Embodied Worship

By Anne Petry, originally published by Hinduism Today.

Several years ago, by sheer chance, I saw a picture of an old, skinny, wrinkly person wearing a simple printed black and white cloth and with tattoos on her legs, arms and face. I remember I stayed astonished in front this portrait, not only because of the full body tattoo, but because somehow through this photo I could feel the devotion and the faith this individual seemed to have for her God.

After some research, I discovered that the woman in the picture belonged to the Ramnami Samaj community, a religious movement inside Hinduism that worships Lord Ram. Because they belong to one of the lowest castes, in past times they were banished from temples. And this is why they decided to turn their bodies into their own temples by tattooing all over the name of their God, Ram. This was not meant as a protest against upper castes nor to take any revenge. It was just a way to respond to not being able to go into temples. Ram was inside their hearts and minds as well as on their bodies; the tattoos reminded them always of their Lord. They could pray to Him no matter where they were, no matter what time it was and regardless of any exclusionary rule.

What a radical and incredible way to step up for their beliefs, isn’t it? At that time, it was clear for me: I had to meet those people who were not afraid to change their body appearance in order to claim their devotion.

A peacock-feather headdress called “mukut;” like a matriarch, Setbai is full of wisdom from years of experience.

A few years later, here I was in India searching for a way to meet the Ramnamis. I had read that they never left the banks of Mahanadi River and lived in a small number of villages spread across the densely forested state of Chhattisgarh, known for its beautiful temples and majestic waterfalls. But how to get in touch and how to communicate with them, I wondered, when I didn’t speak Chhattisgarhi, the local dialect, or any other variety of Hindi, and the elders didn’t speak English. But I guess the meeting was meant to happen, as a few days after my arrival in Raipur (Chhattisgarh’s capital) and a long bus ride to a remote village, I found myself surrounded by the Ramnamis.

While the young generations were smiling and so willing to talk, the elders were quiet and reserved. What impressed me right away from those old tattooed Ramnamis was the peaceful energy that emanated from them. No matter the kids shouting and running around, no matter the teenagers watching noisy video clips on their phones—the seniors remained calm and focused, calling out every few minutes, “Ram Ram.”

I quickly realized that their God is present everywhere in their lives, from morning to evening, all day long, since “Ram-Ram” has so many meanings, including “good morning,” “good night,” “goodbye,” and “thank you.” In accordance with the beliefs of the Ramnami Samaj movement, followers are encouraged to continuously recite the name of Lord Ram as frequently as possible. Therefore while they are working in fields, cooking, walking or riding a bicycle, “Ram” is like a mantra that is chanted uncountable times every day.

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This article was originally published at Hinduism Today and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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