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Originally, most Advaitins had Vishnu as their Ishta Devata, but nowadays most Advaitins have Shiva as their Ishta Devata. Kanchi Mahaperiava, the former Shankaracharya of the Kanchipuram, explains the reason for the shift, in an interview found in the end of the book "History of Early Vedanta Philosophy":

Some Shankaraites are Vaishnavas; they bear the mark in three white vertical ash lines. But many others are Shaivas; they bear the mark of their own. Some other bear no mark. After Shankara there came many Tirthankaras: Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha, etc. They were mostly followers of the Vishnu cult. So, as a counteraction to them, most of the Shankaraites became Shaivas. This is why we find so many Shiva worshippers among the Shankaraites. I myself am just indifferent to these distinctions. (The Shankaracharya bore only one white horizontal line on the forehead then.) For example, when a devout believer prostrates all his body on the ground, I confer benediction upon him, touching him on the forehead with my hand, saying: "Narayana!" On that occasion I have the god Vishnu in mind. But when I observe the Linga worship, I am a worshiper of Shiva. I am neither Shaiva, nor Vaishnava.

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I'm interested in the part in bold. I've never seen an Advaitin wear an Urdhva Pundra made of ash before. For those who don't know, an Urdhva Pundra or Namam is a symbol Vaishnavas wear on their forehead. It consists of three vertical lines and is usually made of schistose mica (Thiruman) along with either turmeric or sandal paste (Srichurnam), in contrast to the Shaivite Tripundra which consists of three horizontal lines and is made of Vibhuti or white ash. My question is, what is the origin of Advaitins wearing an Urdhva Pundra made of ash?

Is it described in any scripture? Or is it just meant to be a compromise between the Vaishnava Urdhva Pundra and the Shaivite Tripundra?

  • So Shankarites can be called Vaishnavas? – Surya Kanta Bose Chowdhury Jan 5 '18 at 8:23
  • I mean I am an Advaitin and a devotee of Vishnu. Can I be considered a "Vaishnava"? – Surya Kanta Bose Chowdhury Jan 5 '18 at 8:24
  • @SuryaKantaBoseChowdhury Yes, Advaitins can be Vaishnavas. In any case, a Vaishnava is someone who believes Vishnu is supreme, who believes in the Pancharatra Agamas, etc. – Keshav Srinivasan Jan 5 '18 at 9:09
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Keshav Srinivasan Jan 5 '18 at 9:57
  • I am an Advaitin Ram Bhakt, but believe in Nirguna Brahman to be supreme but non-different from Nirguna Sakar roopa of Ram. Although my personal preference is always Sakar roop. Am I eligible? – user9072 Jul 14 '18 at 8:29
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As far as I know, Sri Vaishnavas (among others) wear all pundrams in vertical (urdhva) orientation. The rationale for the practice is that it is the pundram for mumukshus who are looking upwards towards moksha. I have heard this reasoning in upanyasams.

The standard pundram is white mud (thiruman) accompanied by turmeric (srichurnam, colored red or yellow based on family tradition / recipe).

However it is also common for those that perform routine Yajna (be it agnihotra or aupasana or vaishvadeva or any other occasional homa) to adorn ashes and collyrium or 'mai" (ashes mixed with ghee) after the ritual is completed. This is also applied in all the 12 pundra parts of the body and in vertical orientation. This is applied over the existing thiruman.

Finally, the prasadam from the sandal/turmeric paste offered to the Lord during alankaraasanam after thirumanjanam (manja-kaappu, chandana-kaappu) is also applied in vertical orientation only over the existing thiruman.

I don't have a reference for this as it is shishtachara (I have seen this being practised by vidwans e.g. applying collyrium after a Sudarsana homam in vertical orientation). The Sachcharitra Raksha of Vedanta Desikan discusses various pundras that were prevalent during his times and may be a potential source to establish this point.

I have however heard that His Holiness, the 45th Jeer of Sri Ahobila Mutt, Sri Lakshmi Nrisimha Divya Paduka Sevaka Srivan Sathakopa Sri Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikan also known as Villivalam Srimad Azhagiyasingar made a remark to my aunt who had applied sandal paste horizontally on her forehead to only apply it vertically.

Not sure if this answers your question but the practice of wearing urdhva pundrams is related to being a mumukshu than to belonging to a sect or to a school of vedanta. Since Lakshmi-Narayana is the upaasya devata of mumukshus, it is not strange that Advaitins who are Vishnu bhaktas wear urdhva pundram made of ashes.

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