By Swami Harshananda
Urdhvapuṇḍra literally means ‘upright or vertical religious mark’.
Definition of Urdhvapuṇḍra
The word Urdhvapuṇḍra literally means a religious mark which is worn upright. In common parlance, it is called nāma.
Synonyms of Urdhvapuṇḍra
Since it has been ordained by the Vaiṣṇava scriptures that while marking the various parts of the body with the urdhvapuṇḍra, names of Lord Viṣṇu are to be repeated and that the respective mark represents the respective aspect of the Deity indicated by that particular name, the word nāma has become synonymous with the urdhvapuṇḍra itself.
Importance of Lord Viṣṇu in Religious Pantheon
Invariably associated with the śaṅkha or the conch on its left side and the cakra or the discus on its right side, this forms the chief symbol of the followers of Śrī Rāmānuja, who are known as Śrīvaiṣṇavas. Lord Viṣṇu, the middle deity of the Trinity does not seem to have had a very prominent place in the Vedas. But by the time the Bhāgavata sect developed through its basic writings like the Nārāyaṇiya section of the Mahābhārata, the Viṣṇupurāṇa, the Pāncarātra Āgamas and also the famous Bhāgavatam; Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa had become the most important deity of the religious pantheon.
The word Viṣṇu literally means one who pervades everything, one who has entered into everything. So, Viṣṇu is the Cosmic Spirit, the Absolute, which pervades everything. For purposes of religious worship and meditation, he is described as endowed with a beautiful form and deep blue in color. He wears a jewel named Kaustubha on His chest. Single-minded devotion is the easiest and best means to please Him. He has four arms wearing:
Different Sects of Vaiṣṇavism
The followers of Viṣṇuism can be broadly divided into two groups:
- The Sadvaiṣṇavas or Vaiṣṇavas who are followers of Śrī Madhvācārya
- The Śrīvaiṣṇavas
Ideology of Vaiṣṇavism
- Both of them accept Lord Viṣṇu as the Supreme Deity and devotion to Him as the chief means of attaining spiritual beatitude.
- Śaṅkha and cakra as the religious symbols are acceptable to both of them.
- However, the Srivaiṣṇavas add the Urdhvapuṇḍra also.
- The śaṅkha or the conch has the form of a multiple spiral evolving from one point into ever-increasing spheres.
- It thus symbolized the origin of the universe from a single source, viz., God. Being found in water, it symbolizes the causal waters from which the universe was evolved and into which it gets dissolved.
- When blown, it produces a sound, which represents the primeval sound from which creation developed. It is also taken to be the representation of the Cosmic Ego.
- Its involute curve can represent on the plane of the microcosm or the individual, the egoism which involves him in sansāra or trans-migratory existence.
- The cakra or the discus represents the Universal Mind, the unlimited power that creates and destroys all the spheres and forms of the universe, the nature of which is to revolve or to change.
- It also represents the Lord’s will to multiply.
- Its six spokes represent the six seasons of the year, hence the changing universe, set on the unchanging axle, the pivot, represented by the magic syllable hrīm of the Lord.
- The circle round the wheel is māyā, the divine power of illusion.
- On the microcosmic plane, it can be taken to be a true representation of the individual’s mind, which is ever changing like the rotating wheel.
Inference of Religious Mark in Religion
The religious tradition has always insisted upon its followers to wear religious marks appropriate to their faith on their bodies, especially on the forehead. Urdhvapuṇḍra is one such mark. The meaning and significance of this symbol is rather obscure to discover. It can be delineated as belows:
- When marked on the forehead of the Deity in a temple, it may signify the power of that Deity to uplift the votaries.
- When marked on the forehead of the votary it may remind him of the need to take a spiritually upward path.
- It is sometimes interpreted that the two lines on the outside represent the iḍā and the piṅgalā, the two passages for the flow of prāṇic energy, intertwining the backbone.
- The middle line marked in red or yellow color represents the Suṣumnā passage through which the kuṇdalini power flows after awakening.
- The three together represents the yogic path of spiritual ascent.
So, the total symbol of the Urdhvapuṇḍra along with the śaṅkha and the cakra may mean that one who aspires after controlling the mind and subjugating the egoism should take to the propitiation of the Deity’s merciful power or to the Yogic path. The Urdhvapuṇḍra is marked as M by the Vaḍagalais, the ‘Northerners’ and by the Teñgalais, the ‘Southerners’. Clay, white or yellow is used for marking the outer lines and turmeric or śrīcurṇa for marking the central line.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore