Tilaka: The Mark of God

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Anyone who wishes to acknowledge the simple truth that “I am Lord Krishna’s servant” can wear tilaka, the clay mark devotees wear on the forehead and other places on their body. You may not feel you have much devotion to Krishna, but you’re not prohibited from wearing tilaka, because it’s a sign that you’re trying to be His devotee. What’s more, the qualifications for being Krishna’s devotee soon develop in a person who learns the art of wearing tilaka.

Why Decorate the Body?

A devotee of Krishna decorates the body because it’s a temple of God. Instead of decorating our body as if it were the self, or destroying it, or despising it for its filthy emissions, we can respect and care for it as a residence of the Supreme Lord. The soul lives within the body, and so too does the Supersoul, the Lord. As a house is built and maintained for the pleasure of its owner, so “our” body is meant for the pleasure of its real owner, Lord Krishna. Decorating the body with tilaka pleases Him.

Putting on tilaka helps remind us we belong to Krishna. And when others see a person wearing tilaka they are not only reminded of Krishna but relieved of sinful reactions.

When we wear tilaka on our bodies, the Lord protects us from all sides. When Srila Prabhupada gave a disciple the name Tilaka Dasi, he told her that Tilaka meant “victory personified.”

When to Wear Tilaka

Although you can put on tilaka anytime, the best time to apply it is after bathing or showering. Wearing tilaka is especially appropriate during your puja, or worship, at home. When you’re worshiping as a family, everyone can wear it, or at least the person offering arati (the pujari). You can also wear tilaka when you visit the temple or attend festivals like Rathayatra.

An important time to wear it is at death. Either before someone dies or just afterwards, if you apply tilaka at least to the person’s forehead, he or she will obtain eternal benefit. Of course, death can come anytime, and so it’s wise to wear tilaka always.

You may feel shy about wearing tilaka publicly, but don’t jump to conclusions about what others may think. They may be intrigued. Srila Prabhupada told a story about a factory in India where most of the Hindu workers were accustomed to wearing tilaka. When their new boss, a Muslim, told them that whoever kept wearing tilaka would lose his job, the next day everyone except one man came to work with forehead blank. So then the owner called a meeting and announced that from then on this one brave man would be the only person allowed to keep wearing tilaka.

Different Types of Tilaka

If you travel in India you’ll see a variety of marks adorning people’s foreheads and bodies. Such marks indicate their affiliation with a particular group and their devotion to a certain form of God or demigod. Broadly speaking, you will see two types of tilaka: the vertical mark of the Vaishnavas, or devotees of Krishna and His incarnations, and the three horizontal lines of the Saivites, followers of Shiva and adherents to the impersonal conception of God.

Among the Vaishnavas are many sub-groups, identifiable by their styles of tilaka—it’s shape and color and the type of material used to make it. The tilaka worn by devotees in the Hare Krishna movement indicates that we are in the disciplic line from Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. The upper part of this tilaka, shaped like the prongs of a tuning-fork, represents Lord Krishna’s footprint, and the leaf-shaped part on the nose represents a leaf of the tulasi, Krishna’s favorite plant. The two lines also represent the walls of a Radha-Krishna temple, and so the space between the lines is Radha and Krishna’s abode. For other Vaishnavas the two lines may indicate Brahma and Siva, and the space between the abode of Vishnu. A red line in the center may represent Lakshmi, Lord Vishnu’s eternal consort. The two lines may also indicate the banks of the Yamuna. Or they may represent Lord Rama and Lakshmana standing on either side of Sita. The stroke at the base of the tilaka represents the devotee Hanuman knealing at Their feet. Tilaka styles are as varied as the understandings behind them.

How to Make Tilaka

ISKCON devotees generally make their tilaka from a cream-colored clay called gopi-candana, obtained from a sacred lake near Dvaraka, Lord Krishna’s ancient city on the west coast of Gujarat. Krishna’s greatest devotees, the gopis, once visited this lake. You can most likely obtain some from your local temple or supplier of devotional items. If not, clay from Vrindavana or any other holy place is fine. You can even use potters’ clay. According to the Hari-bhakti-vilasa, a book by Srila Sanatana Gosvami on Vaishnava practices, any kind of earth may be used for tilaka, especially earth from a riverbank or from beneath a tulasi bush.

Put a little water in the palm of your left hand and move your block or ball of tilaka clay briskly until you get a smooth paste. As you do this, chant Hare Krishna, or if you like you can recite a mantra from the Padma Purana. You can find this mantra in a purport in the Caitanya-caritamrita (Madhya 20.202).

How to Apply Tilaka

Apply tilaka with the ring finger of your right hand. Make a mark—about as wide as the space between your eyebrows—from the root of your nose to your hairline. Now use another finger, perhaps the little one, to make a clear space in the middle to form two vertical lines. If these lines come out crooked, you can straighten them with a third finger. If your forehead is bumpy, like mine, you can develop your own way of applying the clay. Now make the leaf- shaped mark, which should extend from the base of the lines to about three quarters of the way down the nose.

After marking your forehead, apply tilaka to eleven other places on your body, as shown on the facing page.

As you apply the tilaka, recite the appropriate names of Vishnu listed here. Om keshavaya namah means “O my Lord Keshava, I offer my respectful obeisances unto You.” So as we mark our bodies, we chant twelve of His holy names.

If you can’t find the clay to make tilaka (or if your wearing tilaka wouldn’t sit well with your boss), you can go through the same procedure using only water. Use water that has bathed the Deity or pure water you’ve sanctified by chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. By chanting the names of the Lord and applying the invisible representation of His temple, you’ll be protected and spiritually inspired for a Krishna conscious day.