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Bindis: The Westernization of a Spiritual Tradition

Based on recent pictures from the 2014 Coachella Music Festival in California, there seems to be an up-and-coming trend in the world of fashion.  From the Kardashians, to Katy Perry, to Selena Gomez during her infamous performance at the MTV Movie Awards last year, many non-Indian, non-Hindu women have began wearing bindis on their foreheads.  Naturally, there is an ongoing debate amongst Indians and non-Indians alike about whether or not wearing a bindi to accessorize is disrespectful to those who wear them for cultural or religious purposes.  However, it is important that we understand the ancient tradition of wearing a bindi before we go taking sides.

Selena Gomez performing at the MTV Music Awards
Selena Gomez performing at the MTV Movie Awards

The word “bindi” comes from the Sanskrit word “bindu”, meaning “small drop”; and bindis represent many social and spiritual aspects of South Asian and Hindu culture.  Traditionally, Hindu women have worn large red “kumkum” bindis to symbolize marriage, and to represent a female energy that is thought to protect themselves and their husbands.  But, it is not just married women who wear them.  Young women and children, and men, use bindis and “tilaks”, respectively, to represent the spiritual “third eye”.  In Hinduism, and other religions such as Jainism, this third eye is seen as a sacred center for concentration and focus during prayer and meditation.  Many people believe that much more can be “seen” through the third eye, and that focusing all of one’s energy to this point in the center of the forehead can bring them closer to God.

Today, more modern, more colorful, and more eye-catching bindis are worn by Indian women all over the world in temples, weddings, religious ceremonies, and festivals, along with traditional Indian clothing.  While these flashier bindis are different from the classic plain red ones, there are still many cultural and spiritual ties involved for the South Asian and/or Hindu women who wear them.  Because of this, the use of bindis as accessories by “Westerners” is definitely controversial; some people even go so far as to call it cultural appropriation.  According to Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, “The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance…It is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol… It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed.”  People like Zed argue that it is disrespectful for women to wear bindis without understanding their origins or symbolism.  At the other end of the spectrum, many people believe that the bindi trend should be seen as a way for non-Indians to appreciate Indian traditions.  Bindis are beautiful, they say, and why shouldn’t that beauty be spread to other cultures and religions too?

Both sides of the debate make valid points.  Bindis are very pretty, yes, but besides that they are also spiritually significant to millions of people around the world.  In the end, all those who wear bindis, Indian or not, need to be aware that they are representing a tradition, and that there is way more to it than just looking “exotic”.

[Image Attribute: Billboard and Blogspot]
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