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I am seeking some information on the origin of this practice involving applying bhasma (vibuthi), kumkum(am), tilakas (with sandal paste or others), namam / thiruman etc?

How did this originate? To my knowledge this does not have Vedic references (though I could be wrong), but are there Puranic references to all these? I think there may be some reference to Bhasma in Shiva oriented Puranas. I can take kumkum(am) more as a cultural practice, but what about Thiruman that Tamil Vaishnavas apply? It also has two different shapes - one like letter V and the other one like the letter Y (or U with a short vertical extension at the bottom)

Where can one find the origins of these symbols, and this tradition?

To add to this, it is one thing for the devotees and practitioners to wear them, but the practice also involves applying them to the deities.

  1. Lord Shiva is offered Bhasma
  2. Lord Vishnu is offered nama(m) / Thiruman (at least in the South Indian temples, though in the North the tradition varies)

Why so? What is the philosophical background for this?

Thanks in advance for any one who can provide a comprehensive account of this tradition.

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Where can one find the origins of these symbols, and this tradition?

There are at least 3-4 known Vedic references for the wearing of the Srivaishnava Urdhvapundra. The Mahopanishad reference is cited by both Vedanta Desika (in the Saccharita Raksha) and Vaidyanatha Dikshita (in the Smritimuktaphala). The Katha Shakha and Atharvana Veda also refer to it.

If you consider the Grihyasutras part of the Vedic canon, the Agniveshya GS also makes a reference to it.

You can read details in my answer here: When did Vaishnavites start wearing Urdhva Pundram?

Vedanta Desika's Saccharitra raksha analyzes various pundras in vogue in India during Desika's time and makes an argument for why an Urdhvapundra (of clay or sandal) is the only fitting mark for a Mumukshu.


What is the philosophical background for applying them to the deities?

This is the Srivaishnava view:

In the Mahabharata, the Lord says that after the Krishnavatara, in Kali Yuga He would take archA avatAras (statues/icons/idols). You can read more details in this answer I posted.

Among the many reasons why the Lord takes an incarnation, one of the purposes is to establish Dharma dharma saMsthApanArthAya sambhavAmi yuge yuge (Bhagavad Gita Chapter 4). E.g., In Ramavatara, Rama illustrated Kshatriya Dharma. His Upanayana ceremony is described in the Ramayana. He performed Sandhyavandana. Both Sita and Kausalya are described as performing Sun worship including prANAyAma and Achamana.

The Pancharatra Agamas urge the application of the Urdhvapundra to the Lord's idols. By sporting the Urdhvapundra, the Lord is illustrating the same Dharma that His devotees should be following (Leading by example).


On a non-sectarian note, several Smriti texts condemn the sighting of a naked forehead. It is often compared to stepping into a cemetery (the implication being one has to take immediate bath with the very clothes one is wearing). Given the importance given to a decorated forehead in Sanatana Dharma, it only makes sense that the idols of the various Gods are depicted with a decorated forehead.

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  • two follow on questions. As you know there are many Upanisads that are not traceable in the recensions of The Vedas that are extant today. Do you know what recension of The Sama Veda Mahopanisad belongs to? I include history, and Sanskrit literature into consideration to understand some of these texts and the nuances. It appears there were texts with title "Upanisads" with Shaivaite, Vaishnavaite, and somewhat neutral / balancing slant. With available evidence, it is not clear if they were part of original texts of any of the Sakhas. (Contd in the next comment) – Vidyarthi Feb 23 at 18:42
  • Upanisads like SkandOpanisad, Narayana Upanisad (not the Taittriya MahA nArAyanOpanisad), Nrusimpha tApani Upanisad, and even mahOpanisad (and many others) all fall in that category. They are not traceable in any of the shakhas extant today. If you know of any recension to which these upanisads belong, let me know preferably with some reference. Here is one of my questions in this regard – Vidyarthi Feb 23 at 18:48
  • To your point, and going back to the second part of my question, what is the point of applying these symbols on murthi (the vigraha or pratima or shila representing The Lord)? Let us accept for now the devotees and Mumukshu should wear one of these symbols. But why is this practice of applying them on The Lord? Do you know of any of your acharya's works in which this is explained? – Vidyarthi Feb 23 at 18:51
  • (1) Do not know details about Mahopanishad except that it is cited by Advaitins as well as Visistadvaitins. It is only available in fragments to my knowledge (2) Narayanopanishad aka Narayana Atharvashiropanishad is from the Atharva Veda. Source for this is the upanishad itself that says in the phalashruti "etad atharvashiraH yo adhIte...." Of course Muktika Upanishad classifies it as so as well. (3) Nrisimha Tapini Upanishads are also from Atharva veda. Source: Muktikopanishad. – hashable Feb 24 at 6:55
  • On a separate note, even some of the fairly old upanishads that we have today such as the Svetasvatara (pre-Sankaran) do not have an extant recension (there is no Samhita/Aranyaka/Brahmana of the Charaka Shakha; sometimes it is conflated with the Kathaka shakha). – hashable Feb 24 at 6:55

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