Introduction to Religion
- The Hindu god of fire.
- 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 .
- All the material, non-spiritual aspects of the cosmos. The opposite of jiva . A term Hinduism borrowed from Jainism.
- (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 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- See om .
- 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 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.
- The section of the Mahabharata in which Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna and in a long
theological discussion describes the main components of karma
- 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
- 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 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.
- 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.
- Early, Vedic commentaries about Hindu ritual.
- The highest of the four main Hindu castes or Varnas. It
is the priestly caste.
- The western term for varna. Castes provide the
major divisions of Hindu society.
- deva, devi *
- Hindu terms for god and goddess.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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 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.
- A form of worship or meditation in which the name of a deity or a mantra is repeated.
- The Hindu term for sub-caste. A varna is made up of
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- linga/m *
- An oblong, upright stone that serves as a symbol of Shiva.
It usually appears in the central location of temples to Shiva.
- 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.
- 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.
- See ahimsa.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- A popular hero god who is an avatar of Vishnu. His
wife is Sita.
- 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.
- The cycle of death and rebirth. The transmigration
of an individual soul to a new body after death. This is
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- Sanatana Dharma *
- What Hindus call Hinduism.
- 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.
- The language in which the Vedas and other Hindu sacred
texts are written. It is an old Indo-European language like Greek and Latin. .
- The worship of Shiva, including beliefs and rituals.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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,
- The upper three castes whose males go through a
"re-birth" ceremony when they come-of-age at around 12.
- One of Shiva's wives. She represents motherhood,
nuturing, and family.
- 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.
- 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.
- The oldest collection of Hindu sacred texts. They include the best-known
They were written between 1500 and 1000 bce.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.