The practice of forehead ornamentation originated out of the practice of making shiva lingams as described in the Lingam Purana: making one's hands, head and/or other parts of or the entire body a lingam was ritually signified by decorating it as such. This practice was quickly adopted by Vaishnavas, and other devotees, becoming a ceremony of Bhakti Yoga: these non-Shaivites were not making "lingams," but used other symbology common to their own practices.
But all these marks, once intended to be a symbol of impermanence, have left scars. And it is in seeing these scars, and a rejection of all symbolic marks, that the achievement of their original purpose may be found.
As the practices were developed and explored, the symbols necessarily took on additional meanings. During the several occupations of India, these symbols were utilized first as a way of distinguishing between various practitioners of Yoga, and then encouraged as a method by which Yogis might differentiate themselves from each other: sects were formed and politicized, dividing the people so that they might be easier to dominate. Thus, these symbols became gradually associated with the Brahman varna (and the varnas themselves became a caste into which one was born, rather than attained with training, association and practice) at the same time that Yoga was encouraged to become more a centralized and organized religion (also to aid the occupations): what originally was intended as a marking of a Yogi undertaking Priestly duties necessarily changed when "Priest" became an occupation to which a Yogi would devote themselves to entirely, and practice, and even inherit. Thus, ironically, the use of ash, or other powders intended to be very impermanent and liberating, easily manufactured to encourage the access of any person, were twisted into the support of a permanent and oppressive caste system, and to the exclusion of the majority of Yogis for the purpose of supporting a centralized and organized method of control. The timeframe of this transformation was very long: things changed slowly, and subtly. It has been a long time since the occupation ended: these tikas have persisted, and continue to take new symbolic meaning, both because of and in response to the emergent Hindu nationalist movement that brought about an end to the occupation.
The originally simplistic symbols were given complexity by rounding or curving lines and edges, or ornamenting the terminal points of lines: coloration and spacing became very important, as well. Each variant became associated with different practices and expressed different association. And sometimes are combined, to symbolize mutual association and recognition. A u-shaped arc became associated with the Swamis who flourished during the British occupation during the late 18th Century: these Swamis professed a practice that was conducive to centralization, organization, and allegiance that the governors encouraged. The long history of the monastic movement (dating back to the 6th century), and its rejection of Buddhism, and other pan-Hinduism, is too long to be simply remarked on here: it suffices to express that they developed their own symbology, and their use of this symbology encouraged others to adopt different and similar symbology.
Shaivites continue to utilize a basic form of three horizontal lines (as on a lingam). Vaishnavas continue to utilize a basic form of vertical lines. Swamis continue to use the U-shaped arc. Shaktas continue to utilize a dot. And so forth: circles, triangles, squares, arcs, crescents, crosses, and so many variants! Honorary association typically is typically signified by a simplistic rendition of these basic forms. And there is also an expression of no-mark, a blank forehead, a rejection of the entire practice wherein decorations are only rarely used, or not used at all.
As these forms were abstracted and complicated, there also arose a counter-movement toward the use of these decorations by non-Brahmans, both as a socio-political expression against the occupation's caste system and central organization, and also as a way of expressing casual association or alliance with the various groups using these symbols.
The Bindi, or purely decorative mark, whether in the form of a jewel or precious powder (makeup), arose as a stylistic expression of this counter-reaction. The no-mark also arose from this counter-reaction: the restoration of practices by which it is through self-control and effort that one becomes a Brahman, capable of Priestly duties of sacrifice, the rejection that only Brahmans are capable of sacrifice and other Priestly duties, seemed to require rejecting what became a symbol contrary to these practices and celebrating what is uniquely symbolic of other Varna - it was a way of expressing a rejection of all Varna, an expression of the sacrifice of Varna. Additionally, as the Swamic rejection of Buddhism was itself rejected, Buddhist practices of no-marking were adopted - for various reasons. Even as some Buddhists adopted the practice of marking their foreheads with symbols of their own.
Today, the reason a person bears these marks is highly personal - sometimes to express one thing or another, or nothing at all. The highly radical practices of jewelled bindis has become (to a great degree) entirely secular practice, as unsymbolic as merely decorating the face with lipstick or dying the hair.
How do you decorate yourself? When? And why?
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