A special (if belated) thanks to all the faculty and students who welcomed me so warmly in Gainesville in December. I'm delighted to see that our conversations have sparked an ongoing discussion: Take a look at this recent blog entry, courtesy of Ken Chitwood, on the commonalities between religious forehead markings in Christianity, Hinduism, and other religious traditions.
This week, in fact, proves to be the perfect occasion to discuss the facial embodiment of religion: this year, Ash Wednesday and the Hindu (Śaiva) holiday Mahāśivarātri, the Great Night of Śiva. Both, incidently, involve marking the forehead with ash.
In much of south Asia, members of certain religious communities quite literally wear their identities on their foreheads. Among south Indian Hindus, Śaivas and Vaiṣṇavas alike often signal their community of belonging with a sectarian mark called a tilaka, which they paint on their foreheads daily with ash or sandal paste. Śaivas apply three horizontal stripes of ash called a tripuṇḍra; Vaiṣṇavas typically paint an upward facing semicircle with sandal paste, the ūrdhvapuṇḍra. Although markings are integral to the daily religious practice of both Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava Hindus, theologians on both sides have struggled to adjudicate on scriptural grounds just how, when, and by whom such tilakas ought to be applied.
In my book manuscript, and in Public Philology, I explore how textual justifications of the tilaka, and other embodiment practices such as branding, confront us with the potential influence of theological debate to shift the terrain of religious community formations. Far from constructing a value-neutral space of public exchange, the philological inquiries of Smārta Śaivas and their rivals served to visibly demarcate the boundaries between competing sectarian communities. Individuals could instantly distinguish co-religionists from outsiders on the basis of such insignia, which served as indexical signs of one’s community of affiliation. As a result, echoes of the exchanges between Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava scholars have left an indelible impression on the religious landscape of south India, fostering a visual demarcation of religious difference.