The Significance of Holy Ash

A talk by Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami

“One of the songs of Thirugnanasambandar that I am familiar with is the one praising Lord Siva at Madurai Temple which he refers to as

திருவாலவாய் கோயில்

The song extols the greatness of Thiruneeru, or vibhuti, which refers to the holy ash worn by Saivites.

In Tamil the first verse reads:

மந்திர மாவது நீறு
வானவர் மேலது நீறு
சுந்தர மாவது நீறு
துதிக்கப் படுவது நீறு
தந்திர மாவது நீறு
சமயத்தி லுள்ளது நீறு
செந்துவர் வாயுமை பங்கன்
திருஆல வாயான் திருநீறே.  1

And the English translation reads:

The sacred ash has mystic power, 
  ‘Tis worn by dwellers in the sky. 
The ash bestows true loveliness,
  Praise of the ash ascends on high.
The ash shows what the Tantras mean
  And true religion’s easeness tells
The ash of Him of Alavay, 
  In whom red-lipped Uma dwells. 

Hymns of the Tamil Saivite Saints
Authors: F. Kingsbury and G.E. Phillips

In the most general sense, holy ash is a symbol for purity and is a reminder of the temporary nature of the physical body and the urgency to strive for spiritual attainment and closeness to God.

In a more specific sense, it is often worn on the brow in three stripes which is called a tripundra.

I was in Jaffna in March of this year and one of the unique sights there is to see many of the young school children wearing a tripundra. I have not see this elsewhere.

The tripundra relates to the concept of pâsam. In its common meaning pâsam is a rope. However, as a philosophical term it is a bond, or the obstructive principle, which hinders the souls from finding release in union with Šiva,

There is a verse from Yogaswami’s sayings in ‘Words of Our Master’ about pâsam. “Let go the rope! Just go about here and there. See everything. Be a witness. “Die before you die!’ (Devotee.What is the rope?) Pasam is the rope.”

The nature of pasam is threefold and consists of anava, karma and maya. The three lines of the tripundra therefore represent the burning away of the triple-fold bondage of anava, karma and mâyâ.

Said another way, we are reminded of a core concept regarding the Saiva spiritual path just by reflecting on the Tripundra.

Anava, karma and maya are also called the three malas, meaning impurities.

Tirumular’s Tirumantiram comments on this in verse ???, ‘When the soul attains Self-knowledge, then it becomes one with Siva. The malas perish, birth’s cycle ends and the lustrous light of wisdom dawns.’ (DWS Lesson 29)

Let’s take a brief look at each of these three concepts.

Anava ஆணவ is that which makes the soul think that it is an individual separate from God and separate from all other individuals. An analogy I like to use is taking a bucket and dipping it into the ocean. The water in the bucket then becomes separated from the water of the ocean. The bucket represents anava, that which causes a sense of separateness.

Karma is a principle all Hindus are familiar with. It is an automatic
system of divine justice. By this law, what we sow, we will reap. Good, helpful thoughts, words and deeds bring good karma to us in

the future. Hurtful actions bring back to us painful karma. Doing bad is like planting poison ivy. Doing good is like planting delicious mangos.

The term mâyâ in Hindu philosophy is sometimes used to mean illusion or to say that something is unreal. That is not the sense it is used in Saiva Siddhanta. In Saiva Siddhanta, maya refers to all of creation and can be rendered simply as “the world.”

My guru had a simple way of explaining the relationship between these three aspects of bondage. He stated: ‘Maya is the classroom, karma the teacher, and anava the student’s ignorance.’

To elaborate on Gurudeva’s statement, the world of maya is a classroom where we experience the consequences of our actions. We are treated by others as we treated others in the past. If we swindled money from a business associate in the past, we will someday have that same experience—not immediately, but in time. The karmaphala, what the youth might call comeuppance, forces us to experience what the victims of our actions felt when we mistreated them. Such a realization can be seriously upsetting and disruptive, motivating us to never swindle others again. In this way, karma is our teacher. It teaches us to better understand the consequences of our behavior and, if we are attentive, improve it.

This process also works for dharmic actions as well. We are helping out as a volunteer at the temple in teaching children’s classes once a month. We like the feeling it gives us of helping others in a meaningful way and decide to help out every week and even participate in the meetings which plan out the classes. We are doing a selfless action and the reaction it has on us is to feel more inner joy. Therefore the jnana is to decide to do even more of it and thus feel more joyful. We have again improved our behavior.

To conclude, here is a quote from Gurudeva on the importance of learning from our experiences: ‘The basic laws of life are so simple that many people don’t heed them. Why? Generally because the opportunities afforded us to fail these tests are so plentiful that we generate very good reasons for not paying attention to our lessons. Shall we say it is normal to fail some of these tests? Yes, isn’t this like getting a failing grade on a report card in school, not passing some of the tests and having to take a course over again? We must learn from our experiences or find ourselves repeating them again and again.’”


One Response to “The Significance of Holy Ash”

  1. Rajendra Giri says:

    Jai Gurudeva!

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