In Hinduism, Vibhuthi (Vibhuti, Vibhooti, Bhasma) or holy ash is made of the final remnants after ritualistic offerings are burnt in a fire in Hindu rituals or pujas. This holy ash represents the ultimate form of all creation. Vibhuthi is considered sacred and is often worn on the forehead or other parts of the body to confer spiritual protection or spiritual uplift. In Hinduism, Lord Shiva is often associated with vibhuthi and his body is adorned with Bhasma or holy ash.
The concept of a holy ash is not unique to Hinduism. There are references to the use of ash in the Old Testament. In the Book of Genesis, 3:19, God says to Adam (after Adam commits a sin), “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
In the Catholic faith, Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, believers wear ash which is symbolic of our mortality, the sacrifice of Christ for humanity and the repentance of sinners.
Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba has described the nature of vibhuti or holy ash in the 1974 Summer Showers discourse to the students:
There is another word coming here and that is sasivarnam and this stands for the colour of vibhuthi. Traditionally vibhuthi symbolises divinity. This fact is obvious from the various ways in which Easwara is described. One of the descriptions of Easwara is that his entire body is smeared with vibhuthi. The colour of that vibhuthi is greyish white (sasivarnam). This simply means that amongst the several strengths which Easwara possesses is the strength of maya (illusion). There is yet another significant meaning for this. What remains of the human body when it is burnt away is a small quantity of ash. The human body consisting of different organs––the senses of action and the senses of perception, undertaking ever-so-many activities while it is alive, is burnt away after death like a piece of firewood and is reduced to a small quantity of ash. You can purify or transform any matter with agni or fire and all matter is reduced to ash ultimately. The Vibhuthi is a sacred substance and its color or form does not change further. If you burn iron, it reduces to ash; if you burn wood, it reduces to ash; if you burn the human body, it reduces to ash; if you burn anything, it reduces to ash. Thus, ash is the ultimate substance which does not change its form. When it is burnt, it still remains as ash. The one thing that remains permanent and which does not change is the ash. This is the lesson one has to learn and constantly remember. It is in this context that several pundits(a leaned tacher) take this ash in the name of the five different elements and bear it in the centre of their eyebrows. The meaning of this is that all the elements in the world are identical with ash. What remains ultimately as an unchanging substance is the ash and this is the reason why Easwara himself wears ash all over His body. Ash is the only substance which is symbolic and equivalent to God and that is the reason why I create and give vibhuthi to the devotees who come to me. This is to convey to them that ash is permanent and even liked by Easwara. Since the aspect of Vasuvu(Demigod), Aditya(Sun god) and Saraswathi(Goddess of Education) are all present in this ash, it is neither pure white nor dark but is a combination of both these colors and is described as Sasivarnam.
Summer Showers 1974, Discourse 31, May 1974
On July 11, 1987, Swami clearly explained the inner significance of vibhuthi:
Swami often gives to devotees Vibhuti or Bhasma (the sacred ash). Many people smear their foreheads with this ash. What is the inner significance of this ash? When any object that has a name and form is completely burnt, it is reduced to ashes. The name and form are gone. All things are one and the same in the final state as ashes. When Vibhuti is given, Swami wants the recipient to understand this Advaitam (basic oneness). The devotee should get rid of Ahamkara (ego arising from the feeling of separateness) and sense of Mamakara ("mine" and "thine"). These two are based on name and form and when they are destroyed, the underlying unity of the Divine can be realized.
Sathya Sai Speaks Vol. 20, Discourse 15, July 11, 1987
Sathya Sai Baba often gave this sacred vibhuti to spiritual seekers as a blessing. In keeping with this tradition, many Sathya Sai Centers around the world also distribute vibhuthi at the end of a devotional service. The following Vibhuthi Prayer accompanies the distribution at the end of a spiritual service at Sathya Sai Centers around the world:
Paramam Pavithram Baba Vibhuthim
Paramam Vichithram Leela Vibhuthim
Paramaartha Ishtaartha Moksha Pradhaanam
Baba Vibhuthim Idham-Ashrayami
I take refuge in the supreme sacred Vibhuti of Lord Baba
The wonderful Vibhuti, which bestows salvation
The sacred state which I take refuge in
Sacred, Holy and Supreme is Baba's Vibhuthi
Pouring Forth in Endless Stream -- This Play of Vibhuthi
So Auspicious is Its Might, It Grants Liberation
Baba's Vibhuthi -- Its Power Protects Me