I'm somewhat reluctant to write any article on such a subject. After all, I am not a Hindu, nor even Indian, and consequently know practically nothing about this topic. I suppose therefore that I should begin by politely suggesting that any Hindu or Indian should not read any further or, perhaps better, should read what I write with a benevolent attitude and simply advise me (by personal e-mail) of any misguided mistakes that I might make (or politely respond to this blog, of course). But it occurs to me that many Westerners, and hence many readers, will be in a similar situation to myself. And this gives me the temerity to write what follows.
What prompts me to write is that I've recently come across two references to terms which I've encountered many times before but never really understood. And I found these quite interesting.
The first of these refers to the ash spot which we may often see placed upon the forehead of some Indians. (And here, of course, my profound ignorance is already beginning to show! I appreciate that, almost certainly, this symbol may only be used by followers of Shiva, who have qualified in some way. No doubt I will receive some e-mails informing me of the precise nature of this!)
The term which is used for the spot is vibhUti. This word is also used in the context of bhakti, as in the vibhUti of the Lord, meaning the splendor or glory of the Lord. It also means abundant and mighty, having the sort of power normally held only by a God. It can also mean riches and prosperity. One interesting and surprising fact about its use here is that the ash actually comes from burning cow dung, although other substances may be added prior to burning. (It may even be eaten, according to Wikipedia, which states that, in devotional ceremonies, a small ball of cow dung, together with a flower is used to represent the god gaNesha to protect the house. A new ball is used each day and these are collected and then burnt to produce the ash.) The mark itself is called a tilaka, and such a mark may also be made with various pigments or sandalwood. It is particularly relevant in worship related to Shiva, being applied to the spot between the eyebrows, said to be the ‘third eye’.
It is, however, the symbolism referred to by Swami Paramarthananda which I found particularly revelatory. This is that the ash spot symbolizes brahman. The reason is actually quite straightforward. The ash is what remains when the form of the starting substance has been destroyed (i.e. by fire). It is the ultimate condition, when all of the transient attributes have disappeared. In a sense, therefore, the ash is the reality or substratum of the object. The external appearance, the name and form of the object, is only transitory and disappears when subjected to fire (maybe the fire symbolizes spiritual cleansing or Self-knowledge?) In the same way, the entire creation is mithyA – name and form only. And, upon its destruction in pralaya, only brahman remains. And of course, there only ever was brahman. Brahman, like the ash, never changes.
Another word that I came across a number of times in Swami Paramarthananda’s talks always sounded to me like ‘solid grammar’. I understood that it was regarded as holy by vaishnava-s – worshippers of Vishnu – in the same way that idols are treated by some religions. I tried to look it up in Monier-Williams or Wikipedia but, since I had no idea of how it was spelt, I didn’t have much success. And then (I think) I recently encountered it in Swami Dayananda’s commentary on the Mundaka Upanishad (this is brilliant and I will be writing a review of it in due course). It is in fact shAlagrAma and refers to a particular form of black stone containing an ammonite, which is principally found in the river close to the town of the same name. The town, in turn, is named after the shAla tree, Shorea robusta, whose leaves are used for plates and bowls in Northern India. The corresponding symbol for worshippers of Shiva (shaiva-s) is the li~Nga, which is also a stone, sometimes carved and resembling a phallus. It should be noted, however, that there is no sexual connotation for Hindus, just as there is none in the minds of Christians for the spire of a Western church. The word li~Nga means mark or sign and the stone functions as a means for focusing the attention and meditating on the formless God.
Shankara himself is traditionally believed to have been born of Shaiva parents and even considered by some to be an incarnation of Shiva, but (I understand) he refers in his commentaries more to Vaishnava rituals if anything. Of course, in the end, one must come to Self-knowledge, which transcends all preparatory bhakti and karmic paths, so that whichever preliminary approach is used, according to Advaita that is fine!
(At least that is my understanding. I await the knowledgeable responses of some Indian readers with trepidation!)