This is one of the many questions often asked of Hindus, and the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy organization serving the needs of the Hindu American community, provides short answers to such common questions. From the HAF website (www.hafsite.org):
“The “red dot” or bindi, once primarily a symbol of marriage, has largely become a fashionable accessory for Hindu females of all ages, regardless of their marital status. Traditionally, bindis were red or maroon in color, circular in shape, made of vermilion paste (kumkum), and applied with the ring finger of the right hand. Today, bindis come in all shapes, sizes, and colors and are often self-adhesive for convenience.
The male version of forehead markings is called a tilak and can be made of kumkum, sandalwood or sacred ash known as vibhuti. It is applied in a variety of shapes including lines, U-shapes and dots. The tilak can be representative of an individual’s deity tradition. The adornment of tilaks are not as prevalent as bindis. However, the marking of either is amongst the first requisite steps in most rituals and sacred ceremonies.
Both bindis and tilaks are placed approximately one centimeter above the center of the eyebrows, which is considered to be the sixth chakra, ajna, in Kundalini Yoga. The bindi is associated with the worship of God as the feminine divine. It is also indicative of the conceptual “third eye of spiritual wisdom”, as Shiva, the greatest of Yogis, is depicted as having. Bindis and tilaks may also represent interdependence of both the feminine and masculine aspects of the Divine. Lastly, the bindi and tilak serve as reminders of a seeker’s ultimate goal of enlightenment, liberation or moksha.”
In my role as a member of the Outreach Committee, when I host visitors at the Bharatiya Temple of Metropolitan Detroit, I usually touch upon several different things related to the bindi. In certain ethnic communities, sindoor is applied during the wedding ceremony, and thus, the presence of sindoor indicates that a woman is married. But, a bindi does not automatically mean that a person is married. The other relates to how words can hurt – Dothead was the nickname my first crush called me back in middle school, and Dotbusters was a hate group in the late 80s that attacked women wearing bindis. I actually stopped wearing a bindi regularly when I was a graduate student around that time when someone screamed “Dothead” at me in shopping mall. But the fun part is relating how the bindi has taken on different forms and shapes over the years. My grandmother’s generation wore the kumkum powder, my mother – liquid, I usually have a simple red circular sticker and my teenage daughter wears color-coordinated fancy bejeweled stickers in interesting shapes.