The Third Eye
August 28, 2019 / Spark Magazine
Draping my shoulders with my sari’s pallu and prodding its heavy embroidery one last time, I looked up at my teary-eyed mother. “You look like a princess,” she said, as she picked up a glossy plastic card full of colorful bindis, picked a bindi that matched my sari and stuck one on my forehead. “And all princesses wear bindis.”
Like my mother, most Hindu or Jain women wear the bindi, a colored dot applied between the eyebrows on the forehead. Its place in popular culture is often lost while characterizing Indian culture with embellished saris, colorful tapestry and dazzling jewelry. But the now overlooked forehead dot is unique because of its simplicity.
Growing up in India, I would wear a bindi every time I would wear something ethnic, but I thought of the bindi as a dreary, obligatory addition. Everyone wore it, and it matched my outfit’s theme. But, in comparison to my gorgeous dresses, the bindi always seemed mundane. After moving to America, I struggled to delve into the topic of bindis or paint-on third eyes to friends who regularly donned those at festivals and parties. I was afraid of sounding too ethnic. As a teenager trying to adapt in the popular culture, I thought that taking offense to cultural appropriation and being too involved in Indian culture would set me apart.
Then, one night, inspiration struck me in the unlikeliest of places. While at a low lit concert in the middle of the city with a group of mostly Indian friends, I saw a white girl walk in with a sparkling yellow bindi between her eyebrows. What others would call cultural appropriation, I deemed a revelation. I was elated that others found this aspect of my culture beautiful. The bindi had always been a part of me, but I was just too afraid to embrace it. And why should it be termed cultural appropriation if I was as unaware of the bindi’s traditional and religious significance as anyone else?
Historically, the color red signifies purity and love in Hinduism which is why bindis are usually red or dark maroon. Its design varies regionally: crescent or moon shaped bindis are popular in Central India; large and round red bindis are worn in West India; and long tilak or mark-like bindis are seen in East India. Bindis are also worn by Hindu communities in Nepal, Indonesia and Pakistan.
Traditionally, the area between the eyebrows is called the third-eye chakra or ‘ajna’. During meditation, latent, or unused, energy rises from the base of the spine towards the chakra which retains the energy and controls levels of concentration. The third-eye chakra is also linked to the pineal gland which controls the hormone melatonin in the human body, thus regulating sleep and attentiveness. Additionally, the Rig Veda, one of India’s earliest texts, states that the third eye signifies the base of creation or the point at which the universe began. Therefore, the bindi’s place between the eyebrows, at the third-eye chakra, is pivotal.
What is even more interesting is that the ‘ajna’ represents the center of unity and signifies the end of gender duality. The presiding deity for the third-eye chakra is a half male/half female ‘Shiva/Shakti’. For me, the fact that ancient Indian texts address gender duality conveys that gender norms in ancient India were fluid.
Before the invasion, India was a diverse, fluid country. However, India’s cultural fluidity was often a barbaric concept to its western invaders. When I heard about the strides India was making in advancing gay rights, I was at first overjoyed at the thought of India becoming more westernized. Understanding the significance of the bindi and its gender inclusivity helped me realize that India’s advancements in gender fluidity was not it becoming more westernized but it was ‘decolonizing’.
Consequently, before coming to America, I thought that Western contributions to society were unblemished. I thought that assimilating in the popular culture meant relinquishing all cultural and linguistic ties to the old country. Understanding the significance behind elements of Indian culture helped me change my perception. I realized that, like every immigrant, the bindi just wants to fit in. While I used to be irked by the bindi’s simplicity before, now I appreciate its somewhat odd beauty. Maybe, my mother was right, and I was a princess after all.
To read more from Issue No. 12, visit us online here.