Whenever the various Catholic Holy days come around on the calendar, I tend to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, how I got here, what I used to believe, what I used to supposedly believe because of what I labeled myself, etc. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. The last time I ever went to an Ash Wednesday Mass was when I was a child. But I do remember going and getting the mark of the Holy Cross etched upon my forehead in ash. By the time I really knew what it meant, I wasn’t going to church anymore.
For those who don’t know, Ash Wednesday signifies the beginning of the 40 days that the Christ spent in the desert fasting and (the Bible says) being taunted by Satan. Catholics wear the cross as a sign of strength in Christ, but also a remembrance that having come from dust, so we shall return. The ash is applied by the priest.
Hindus wear a tilak on the forehead made of sandalwood paste, clay from a sacred river, turmeric, or sometimes ash taken from a fire sacrifice. It can be as simple as a dot, or a line, but is of varying design depending on the person’s sect. For example the tilak for the Vaisnav sect to which I subscribe is a white U shape with a red marking in its midst, with minor variations amongst the different versions of Vaisnavism. In Sri Vaishnavism the U shape represents the feet of Narayana (the Infinite Lord) and the red marking represents Lakshmi (the feminine characteristics of the Lord).
The tilak is worn on any particularly Holy or auspicious occasion all throughout the year, or depending on the person it is applied daily as a meditative practice, when one meditates on the divine qualities of the Great Within.
It is applied by the worshiper him/herself.
This personal experience, unconfined to one particular day, appealed to me quite a lot even though it is not something I do with any regularity at all. Since early in my spiritual quest I decided to get the Sri Vaishnava tilak tattooed on my arm, I guess I have never felt the need to do daily sandalwood or ash tilak application. However, even though the tilak represents the infinite form of the Lord, while I wash that arm, I will always become mindful of all of the divine qualities of the Lord in Its perceivable (I don’t want to say finite) form, He Whom we worship, whether it be Jesus Christ or Bhagavan Krishna, etc.
The great thing about it is these are qualities to which most of us would agree that we would do well to aspire, believers or not. Being ever mindful that all personal spiritual paths are taken because they are appropriate for the individual, I think of my tilak as an upgrade, for me.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti!