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Intro to Hinduism
Monday, January 12, 2009

Initiation Rituals and Membership

A formal process takes place when a person joins a Hindu community. One Hindu community identifies six steps which must be taken in the conversion process. The devotee joins an established Hindu community, where attendance at satsangas and other functions take place. The devotee writes out a comparison of Hindu philosophy with an analysis of the former religion to which the individual belonged. This demonstrates a thorough grasp of similarities and differences. A formal severance with the existing religious organization takes place, including why the vows of that religious community no longer apply. The devotee then proceeds to have his or her name legally changed, and begins to use that name. The name-giving sacrament, the Namakarana Samskar, can take place at any Hindu Temple. The devotee informs family and friends of the changes which have taken place and invites them to the name changing ceremony. A certificate is prepared with the signature of the priest and three witnesses. An announcement is placed in the local newspaper for three days stating the name change. A copy of this announcement should be kept for future reference.

Approximately 800 million Hindus live in the Indian subcontinent and an additional 100 million practice Hinduism throughout the rest of the world for a total of 900 million adherents.


Hinduism is the religion followed by 800 million people in India and 100 million in the rest of the world, and it encompasses a large variety of beliefs and rituals. Over the centuries this religious tradition has slowly evolved to be practiced and understood in many different ways, but it is intricately woven into the land and culture of India. Although religious beliefs may vary, they are not exclusive of one another and are accepted by Hindus as part of the wide variety of Hindu traditions.

Historically, Hinduism is seen as unfolding in stages, but this is misleading because some of the earliest forms persist to the present, relatively unaffected by later innovations. Hinduism is not the name that the people of India gave this spiritual tradition, but was a name given later by outsiders to describe the people who lived east of the Indus River (2500 BCE to1500 BCE), in the more developed Dravidian culture (which persisted among the Taliails in southern India), who followed the Vedic religion of the Aryans. The Aryans invaded northwest India about 1500 BCE and adapted a religion based on an oral text known as the Vedas which are, for Hindus, eternal truths. The Aryans brought with them the language in which the sacred writings have been recorded, namely Sanskrit.

The earliest, most ancient civilization in India was discovered during the excavations of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, predating the Aryan invasion by almost 1500 years. Although no writing remains of this culture, some religious artifacts were uncovered with characteristics similar to the descriptions found in the Vedas. A three-faced prototype of Shiva seated in a yogic position, representations of the Linga, and a horned goddess associated with the pipal tree, were uncovered. Many seals with religious symbols were part of the ruins. A large pool was discovered as well, which may have been used for ritual purification – a significant ritual for Hindus today. The civilization was much more advanced than the one the Aryans brought with them.

Although Hinduism came to be the term used by foreigners to describe the religion of India, Hindus refer to their religion as Sanatana Dharma, the eternal truth or ancient religion. The word dharma is rich in meaning: it can refer to the natural, unchanging laws that sustain the universe and keep it balance, or it can be translated as law or social duty.

Although primarily associated with religion, the caste system has also been an integral part of Hindu society. Essentially, the system consisted of four main castes, with membership determined by birth. The highest caste is that of the Brahmins, whose members have been the priests, philosophers, and religious teachers. Next in importance was the caste of the Kshatriyas or rulers and soldiers, and then followed the Vaishyas who were the traders and farmers. Finally, the Shudras were the menial workers and servants. The origin of the caste system is traced back to the Rig-Veda, where the hymn to Purusa, the Supreme Person, describes the caste system in the following manner:

“His mouth became the Brahmin;
his arms were made into the warrior;
his thighs the people,
and from his feet the servants were born.”

One of the tragic consequences of the caste system has been the development of the group known as untouchables, those who have been expelled by their own castes for violating their rules and regulations. The caste system is still present in Indian society, even though the constitution forbids it. The government has tried to improve the often desperate plight of the outcasts who perform the foulest and most menial tasks in society. Mohandas K. Gandhi referred to the untouchables as the Children of God.


In many ways Hinduism is a unique religion. It has no founder, no uniform dogma, no hierarchical priesthood, no direct revelation, and no rigidly described moral code. As E.M. Forster in A Passage to India states,

“Hinduism, so solid from a distance is riven into sects and clans which redirect and join and change their names according to the aspects from which they are approached. Study it for years with the best of teachers and when you raise your head, nothing they have told you quite fits.”

Some Hindus today worship spirits and other deities, while others engage in the most profound philosophical speculation. Hinduism’s response to competing faiths has been to absorb them, rather than attack them. To an observer, Hinduism appears to flow in many directions at once, filled with mystery and seeming contradictions. To a Hindu, his faith is the means to the One Truth and only one way among many equally valid ways. Each person chooses the avenue which is best suited for him or her. This is the underlying theme of all of Hinduism and ultimately explains the complexities of achieving that One Truth. All other religions are merely different manifestations of the all encompassing faith and all are but expressions of the underlying concept of the One Truth. The Rig-Veda (I.64.46) explains the significance of the One Truth as follows: “Truth is one; the wise call it by many names.”

It has been aptly stated that receptivity and all-comprehensiveness are the main characteristics of Hinduism. Within Hinduism one finds a highly spiritual, mystical, and contemplative aspect, a concrete and practical aspect, and an aesthetic and ceremonial aspect. These correspond to three parts found in most religions: philosophy, mythology, and ritual. Philosophy is the essence of religion and it sets forth its basic principles or tenets, its goal, and the means of attaining them.

Mythology explains and illustrates philosophy by means of legendary lives of great individuals or deities. Ritual makes the philosophy even more concrete, so that its adherents are able to understand the significance of the celebrations, ceremonies, and rites.

Sacred Writings

Hindu sacred writings are classified into two groups: sruti, meaning what was heard by or revealed to the seers, and smriti, meaning what was remembered. Both were orally preserved for a long time and then written down. The first set of writings is the most sacred and is considered the infallible words of Divinity. They are the four Vedas, a body of ancient hymns and chants, written in Sanskrit. The term Veda means wisdom. The oldest is the Rig-Veda, composed of more than a thousand hymns and is organized into ten mandalas or books. The Sama Veda consists mainly of the melodies or music for the chants to be used at sacrificial ceremonies. Almost all of its written verses are found in the Rig-Veda. The Sama Veda helped to train the musicians and as the sacrifices became more complex, so did the music. The Yajur Veda is comprised of ritual instructions and formulas to be used by priests assisting at the various rituals and rites. The latest and fourth Veda is called the Atharva Veda which contains hymns, popular incantations, and folk lore.

Attached to the Vedas are the Brahmanas which contain commentaries to guide the practices of the sacrifices and provide the explanations of the meaning of the Vedic prayers. These Brahmanas do provide some insight into the social customs of the period and have served as a transition between the Vedas and the Upanishads, which means literally those who sit near. There is an Upanishad for every Veda and every Brahmana. Various attempts were made to organize them with the result that Hindu tradition recognizes the authority of one hundred and eight Upanishads, of which a dozen are identified as having special importance. The philosophy contained in the Upanishads and as later expressed by recognized schools of interpretations, is called Vedanta, the end or culmination of the Vedas.

In addition to the sacred writings, a second group called the smriti was developed later which include the epics. The two most famous and loved epics are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Ramayana recounts the exploits of Rama, a righteous prince unjustly banished from his kingdom. Through a series of adventures, he ultimately conquers the forces of evil. The Ramayana consists of 24,000 couplet verses.

The Mahabharata, at 100,000 couplet verses, is the longest epic and the longest poem written in any language. It takes the form of an allegorical conflict between good and evil within the soul of a human being. Part of its timeless and universal appeal lies in its theme of individual conscience conflicting with the rules of society. As with the Ramayana, the forces of good finally win out over the forces of evil.

The best known part of this epic is the Bhagavad-Gita (The song of the Adorable One) which is revered by all Hindus. The Bhagavad-Gita, in its eighteen chapters, opened a path of salvation that seemed to appeal to many Hindus, namely that an intense devotion to a personal God is possible. The God Krishna is portrayed as a loving compassionate deity who has a personal relationship with the hero, Prince Arjuna.

In general, the epics single out certain deities for special attention and praise by Hindus. They also encourage good conduct even in the face of adversity, since good and bad fortune in this life is affected by deeds and thoughts of the individual. In fact, this fate carries over into the afterlife and future lives as well.

Several other collections of sacred texts deserve mention. The sutras are an attempt to codify, systematize, and interpret the Upanishads. The Laws of Manu lay down certain laws from social and religious life and help to justify the caste system. The Puranas or ancient tales contain stories about creation, theories about the age of the world, and legends concerning the gods. No single text is regarded as definitive of the faith, and thus Hindus are free to give special attention to whichever sacred writings they find most appealing.


Brahman is literally everything. It is night and day, heat and cold, goodness and evil, matter and spirit, life and death, being and non-being. Nothing exists of a material, physical, spiritual, or even conceptual nature that is beyond Brahman; all things come from and ultimately return to Brahman. The Bhagavad-Gita puts it this way:

“Who sees his Lord
Within every creature
Deathlessly dwelling
Amidst the mortal:
That man sees truly...
Who sees the separate
Lives of all creatures
United in Brahman
Brought forth from Brahman,
Himself finds Brahman.”

Ultimately, Brahman cannot be described. One sage finally admits that a person can only come close to describing Brahman by stating what it is not, because one cannot truly define eternity.


Hindus believe that every living thing has an essential core to its life, a soul, which is called an atman. The individual atman, however, is only a temporarily separated part of the cosmic or world soul, called Paramatman, which is a part of Brahman. The souls are without beginning and without end, and immortal by their very nature. The ultimate goal of the soul is freedom. When it goes repeatedly through the cycle of birth, life, and death, the soul will eventually reach all knowledge and manifest itself to perfection. When that state is reached, called moksha or also known as Nirvana, the endless cycle of birth, life, and death ceases. In one famous conversation between Uddalaka Aruni and his son Svetaketu, in the Chandogya Upanishad, the father asks the son to dissolve salt in water and says that Brahman and atman are united in a similar manner. The father ends his teaching with the dictum, “you are that.” You refers to atman and, that refers to Brahman.

Hindu Gods

In the Hindu religion there are literally thousands upon thousands of deities. A person can believe in one or many. It does not really matter, since all are but manifestations of Brahman, the underlying reality. The most popular Hindu gods are Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman), Shiva, and Vishnu. Brahma functions as the creator of universes, Vishnu protects and sustains them, and Shiva finally destroys them. As Shiva and Vishnu, and to a smaller degree Brahma, have been declared by their followers to be the greatest of the gods, a tendency to merge the three into one, the trimurti (three forms) developed, which is a synthesis of the three deities merged into one single concept.

Shiva is usually depicted with six arms, each with a different function to perform. The manifold aspects of Shiva’s power were expressed in often contradictory roles: as threatening but benevolent, creator but destroyer, exuberant dancer but austere yogi. Some Hindus imagine Shiva being in deep meditation high in the Himalayas where in the spring his frozen locks melt, releasing the waters of the sacred Ganges River. A bath in the Ganges is believed to wash away all the sins of this earth; to achieve this is a cherished once-in-a-lifetime dream for millions of Hindus. The great goddess Parvati is often seen as a consort of Shiva. The most common symbol of Shiva is the linga. It is a cylindrical black stone set in a circular base. It is believed that the linga represents the completeness of the Hindu worldview.

Vishnu, the preserver, is understandably portrayed as a much more amiable and kindly deity than Shiva. He loves, forgives, and tries to lead all towards salvation. He comes to earth in different incarnations, avatara, to rid the world of sin. In fact, there are ten chief avatara of Vishnu. One of the earliest was a giant sea turtle which lifted the earth above a primal flood. The seventh and eighth avatara were Rama, the hero in the Ramayana, and Krishna, the deity in the Bhagavad-Gita. Gautama, the founder of Buddhism was the ninth. The tenth, Karkin, has been identified differently--sometimes with, Jesus Christ, other times with Mahatma Gandhi, and others still believe that he is yet to come. Vishnu is often seen being accompanied by the goddess Sri or Laksmi,

A significant point to note with the avatara of Vishnu is that in these manifestations of Brahman, Hinduism has defended itself against and to some extent even absorbed other major religions with which it has come into contact in India. For example, the Bhagavad-Gita with its heroes, Prince Arjuna and the Lord Krishna, came at a time when Hindu ritualism was pervasive and often done in a perfunctory manner. An alternative opened up, namely an intense personal relationship with a god. At that time Hinduism was confronted by the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, which was a viable alternative to the ritualism of Hinduism.

Parvati, the great goddess, became prominent in Hindu tradition and was the consort of Shiva. The essential idea is that of a mother goddess, who takes on different forms. In Parvati rests the creative spark, but in fury she can emerge as Durga, the warrior goddess, or as Kali, a goddess with wild hair wearing a garland of skulls. Kari has a large following in some rural parts of India where villagers make sacrifices to avert her wrath.

Other deities are worshiped in Hinduism as well. Probably the most popular deity is Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati. He is seen as a remover of all obstacles and hindrances, and no new project or activity begins without appeasing him with a coconut or, at a minimum, a prayer. Each manifestation of a deity has a unique personality and a unique history which links the deity with the location. The local myths or events around the deity are recorded in books called Sthala Puranas (Puranas means about the place). Local manifestations are extremely important in Hinduism where every village has its own deity.

Hindus may be divided into three large groupings of religious traditions on the basis of the deity worshiped. The Vaishanavas worship the Lord as Vishnu, Saivas worship the Lord as Shiva, and Saktas who worship the mother aspect of God. A significant group within the Vaishanavas worships Krishna as God, reputed to be one of the avatara of Vishnu.

Nature of Human Beings

One of the most fundamental ideas in Hindu thought is that human life has no ultimate significance. It is, instead, only a small part of the vast unending cycle of life, death, and rebirth. As has been explained above, every living thing has an atman which is an expression of the Paramatman. Each atman is in the process of growing and reaching upwards through countless cycles of time and successive rebirths to be reunited with the paramatman, which is Brahman. Hindus believe in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. How quickly the process of becoming free from this cycle of rebirth, life, and death depends on the path individuals choose to achieve the goal and the earnestness with which the path is followed. The form which any living thing assumes is determined by the karma, the accumulation of good and evil in its previous life. It follows then that each creature has its own dharma or religious duty. Dharma is what centers, upholds, and makes meaningful all activities, not just those done at certain times and certain places. This duty must be followed in order to gain merit and is dependent on one’s station in life, which is defined by the caste system. As the Bhagavad-Gita explains:

“As a man discards
worn-out clothes
to put on new
and different ones,
so the embodied self
discards its worn-out bodies
to take other new ones.”

The goals of human beings are many, but only one leads to salvation or true happiness. The first goal of human beings is to seek happiness. This is natural, but is soon seen for what it is, trivial and shallow. Success, fame, money power, and social status are natural means to find happiness. Even these are not sufficient, for one ever has enough and ultimately these are really selfish goals. Then service to others becomes incorporated into the goals for life. Even these are not enough because a person is confronted with the fact that works, however noble, are impermanent. In addition, Hindus express skepticism about the possibility of bringing about any lasting change in the world or in human beings.

For a Hindu, life essentially is one of suffering, brought about both by ignorance and as consequences of behavior. Freedom from this cycle can only take place when the atman joins the Paramatman and only when this joining has taken place, has moksha been achieved. Loss of individuality is the ultimate goal for the Hindu.

To achieve this goal, Hindus believe that four basis stages exist in life. First, one should be a student, which lasts for twelve years from the time of initiation in the faith. Initiation into the first stage is considered to be the student’s second or spiritual birth. The student received the sacred thread at this time and the sacred mantra which is to be chanted by the student. The sacred thread is called Yajnopavita, and consists of three threads knotted together, symbolizing control over mind, speech, and body. Only students from the top three castes (Brahmin, Kshatrya, and Vaishya) could be twice-born. The first stage is characterized as a time of learning in the company of a guru or religious teacher.

The second stage is that of the householder and begins with marriage. Here a person is occupied with a family and with success, however defined. Hopefully, the individual will begin to reach out to others.

The third stage begins at the time of retirement when the wise person will have sensed the inadequacy of all successes and goals up to that point in life and begins to withdraw from the world to meditate on the fundamental questions of life. This is the stage of the forest dweller.

The fourth stage in life begins when a person has achieved a breakthrough to moksha. This is the stage of the wandering ascetic. At that point there is no sense of personal identity, no further ambitions of any kind, and a total indifference to whatever surroundings there may be. To achieve this stage, one must belong to the highest class of Hindu, the Brahmins. This is the only class of people who traditionally lived long enough, who could retire from the daily grind of eking out a living and whose intellect has had the opportunity to develop and ask the necessary questions and meditate on the concept of Brahman.


Roughly translated from the Sanskrit, yoga means discipline, or a method of training designed to achieve the desired union of one’s atman with the paramatman. The yoga of a Hindu is, therefore, the path to salvation. A person who practices one of the four recognized paths to this goal is called a yogin.

1. Jnana Yoga

For persons of high intellect and a tendency towards philosophical speculation, there is jnana yoga, The Way of Knowledge, is recommended. Moksha is attained through knowledge of Brahman. The cause for bondage and suffering is ignorance. Release is achieved through realization of the identity of individual soul, atman, with the eternal soul, paramatman. This person will follow the four-fold, idealized Hindu path as described above.

2. Karma Yoga

An easier but lengthier way to salvation is the Way of Action. Duty for duty’s sake is the motto and every work is turned into an offering to God. Through good works and good action, a person can build up good, positive karma which will cause the individuals to re-enter life at a higher plane at the next reincarnation. Generally, work results in either pleasure or pain. Each work brings with it another link to Samsara (the cycle of repeated births). This is the law of karma. In practicing Karma yoga, the effects of karma can be wiped out. Instead of bringing yet another link to samsara, it purifies the heart of the yogin and helps attain salvation.

3. Bhakti Yoga

Another of the easier paths to salvation is The Way of Devotion. Love for love’s sake is the motto, and the yogin will have to attain the level of love which is all-absorbing and ardent. For the Hindu who loves God has neither wants nor sorrows. Hindus can earn salvation through total surrender of their own self-interest in favor of devotion to a particular god. This is a very popular way because it allows an individual to have a personal relationship with a deity rather than an intellectual one. Different paths exist to express the worship. The important point here is the sincerity of the commitment rather than the path chosen.

4. Raja Yoga

The Way of Meditation is the most uniquely Hindu path to salvation, but also the least popular, due perhaps to the difficulty of practicing this form. Hatha yoga is a part of this form of meditation, but stresses only the physical aspects of yoga. There exists a physical discipline in Hatha yoga, but a discipline of the mind exists in Raja yoga. This form of yoga requires intense concentration often on an object outside of the body to the point where the mind ceases to think of itself. When this state is achieved, the person will experience the final absorption into Brahman.

Hindu Worship

A devout Hindu feels compelled to purify himself with water before he begins to worship. This devotion can take several forms. Frequently, the devotee will offer food, flowers, or other appropriate items to the particular deity worshiped. These items can be placed into a fire which is blessed by a priest. Then to offer further signs of devotion, the ashes may be rubbed on the forehead.

Another form worship can take is to chant the name of a favorite deity or sacred phrases given by a guru. These phrases are known as mantras. The ancient symbol of Om or Aum is the most sacred mantra or syllable in the Vedas, and is frequently used in meditation and prayer.

Hindus may worship individually or in groups, at home or in temples. Every home has its own puja place, which includes a shelf for images of gods and incense burners. To worship properly, a Hindu must know the proper use of water, fire, flowers, and whatever else is used. In temple worship, the duty of the priest is to ensure that, the rituals are carried out properly. Priests do not act as intercessors between people and the various deities.

Hindus will go on pilgrimages to the various temples which have survived over the centuries. The goal of other pilgrimages is the sacred River Ganges, whose purifying waters are believed to cure all human maladies as well as the washing away of sins. One such pilgrimage occurs every twelve years at the junction of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers.

Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela, the Festival of Elixir, is a unique event that blends religious and social- features of Indian society. This festival takes place at the confluence of two of India’s greatest rivers, the Ganges and Yamuna. Taking a dip in the river cleanses the souls of the believers and, if immortality takes effect, the souls are able to escape the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The Kumbh Mela takes place every three years at the four sites: Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik, and Ujjain. Each twelve year cycle includes the Maha Kumbh Mela, the great festival, which is attended by millions of people. The planets are in certain position only once every 144 years, which makes for a very special Maha Kumbh Mela. The last year when this took place was in 2001. On the last day of bathing, it was estimated that 1.5 million worshipers went into the river to have their sins washed away.


Hinduism has been the dominant and shaping force for the majority of people in the subcontinent of India almost from its recorded beginning. It has shaped mores, manners, customs as well as many other aspects of Indian society. It has withstood the challenges of three major world religions: Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. As is recorded in the words of Ramakrishna:

“God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths…so common man in ignorance says, ‘My religion is the only one, my religion is the best.’ But when his heart is illuminated by true knowledge, he knows that above all these wars of sects and sectarians presides the one indivisible, eternal, all-knowing bliss.”


Aryans – The Aryans are the central Asian people that invaded northern India in the second millennium BCE. They became rulers over the indigenous Dravidian people.

Ashrama – Any one of the four traditional stages of life through which a person ideally is supposed to pass on the way toward realizing maturity: the student stage (brahmacarya), the householder stage (grihastha), the forest dweller or hermit stage (vanaprastha), and the wandering ascetic stage (sannyasa).

Atman – The inner self or soul of a person, which transmigrates from one life to another and which, upon realizing moksha, is said to be united in some fundamental sense with the ultimate, universal self, the Paramatman, of the whole cosmos.

Avatar – An avatar is the incarnation of a deity in its earthly form. For example, Shiva is said to have 10 avatara.

Bhagavad-Gita – It literally means the Song of the Adorable One. The Bhagavad-Gita is the most popular of Hindu scriptures and it occurs in the great epic known as the Mahabharata. It tells of the revelation and teaching of Krishna (one of the great avatara of Vishnu) to Prince Arjuna as the climactic battle of the Mahabharata is about to begin.

Bhakti yoga – The way to atonement with ultimate reality through love and devotion, called the Way of Devotion. The discipline of becoming so devoted to God, that all self-centered attachments to worldly concerns are burned away. It addresses and appeals to the person victimized by his or her passions and who seeks a true, eternal object of affection. This is one of the four recognized paths to achieve the union of the atman to the Paramatman.

Brahma – One of the great deities of Hinduism, though not one around whom a significant worshiping community has formed. Brahma is usually associated with the creation of the cosmos.

Brahman – Ultimate reality, as Hinduism speaks of it, the ground and source of all that is. Sometimes (particularly in the Upanishads) it is referred to as impersonal or transpersonal, beyond all name and form. But some Hindu traditions identify it as the transcendent Godhead that chose to manifest itself in a more personal form, such as Vishnu, Shiva, or the Goddess Parvati.

Brahmin – A member of the highest caste (varna); traditionally identified as specialists concerned with relations to ultimate reality, custodians, and teachers of the Vedas and other Hindu sacred writings.

Dharma – The eternal natural law, moral as well as causal, which governs all existence, human and non-human (including divine beings), and is thought to be built into the nature of things. More specifically, it refers to moral and spiritual duty in accord with cosmic law and order, especially duty as dictated by age, temperament, and social status.

Dharma is also said to be one of the four traditional goals of life recognized by Hinduism, and one of the two involving renunciation of the paths of ego-centric desire. The moral consequences that follow from obeying/disobeying dharma are thought to be natural consequences, not imposed by some external enforcer. Dharma is said to be subtle and almost impossible to know directly, requiring most persons to learn it from the Hindu scriptures. For many Hindus, especially those that follow karma yoga, though not for all Hindus, the ultimate reality and dharma are virtually one and the same. The word used by Hindus for themselves is often Sanatana Dharma (eternal dharma or eternal truth).

Dravidians – Dravidians are the people with roots in the Indian subcontinent prior to the Aryan invasion more than 3,000 years ago. Tamil is one of the Dravidian languages.

Ganga – The sacred river Ganges begins in the Himalayas, where Shiva dwells. The river is reported to come from heaven, streams through the lock of the god and flows into the ocean. The river has healing qualities in case of illness, ritual cleansing is encouraged as well for the believers.

Guru – One’s teacher

Henotheism – A western term denoting the type of theology found throughout Hinduism, namely the teaching that there is a single ultimate reality behind the many gods of devotional Hinduism, where each of the gods represents one of many faces through which the one ultimate reality is manifested and through which the one ultimate reality may be worshiped.

Jnana yoga – Jnana yoga is the way to atonement with ultimate reality through knowledge or life-transforming insight into ultimate reality or the Way of Knowledge. It is the discipline of seeking and attaining perfect knowledge of the ultimate reality through intuitive intellectual discernment, transforming one’s sense of selfhood. It addresses and appeals to the person who needs to have things make intellectual sense. This is one of the four recognized paths to achieve the union of the atman with the paramatman.

Karma - Karma is the law of moral cause and effect; also a person’s moral merit or demerit according to one’s actions and the inner intentions or motives which accompany them in terms of their conformity/non-conformity with dharma. One’s karma is said to entail one’s rebirth in order for that karma to be realized or fulfilled, and to determine the circumstances of that subsequent life. Attainment of the union with the Paramatman is thought to eliminate the production of karma (in the second sense) altogether, and to bring to an end the cycle of rebirth (samsara).

Karma yoga – The way to atonement with ultimate reality through work or right action, or the Way of Action, and fused in many ways with the Way of Sacred Rite. The discipline of doing one’s own duty selflessly, for its own sake, without attachment to its results, and with no thought that “I am the agent.” It addresses and appeals to the person who feels that something must be done to set things right and insure their proper functioning, and/or the person who would draw near to and invoke through appropriate rituals the sacred archetypes that give true structure, meaning, and vitality to life. This is one of the four ways to achieve the union of the atman to the Paramatman.

Kshatriya – Kshatriya is the warrior class in ancient Hindu society and is the second caste of four.

Krishna – The most popular of Vishnu’s many avatara (incarnations) to destroy evil and restore dharma. Many of Krishna’s devotees consider him on a par with Vishnu himself and not a mere avatar. There are hundreds of stories of Krishna, which tell of him as divine infant, mischievous youth, lover, and mighty hero. He is the main figure in the Bhagavad-Gita.

Linga – Linga is the most common symbol of Lord Shiva. It is a cylindrical black stone set in a circular base. The linga is often viewed as the completeness of the Hindu world view.

Mahabharata – It is one of the two great epics of Indian literature, a small portion of which is the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu and his incarnation as Krishna in particular figure prominently in the epic. Prince Arjuna is the human hero. This story is one of the first which emphasize a personal relationship with a deity.

Mantra – A mantra is a sacred syllable, a sequence of syllables, or sometimes a name, a word, or a phrase that is used in meditation. The mantra is usually assigned by one’s guru, and believed to tune one into the divine ground of existence. One of the most well known is the sacred sound Om (or Aum).

Moksha – Moksha is the state which the atman is trying to achieve when it is finally able to join with the Paramatman. This state is also known as Nirvana.

Om – Om is the most sacred symbol in Hindu dharma that is said to be the essence of all mantras. It is said to be the essence of the Vedas and is representative of the trimurti, the manifestation of three Hindu Gods.

Paramatman – This is the cosmic or world soul and is part, of Brahman. The eternal, individual soul or atman is trying to be united with the Paramatman and thus achieve ultimate unity.

Puja – Puja is the ritual household worship of the deity, commonly involving oil lamps, incense, prayers, and food offerings. The puja will also have an image of the deity worshiped. Almost all Hindu homes have a puja place.

Puranas – Old tales, stories about deities that became important after the Vedic period.

Raja yoga – Raja yoga is the way of meditation, the most uniquely Hindu form of yoga, also the most difficult. The participant works on a total moving away from the self. This is one of the four paths to achieve the union of the atman with the paramatman.

Raksha Bandhana – The Raksha Bandhana is an amulet, which girls and women tie to the wrists of their brothers for protection against evil. The literal meaning is to tie protection on.

Ramayana – Ramayana is one of the two great epics of Indian literature, telling the story of one of Vishnu’s avatara known as Rama. The Ramayana tells the story of Rama and his wife Sita (the ideal domestic couple), Sita’s abduction by the demon Ravanna, and her rescue with the help of the monkey king Hanuman, who is later made into a god, and his monkey army.

Sacred Thread – The student receives the sacred thread, called the Yajnopavita, at his spiritual birth. The sacred thread consists of three threads knotted together which symbolizes control over mind, speech, and body.

Samsara – The cycle of rebirth, the human predicament of separation from ultimate reality, whose only escape is the attainment of moksha. Samsara is imaged as an ever revolving wheel of wandering from existence to existence.

Sanatana Dharma – Hindus refer to themselves by this name, rather than Hindu, and means eternal truth or ancient religion.

Sandhyopasana – The literal meaning is worship at the junctions of time. A Hindu devotee must pray three times daily, at the junction of night and morning, at the junction of forenoon and afternoon and at the junction of evening and night.

Shudra – A shudra is a member of the lowest of the four major classes, with the status of servant after the Aryan invasion of the Indian subcontinent, but in some cases enjoying prosperity in more recent centuries.

Smriti – What is remembered, a body of ancient Hindu literature including the epics, Puranas, and law codes formed after the sruti and passed down in written tradition.

Sruti – What is heard, the sacred literature of the Vedic and Upanishadic period, recited orally by the Brahmin priests for many centuries prior to being written down.

Trimurti – Trimurti is the manifestation of three of the most popular Hindu deities Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu. This is the synthesis of the three merged into a single concept.

Twice-born – It is the first stage in life when the boy becomes a student to learn with a guru. This is his spiritual birth which is the second birth. Only boys from the upper three castes become twice-born. At his spiritual birth he receives the sacred thread.

Untouchables – The untouchables are those who have been expelled from their own castes by violating the rules and regulations of their caste. They could only perform the foulest and most menial of tasks in society. Although outlawed by the Indian Constitution, the group still exists today and faces much suffering. Mahatma Gandhi referred to the untouchables as the Children of God.

Upanishads – It literally means those who sit near. Philosophical tests, in the form of reported conversations, composed around the sixth century BCE and reflecting on the theory of the Vedic ritual and the nature of knowledge.

Vedanta – It literally means the end of the Veda. The name for philosophical or theological views based on the teaching of the Upanishads.

Vedas – The most sacred and authoritative of the vast array of Hindu scriptures, composed of four strands: Rig-Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda, each of which is made up of Samhitas (hymns), Brahmanas (prose commentary), and Upanishads (philosophical speculation).

Yoga – Any one of four paths of spiritual discipline intended to lead a person to deliverance from samsara and the realization of moksha--i.e., to atonement with ultimate reality. Specifically, it means a yoking of the self by spiritual discipline, a method of training designed to read to union of the human spirit with ultimate reality and release from the limits of the individual ego. Normally following a specific yoga involves apprenticeship to a guru, a spiritual teacher or guide.