaarata Varsha, through the process of meditation and contemplation, entered the inner spiritual centers of the body and had the vision of the Subtle and Gross Tattvaas (principles) upholding the human body culminating in the marvelous sight of the Supreme Brahman which is the source and substratum of all. They traced the inner secret spiritual path with the help of praana and manas and reached the Brahma Randhra (top of the skull), and there, with their inner eye, had the Vision of Paravaasudeva Naraayana.
“tadEva nArAyaNasthaLaM| tadvEttA muktiBAk | tristHAnaM ca trimArgaM ca tribrahma ca trayAkSharaM | trimAtraM ardhamAtraM vA yastaM vEda sa vEdavit|
(ತದೇವ ನಾರಾಯಣ ಸ್ಥಳಂ ತದ್ವೇತ್ತ ಮುಕ್ತಿಭಾಕ್| ತ್ರಿಸ್ಥಾನಂ ಚ ತ್ರಿಮಾರ್ಗಂ ಚ, ತ್ರಿಬ್ರಹ್ಮ ಚ ತ್ರಯಾಕ್ಷರಮ್| ತ್ರಿಮಾತ್ರಂ ಅರ್ಧಮಾತ್ರಂ ವಾ ಯಸ್ತಂ vವೇದ ಸ ವೇದವಿತ್ ||)
(“That alone is the Abode of Naaraayana. The one who understands this, deserves mukti. He is the one who has understood the three abodes, the three paths, the three brahmas, the three aksharas, the three maatraas with the ardhamaatraa; he is the true knower of the vedas”). These words establish the jnaana and vijnaana enshrined in the inner vision of Paramaatman.
The evolution of Srivaishnavism commenced from such yogis who achieved that state through their experience. The various rituals and traditions point towards the inner secrets of yoga. Their goal was to attain perfection in yoga. Among them, the practice of applying urdhvapundra shows the connection to the thrinaadis (ida, pingala, sushumna- the three inner spiritual paths), represented by the three lines. The three lines on the abdomen, chest region, neck, and forehead ultimately point towards and culminate in the brahma randhra, which is the Abode of Paravaasudeva. This establishes that this is the place where a person’s ultimate bliss lies.
Incidentally, an experimental and experiential observation related to the above claim, as demonstrated by one of Sriranga Mahaaguru’s jnaana prayogas, comes to our mind. The inner urdhvapundras manifested, during meditation, on the body of one of his disciples whom he guided through the spiritual path to its culmination. The three nerves indicating the urdhvapundra became distinctly visible on his forehead, and the other vaishnavaite symbols started appearing on his arm and other said locations. Srirangaguru revealed this information to us. Later on we ourselves noticed this a couple of times. After the symbols pertaining to Vishnu distinctly appeared and disappeared, the symbols related to Shiva started appearing on the body of the same disciple as though they were naturally etched on his body. Upon seeing this, Sri Mahaguru named him “Shankara-naaraayana Daasa”
This incident is narrated here to establish that these symbols are not just a figment of imagination. They stem from the individual’s jnaana. If an individual attains this state through his saadhana and grace of the Lord, then these symbols would rise from the depths of his being and would become visible to him. The jnaanis who realized this, designed an integral practice of representing them on their bodies at the specified locations and with the designated materials. This pattern is such that the minds of mortals with samskaara which dwell on the shape, type, color and proportions of the urdhvapundra also become enlightened individuals like the original seers. Here the value is not only for the specific mud but to the exquisite, brightly colored vertical lines drawn, which becomes a medium for the mind to latch on and progressively make it possible to travel to the inner realms and realize the Summum Bonum of Life i.e. Lord Vishnu.
[English Rendering by CR Sreedhar of the original Kannada Article by Dr Sri SV Chamu]
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