Irked by Ink “Inking with the Supreme,” by Madhava Smullen, in the September/ October issue encourages tattooing in our ISKCON movement. But outside of the clay tilaka markings with which we adorn our bodies, there is no mention in sastra of Gaudiya Vaisnavas marking their bodies, especially not with ink tattoos.
The article describes the process of branding the body with symbols of Visnu, but this is done specifically by followers of Ramanuja in the Sri Sampradaya.
In Raga-vartma-candrika, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura says that for Gaudiya Vaisnavas branding the body with marks of Visnu is not appropriate.
Closer to home, Srila Prabhupada never encouraged such a practice. One might argue that he didn’t oppose it either, but I think it’s safer to conclude that if he didn’t specifically condone it we shouldn’t introduce a new so-called devotional practice.
How is a tattoo any different than a picture? In fact, it often is a picture. Do we take a painting of Krsna into the toilet? Of course, one can quote Gopala Guru Gosvami, who said to Lord Caitanya that the holy name is so pure that it can be chanted anywhereeven in the restroombut no such concession has ever been given for a deity of the Lord.
“The deity form of the Lord is said to appear in eight varieties: stone, wood, metal, earth, paint, sand, the mind, or jewels.” (Haribhakti- vilasa)
“One of the eight kinds of deity is the two-dimensional, painted picture. The devotee may worship the picture mürti . . . just as he worships a three-dimensional mürti.” (Pañcaratra-pradipa, ISKCON GBC Press)
The author tries hard to establish that tattooing is a Vais- nava practice, but other than one quote from Baladeva Vidyabhüsana he gives no other scriptural reference and not a single precedent for such a practice in our Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition. Baladeva Vidyabhüsana writes that branding the symbols of Visnu on the body is an example of austerity, but again, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura (Baladeva’s guru) clearly states that Gaudiya Vaisnavas themselves don’t do this. Did Srila Prabhupada, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, Gaura Kisora Dasa Babaji, or Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura brand their bodies with symbols of Visnu or have tattoos? No. In fact, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura wrote against branding:
“In the Sri Sampradaya of Ramanuja, tapa [austerity] is given by branding the body with the symbols of conch and disc, but Sri Caitanyadeva has instructed that we mark the body with harinama using sandal paste, etc., instead of brands. This rule is a blessing for the souls of Kali-yuga.” (Pañca Saµskara, page 2)
My fear is that the practice of tattooing (against the specific instructions of our previous acaryas) will become a tradition in our movement in due course of time. We can’t dovetail anything and everything and call it spiritual. For me “devotional tattoos” are introducing something new. Srila Prabhupada warned us against introducing new practices.
One last argument is that although tattooing is becoming more acceptable in society, it is not so widespread that it can be called a common practice among the mass of people. It is still very marginal. We are presenting the highest culture (wherein there is no tattooing), which means we must always present ourselves as ladies and gentlemen.- Indradyumna Swami 
Madhava Smullen replies: You have made many excellent and valid points in your letter, and I think that if serious devotees are considering getting a tattoo they should study your objections and think twice before they make a decision. At no stage was it my intention to promote tattooing or to instill it as an ISKCON tradition. I do not have any tattoos myself, and most probably never will. But it is simply a fact that many devotees and friends of Krsna get devotional tattoos, a cultural phenomena that makes for an interesting article. And that’s all it was meant to be not an endorsement. I hope this is obvious from the article and that I have given a balanced perspective of the phenomenon, including its negative sides.
Regarding the problem of bringing a picture of Krsna into the bathroom, once again I will not defend tattoos or contest your objections. But I will point out that we seem to make exceptions about bringing holy items into the bathroom when they’re attached to our bodies. For example, our Tulasi neck beads (what to speak of Krsna in the heart) and our tilaka (which represents, in one interpretation, Radha-Krsna). So this may be a subject of further discussion for devotees.
This article is relevant because tattoos are becoming more and more mainstream, no longer restricted to “lower class” people such as motorcycle gangs. Sure, tattoos may not be recommended for strict devotees living in the temple, but is not Krsna consciousness also for the t-shirted and tattooed? Do we want to prohibit something that doesn’t have a specific rule against it, and alienate so many? If people want to express their devotion with tattoos, why not let them do it? Do we need to control such expressions of devotion?
And would it really be such a bad thing if millions of people started wearing Krsna tattoos? Our acaryas were always looking for ways to get Krsna into the public consciousness, and as demonstrated in the article, tattoos are doing exactly that.
Distinguishing Bhakti From Gauna-dharma Your July/August issue was wonderful, with its Tirupati article and intelligent contributions from devotees. However, a comment by one devotee, “Raising my child is my favorite type of devotional service . . .” was technically incorrect. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati comments on Brahma-saµhita (5.61) that “duties of the world” that are connected with the Supreme are “subsidiary spiritual functions (gauna-dharma),” being helpful for the growth of bhakti. Begetting and caring for children is such a function, not actually actually bhakti, or devotional service.
The distinction is important because untrained householders tend to substitute gauna-dharma for bhakti. The idea that any activity connected with Krsna is devotional service is incorrect. It is important to know the difference between gauna-dharma, which prepares the field for bhakti, and actual bhakti. For example, when a devotee brushes his or her teeth it is gaunadharma, because the devotee is taking care of the body, which is used in Krsna’s service. Some activities that are done with a child for example, hearing, chanting, and so onare bhakti. However, some activities are gauna (material preparation), not bhakti.- Dayananda Dasa, New York
Reply was written by Krsna-krpa Dasa.
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