Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #30 – Tattoo Tattva

July 24th, 2017

Big, burly, bearded and tattooed—they looked fierce and I was surrounded. They had gathered for the Hare Krishna initiation of their two friends. One of the candidates even had a tattoo on his head.  I went around after the function to greet everyone, including our tattooed friends, and a realization was confirmed. When it comes to the tattooed, the face is definitely not the index of the mind. These menacing looking souls were some of the gentlest people I have ever met. It got me thinking. Why do people get tattoos? It is certainly something I never even imagined doing.
When I was growing up there was one man at our summer pool club that had butterfly tattoos over each nipple of his chest. We would stare at him with amusement. I knew what those tattoos projected then: Low class!
My dear sister-in-law, my older brother’s wife, who was dying of cancer, got a Ganesha doll from an Indian nurse. She liked it and soon elephant gifts and charms started coming, and Ganesha, the elephant deity who removes obstacles, became her good luck charm. For solidarity my sister-in-law, her husband, and their two daughters decided to all get small matching Ganesha tattoos on their ankles. I heard that my younger brother was alarmed because one can neither be buried in a Jewish cemetery nor have a Jewish funeral service for the deceased if he or she sports goyish tattoos. They went to their rabbi, a man seemingly of depth, who explained why people thought it was forbidden, but how in essence it was not, or something like that, and how he would still officiate my sister-in-law’s funeral. They got them.
Anyway, that is one reason people get tattoos. External symbols foster identity, in this case family solidarity. I, myself, am not free of external symbols. Look at me with robes, a tuft of hair, and tilaka—markings with sacred clay to designate my body as a temple of God, a kind of temporary tattoo, all for the purpose of identity.
What you wear or mark on your body definitely supports your identity and communicates identity to others, but the external may also be superfluous or burdensome. Maharaja Yudhiṣṭhira sported royal dress for his service as the King, but when he decided it was time to renounce the world, the first thing he did was to discard his military dress, symbolizing and supporting an upādhi, a material designation, that bound him to the world when it was clearly time to leave.
Back to our question: Why do people get tattoos, and should they? I suppose sometimes it’s anger—a way to wear our rebellion. Many years ago, I once advised a sincere young man who was coming to Krishna consciousness that he should get no more tattoos because it was a waste of money and it didn’t foster the identity he was now seeking. His girlfriend informed me a few weeks later he was going through tough times, was suicidal, and that getting a tattoo was a way that he dealt with his pain. I felt terrible and rescinded my advice.
The rebellion and anger, however, may have a deeper spiritual side. After all, many of the devotees that repopulated the increasingly empty ISKCON temples in early ’90s were from the hardcore music scene, which mostly seemed an expression of frustration, many or most who wore their anger on their sleeves. [1] But for many their anger and frustration was directed properly, at the exploitive and superficial aspects of society that was oppressing their genuine desire for meaning and integrity, a yearning that eventually led them to bhakti.
I even knew one great Vaiṣṇava named Sri Kurma Rupa Prabhu who got tattooed around his neck the famous “tṛṇād api” verse about humility after reading Sri Caitanya’s recorded biography where he declares:
“Raising my hands, I declare, ‘Everyone please hear me! String this verse on the thread of the holy name and wear on your neck for continuous remembrance.’ ”  [2]
And there it was in Sanskrit tattooed plainly and subtly around his neck like a necklace:
“One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking one self lower than the straw in the street, more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant constantly.” [3]
Back to the very gentle souls with sleeves, now in their mid-40s. Perhaps they grew up very kind and vulnerable in an imposing and aggressive world and marked their bodies with signs of rebellion to project an image that made others want to leave them alone. I don’t know, but like most things, they are not good and bad in themselves, but their value is determined by their use, and the things once needed at one stage of one’s life, like imposing tattoos, may or may not be suitable at a later time in one’s life. But although in one sense the external is superficial, in another sense it is not, as it can represent who we are. But more important than representing who we want to project, often to satisfy our ego, even that “I am a devotee”, is to actually be something that is worthy of representing, so that representing it, or wearing it, is a service to ourselves and others.
I will leave you with this thought from Srila Prabhupada’s translation of the twenty-first item of devotional practice from the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu:
“One should decorate the body with tilaka, which is the sign of a Vaiṣṇavas. (The idea is that as soon as a person sees these marks on the body of a Vaiṣṇava, he will immediately remember Krishna. Lord Caitanya said that a Vaiṣṇava is he who, when seen, reminds one of Krishna. Therefore, it is essential that a Vaiṣṇava mark his body with tilaka to remind other of Krishna.)”

[1] A sleeve tattoo (or tattoo sleeve) is a large tattoo, or a collection of smaller tattoos, that has a unified theme, that covers most or all of a person’s arm, usually from shoulder to wrist.
[2] (Caitanya-caritāmṛta Ādi-līlā 17.32)
[3] (Śikṣāṣṭakam verse 3)

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