Tattoos and Taboos

Recently, Rachel Brathen, a popular yoga instructor and Instagrammer under the handle @yoga_girl posted a picture of her right ankle with the sacred ‘OM’ tattoo on its rear. Kudos flowed in from her fans with many finding her style of display to be a model for themselves. But among roses were thorns; unhappy about the placement of the tattoos. Some voices were confident that part of the leg or anywhere below the waist were not niches for the divine ‘OM’. Those who supported the @yoga_girl elevated her to a status where she can do nothing wrong. The why/why not theories were hardly expounded or even hinted at. The truth is, no one is really sure about the truth.
Tattoos have been in the news again in the last few months. The arrests of British tourists in Sri Lanka in April of this year (Naomi Coleman) and in March 2013 (Antony Ratcliffe) over Buddha tattoos may not have been welcome news to many religious tattoo enthusiasts. The arrest and the subsequent deportation of these tourists revealed how strict Sri Lanka can be regarding treatment of religious symbols. The report revealed that the said tourists had been to other Buddhist countries like Myanmar without encountering frowning faces. So how do regions vary in their interpretations of things religious and sacred? Also, how thoughtful should we be of regional customs and traditional beliefs which may not necessarily have their roots in religion?
These are posers to which finding convincing answers may subject experts to reinvestigate their findings and common men to a bit of soul-searching. As the scriptures are silent on the etiquettes of exhibition/placement of religious symbols on bodies we may have to depend on religious gurus for their interpretation and inference from customs and traditions. The ritualistic practices in Hinduism are countless and varied that they may dare rival the number of words in a dictionary. Within India one may find contradictory practices being followed when travelling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.
To illustrate this point I would like to zero in on an interesting question that many Indians encounter when eating at restaurants abroad. “Do you eat beef?” People in the south-east Asian neighbourhood where I work have categorised almost all the Indians as non-beef eaters. They are only disillusioned at the sight of an Indian consumer slicing the tenderloin ribs. Some waiters double-check with the customers while ordering and when told that they do eat beef, their face seems to gesture a question: “Isn’t it anathema?”

Food or tattoo, customs maintain a peremptory communication with followers everywhere. Those who listen will abide by a norm which has no love lost with freedom of interpretation. Breaking the rules is often subjected to blind scrutiny by means of scorn-spitting vocabulary and even legal action. While these customs, some of which even take legal form (as in Sri Lanka), are purely regional, lead us to a never-ending tunnel where universal applicability of religious practices (if any) fails to find light at the end. So, what if a foreigner pays respect to your culture in an ‘inappropriate’ way?
Ignorance is blight. Experts are divided over religious Dos and Donts as much as common men are. You may be pleasing one big half of fans as much as you are disappointing the other through your interpretations of religious symbols and their displays. The right and the wrong are also decided by the pleased and the disappointed. As we do not have one super authoritative voice on religious customs, our arguments remain inconclusive and insoluble.
In the case of the tourists, it was tattoo forbidden. In Rachel Brathen’s, it was tattoo misplaced. Though neither Hinduism nor Buddhism speaks anything solidly against the use of tattoos or placement of tattoos, customs have taken shape over the years and are embedded in the core of religious and social life. As customs get contradictory to each other, endless debates take place on the veracity of religious practices. Added to these are foreign interpretations of cultures which can at times be mature or flippant.

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