Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sacred Symbols - Holy Ash

Sacred Symbols
MR PL Rethinam Chettiar

The Saiva symbols are the insignia of Saivism. Like nations and corporate bodies, religions too, have their own symbols. The main object of the symbol is to indicate its principle. The holy ash and rudraksha
are used as symbols by the Saivite to remind oneself as well as to make known to others one's religious creed and practices. Saiva philosophy declares that God,soul and bondage are eternal. When we apply the holy ash on the forehead with three fingers, it is called tripundara or 'three lines'. This indicates that the above three entities are without beginning or end and are eternal. Vendantins of the Sankara school explain the significance of the holy ash thus: "The world is impermanent and death is inevitable and the holy ash indicates this truth". They cite in this connection the statement of Pattinattar, "Even the crowned monarch will in the end be reduced to ashes".

Holy Ash
The Saivites consider the holy ash as an auspicious thing. Thiru Neeru (holy ash) also means 'wealth' Saint Jnanasambandhar in this decade of songs on the 'the holy ash' proclaims thus: "The holy ash brings
About prosperity, it is pleasant to behold, enhances the person so adorned; beautiful indeed is the holy ash." It is clear then that the idea that the holy ash reminds one of transience and is therefore inauspicious is not the view of the Saiva saints.
These saints do accept the transience of the world but the holy ash does not indicate such transience.

Aim of Saivism
The objective of Saivisn is the destruction of the three impurities of the soul, anavam, kanmam and mayai and thereby lead the soul towards bliss, Sivananda. The cow dung stands for the impurities. Burning it in fire represents the destruction of the thee impurities by the fire of knowledge. The white colour of the holy ash stands for the experience of unalloyed bliss.
Arumuka Navalar of Jaffna explains this idea in his Saiva vina-vidai.

Application of Holy Ash
Those who have been duly initiated may smear the holy ash mixed with water in the morning, noon and evening. At other times the ash as it is can be smeared over the body or applied in the form of tree lines. Those who are not initiated can also apply the ash mixed with water but only in the morning. At other times the dry ash can either be simply smeared over or applied as three lines. Whenever the holy ash is mixed with water it can be applied only in the form of three lines. The dry ash can be applied either way.

Basically, the holy ash can be worn at any time. It is recommended that it be applied as soon as one gets up in the morning. Some may wonder if it is proper to do so, especially without bathing or washing up. As the ash is considered holy and auspicious, there is no pollution attending to it under any circumstances. Obviously, after a bath there is a sense of cleanliness and some may prefer to apply the holy ash only after a bath. The important thing to remember here is that the holy ash be worn as long as possible if not at all times.

Many people feel that in a modern environment it may not be possible to adorn the forehead with the holy ash all the time. They consider it particularly difficult in a cosmopolitan society.

Well according to Jnanasambandhar, a similar predicament was faced by the Pandyan queen Mangayarkarasi in her time. She could not openly wear The holy ash as her husband himself had embraced Jainism and frowned upon Hindu customs. She opted to apply the ash on her chest and covered it with her garment. Going by that precedent those who feel today they cannot openly wear the holy ash may apply it on their chest under their clothing.
However, when they go to the temple or attend auspicious ceremonies outside, and certainly when they stay at home, they can make a special effort to wear the holy ash on their forehead. This effort will serve two purposes: One, to receive the direct benefits of wearing the ash and the other, to reinforce their religious identity. As to the exact procedure of applying the holy ash, this is how it goes: One should take the holy ash with the right middle three fingers, face the northern or eastern direction, lift the head up, utter the words 'Siva Siva' or 'Sivaya nama' and then either simply smear the ash or apply it as three lines. One should avoid taking the ash with one finger and applying it like a streak or as a circular dot. As Cekkizhar records in his poems, Jnanasanbandbar "applied the holy ash on his forehead thickly and fully."

While applying the holy ash with three fingers one should take care that there is no bend or breach in the streaks. The space between the lines should be even. There is a reason for applying the holy ash facing north or east. Mount Kailasa, the holiest of the Savite pilgrimage centres, is in China - north of where most Saivites live. The sun rises in the east Thus, both these directions are considered auspicious. The three streaks of the holy ash also have another symbolism: The first one represents purity in thought the second purity in speech and the third purity in action.

Purity in thought is marked by the absence of jealousy and duplicity and observance of love and humility. Purity in word consist of avoiding falsehood, harshness of expression, and observance of truth and sweetness of expression. Purity in action is characterised by avoidance of liquor, drugs , non-vegetarianism, lust, and extra-marital relationships, and on the positive side it means the control of senses, wearing dean clothes and keeping a clean body.

In short, the holy ash is a reminder to everyone of us that we should pursue the path of Truth.

Distinction of Caste
Saivites both in Tamil Nadu and in other countries are found to be caste conscious. Our saints and seers looked upon the holy ash as a means to negate caste distinctions. The saints of our holy Thirumurais have stated that we should pay due respect to anyone with the holy ash on him, regarding him as "our brethren, fellow believer and servant of Lord Siva"

Effect of Holy Ash
The holy ash is a constant reminder that a person is striving for divine grace. We should not ignore it in a lighthearted manner thinking that it is just a symbol. Only if we show due regard to the outward symbols, would lofty ideas flourish in our inner mind if we care for religious sentiments we must necessarily wear the holy ash.

Saffron and Sandal Paste
Holy ash is the primary symbol of Saiva religion. Saffron and sandal paste are only auxiliaries to the holy ash. We use saffron to suggest tat divine grace is auspicious. The sandal paste suggests that the divine grace is extremely comforting.

The rudraksha that saivites wear round their necks is another major Saiva symbol. The puranas speak about the rudraksha as symbolizing compassion. When the demons of Trip pura (triple cities) harassed the gods, the latter appealed to lord Siva for help. When Lord Siva listened to their tales of woe, drops of tears rolled down from His eyes. Those drops turned into the rudraksha beads. Rudraksha reminds us that we should express our deep concern when we come across the sufferings of people.

The basic concept of Saivism is compassion. "Be kind to every living being" says Saivism. As there is no virtue higher than compassion, rudraksha which represents compassion is indeed a lofty symbol. We see some people wearing the holy ash and taking meat. But there is virtually none who wears rudraksha and eats meat. Thirukkural proclaims truth and non-violence as great virtues. The holy ash stands for abstinence from falsehood and rudraksha for non-violence.

Wearing Rudraksha
As with the holy ash, we should try to wear rudraksha at all times. Rudraksha beads are obtained from a tree. The beads, strung in silk or golden thread, can be worn on the head, neck, ears, arms and hands. The beads should be so strung that they face each other.

Indispensability of Symbols
Some people hold the view that the use of symbols is not necessary. They argue that inner purity is important and outward symbols are not necessary and it only serves the purpose of differentiating us from the followers of other religions. We should remember that though one may have inner purity it is the external purity that makes us intensely aware of it Differences in language, food or the colour of a person will persist at all times. Instead of saying that all those differences should be removed, it is best that we should learn to respect each other. Differences in religion are bound to exist in the world. In these circumstances, there is no compulsion for anyone to abandon using religious symbols. As stated already, though there may be some difficulty in using religious symbols while at work or at school, we can use the religious symbols without inhibition in our homes and temples and on auspicious and festive occasions.


raj said...

great work to know abt Holy Ash....nice blog
Work from home

Shiva Bhakta said...

In the modern era people may feel shyness in openly wearing bhasma as tripundra all over the body as per the prescribed vidhi. I was also feeling very much shy even though I wanted to do that. But firstly I had started smearing bhasma all over the body in my home. I was thinking that people may make joke on me if I smear bhasma all over the body and go outside. But once I decided to do that. On a monday when I was on leave, I applied bhasma as tripundras all over my body and wearning a tea shirt and pant I went to the city, visiting bank, electricity office and met people. But nobody asked any question. instead they interacted with respect. Now instead of feeling shyness I feel proud wearing bhasma all over the 32 parts of my body.
Om Namashivaya.

Astro Guru said...

Rudraksha beads have been used since ages for various benefits.The powers radiated by Karya Siddha mala is due to multiple effects from the different face / mukhi rudraksha bead combinations aligned in the mala.
Benefit of Rudraksha