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Hinduism Glossary

for

Introduction to Religion



Agni
The Hindu god of fire.
ahimsa
In Sanskrit, literally, "noninjury." It is the principle that a person should do no harm. In Jainism, this restriction includes all living creatures because they all contain a jiva .
ajiva
All the material, non-spiritual aspects of the cosmos. The opposite of jiva . A term Hinduism borrowed from Jainism.
Ashram
(1) A place where devotees live, often the house of a guru. (2) It can also refer to the four stages of Hindu life: student, householder, retired person, and sannyasin .
Artha*
Artha literally means "success." It is one of the four main religious goals of Hinduism. The idea is that in addition to following dharma (virture) and kama (pleasure), Hindus should also strive to be successful in the the activities of their lives. It should be seen in contrast to the goal of moksha, which is to strive for liberation from samsara. For a more complete explanation, go here.
Aryans*
A group of people who emigrated from the west into the upper Indus Valley and the nearby territory around 1500 bce. They conquered the Dravidians and established what is now termed the Vedic culture.
Ascetic*
A general term for a person who denies themselves some of the necessities of life, such as food, clothing, and shelter. Often such a person goes to the extreme of rejecting all social norms and expectations. A general term that includes the Hindu categories of  sadhu and sannyasin.
Atman*
An individual's soul or self. The ultimate goal in Hinduism is to achieve moksha through the realization that one's Atman and Brahman are the same thing. This is accomplished through different types of yoga .
aum
See om .
Avatar*
A manifestion of a god in an earthly form, usually that of a human or animal. The god Vishnu has two main avatars: Krishna and Rama, and eight others.
Avidya
Avidya literally means "ignorance," and is the opposite of Vidya. It can refer to ignorance of proper social and religious behavior. In Sankara's thought (preserved in Advaita Vedanta), it became more than that. Avidya is the delusion of both the intellect and the spirit. This delusion prevents one from seeing beyond the duality of this world (i.e., matter) into the true unity of everything.

 

Bhagavad-Gita*
The section of the Mahabharata in which Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna and in a long theological discussion describes the main components of karma yoga.
bhakta
A worshipper. One who shows devotion to a god or goddess.
bhakti *
Practices of worship or devotion to a Hindu god or goddess. See also puja.
bhakti yoga *
A type of yoga in which a person worships a god or goddess. The idea is to approach the divine being by showing one's love through by worship and by subordinating oneself. A modern version of bhakti yoga in the West is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, popularly known as the "Hare Krishnas." For a fuller explanation, go here.
Brahma*
Brahma is the manifestation of Brahman into the world of maya. In opposition to Brahman as the essence of creation (a spirit), Brahma takes on a form fitting with the natural world. He is often mentioned as an equal with Vishnu and Shiva.
Brahman*
The power behind and within the cosmos that makes it function and live. Can also be seen as the Ultimate Reality. Sometimes it is thought of as a god. In the early Vedic religion, this was the focus of worship by the Brahmins. In classic and modern Hinduism it is rarely worshipped directly. One of the recurring goals in Hinduism is to understand the link between Brahman-the force behind the cosmos-and the Atman--the soul of each individual human.
Brahmanas
Early, Vedic commentaries about Hindu ritual.
Brahmin*
The highest of the four main Hindu castes or Varnas. It is the priestly caste.

 

Caste*
The western term for varna. Castes provide the major divisions of Hindu society.

 

deva, devi *
Hindu terms for god and goddess.
Dharma*
In Hinduism, Dharma means virtue. In particular, it refers to the duties of a person's caste (varna and jati ) and the idea that it is virtuous always to fulfill those duties willingly and expertly.
Dravidians
The oldest known inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. Archaeological remains of their have been found in the Indus River Valley that date to 2700 bce. In some areas, the Dravidians were conquered by the Aryans when they migrated from the west around 1500 bce.
Durga*
One of the wives of Shiva. She is the goddess of retribution and justice. She is both beautiful and fierce, and usually appears with her weapons and riding upon a tiger or a lion.

 

Ganesha/ Ganesa*
The god of good fortune. He takes away obstacles and brings success. This is the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati. He is sometimes called Ganapati.
gopi *
A milk-maid or the daughter or wife of a cowherder. Krishna shows his virility as a young man by wooing a number of gopi s.
Guru*
A holy teacher. Occasionally, a Brahmin who teaches.

 

Hatha yoga
The form of yoga devoted only to bodily control. In the West, it is often seen as the only type of yoga and is simply called "yoga."
Householder*
The second of the four stages of human life. This is when one takes on the responsibilities of adult life. It is the time for marriage, raising children, being involved in business and one's community. It is followed by retirement.

 

Ishvara
Ishvara literally means "Lord of the Universe." It is used to refer to a god who is seen as the personalization of the Creator, i.e., Brahman. Thus, it can be used of Vishnu or other gods and goddesses when they are seen as representations of the divine Absolute.

 

japam
A form of worship or meditation in which the name of a deity or a mantra is repeated.
jati*
The Hindu term for sub-caste. A varna is made up of many jatis.
jiva *
The soul of a person, essentially the same as Atman. It is made of spiritual or divine matter. It is a concept borrowed from Jainism, and is usually contrasted to ajiva .
jnana *
The Sanskrit term for "knowledge."
jnana yoga *
The discipline in which one learns the true nature of the cosmos and then uses that knowledge to connect oneself with the Atman--the true nature of Brahman. In this way, a person can attain moksha. For a fuller explanation go here.

 

Kali*
A goddess who is one of the wives of Shiva. She represents the wild, destructive character. She is often linked to death, wearing a necklace of human skulls, a skirt of human limbs, and with blood dripping from her weapons. At times, she can even overcome her husband.
Kama*
Pleasure, one of the four encouraged goals of life in Hinduism. Kama refers primarily to aesthetic pleasure, such as the enjoyment of music, drama, dance, painting, sculpture, and so on. It can also refer to sexual pleasure. Indeed one of the best-known Hindu books in the West is the Kama Sutra, a manual for sexual activity. For more information concerning the goals of life, go here.
Karma*
The Sanskrit term meaning "action." It refers to a concept in which the results of one's actions accumulate over one's life. Upon death, an individual's karma-this store of the results of actions-determines whether one is reborn in a higher or lower status.
karma yoga *
A discipline of work or "action." The goal is to achieve moksha through the elimination of one's karma through work, that is, involvement in life and business. Essentially, if a person can work without viewing the results of their efforts as one of their own, then the results cancel part of their karma rather than adding to it. One form of karma yoga works as a version of achieve bhakti yoga, in which a person's actions are seen as a form of love and devotion to a divine being. Another form works as a version of achieve jnana yoga, in which one becomes detached from the work's results as one enters a deeper experience of their Atman. For another explanation go here.
Krishna/Krsna*
A god who is one of the avatars of Vishnu. He plays a key role in the Mahabharata. In the Mahabharata appears the Bhagavad Gita which is a theological discourse he gives while waiting to go into battle and describes the basics of karma yoga , jnana yoga , and bhakti yoga .
kshatriya *
The second of the four main Hindu castes, or Varnas. This is the caste of warriors, leaders, and administrators.

 

Lakshmi *
The goddess of prosperity. She and her consort Vishnu are discussed further in the discussion of the Cosmos.
lila
The Hindu term for play, drama, and sport. The Rama lila is the fall festival that honors Rama, while the Ras lila is the spring festival in honor of Krishna.
linga/m *
An oblong, upright stone that serves as a symbol of Shiva. It usually appears in the central location of temples to Shiva.

 

Mahabharata*
The second-century bce epic about Krishna and the five royal Pandu brothers who must battle their Kuru cousins. It contains the famous Bhagavad Gita.
Mantra
A sequence of sounds used as a focus of meditation. The most famous mantra is that of "om," which consists of the three sounds "aa", "oo", "mm". For some examples of mantras and their explanation, go here.
maya *
The true nature of the cosmos we can see. In Sanskrit, the word means "illusion," but that does not just mean that it is imaginary. Instead, since it is what we can see, we must deal with it and live within it.
moksha *
Liberation or release from the cyle of death and rebirth, or samsara.

 

Noninjury
See ahimsa.

 

om
The most famous mantra, used as a meditational device in many forms of yoga. This sound is believed to be an aspect of the creation of the cosmos.

 

Parvati*
One of Shiva's wives. She represents erotic and sensual love, the love of courtship and wooing. She is the mother of Ganesha .
puja *
An offering (usually flowers, food, adoration, music, etc.) to a god or goddess.
Puranas
A group of writings about the adventures and activities of Hinduism's gods and goddesses. Most were composed during the classical period of Hinduism, with some being written later.

 

raja yoga *
A disipline that uses psycho-physical means--i.e., meditation--to achieve moksha. A person learns to control the functions and activity of their own body and the mind so that they can use the mind to concentrate exclusively on the Ultimate Reality.
Rama*
A popular hero god who is an avatar of Vishnu. His wife is Sita.
Ramayana*
The long epic that tells the story of Rama and his love for Sita, her capture, the long series of battles and quests Rama carries out to free her, and the aftermath.
Reincarnation*
The cycle of death and rebirth. The transmigration of an individual soul to a new body after death. This is samsara.
Retirement*
This is the third of the four stages of human life; it is followed by that of sannyasin. During this time, a retiree, also known as a "forest dweller," contemplates their life and attempts to formulate an understanding of "what it's all about."

 

Sadhu*
This is essentially the same as a sannyasin. This is a person who renounces life and everything that goes with it (religion, caste, family, etc.) and essentially becomes a wandering hermit seeking moksha. The Fourth "life stage" of Hinduism.
sakti/shakti *
Literally, "power." Usually, the worship of the goddesses, who all represent some form of power. Parvati represents the power of sensual and sexual attraction and love. Umma represents the powers that surround birth (the creation of life) and motherhood. Some goddesses represent violent power as well. Durga is a demon-slayer and often symbolizes retribution and justice. Kali is also a demon-slayer, but whereas Durga's power is controlled, Kali is strongest when her power is out of control. The active shakti power is often illustrated in symbolic in union with the passive male power. Thus Parvati is often shown having intercourse with Shiva and Kali is shown triumphant standing on a prone Shiva.
samadhi
The eighth and final stage of meditation in raja yoga in which a person's mind realizes the Ultimate Reality.
samsara *
The cycle of death and rebirth in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Reincarnation.
Sanatana Dharma *
What Hindus call Hinduism.
sannyasin
The fourth stage of the Hindu understanding of the human life cycle. In description, this usually follows the stage of retirement. In life, however, it can be entered at anytime and gives the individual the opportunity to become an ascetic. For a fuller discussion, go here.
Sanskrit
The language in which the Vedas and other Hindu sacred texts are written. It is an old Indo-European language like Greek and Latin. .
Shaivism
The worship of Shiva, including beliefs and rituals.
Shiva/Siva*
One of the two main gods of Hinduism. He is associated with a number of goddesses, the main four are Parvati, Umma, Durga, and Kali. See sakti .
shudra *
The fourth and lowest Hindu caste. It literally means "slave." Historically, the members of this varna were servants to those of the higher-castes. They are the only caste that is not twice-born.
Sita*
The wife of Rama. Often seen as the epitome of faithfulness. In the Ramayana, she is captured by a the king of the demons, Ravanna, and her husband must rescue her.
Student*
The first of the four stages of human life. This is the time from adolescence to about age 20 when one learns and studies. It is followed by the stage of householder.

 

Transmigration*
This refers to the idea of the transmigration of an individual's soul. It is also called samsara or reincarnation. This is the notion that after death, a person's soul is born-again into another individual (human, animal, etc.).
Twice-born*
The upper three castes whose males go through a "re-birth" ceremony when they come-of-age at around 12.

 

Umma
One of Shiva's wives. She represents motherhood, nuturing, and family.
Untouchables*
The Untouchables are the fifth caste, or more precisely, they are the people who are below the fourth varna and indeed outside the caste system altogether. They are outcaste. Westerners would be put into this caste.
Upanishads *
The latest of the writings to be considered part of the Vedic period, written between the eighth and third centuries BCE. These are collections of stories, discussions, and instructions addressing issues of the relationship between the human and the ultimate realms.

 

vaishya *
The third Hindu caste, that of the merchants, traders, farmers and craftsmen.
Vaishnavism
The worship of Vishnu, often in the form of one of his avatars, Rama and Krishna. This is given its classic form in the Bhagavad Gita.
varna *
The Hindu term for caste, a social division into which a person is born. There are four major castes in Hindu society: Brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra. The first three castes are considered "twice-born." Each Varna can be divided into a number of jatis. Below these four varnas are the untouchables.
Vedas*
The oldest collection of Hindu sacred texts. They include the best-known Rig-Veda. They were written between 1500 and 1000 bce.
Vedic
An adjective refering to the Vedas (as in "Vedic Scriptures"), the people who originally created and used the Vedas, the period from 1500 to 500 bce during which they were written, or any form of Hinduism or Hindu teachings that derive from the Vedas.
Vidya
It literally means "learning, knowledge," and is used in reference both to intellectual knowledge acquired through study and to spiritual knowledge acquired through spiritual activity and leading to enlightenment. Its opposite is Avidya.
Vishnu*
One of two main gods in Hinduism. He is usually worshiped in the form of one of his avatars, Krishna and Rama.

 

yoga *
In Sanskrit, it literally means "yoke," as in a yoke used to harness oxen. It refers to an organized form of discipline that leads to a goal. This discipline usually involves practices of meditation, mental concentration, exercises of the body including both ones of control and asceticism. In Hinduism, this goal is usually that of moksha, the release of the soul from cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). For this course, four types of yoga are important: karma, jnana, raja, and bhakti.
yogi
A person who practices some form of yoga. Male-yogin, female-yogini.

If you wish to make any comments, please email PFlesher@uwyo.edu.
Copyright 1996 Paul V. M. Flesher

This glossary was written by Paul V. M. Flesher; it is not drawn from any published work. It is for use with the course RELI 1000, Introduction to Religion, taught at the University of Wyoming. The main textbook for this course was Huston Smith's The World's Religions. It has influenced both the vocabulary choices and the definitions, which are designed to be compatible with the text.