Is this an okay tattoo? How do I get it?
July 24, 2018 8:17 PM   Subscribe

I am a decidedly White person. I want to get a quote from the Upanishads tattooed on my body. It's something I've wanted for ten years. My question is twofold. More under the cut.

1) Is this cultural appropriation? Am I even allowed to get this? I consider myself a Catholic, but I have a pretty deep reading into different theologies for a layperson, and I pray to various deities outside of the Catholic faith. I find Hinduism to be pretty meaningful for me, personally, and take a sort of pantheistic view of most things.

2) The specific phrase, which is something that came up about ten years ago in the most vivid dream of my life, is from the Brihadaranyaka Upianishad: specifically the Thunder Sermon. It is damyata, datta, dayadhvam; meaning: 'be self-controlled, give, be compassionate.' It's an ideal I've aspired to my whole life.

Now: if I am allowed to get this, as a White person, how do I go about getting an accurate Sanskrit translation? I don't entirely trust Google for something this important to me.

Additionally, I'm near the St. Louis metro area, and would appreciate advice on a reliable artist or shop that could pull this off well. I want it around my right thigh, in a kind of spiral. I'm putting this in 'grab bag' because I think it covers a lot of different areas. Please let me know if you need more detail, but I feel like that about covers it.

Thanks in advance for your help.
posted by dogheart to Grab Bag (65 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If the phrase is important, why not get it in English?
posted by fluttering hellfire at 8:32 PM on July 24, 2018 [12 favorites]

What are your reasons for not getting a tattoo of the phrase in English? If the content is what's actually significant and meaningful to you, the language doesn't matter beyond esthetics.
posted by garabaarrgggh at 8:37 PM on July 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

I came to say what fluttering hellfire said. Getting it in English removes many of the issues that you're concerned about. If you haven't studied Sanskrit and it's not a part of your tradition, I don't see why it would be important to get the tattoo done in Sanskrit.
posted by quince at 8:39 PM on July 24, 2018 [8 favorites]

I’ve heard a number of people say it’s a bad idea to get a tattoo in a language you don’t speak. Not even because of appropriation, but because of the possibility that neither you nor your tattooist will spot some error that transforms it from an inspirational phrase into a hilariously embarrassing one that will be spotted by anyone who can actually read it.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 8:46 PM on July 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

Not to threadsit, but I sort of feel like the cultural appropriation aspect would almost be worse if it were in English, thus my reluctance with that. I mean, English was the language of the colonizers of India. But I am open to persuasion. It's a difficult area to navigate, which is why I came to AskMe about it, when it's one of the few areas of the site I don't visit often.
posted by dogheart at 8:52 PM on July 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Regarding translation: I would suggest that if you don't read/write period-appropriate Sanskrit enough to be sure of how it should be written, then the meaning that you are taking from the phrase is the English-language meaning that you are understanding. To have it written in Sanskrit would seem - JUST TO ME - like a pretense that you understand it in a way more deep or nuanced than the English translation you have given. And that seems - JUST TO ME - more "appropriative" than just owning the fact that you have taken the meaning of an English translation that you have received, and that it means a lot to you.
posted by sheldman at 9:20 PM on July 24, 2018 [31 favorites]

Consider the spirit of the content of the phrase. If you believe that it will be spoiled by translation, perhaps reconsider your motivation?

I'm 100% with sheldman. Why in the world would you permanently write something on your body (anywhere, for that matter--a bar bathroom stall) that you cannot even read?
posted by garabaarrgggh at 9:20 PM on July 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

Instead of focusing on the negative angle here - "is this cultural appropriation, am i allowed", focus on the positive angle and look for solutions that way - "i want this to be a form of appreciation, a personal homage, a reflection of how this bit of a culture I am not from has influenced me and continues to do so".

There are a lot of white people who recognize the phrase because of TS Eliot's The Waste Land. Did you come to it through that, or did you find it through a translation of the original, or another way? What kind of presentation of the words would reflect your own path towards them?

I think that there is value in meaningful words being presented in multiple ways including their original language. How would you feel about the tattoo being in both sanskrit and english? Do you feel that a transliteration of the words are important because of their poetic sound, or does that divorce them from their meaning for you?

Is it important for you to be able to explain your tattoo to others who won't have the same context, or is this a private thing for only yourself? I think if it's the former, having something in only sanskrit could be a little, dare I say, problematic, because in the course of explaining the tattoo you could give a false impression of being more of an authority on sanskrit than you are, because of the larger amount of information you would need to verbally convey. If you intend for your tattoo to remain private it's much less of a concern. The location you want it in is a good one given the meaning of it, but maybe in such a liminal place there is some unease for you that could be resolved by getting it in a spot that is much more likely to always be covered up when you go out, like higher up on the thigh or on the torso somewhere. Or maybe in thinking through this you realize that you want it to be a visual part of other people's impressions of you - move it down to your calf or on the forearm and consider that it will be part of conversations.

For finding a sanskrit expert I'd suggest writing an email to a university nearby with a non-western theology program. I might avoid going directly to religious institutions just because you are not coming at it from a religious angle exactly.
posted by Mizu at 9:23 PM on July 24, 2018 [12 favorites]

I think you should go for it. Getting it in a English would be equally “appropriative,” and probably less lyrical. Getting someone to give you the accurate Sanskrit is the real challenge and the part where I’d be sure to avoid cultural insensitivity. Agreed with Mizu that a university is a good place to start.

But damn, it’s your body, it’s in a pretty inconspicuous place, and contemplation takes many oblique forms. If it has meant that much to you for this long, I say do it.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:24 PM on July 24, 2018 [10 favorites]

It's your dream and your body. There is nothing wrong with getting whatever is most meaningful to you.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:31 PM on July 24, 2018 [9 favorites]

Am I even allowed to get this?

One thing to consider is that there's no one who can give you permission. It's not like there's a central authority out there saying "yes this is cool/no you can't do that"; different people are going to have different opinions on the matter, even just among the groups you might be appropriating from.
posted by asterix at 9:32 PM on July 24, 2018 [18 favorites]

You can get whatever the hell you want tattooed to whatever part of your body you desire, if you can find a willing tattooist.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:34 PM on July 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

Trader Bob's is the St. Louis tattoo shop I like best. But - and I mean this kindly - please don't get this tattoo. Don't be the white person with a Sanskrit tattoo. It's not your culture and it's not your faith. Does the Hindu faith even allow tattoos? It would be a real drag to have a tattoo of a quote of a text from a faith that bans tattoos.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 9:35 PM on July 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

it's a part of my faith, though? like quite a large part. the notion of creator/preserver/destroyer is something that's been hammered into me before I even found Catholicism.

It's so complicated. This is hard! I really don't want to be That Guy. It would be worse than being a White person with dreadlocks. I'll do more research, this is just part of the first feelers I'm putting out on this. Thank you all again for the perspective.
posted by dogheart at 9:41 PM on July 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

What jumps out to me the most is that you received this phrase in a dream. In Sanskrit? Did you hear it? Read it? Simply know it?

In my world, being as true as you are able to a deeply significantly dream is far more important than whether someone else feels it was appropriated, or thinks you're wrong for any reason. If I'm reading your question correctly, you want to do this because of a dream you have remembered for ten years. Dreams that strong are fleetingly rare for anyone.

It's Your Dream. Don't ask us. Don't ask anybody. Meditate, write, draw, chant -- whatever it takes until you *know* the right way to express this. Then do it. You may or may not explain it later. Anyone who doesn't know you and thinks you're just the white dude who got a Sanskrit tattoo doesn't understand and doesn't need to. You're the white dude who had a dream.
posted by kestralwing at 9:52 PM on July 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

Disclaimer: My background is an American dude born to Indian immigrant parents. My thoughts:

1) Is this cultural appropriation. Yes, definitely. Does it matter to me all that much? No, not really. If you want to get it, get it, but to "flip the script" a bit, Imagine a Hindu person getting a tattoo of "father, son, and the holy spirit".

2) English may be the language of the colonizer, but it's basically the language that binds all of India together at this point. Indians don't consider it mean-spirited to speak in English. There is, in fact, a growing segment of the population that knows English as their first language.

3) I have trouble connecting the fact that you consider yourself Catholic, but then also pray to various deities. Catholicism and Hinduism are not really that compatible (but that's a discussion for a different day). Contemporary representations of Hinduism in this manner make me feel really icky. It's the same ickiness that I get when a yoga instructor gives a 20 minute lecture on Hinduism, all the while mispronouncing words like namaste.

4) If you do decide to move forward with this tattoo, I would look to getting a translation off of the sanskrit subreddit.

This is obviously quite important to you, so you should feel free to do whatever you want. I'm still not quite sure why you just can't get a tattoo of "give, sympathize, and control".
posted by unexpected at 9:56 PM on July 24, 2018 [31 favorites]

I really don't want to be That Guy

Don’t be that guy. My first tattoo was kanji (I’m not Japanese; I don’t speak or write the language) and I came to DEEPLY regret it. Over time I realized that the idea I was trying to express was totally obscured since I chosen to display it in someone else’s language. Also, while I had a native language speaker draw it for me I was regularly approached by Japanese speakers who thought it was wrong. I’ve never regretted covering it up.
posted by not_the_water at 9:58 PM on July 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

One more thing, since it was asked above - Hinduism does allow for tattoos. The majority of my guy friends that have tattoos, always go with an Om.

If other people on this thread would like to see traditional Indian tattoos, you can see some here.
posted by unexpected at 10:00 PM on July 24, 2018 [11 favorites]

A tattoo is an intelligent representation of information (it doesn't have to be: there are many counterexamples, but do you want to be that guy?). The visual presentation of any information is all about 1. content and 2. credibility:

1. Content. It's part of your faith. No need to convince anyone. Go ahead, it's your body, absolutely do whatever you want.

2. Credibility. A big yikes. You are well aware, it seems, that by being a white gal/guy, your credibility and motivation are questionable. You already know this, otherwise you wouldn't be asking this question. Ask yourself, what does it take to convey genuine faith? Certainly not some pretty characters that you cannot read--in my opinion, because this is entirely subjective. Why are you getting the tattoo? Who is the audience for it? Whom are you trying to impress? The answers to these questions will help you make a decision.

But--the values you adopted from Upanishads are now your values, there is no shame in having been taught what's right by someone else or another culture. Nobody expects you to come to those conclusions all by yourself. But why in the world would you express yourself in a language that you and your peers cannot comprehend? If you want to convey information, do it in a way that will be the most informative. If you want a pretty graphic on your shoulder, go for it! Tattoos are, among other things, decorations: they should look great.

Yah, I can't reconcile the Catholic thing, but I'm impressed that you can.
posted by garabaarrgggh at 10:03 PM on July 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think you’re fine.

(a) this is clearly respectful and serious, not a joke or mocking.
(b) it’s not offensive to Hindus or forbidden by Hinduism.

In fact I believe Hinduism is unusually diverse and accepting of a range of practices, and you might even score some religious credit in the eyes of some.
posted by Segundus at 10:03 PM on July 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

Is this use of another culture? Yes. Is it appropriation? I think the appropriation discussion often gets confused because people don't have a clear or shared notion of what it is, and why it's harmful.

To me, appropriation is the use of another culture in a way that actually, significantly harms those who belong to that culture. There are multiple ways that this can happen. A use can be mocking or trivializing from a position of greater power. A use can ignore a deeply-felt cultural restriction on who is entitled to make use or participate. A use can profit off a culture when actual members of that culture are prevented from doing so. A use can reflect an ignorant stereotype of a culture.

I may be missing something, but I don't see how the proposed tattoo does any of these things, or otherwise harms Indian or other Hindu people. As for its being in Sanskrit, I'd want to be extra careful that it was correct. But I've never heard anyone objecting to Latin or classical Greek tattoos on the basis that the tattoo-bearer can't read them, and yet I'd guess that most people who get them aren't classicists. Frankly, I'd think it more respectful (because more serious-minded) to leave the phrase in the original language.
posted by praemunire at 10:18 PM on July 24, 2018 [20 favorites]

Wow, I'm surprised by a lot of these responses OP says:
I pray to various deities outside of the Catholic faith. I find Hinduism to be pretty meaningful for me, personally, and take a sort of pantheistic view of most things.

Is it somehow not okay for a white/catholic person to also practice Hinduism? I think not. I think faith is something that can be shared across cultures as long as it's respectful and true to the person.

Second, there are MANY faiths that have debates on whether they "allow" tattoos. Being raised Christian, everyone had a different view on whether it was "allowed" yet there are TONS of Christian people with tattoos. It's your personal faith choice for what you take from your faith and what it "allows".

So to 1) NO I don't think it's "cultural appropriation" if it involves a faith you practice and hold dear.
And 2) Agreed, the general rule is NOT to get something in a language you don't speak. That's where things can feel insensitive. If you are deeply concerned about words, perhaps you can use images to commemorate this.
3) Don't get something tattooed that you're unsure about.

No one can give you permission, but it's not like the normal cultural issues like sugar skulls, native headdresses, or dream catchers. But I would have a good think about something in a language that you don't speak.

(And for the record I'm an atheist who doesn't even like religion, but I'm not here to disagree about what someone's self claimed faith is if it's not hurting anyone.)
posted by Crystalinne at 11:11 PM on July 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

For what it's worth, sentence tattoos are kind of a thing these days.
posted by rhizome at 1:13 AM on July 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

(Also, I would've thought that the syncretic tendencies of Catholicism would've been reasonably well-known around Mefi parts just from their deployment in SF/fantasy...?)
posted by praemunire at 2:14 AM on July 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm from that part of the world and I would 100% side-eye a white person with a tattoo in what is, if not my language, the root from where my language is derived. I don't really want to get into a whole debate about what cultural appropriation is (as a non-white person I have those conversations with white people allllll the time), it would just... set my teeth on edge a little. Because while it's clearly a message very dear to you, it does kind of present as cultural tourism a little.

I think the meaning is nice and works in English, but if you can't read the language, you might as well have "the cat sat on the mat" tattooed on you.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:34 AM on July 25, 2018 [29 favorites]

There is no hindu law that says "thou shalt not get a sanskrit tattoo unless you have ~this~ much melanin." For me, cultural appropriation is about being sensitive to the experiences of people more vulnerable in colonial hierarchies. Colonialism tends to reward colonizers for wearing symbols of the colonized, and punish the colonized for displaying those very same symbols because we haven't successfully "assimilated" (air quotes because it's a gentle-sounding name for violence). It's not like Latin or Greek tattoos because those cultures don't have the same history of colonization and there aren't many Ancient Romans or Greeks around anymore. Get it in English.
posted by the list of suspects is just you at 3:24 AM on July 25, 2018 [13 favorites]

Sanskrit is a fundamental part of the wider Indo-European culture. It's irrelevant you can't read the whole language, you can read that bit, and it's important to you.

I say get the tattoo and to hell with the begrudgers.

Just make sure it's accurate.
posted by zadcat at 3:36 AM on July 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

Is this cultural appropriation? Am I even allowed to get this?

You're totally allowed to get whatever you want. Is it appropriation? People will differ here a lot, but I personally would lean on the "yes" side.

Let's be honest, dream or no dream, pantheism or no pantheism, white peeps who think there's something extra profound in "eastern" religion and get a tatt in sanskrit, kanji etc are a dime a dozen. And if I saw it I would privately think it was a bit naff and clueless.

But you know what? I wouldn't care very much - heck I'm relatives with, friends with, colleagues with, people who have naff tattoos in languages they can't read. There's more to someone than the fact they made a tattoo choice I wouldn't.

Additionally, it's been my experience that often white people are more concerned about this kind of practice than the actual cultures that are being 'borrowed' from. Not a blanket rule, by any means, but most 'ethnic' people I've mixed with have much more to worry about - like the racism and discrimination they face every day - than someone's tattoo, or what's on their wall etc, or the fact they have a prayer bowl in their house. Reactions can range from eye-rolling to happiness someone's interested in an aspect of their culture, but these people aren't generally losing any sleep about it.

No one can answer if it's appropriation or not, there's no rule book here. Will people judge you for it? Absolutely. Will it be a uniform judgment? Definitely not. Should it matter that people judge you for it? Probably not in the grand scheme of things. Get the tatt if you want, I say.
posted by smoke at 4:21 AM on July 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

I guess you could always ask yourself - how would you feel about getting a religious Native American tattoo because you really connected with it, as a white person? What about a quote from Malcolm X? Or the Talmud as a gentile? Would you feel the same about those, or different? Why?

I guess I'm saying, that some of those white rasta dudes probably really love rastafarian culture and it resonates with them, too.

But does that matter?
posted by smoke at 4:34 AM on July 25, 2018

This is absolutely cultural appropriation. Like, break down that phrase into its constituent words and figure out how to make a case that this is not that... right?

That said, there are much worse forms of it, as plenty of people have laid out. You're not doing this with vivid disrespect, for profit, or mockery, etc - that's the worst stuff.

However, I still think that the "I find this deeply meaningful" is part of a pattern of tenuous pattern of white entitlement - it's on the well-meaning end, but it's also part of a large pattern of behavior in which white people borrow items of identity from other cultures. This plays into how we're raised to see whiteness as an acultural default, and other people as authentic and ethnic and neat and we can nibble at the buffet of their cultures as it pleases us, all the while participating in a culture and economy that destroys their cultures. Just FYI.

Worth noting, too, that "I find this deeply meaningful" and "I'm ignorant and got a foreign language tattooed on me cause it's cute and omg I'm real deep" are, at a glance, indistinguishable.
posted by entropone at 4:39 AM on July 25, 2018 [30 favorites]

I will categorically state that it’s problematic , fetishing and appropriation. Putting Sanskrit on your body, nope. It’s a holy script. My husband is Tibetan and we’ve discussed this in the past. You’re a good person for asking. Your spidey sense that it was wrong is spot on.

Don’t be that guy. You cannot donthis and not be that guy. No one can stop you. But only that guy does this. We cannot and should not give you permission. It’s just not ok.
I’m sorry. Find some fabbo Latin that resonates sincerely with your Catholicism. Don’t appropriate. It’s not yours.
posted by taff at 4:49 AM on July 25, 2018 [10 favorites]

Beaten to the punch by Ziggy500. Just throwing my weight behind their comment, as an Indian born to Hindu parents. This would sit oddly for me.
posted by Nieshka at 4:49 AM on July 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

You could tell people it's a quote from TS Eliot (The Waste Land V, 'What the Thunder Said'). Pre-appropriated, as it were. That's the context I know it from, and it would seem weird to ban quotes from poetry...
posted by ogorki at 5:00 AM on July 25, 2018

I lean towards getting the tattoo but in English, which would still keep the meaning and if anyone asks, you can explain where it was inspired from. Would you be able to recognize the phrase if you saw it in Sanskrit? If not, get it in English. Do you like the look of the Sanskrit script? If you find a good artist, you can ask to get the phrase in a font that looks similar in aestetics to it.
posted by buttonedup at 5:04 AM on July 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is there a reason the tattoo must be in text at all? If the meaning is deeply personal, then I would think a suitably awesome tattoo artist would enjoy working with you to develop a visual concept that encompasses the meaning you've taken from the words and satisfies your desire to have them represented on your body, sidestepping the problematic idea of using Sanskrit text or coopting another culture's religion for personal adornment.
posted by ailouros08 at 5:13 AM on July 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

I don’t think it’s equivalent to a non-Christian getting “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” That would be like a reference to a Hindu deity. This is more like getting “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It’s something Jesus said, but it goes beyond Christianity. Most Christians would not object. There are other issues at play here, of course.
posted by FencingGal at 5:50 AM on July 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

As a couple of people have suggested, these words are familiar to many English speakers through Eliot's "What the Thunder Said." To a large audience, that's going to be the immediate connotation of your tattoo. So how do you feel about having a T.S. Eliot tattoo? To me, that would be much more limiting and apt not to age well than a quotation directly from the original. (Apart from issues of appropriation which-- maybe pre-appropriated, yes. But I'm not sure how to work whether that is better.)
posted by BibiRose at 5:52 AM on July 25, 2018

Personally, I think you should be able to get it, but I would ask if it’s going to always make you worried and anxious about whether you’re offending someone. If so, it may not have the effect on your life you want it to and commissioning a cool sign for your house might be better.

You could also get it someplace where only your doctor and spouse will see it.
posted by FencingGal at 6:02 AM on July 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

As ailouros08 said - does it have to be in text? Could you incorporate the part you are most attached to into a larger image? I have a tattoo that has symbols imbedded in the art that only me and the artist really know are there.
posted by turtlefu at 6:05 AM on July 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is it somehow not okay for a white/catholic person to also practice Hinduism?

This is a deeply complicated question. As someone who is Jewish-ish (i.e. born Jewish but only do some of the Jew things) there are definitely things to thing about in terms of other people basically taking the parts of your religion they like (seders, candles, hannukah) but not also taking the parts they don't like (some gender stuff, some food stuff, that whole "Do you have to worry if the Nazis come back?" thing). People see it as a position of privilege to be able to pick and choose the outlines of your faith tradition.

Not saying this has any bearing necessarily on the OPs question, but the thing about faith is that it's deeply personal but also exists somewhat as it's defined within a cultural tradition. And while it's definitely a modern outlook to approach your personal faith as something that is meaningful to you, faith as a concept gains weight from the traditions behind it. So a white person can practice Hinduism, sure, though like Judaism people can look differently at people born into the culture and people who convert. And a Catholic person can practice Hinduism but that may be something that is seen as not strictly kosher by both Catholics and Hindus.

The question of appropriation is, necessarily, a question about how OTHER people will view this decision and so it's appropriate for other people here to talk about how they feel, and also for them to reference people from their own and other faith traditions. I wouldn't get a Sanskrit tattoo. I woulldn't get a Hebrew tattoo. That said, if other people chose to and had meaningful reasons, that's sort of between them and their own community. I think the best thing you could say is that a white person with a Sanskrit tattoo is not going to be a totally unproblematic thing. At the same time, people have very different feelings about how much that sort of thing matters to them. You can decide you don't care that much what other people think and that is a decision people are allowed to make.
posted by jessamyn at 6:30 AM on July 25, 2018 [10 favorites]

One more thing, since it was asked above - Hinduism does allow for tattoos. The majority of my guy friends that have tattoos, always go with an Om.

Can confirm. I have a total of one tattoo. I got it a few months after starting intensive yoga. In my own unoriginality, it's an Om. It's almost ten years old and I don't regret it - it has taken on different layers of meaning as time goes on.

I don't see much of an issue with getting a more elaborate tattoo in Sanskrit. An advantage of something ancient written in an ancient language is that it has stood the test of time. (In doing this, you avoid the obvious risks of, e.g., having gotten Limp Bizkit lyrics tattooed in your body in 1999.)

As others have said, since it's permanent, you should get it translated, proofread, vetted, etc, to make sure that you don't have any glitches. Especially if it's more than just a symbol or a single word.
posted by theorique at 6:37 AM on July 25, 2018

If your question really is "am I allowed to get this?", well then yeah, nobody is going to stop you. But it should be clear from this thread that there are going to be a wide range of reactions, no matter how you choose to do it. So if you do decide to get it in some form, its important that you make peace with the fact that some people will not react positively. And you will need to be able to sit with that and accept it. If somebody decides "I don't have time/energy for this white people nonsense today" and dismisses you out of hand, that is probably a totally fair reaction. It won't feel good, but you need to be able to accept that and not try to browbeat them into understanding why its actually super meaningful to you, and you did a lot of research, and surveyed a lot of people, etc.
posted by parallellines at 7:08 AM on July 25, 2018 [18 favorites]

Would a significant number of people consider this appropriation of some sort, or even just consider you 100% That Guy? Yes, I think so.

These "is this appropriation" responses here are often filled with supportive platitudes and I'd be wary of selectively favoring advice that makes you too comfortable.
posted by kapers at 7:33 AM on July 25, 2018 [9 favorites]

Yeah, it sounds to me (another white guy) that you are not That Guy. There are ways to respectfully incorporate things from other cultures and traditions into your life, and it seems like you have done that work. THAT SAID, there are going to be people who judge your tattoo as appropriative. Some of them might come to change that judgement if they have the chance to get to know you better, others might never be convinced, acquaintances and strangers that see it will probably never have any additional context and will just live with that initial judgement.

So the question is, should you care about others' judgement of you? I think it is fair to say that confidence and self-esteem are important, and your evaluation of yourself should not rely overly on the opinions of others, but as a fellow privilege haver, one of the main ways I try to check my privilege is to remember that it is easy for a privileged person to not care about the judgement of others, but that judgement can sit much more heavily on people who are not as able as I am to move and exist in the world. For that reason, I would probably not get a tattoo in a language that I was not fluent in, and almost certainly not get one in a language of a culture that has been severely persecuted by western culture.

If I were in your place, I would try to work with a tattoo artist to find some imagery that reminds me of the quotation. Maybe a thundercloud or lightning bolt? If you aren't a visual thinker, a good tattoo artist can really help with this part.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:33 AM on July 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm white. There are two big areas which are separate but related: (1) your personal devotion and accompanying gesture (getting a tattoo) and (2) the world in which you move, how it perceives a tattoo like this, and the impact on you and others.

(1) You can have a beautiful, true devotion and I want to affirm that I think there's nothing of appropriation in honestly and respectfully following a path that other people have laid out -- especially if part of the practice is to invite others to join and learn from that path. (2) People can be impacted negatively by your modeling of that path. (1) Your particular engagement may or may not be appropriation. (2) People may see it as appropriation. Both sets of ideas can be real and true.

It's clear that, whatever the intent, a tattoo that people tend to see is one that makes a statement and is... there to be seen! So I think it's important to recognize that impact while validating the personal intent of your action.

So I would personally consider how to get the tattoo in a way that lets you express (1) while considering and minimizing (2). I can see the value of using the original script since that's getting as close as possible to the source material which has been so meaningful. Maybe the aesthetics of the writing are part of your devotional path. Or, maybe there's some other reason you like it. Whatever. If that matters to you, then perhaps you get the tattoo in a place that's private, where anyone who sees it will also have the kind of relationship to you that holds space for conversation, for knowing and being known, for already having learned about your spirituality by knowing you. Where the potential for harm is lower since fewer people will encounter the tattoo. I think a high-enough-on-the-thigh tattoo could fit this.

Or, if it is more about the public message, get it in English.

Or, if it is about making a public statement (that's yet private to you), get the script in a visible spot but obscure or complement it with another design, so the first thing to draw the eye isn't the script but the flower or tree or whatever.

Make sure you actually understand and can explain in-depth, with attribution and respectful appreciation, the ideas behind the Sanskrit phrase. From the fact you don't have a stronger sense about this, I wonder whether you have engaged actively with other practitioners. If not, why not? Where are your Hindu friends? Do you feel like there's anything else of your practice that is appropriation-y, and those concerns have just found their outlet in the question of a tattoo? And obviously work with a scholar to make sure it says the right thing.

I want to encourage you in this exploration, which will and should never end. And discourage you from seeking an always-correct, black-or-white, yes-or-no-forever answer. This is best as an ongoing conversation--at least internally--as you move through the world.

I could change my mind. I'm reading the other comments with appreciation.
posted by ramenopres at 7:44 AM on July 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

My vote is to have it done in sanskrit because the translation won't have the same vibration that the original does, in sanskrit the meaning of the words corresponds with the sounds of the words. Yes that will sound like woo to people but if you believe in it I think it's far better to stick with it.

I think of tattoos as little spells that get inked into your body so it's so important to be happy with it.
posted by lafemma at 7:47 AM on July 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't have any questionable stuff on my own corpus, aside from the pleated Dockers, but this question reminds me of one I saw in Dear Coquette, about whether a white person should wear dreadlocks: No one gives a [darn] about your stupid [tattoo].
posted by turkeybrain at 8:17 AM on July 25, 2018

Hi. Actual Indian Hindu here.

Getting it in Sanskrit: Nope. Nope nope nope. A whole school of nopefish, even. One, Sanskrit is a sacred language. It would be one thing if you knew it, but you don't. Two, a white dude getting a tattoo in an 'exotic' foreign language, especially one he doesn't speak, is automatically That Guy however good his intentions or how much it means to him personally or whatever else. What matters here is the message you send. And the message I'd get if I saw your tattoo would be 'asshole, avoid at all costs'.

English: If you're determined to get this tattoo, this is what I would go for. English is the coloniser's language, sure, but seventy-odd years after Independence we've made it our own, plus it's one of the few things connecting people across the country. As a South Indian, Sanskrit and English are equally foreign to me, but English has the benefit of being a language I share with white people rather than a product of my culture they feel entitled to.

Also, as a translator, I'm skeptical about how much of the original meaning was even retained in translations of Hindu holy books, especially earlier ones by orientalist white folk. So English would be a more accurate rendition, since I presume the language of your faith is English.

Finally, this is a bit of a tangent, but I think it might benefit you to learn about the actual people whose religion you're borrowing from, not as any kind of justification, but because I think Westerners forget that the 'enlightened, exotic East' is actually made up of real human beings. My recommendations: The Hindus by Wendy Doniger, The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen, Why I am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor, and In Spite of the Gods by Edward Luce.
posted by Tamanna at 8:18 AM on July 25, 2018 [44 favorites]

I'm from that region and I give you permission to use Sanskrit script.

1) Its a phrase that has meaning for you. 2) Sanskrit script is the language of sacred ritual. I think getting it tattooed on your body can be considered a sacred ritual if that is your intent 3) Is it appropriation? I think its appreciation. Appropriation is the tie dyed Ganesh t shirt I saw at Urban Outfitters 20 years ago,wtf. 4) Hinduism is fluid. It can absorb your presence and interpretation. 5) Yes, Americans treat culture as a buffet. I'm ok with that. Does an outsider appreciating Hindu wisdom also have to accept the caste system, or that women are impure during menstruation? Its ok to take the good and leave the bad. That's how we progress and develop as individuals and societies.

I say more art, more design, more education, more feeling. Just don't get it tattooed near your genitals or feet, as those are profane areas.
posted by charlielxxv at 8:33 AM on July 25, 2018 [7 favorites]

I'm a white, American lady who was raised in a non-American non-white culture which, in part, I adopted and was adopted by. I have one tattoo that is an important representation of that and I love it. I, personally, don't consider it an appropriation, and the folks I grew up with don't either, but I do think about how it may be perceived by others from time to time. Sometimes I'll make sure to cover it up when I'm in a situation where there's even a slight chance it'll be upsetting or taken the wrong way.

I have another tattoo (my first; I was 16) that is a dumb Chinese symbol, given to me by a tattoo apprentice friend, illegally. I don't know what it means, and I haaaaate it. And although I deeply respect the culture (as I do all cultures!), I have no personal ties to China. I would do anything to cover it up, if I could only figure out what to put there instead.

So I guess my view is, if you have an important story to tell about that culture and your personal ties to it, and not just your personal feelings about it, sure—just be aware and respectful with it. And not in Sanskrit.

(Lol, off to write an AskMe about what to cover the Bad Tattoo with!)
posted by functionequalsform at 8:34 AM on July 25, 2018

Asking "am I allowed to get this tattoo?" sounds disingenuous to me - I mean, you know there's no tattoo police, right? You know that. Get whatever you want tattooed on you, nobody is going to stop you. It's hard for me not to read a question with such an obvious answer in a non-peevish way. Of course disregard this if it was just an odd bit of phrasing, but I'd suggest you interrogate just why you're asking that specific question, and what, if anything, that says about an underlying adversarial framing in your mind against whomever it is you think might not "allow" you to get this thing you want.

As another white person I don't think my voice should carry that much weight here, but for whatever it's worth, I love looking at other people's tattoos but would be inclined to read a Sanskrit tattoo on another white person as "white people nonsense." I would imagine that most people who get tattoos in languages they can't speak justify them in a manner similar to what you've got going on (i.e., it's uniquely special to them for Reasons). That said, we probably all have friends with tattoos like that - you're not condemning yourself to the life of a cultural exile.

Long and short, yes, you will be read as "That Guy" to some people, and not everyone is going to be interested in or convinced by your reasons that you're different, but it's up to you to decide whether or not that matters to you.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:43 AM on July 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm going to preface this with the caveat that I immediately defer to anyone who actually comes from the tradition being referenced. Tamanna's post might be a good starting point.

The problem with tattoos with religious or cultural themes is that they carry baggage when worn by anyone outside of a religious tradition or community. To an extent, pan-Christian symbols are watered down enough in North America that I wouldn't expect anyone with a crucifix tattoo to be specifically linked to any tradition, but more specific symbols carry weight among religious groups. Being "culturally Christian" makes sense here, but being "culturally Hindu" as someone not of Indian descent has different associations, many of them linked to appropriation.

Religious belief is personal but also, in practice, about community. I think the people to ask would be in your community: your local Hindu temple or cultural center. If you're completely unfamiliar with the local temple, or lack Indian friends to ask about this, then you lack the community knowledge to know how it's going to be perceived by the people who live in that culture. Not knowing who to ask, who lives in your area and may see your tattoo, might be an indicator that there's a disconnect between belief and practice.
On the other hand, if MetaFilter is your community, by all means go with whatever comes out of the thread alone.
posted by mikeh at 9:18 AM on July 25, 2018

I think you should get this tattoo in the Sanskrit language but not in Devanagari script. (Language and writing system - they're two different things!)

It makes sense that these words have spiritual meaning to you in Sanskrit and not in translation. Religion is performative, and many religious traditions have liturgies that are more evocative or holy in the "original" language.

However, the writing system does not appear to be part of your spiritual experience. My feeling is that if you want to represent your spirituality in an authentic way, you should use your own writing system.

White lady here, but one who sympathizes with your syncretistic approach to spirituality.
posted by toastedcheese at 9:49 AM on July 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

I just want to be a different that guy and say: getting the Sanskrit is not getting it translated; it’s getting the original.

Cultural appropriation seems to fall mostly into either the category of damaging or eyeroll-inducing though people seem to conflate them a lot. And there’s, yeah, something that will cause a lot of people to roll their eyes about a tattoo in a language you don’t speak (there’s a certain feel of “can I get like....Carpe Diem, but in Chinese because I like the characters?”) but it’s for you and you know why you’re getting it. You may end up having to explain it but I’ve always assumed that people who have visible tattoos want to talk about them or why did they emblazon them upon their outward-facing flesh, right?
posted by Smearcase at 10:51 AM on July 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Cultural appropriation is a tricky thing. Would a Hindu person feel that you were demeaning their culture? I kind of don't think so(and, see above). An accurate Sanskrit tattoo would look more attractive than English text, to me. In your faith, you have actually appropriated a component of another faith. If cultural appropriation applies, this is where it applies.

I know someone who got a Samoan tattoo from a Samoan artist after the artist asked a number of questions, and the artist provided options and would not have used components that he felt were not right for the person getting the tattoo.

Take more time. surely you can find a Hindu temple or online forum and ask a bit more, and be clear about this. If you can find someone who actually uses Sanskrit, I recommend that. Getting a tattoo for spiritual reasons should be something you feel very confident about.
posted by theora55 at 11:07 AM on July 25, 2018

I really don't want to be That Guy.

With regards to getting tattoo this tattoo in Sanskrit, this seems very much on the That Guy spectrum, closer to Completely That Guy rather than Barely That Guy. You can totally get the tattoo, and many people people will not care about your tattoo, but if you're already worried about being That Guy, my advice is to not get the tattoo in Sanskrit.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:21 PM on July 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

Would a Hindu person feel that you were demeaning their culture? I kind of don't think so(and, see above).

Seems like an actual Hindu person just expressed they did indeed feel this demeans their culture. Like mikeh has said, I think you should first listen to the voices here that are non-white, that come from the culture and religion you are appropriating.

If you do get the tattoo, and if a POC ever expresses their distaste/disquiet at seeing or knowing about your tattoo - I hope you can at least refrain from whitesplaining to them. There are some answers here that veer closely to offering you scripts for whitesplaining the potential tattoo; I hope you can at least have the integrity to accept that the tattoo will be problematic on some level, and respect the Indian/Hindu voices that say this is not okay. Just because non-white people face problems on a larger scale than tattoos or "worse" forms of cultural appropriation does not make this in itself right. Yes, it won't be illegal to get that tattoo, you're not murdering someone by getting that tattoo, but bigger wrongs don't make smaller wrongs right.

Maybe think about it this way: will this tattoo 100% honor the actual people, communities and culture you are referencing? Will it be a completely positive action? The fact that you already have an instinct this may not be right, and the kind of answers here both suggest this is problematic and will continue to be problematic if you get the tattoo. If there's any doubt about that, consider refraining.

You say you believe in the ideal "be self-controlled, give, be compassionate". The irony here is that you seem to really want this tattoo, while I think your better sense, and Indian/Hindu people, have indicated this may not be a good thing. Why not put this ideal into practice? Be self-controlled, show restraint in refraining from getting your tattoo that will distress certain communities that have already experienced tremendous upheaval, colonialization and appropriation in all forms from white/Western people. Do your part in giving them back the culture that has been taken/appropriated from them in a variety of ways, be compassionate and err on the side of the culture/religion you ultimately seek to honor, if you are in doubt.

The tattoo may seem a small thing, but right now you have the choice of making this a small wrong (by going ahead with it) or a small right (by practising self-control and refraining).
posted by aielen at 2:21 PM on July 25, 2018 [15 favorites]

I'm Indian-American. Raised atheist but my family is Hindu.

Don't get this tattoo in Sanskrit. Please. Don't be That Guy.

Tamanna, Ziggy500, and Nieshka have covered everything else that I would say about the issue as an Indian person.

I also wanted to highlight this part of entropone's comment because it is spot on:

However, I still think that the "I find this deeply meaningful" is part of a pattern of tenuous pattern of white entitlement - it's on the well-meaning end, but it's also part of a large pattern of behavior in which white people borrow items of identity from other cultures. This plays into how we're raised to see whiteness as an acultural default, and other people as authentic and ethnic and neat and we can nibble at the buffet of their cultures as it pleases us, all the while participating in a culture and economy that destroys their cultures. Just FYI.

To reiterate: Do NOT get this tattoo. Get it in English if the sentiment means that much to you. If the sentiment only means something to you if it's in a language you don't speak and don't understand, maybe reconsider what your actual motivations are in getting this tattoo. Because when I see white people with tattoos like this I don't think they're deep or interesting or super cool for being into Hinduism, I see someone who is likely to whitesplain to me, or at the very least someone who is naive and entitled and ignorant. I would stay away from you.
posted by thereemix at 2:47 PM on July 25, 2018 [11 favorites]

You’d be turning something beautiful into something gross - just my gut feeling
posted by moorooka at 3:55 PM on July 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

whatever you decide about that bad-idea tattoo, you should learn Sanskrit up to at least a basic level if you haven't started studying it already. if the quote's only meaningful enough to you in the original, how can you stand not being able to read it? that seems strange.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:16 PM on July 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Translate into Latin.
posted by ovvl at 6:35 PM on July 25, 2018

1. Learn Sanskrit. People are right when they say don’t get a tattoo in a language you don’t know. You’ve waited ten years, what’s another three?

2. Human culture is a wonderful thing thanks to syncretism. When you adopt another culture’s ideas, words, or values, are you stealing from them or being conquered by them? Books could be written.

3. I have an image tattooed on me that I thought was from antiquity. Turns out it was from a more recent culture. I’m not a member of this ethnic group. It doesn’t keep me up at night.
posted by Sterros at 6:40 PM on July 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am a white person, so I realise my opinion counts for less on this matter.

I personally feel that there is a difference between cultural appropriation and culture working as it's intended to - to touch people regardless of language/ethnic/racial/whatever barriers; cultural sharing if you will. The trick is in working out what is going on in a particular situation, and it can get quite complicated. Take art, for example. There is a lot of international art held in major museums. Was it appropriation for them to acquire those works of art to begin with? In some cases (Elgin marbles, Egyptian mummies), yes. In others, maybe not so much. The works of art themselves often are the result of artists having travelled to different places and creating works based on their experiences of those places and cultures. Is that appropriative? A random person who happens to walk into the museum and is affected by a work of art - maybe even one which is unequivocally appropriative - have they colluded in the cultural appropriation? What if they buy a postcard or reproduction of the work and stick it up on their wall?

Religion is even more complicated of course, because it is not just an aesthetic thing but gets down to faith and fundamental beliefs that are very personal and meaningful on a whole different layer. This is, of course, exactly why this particular phrase is meaningful to you - it resonates on a spiritual level. As far as I know, there is no requirement that someone be of a particular ethnicity or race in order to follow a particular set of spiritual beliefs.

I have some Tibetan prayer flags hung up in my lounge room. They came from Tibet and were sold by Tibetans, bought for me by a friend who went there because it is a meaningful place for her. I'm neither Tibetan nor a Buddhist, but I love the flags and although the person who made them may have certain beliefs around them that I do not share, I think the fact that they were sold and bought and given and hung up with good intention actually does matter. There might well be other people who disagree and think I should take them down. It's my house, though, and they're inside, so I intend to leave them up. I feel this is culture and spirituality which has been shared, rather than appropriated.

Anyhow. Getting back to the nuts and bolts of your question, if I were in your position I would get the words
"damyata, datta, dayadhvam" as the tattoo. I would not get the words written in Devanagari. This is a foot in both camps - the words are in Sanskrit, but Romanised. Also as previously noted, this has been done before, thanks TS Eliot! I would also make sure I knew how to pronounce it properly, and be able to explain its meaning and context as well as its significance at a personal level. And I would probably also get it someplace which wasn't immediately visible to all and sundry, just to yourself - because that's who you're doing this for, right?
posted by Athanassiel at 7:13 PM on July 25, 2018

Hey, thank you all so much for the perspective. You all have given me a lot to think about, and I appreciate it very much. I'm not for certain how I'm going to proceed on this, but the idea is definitely now on the backburner, if not shelved entirely. I especially appreciate the perspective from the South Asian community. And thank all of you for your graciousness and good faith.
posted by dogheart at 8:25 PM on July 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

Going against the grain here: I think "cultural appropriation" is mostly a weasel word, and that intermingling and adapting other people's cultures is a wonderful and synergistic thing that humans have done for tens of thousands of years.

Get the damn tattoo if it makes you happy.
posted by henryaj at 12:35 PM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

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