By Madhava Smullen
Are devotional tattoos taboo or a genuine Vaishnava practice?
Tattoos have been inked permanently into modern culture. Walk down any busy city street and you’ll spot a vast number of tattooees, ranging all the way from the young female professional with a butterfly on her shoulder blade to the wild punk rocker with hardly any space left for his white skin to shine. For some reason, having an unremovable image of a two-headed dragon eating its own face sprawled across their chest until their dying breath is an idea that appeals to a lot of people. National Geographic News reported in April 2000 that fifteen per cent of Americans were tattooed. That’s around forty million people.
Now, surely a Hare Krishna devotee would be the last person you’d expect to see among those forty million, right?
Wrong. The fact is that many devotees sport tattoos, and their number is increasing. Is this a purely whimsical fad, or do our ancient traditions and scriptures hold any foundations for devotional tattooing?
Take a magnifying glass to Indian tribal traditions, and you uncover the first clues. For instance, certain tribes believe that Lord Rama’s greatest devotee, Hanuman, can be tattooed on a recurring dislocating shoulder to relieve the pain. The women of the nomadic Ribari tribe of Kutch in northwest India, one of the places the Pandavas visited during their exile, have many extremely elaborate tattoos. And the Ramnami community, scattered across the Indian states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, began a painful custom in the nineteenth century: they had the name of Rama in Sanskrit tattooed on practically every inch of skin, even on their tongues and inside their lips. This practice was meant to protect them from bigoted caste-conscious brahmanas they had angered by adopting brahminical customs, and is still carried on today.
So far, so tribal. But serious Vaishnava practitioners will need more tangible scriptural endorsement before they start injecting ink into their skin.
A Burning Impression
Chaturatma Dasa knows where to find this endorsement. A pujari at ISKCON’s Radha-Syamasundara temple in Alachua, Florida, he doesn’t have tattoos on every inch of his skin. But he does have a healthy collection.
“I have three Sanskrit mantras, two on one arm and one on the other,” he tells me with his trademark enthusiasm. “Two are in praise of Govardhana, my worshipable deity. The other one, for my protection, is Nrsimha [Krishna’s half-man half-lion incarnation]. Then on each arm I also have Sri Kumbha, the sacred pots used in fire sacrifices.”
He has to pause for breath.
“On my back, I’ve got two of the greatest warriors in Vedic history—Arjuna on one side and Parashurama on the other. They’re complemented by a fire sacrifice pit in between them, and they protect my back from any misfortune. Next, on my chest are two aspects of Krishna’s beauty—Lord Krishna Himself and His dwarf incarnation, Vamana.”
As if this wasn’t enough, his arms are also graced with tattoos of the four sacred symbols of Vishnu: club, disc, lotus, and conchshell.
“Not one of them was done on a whim. I spent four or five years charting them all out and doing careful research.”
“I’m a pujari and often walk around with my tattoos on full display. I’d better be able to explain them!”
Of course, Chaturatma concedes, the modern incarnation of tattooing wasn’t around during or before the birth of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, but there are close parallels. In the Prameya Ratnavali, the eighteenth-century Vaishnava commentator Baladeva Vidyabhushana cites five purificatory processes (panca-samskara) that, along with spiritual initiation, bring one direct perception of Lord Krishna: austerity, wearing tilaka, performing sacrifices, accepting a new name at initiation, and chanting mantras glorifying the Lord.
Baladeva’s elaboration is surprising: “In this verse, the word austerity means to accept the branded marks of Lord Vishnu: the disc, lotus, conch, and mace”—the very images Chaturatma has tattooed on his arms.
Like tattooing, branding is permanent, and yes, very painful.
A tradition that goes back to at least A.D. 1017, it’s still practiced today by followers of both Madhvacharya and Ramanujacharya, mainly in the South Indian states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh. What’s more, for Sri Vaishnavas, Ramanuja’s followers, it’s an essential part of the initiation process.
It’s morning, and the air is cool. As the sun rises behind you and the birds start to twitter, your heart beats fast but you sit quietly, staring at the blazing sacrificial pit in front of you. A married priest performs the fire ceremony. Offering oblations, he invokes the ayudha-devatas, personified forms of Lord Vishnu’s sacred weapons.
Metal stamps in the traditional shape of each weapon are then attached to metal poles and held within the dancing flames. After some time, your guru takes them and taps them on a plate. You watch, knowing that this is to make sure no loose pieces of hot charcoal come off on your skin. Finally, he begins to chant the mantra for Sudarshana, Lord Vishnu’s discus. It’s time. You tense. You feel the red hot brand press against your right shoulder, burning, stinging. Then the Pancajanya mantra is chanted, and the symbol of Vishnu’s conchshell is branded on your left shoulder. You sigh. It’s over.
You are now ready for the rest of your initiation ceremony.
Fortunately for us, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and the acharyas in His line have recommended that one use tilaka clay instead of branding to draw Vishnu’s symbols on the body. So if you’re on the list for spiritual initiation, no need to scream and run—no Gaudiya Vaishnava guru will try to press a red-hot iron pole against your arm during the ceremony.
The Sacred Clay Connection
Branding gets its fair amount of exposure in our traditions and scriptures. But it’s tilaka—Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s recommended alternative—that presents our closest parallel to tattooing.
Every Gaudiya Vaishnava is aware of the virtues of wearing tilaka, or sacred clay. The u-shaped mark and oval worn on the forehead is one of our most instantly recognizable symbols.
But what you may be surprised to learn is that Vaishnava scriptures also contain instructions to write the holy names with tilaka—and even to draw pictures on the body with it. In Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, which contains the complete science of bhakti-yoga, Rupa Goswami tells us, “In marking such tilaka, sometimes one may write Hare Krishna on the body.” And elsewhere in the same book, he quotes the Skanda Purana on a benefit of wearing tilaka: “Persons whose bodies are marked with tilaka, symbolizing the conchshell, wheel, club, and lotus… even seen once, can help the seer be relieved from all sinful activities.”
In Hari-bhakti-vilasa, compiled by Rupa’s brother Sanatana, Lord Vishnu states: “I enter within the hearts of those devotees who, in the age of Kali, decorate their bodies with drawings of My incarnations, such as Matsya and Kurma… Those who wear the drawings of My incarnations on their bodies are not ordinary human beings—they exist on the same platform as My incarnations.”
Discussing the subject in great detail, Hari-bhakti-vilasa continues to enforce its point for over fifty verses, even going so far as to suggest, “If a fallen brahmana does not decorate his body with tilaka, as well as drawings of a conch shell and disc, then the king should put him on the back of a donkey and drive him out of his kingdom.”
Fair enough. But as you’re spurring your donkey on into the sunset, you may want to ask, “Is all this really that important?”
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura certainly had an opinion.
In his 1885 essay Pancha Samskara: The Process of Initiation, he discusses the five purificatory processes from Prameya Ratnavali mentioned earlier in this article, two of which are tapa (defined by Baladeva Vidyabhushana as branding) and wearing tilaka markings.
Yes, he acknowledges them as prescribed ways to sanctify oneself so that one’s true spiritual nature can develop. But far more forcefully, he condemns being concerned only with the external: “Tapa applies not only to the body, but also to the mind and the soul. If it is only physical, in the form of branding or stamping, then tapa has not actually taken place and religious practice becomes hypocritical.”
He continues emphasizing the hollowness of such an approach: “Externally the student looks good, but internally there is nothing. The symbols of divine conch, disc, and the name of Hari [Krishna] mark the body. The tongue utters the name of Hari, and worship of shalagrama-shila or the deity with mantra is performed, but the student is addicted to endless sinful practices.”
Real devotion in the heart overrides just looking like a devotee and apparently acting like one. Wear tilaka just for show and it’ll do little for your progress in Krishna consciousness. The same goes for devotional tattoos. They can become an obsession, a dangerous distraction. Wear them, however, with the right mood, meditation, and intentions, and they become powerful tools in Krishna’s service.
Lakshmimani Dasi, recently retired headmistress of the Vaishnava Academy for Girls in Alachua, agrees.
“We’re supposed to do everything to remind us of Krishna. So if we’re getting a tattoo for another reason, then we have to examine our motives.”
Her single tattoo, the words Sri Sri Radha-Krishna in Sanskrit Devanagari script beneath a lotus flower, reflects her “less is more” outlook.
“Samosas are delicious, but if you eat four hundred of them, you get sick. So if something material like a tattoo helps you to remember Krishna, it can be used in Krishna’s service, but if it’s used in excess, then it becomes an end in itself.”
Lakshmimani says her tattoo, a birthday present from her daughter, does its job.
“I wanted something that had Krishna on it so that I would never be able to forget Him, so that He’d be with me all the time. And that’s what happened. I guess it’s just part of me now.”
What’s more, her tattoo doesn’t benefit her alone.
“People approach me constantly to ask me what it is and what it says, because it’s in Sanskrit. It’s a great excuse to tell them about Krishna.” Chaturatma Dasa has had the same experience.
“Once I was doing some yardwork at a devotee friend’s house. Since it was a hot summer’s day, I wasn’t wearing a shirt, and all my tattoos were on full display. Suddenly, a delivery van pulled up, and as it came closer, I saw the wording on its side: ‘Bill’s Home Delivery Shrimp and Fresh-Cut Meats. Wholesale to your door.’
“ ‘Oh, oh,’ I thought, ‘He doesn’t realize where he’s just pulled into.’ So I walked over to the car, and the passenger window came down. It was an old guy who had obviously lived in the area for years. ‘How you doin’ there, sir,’ he says. ‘I’m just going around door to door selling these shr—”
Chaturatma freezes dramatically.
“Suddenly the guy stops in mid-sentence. ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘I can see by your tattoos you’re not gonna be interested in what I’m selling. I might as well just take my truck on down the road to the next house. You’re one of those Hare Krishna people, and I know you guys are vegetarian and don’t eat meat.’”
As Chaitanya Mahaprabhu once said, “A Vaishnava is he who, when seen, reminds one of Krishna.”
So. Let’s say you’ve thought about it. Let’s say you’ve decided that getting a Krishna conscious tattoo is a bona fide way to express your devotion, to remind yourself and others of Krishna.
Come into My Tattoo Parlour
Kalpavriksha Dasa works at Ron’s Tattoos in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He got his first tattoo at fifteen, inspired by the Cro Mags, a Hare Krishna straightedge band and tattoo afficionados. A professional tattoo artist for over fifteen years, he’s tattooed close to one hundred devotees.
His first piece of advice is to-the-point straight talk.
“Whatever tattoo you’re getting, just make sure it’s something you’ll be happy living with. Because it’s gonna stay with your body longer than you will.”
When it comes to artwork, he is partial to that of Gujarati artist B.G. Sharma.
“His style practically already looks like tattoos. Everything has an outline, and his shading is similar to the way I’d shade or color a tattoo. It’s really easy to replicate.”
Besides Sharma’s devotional depictions of Krishna, Kalpavriksha has tattoed devotees with a variety of images, the most popular being the maha-mantra and Lord Nrisimhadeva. Then there are the more unusual ones, of course.
“One sannyasi, Bhakti Vishrambha Madhava Maharaja, got tattoos of all thirteen tilaka marks, including one on the back of his head, along with the corresponding mantras in Sanskrit. And I can’t forget my friend Jack, who’s been a devotee for a few years now. He has a huge Garuda covering his entire back, from his waist up to his neck.”
But like Lakshmimani, Kalpavriksha thinks that the best kind of tattoo a devotee can get is one with a built-in conversation starter.
“I have the maha-mantra tattooed in Bengali all over both of my arms, which is unique and completely unfamiliar to the average person. When people see it, they never fail to ask what it is.”
This happens so often that Kalpa keeps a stack of Srila Prabhupada’s small books handy at all times.
“I’ll tell clients what my tattoo is and what it means. Then if they seem interested, I’ll explain the maha-mantra and a little about Krishna consciousness. And eventually, if their interest deepens, I’ll hand them a book. I try to build a rapport with people. You can’t just hit them with everything all at once.”
Recent times, however, have brought on a new experience: Sometimes Kalpavriksha finds himself asking people about their Vedic tattoos.
“Modern Western tattooing has always had a heavy Asian influence, mainly from the two-hundred-year-old Japanese tradition. But in the past ten to twelve years, there’s been a huge rush of interest in Indian imagery. Yoga is really big these days, and students are often influenced to get tattoos of mantras and various symbols like the om sign. One girl walked into my tattoo shop sporting tattoos of different yogic asanas.”
There are more signs of this Vedic tattoo invasion everywhere. Pick up any modern tattoo magazine released within the past five to ten years, and you’ll find either an image directly related to Krishna, or something from the Vedic paradigm. The goddesses Kali, Durga, and Lakshmi flood tattoo parlours, as does Lord Siva. Lord Nrisimhadeva rears His fearsome head from the pages of tattoo magazines, and the friendly, easily identifiable face of Lord Jagannatha becomes more and more popular. Tattoo stores across the United States keep their own copy of the Krishna Art book. Krishna, in the form of art, is gradually infiltrating the tattoo-wearing public.
But for now, He still remains most popular with those who hold Him deep within their hearts.