By Swami Shivananda, Divine Life Society, Rishikesh
Tilak is a mark of auspiciousness. It is put on the forehead with sandal paste, sacred ashes or kumkum (red tumeric). The devotees of Siva apply sacred ashes (Bhasma) on the forehead, the devotees of Vishnu apply sandal paste (Chandan), and the worshippers of Devi or Shakti apply Kumkum, a red tumeric powder.
The scriptures say:
A forehead without a Tilak, a woman without a husband, a Mantra the meaning of which is not known while doing Japa (recitation), the head that does not bend before holy personages, a heart without mercy, a house without a well, a village without a temple, a country without a river, a society without a leader, wealth that is not given away in charity, a preceptor without a disciple, a country without justice, a king without an able minister, a woman not obedient to her husband, a well without water, a flower without smell, a soul devoid of holiness, a field without rains, an intellect without clearness, a disciple who does not consider his preceptor as a form of God, a body devoid of health, a custom (Achar) without purity, austerity devoid of fellow-feeling, speech in which truth is not the basis, a country without good people, work without wages, Sannyasa without renunciation, legs that have not performed pilgrimages, determination unaided by Viveka or discrimination, a knife which is blunt, a cow that does not give milk, a spear without a point- all these are worthy of condemnation. They exist for name's sake only.
Tilak is applied at the Ajna Chakra, the space between the two eyebrows. It has a very cooling effect. Application of sandal paste has great medicinal value, apart from the spiritual influence. Application of sandal paste will nullify the heating effect when you concentrate and meditate at the Bhrumadhya. Tilak indicates the point at which the spiritual eye opens. Lord Siva has a third eye at the Brumadhya. When he opens the third eye, the three worlds are destroyed.
There are various methods of applying Tilak. Saivas apply three horizontal lines with the sacred ashes. The Vaishnavas apply three vertical lines (Tripundra) on the forehead. When they apply Tilak, they say: "O Lord, protect me from the evil effects of the Trigunatmika (3 kinds of) Maya which has Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas as its binding cords."
Some Vaishnavas apply only one vertical line. Only the method of application differs, but the significance is the same in both the Vaishnavas and the Saivas.