Two doctors discover the benefits of doing their work while wearing tilaka, the symbol of the Lord, on their foreheads.
IN ONE OF OUR FIRST meetings with His Holiness Sivarama Swami Maharaja, who is now our spiritual master, he instructed my husband and me, "Now you are doctors of the body. You should become doctors of the soul." Shortly after, he directed us to wear tilaka to work.
That was more than thirteen years ago, and his instruction to wear tilaka has given us many opportunities to share Krsna consciousness in our daily lives. Our duties as general practitioners/family physicians are performed in our surgeries, in hospitals, and at a university medical school where we teach. We also visit patients in their homes and other residential institutions, such as homes for the elderly. We're parents too, so parental duties take us into schools and shops, to children's activities, and into contact with other parents. We have come to appreciate all these situations as opportunities for spiritual exchanges.
When we first met Krsna devotees, I was already accustomed to wearing the red kumkum dot on the forehead, as is done by married Indian women. From a young age I had learned that this would bring auspiciousness into our marriage. Daily, as I got used to applying it, whether I got dressed in a sari or in Western clothes, I prayed for my husband's continued welfare. I got used to people asking what it was for. Sometimes I would explain that it was like my wedding ring, solemnizing my marriage vows.
Because of my father's strictness, my sisters and I were not allowed to cut our hair. I wore mine long, braided or tied in a bun. When my husband and I were newly qualified as doctors, a senior Indian colleague mentioned that the generation of Indian wom-en with their traditional saris, ornaments, and embellishments was being threatened by a new gene-ration that adopted Western dress styles. But we began to appreciate the abiding faithfulness in these practices shown by many middle-aged and, particularly, elderly Indian women. There was something especially coherent, we sensed, in their maintaining their dress culture. It even seemed to help them cope with illness and family tragedies. Besides, they looked beautiful and dignified.
Our feelings were reinforced when we read Srila Prabhupada's instructions on Vedic dress codes. He said that his female disciples looked more beautiful when they dressed the Indian way. And he wrote that when devotees of Krsna, men and women, were properly dressed with tilaka on their bodies and beads in their hands and on their necks they seemed to be coming from Vaikuntha, the spiritual world.
The sari gradually became more and more my everyday attire, even in rain or snow. My grandmother, who came to England in 1966 and lived to 82, had never worn anything else. My mother, who arrived seven years later, would take occasional exceptions to don Sulwar kameez, or trouser pants.
Srila Prabhupada's instructions on dress were not fanatical. His emphasis was always on dressing as a means for spreading Krsna consciousness. He encourged a disciple, about to address a group of scientists, to wear Western dress but keep his tilaka and sikha the tuft of hair on his otherwise shaven head.
Srila Prabhupada compared the devotees' dress to that of a policeman: "Just like a policeman. As soon as he appears in his dress 'Oh! Here is a policeman!' So, similarly, these things tilaka, neck beads, dress are required to remind others. Our process is to raise persons to Krsna consciousness. So if by our symbolic representation one immediately remembers Krsna, that is our success."
Recently I was inspired when listening to some girls who are part of the Bhaktivedanta Manor congregation. They want to embrace the practice of wearing a sari and tilaka in their daily lives. Most of them are students or professionals in mainstream British society. One girl, a Gujarati accountant, said that her biggest hurdle was her mother, who had felt pressured to adapt to the prevailing dress culture on her arrival to Britain.
Uneasy With Tilaka
For me, the tilaka was more of a challenge than the sari. Early attempts by my husband and me to install the tilaka on the forehead did not always produce satisfying results: not straight enough, not always in the middle, the lines too thick or uneven. A lot would be peeling off by the time I reached my surgery. My spectacles would get in the way. My confidence would waver, and I'd rub most of it off. What were our staff members thinking? Colleagues? Patients? What of those eye contacts that made a sudden diversion? My husband was asked, "Have you been decorating, doc? You have paint on your nose." The sweetest were the children and babies, who would just stare with frank eyes. Some parents would allow them to look on, or would enquire further. Others would rush off in embarrassment.
We began to realize that people's embarrassment was proportional to our level of unease with the tilaka, and our ignorance of its underlying spiritual worth. Once I was struck by the appearance of a couple of Punk patients with suorescent lime and shocking pink hair. "Why is the oddity of my tilaka daunting me?" I asked myself.
One Christmas eve, an eighty-four-year-old Catholic nun asked me as a parting shot, "You don't celebrate Christmas, do you, doctor?"
Half an hour later, after hearing my Krsna conscious perspective, she left, pointing accusingly at me with her wizened finger.
"The only problem with professional people like you," she said, "is that whilst you believe in God, you do not make it your practice to publicize it so!"
My forehead tilaka, and its carriage, would get bolder from that day.
We came to appreciate that anyone who happened to see this symbol of the Lord on our foreheads would get spiritual credit. We were no longer applying the tilaka for our own sake. The doctor of the body could become the doctor of the soul.
The Padma Purana states, "Those who have Visnu tilaka on their foreheads are to be understood as the devotees of Lord Visnu in this world. Their presence makes the world purified, and anywhere they remain, they make that place as good as Vaikuntha." The Skanda Purana says that a person decorated with tilaka need not fear the Yamadutas, the agents of Yamaraja, who punishes the sinful after death. The tilaka wearer, when seen even once, can help the seer become relieved from all sinful activities.
Srila Prabhupada said that although we need not disturb people who might think our appearance strange, we must show who we are by wearing tilaka. He said that Caitanya Mahaprabhu would not see a person's face if there was no tilaka. Lord Caitanya compared such a face to a crematorium ground.
Tilaka sparks conversations in unexpected of places. Recently, in the dentist's waiting room, the receptionist asked across her desk what the beautiful face decoration was in aid of. When I explained, she observed that neither of my two sons was wearing tilaka, adding that she too had challenges practicing her Christian faith with her teenager. My son Govinda responded by showing her his sikha.
At a recent medical symposium, the courage of two sisters, devout Muslims, reinforced for me the need for the outer expression of one's faith. When the organizer asked for any special needs, they unhesitatingly stood up in Muslim attire and asked about arrangements for their obligatory prayers.
Back in our surgery, my husband is asked, "What's that war paint on your face, doc?"
The patient, an emergency walk-in, has lived with Native Americans and fondly recalls that they always painted their faces. After his medical problems are solved, my husband speaks to him about tilaka.
"Yes, ours is a kind of war paint, too," my husband says. "It symbolizes a spiritual war to end all our suffering in the material world."
Hare Krsna Devi Dasi and her husband, Pundarika Dasa (Dr. Paul Oliver), live in Nottingham, England.