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published: 3/17/04
updated: 11/22/13

Glossary of Hinduism




Below is a glossary of Hindu terms and words associated with Hinduism. All non-English words are Sanskrit unless otherwise indicated.

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agama
Scripture. Refers generally to all writings that at least some Hindus believe to be revealed, and more specifically to the medieval texts Pancaratra Samhitas, Saiva Agamas, and Sakta Tantras.
Ashtanga Yoga
("eight-limbed path"). The yoga with eight components: morality; ethics; posture; breath control; sense control; concentration; meditation; absorption. Also known as Raja Yoga ("royal path").
atman
A person's true Self or underlying vital force. According to Vedanta philosophy, "atman is Brahman."
Bhagavad-Gita
("Song of the Lord"). A section of the Mahabharata composed around 200 BCE, and one of the most beloved of Hindu texts. It tells the story of the warrior Arjuna who faces members of his own family in battle and is unsure of the right action. Arjuna is instructed by Krishna, who outlines three paths (marga) of life: knowledge, duty, and devotion.
bhakti-marga
Path of devotion to God (one of the three paths to moksha). See also jnana-marga and bhakti-marga.




Brahma
Post-Vedic personal Creator god of the Hindu trinity (with Vishnu and Shiva). Usually represented as red in color and holding a goblet, a bow, a scepter, and the Vedas. Unlike Vishnu and Shiva, Brahma is seldom worshipped today.
Brahman
("growth, expansion"). The impersonal Absolute, the unproduced Producer of all that is. In the Vedas, Brahman is the force behind the magical formulas. In the Upanishads it is the supreme, eternal principle behind the origin of the universe and of the gods. In Vedanta philosophy, it is the Self (atman) of all beings and knowledge of Brahman results in liberation (moksha).
Brahamanas
("Pertaining to Brahmins"). Portion of the Vedas, written between 1,000 and 650 BCE, that explain mantras and provide further ritual instruction.
Devi
Hindu Mother Goddess whose major forms are Durga, Parvati, and Kali. In the Vedas, the Goddess was associated with natural phenomena such as dawn, night, and the Ganges River. In the post-Vedic period, Mahadevi (Great Goddess) became the source of energy in the cosmos and the counterpart of Shiva. For Shaktas, she is not a counterpart but the supreme deity herself.
dharma
(dhar, "uphold"). Rules of order, custom, and ethics, adherence to which is necessary to maintain order in society. In the Upanishads, dharma is primarily knowledge of the way to attain Brahman.
Ganesh
("Lord of the hosts"). Also Ganesha, Vinayaka, Ekadanta, Lambodara, Siddhadata, Vighnaraja. God of wisdom and good fortune, represented with a pot belly and the head of an elephant. Ganesh has been one of the most popular Hindu gods since medieval times and is claimed by all sects as their own. As the remover of obstacles, he is invoked before religious ceremonies and worldly undertakings.
Ganga
The goddess of the sacred river Ganges in India. Its waters are used in worship and given to the dying to drink.
Hatha Yoga
The yoga (path) focusing on bodily postures to improve meditation. Popular in the West as a means to health, fitness, and relaxation. See Hatha Yoga.
jati
Caste. The caste system determines social status based on birth and lineage, and is generally not alterable. Its importance has declined somewhat in urban areas, but is still important in marriage.
jnana-marga
Path of knowledge and truth (one of three paths to moksa).
karma
("action" or "deed"). Impact of previous deeds (usually in former lives) on one's current circumstances.
karma-marga
Path of works (one of three paths to moksa).
kundalini
("snake"). The spiritual force in every human being that lies at the base of the spine, coiled like a snake. It is also called "serpent power." Once awakened through yoga and meditation, it rises through the chakras, producing spiritual knowledge and mystical powers.
Mahabharata
("great tale of Bharata's descendents"). Epic tale of over 100,000 verses in length composed between about 400 BCE and 400 CE. The Mahabharata recounts the battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas for kingship. It contains the Bhagavad-Gita, in which the god Krishna assists the Pundava hero Arjuna at a moment of decision.
mahabhuta
("great element"). The five elements: air, fire, water, earth, and ether.
Mahadeva
One of the names of Shiva.
Mahavidyas
("great" + "knowledge"). Ten Hindu goddesses who represent the ten forms of transcendent knowledge and tantric power. They are personifications of Brahman's Sakti, so through worship of them, one can gain knowledge of Brahman. They are: Kali, Tara, Sodasi, Bhukanesvari, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta/Viraratri, Dhumavati, Bagala, Matangi and Kamala. The Mahavidyas were especially popular in medieval Bengal.
Mahesvara
("Great Lord"). Epithet of Shiva (sometimes of Vishnu).
Mahesvara-sutra
A Saivite text attributed to Shiva, dealing with the four ways that lead to ultimate insight: yoga, vedanta, language and music.
Mahesvari
Consort of Mahesvara; a name for Shakti; one of the goddesses created by Shiva who constitute the Divine Mothers (Matrkas).
mara
Evil.
marga
Path or way to moksa.
mlecchas
Foreigners.
moksa
("release"). Liberation from the cycle of rebirth, which is believed by most philosophical schools to be the ultimate goal of life.
namaste
Gesture of greeting with spiritual and symbolic significance. See Namaste: The Significance of a Yogic Greeting.
niyama
Moral observance; something one should do. Comparable to the western idea of virtue.
Papa
Evil, sin, or misfortune, including both natural and moral evil. Synonym of adharma.
Ramayana
Very popular Hindu epic, composed around 700 CE by Valmiki. It is as long as the Christian Bible and tells the story of the virtuous hero Rama who rescues his beloved Sita from the evil king
sadhu
A holy man who has renounced the material world to devote himself to spiritual practice. He wanders from place to place and owns nothing. A female sadhu is a sadhvi.
Saivism
Hindu denomination devoted to the worship of Shiva, which usually tends to be more ascetic than Vaisnavism. Saivas are distinguished by three horizontal markings on the forehead. Saiva ascetics usually wear their hair long and matted and are often covered in ashes.
samyama
In yoga, movement from meditative concentration into total mental absorption.
sanatana dharma
("everlasting truth"). Hinduism.
Shaktism
Hindu denomination devoted to the worship of the goddess or divine female power (Sakti). Some schools (Sri Kula) worship the Goddess in her benign and beautiful form of Sri, while others (Kali Kula) worship the fierce goddess Kali.
Shakti (or Sakti)
The Great Goddess and consort of Shiva. Her many forms include Durga, Kali and Amba.
Shiva
("auspicious"). Major deity and the third in the Hindu trinity (with Brahma and Vishnu). Shiva has roots in the pre-Vedic period, there associated with the god Rudra. To Saivities, Shiva is creator, preserver and destroyer, and the supreme deity.
smrti
("remembered"). Scriptures of human origin (as opposed to sruti) but highly regarded and authoritative.
sruti
("heard"). Revealed scriptures.
svarodaya
The science of breath control in yoga.
tapas
("heat"). Self-discipline. One of the five niyamas.
Trimurti
Hindu doctine that Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva (Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer, respectively) are three forms of the unmanifested Ultimate Reality. The doctrine developed around 1000 CE in an attempt to synthesize various sects. Today, the Trimurti continues to appear in temples, the vast majority of which are dedicated to Vishnu or Shiva. See Hindu Gods.
Upanishads
Genre of Vedic texts that were the last to be added (and thus also known as Vedanta, "the end of the Vedas), written between 1000 and 500 BCE. The Upanishads are much less concerned with Vedic gods and rituals than other Vedic texts, and focus on philosophical and mystical questions about reality. The Upanishads contain the teaching that atman (the self) is Brahman (ultimate reality), and that knowledge of Brahman brings release (moksa) from the suffering of rebirth (samsara). The later Upanishads are less philosophical and more sectarian.
Vaisnava
Follower of the god Vishnu and of the devotional (bhakti) tradition of Vaisnavism. Vishnu is mainly worshipped in the form of one of his incarnations. Vaisnavites wear three markings in a V formation on their foreheads.
varnas
("color"). Four categories of Hindu society dating from the time of the Vedas: Brahmans, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras. The varnas are ordered according to occupation, whereas castes (jati) are based on social status into which one is born, but the two systems are historically related.
Vedanta
("End of the Vedas"). System of Hindu philosophy based on the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, and the Bhagavad-Gita. Includes both dualist (dvaita) and nondualist (advaita) schools as well as others, but all believe in transmigration (samsara), the desirability of escape from it, the authority of the Vedas, Brahman as the cause of the universe, and the law of karma.
Vedas
("knowledge"). Collection of Hindu scriptures regarded as sacred and authoritative by all Hindus. See Vedas.
Vishnu
("pervader"). Major deity and member of Hindu trinity with Brahma and Shiva. Seen as the preserver of the universe and embodiment of goodness and mercy. To Vaisnavites, Vishnu is the supreme deity (Isvara) who becomes incarnate in times of crisis and declining dharma. Vishnu is usually depicted standing, holding weapons, or reclining on a serpent.
yama
Moral restraint; something one should not do. Comparable to the western idea of sin.

Sources

  1. Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions, ed. John Bowker.
  2. Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions, ed. Wendy Doniger.
  3. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Religion and Philosophy, ed. Stephan Schuhmacher.
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