Glossary of Hindu Terms
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ahinsa/ahimsa : the doctrine of non-injury of living things. Non-injury is not just about not killing animals for food; Hindus aim not to cause harm of any kind to any living thing by thought, word, deed or inaction. The ideal end goal of ahinsa is to extend this idea of non-injury to the development of a love for all things.
anthyeshti : the final samskara of an individual's life; this is the ceremony of cremation. When it is carried out in the correct manner and under auspicious circumstances, it is a sign to the departing soul that all things are being done in the proper manner; this leaves the departing soul free to continue its journey unhindered to its next rebirth.
ashrama : the ancient traditions that recognise four different stages of life for a 'twice-born' male, which – if followed correctly – give him a balanced education in traditions, life skills, being part of a family and attaining control of himself. In time, this grounding helps him to attain enlightenment and leads to moksha – relief from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The stages are The Student (brahmacharya), The Householder (grihastha), The Forest Dweller (vanaprastha) and The Renouncer (sannyasa).
atman (atta) : this is the 'real self', the soul of a person. Inside everyone is a 'spark' of the divine (Brahma); it is this spark that is able to reincarnate after death and provides each life with identity. It is through the atman that all things are connected, leading to the doctrine of ahinsa (or non-injury) and universal love.
avatar : from the outside, Hindus appear to worship many gods. This is not quite right; all of the various iconic figures such as Ganesha or Krishna are in fact avatars of the central divine force. An avatar is essentially a piece of the divine that has assumed a specific form – sometimes in order to interact in a specific way with a person or place, and sometimes in order to see a bit of the world without being discovered. Because Brahma, the divine, is untouchable and unseeable, the only way the world can interact with it is if the divine descends to our plane of existence. It does this thorugh its avatars.
ayurveda (ayurvedic) : is derived from the Sanskrit words 'ayu' (meaning 'life') and 'veda' (meaning 'knowledge of'). Ayurvedic medicine, which is thought to have originated from ancient Hindu texts, takes a holistic approach to curing illness. Disease or illness is beleived to occur when external factors or lifestyle result in an imbalance of the components of the body. Components of the body include elements, humours, tissues and circulatory channels.
bhakti : loving devotion that is a celebration of the divine love. Although all Hindus are attempting to achieve moksha by following the principles of ahimsa, the ultimate aim is to attain a degree of universal 'loving kindness', similar to that found in Buddhism. This bhakti is a reflection and celebration of the divine universal love that created the universe. One of the wishes for a couple at their wedding is 'May you discover bhakti together' as man and wife build a loving and devoted life together.
Bharat : thousands of years ago as Hindu beliefs began to coalesce, the faithful were largely confined by their geography to India and the surrounding region. They believed that this area of land was the entirety of the habitable world, and had been especially blessed by Brahma. They called this holy land Bharat, and while they lived within the realm of Bharat, they were living a sacred life. Even now, many older or more-traditional Hindus may choose to return to Bharat Mata (Mother India) to die in the sacred lands.
Bharat Mata : literally 'Mother India'. This is the modern extent of an ancient belief that saw land occupied by Hindus in and around India as being especially blessed by Brahma. Even now, Mother India is the traditional home of practising Hindus.
bhut : a specific type of ghost. Seeing a bhut is always inauspicious and the spiritual pollution needs to be removed by careful prayer and ritual. Bhut are usually female, and created by tragedies such as death in childbirth.
bindi (bhindi) : the traditional mark that is made on the forehead of a woman to indicate her marital status. A black bhindi is often a sign of a young, unmarried woman or a widow; a red bindi indicates a married woman. Traditionally, the red bindi used to be made by a groom on his wife's forehead during the marriage ceremony; he would use his own blood to symbolise their union of flesh and spirit.
bodily humours : the three bodily humours wind (vata), choler (pitta) and phlegm (kapha) each have their own characteristics and bodily purposes. A person's constitution is created through the balance of the humours, and also their propensity to disease (see also ayurvedic).
Brahma : the unseen creator god, one of the three top gods (i.e. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva).
Brahman : ultimate reality, the absolute essence of the universe, which has no attributes and is unknowable by humans.
brahmin : in Hinduism, a member of the priestly caste (which is one of the highest).
caste : in Hinduism, a hereditary or marital social class.
dharma : duty, religion, caste-law, destiny.
dhoti : a simple, cotton cloth garment, or loin cloth that is worn by men.
dvija : from the Sanskrit word for 'twice-born', dvija is a spiritual 'second birth' into the Hindu social classes via the initiation ceremony upanayana.
Ganesha (Ganesh): the very popular and much-loved elephant-headed God, son of Shiva. Called upon as a remover of obstacles, he is the god of wisdom, education, intelligence and prudence.
Ganges (river) : considered to be a holy river and the best place to scatter the ashes resulting from a cremation; funeral pyres will often be lit on its banks, or even on small rafts, so that the remains of the dead will be carried by the river. Ganges water is also holy, and often used to annoint the forehead of someone who is ill.
garbhadana : a 'conception' prayer that is recited soon after a couple are married to help them fulfill their parental obligations to have children and continue the Hindu race.
ghee (ghi) : clarified butter, which is one of the five holiest of foods, and is often used in the preparation of food for religious ceremonies, food that is to be placed on the temple altar as a sacrifice, and for annointing the sick and dead.
gods : deities who are worshipped or held in high regard.
guru : a Sanskrit term for a Hindu religious teacher, the channel of self-realisation.
henna : a dye that is made from the dried leaves and petioles of a plant (Lawsonia alba) and used in body art.
henna body art : known as mehndi; henna is used to stain the skin dark brown, creating body art, traditionally on the feet and hands of women.
Hindu : one who follows Hinduism, which is considered to be the oldest major religion still practised in the world today.
ishta-deva : preferred family household gods (avatars).
japa-mala : rosary for mantra chanting.
jatakarma : refers to childbirth in general and the name of the samskara or ritual of welcome for newborn babies.
jati : another name for caste; literally, the occupational-based kinship group into which you are born.
jenoi (janeu) : the sacred thread that is worn after initiation.
kapha : one of the three bodily humours.
karma : the effects of a Hindu's actions (mentally, verbally and bodily) in this and previous existences determine their experience in this and future existences, and are known as karma, or more specifically the Law of Karma. In Hinduism, a soul reincarnates again on earth until it perfects itself and reunites with its source. Therefore, a Hindu's goal may be to lead a 'pure' life, avoid creating more karma and move closer to eventually escaping the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Krishna : an avatar of Vishnu; usually seen as a blue-skinned boy, a charioteer or a cowherder.
mangal sutra : wedding bangle.
mantra : a syllable or word that is sometimes repeated in meditation or prayer.
moksha : the liberation of an individual from their cycle of samsara (birth, death and rebirth) and the ultimate goal of all Hindus.
mundan : head-shaving ceremony.
murti : temple god – blessed representation.
namaste : Hindu greeting in which the two palms are placed together in front of the chest and the head bows while saying the word namaste.
Om (Ohm, Aum) : the sacred sound that was said by Brahma to birth the universe.
pitta : one of the three bodily humours.
prana : sacred or living breath – divine spirit.
prashad : ceremonial sweet that is presented during ceremonies as a sacrifice. May be eaten after the service by those who are present.
pret : a lingering shade – this is the state of the soul between death and cremation.
puja : also upasana worship, a ritual.
rakhi : the Hindu festival to signify and strengthen the bond between brother and sister, and the holy thread that a sister ties on to her brother's wrist, signifying 'a bond of protection'.
Rama : a Hindu god, the avatar of Lord Vishnu. Avatar is defined as the incarnation (bodily manifestation) of an immortal being.
reincarnation : in reincarnation (rebirth), although the personality of a person and their fleshy body are newly created every time at the point of conception, their essence is eternal.
rita : universal order.
samsara : the continuing journey of the soul on its cycle of birth, death and rebirth as it heads towards enlightenment.
samskara (sanskara) : Hindu rites and practices, especially those linked with major life events such as marriage, birth, death and cremation. A samskara celebrates the passing, or attainment, of a particular life stage and therefore the beginning of a new phase of the individual's spiritual journey. The ritual celebrates and sanctifies the process of moving from one stage to another. The observation of these rites of passage is one of the five obligations of all Hindus.
sanatana dharma : literally the 'eternal tradition'. This is the name given to the loose aggregation of traditions, beliefs and scriptures that are at the heart of Hinduism. It may be used by some as an alternative name for Hinduism itself.
sannyasin : men of the twice-born who have entered the fourth stage of life – that of the sannyasa or Renouncer. They have given up all material possessions, family, career and home, and wander through India living rough and being fed as an act of charity by villagers. These wandering ascetics are treated with great respect for their sacrifices, and it is considered auspicious to have one living nearby. The aim of this lifestyle is to attain moksha by spending time becoming one with the world and thinking about the divine.
sari : the traditional dress of a Hindu woman. Actually, the sari is not a Hindu garment at all, but is a convenient way to wear thin layers of cloth that allow enough air circulation around the female form to keep cool, but still cover enough of the body to appear modest. A sari is most usually a very long piece of cotton cloth that is either dyed or embroidered with patterns. It is worn over a short, tight top with short arms and a thin underskirt of plain cotton. The sari is wound and pleated around the waist; as the layers are put on, they are tucked into each other. The end of the cloth is draped over the shoulder of the woman from front to back and can be used to cover the face and head when modesty is required. The midriff is left bare.
sati : devoted wife; the ultimate expression of stri-dharma.
sati-mata : martyr mother – a woman who burns herself on her husband's funeral pyre.
shaanti : peace – chanted three times to end a prayer.
Shiva : one of the Hindu gods.
shruti : divinely revealed truths.
stri-dharma : way of the wife – the dharma of all women, who must have children, bear sons, educate them as good Hindus and follow their husband – even if he is bad.
suddha : purity of mind, body and soul – and being in your rightful place in society.
sutra : thread; literally the sacred thread that is worn by the twice-born; also the sacred thread of oral tradition that links back to the oldest roots of the faith.
suttee : the burning of a wife on her husband's funeral pyre.
Trimurti : the three major gods – Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma.
tulsi : holy basil (Ocimum sanctum). A venerated plant and important symbol in Hinduism; it is used in ayurvedic medicine.
untouchables : a person who was born outside the four castes, and is considered to be below those within the castes. Untouchability is now outlawed.
upanayana (upanaya) : initiation into dvija (twice-born). The ceremony involves the tying of sacred threads (now usually limited to the Brahmin class).
upasana : also puja – daily worship at a home shrine.
upavasa : the practice of fasting for good health.
varna : social class as opposed to spiritualness (jati).
vata : one of the three bodily humours.
Veda : knowledge – early Hindu scripture.
Vishnu : part of the Trimurti, the three major gods; Shiva and Brahma are the other two.
vivaaha : marriage samskara (ceremony).