From Back to Godhead
You partially covered many aspects in this article. Still you didn’t clearly answer the question you posed at it’s beginning. “Are devotional tattoos taboo or a genuine Vaishnava practice?”
The answer is simple. Tattooing is not a genuine Vaishnava practice. Because genuine Vaishnava practices are authorized in sastra and Tattooing isn’t authorized in sastra.
You are correct in stating that branding with the symbols of Lord Vishnu is authorized in the sastras. You are also correct in stating that using gopichandana clay for making such marks is also authorized in sastras. Most famously Madhva Vaishnavas do this on a daily basis after applying their 12 tilaka markings. For the exact sastric procedures please do contact me.
As you correctly stated the only Vaishnavas who engage in tattooing the name of God (Rama) on their bodies are Ramanamis. They have rejected all forms of class identification as Dvijas or Twice borns. So perhaps this is why they engage in this “tribal” practice. In India it is only lower class “tribal” persons who engage in tattooing. Whereas high class Dvijas and Brahmins commonly follow the practices given in sastras of branding or stamping with gopichandana. Those sporting tattoos will not be accepted in India in Vaishnava Brahmanical circles as high class.
Apart from being mentioned in sastras, the spiritual efficacy of branding and stamping with gopichandana, for purifying the body, is that at the time of doing so the brands are sanctified in a special fire yajna ritual and both brands and tilaka stamps are properly applied only while chanting of the Lord’s sacred names and mantras are being done. Even if one were to tattoo symbols and tilaka signs on one’s body one would still have to daily apply proper tilaka with the correct mantras and tilaka symbols with the correct prayers. This is the system given in sastras.
Tattoos may look nice and they may also remind us of the Lord and His pastimes. But they cannot be compared to the sacred brands and tilaka markings made according to Vaishnava sastras, just as an ordinary picture cannot be compared to the installed deity form of the Lord in His temple.
I normally don’t agree with Gaura Keshava Prabhu (GK) on many things but on this point I do.
I have had sankha-cakra mudra dharana (stamped with hot irons) done back in 1981 along with GK by Pejavara Swami. We didn’t know how serious it was at the time, that it was part of panca-samskara. GK just thought it was cool and I didn’t know anything and was just tagging along. He only had it done to 3 parts of his body (it does hurt), but I had it done to 5. When GK saw that I had more than him he also went for 5 (-:
In 1980 after reading in NOD that a devotee should have the names of Krsna written on his body I started to apply the names of Krsna to my body everyday along with my tilak as can be seen in this photo.
That is “Hare Krsna” stamped on my head. I feel naked without Krsna’s name stamped on my body.
I have about 6-7 different stamps including “Radhe-Shyama,” “Radha-Krsna,” “Sri Krsna,” “Jaya Sri Radhe,” and “Nitai-Gaura.” I rotate the names daily.
I once considered having ink tattoos done but an Iyengar brahmana told me it was not at all a good idea so I dropped it. Better to daily apply fresh tilak and Krsna’s name with gopicandan.
I recall walking in a Walmart in the USA wearing tilak and Krsna’s name very prominently displayed and people were very curious about my “body art.” So if it is a conversation starter you want just wear tilak and Krsna’s name on your body. No need to use ink.
And in most oriental societies (Japan, China, Korea etc) tattoos are associated with the underclass and criminal organizations (think Yakuza https://duckduckgo.com/?q=yakuza&ia=images) and Westerners have reported getting barred from hotels and restaurants, for sporting a tattoo, what to speak of getting employment. And one French woman was jailed in Sri Lanka (a Buddhist country) for wearing a tattoo of Lord Buddha. So what may seem like a good idea in one part of the world may be a bad one elsewhere
Basically it is not a good idea if you want to deal with higher strata of society even in the USA, what to speak of a place like India or China.
In regard to sastra one more point can be mentioned and that is that ink tattoos were not unknown in Vedic culture but they are not recommended in pancaratrik texts. Someone may argue “but they don’t say not to use ink tattoos therefore it is okay.” This may at first sound reasonable but there is a principle in mimamsa – Vedic hermeneutics – that if the sastra says that a practice should be done in a certain way it automatically means that it should not be done in other ways. Not that they have to enumerate all the ways it should not be done. What should not be done is automatically understand after understanding what should be done.
So in sastra it mentions to use hot brands or to use gopicandana, other methods are not sanctioned. QED
dasa dasa anu dasa
Shyamasundara Dasa ACBSP
Correction that was a British woman not a French one. Here is the article. And note she was a practicing Buddhist not just someone who wanted to sport some far out body art.
“Tattoo Of Buddha Gets British Tourist Thrown Out Of Sri Lanka”
“UK tourist recounts ‘hellish’ time in Sri Lanka over Buddha tattoo”
Thank you Shyam for the validation of my position that tattooing is not sastric.
One correction to your posting: You said about Madhva Tapta Mudra dharanam (branding with hot iron stamps of Conch and Disk done of Sayana Ekadasi or Dvadasi): “We didn’t know how serious it was at the time, that it was part of panca-samskara.”
I did know about it at the time. It is practiced by Madhva Vaisnavas on Sayana Ekadasi/Dvadasi every year. They do not practice it as part of panca samskara or vaishnava diksha because they in fact do not practice any form of vaisnava pancaratric diksha as we know it in the Gaudiya or Sri Vaisnava sampradayas. So for them it is simply a purificatory ceremony that comes around every year, not once in a lifetime like vaisnava diksha. Gaudiyas also have the same prescription given in Sri Hari Bhakti Vilasa by Sanatana and Gopal Bhatta Goswamis. However they don’t follow it today.
Only in Sri Vaisnava and Nimbarka sampradayas is tapta mudra dharanam (branding with hot conch and disc symbols) a part of vaishnava diksha. It is indeed part of their panca samskara or vaishnava diksha which is defined as tapa pundra tato nama mantro yagas ca pancamah. The definition of vaishnava pancaratric diksha includes these five things: branding, tilaka, receiving a spiritual name, receiving a spiritual mantra, and learning through the agency of the guru to surrender to God by worshiping Him.
Dear Gaura Keshava Prabhu thank you for that clarification about the Madhvas and Pancaratra. I figures as much because while the Sri Vaisnavas have many Pancaratrik texts that they follow (Isvara Samhita, Paramesvara Samhita, Satvata Samhita, Jayakya Samhita etc) the Madhvas only have “Tantra Sara Sangraha” for everything. Bhaktisiddhanta mentions that Madhva and Rudra Sampradaya (Visnu Svami aka Vallabhas) are Bhagavata sampradaya whereas Sri and Nimbarka are Pancaratrik sampradaya. But that each group does take something from the other.
One more thing we didn’t go to the Purna Prajna Vidya Pitha on Sayana Ekadasi but rather on the Ekadasi directly after Janmastami 1981. I remember it well.
I’ve heard from locals in Puri that in the Jagannath Mandir one is not allowed to perform seva if he has any tattoos. That seems to apply to the puja-pandas, Lord Jagannath’s main servants. I’ve noticed that at least among the younger members, it is common for the Daitya-pati Pandas to have tattoos.
In any case, it is very rare for sadhu vaishnavas in Puri to have tattoos.
As a note: The Daitya-patis are considered to be descendants of the Brahmin Vidyapati with Lalita, the daughter of the outcaste Visvasu. Although they are devotees of Jagannath, they are not allowed to render services to the Lord most of the year. The puja-pandas are considered to be descendants of Vidyapati and his Brahmin wife. They are the main sevaks of Jagannath in Puri, while the Daitya-patis are in charge of the Lord’s seva during the anavasara period, Ratha-yatra, and Nava-kalevaram.