Welcome back to Project Conversion: Hinduism!
Today is pretty special as we celebrate what appears to be a nice alignment of events. January 14th marks the beginning of Makar Sankranti, a time when Hindus celebrate the passage of the sun from the Sagittarius constellation into Capricorn. This event carries on with festivities lasting four days! More on that tomorrow as I visit the local temple for a closer look.
In the meantime, I thought we’d mark the end of our Arts and Culture Week of Hinduism with an art debut by my oldest daughter! She’s six years old, loves anything to do with the visual arts, and swears she wants to be a fashion designer. She gets a big kick out of watching me apply the sacred ash and bindi to my forehead. For Arts and Culture Week, she decided to sketch a rendition of the murti (image) I use for Shiva.
Bravo! Thanks for helping Daddy out and sharing your work with us.
As a highly visual and expressive faith, Hinduism has a rich tradition of artistic depictions of the divine. Shiva himself is replete with color and symbolism. Here are a few samples of Shiva art:
I’d watched and listened to this remix before, however once I began Project Conversion and learned more about Shiva’s dance, this video took on a whole new meaning. Watch and listen. One can see the “dance” in motion as stars are born with fiery brilliance, die, and thereafter sow the seeds for the next generation. Enjoy!
Around the world, followers of Santana Dharma (Hinduism) are recognized by a few conspicuous traits. One of those is the practice of ahimsa, the concept of non-violence. Because Hindus believe that everything that takes birth, ages, and dies has a soul it is considered a sin to kill animals. Thus the eating of flesh is frowned upon. Of course as with everything in Hinduism, the call for humanity to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle is delivered as a suggestion rather than a command. This is due to the concept of freedom of belief–of choice–within the faith. No, you won’t burn in hell forever for eating meat, but because of the law of karma (action-reaction, cause-effect) and samsara (rebirth or reincarnation), someone who killed a goat in this life could very well end up one in the next.
Each birth (until moksha, or liberation) is viewed as an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of a past life. Being born as a goat then would (in theory) help that soul sympathize with the plight of said creature, thus giving him the chance to erase the effects of his negative karma in the future. The food one selects to eat is also said to fall into one of three categories:
Sattva is the healthy stuff. This includes fruits, vegetables, rice, yogurt, and milk. Each food category is also associated with a type of energy which transfers from the food itself to the consumer. Sattva energy then is described as creating a tranquil, non-aggressive, and balanced person.
Rajas is your hot, spicy foods that are thought to create a passionate, authoritative, and aggressive nature.
As with much of Sanatana Dharma, there are exceptions and variants–even with the concept of the vegetarian lifestyle. The caste system in Hinduism (the original one that resulted from one’s choosing and disposition, not ascription via birth) recognizes a society as being one of four parts: the priests or teachers, the warriors, the merchants, and the workers. Because warriors need to be aggressive and apathetic toward their enemies, it is acceptable and encouraged for them to partake of both rajas and tamas varieties of food.
There are obvious health benefits to living a vegetarian lifestyle. By doing so, you help stop animal cruelty through the butchering process. An animal raised for food often leads a painful, short, and terrified life of darkness and torment. Vegetables also hoard less (if any) unhealthy fats and hormonal additives that meat is notorious for. Eating vegetarian also places less strain on the environment. Eating meat involves feeding animals grain (unnatural in most species) and therefore twice as much land and fossil fuels are consumed in just raising the animals, butchering them, and transporting them through each phase. The vegetarian lifestyle translates into a direct from field to consumer transaction–especially when this includes locally grown produce.
As I mentioned, vegetarianism within the Hindu faith is a choice, not a commandment. Hinduism places a high value on individual choice. Your karma is your own, and no one–not god or your priest–can intrude upon the law of cause and effect. I chose to live as a vegetarian during my Hindu month and I can honestly say that I feel 100% healthier and have a more tranquil, peaceful outlook. In fact, I might just keep this going.
Hinduism is a faith defined by a rich tradition of artistic fluency dating back for millenia. In light of this, nothing–even the gods themselves–are what they seem. Manifold layers of meaning are embedded in everything from a simple hand gesture to an image of Shiva. One of Hinduism’s (and in fact India’s) most popular and best recognized symbols is that of the tilak and bindi.
The tilak and bindi are marks of auspiciousness placed on the forehead between the eyebrows. This area is said to be the location of the Ajna Chakra where spiritual knowledge and focus is said to derive. A cooling effect given off by the drying of the ash, sandal paste, or kumkum treats the heat generated in the Ajna Chakra by meditation. In fact, when a devotee reaches moksha (liberation) the Ajna Chakra is the window through which enlightenment is viewed through.
These marks come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. For religious purposes there are three basic forms: Devotees of Shiva apply sacred ash (bhasma, or vibhuti) in three horizontal lines across the forehead called the tripundra, devotees of Vishnu place a fingertip-sized dot of sandal paste on the Ajna Chakra (and sometimes a single, vertical line), while worshipers of Shakti or Devi use the iconic red sindoor or kumkum paste for the bindi spot.
Over the centuries the bindi has served as both a symbol of Shakti, the seat of wisdom/inspiration, and the mark of betrothal. It is a misconception that only married women wear the bindi, however as a wife, a woman bearing this mark has taken up her place as guardian of her family’s welfare and progeny. She is in effect taking on the role of Shakti, the manifestation of power and energy (particularly creative) in the household.
The bindi in particular has undergone a cultural revolution of sorts over the last century and now also serves as a fashion statement alongside its religious counterpart. Bindis now use elaborate crystals, gemstones, colored felt, and adhesive paper designs to adorn the foreheads of their wearers. Many celebrities such as Julia Roberts and Gwen Stefani have been seen wearing the bindi, bringing the ancient mark more and more into the mainstream of pop culture.
So there is your introduction into the world of sacred Hindu marks. Like all of Sanatana Dharma, there is much, much more beneath the surface of this deep and ancient tradition. Many people practice the use of holy symbology in numerous ways, including its very application. Hopefully this intro will lead you delve more deeply into the world of this sacred and beautiful art.