Hinduism

Hindu Of Universe

“God’s light is within you, It never leaves you.”

Hinduism

Students should be aware that Hinduism is one of the diverse religious traditions and beliefs in Great Britain today and that the main religious tradition in Great Britain is Christianity. This knowledge may be applied throughout the assessment of the specified content.

Students should study the beliefs, teachings and practices of Hinduism specified below and their basis in Hindu sources of wisdom and authority. They should be able to refer to scripture and/or sacred texts where appropriate. Some texts are prescribed for study in the content set out below and questions may be set on them. Students may refer to any relevant text in their answers and AQA will publish a list of appropriate texts as part of the supporting material for this specification. These additional texts will not be required for study, alternatives may be used, and questions will not be set on them.

Students should study the influence of the beliefs, teachings and practices studied on individuals, communities and societies.

Common and divergent views within Hinduism in the way beliefs and teachings are understood and expressed should be included throughout. Students may refer to a range of different Hindu perspectives in their answers, including Shaivism and Vaishnavism. They must study the specific differences identified below.

Beliefs and teachings

Ideas about the nature of God and existence

  • Brahman: different Hindu understandings of brahman; ultimate reality as divine consciousness (nirguna) and manifestation of God in form (saguna); spiritual worlds.
  • Different understandings of the three features of the divine:
    • everywhere, as non-personal (brahman)
    • within the heart
    • beyond, as a personal loving God
    • Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 391.
  • How the divine presents:
    • the Tri-murti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva
    • male and female deities, including Ganesha, Lakshmi, Hanuman, Saraswati
    • the concept of avatara, including Krishna, Rama.
  • Matter (prakriti); the three qualities (tri-guna); illusion (maya); cosmology (Rig Veda 10.129.6-7); the cycle of four ages; many worlds and their diverse inhabitants.

Beliefs about the nature of human life

  • The concept of atman, as individual, eternal inner self, distinct from material mind and body.
  • Cycle of birth and death: samsara; moral action and reaction: the law of karma; types of liberation: moksha.
  • Individual free will and responses to suffering; knowledge and ignorance.
  • Personal virtues including ahimsa, respect, empathy, mind/sense control, humility, love.
  • The four aims of human life: dharma, artha, kama, moksha.
  • The meaning of dharma; sanatana dharma; varnashrama dharma.

Practices

Worship and festivals

  • Places of worship and their importance: home; temple; outdoors (such as shrines); the space of the heart
  • Different forms of worship/meditation and their significance: havan, puja, arati, darshan, bhajan/kirtan, japa/mantra; key differences in worship in Shaivism and Vaishnavism and different Hindu views about the importance of worship.
  • Focuses of worship and representations of the divine and their importance:
    • one God (personal or non-personal)
    • the many deities, guru and other elders
    • holy land, hills and rivers
    • sacred plants and animals
    • the murti as a representation of God.
  • Sacred festivals and their importance for Hindus in Great Britain today, including the origins and meaning of:
    • Diwali
    • Holi.

Lifestyle

  • The four paths towards yoga (union with the divine), their differences and their importance:
    • action (karma yoga)
    • knowledge (jnana yoga)
    • meditation (astanga yoga)
    • devotion (bhakti yoga).
  • Pilgrimage:
    • the role of pilgrimage
    • practices and purposes
    • sacred sites, including Varanasi
    • Kumbh Mela.
  • The work and significance of:
    • Hindu environmental projects including ‘cow protection’ and their significance.
    • Charities that promote well-being, social inclusion and women’s rights.

Hinduism Beliefs, Symbols

Some basic Hindu concepts include:

  • Hinduism embraces many religious ideas. For this reason, it’s sometimes referred to as a “way of life” or a “family of religions,” as opposed to a single, organized religion.
  • Most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic, which means they worship a single deity, known as “Brahman,” but still recognize other gods and goddesses. Followers believe there are multiple paths to reaching their god.
  • Hindus believe in the doctrines of samsara (the continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation) and karma (the universal law of cause and effect).
  • One of the key thoughts of Hinduism is “atman,” or the belief in soul. This philosophy holds that living creatures have a soul, and they’re all part of the supreme soul. The goal is to achieve “moksha,” or salvation, which ends the cycle of rebirths to become part of the absolute soul.
  • One fundamental principle of the religion is the idea that people’s actions and thoughts directly determine their current life and future lives.
  • Hindus strive to achieve dharma, which is a code of living that emphasizes good conduct and morality.
  • Hindus revere all living creatures and consider the cow a sacred animal.
  • Food is an important part of life for Hindus. Most don’t eat beef or pork, and many are vegetarians.
  • Hinduism is closely related to other Indian religions, including Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.

A SWASTIKA SYMBOL FEATURED ON A TILE AT HINDU TEMPLE ON DIU ISLAND, INDIA. THE SYMBOL IS ONE OF GOOD LUCK AND GOOD FORTUNE.

There are two primary symbols associated with Hinduism, the om and the swastika. The word swastika means “good fortune” or “being happy” in Sanskrit, and the symbol represents good lMahatma Gandhiuck. (A hooked, diagonal variation of the swastika later became associated with Germany’s Nazi Party when they made it their symbol in 1920.)

The om symbol is composed of three Sanskrit letters and represents three sounds (a, u and m), which when combined are considered a sacred sound. The om symbol is often found at family shrines and in Hindu temples.

Hinduism Holy Books

Hindus value many sacred writings as opposed to one holy book.

The primary sacred texts, known as the Vedas, were composed around 1500 B.C. This collection of verses and hymns was written in Sanskrit and contains revelations received by ancient saints and sages.

The Vedas are made up of:

  • The Rig Veda
  • The Samaveda
  • Yajurveda
  • Atharvaveda

Hindus believe that the Vedas transcend all time and don’t have a beginning or an end.

The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, 18 Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata are also considered important texts in Hinduism.

Origins of Hinduism

Most scholars believe Hinduism started somewhere between 2300 B.C. and 1500 B.C. in the Indus Valley, near modern-day Pakistan. But many Hindus argue that their faith is timeless and has always existed.

Unlike other religions, Hinduism has no one founder but is instead a fusion of various beliefs.

Around 1500 B.C., the Indo-Aryan people migrated to the Indus Valley, and their language and culture blended with that of the indigenous people living in the region. There’s some debate over who influenced whom more during this time.

The period when the Vedas were composed became known as the “Vedic Period” and lasted from about 1500 B.C. to 500 B.C. Rituals, such as sacrifices and chanting, were common in the Vedic Period.

The Epic, Puranic and Classic Periods took place between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500. Hindus began to emphasize the worship of deities, especially Vishnu, Shiva and Devi.

The concept of dharma was introduced in new texts, and other faiths, such as Buddhism and Jainism, spread rapidly.

Hinduism vs. Buddhism

Hinduism and Buddhism have many similarities. Buddhism, in fact, arose out of Hinduism, and both believe in reincarnation, karma and that a life of devotion and honor is a path to salvation and enlightenment. 

But some key differences exist between the two religions: Buddhism rejects the caste system of Hinduism and does away with the rituals, the priesthood and the gods that are integral to the Hindu faith. 

Medieval and Modern Hindu History

The Medieval Period of Hinduism lasted from about A.D. 500 to 1500. New texts emerged, and poet-saints recorded their spiritual sentiments during this time.

In the 7th century, Muslim Arabs began invading areas in India. During parts of the Muslim Period, which lasted from about 1200 to 1757, Islamic rulers prevented Hindus from worshipping their deities, and some temples were destroyed.

Mahatma Gandhi

Between 1757 and 1947, the British controlled India. At first, the new rulers allowed Hindus to practice their religion without interference. But later, Christian missionaries sought to convert and westernize the people.

Many reformers emerged during the British Period. The well-known politician and peace activist, Mahatma Gandhi, led a movement that pushed for India’s independence.

The partition of India occurred in 1947, and Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. British India was split into what are now the independent nations of India and Pakistan, and Hinduism became the major religion of India.

Starting in the 1960s, many Hindus migrated to North America and Britain, spreading their faith and philosophies to the western world.

INDIAN STATESMAN AND ACTIVIST MAHATMA GANDHI, 1940.

Hindu Gods

AN EARLY 18TH-CENTURY DEPICTION OF DEVI REVERED BY BRAHMA, VISHNU AND SHIVA.

Hindus worship many gods and goddesses in addition to Brahman, who is believed to be the supreme God force present in all things.

Some of the most prominent deities include:

  • Brahma: the god responsible for the creation of the world and all living things
  • Vishnu: the god that preserves and protects the universe
  • Shiva: the god that destroys the universe in order to recreate it
  • Devi: the goddess that fights to restore dharma
  • Krishna: the god of compassion, tenderness and love
  • Lakshmi: the goddess of wealth and purity
  • Saraswati: the goddess of learning

Places of Worship

Hindu worship, which is known as “puja,” typically takes place in the Mandir (temple). Followers of Hinduism can visit the Mandir any time they please.

Hindus can also worship at home, and many have a special shrine dedicated to certain gods and goddesses.

The giving of offerings is an important part of Hindu worship. It’s a common practice to present gifts, such as flowers or oils, to a god or goddess.

Additionally, many Hindus take pilgrimages to temples and other sacred sites in India.

Hinduism Sects

Hinduism has many sects, and the following are often considered the four major denominations.

Shaivism is one of the largest denominations of Hinduism, and its followers worship Shiva, sometimes known as “The Destroyer,” as their supreme deity.

Shaivism spread from southern India into Southeast Asia and is practiced in Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia as well as India. Like the other major sects of Hinduism, Shaivism considers the Vedas and the Upanishads to be sacred texts.

Vaishnavism is considered the largest Hindu sect, with an estimated 640 million followers, and is practiced worldwide. It includes sub-sects that are familiar to many non-Hindus, including Ramaism and Krishnaism.

Vaishnavism recognizes many deities, including Vishnu, Lakshmi, Krishna and Rama, and the religious practices of Vaishnavism vary from region to region across the Indian subcontinent.

Shaktism is somewhat unique among the four major traditions of Hinduism in that its followers worship a female deity, the goddess Shakti (also known as Devi).

Shaktism is sometimes practiced as a monotheistic religion, while other followers of this tradition worship a number of goddesses. This female-centered denomination is sometimes considered complementary to Shaivism, which recognizes a male deity as supreme.

The Smarta or Smartism tradition of Hinduism is somewhat more orthodox and restrictive than the other four mainstream denominations. It tends to draw its followers from the Brahman upper caste of Indian society.

Smartism followers worship five deities: Vishnu, Shiva, Devi, Ganesh and Surya. Their temple at Sringeri is generally recognized as the center of worship for the denomination.

Some Hindus elevate the Hindu trinity, which consists of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Others believe that all the deities are a manifestation of one.

Hindu Caste System

The caste system is a social hierarchy in India that divides Hindus based on their karma and dharma. Many scholars believe the system dates back more than 3,000 years.

The four main castes (in order of prominence) include:

  1. Brahmin: the intellectual and spiritual leaders
  2. Kshatriyas: the protectors and public servants of society
  3. Vaisyas: the skillful producers
  4. Shudras: the unskilled laborers

Many subcategories also exist within each caste. The “Untouchables” are a class of citizens that are outside the caste system and considered to be in the lowest level of the social hierarchy.

For centuries, the caste system determined every aspect of a person’s social, professional and religious status in India.

When India became an independent nation, its constitution banned discrimination based on caste.

Today, the caste system still exists in India but is loosely followed. Many of the old customs are overlooked, but some traditions, such as only marrying within a specific caste, are still embraced.

A PAKISTANI HINDU FAMILY OFFERS PRAYERS AND LIGHT CANDLES AS THEY MARK DIWALI, THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS, IN LAHORE, 2016.

Hindus observe numerous sacred days, holidays and festivals.

Some of the most well-known include:

  • Diwali: the festival of lights
  • Navaratri: a celebration of fertility and harvest
  • Holi: a spring festival
  • Krishna Janmashtami: a tribute to Krishna’s birthday
  • Raksha Bandhan: a celebration of the bond between brother and sister
  • Maha Shivaratri: the great festival of Shiva

Important Hindu Rituals in India

Hinduism is not just a religion in India. It is a way of life. In Hinduism, rituals are performed to bring spirituality into human life and inculcate feelings of devotion and religiosity. Rituals are not only celebrated during life but continue after death, including burial and cremation practices. For Hindus, it is the Vedas – the oldest spiritual scriptures in the world – that have shaped and influenced their rituals. The Vedas are a collection of hymns and rituals that date back thousands of years. These priceless texts were passed on to several generations through oral narration. 

Earlier, many Hindu rituals focused on the importance of performing the duties associated with one’s stage of life. The four stages of life are as follows:

  1. Brahmacharya – Acquiring education and enhancing one’s character
  2. Grihastha – Worldly pleasures and pursuits that include marriage and career
  3. Vanaprastha – Spirituality
  4. Sannyasa – The life of contemplation   

There are many ancient rituals that are not performed today, as their meaning and practice have changed over the centuries. For example, during Vedic times, yajnas were related to Karma and Dharma but now they are associated with social activities. 

Significance of Hindu Rituals

For Hindus, receiving the blessings of the Almighty is of principal importance when performing the rituals. They believe when God is pleased by their devotion, he bestows his blessings upon them. Most of the Hindu rituals are performed on holy sites such as temples or in nature, but some are performed in the home. 

As a part of the household responsibilities, a devout Hindu is expected to perform certain rituals every day. The morning rituals may include taking a bath or physical self-purification, offering prayers to the Sun God, or Chanting the Gayatri mantra. The most common rituals practiced in all Hindu households are puja, meditation, silent prayers, yoga, recitation of scriptures from Bhagavad Gita or bhajans, reading religious books, participating in Satsang (prayer meets), performing charitable work, visiting a temple, and chanting the name of their beloved God. It is through these rituals, prayers, and sacred ceremonies that Hindus pay their reverence to God. 

Prayers or Pooja are an integral part of a Hindu devotee’s life. They perform these prayers under the assistance or guidance of Hindu priests or Brahmins. After every pooja, a sacred offering (or Prasad) is made to God. Such offerings are meant to be made without claiming reciprocal advantages as a mark of service to their Almighty.  Hindus believe that performing these rituals help in their spiritual betterment.

Performing Rituals at Sacred Sites 

The Hindu texts and holy scriptures have laid down various rituals that Hindu devotees must perform throughout their lifetime. The holy sites are of great importance when it comes to the Hindu rituals because these sites are considered as God’s abodes. The holy scriptures have noted in great detail about the sanctity of holy sites where rituals are performed by the Brahmins. Hindus also pay homage to their ancestors at these sacred sites. Prayers are performed to bestow long-lasting peace and to help them unite with the Divine power. 

Other Forms of Hindu Rituals

Yajna – While performing the yajna, offerings are made to different deities under the assistance of priests. A small sacred fire is lit and offerings such as food grains, ghee, and vegetable substances are present. Mantras are chanted simultaneously to invoke Gods like Agni, Indra, and Varuna. They are usually performed for the welfare of the family, to invite rains,and to welcome peace and prosperity. Some Yajnas are performed for a few hours while others last several weeks.

Japa – Japa means recitation of God’s name, either silently or audibly. The ritual involves a continuous recitation of God’s name to purify the mind and fill one’s consciousness with spiritual energy. This regular chanting can create vibrations in the mind and body and can lead to a spiritual transformation. Japa should be done out of pure love for God and not with an expectation to get something in return.

Hinduism: Basic Beliefs

The fundamental teaching of Hinduism, or Vedanta, is that a human being’s basic nature is not confined to the body or the mind. Beyond both of these is the spirit or the spark of God within the soul.

How did Hinduism begin?

Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma (“eternal spiritual path”) began about 4000 years ago in India. It was the religion of an ancient people known as the Aryans (“noble people”) whose philosophy, religion, and customs are recorded in their sacred texts known as the Vedas. These texts were initially handed down by word of mouth from teacher to student. It was not until much later that they were actually written down. Archeological evidence from the Indus Valley civilization of northwestern India helps to establish Hinduism as the world’s oldest living religion. Today, worldwide, there are almost one billion people professing some aspect of Hinduism. The fundamental teachings of Hinduism, which form the foundation of all its different sects, are contained in the concluding portion of the Vedas, and are therefore known as the Vedanta (the “end or concluding portion of the Vedas”). This part of the Vedas is also known as the Upanishads.

What do Hindus believe and practice?

The fundamental teaching of Hinduism, or Vedanta, is that a human being’s basic nature is not confined to the body or the mind. Beyond both of these is the spirit or the spark of God within the soul. This spirit is within us and also within everything we see. All beings and all things are really, in their deepest essence, this pure or divine spirit, full of peace, full of joy and wisdom, ever united with God. This is not just theory, but it can actually be experienced. Anyone who takes the trouble to undergo the necessary training to purify and refine the mind and senses can begin to feel the truth of this. This training can take various forms and is known as yoga (“union”- union of the individual self with this inner spirit).

There are four main types of yoga, meant for the four main types of human temperaments: 

Karma Yoga or the discipline of right actions is for those of active temperament, striving to eliminate selfishness, and to cultivate universal sympathy by seeing the divine reality in all.

Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion to God whose presence can be felt in all things. God can be worshipped as present in an image in a Temple. God can be worshipped also as present in suffering humanity by service. 

Jnana Yoga, preferred by those of analytical bent of mind, is the discipline of trying to see the divine reality within all things directly, by mentally brushing aside all the obstructing physical and mental coverings that hide it.

Raja Yoga is the process of mental control, purity, and meditation to make the mind very calm and quiet. In that profound quiet, the inner divine light reveals itself.

What are the manifestation(s) God in Hinduism?

What are the different sects of Hinduism?  The general name for God in Hinduism is Brahman. The name of the divine essence within us is Atman. They are one and the same, infinite and eternal. However, God is also present in all creation. God’s manifestation in creation goes by many names. It is the one infinite, eternal, Divine Being that is manifesting in countless ways. It is like a person at the same time being called “father” by his son, “friend” by his friend, “son” by his own father, “husband” by his wife, etc. A special relationship goes with each name. So the same Divine Lord has been addressed as Shiva, Vishnu, etc and as Divine Mother, Kali, Durga, etc. God can also manifest as an extraordinary being in human form, who is then known as an incarnation of God, such as Krishna, Rama, etc. Since it is the one infinite God alone that is being looked at in different ways, all these manifestations can be prayed to for help and protection. This is the underlying principle behind all the different sects of Hinduism. Those who prefer a particular manifestation of the divinity will form a sect devoted to the contemplation and worship of that manifestation. All the sects, however, will accept the ancient teachings of the Vedas and the Vedanta as the foundation of their practice.

What is reincarnation?

In this world every cause must have its effect. We are responsible for the results of our actions. Long ages ago, human beings first asked themselves, why are some people born in happy circumstances, whereas others are born to suffer all their lives? The events of this present life are not enough to account for such suffering. To reasonably explain an excess of suffering or of enjoyment in this life, it was assumed that we all have had previous existences, and that we are now reaping the results of those previous actions. It must also be true then that we can take charge of our destiny right now. We can create a better tomorrow by resolving do better actions today. However, as long as desires remain in the mind, the tendency toward rebirth will exist.

What is Maya?

In this life we do not see things very clearly. We are constantly faced with contradictions. Though we know what is right, we have trouble doing it. Our thoughts soar high, but our actions cannot rise to the level of our thoughts. The world is full of misery and injustice; as quickly as we remove some, more seems to rush in to take its place. We are told by the saints, and we also feel, that a loving God is at work in this creation, but we cannot reconcile this with what we see around us. This complex situation in which we find ourselves is called Maya. 

The way out of this, according to Hinduism or Vedanta, is that we are not really seeing the world properly. If we saw it properly, we would see that it is God alone before us. Instead, we superimpose all this complex world on that divine reality.

The illustration given is that of a rope, mistaken in semi-darkness for a snake. The snake of this world frightens us. What is the solution? Bring a light and you will see its real nature. It is only a rope. Likewise, the real nature or essence of this world is divinity alone. Bring the light of spiritual wisdom through yoga, and you will see God alone everywhere. This is what constitutes spiritual freedom or liberation, Moksha. When this knowledge dawns, there is complete satisfaction; no desire remains in the mind, and no further impulse for rebirth remains.

What code of behavior do Hindus follow?

The code of behavior is one’s dharma. This is determined by the place in society and the duties associated with it. There are four main social positions or varna; Brahmins (priests and teachers) Kshatriyas (rulers and soldiers), Vaishyas (merchants) and Shudras (workers). 

There are four ideal stages of life described in Hindu scriptures: the student, the family man, the recluse, and the wandering holy man. For most Hindu people these represent a metaphorical path, not an actual path. 

 

What are the Hindu sacred texts?

Hindu ancient, sacred texts were written in Sanskrit, the language of ancient India. The Vedas are the oldest – about 3000 years old. They are a collection of hymns, prayers, and magic spells. The Upanishads are stories and parables told by gurus (teachers) to their students The Mahabharata is a story of a war between two royal families. The Bhagavad Gita is a very popular part of this text. The Ramayana is a story of the god Rama and the rescue of his wife Sita from Ravana, the evil demon king.

Introduction

Hinduism originated near the river Indus over 5,000 years ago, although elements of the faith are much older. The Hindu tradition has no founder and is best understood as a group of closely connected religious traditions rather than a single religion. It represents a complete way of life and is practised by over 900 million followers. Eighty per cent of the population of India is Hindu. Hindus believe in one God and worship that one God under many manifestations, deities or images. Examples of Hindu deities are Krishna, Shiva, Rama and Durga.

Hindus believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, governed by karma (a complex belief in cause and effect). Hindus believe that all prayers addressed to any form or manifestation will ultimately reach the one God. Hinduism does not prescribe particular dogmas; rather it asks individuals to worship God according to their own belief. It therefore allows a great deal of freedom in matters of faith and worship.

Attitudes to healthcare staff and illness

Most Hindu patients have a positive attitude towards healthcare staff and are willing to seek medical help and advice when sick. Many Hindu patients may be using Ayurvedic medicine and, as this may involve the use of herbal remedies, it is important to find out.

Religious practices

Hindus will usually wish to pray twice daily. Where possible they will burn incense and use holy books and prayer beads. Privacy would be appreciated for prayer times.

Diet

Most Hindus are vegetarian. The cow is viewed as a sacred animal so even meat-eating Hindus may not eat beef. Some Hindus will eat eggs, some will not, and some will also refuse onion or garlic; it is best to ask each individual. Dairy produce is acceptable so long as it is free of animal rennet, so for example the only cheese some Hindus will eat may be cottage cheese. It is important to remember that strict vegetarians will be unhappy about eating vegetarian items if they are served from the same plate or with the same utensils as meat.

Fasting

Fasting is a regular feature of the Hindu religion but few Hindus insist on fasting in hospital. Fasting is commonly practised on new moon days and during festivals such as Shivaratri, Saraswati Puja and Durga Puja. Some fasts may only require abstinence from certain foods. At the end of each period of fasting, visitors may bring in prasad *  that the patient can join in the celebration.

Food that has been blessed

Washing and toilet

Hindus will require water for washing in the same room as the toilet itself. If there is no tap there, or if they have to use a bed-pan, they will be grateful to have a container of water provided. Hindu patients prefer to wash in free-flowing water, rather than sit in a bath. As Indian food is eaten using the fingers, hand washing before and after meals is customary.

Ideas of modesty and dress

A Hindu woman will much prefer a female doctor when being examined or treated. Hindu women should be accommodated in mixed wards only in emergencies. A Hindu woman may find it difficult to accept an X-ray gown because it is short.

Hindu women may wear bangles or a thread and you should not remove them without permission. Some Hindus wear a red spot on their foreheads or scalp, which again should not be removed or washed off without permission.

Death customs

If a Hindu patient is dying in hospital, relatives may wish to bring money and clothes for him or her to touch before they are given to the needy. They will wish to keep a bedside vigil — if the visitors are not allowed to go to the bedside themselves they will be grateful if a nurse can do this for them while they wait. Some relatives will welcome an opportunity to sit with the dying patient and read from a holy book.

After death the body should always be left covered. Sacred objects should not be removed. Relatives will wish to wash the body and put on new clothes before taking it from the hospital. Traditionally the eldest son of the deceased should take a leading part in this, however young he may be. If a post mortem is unavoidable, Hindus will wish all organs to be returned to the body before cremation (or burial for children under five years old).

Birth customs

Relatives will want to make sure the mother has complete rest for 40 days after birth and they will be worried if she has to get up for a bath within the first few days. This attitude is based on the belief that a woman is at her weakest at this time and is very susceptible to chills, backache etc.

If there is a need to separate mother and baby for any reason this should be done tactfully as she may prefer to keep the baby with her at all times.

Some Hindus consider it crucial to record the time of birth (to the minute) so that a Hindu priest can cast the child’s horoscope accurately.

Family planning

There is no objection to family planning from the religious point of view. However, there may be strong social pressures on women to go on having babies, particularly if no son has yet been born, and you should involve her husband in any discussion of family planning.

Blood transfusions, transplants and organ donation

Most Hindus have no objection to blood transfusions and may receive transplants or donate organs for transplant.

What is Hinduism?

How and when did Hinduism begin? While there is no shortage of historical scholars, sages, and teachers in Hinduism, there is no historical founder of the religion as a whole, no figure comparable to Jesus, the Buddha, Abraham, or Muhammad. As a consequence, there is no firm date of origin for Hinduism, either. The earliest known sacred texts of Hinduism, the Vedas, date back to at least 3000 BCE, but some date them back even further, to 8000-6000 BCE; and some Hindus themselves believe these texts to be of divine origin, and therefore timeless.

Related to this, it is worth mentioning here that there is no designated religious hierarchy that determines official Hindu doctrine or practice. Thus, there is no one who can speak for Hindus as a whole, and no single authority regarding what is “truly” Hindu or not. Nevertheless, below is a list of principles that, by practitioner consensus, characterize one as “Hindu.”

  • Belief in the divinity of the Vedas
  • Belief in one, all-pervasive Supreme Reality
  • Belief in the cyclical nature of time
  • Belief in karma
  • Belief in reincarnation
  • Belief in alternate realities with higher beings
  • Belief in enlightened masters or gurus
  • Belief in non-aggression and non-injury
  • Belief that all revealed religions are essentially correct
  • Belief that the living being is first and foremost a spiritual entity
  • Belief in an “organic social system.” (Steven Rosen, Essential Hinduism, )

Sacred Texts of Hinduism

There is no single, authoritative text in Hinduism that functions like the Bible for Christians, or the Qur’an for Muslims. Instead, there are several different collections of texts. The Vedas are the oldest Hindu sacred texts, and have the most wide-ranging authority. They are believed to have been written anywhere from 1800 to 1200 BCE. The Upanishads describe a more philosophical and theoretical approach to the practice of Hinduism and were written roughly between 800 and 400 BCE, around the same time that the Buddha lived and taught. The Mahabharata is the longest epic poem in the world, the most well-known portion of which is the Bhagavad-Gita, which is perhaps the best-known and widely cited book in all of Hinduism; the Ramayana is the other most important epic poem in Hinduism.

Gods in Hinduism

Hinduism encompasses a lush, expansive understanding of the divine accommodating a vast assortment of dynamic and multifaceted concepts. Hinduism sees the divine as not either one or many, but both; not male or female, but both; not formless or embodied, but both. Some of the most important deities in Hinduism are Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, Krishna, Sarasvati, Durga, and Kali.

As a result, there are dozens upon dozens of Hindu festivals honoring and celebrating these multitudinous divinities. Some are celebrated throughout India, and many more are primarily regional. They mark specific seasons, specific events in the lives of the different gods and goddesses, and specific concerns of life—wealth, health, fertility, etc. Two of the most well-known in the United States are Divali and Holi.

Divali, the festival of lights that falls somewhere in October or November, honors Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and good fortune, and lasts roughly four to five days. Families often visit the temple during this time and make offerings to Lakshmi there, but they also worship at home, perhaps even arranging a special place on their home altar for Lakshmi. Doors are left open to welcome her into the house, and the whole period of celebration is a time of great joy, in which Hindus fill their houses with light.

Holi is celebrated with great abandon and gusto all over India. It inaugurates the coming of spring and is celebrated primarily by throwing colored paste and water on anyone who happens to be out walking around. It, too, is celebrated over a period of days.

Hindu Worship

For Hindus, there is no weekly worship service, no set day or time in which a community is called to gather publicly. Although most Hindus do visit temples regularly, or at least occasionally, to pray and make offerings, a “good” Hindu need never worship in public. Instead, all worship can be performed to icons in the home shrine, which is why the home is a very important place of worship in India.

The best word that describes and summarizes Hindu worship is puja, which means respect, homage, or worship. Most—if not all—Hindus have small altars at home on which they place pictures and/or statues representing different deities, including those to whom the family is particularly devoted. Each morning, one member of the family, usually the father or the mother, will perform a short puja at the altar. This may include saying prayers, lighting a lamp, burning incense, making offerings of fruit and flowers, and ringing a bell. The goal in this worship is to please the gods through all five senses.

Much the same thing happens in temple worship, though the rituals are much more elaborate there, since deities are believed to inhabit the temple images at all times, rather than just when invited, as in a home puja. In temple worship, the priest performs the puja, then on behalf of the god he returns to the people some of what they first brought as offerings—food, flowers, etc. This is called prasad, which means grace, goodwill, or blessing. In this way, the offerings are then received back by the devotees as a blessing. So, for example, small morsels of food are eaten, flowers are worn in the hair, incense is wafted around one’s body, holy water sipped, and colored powders are mixed with water and used to make a tilak, a mark in the center of the forehead above the eyes.

Beliefs about the treatment of illness and Traditional Medicine
Hindu scriptures discuss karma, the law of cause and effect, where each individual creates their destiny through their thoughts, words and actions. Hindus believe that illness and health-related issues may result from their karma in this or past lifetimes. Illness and difficult situations provide the opportunity to purify the karma and evolve spiritually.
Essential Practice Point 2

Some Hindus may follow the traditional Hindu system of medicine known as ayurveda, which treats imbalances with meditation, diet, exercise and herbal remedies. Some may prefer to continue these practices while undergoing western medical treatment.
Check if the person is taking herbal remedies and determine if the content conflicts with any prescribed medication.
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Religious contacts
Essential Practice Point 3

Presently there are no Hindu priests in Ireland who can lead religious practices. Hence, it is advised to seek the name of a family or community contact who can attend to traditional rituals if needed and particularly in relation to death.
Three Hindu contacts have agreed to provide guidance and religious services related to death if requested by the person or family. Their names are provided at the end of the section.
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Religious practices
Religious practices may include prayer, meditation and the reading of scripture. A small picture or statue of a Deity may be used in prayer or a mantra (a sound vibration representing an aspect of the Divine) may be recited on a mala (prayer beads strung together). Some may wish to face North or East during religious practice. These practices do not need any specific accommodation from the healthcare setting unless a specific request is made.

Food and the content of medicine
Essential Practice Point 4

Food requirements need to be discussed with the person and provision made to source culturally appropriate food, as necessary.
Vegetarianism is recommended in Hindu scriptures and is widespread in India.
Hindus are free to choose their own diet and many eat some types of meat. Beef should not be offered to a Hindu as the cow is sacred to Hindus. Some will not eat pork.
Spices and salt are commonly used, yoghurt and sweets taken with meals and ghee (clarified butter) is used instead of oil in cooking.
Eating with the right hand, without cutlery, is the traditional method, while in Ireland eating with cutlery is considered acceptable.
A person should be advised if medication contains animal products so that they can make a choice about whether to use the medicine or not.
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Ablutions and washing
Culturally, rules observed in many parts of Asia may be followed by some Hindus. The bed-bound may request water for washing before prayer, before eating and possibly after toileting.

Most are likely to wash before prayer and before eating.
Traditionally people wash after toileting, although in the West people may prefer to use toilet paper.
Those of Asian origin tend to showers for daily washing and some may prefer to use running water rather than a bath to wash if a shower facility is not available.

Gender issues and modesty
Hindus may adhere to traditional modesty observances common among people of Asian origin. Both men and women may prefer to be as covered as much as possible during a physical examination and may prefer a physical examination to be as private as possible.
Women are increasingly being treated by male medical personnel in India and are unlikely to request a female practitioner.

Family dynamics, decision making and community visits
Essential Practice Point 5

Cultural norms in India relating to extended family bonds, community bonds, respect for elders and respect for private space have implications for how all Hindus of Indian ethnicity will behave in healthcare settings.
The person may wish to consult family members in the making of any medical decisions, such as whether or not to operate, and some may expect to be automatically involved in decision making.
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A woman may wish to consult her husband about medical decisions in line with traditional norms in India.
Family and community will visit an ill person, sometimes in large numbers and these may need to be managed.
When visiting an older relative the visitor may stand until invited to sit by his/her elder.
In India a person normally removes their shoes before entering a home, a place of worship, and certain other places. Hindu visitors may choose to remove their shoes before entering the ill person’s private space (room, cubicle, etc.).
Most Hindus speak English but use their native language with others who speak the same language or dialect. Hindi is the major mother tongue of most Hindus.

Blood Transfusion and Organ Transplantation
Selfless giving is a virtuous act in Hinduism. Hindus therefore are likely to be extremely grateful for blood transfusion or organ transplantation.

 Introduction

Hinduism is incredibly diverse, encompassing many traditions. Part of this diversity results from the fact that Hinduism has no single founder, no founding date, no hierarchy of religious leaders, no standard set of practices and no single religious book or collection of texts as its basis. Given this, some people within and outside the tradition suggest that the word ‘Hinduism’ is an umbrella term applied to various religious, ritual and philosophical traditions. Meanwhile, some who identify as Hindu reject the term ‘Hinduism’ in favour of the phrase ‘Sanātana Dharma’ (‘Eternal Teaching’). Others see the religion as an evolving tradition according to social, cultural and political factors, or simply a way of life.

Nonetheless, there are a number of commonalities that help create a sense of unity among Hindu traditions. For example, many Hindu traditions refer to the ancient and sacred texts known as the Vedas. Many Hindus also believe in a transcendental and ultimate god or soul (known as ‘brahman’) who is within all living beings and can be approached in various ways. Finally, devotion to deities, usually mediated through icons and holy persons, help provide refuge in times of need and, in some cases, liberation from the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra).

Narratives and Myths

Diversity of Narratives

The collection of Hindu narratives is vast. No single text contains all major mythologies and narratives. Many stories come from texts such as the Vedas, the great epics and devotional poetry. There are also myths about regional deities recorded in local texts. Hindu narratives tend to focus on gods and goddesses, genealogies, the concept of duty, ethical dilemmas, the creation, maintenance and destruction of the cosmos, and the struggle between chaos and order.

Rāmāyaṇa

The Rāmāyaṇa is one of the great epics of Sanskrit literature. The narrative details the life of Prince Rāma, who undergoes a 14-year exile that begins on the day of his coronation as king of Ayodhyā. The story then follows the abduction and rescue of his wife Sītā, and Rāma’s triumphant return to his rightful place as king. A mixture of myths, theology and ethics are interwoven into the narratives.

The narrative is one of the most well-known and widely disseminated throughout South, Southeast and East Asia. Popular gods and figures such as Rāma, Sītā and the monkey army commander Hanumān continue to be commemorated and venerated today. The Rāmāyaṇa is also a source of inspiration for particular celebrations and festivities. For example, the Festival of Lights (Divālī) celebrates, among other things, Rāma’s return and coronation as king.

Mahābhārata

The Mahābhārata is one of the great epics of Sanskrit literature. The narrative tells the tale of jealousy and rivalry between the Pāndavas and the Kauravas, who are related as paternal cousins. Each party claims to be the rightful rulers of Kurukṣetra region. Their conflict culminates into a massive war eventually won by the Pāndava brothers. The main themes in the Mahābhārata are issues of kingship, kinship, loyalty, duty, ethics and theology. Many well-loved stories from the Mahābhārata have been rewritten in vernacular languages and expressed through countless dramatic performances, art and music.

Bhagavad Gītā

One section of the Mahābhārata that is particularly influential is the Bhagavad Gītā (‘Song of the Blessed’). In this section, the skilled warrior and Pāndava brother Arjuna throws his cherished weapon on the ground and refuses to fight in the war over Kurukṣetra. His guide and charioteer Krishna (known as Kṛṣṇa in Sanskrit) counsels Arjuna. This dialogue between the hesitant warrior Arjuna and Lord Krishna is the bulk of the narrative, discussing concepts such as reality, one’s duty according to their caste, the nature of violence, and various paths (‘mārga’) towards salvation.

Gods and Goddesses

In Hinduism, there are many stories related to various gods and goddesses. These stories are usually drawn from ‘remembered’ (smṛti) texts such as the Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata, the Purāṇas and devotional poetry. Each deity in the Hindu pantheon has an elaborate and detailed mythology. These stories are widespread, with people from all ages often able to recount some, if not many, of the narratives.

Trimūrti

In Hindu mythology, the ‘trimūrti’ (‘three forms’) are the three male gods considered to be at the head of a hierarchy in the Hindu pantheon. Each god (BrahmāViṣṇu and Śiva) has their own narratives that are often interconnected. The trimūrti are primarily known as the creator, sustainer and destroyer in the cycle of the universe. Iconographically, each god carries numerous objects that symbolise some of their abilities and functions. Each god also has a goddess consort.

  • Brahmā: According to popular narratives, Brahmā’s function is to create a new universe when the previous universe has been dissolved. He is usually depicted with four heads and four arms. Sarasvatī (the goddess of knowledge, learning and music) is Brahmā’s female companion. She is portrayed either as his consort, daughter or granddaughter. Their vehicle is a goose, although it is often depicted as a swan.
  • Viṣṇu: Viṣṇu (commonly spelt as Vishnu) is the god responsible for sustaining the created universe. He is said to have ten incarnations (including Rāma, Krishna and the Buddha). As the sustainer of the universe, Vishnu returns to the earth during troubled times to restore balance and order. Vishnu is typically depicted with blue-coloured skin and four arms. His female consort is Lakṣmī, the goddess of prosperity and well-being. Their vehicle is a garuda, a mythical creature with the body of a man and the beak and claws of a bird.
  • Śiva: Śiva (commonly spelt as Shiva) is usually known for his function as the dissolver or destroyer of the universe before the next universe in the endless cycle of time. Śiva tends to be depicted in two forms, as a human and aniconically as a liṅga. In his human form, Śiva is depicted with four arms and matted hair that spouts a stream of water from the top, representing the Gaṅgā River. Śiva is also generally considered to be the original practitioner of yoga. When Śiva is not undertaking his role as the destroyer, he is depicted in meditation. His female consort is Parvatī, the goddess of fertility and love. Śiva’s vehicle is Nandi, who is usually depicted as a humped bull.

Śakti

Śakti (also spelt Shakti) is sometimes known as Devī meaning ‘Goddess’ or Mahādevī meaning ‘Great Goddess’. Śakti refers to the concept of divine female creative energy, which manifests in goddesses. Śakti is known under a wide variety of names or representations. She is typically either depicted as benevolent (such as Lakṣmī and Parvatī) or fierce (such as Kālī or Durgā). The mythology of Śakti and her various manifestations is extensive. Such narratives are generally found in the Purāṇas.

Krishna

Krishna (Kṛṣṇa in Sanskrit) is one of the major gods in the Hindu pantheon and is often considered to be an incarnation of Vishnu. He has an extensive mythology, spanning across different texts in different languages. Some of his most distinctive stories include his exploits as a child and flute-playing youth, his mutual romantic love with Rādhā, his identification with Vishnu, and his major role in the Bhagavad Gītā. In all his depictions, he remains an immensely popular figure.

Doctrines and Philosophy

Religious Texts

One major characteristic of Hindu traditions is the fact that no single book or text serves as the basis for the religion’s philosophy, doctrine, rituals and practices. Rather, there are a multitude of texts mainly written in the ancient Sanskrit language that have been translated. There are also several major contributions found in vernacular languages, such as Tamil.

Hindu texts are usually distinguished as either ‘śruti’ (‘revealed’) or ‘smṛti’ (‘remembered’). Śruti refers to texts that were directly and divinely revealed to great sages (maharṣi or maharishi) long ago. Meanwhile, smṛti texts are believed to have emerged afterwards, inspired by the contents of the ‘revealed’ texts.

Śruti (Revealed)

  • Vedas: The Vedas are ancient, divinely revealed texts. There are four Vedas: the Ṛg Veda (book of hymns), Yajur Veda (book of sacrificial rites), Sāma Veda (book of chants) and Atharva Veda (book of spells and charms). Although parts of the Veda are quoted in nearly all rituals, the contents and meaning of the texts are largely unknown to most Hindus except priests, religious leaders or scholars.
  • Upaniṣads: The Upaniṣads (also spelt Upanishads) are philosophical appendices of the Vedas. There are twelve major Upaniṣads that vary in length, content and writing style. The main focus of the texts is how to free oneself from material attachments and to unify the individual soul (ātman) with the ultimate soul (brahman).

Smṛti (Remembered)

  • Śāstras: The term ‘śāstra’ in Sanskrit (also spelt shastra) means ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction’. There are various sāstras that cover a variety of topics including astrology, guides to public and domestic rituals, economics and architecture. For example, the Dharmaśāstra is a body of Sanskrit literature that provides instruction on ethical situations depending on one’s duty (dharma).
  • Epics: The epics refer to two highly respected poems: the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata. These two together make up the literature known as ‘itihāsa’ (roughly translated as ‘history’). The central theme of the epics is the protection of and adherence to dharma in order to maintain a balance between the forces of good and evil in the universe. The epics are often retold, enacted, depicted in artworks, sung and watched on television. 
  • Bhagavad Gītā: The Bhagavad Gītā (the ‘Gita’ for short) is a section in the Mahābhārata that is often highly revered on its own. The Gita is often thought of as a Hindu manual for spiritual life, presenting three possible salvific paths (‘mārgas’): the duty-based household life, devotion-based practices and knowledge-based renunciation.
  • Purāṇas: The Purāṇas are an extensive collection of myths, legends and genealogies about the Hindu pantheon. Purāṇas tend to be sectarian; some are devoted to Shiva, some to Vishnu and some to various goddesses. One of the most popular is the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, which details the incarnations of Vishnu, especially the childhood of Krishna.

General Beliefs

Ultimate Soul (Brahman) and Individual Soul (Ātman)

One concept that underpins the philosophies and doctrines of contemporary Hinduism is the concept of ‘brahman’ (‘ultimate soul’). The universe is often believed to be a manifestation of brahman. All things are thought to derive from brahman, and as such are divine. In turn, all things are one and the same despite different bodies and experiences. This notion of divinity underpins the common South Asian greeting ‘namaste’ (often meaning ‘I greet the divine within’). 

It is also thought that each individual soul (‘ātman’ or ‘jīvātman’) shares an intimate connection with brahman. A common spiritual goal expressed is the unification of the individual soul (ātman) with the brahman. Meanwhile, some other theological positions and devotional movements affirm the distinction between the brahman and ātman.

Hindus also differ as to whether brahman is best understood as lacking any qualities or attributes (i.e. an impersonal God) or as a personal God as manifested in the Hindu pantheon. The sacred sound of ‘auṃ’ or ‘oṃ’ (ॐ) is believed to represent brahman.

The Hindu Pantheon

Hinduism is sometimes thought to be polytheistic (worship of more than one deity) due to the expansive pantheon of gods and goddesses. Some consider all deities in Hinduism to be manifestations of brahman. Hinduism is also sometimes referred to as a ‘henotheistic’ religion, in which an individual may worship one god or goddess without denying the existence of other gods or goddesses. Indeed, it is common to find most Hindus commemorating, evoking or venerating more than one god or goddess. The decision as to which deities to worship is usually driven by family traditions (such as the temples one’s family attends, allegiances and the religious leaders of the family) and local or regional influences.

All gods and goddesses have multiple functions or abilities that usually determine when and why they are evoked. There are also many regional and local gods and goddesses who preside over small villages and towns. Their patronage is often sought during natural disasters or epidemics. Major gods include:

  • Trimūrti: The three male gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) who make up the head of the hierarchy in the Hindu pantheon. Their respective roles relate to creating, sustaining and dissolving each universe cycle. See ‘Trimūrti’ in Narratives and Myths to learn more about each god.
  • Consorts of the Trimūrti: Each of the three major gods has female consorts. Sarasvatī (Brahma’s female companion depicted as either his consort, daughter or granddaughter), Lakṣmī (Vishnu’s consort) and Parvatī (Shiva’s consort).
  • Devī: The term ‘devī’ is a broad term meaning ‘goddess’. Mahādevī (Great Goddess) or Śakti (divine female creative energy) refers to the ultimate goddess or female power which manifests in all goddesses. The female divine is considerably important in particular Hindu traditions. She usually manifests as a benevolent figure (e.g. Lakṣmī and Parvatī) or as a  fierce figure (e.g. Kālī or Durgā). 
  • Rāma: Rāma is a highly revered incarnation of Vishnu and the protagonist of the Rāmāyaṇa. People tend to worship or devote themselves to Rāma due to his desirable attributes as a role model of right action and reason.
  • Krishna: Krishna (also known as Kṛṣṇa) is another highly revered incarnation of Vishnu and one of the main characters in the Mahābhārata. He is often adored for his personality and playfulness. Krishna is also the focus of many devotional offshoots of Hinduism.
  • Ganesh: Ganesh (also known as Gaṇeśa or Gaṇapati) is the elephant-headed god who is the son of Shiva. Ganesh is usually worshipped before any major enterprise or event due to his ability to remove obstacles.
  • Hanumān: Hanumān is Rāma’s monkey army commander and devotee. He is often worshipped as a subsidiary figure in temples dedicated to Rāma or in shrines solely devoted to the monkey god. Hanumān is upheld as the ideal model of devotion.

Incarnations (Avatara)

The term ‘avatar’ derives from the Sanskrit word ‘avatara’, which means ‘descent’. It refers to the incarnation of a deity in animal or human form to counteract a particular evil on earth. The idea of avatars usually refers to the god Vishnu and his incarnations. The concept is also sometimes used in a broader sense to refer to any manifestation of a deity in a particular physical form, including gurus.

The Cycle of Rebirth (Saṃsāra)

Saṃsāra (literally “wandering”) is a broad concept that refers to the beginningless and endless cycle of rebirth. According to Hindu thought, an individual soul (ātman) transmigrates from one body to another in a continuous cycle. The kind of life one experiences and their next rebirth is dependent on their accumulated karma

Karma

The concept of ‘karma’ broadly refers to actions. It is often understood as a theory of ‘cause and effect’, whereby one’s intentional actions lead to some effect or consequence. The individual soul (ātman) carries all positive, negative and neutral karma. The kind of body the individual soul inhabits in their next birth is determined by the karma they accumulated in their previous lives. More positive karma leads to a more positive rebirth of the individual soul while negative karma leads to a more negative rebirth. For many Hindus, the concept of karma explains why they may have positive or negative experiences in their life, such as sickness or good fortune.

Dharma

The term ‘dharma’ refers to a complex concept with various meanings. It is commonly taken to mean ‘truth’, ‘order’, ‘law’, ‘teaching’, ‘virtuous behaviour’, ‘religion’ or ‘duty’. The term ‘dharma’ captures the Hindu thought that each being has its own duty they ought to follow. To act according to one’s dharma is to act appropriately in the context of which action they should perform. Thus, dharma is context-sensitive, meaning that duties differ according to one’s age, life station, gender and caste. This idea of personal dharma is sometimes known as ‘svadharma’.

Life Stations (Āśrama)

The concept of life stations (āśrama) refers to four life stages a Hindu passes through. These four stages are student (brahmacārin), householder (gṛhastha), forest dweller (vānaprastha) and renouncer (saṃnyāsin). There are specific duties one ought to follow at each stage. For example, a student focuses on learning, a householder raises a family, a forest dweller leaves their household (passing the responsibility to the next generation) in order to focus on studying sacred texts, and a renouncer abandons the material world in favour of meditation and spiritual practices. Not all Hindus follow this structure. Some may choose to be a renouncer straight away (such as a swami), while others may choose to remain with their family. The idea of life stations is connected to the concepts of duty (dharma), caste (varṇa) and goals (puruṣārtha).

Goals of Human Life (Puruṣārtha)

Hindu texts have described four general aims to strive towards during a lifetime. These four goals (puruṣārtha) are artha (wealth or prosperity), kāma (sensory fulfilment), dharma (fulfilling duty) and mokṣa (liberation). Just like the idea of life stations (āśrama), not all Hindus pursue all goals.

Paths (Mārga)

The influential Hindu text known as the Bhagavad Gītā presents three overlapping paths (mārga) towards liberation. All paths are thought to reach the same goal of liberating the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

  • Path of Action: The path of ritual action or duty (karmamārga) entails a selfless service to society by adhering to one’s dharma. This path is largely connected to the caste system and household life such as bearing children.
  • Path of Knowledge: The path of knowledge (jñānamārga) is to strive to obtain knowledge of brahman through appropriate austerities. This entails the use of meditative concentration, studying under a special religious teacher (guru) and undergoing ethical and contemplative training. This path is often associated with renunciates or monastics.
  • Path of Devotion: The path of devotion (bhaktimārga) entails the love, surrender and devotion for a personal God. Some of the practices associated with this path are participating in worship (at home and temples) as well as maintenance of the shrine and mūrti of the deity. This is thought to be for all humans irrespective of their social position (e.g. caste) or gender.

Social Structure and Institutions

Branches of Hinduism

Branches of Hinduism are usually formed on the basis of which god or goddess is the object of devotion and the approach to worship. There is considerable diversity of beliefs and practices within the various branches. Additionally, each stream has developed its own literature and organisational structure. Although it is possible to identify branches and sects within Hinduism, such categories are not rigidly defined. Moreover, people may not necessarily identify with terms such as ‘Shaiva’ or ‘Hindu’. Some of the major streams include:

  • Vaishnavism: Followers of Vaishnavism may be referred to as Vaishnavite and Vaishnava. Vaishnavites are devotees of Vishnu, one of his various incarnations (mainly Rāma and Krishna) and his female consort Lakshmi. Subsects of Vaishnavism include streams of Krishna worship (e.g. Vallabhas, Swaminarayans and Hare Krishnas). 
  • Shaivism: Followers of Shaivism may be referred to as Shaivite or Shaiva. Shaivites are devotees of Shiva, his various forms (such as Rudra) and his consort Parvatī.
  • Shaktism: Followers of Shaktism are devotees of the divine female creative energy of  Śakti, which is known by many different names and manifestations. Some include Devī, Umā, Parvatī, Lakṣmī, Sarasvatī, Kālī, Durgā and Śītalā.
  • Smartism: The Smartism tradition is based on the remembered (smṛti) texts. As such, Smartas are usually devotees of a variety of gods and goddesses, such as Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesh, and Devī. 

Social Structure (Caste System)

The social structure most commonly associated with Hindu traditions is referred to in English as the ‘caste system’. The term ‘caste’ comes from the word ‘casta’, which was used by Portuguese observers to describe the social stratification of India’s Hindu society during the colonial period. The caste system is incredibly complex and contains overlapping systems of social stratification. In countries where the caste system exists, members of society from other religions (such as Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Islam) may be incorporated into the system or may have their own variation of the caste system.

Varṇa

Hindu texts, such as the Ṛg Veda, the Dharmaśāstras and the Bhagavad Gītā, present a four-fold normative social structure known as ‘varṇa’. The four categories are described as the brāhmins (priestly caste), kṣatriyas (warrior, royalty or nobility caste), vaiśyas (commoner or merchant caste) and śūdras (artisan or labourer caste). Traditionally, these four categories are thought to cover the basis of societal functions such as providing the society’s spiritual and intellectual interests, protecting the lands from invaders, conducting commerce and trade, and performing manual labour. Each division of society is fundamentally interdependent and equally important.

It is thought that each caste has a specific duty (dharma) they are expected to uphold as part of their social function. For instance, a member of the brahmin caste may be expected to tend to religious affairs such as learning religious texts and performing rituals while avoiding duties outside of their caste such as cleaning. The caste system also holds that an individual’s caste is a matter of birth, which is determined by the individual’s actions (karma) in previous lives. It is commonly thought that an individual is bound to their caste during their current life. Mobility in the caste system can only be achieved through a more favourable rebirth (saṃsāra) by accruing positive karma.

The lowest caste, known as the dalits (‘untouchables’), was a modern addition by political activists such as Mahatma Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar. Their main aim was to empower those suffering from prejudice and poverty due to ideas of purity (śuddha) and impurity (aśuddha).

Jāti

The term ‘caste system’ may also be used to refer to the small-scale social structure known as the ‘jāti’ system. This system comprises over 2,000 ‘jāti’ (‘birth’) categories that determine one’s occupation or vocation based on their family of birth. These occupations or jāti categories are ranked, with some considered to be caste-neutral (such as agriculture or non-traditional civil service). The jāti system is particularly noticeable in the daily social organisation of people. Though not necessarily an exclusively Hindu idea, the jāti system is interconnected with the varṇa system.

Organisational Structure

In Hinduism, there are many different kinds of religious leaders and practitioners who are not necessarily hierarchically ranked. Rather, each performs different roles and has different spiritual goals. These roles are typically held by men.

  • Purohit: A purohit (also known as a pūjari) is a priest who conducts worship regularly at temples, sometimes assisting devotees in their practice. Purohits may also visit families to help them perform special rites or ceremonies. They are usually part of the brāhmin caste, learning their trade through their father. Hindu priests do not give sermons, but rather their expertise is in ritual practice. In Hinduism, priests are actively encouraged to be married.
  • Paṇḍit: A paṇḍit is a learned Hindu scholar, usually in Sanskrit and any field in Hinduism (such as Vedic scriptures or Hindu philosophy). Paṇḍits may also be practising priests.
  • Sage: A sage (also known as a ṛṣi or rishi) is an extraordinary spiritual person, totally devoted to achieving a deep understanding of reality and practising austerities. They often reside in very remote locations (such as caves and forests). There exists a long list of sages, some of which are cited during rituals as part of one’s spiritual lineage.
  • Guru: The word ‘guru’ in Sanskrit means ‘teacher’. In a religious context, a guru is a highly learned person who guides and passes knowledge to his or her students. Such students usually revere their guru as embodiments of the knowledge they impart. It is common for Hindu families to have a teacher which they revere, often the founder of the sect they follow. 
  • Swami: A swami (also svāmi or saṃnyāsin) is an ascetic religious leader who belongs to an order. When the leader is ordained, their name is changed to a spiritual name and is prefixed with the title ‘Swami’. They typically take vows of poverty and celibacy and usually reside in a monastery (āśram). Their dress usually differs according to their sectarian allegiance.
  • Sādhu: A sādhu is an ascetic (one who commits to strict austerities) who renounces society and social norms in favour of pursuing a life solely dedicated to spiritual attainment. Sādhus may live together, or they may wander alone in isolation. They typically take vows of poverty and celibacy.

Law and Ethics

Hindu Law

While there are religious principles derived from the teachings in religious texts, these are not utilised or viewed as binding laws. Hinduism has no court of appeal or other elements that one might expect in a modern legal system.

Ethical Approach

In Hinduism, there are different understandings and approaches to ethics. On the one hand, there is a context-sensitive approach related to the principle of duty (dharma). This approach is one’s personal duty (svadharma) and refers to the idea that an individual’s moral behaviour depends on one’s age, life station, gender and caste. The smṛti (remembered) texts are often seen as examples of how to follow one’s personal duty and the possible karmic consequences in the cases where one does not. On the other hand, there is a universal or ‘common to all’ ethical approach known as sādhāraṇa dharma. This universal system presents ethical principles that one should follow regardless of their context. Such principles include non-violence (ahiṃsā) and truthfulness (satya).

Guiding Ethical Principles

Purity (Śuddha)

The concept of purity (śuddha) and its related concept of impurity (aśuddha) has various meanings. It can broadly refer to the scale of purity and pollution that differentiates individuals from each other, such as between high caste and low caste individuals. This scale acts as a guiding principle that regulates bodies and interactions between people in social spaces. Some Hindus may extend ideas of purity and impurity to mental or internal processes such as having a pure mind or heart. Sometimes a link is made between internal and external purity while others may deny this sort of connection.

It is thought that pollution can happen in a variety of ways. One can be polluted from natural bodily functions such as bodily fluids, hair and nail clippings, physical contact with leather products, and various foods (such as improperly prepared foods). Another instance is life events – for example, menstruation, childbirth and when grieving the death of a family member. Some people try to purify themselves in a number of ways, such as an ablution (snāna). It is thought that anyone undertaking a ritual or having a ritual performed on their behalf should be as pure as possible.

Levels of purity also relate to caste. For example, the highest caste (brāhmins) are considered to be the purest while the lower castes are impure (untouchables being the most polluted). Those classified as polluting or impure were traditionally excluded from certain activities such as entering a temple. In some parts of the world (such as India), discrimination based on caste is outlawed. However, it may still be practised in certain places, such as exclusive temples for more ‘pure’ castes or for ‘impure’ castes.

Another important element of purity is the separation of function between the left and right hand. The left hand is reserved for ‘impure’ or ‘dirty’ tasks (e.g. washing one’s body). The right hand is reserved for ‘pure’ or ‘clean’ tasks (e.g. eating). As such, people tend to avoid touching another person or passing someone an object with their left hand.

Karmic Debt

Karmic debt (related to the concept of karma) refers to the idea that all bad deeds or actions represent a kind of debt that must be eventually paid back. This notion underpins many Hindus’ moral decision-making, as people seek to avoid committing karmically bad actions.

Non-violence (Ahiṃsā)

In Hinduism, ahiṃsā (‘non-injury’, ‘non-killing’ or ‘non-violence’) refers to the concept of not causing or wishing to cause physical, mental or emotional harm to other living things. Adherence to the principle of non-violence is thought to generate positive karma while defying the principle is believed to bring about negative karma. The concept of non-violence forms the basis of vegetarianism for many Hindus, as well as the tolerance towards all forms of life.

Sexuality, Marriage and Divorce

Sexuality

The main guiding principle relating to sexuality is known as brahmacarya. This is the observance of celibacy when single and fidelity when married. For monastics, the concept refers to the renunciation of sexual relations and marriage in favour of dedicating oneself to spiritual goals.

Hinduism has no explicit guidelines relating to contraceptives. Most Hindus are open to the use of birth control. However, it is rarely used to avoid having children entirely; many believe it is part of their duty to have a family. Other topics related to family planning (such as abortion or reproductive technologies) are usually influenced by factors other than religion, such as culture, family perceptions, financial security, etc.

 

Marriage

Marriage is generally expected of most Hindus. For women, marriage often marks the transition to maturity. For men, marriage represents his transition into the ‘householder’ life stage (gṛhastha āśrama). Arranged marriages are common with caste being the main factor considered in a prospective partner. Wealth, education, astrological compatibility, language and dietary practices (such as vegetarianism) may also be taken into account. Some couples may decide to marry outside of their caste. Many Hindus follow a patrilocal family structure. This means that once a couple is married, the wife generally moves into the household of her husband and his family.

Divorce

Divorce is not common among Hindu couples, but Hinduism does not explicitly forbid the practice. There are a number of factors that contribute to attitudes towards divorce. For example, some Hindus may disagree with divorce due to the belief that it may generate negative karma. Others may try to avoid divorce because of the belief that to be married is to fulfil one’s dharma. Similar reasons are usually given with regard to attitudes towards remarriage.

Experiences and Emotion

Seeing (Darśana)

Darśana (also spelt as darshan) refers to an auspicious ‘seeing’ or ‘viewing’ of a deity (fully present in an image or icon, which is known as a mūrti), a sacred place (especially pilgrimage sites) or a sacred person (e.g. one’s guru or a sādhu). The sacred deity, place or person ‘gives’ darśana while the devotee ‘receives’ the auspicious sight. Usually, devotees seek this auspicious vision to receive a blessing, and it is common to hear someone say they are going to a temple ‘for darshan’. This process usually includes devotees using various sounds and scents to help evoke the deity to be present in the image followed by worship (pūjā) and receiving darśana

Meditation

The word ‘meditation’ is a generic term in English to describe various practices of mental concentration and contemplation. There are various kinds of meditative techniques and practices. Which kind of meditation an individual performs depends on various factors such as spiritual goals, sectarian affiliation and their guru. Types of meditative practices include mindfulness of the present moment, visualisation, concentration or recollection of a particular object, chanting mantras, observing or controlling the breath, and mindfully moving the body. The traditional posture for meditation is seated with legs crossed, back straight and hands resting in the lap (the ‘lotus posture’).

Liberation (Mokṣa)

In Hinduism, the ultimate goal is usually understood as seeking the liberation (mokṣa) of the individual’s soul (ātman) from the cycle of rebirth. Traditions differ as to the specific content or experience of liberation. For example, some believe that liberation allows for the ātman to merge or unify with brahman. Others believe it is the absence from negative experiences, such as ignorance or suffering. It is also understood as a positive state of existence, like bliss.

Becoming Hindu

Generally speaking, Hinduism does not have formal processes for conversion into the general community. If and when it occurs, it is usually on a philosophical or spiritual level. One can join a formal religious order if they wish. In this instance, the initiation (dīkṣā) is a rite of purification, which involves transforming one’s personality and way of life. Some sects may incorporate ancient ideas and customs in the initiation process. Most sects or religious orders agree that the authority to initiate new converts or members into the community belongs to a qualified spiritual guide (i.e. a guru). Initiates are usually given a devotional or spiritual name, which replaces their given name and surname.

Rituals and Practices

Devotion (Bhakti)

Devotion (bhakti) refers to both a practice and a path (mārga) towards salvation. Devotion entails total and unconditional surrender and selfless love towards a personal or chosen deity. In turn, the person becomes a devotee of their chosen god or goddess. The idea of bhakti encompasses all rituals related to worshipping or venerating deities, such as worship (pūjā) and service (sevā). Bhakti is a practice open to all Hindus regardless of their caste, life station or gender.

Worship (Pūjā)

Worship (pūjā) is one of the most central practices in Hinduism. Every form of worship consists of making offerings and receiving blessings, from elaborate temple rituals to simple home practices. The frequency, scale and exact details of a pūjā depend on the nature and location of the deity, the connected texts or ritual manuals, the intention of the participants and the occasion for the worship. Home rituals are usually adopted as part of one’s daily routine and performed without the expertise of a priest. Meanwhile, worship conducted at a temple is much more elaborate and may involve multiple people, such as a temple priest.

Some rituals that may occur include ‘seeing’ the deity (darśana), and chanting mantras. Other common elements include playing instruments, ringing bells, burning incense, gestures, prostrations, ceremoniously walking around the deity’s altar, and offerings (usually food, fresh flowers and light produced from ghee-soaked wicks, otherwise known as ārtī). During a pūjā at a temple, the worshipper may receive sweets or a blessing (prasāda), a thread tied to their wrist or coloured powder (usually red or orange turmeric) dotted on their forehead.

Fire Sacrifice

The term ‘yajña’ or ‘homa’ refers to a ritual sacrifice wherein symbolic materials such as ghee, grains and incense are thrown into a special fire pit. A priest is usually required to help facilitate the fire sacrifice. Fire rituals continue to be an essential part of many Hindu ceremonies and, in some cases, worship (pūjā).

Mantra

The term ‘mantra’ broadly refers to sentences, phrases or words (typically in Sanskrit) that are composed in verse or prose. Mantras are chanted or recited, usually as part of a ritual. They can be spoken loudly, softly or mentally. Mantras are believed to be vested with instrumental, performative or transformative power. There is an enormous variety of mantras. Sometimes mantras can be a way to identify the stream of Hinduism one follows.

Grace (Prasāda)

Grace (prasāda or prasad) refers to a returned portion of a worshipper’s offering, believed to be blessed after the deity’s intangible consumption. The prasāda must first be offered to the deity, which then blesses the item. A few moments or hours after offering the prasāda, the worshipper may then receive the blessed prasāda and use it. Common prasāda items are foods such as bananas, coconuts, candies and milk products as well as fresh flowers.

Service (Sevā)

Service (sevā) is the respectful and regular attention of the needs of someone or something, in acknowledgement of the divine (related to the concept of brahman and ātman). One can do service to enshrined deities (mūrtis), as well as to one’s guru, parents, guests, animals or to the whole community. The specifics of service depend on the kind of entity being served. For example, ‘gauseva’ refers to the service to cows. In this context, it is considered auspicious to serve cows by feeding them first thing in the morning.

Service towards a deity usually occurs at least twice a day. Some practices associated with service include bathing an icon, changing the ornaments around the icon, ringing bells to draw the attention of the deity and offering light from wicks soaked in ghee (a practice otherwise known as ārtī). Service is usually conducted by a ritual expert who is regularly present at the temple or shrine.

Astrology (Jyotiṣa)

A common practice in Hinduism is to call upon a jyotiṣī (also spelt jyotishi, who is someone skilled in astrology and astronomy) to help determine auspicious dates and times for festivals, weddings, pilgrimages and the installation of images (mūrti). Astrology also plays a vital role in determining marriage partners and names of children.

Life Cycle Rites (Saṃskāra)

The term ‘saṃskāra’ refers to important life-cycle rites, beginning with one’s conception and ending with one’s cremation. Though Hindu texts have some prescribed ceremonies and rituals to mark various specific stages of life, the practices of the saṃskāra are diverse. Some families may practise each rite, while others may choose to celebrate the rites most important to them. There are also other factors that determine whether and how a family or individual perform certain rites, such as regional variations and caste. Some of the life-cycle rites are:

  • Garbhādhāna: This life-cycle rite is related to conception. The rite occurs after menstruation and before or after sexual intercourse. Usually, special mantras are chanted by the couple to help ensure the conception and proper development of a child.
  • Puṃsavana: The rite of puṃsavana refers to birthing a male child. Puṃsavana occurs during pregnancy, usually during the third or fourth month. Some versions of the ritual include the husband serving his wife food. More formal ceremonies include placing a pounded substance (usually a particular kind of leaf) into the wife’s right nostril.
  • Sīmantonnayana: Literally translated as ‘parting the hair’, this rite occurs near the end of the pregnancy to assist in the safe delivery of the baby. The rite is similar to a baby shower.
  • Jātakarman: This rite celebrates the birth of the child. The parents usually observe the event alongside close friends and family.
  • Nāmakarana: A rite that commemorates the naming of the child, usually one to five weeks after birth. It may be celebrated at the local community’s temple in the presence of a priest. After the baby’s name is announced, the priest pours holy water on the newborn’s head and amrit (also known as aṃṛta, a liquid made of sugar and water considered to be sacred) on the baby’s tongue. Astrological factors often determine the name of the child.
  • Niṣkramaṇa: This rite commemorates the child’s first outing into the public. It usually occurs when the child is three to four months old. 
  • Annaprāśana: A rite that celebrates the child’s first time eating solid foods, usually at the age of five or six months. Family, close friends and the local community may be invited to the local temple whereby a priest officiates the ceremony.
  • Cūḍākarman: This rite marks the child’s first haircut, usually at the age of one to three years old.
  • Karṇavedha: A rite that marks the piercing of the child’s ears, usually performed when they are a young child. Though not gender-specific, the rite is most common for female children.
  • Vidyārambha: This rite marks the beginning of the child’s education, starting with basic studies in reading. Vidyārambha typically occurs when the child is five years old. The rite may be celebrated at the local temple with other families and children.
  • Upanayana: The term ‘upanayana’ refers to the sacred thread ceremony, which marks the transition of the child into the first life station (āśrama) as a student (brahmacārin). During the ceremony, a sacred thread is placed over the left shoulder and under the right arm. Some families only perform the upanayana to male children or may perform a variation of the ritual for female children. The child is also given a special mantra as part of their educational studies. 
  • Vedarāmbha: This rite commemorates the child’s study of religious texts (especially the Vedas and the Upaniṣads).
  • Keśānta: This rite is reserved for males as it marks the first time the boy shaves his beard and commemorates his growth towards manhood.
  • Samāvartana: This rite commemorates one’s completion of the first life station (brahmacārin āśrama). The individual returns home after study and prepares for the next life station as a householder (gṛhastha āśrama). The event is usually commemorated with a ritual bath (snāna).
  • Vivāha: The Sanskrit word ‘vivāha’ translates as ‘marriage’. This rite marks one’s entry into the life station (āśrama) of being a householder (gṛhastha). The ceremony is often elaborate, filled with various rituals and celebrations.
  • Vānaprastha: This is not necessarily a life-cycle rite, but rather a life station (āśrama) that marks one’s entry into the ‘forest-dwelling’ stage. A couple passes on householder responsibilities to the next generation. Then the couple may reside in a small home next to the main family home. Vānaprastha is similar to a kind of retirement whereby the individual or couple concentrate on religious life and spiritual goals.
  • Antyeṣṭi: This final life-cycle rite is a funerary rite performed within the first thirteen days following death. There are various rituals practised depending on the individual. All ceremonies include the purification and cremation of the corpse.

Pilgrimage (Tīrthayātrā)

Undertaking pilgrimages is a common practice throughout Hinduism. A pilgrimage can be as simple as a family visiting a major shrine dedicated to their personal deity or as large as thousands of people travelling to multiple places of religious significance. Hindu pilgrimage destinations include temples, shrines, rivers, mountains and various major and minor locations associated with legends and myths. Commonly, the points of convergence between major rivers (for example, the Gaṅgā and Yamunā rivers) are particularly sacred and attract millions of pilgrims. Sacred sites include Ayodhyā, Mathurā, Haridvār and Vārāṇasī, all of which are located in present-day India.

The reasons for undertaking a pilgrimage vary. Hindus may go on a pilgrimage to fulfil a vow or promise, to be part of a community of like-minded devotees, to remove one’s previous negative karma, or as part of a spiritual quest. Despite the diversity of locations and intentions, the practices performed at pilgrimage sites are quite similar. These rituals include worship (pūjā), receiving grace (prasāda) and other rituals led by priests.

Yoga

The term ‘yoga’ refers to a wide variety of religious practice. In its broadest sense, ‘yoga’ refers to a particular method or set of techniques for transforming the individual. It is also used to refer to the practice of controlling the body, senses or breath. Meditation plays a pivotal role in yogic practices. Such methods or techniques are usually followed with the aim of attaining a spiritual goal, such as liberation (mokṣa).

Just as the meaning of yoga is diverse, so too are the practices. One example is haṭha yoga, which includes ideas of human anatomy composed of channels (nāḍī) and wheels (cakra or chakra) that are controlled through postures (āsana), visualisations and breathing techniques (prāṇāyāma). Since the 20th century, yoga (particularly haṭha yoga) has gained an enthusiastic following in the West, where it is usually seen as a way to achieve physical and mental health as opposed to attaining more spiritual goals.

Material

Religious Buildings

Temple (Mandir)

A temple (mandir or mandira) is a sacred space believed to be the earthly homes of deities. Although Hindu temples vary in style on the basis of region, there are a number of commonalities. All temples are planned and constructed according to ancient guidelines, and most temples consist of a towering shrine and elaborate carvings. Many Hindus will visit temples to perform various rituals to their chosen deity (such as pūjā) and to have a direct experience with their god or goddess (such as darśana). Temples are found throughout predominantly Hindu areas. For instance, even the smallest villages in India usually contain one or more temples, ideally situated next to a body of water.

Monastery (Āśrama)

An āśrama (also known as an ashram, not to be confused with āśrama referring to life stations) is a monastery or spiritual hermitage where a community of men and/or women reside and devote their life to religious practice. Ashrams are usually established to support the endeavours of monastics and dedicated laypersons by providing them with a relatively secluded place, often in natural settings like forests. Some ashrams may be located near or in villages, towns and cities. Ashrams also perform a social function and may contain various buildings that serve (sevā) the local community. Such additional structures include schools, residential places for children, medical services and orphanages.

Etiquette

There are a number of important etiquette practices to consider when entering a Hindu temple (mandir)or monastery (ashram):

  • Shoes must be removed and left outside a temple.
  • People are usually required to dress modestly by covering one’s shoulders and knees before entering.
  • Smoking is not permitted as well as bringing or consuming drugs, alcohol or meat products.
  • Devotees usually bring symbolic offerings for pūjā, such as fruits, flowers and sweets.
  • Heads of images or statues of deities should not be touched.
  • One should not point their feet towards or step on the image of a deity.

Offerings

Clarified Butter (Ghee)

Ghee is clarified butter (usually made from cow’s butter). It is used in nearly all religious ceremonies and rituals. Images or deities may also be washed in ghee, and it is often used to light lamps (arti) or thrown into a fire sacrifice.

Flowers

Various kinds of fresh flowers are offered to gods and goddesses during various rituals. Flowers are used due to their pleasant fragrance and visual beauty. Popular flowers include marigolds, jasmine and orchids. Sometimes flowers are made into garlands (mālā) which are used to honour deities and noble guests.

Incense

The use of incense is common throughout most forms of worship and prayers. Incense is usually offered to a deity by placing the incense on an altar.

Icon (Mūrti)

mūrti is an image, icon or concrete form of a deity. Mūrtis can be a human image of a deity, an aniconic image (e.g. the depiction of the god Shiva as a liṅgam), a natural object (e.g. a tree or rock) or a revered person (e.g. a guru). A mūrti becomes sacred through a series of special rituals that transforms the image to the embodiment of the god or goddess. Mūrtis are thought to mediate between the human world and divine. Most Hindu families have images or statues of specific deities in the home. Mūrtis also feature in temples, with priests serving (sevā) the image regularly. Mūrtis usually rest on an altar or shrine in a special space reserved for the image.

Liṅga and Yonī

One of the most common symbols in Hinduism is the aniconic representation of the god Shiva. This representation, known as the liṅga, is a conical shaft that represents a cosmic pillar and male creative energy. The liṅga is usually combined with its female counterpart, the yonī, which is a dish that holds the liṅga. The yonī represents the goddess Parvatī and the female creative energy.

Dress

Generally, ordinary Hindus do not have a prescribed dress code. Many Hindus tend to dress modestly by covering their shoulders and knees. Special amulets or jewellery with sacred meaning may be worn for various reasons. Hindus with a more formal position (such as priests and monastics) have special attire. For example, temple priests typically wear a sacred thread across their chest as part of the caste and vocation. Monastics may be identified by their tunic and tulsi beads (prayer beads). 

Mark (Tilak)

Many Hindus wear a symbolic mark (tilak or tilaka) across their forehead. Typically, someone receives a simple dot of sandalwood paste or red turmeric powder on the forehead. The tilak is usually given after one performs worship (pūjā) as an auspicious sign of well-being. In particular, married women may adorn a red tilak along their hairline. People with specific religious vocations such as priests or sādhus may wear a special kind of tilak every day. Some markings indicate one’s denominational affiliation.

Dietary Practices

Generally, there are no prescribed dietary rules for lay Hindus. However, many Hindus are vegetarian on the basis of non-violence (ahiṃsā), thus avoiding all meat as well as eggs. Hindus who do eat meat usually still avoid beef entirely due to the sacredness of cows. Many Hindus also follow Ayurvedic dietary practices. According to the Ayurvedic system, foods are classified as hot or cold (unrelated to temperature or spiciness), which may positively or adversely affect one’s physical or mental health. Some Hindus (particularly monastics) may avoid garlic or onion as these are thought to disturb mental practices like meditation.

Fasting is a common practice in Hinduism. The practice is seen as a means of purifying the body and mind as well as encouraging self-discipline. Fasting may be practised in accordance to specific days of the week, phases of the moon (such as the 11th day of the moon cycle or on the full moon), during festivals or holy days, or connected to special prayers. Specific fasting practices vary among Hindus depending on a wide range of factors.

Key Dates and Events

Vasant Pañcamī

(Varies each year depending on the lunisolar calendar. Typically in January or February)

Vasant Pañcamī (or Vasant Panchami)  is a Hindu festival that commemorates the coming of spring. The festival is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Sarasvatī. The colour yellow is auspicious during this time, signifying the wonder of nature and vibrancy of life. People will often dress in yellow and offer yellow flowers to others as well as gods and goddesses.

Holī

(Varies each year depending on the lunisolar calendar. Typically in February or March)

Holī is a festival typically celebrated over two days during March. Though primarily a Hindu festival, it is also celebrated by some Buddhist and Jain communities. Holī is a lively festival filled with singing, dancing and sharing of traditional sweets. During the festival, people dress in white and throw colourful powders or dyes (gulal) and water that represents the arrival of spring. Some people also throw water balloons.

Śivarātri

(Varies each year depending on the lunisolar calendar. Typically in February)

Śivarātri (‘Night of Shiva’, also spelt Shivaratri) is a Hindu festival dedicated to Shiva. Those who participate in Shivaratri commemorate the occasion by staying awake throughout the night, visiting temples, making prayers and pūjā (worship) as well as playing music and dancing. Devotees of Shiva will offer special food to the god.

Guru Pūrṇimā

(Varies each year depending on the lunisolar calendar. Typically in July)

Guru Pūrṇimā (also spelt Guru Purnima) is a Hindu event that commemorates one’s spiritual teacher (guru). On this day, people visit their guru and show respect through meditation, serving (sevā) and giving food. The day also commemorates the birthday of the great sage Vyāsa, who is regarded as the author of many seminal texts such as the Mahābhārata.

Rakshā Bandhan 

(Varies each year depending on the lunisolar calendar. Typically in August)

Rakshā Bandhan, sometimes referred to as Rakhī, is a Hindu event that commemorates the love between siblings or close friends. A widespread practice during the event is for the sister or female to tie a rakhī thread on her brother’s or male friend’s wrist.

Kṛṣṇa Janmāṣṭamī

(Varies each year depending on the lunisolar calendar. Typically in August or September)

Kṛṣṇa Janmāṣṭamī (also known as Krishna Janmāṣṭamī) is a Hindu event that commemorates the birth of Krishna, one of the most popular deities in the pantheon. Throughout the festivities, people sing traditional Hindu songs known as bhajans and participate in dances. Some may also reenact scenes from Krishna’s early life. The most active time of the festival is midnight, which is believed to be the time that Krishna was born. Foods said to be favoured by Krisha are prepared and eaten.

Gaṇeśa Caturthī

(Varies each year depending on the lunisolar calendar. Typically in September)

Gaṇeśa Caturthī (also known as Ganesh Chaturthi) is a Hindu event that marks the birthday of the elephant-like Hindu god Gaṇeśa. As the son of the god Shiva and goddess Parvatī, Ganesh is known as the ‘remover of obstacles’. Gaṇeśa Caturthī typically goes for multiple days, entailing various activities such as singing and making offerings. One of the most prominent activities is taking clay statues of Ganesha and immersing them in water, symbolising the removal of misfortunes.

Navarātri

(Varies each year depending on the lunisolar calendar. Typically in September or October)

Navarātri (‘Nine Night Festival’) typically celebrates the goddess’ victory (usually in her manifestation as the fierce Durgā) over the buffalo demon. Some commemorate Navarātri as the victory of Rāma over the demon Rāvaṇa (as told in the Rāmāyana). Various festivities occur over the nine nights, such as decorations, reciting the legend, dance and music.

Dussehra

(Varies each year depending on the lunisolar calendar. Typically in October)

Dussehra is a Hindu event that marks the end of the ten-day Navarātri festival. The event commemorates the triumph of good over evil, symbolised in the epic poems Rāmāyana (Rāma’s victory over the demon king Rāvaṇa) and the Mahābhārata (the Pāndava brothers’ victory over the Kaurava brothers). Although celebrations of this day vary depending on the region, common activities include starting a new venture, project or journey and exchanging gifts of leaves from the Shami tree. 

Divālī

(Varies each year depending on the lunisolar calendar. Typically in October or November)

Divālī, also known as DiwaliDīpāvaliDeepavali or the Festival of Lights, is a festival celebrated by many Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain communities. People often decorate their home and workplaces with small electric lights, lanterns, clay oil lamps or bowls of water with candles and flowers floating on the surface. For Hindus, various gods or goddesses are worshipped. For some, the event commemorates the return of Rāma to Ayodhyā after a fourteen-year exile.

Kumbha Melā

The Kumbha Melā, also known as the Kumbh, or the ‘Festival of the Water Pot’, is a Hindu festival celebrated four times over the course of 12 years (thus held every three years). The site of observance rotates between four major pilgrimage destinations on the banks of four sacred rivers, all located in India. These four locations are Haridvār (Gaṅgā River), Ujjain (Śiprā River), Nāsik (Godāvarī River), and at Allahabad (also known as Prayāgarāj) at the confluence of the Gaṅgā, Yamunā and mythical Sarasvatī River. The Kumbh Mela held at Allahadbad is particularly auspicious and attracts millions of people each year. The celebration at each site is based on astrological positions of the sun, the moon and the planet Jupiter.

Attendees of the Kumbha Melā are diverse, ranging from holy men and women of different kinds, to ordinary Hindus and spectators. The main purpose of the festival is for ritual practices such as bathing in the sacred river and meetings held for religious leaders to debate and discuss various matters.

Considerations

  • Although it is possible to identify streams and sects within Hinduism, such categories are not rigidly defined. Moreover, people may not necessarily agree on the meaning of certain words and phrases, such as the vague term ‘Hindu’.
  • Many Hindu traditions tend to emphasise practice over beliefs. For example, the multifaceted concept of dharma is not necessarily understood as a doctrine but instead as a practice or performance of one’s duty.
  • ‘Hindu’ and ‘Indian’ are not synonymous. Although Hinduism emerged from the Indian sub-continent, not all Hindus are Indian, and not all Indians are Hindus. 
  • In some countries, Hinduism is deeply intertwined with local culture. This means that some Hindus may be more active in their religious practise, while others may be nominally Hindu and only attend religious services for major life events.
  • Most of Hinduism’s historically sacred and revered texts are recorded in the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit is also used in many ceremonial and ritual contexts. However, most lay Hindus do not speak the language.
  • The official position held by a branch or tradition is not necessarily indicative of the attitudes and beliefs of all lay followers. Individuals may have personal interpretations and applications of the teachings of their respective tradition.

Nursing with dignity. Hinduism

Hinduism is India’s oldest religion, dating from about 2500BC. A fusion of traditions and shared beliefs have shaped its culture. The words Hindu and Hinduism are geographical, derived from the name of the river that is now called the Indus.

A Hindu was originally an Indus-valley dweller. Hindus call hinduism sanata dharma, the eternal tradition or religion. This refers to the idea that its origins lie beyond human history, and its truth has been divinely revealed (shruti) and passed down the ages to the present in the most ancient of the world’s scriptures, the veda.

Hinduism has no one founder, holy book, central authority or hierarchy. There is a tremendous diversity within the religion, which depends on people’s region of origin, group and family. A person’s own religious beliefs and duties are clear and very important.

Religious beliefs and practices

Customs, beliefs and values are grounded in religion and culture. Hindu religious belief begins with the assumption that all living things have a soul, which passes through successive cycles of birth and rebirth. Hinduism includes ideas of karma and rebirth, collective versus individual identity, an emphasis on purity and a preference for sons.

Belief in karma and rebirth will be important to many Hindu patients and will influence their care. The core idea of karma is that each person is reborn so that the soul may be purified and ultimately join the divine cosmic consciousness (Radhakrishnan, 1968). Every action or thought, whether good or evil, leaves a trace in the unconscious that is carried into the next life. The belief in reincarnation and transmigration of the soul encourages Hindus to avoid killing even the smallest insect.

Many Hindus worship in temples (mandir), dedicated to a particular god or goddess. The resident priest (pandit) offers support and advice to community members. Many Hindus will also worship at home, setting aside a special place as a shrine. Shoes are removed before entering a Hindu home to avoid bringing dirt into the house.

In western secular society the individual is viewed as having autonomy in decision-making. In Hinduism the person is viewed as a combination of mind, soul and body in the context of family, culture and environment (Kakar, 1982). Thus, the person is seen as intimately integrated within the family, social group (caste) and environment.

This necessitates a holistic approach to nursing interventions. Purity (Suddha) is a very important value in Indian culture. It evokes the image of the human body in the most pure, perfect and desired state of being and reinforces personal cleanliness. The most impure substances are bodily discharges. Some Indian patients are meticulous about personal hygiene. A Hindu woman is traditionally regarded as unclean during menstruation, at the end of which she may take a special shower.

Social divisions

Indian society is divided according to a caste (jati) system. There are four inclusive castes: the Brahmins, or priests; the Kshatriaya, or warriors; the Vaisya, or merchants; and the Sudra, or peasants and workers. There are also the untouchables, who have been expelled from their caste either themselves or through the actions of their ancestors, for violations of rigidly enforced codes of caste behaviour.

The castes are further divided into sub-castes. It is a very rigid social order with clear-cut distinctions. Social status is ascribed at birth and virtually unchangeable. Members of the higher caste tend to enjoy better social privileges. Unlike the class system, the caste system is not based on wealth, but those at the top tend to have more wealth and better access to resources. In the 1950s, the Indian government tried to dismantle this rigid hierarchical system, but change has been slow.

Hindu rites or practices (samskaras) are enshrined and ordained in Hindu scriptures to guide an individual towards a proper sense of duty and obligation during various stages of life. There are ceremonies to mark major events in a Hindu’s life. Some of the most significant samkaras are childbirth (jatakarma), marriage (vivaaha) and cremation (anthyeshti).

Pregnancy and childbirth

After marriage there is often fervent prayer for a child. Owing to the notion of karma, Hindus believe that the moment of conception is the rebirth of a person who has lived many previous lives. Prayers will be offered regularly during pregnancy for the healthy development of a child.

The foetus protection ceremony (Punsavana) is performed in the third or fourth month of pregnancy to invoke divine qualities in the child. In the seventh month, prayers (Simantonnayana) are offered. According to Hindu belief, this is when the soul enters the body.

If a woman miscarries before this time, there are no special religious requirements but after seven months the baby should be given a proper religious funeral. Abortion is disapproved of but individual attitudes vary. Hindus believe termination will break the cycle of birth and rebirth (karma).

Customs and ceremonies may vary between different groups after birth. In some, a member of the family writes ‘Om’, a mystical sound representing the Supreme Spirit, on the baby’s tongue with honey or clarified butter (ghee). The person who does this may take on a role similar to that of a Christian godparent. In the UK, this ceremony may be delayed until mother and baby return home.

Some families may wish to wrap the baby in a special cloth after the birth. The mother usually stays in bed for a few days to build up her strength, while other female family members help care for the baby. Ten days after the birth, a naming ceremony is held, where the priest draws up the baby’s horoscope and chooses the first letter of his or her name.

Families and relationships

Hindus are expected to marry and have children, with both men and women taking an active part in their upbringing. Parents remain responsible for their children all their lives. Children are expected to obey and show respect for elders. Most children will look after their parents rather than allow them to be cared for in a care home.

Often it is the duty of Hindu parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles to arrange the marriages of younger family members. Divorced people may be strongly disapproved of or even rejected. In most Hindu families, although men have ultimate authority, both sexes generally share decisions.

Women are mainly responsible for the comfort and well-being of their families, and the upbringing and moral education of their children. Motherhood is probably one of the highest accolades accorded to a Hindu woman. A woman’s most sacred duty is to honour and obey her husband who, in turn, has a duty to treat her with kindness and respect.

Dietary requirements

Many Hindus restrict what they eat and drink on religious grounds. Some may refuse food prepared by other people because they cannot be sure that the cooking methods have adhered to the purity code of the religion. They may also avoid processed foods or any containing animal products.

Vegetarianism is highly regarded as an indication of spirituality. A strict Hindu vegetarian who eats any food containing meat, fish or egg products is likely to feel spiritually polluted. Hindus will not eat beef and pork. The cow is a sacred animal, generally revered and protected, and the pig is seen as a scavenging animal whose meat is dirty.

A minority from the higher caste may avoid alcohol and smoking. Some Hindus may fast on certain occasions as they believe it has physical and spiritual benefits. Close relatives, especially women, often fast and say special prayers for the recovery of someone ill. Some may fast in thanksgiving for a successful operation or recovery.

Certain foods are classified as ‘hot’ or ‘cold’, in terms of their effect on the body and emotions (Henley, 1983). Hot foods are usually salty, sour or high in animal protein. They are believed to raise body temperature and excite the emotions, rather like alcohol. Cold foods are generally sweet or bitter and are believed to cool body temperature, calm the emotions and make the person cheerful and strong. An imbalance of hot or cold foods can disturb the body’s energy equilibrium and lead to ill health.

Illness is thought to be a punishment for bad behaviour in a former existence. Suffering has meaning, and most Hindus won’t ask: ‘Why me?’ The family elders, rather than the patient, may make all decisions relating to treatment.

Most Hindus who are ill believe their doctors and family will act in their best interests. Relatives sometimes place blessed items of jewellery on a black string round a patient’s neck, arm or body. This is intended to protect and help the patient, and should not be removed. Second and third-generation Hindus may want more input in decision-making but may be hindered by their culture.

Although they passively accept their situation, Hindus have hope during an illness even when they feel helpless. Prayers, rituals and conforming to duty might favourably influence the outcome, even if this is death. Hope also stems from Hindus’ belief in the supernatural. Illness can be explained in terms of sorcery and evil spirits. In some cases, faith healers qualified to deal with spirits will be brought in.

Death and dying

If death is imminent, the patient’s family may wish to stay near the bedside and be involved in care. They may also insist on the patient’s eldest son being present before, during and after death, even if he is a small child. It is important to the patient that all close family members are present.

The family may bring clothes and coins for the patient to touch before they are given to the poor to symbolise the dead person’s generosity. Families who have not carried out the essential rituals may become distressed and anxious, both about the long-term well-being of the soul of the dead person and about the spiritual consequences for themselves.

It is vital to ensure that relatives know that death is imminent and that they can be present. They may wish to pray by the bedside and ensure that all religious rituals are carried out properly. Any jewellery or religious object on the patient should not be removed. There is often a wish to die at home, which has a religious significance.

A Hindu priest (pandit) may pray with the dying person and relatives to help the soul transmigrate into another body. They may recite hymns (bhajans) from holy books. A sacred thread may be tied around the neck or wrist, and holy water sprinkled over the person or used to wet his or her lips. A dying person is placed on the floor on a clean sheet or mat, symbolising closeness to Mother Earth, freedom from physical constraints and the easing of the soul’s departure.

Some Hindus are very strict about who touches the body after death. Some families may feel distressed if a non-Hindu touches it. Close family members usually wash the body and may wish to do so on the ward. The eyes are closed and legs straightened. The hair or beard should not be trimmed without first checking with the family. Some may wish to light a clay lamp using a piece of cotton wool soaked in ghee, while others may wish to burn an incense stick in the room.

A death is registered as soon as possible and the body cremated within 24 hours. Close relatives of the same sex may wish to prepare the body. Many people may wish to pay their last respects – this is a binding duty and should be accommodated on the ward. The eldest son or another male relative traditionally deals with the funeral arrangements.

Nursing implications

Second and third-generation Hindus may happily adapt to ward routines and procedures, but parents may wish to adapt them to suit their customs. Hindus are modest and women may prefer to wear a sari. They may be reluctant to undress in front of a male doctor and could ask to be examined by a woman. Sometimes, grandparents or parents will ask to be present. Hindu women may refuse to wear open-back gowns. If possible, longer closed gowns should be provided.

Hindus prefer a shower to a bath. The body and hair is particularly important to Hindu women. Many have long hair and may refuse to cut it without their husband’s permission. They may also be unwilling to sign a consent form without first consulting their husband or father.

It is important for the nurse to recognise the concept of karma and rebirth. The foetus is considered a person from the moment of conception so, in most cases, abortion is unacceptable except when necessary to save the mother’s life.

In matters of diagnosis, treatment and consent, the senior elder and, in some cases, the extended family, will expect to be involved. It is vital for the nurse to involve the family while ensuring that the patient’s wishes are respected.

Many Hindu patients may continue to take traditional Indian medicines while in hospital. These are largely herbal and are used along with changes in diet, habits and thoughts to overcome an imbalance in the three bodily humours: wind (vata), bile (pitta) and phlegm (kapha).

Every effort should be made to find an interpreter familiar with the patient’s traditions and culture. It is vital in issues of consent to ensure that information given to, or received from, the patient is not censored or altered by the interpreter.

Main Beliefs and Practices of Hinduism

List of Main Hindu Beliefs

Introduction 

Hinduism does not truly fit into the western notion of a religion. It has many beliefs and practices, some of which date back to prehistoric times. It is a complex belief system with an amalgamation of numerous faiths, beliefs and practices. Hence, it defies a definition that can truly reflect its essence and character. Hinduism is also the oldest living tradition and contains in itself the beliefs and practices of numerous lost or forgotten traditions and belief systems, which makes it even more difficult for the historians to trace its origins. Since God is considered to be the main source of its knowledge, beliefs and practices, Hinduism is also known as Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Dharma).

Although Hinduism originated in the Indian subcontinent, many races, communities and ethnic groups contributed to its beliefs and practices and thereby to its development. Hence, it is considered a composite religion, consisting of several sects and schools of philosophy each with a long history of at least a few thousand years. It also has a close affinity with other religions of Indian origin, namely Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism and shares with them many common beliefs and practices.

Because of its long history, Hinduism has many unique beliefs and features, which make it appealing to a wide section of people. Today Hinduism is practiced all over the world. It is mostly predominant in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Fiji, Mauritius, the West Indies, and South Africa. In recent times, many Hindus migrated to Europe and North America, where Hinduism has gained popularity not only with people of Indian origin but also with many educated people from other cultures.

The following is a brief summary of the main beliefs and practices of Hinduism in a nutshell. Readers are requested to note that since Hinduism is a complex religion and this being a condensed presentation of its essential features, there can be exceptions to what you may find here in some sects, schools and sub sects.

Belief in the Vedas 

In Hinduism the Vedas are considered inviolable and indisputable because they are the heard ones (shruti) and not man-made (apaurusheya). Veda means sacred knowledge which is believed to exist eternally in the world of Brahman and revealed at the beginning of each cycle of creation in the worlds of gods, humans, and demons by Brahma, their creator, to help them perform their Dharma, or duties and sacrifices. The Vedas were originally three, but subsequently the fourth one was added. The four Vedas in the order of their composition are the Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda. The Rigveda contains prayer chants (riks). The Samaveda contains, hymns (Samans), which can be sung loudly. The Yajurveda contains sacrificial formulas (yajus), and the Atharvaveda mostly contains charms to cast spells or achieve particular ends. The hymns of the Vedas are used in sacrificial rituals and ceremonies to invoke various Vedic gods and obtain their help for peace and prosperity or to overcome problems. The Vedas are very large texts containing thousands of hymns, and each hymn contains numerous verses. Each Veda is primarily divided into two parts, the Samhita and the Brahmana. The former contains hymns, and the latter verses in prose to deal with the ritual and philosophical aspects of various beliefs and practices of the faith. The second part is further divided into, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. Each Veda contains one or more Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. The Aranyakas deal with advanced ritual knowledge, while the Upanishads deal with various aspects of liberation, Brahman, Atman, creation, rebirth, realities, modes, aspects of Nature, and spiritual practice. In Hinduism the Vedas are used as the standard to validate philosophical truths and arguments. Any opinion, philosophy, or metaphysical assertion becomes vindicated if it finds an approval in the Vedas. However, although the Vedas are central to Hinduism, currently their importance is limited to the Upanishads and a few ritual and spiritual practices. The Upanishads are the heart of Hinduism. They form the basis of almost every Hindu sect, school of philosophy, and teacher tradition.

Belief in multiple paths 

Hinduism differs from all other world religions because it is a pluralistic religion and accommodates divergent beliefs, paths and practices. Hindus firmly believe that the paths to God and liberation are numerous and all paths lead to him only. Some may be circuitous and take time, but their final destination is Brahman only. According to the Bhagavadgita, a person’s faith is according to his nature. In whatever form he worships God or gods, in that form God stabilizes his faith. People worship God or gods for numerous reasons, to fulfill their worldly desires, resolve their suffering, out of sheer curiosity, or to achieve liberation. Because of ignorance or desires, some may not even consider their liberation a priority. A person’s spiritual and material destiny are determined by his past karma, his essential nature, desires and attachments. Human beings are deluded by nature, and hence it is natural for them to lack discretion, make wrong decisions and remain bound to the mortal world. A wise teacher may take pity on them and teach them the right knowledge, but neither he nor anyone else should confuse them with the knowledge which they cannot understand. The Bhagavadgita states that one’s dharma, however inferior may be, is better than the dharma of another, however superior it may be. It is imperative for the order and regularity of the world that each individual should stick to his or her set of duties and religious practices, and does not change them because they find them unpleasant, inferior or difficult. The two ideas seem contradictory. However, what it means is that you cannot abandon your moral duties and worldly obligations that come to you by birth, profession, gender or status, but you have the freedom to choose your path and methods of devotional worship for your liberation and spiritual wellbeing.

Belief in Brahman, the Supreme God of gods 

Critics of Hinduism try to undermine its importance by arguing that it is not a monotheistic religion. It is untrue because Hinduism recognizes a universal, supreme God as the source of all creation. Undoubtedly, it is the oldest of all the current religions, which worship a creator God. In Hinduism, the highest God is Brahman, who is also described variously as Supreme Self, Iswara, Purusha, Parameswara, Narayana, Mahadeva, etc. He is both existence and non-existence, being and nonbeing, visible and invisible, one and many, creator and the created. He is described in the scriptures as eternal, indestructible, immeasurable, infinite, supreme, pure, absolute, support of all, pervader of all, lord, enjoyer, witness, etc. According to the Vedas, he creates all the worlds and beings for his enjoyment and subjects them to the modifications of Nature, duality, diversity, objectivity, delusion, egoism, and ignorance of their own divine nature. For the order and regularity of the worlds, he also shares or delegates all his duties to the beings of different worlds according to their nature and responsibilities. Human beings are therefore expected to perform God’s duties of creation, preservation and destruction to ensure the order and regularity of the worlds. According to the Vedas, the one God becomes many. He becomes 3, 33,333, 3333, and so on. His highest aspects are Isvara (God), Hiranyagarbha (Soul), and Viraj (the body or the objective reality). Another important manifestation of him is Time or Death (kala), the lord who rules the objective world and devours everything as his food. Isvara in turn manifests as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, who are known as Trimurthis, to perform the duties of the creator, the preserver and the destroyer respectively. The entire creation of Brahman constitutes a little part (amsa) of his infinite dimensions and absolute reality.

Belief in Atman, the individual Self 

Unlike Buddhism, Hinduism believes in the eternal Self as the inmost Self (atman) of all beings. The individual Self is a microcosmic aspect of Brahman only. It is described as eternal, indestructible, unchanging, blissful, alone, transcendental, pure, intelligence, consciousness, etc. It is unreachable by the mind or the senses, but because of it alone they work. The early Upanishads identified it with breath, and hence the name Atman really means the breathing one. Although the Self is pure and infinite, when it is embodied in the mortal beings, it remains covered by the realities (tattvas) and modes (gunas) of Nature and bound to the mind and the body. It is called the samasara, or bondage to the cycle of births and deaths, which continues until it achieves liberation. The Upanishads state that the Self resides in the body in three locations, the eyes, the heart, and the mind. It is also described as the enjoyer and the Witness consciousness. The school of non-dualism holds that the individual souls are mere projections and not real. Only Brahman is real. Hence, when a person is liberated, he ceases to exist both as a being and as a soul, and merges into Brahman. According to some schools of Hinduism, the souls are of three types, the bound ones, the liberated ones, and the forever free ones. The liberated souls and the forever free souls eternally exist in the world of Brahman and remain so even when the worlds are dissolved at the end of each creation cycle.

Belief in Prakriti, Nature 

Some people mistakenly regard Hinduism as a naturalistic religion, or animism, which is not true. Hindus worship Nature as an aspect or force of God. In Hinduism, Nature represents the universal femininity. It is called Prakriti, the primordial Nature, who represents the materiality of all existence. The energy or shakti in her subtle form, she is both manifested and unmanifested. Acting as the dynamic force of God, she manifests his Will and creates the diversity that we find in the existence, using a set of realities that are known as tattvas and three universal qualities or modes called gunas. In Hinduism she goes by many names and has both pleasant and fierce forms, just as Nature has on earth. Everything that you touch, feel, and experience in you and in the objective world is Nature. She represents your very being, name and form. The whole body and mind of all beings are but aspects of Nature in the microcosm. As the primordial Nature, she is eternal and indestructible, while her forms and creations are destructible, changeable and divisible. The dynamism and the drama of the universe are caused by Nature only for the enjoyment of the Self, which remains passive. Thus, she responsible for the beingness of the beings, their desires, attachments, duality, delusion, confusion, modifications, suffering, attraction and aversion, and bondage to the cycle of births and deaths. However, she is also the transformative and purifying power on the path of liberation. She can be loving, uplifting, nurturing, supporting, caring, and purifying to those who worship her and seek her help and protection. Followers of Tantra and Shakti regard Prakriti as the highest and the ultimate reality, and worship her as the Supreme Being.

Belief in many gods and goddesses 

There is no religion in the world which is as colorful and vibrant as Hinduism, with its pantheon of gods and goddesses and the vision of a hierarchical universe, ruled by numerous deities who derive their power and authority from the highest, supreme Brahman. Hindus not only worship the Supreme Self and Shakti, but also numerous male and female deities, who are considered aspects of Purusha and Prakriti only. However, they are not mere functional aspects or symbolic concepts, but actual beings who play a vital role in ensuring the order and regularity of the worlds. They live in their own spheres, in the company of their associate gods and devotees, and participate in the creation, preservation and destruction of the worlds and beings as part of their obligatory duties. Since each has a specific role and duty and occupies a certain place of importance in the hierarchy of gods, the worlds cannot exist without them. Each deity is a combination of Purusha and Prakriti, and in their purest and supreme aspect is but Brahman only. Each god has one or more female deities acting as their consorts and providing him with dynamic force. Most of the male and female deities are worshipped not only in their individual aspects but also in their universal aspect as Brahman or Shakti or both. It is in this regard that Hinduism fundamentally differs from the western notions of polytheism. Hinduism accepts the diversity of creation as a fundamental reality of existence, and accepts a vast hierarchy of gods as part of that diversity. It is the same Purusha (Cosmic Being) manifesting numerously to enact the sacrifice of creation in which he is the worshipper, the offering and the one who is worshipped. The most popular gods of Hinduism include Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Saraswathi, Lakshmi, Parvathi, Durga, Kali, Rama, Krishna, Venkateswara, Ganesha, Hanuman, and Kumaraswami, and their local versions, aspects, emanations, and manifestations.

Belief in the sacrifice as basis of existence and liberation 

The idea of sacrifice is central to both Hindu ritual practices and spiritual philosophy. Sacrifice is the cause and the basis of life, and sacrifice is also the ultimate purpose of life. A person comes into existence because of a sacrifice in which a father pours his water into the female sexual organ as an offering, which results in the formation of an embryo in her womb as the fruit of that sacrifice. Once a person is born, his life become a continuous sacrifice in which his actions become the offering and karma its fruit. At the time of death, the person’s body is again offered in a final sacrifice as the offering, and the fruit of that offering is the afterlife in the ancestral world or the immortal world. Thus, one of the distinguishing features of Hinduism is its emphasis upon sacrifice as the source of life, the way of life and the purpose of life. It recognizes rituals and sacrificial offerings as part of a human being’s obligatory duty to maintain the order and regularity of the world. Creation also is envisaged in Hinduism as the sacrifice of God, in which he becomes both the sacrificer and the sacrificed. The outcome of that sacrifice is existence and manifestation of all worlds and beings. Meditation, austerities, yoga and other spiritual practices are considered internal sacrifices, in which the body is considered the sacrificial pit, breath is regarded as the offering, and liberation as the outcome. The worlds exist because of sacrifice. Each living being is a sacrificer in the sacrifice of life, in which the embodied self (jivatma) is the sacrificer, the body is the sacrificial pit, the actions and their consequences are the offering, and God is their final recipient. Since life is a sacrifice, you must be careful about what you claim as yours. If you enjoy the fruit of your sacrifice instead of offering it to God, you become responsible for them and suffer from their consequences. Thus, the model of sacrifice forms the basis of Hinduism and its essential concepts of karma, rebirth, and suffering. Devout Hindus are expected to perform daily sacrifices to nourish gods, ancestors, animals, spiritual people, etc. Apart from it, there are rituals that are performed on a weekly, fortnightly, monthly or annual basis. Some rituals and festival like Kumbh or Mahakumbh repeat once in several years or a century. The purpose of the rituals is to nourish gods, ancestors, and ascetic people who cannot make food for themselves and in return seek their blessings for the welfare of the world, peace and prosperity.

Belief in the power of mantras 

A mantra is a sacred prayer, hymn, or word from the sacred texts used in ritual and domestic worship to communicate or consecrate a deity, cast spells and charms, or seek protection against them. Literally, a mantra means that which you release with the power of your mind. Each mantra has a presiding deity, from which the mantra receives its potency and the power to manifest or fulfill the desires and wishes of the worshippers. A mantra’s power depends upon how it is used, by whom it is used, and for what ends. For maximum efficacy, it must be used with utmost purity and chanted correctly with right intentions. Since mantras can be used for positive or negative purposes, they are meant to be revealed only to the qualified ones. The mantra tradition is very peculiar to Hinduism, with a history which is as old as the Vedas themselves. The Vedas are books of sacred hymns, mantras, spells, and incantations to propitiate gods for peace and prosperity. They rely upon the power of the sounds, speech, and mind to communicate with gods and obtain their help in return for the offerings made. Each mantra uttered during worship also becomes an offering to the deity. The Vedic tradition recognizes three types of mantras, namely the Riks, Yajus, and Samans. Riks are metrical mantras which are recited loudly during sacrificial ceremonies. Yajus are sacred formulas composed in prose, which are muttered in low tones. Samans are also metrical mantras, which are sung loudly due to their melodious quality. Mantras are used to infuse objects, such as water, an image, or a place with the sacred power of Brahman to purify it and use it as a protective shield or a sacred object to fulfill desires or cast spells. A person who is well versed in the knowledge of the Mantras and Vedas is known as a mantri. In the Vedic times kings used to employ them for consultation and counsel. It gave birth to the tradition of royal counsel and the council of ministers. The closest among them was called the mukhya mantri, or chief minister. Mantras are also used in healing and overcoming obstacles.

Belief in Dharma 

Hinduism should be rightly renamed as Dharma, because it forms the core of Hinduism. In Hinduism Dharma is synonymous with religion or faith. It is the basis of its moral, social, religious, spiritual and philosophical teachings and practice. The world is created for dharma, continues because of dharma, and becomes dissolved as part of dharma. Dharma means moral, sacred, and obligatory duties that directly arise from God which are vital to the creation, preservation, and destruction of the worlds and beings, and for the order and regularity of the worlds. God is the creator and upholder of Dharma. Every human being has to perform the triple functions of creation, preservation, and destruction for the continuation of the worlds and beings, and in so doing he must consider himself a mere servant, agent, or representative of God. In the performance of his duties, he must relinquish all notions of doership, ownership and desire for the fruit of his actions and offerings. Hinduism is also known as Sanatana Dharma because the duties of God that humans are expected to perform upon earth are considered eternal, constant and imperishable. The Bhagavadgita mainly teaches how to perform your duties, however unpleasant they may be, with detachment, renunciation and as a sacrificial offering to God for the welfare of the worlds as well as your own welfare. The Hindu law books (dharmashastras) are books of moral, personal, social, and family duties. They specify the duties that are specific to different categories of people according to their profession, status, and responsibilities. Life is a battle between dharma and adharma. Where dharma prevails, there peace, harmony, and happiness prevail, and where it is weak, chaos spread and evil grows. The Taitrriya Upanishad affirms that if you protect and uphold dharma, dharma will protect you and uphold you. Thus, the practice of Hinduism is synonymous with the practice of Dharma, or sacred duties.

Belief in the purusharthas 

Hinduism offers a very practical model of life for the humans to lead by suggesting four chief aims of human life known as purusharthas. They are based upon the four chief aims of God himself, or Purusha, in creating and upholding his creation. Since human beings embody the Purusha as their very selves and represent him upon earth as the upholders of his sacred duties (dharma), the aims of Purusha become their aims also. The four purusharthas are, dharma (duty), artha (wealth), kama (sexual desire), and moksha (liberation). The first and the last are of utmost importance in the life of an individual since they form the basis of his moral and spiritual conduct and the means to his liberation. They also serve as the basis for humans in pursuing the other two goals of wealth and sexual pleasure since people can become trapped in them and lose their way. However, the four aims are not obligatory for all Hindus. They are prescribed mainly for those who choose to become householders and go through the four phases of varnasharma dharma (brahmacharya, grihasta etc.), which are described in another section. Some may pursue only the twin aims of dharma and moksha by renouncing worldly life and following the ascetic path of liberation. Artha and kama constitute the worldly pursuit, and dharma and moksha the spiritual pursuit. Together they ensure that human beings lead holistic lives and do not ignore their main duties that are part of their dharma, such as supporting their families, gods, ancestors, seers and sages, protecting cattle and other animals, procreation, continuation of family lineage, and protection and preservation of the sacred knowledge of the Vedas through study, recitation and sacrifices. It is also important to pursue the four aims, with detachment and as an offering or a sacrifice to God, and with no desire for personal gain or enjoyment, so that one can avoid the consequences of karma that arise in their pursuit. In today’s world, the purusharthas serve as an ideal. However, it is doubtful whether anyone strictly follows them in their real lives in the order of their importance or adhere to the lifestyle they prescribe.

Belief in varnashrama dharma 

The varnashrama dharma forms part of the Vedic tradition, which is not currently followed by a majority of Hindus. It is even doubtful whether anyone follows it at all because the current education system, householder lifestyles and living conditions have little in common with those of the Vedic times. However, from a theoretical and historical perspective, it still holds a value as an ideal, which people can pursue with suitable modifications to fit into their current lifestyles. According to the varnasharama dharma, human life is divided into four phases. In each phase people are expected to perform different duties as part of their obligation to God and to themselves. The four phases are brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha, and sanyasa. Brahmacharya is the phase of celibacy, during which a child who has been initiated into the study of the Vedas should practice celibacy and complete his mastery of the scriptures. In the past this phase used to last until one reached the age of 30-35. In grihasta, a person has to lead the life of a householder and fulfill his obligations towards himself, his family, ancestors, gods, seers and sages, animals, other human beings, and the world in general. He has to live responsibly, pursuing the four chief aims of human life as described before. In Vanaprastha, a person has to take leave from his family and householder responsibilities, and live in a forest or a secluded place to pursue his study of the scripture, live in contemplation, and prepare himself liberation. In the final phase of sanyasa, he should entirely give up the use of fire, renounce all attachments, observe austerities and pursue the path of renunciation, with the sole aim to pursue liberation. Although it may be difficult to follow the traditional varanshrama dharma, a person can still model his life on the ideal, and divide his life into four phases to pursue both material and spiritual goals.

Belief in different forms of worship 

In Hinduism devotees worship God and their favorite deities in various ways to express their love and devotion or to fulfill their wishes. In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna assures that in whatever from people worship God, in that form he manifests. Therefore, devotees have the freedom to choose any object, symbol, thought, world, or form, which is convenient to them and meditate upon it. They may also worship him physically and ritually or mentally and spiritually, at home, in a temple, a sacred place, or in a congregation, with the help of a priest or by themselves. However, with regard to certain rituals and complicated sacrificial ceremonies, which are highly structured and very complex, they invariably require the assistance of qualified priests to avoid any ill effects or unintended consequences that may arise from them. It is also important which deity you worship, because a person becomes what he worships. As the Bhagavadgita states, those who worship the gods go to the gods, those who worship the ancestors go to them, and those who worship the elements go to the elements, but those who worship Brahman, go to Brahman only. Worship is also of different kinds, daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, yearly, or on specific occasions according to tradition. Some rituals require prior preparation and utmost purity, while some can be performed spontaneously without any preparation. Devotees may also choose different methods of worship such as rituals, prayers, chants, sacrifices, repetition of names, meditation, and make different offerings according to the object and purpose of the worship. There are also right hand methods which follow the traditional Vedic beliefs and practices, and left hand methods as prescribed in the Tantras.

Belief in creation 

In Hinduism there are two divergent opinions about creation. According to one view which is found in certain schools of Hinduism, existence is eternal without any creator. Life manifests spontaneously due to the actions of Nature when it subjects the individual souls to its modes and modifications. However, the more popular opinion holds that Brahman, the Supreme Being, is the creator. He creates the worlds out of himself and subjects them to delusion and desires. Nature (Prakriti) acts as his agent to manifest his will and create diversity. Existence is either a projection, superimposition, or reflection of God in the field of Nature. Hence, it is not real, but a temporary creation or illusion which will last as long as God is actively present in it. When he withdraws from it, it will instantly disappear. There are also many theories of creation in Hinduism, some very detailed, some vague, and some symbolic. There are no clear explanations, although there are many theories and philosophies, why the worlds come into existence, and what might have existed before they were manifested. The Rigveda even expresses skepticism whether God has any knowledge of the state that existed prior to creation (since he remains in deep sleep). It is commonly believed that God creates the worlds for his enjoyment (lila). We also know from the scriptures that there is a definite pattern to his creation, which happens cyclically and repeatedly as he goes into the alternating modes of activity and rest. The world’s manifest when he is active and it is the day for him, and they disappear when it is night for him and he is resting. In each cycle of creation deities such as Isvara, Hiranyagarbha, Brahma, Manu, the mind born sons of Brahma, and other gods, seers, and beings appear at regular intervals according to a predictable pattern. Each cycle of creation is also subject to definite divisions of time, and predictable phases of epochs, known as Satya yuga, Thretha yuga, Dvapara yuga, and Kaliyuga. Each of them is distinguished by specific events, characteristics, manifestations, duration, and the play of divine and demonic activity. Another important belief associated with the Hindu theories of creation is that it happens due to the union between God (Purusha) and Nature (Prakrithi). God represents the Self, which is pure consciousness, and Nature represents the body which is made of matter, energy, and materiality. Both are eternal and may be independent. However, Purusha is immutable while Nature is mutable. In creation, Purusha remains untouched by the modification of Nature, while Nature undergoes transformation to create or evolve names, forms, and beings. It is also true that there are many parallels between the Hindu theories of creation and the modern theory of Big Bang, in which elements, space, cosmic egg, energy and consciousness play an important part.

Belief in a complex cosmology 

Hindu cosmology presents a multitier universe and a hierarchy of worlds and planes of existence which are inhabited by numerous beings, with varying degrees of purity and light, or impurity and darkness, or a mixture of both. The Vedic people believed in a four-tier world, namely the earth, the mid-region, the water-bearing world, and the heaven. In addition, they believed in three other worlds, the immortal word of Brahman in the sphere of the sun, the world of ancestors in the sphere of the moon, and the underworld beneath the earth ruled by Lord Yama. In the Puranas we find descriptions of seven upper worlds of light, and seven lower worlds of darkness, with the earth or the mortal world as the seventh from the top. Each of the worlds is given a specific name. According to some theories, these worlds exist in each of us as subtle planes which can be accessed through meditation. The lower worlds are the worlds of pain and suffering, unpleasant memories and dark, demonic, and disturbing images. The higher worlds are worlds of pleasure, enjoyment, positive memories and bright forms gods and celestial beings. In addition to the worlds described before, each of the triple deities (trimurthis) has his own world, the Brahmalok of Brahma, the Vaikuntha of Vishnu, and the Kailash of Shiva. Apart from them, we also find references to the world of serpents and mythical beings, with half human bodies, beneath the earth and in the oceans. The Puranas also describe the earth as part of a huge mountain called Meru which stretches high into the heavens, with gods living in its upper regions and other beings below, and surrounded by seven concentric circles of oceans, which are encircled by a huge wall of tall mountains. Beyond them is said to be the indeterminate existence, about which nothing is known. In this great hierarchy of worlds, the mortal world of humans has a great significance since only humans have the opportunity to achieve liberation and ascend to the highest heaven of Brahman. Some scriptures also suggest that our universe (brahmandam) is just one of the numerous universes manifested by numerous Brahmas in numerous spheres of existence under the watchful gaze of the Supreme Being, Narayana. The Vedas also speak of four planes of consciousness, the wakeful state, the dream state, the deep sleep state, and the transcendental state, and five sheaths in the body, the gross body, breath body, mind body, intelligence body, and bliss body. Each of them may have a corresponding plane in the macrocosm also.

Belief in karma 

One of the important features of Hinduism is the belief in karma, or the belief that beings in the mortal world are subject to the consequences of their desire-ridden actions, which may be mental, physical, expressed, unexpressed, direct, or indirect. Hindus do not believe that God punishes anyone for their actions. People punish themselves by indulging in desire-ridden actions that produce sinful karma as their fruit. Karma means any actions one performs with or without desires. Karma-phal is the fruit that arises from such actions. In general usage, however, the word karma is used to denote both the actions and their fruit or consequences. Karma is an effect of your thoughts and actions. It keeps accumulating in the life of an individual and becomes the basis of his future lives. At the time of death, it becomes attached to the soul as latent impressions (samskaras), and accompanies him to the next world as well as to the next birth. The scriptures distinguish different types of karma,, namely the karma that is accumulated from past lives, the karma that is accumulated in the current life, the karma that is currently being exhausted, the karma from the past lives that has been exhausted, and the karma that becomes transferred into future lives, etc. Each person’s life and destiny are thus products of his or her past actions. No one can escape from karma because no one can remain without performing actions. Bodily functions such as breathing, seeing, eating, listening, and sleeping are karma only with positive or negative consequences. Even mutely witnessing evil actions of others or silently giving consent to them out of fear, selfishness, or self-interest can produce consequences. Liberation is not possible, until all karma is exhausted and the latent impressions in the subtle body are completely burnt. Hence, the Bhagavadgita prescribes karma-sanyasa yoga, according to which one should perform actions without desires and offer their fruit to God, acknowledging him as the source of all actions. The grace of God or of a spiritual person may also play an important role in neutralizing the effects of karma. In a philosophical sense, karma is a self-correcting and self-cleansing mechanism. Through karma a being gradually evolves and learns to discern the truth about himself and God, and his state of bondage and delusion. However, left to himself, it may take many births before a person reaches perfection in his knowledge and wisdom to come to that realization. Hence, the practice of yoga to hasten the process and arrest the ill effects of karma is prescribed in the scriptures.

Belief in maya 

Maya is another name of Prakriti. Maya also means illusion or delusion, or mistaking one thing for another. Maya also means magic. According to the Vedas, the asuras excel in magic and misleading their enemies. They wage wars with the help of magic, or use it to disrupt the worlds. Gods may also resort to magic, but it is for the good of the world. God himself is described in the Vedas as the greatest magician with the power to control, conceal and reveal. References to Maya are found in various schools of Hinduism, but it has a special significance in the Vedanta philosophy which is based upon the teachings of the Upanishads. According to it, the objective, everyday reality (vyavaharika) that we perceive with the senses is not true. What is true is the transcendental reality of Brahman which can be experienced only through self-realization. The Truth is hidden behind a veil of deception, whose source is God himself. He casts a spell upon the beings so that they cannot see him, but only his reflection, which they take for real. Hence, the world is not what it appears to be. It is partly a projection of your mind and partly a distorted version of your knowledge, perception, and understanding, filtered by the impurities of your mind and senses. We know today that the visible world is but a fraction of the invisible world, which remains hidden from our view and senses. The Vedic seers realized this truth long ago and cautioned people not to be misled by their perceptions and reasoning, but develop a deeper vision and understanding of the world to see it clearly and directly. The school of nondualism (advaita) holds that Brahman is the only reality. Everything else, including the world in which we live, is unreal, or an illusion because it is a projection of God in the field of Nature. It is like the dream of God, which lasts for the duration of creation. Since it lasts for billions of years, we do not know its illusory nature. Because of the activity of the senses and the mind, we take the it for real and ignore the reality that is hidden in it as its very soul. This illusion is created by Brahman with the help of the modes (gunas) of Nature by subjecting them to the impurities of egoism, attachments, ignorance, and delusion, whereby they take their minds and bodies for real and fail to recognize the soul which is present in them. The Svetasvatara Upanishad describes Brahman as a magician who casts the net of illusion upon his creation and subjects all beings to delusion. By removing the impurities that are present in the mind and body due to the activities of the triple gunas, and cultivating purity (sattva) one can overcome the delusion and achieve liberation.

Belief in rebirth or reincarnation of souls 

Belief in rebirth or reincarnation of souls is common to all religions of Indian origin. It characterizes many aspects of Hinduism. According to the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita and every other Hindu scripture, the soul takes numerous births during its existence in the mortal world before it achieves liberation. As the Bhagavadgita states, in each life the soul wears a new body like a clothe and discards it at the time of death. Rebirth is inevitable for the embodied souls, who indulge in desire-ridden actions, and whose karma is not exhausted. At the time of death they go to the ancestral world and return from there after their karmas are exhausted to take another birth. In the ancestral world they wear a casual body according to their karmas and fall to the earth when those bodies are worn out. Those who perform meritorious actions and incur good karma take birth in pious families, whereas those who indulge in sinful and evil actions take birth through sinful wombs and suffer greatly. Beings who indulge in mortal sins fall down into the darker world and return to the world to take birth in the bodies of animals and lower life forms. The Mundaka Upanishad suggests that rebirth is inevitable for those who pursue ignorance (avidya), and perform desire-ridden actions and rituals (karma-kanda) but those who renounce worldly life, live in forests in contemplation of Brahman, attain the world of Brahman and never return.

Belief in Moksha, liberation 

Liberation (Moksha) in Hinduism means liberation from the cycle of births and deaths or from the soul’s involvement with the materiality of Nature. In a limited sense it means freedom from suffering, delusion, ignorance, duality, impurity, and attachments. In an objective sense it means liberation from the burden of having an impure mind and body. The souls are caught in the cycle of births and deaths due to the modifications of Nature and desire-ridden actions. Desires are induced by the activity of the senses which are in turn influenced by the modes of Nature, namely sattva, rajas, and tamas. For the embodied soul the body is like a prison-house. It is not free until it is fully liberated from the hold of Nature and returns to its pristine state of pure consciousness. According to some schools of Hinduism, moksha means freedom from duality and delusion and dissolution of the (illusion of) individual soul into the Supreme Self, whereby it ceases to exist as an entity. According to other schools, liberation means self-realization or the realization that one is not the mind and body or the name and form but the eternal, indestructible, and infinite Self. Upon reaching that realization, souls travel by the path of gods (devayana) to the world of Brahman which is located in the sphere of the Sun and stay there, never to return. The scriptures are not unanimous with regard to state of the continuation of liberated souls in the world of Brahman, how they exist, what they do, and whether they remain active or passive. According to some sects, they remian blssful and in unision with the state of the Supreme Being, staying forever in the field of his direct gaze and infinite love. Some teacher traditions hold the belief that upon their departure from here, the liberated souls ascend to the higher worlds where they are assigned different tasks or asked to become the messengers of God. Accordingly, they may incarnate in other gross or subtle worlds to spread his word and spiritualize the beings there.

Belief in avatar ir the incarnation of God 

In Hinduism, the whole universe is sacred because it embodies God as its very soul. God is not separate from his creation just as the light that spreads from the sun is not separate from him. The world may be an illusion, but it is infused with his light and presence. God pervades it as its very soul and support. He manifests numerously as gods, beings, objects, wonders, worlds and planes of existence. However, he does not equally manifest his dynamic presence in all. Depending upon the situation, in the beings he may manifest his power fully, partially, or minutely, or remain fully hidden. Gods are his highest manifestations where his light, purity, and potency are the brightest, while the asuras are his lowest where it is as if he does not exist at all. In the darkest hells where the daithyas and rakshasas rule, his light and purity remain completely suppressed and enveloped by darkness. In the mortal world, his presence is mixed, according to the spiritual purity and progress of the beings. In most cases he remains a passive witness, and lets Nature rule their minds and bodies. However, from time to time, when the order and regularity of the world are disrupted by evil forces, in his aspect as Vishnu, the preserver, he may directly incarnates upon earth in a mortal body and resolve the problem. On such occasions he may choose to incarnate fully or partially. His full incarnations are limited to ten only, whereas his partial incarnations are said to be numerous. The purpose of each incarnation is to restore dharma by destroying the evil or spreading the knowledge of liberation and righteousness. An incarnation is different from a messenger, prophet, god, or teacher. It is God himself in mortal form, with a specific mission to save the world and restore order, without an intermediary. The scriptures suggest that nine incarnations of Vishnu have already taken place at different times in the present cycle of creation. The last one, that of Kalki, will happen in future at the end of Kaliyuga, when the world will be destroyed in a huge conflagration. The idea of incarnation is very predominant in Vaishnavism. Followers of Shiva do not believe that an incarnation is necessary for God to restore dharma. They believe that Shiva, the all knowing, ominpotent God, may directly intervene in the world in a particular asepct, form, or emnation or depute Shakti or his associate deities and ganas to deal with the problem.

Belief in charity 

Charity or dana is one of the most important aspects of ethical conduct and religious practice in Hinduism. According to the essential beliefs of Hinduism, Hindus are not supposed to live for themselves, but for the sake of God, in the service of God, and to server those whose existence is vital to the continuation of the worlds. Therefore, it is an obligatory duty of every Hindu householder to practice charity as part of his or her religious duty to ensure the order and regularity of the world. There are many people in the world who depend upon others for food, such as students who study the Vedas and practice celibacy, ascetics who take the vows to practice austerities and renounce cooking or the use of fire, people who are disabled or extremely poor, saints, seers, and wandering monks (shramanas) who cannot have permanent shelters, and gods who cannot make their own food. They depend upon the charitable nature of humans. It is also an obligatory duty for a householder to honor the visiting guests, and serve them with food and other comforts. They are also expected to make the five daily sacrificial offerings to gods, ancestors, humans, animals, etc. Giving charity is thus a very important part of Dharma (sacred duty) for people on earth. It is by giving and serving the humanity that they serve God and earn the merit. Truly speaking, sacrificial ceremonies and ritual worship are prescribed in Hinduism mainly to promote charitable activities. Since human beings are selfish by nature, it difficult for them to overcome their attachment to worldly possessions and share them with others. Charitable activities help them practice detachment and overcome their selfishness. According to a story in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, it is said that once upon a time Brahma assembled gods, demons and humans and gave them specific instructions to improve their conduct. He asked gods who were excessively drawn to pleasure seeking behavior to practice restraint (dama). To the demons he gave the advice to practice compassion (daya) because they were excessively prone to cruelty. When it came to the humans he asked them to practice charity (dana) because they were prone to selfishness. The story illustrates how important charity is for human beings to earn good merit or achieve liberation. Charity is not just about giving money or food, but sharing knowledge, healing others, giving blessings, and being generous in forgiving others.

Associated beliefs 

The following are a few associated or derivative beliefs that are worth mentioning.

1. The belief in eternal life. Hindus believe that the souls are immutable and live eternally.

2. The belief in the living images of God. Hindus believe that the images in the temples and at home which they worship are incarnations (arcas) of God and should be treated with reverence and respect.

3. The belief in the evolution of life. Hindus believe that being evolve both physically and mentally through rebirth, karma, self-purification, and spiritual practice.

4. The belief in the social order. Hindus believe that due to karma people are naturally predisposed to perform certain tasks, professions and skills. This led to the formation of caste system, which presently divides the Hindu community into caste based groups and affliations.

5. The belief in the spiritual basis of marriage. Hindus believe that marriages are made in heaven and in married life both husband and wife have to perform specific duties to uphold dharma and preserve their families.

6. The belief in the spiritual significance of India, Bharat. For Hindus India is the sacred land of the Vedas, the land where the Bharatas ruled, the land of gods, goddesses, and enlightened humans, where knowledge flows, where God incarnates, where sacred rivers like the Ganga flow, where gods breathe in the bodies of seers and saints, where the Buddha and the Thirthankars were born, where wisdom prevails, and where souls take birth to improve their spiritual destinies and cleanse their karmas.

9 More Things You Should Know About Hinduism

Despite being born in a practicing Hindu family, and despite being brought up in the tradition of idols, temples, and sacrifices, and despite living in the land of Kumari, the living goddess of Nepal, I never understood Hinduism. It was too complex and diverse.

Hinduism is an ancient polytheistic, pantheistic, henotheistic, and animistic religion, which is mystically syncretized with peculiar beliefs and practices. That sentence alone is confusing!

In recent years, Hinduism has enthralled many Westerners. Some adopt Hinduism as a philosophy or find its mysticism and yoga alluring, while others devoutly follow its religious practices.

1. Hindus believe in an impersonal god.

Mainstream Hinduism understands god as one, yet it asserts this god can manifest itself in multiple names and forms. A supreme god, popularly known as Brahman, is believed to be the infinite abstract principle, not a person—the absolute reality, the source of consciousness, and the pure existence and knowledge. Brahman doesn’t exist per se but is existence itself. This god is an assembly of superlative attributes rather than a being. It’s an impersonal essence and force. This essence or force isn’t all knowing. Instead, it’s knowledge itself that is Brahman.

2. Hinduism lacks a unified source of authority.

Hinduism is claimed to be the most ancient religion in the world. However, it has no founder, no single sacred scripture, and no unified creed or confession. Hindus revere many authoritative scriptures, such as Vedas, Vedanta, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavata Purana, and Ramayana. These scriptures’ claims are confusing and self-contradictory in many places. They have an elaborate creation narrative of mankind and the cosmos, as well as narratives of how gods and goddesses came into being. These scriptures are read primarily by Hindu scholars and priests, not by laypeople or everyday adherents.

3. Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation.

Hinduism is seen by some to be a fatalistic religion. Its sacred scriptures claim the doctrines of karma and reincarnation are inseparably interwoven. Karma is the law of cause and effect that determines a person’s unalterable fate, and that fate is perpetuated in reincarnation. Hindu scholars argue that either Brahman operates this process or natural laws of causation are accountable for its effects. Hinduism teaches that karma isn’t only the fate of humans. Deities and devils also experience this fatalistic process as predetermined by Brahman.

4. Hindus believe gods can be created.

Hindus believe in a hierarchy of gods. Superior deities have the power and privilege to form a vassal god and to grant a “right of worship” to them as well. Ganesh, an elephant god, is a popular example. He’s said to have been created by his mother, Parvati, from dirt rubbed off while bathing. His father, Shiva, chopped off Ganesh’s head because he provoked Shiva to wage war against him. Shiva did this without realizing Ganesh was his recently created son. Eventually, Shiva provided Ganesh an elephant head and simultaneously granted him the gift of divinity.

5. Hindu gods took various avatars to kill sinners.

The Hindu scriptures have many polished narratives of gods taking various human and animal forms in order to restore cosmic order. These forms are called avatars. The most popular one is likely Vishnu’s avatar of Krishna (who murdered his own evil uncle). Krishna declared this in Bhagavad Gita, chapter 4:7–8:

Whenever there is decay in righteousness, O Bharata,
And there is exaltation of unrighteousness, then I Myself come forth;
For the protection of the good, for the destruction of evil-doers,
For the sake of firmly establishing righteousness, I am born from age to age.

Altogether, Vishnu is said to have taken 10 incarnations. Through those avatars he claims to have restored the cosmic order of righteousness by destroying the unrighteous. Interestingly, some Hindus have deified Buddha by recognizing him as Vishnu’s final avatar.

6. Hindus believe sin involves killing a god.
Hindu scriptures claim that all living being possess an atman (spirit), and killing them, knowingly or unknowingly, is a sin. This includes not just humans but birds, beasts, reptiles, mosquitos, lice, worms, and flies. In addition, the monistic school of Hinduism argues that every spirit—from tiny living and non-living things to enormous living and non-living things in the universe—incorporates into Brahman (Monism). Since atman and Brahman are identified with one another, killing anything implies the killing of Brahman itself.

7. Hinduism is pluralistic and inclusive.
Mainstream Hindus claim that all religions of the world lead to the supreme, impersonal god. This concept is often depicted in a dazzling circle surrounded by the symbols of all religions, and in its epicenter dwells the glorious spirit out of which emanates light to all the world religions. Additionally, some Hindus claim that god sends mahatma (“a great spirit”) in every age to lead the world into the righteous path that ultimately leads to Brahman. Jesus Christ is viewed as one of the greatest lights along with Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, Guru Nanak, and Confucius.

8. Hindus practice pilgrimage.
For Hindus, tirtha (pilgrimage) is a holy ritual that pleases the gods. Hindus make pilgrimage to sacred temples, such as Banaras Kashi, Badrinath, and Kedarnath, which mostly venerate Vishnu and Shiva. As in many other religions, Hindus also make pilgrimage to sacred burial shrines where they worship and pray to their dead gods and gurus (religious teachers). These acts produce good karma and are regarded as a dharma (religious act) that might merit reward in the next reincarnation.

9. Salvation by grace is foreign to Hindus.
It’s written in Hindu scriptures that the soul is immortal. However, the soul takes a new body in every reincarnation because of the cycle of birth and death (samsara). According to Hindu belief, it takes 84,000 incarnations for a person to cycle through all living beings (i.e., insects, animals, fish, birds, etc.) and eventually obtain another reincarnation. Salvation (moksya) is the completion of and removal from this cursed process. The person is then assimilated into the infinite ocean of Brahman’s divinity, uniting with it eternally. At this point, only the spirit is liberated, because it leaves the body forever, a concept similar to Gnosticism. Earthly life is believed to be an illusion or shadow (maya), and its reality is a spiritual life in heaven, a concept similar to Platonism.
Strict spiritual practices are the only way to attain this blissful deliverance, because god is only satisfied by the perfect karma, obedient life, and worship (sadhana). Solely based on this perfection, Brahman grants salvation. Salvation by faith alone in God through grace apart from karma is unimaginable in Hinduism.

Cultural Approaches to Pediatric Palliative Care in Central Massachusetts: Hinduism
Hinduism

*3rd largest religion in the world

  • Large populations in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh

Beliefs

A wide variety of beliefs held together by an attitude of mutual tolerance and belief that all approaches to God are valid.
Humankind’s goal is to break free of this imperfect world and reunite with God
Reincarnation and karma (law of cause and effect)
One must perform his/her duties to God, parents, teachers and society
Daily practices

Personal hygiene very important and bathing is required every day, but bathing after meal may be viewed as harmful
Hot water may be added to cold, but not the opposite
Removal of shoes before entering a room
Dying and death

The atmosphere around the dying person must be peaceful
The last thoughts or words are of God; the Gita (scripture) is recited to strengthen the person’s mind and provide comfort. Religious chanting before and after death is continually offered by family, friends, and priest.
Prefer to die at home, as close to mother earth as possible (usually on the ground)
Active euthanasia viewed as destructive
No Custom or restriction on prolongation of life
Immediately after death priest may pour water into mouth of deceased and family may wash the body
Customary for body not to be left alone until cremated
Autopsy and organ donation acceptable
Cremation is common on day of death
Fetus or children under age 2 may be buried; no rituals observed
Facilitating practices

Provide supportive environment and privacy for rites
Involve family members in plan of care and determine which member will provide personal care
Father/husband is primary spokesperson to whom questions should be directed – women may not request special care
Special respect for elders
Food

Usually vegetarian
If not vegetarian, may avoid beef or pork. According to dietary law, right hand is used for eating and left hand for toileting and hygiene
May fast on special holy days
Health

Prayer for health considered low form of prayer, stoicism is preferable
Medications, blood and blood products, donation and receipt of organs: See the following article–
Thrane, Susan. Hindu End of Life: Death, Dying, Suffering, and Karma. Journal of Hospice and Palliative Nursing. 2010;12(6): 337-342.

Holy days and festivals

Several which are observed at home; some take place in a temple
Must be barefoot during religious worship or any kind of religious celebration
Must sit at a lower elevation than where the image of the deity has been placed

Pregnancy and birth

Exact time of birth may be important to family
Circumcision is uncommon
May not want to name the newborn immediately
May be against abortion
Birth control, artificial insemination and amniocentesis acceptable

Rituals or ceremonies

On 10th or 11th day after birth, priest performs naming ceremony
Specific ceremonies vary according to local customs
Praying, meditating, scripture reading, and recitation is common
Spiritual instruments, structure, and symbols

Various sacred writings
Various objects for rituals- including sandalwood, incense, candle, symbols or pictures, fresh flowers, prayer beads
Not a church-based religion; no hierarchical structure religious practitioner is priest

6 Hinduism Beliefs

Hinduism is not an organized religion and has no single, systematic approach to teaching its value system. Nor do Hindus have a simple set of rules to follow like the Ten Commandments. Local, regional, caste, and community-driven practices influence the interpretation and practice of beliefs throughout the Hindu world.

Yet a common thread among all these variations is belief in a Supreme Being and adherence to certain concepts such as Truth, dharma, and karma. And belief in the authority of the Vedas (sacred scriptures) serves, to a large extent, as the very definition of a Hindu, even though how the Vedas are interpreted may vary greatly.

Here are some of the key beliefs shared among Hindus:

  • Truth is eternal.Hindus pursue knowledge and understanding of the Truth: the very essence of the universe and the only Reality. According to the Vedas, Truth is One, but the wise express it in a variety of ways.
  • Brahman is Truth and Reality.Hindus believe in Brahman as the one true God who is formless, limitless, all-inclusive, and eternal. Brahman is not an abstract concept; it is a real entity that encompasses everything (seen and unseen) in the universe.
  • The Vedas are the ultimate authority.The Vedas are Hindu scriptures that contain revelations received by ancient saints and sages. Hindus believe that the Vedas are without beginning and without end; when everything else in the universe is destroyed (at the end of a cycle of time), the Vedas remain.
  • Everyone should strive to achieve dharma.Understanding the concept of dharma helps you understand the Hindu faith. Unfortunately, no single English word adequately covers its meaning. Dharma can be described as right conduct, righteousness, moral law, and duty. Anyone who makes dharma central to one’s life strives to do the right thing, according to one’s duty and abilities, at all times.
  • Individual souls are immortal.A Hindu believes that the individual soul (atman) is neither created nor destroyed; it has been, it is, and it will be. Actions of the soul while residing in a body require that it reap the consequences of those actions in the next life — the same soul in a different body.The process of movement of the atman from one body to another is known as transmigration. The kind of body the soul inhabits next is determined by karma (actions accumulated in previous lives). Learn more about Hindu funeral customs.
  • The goal of the individual soul is moksha.Moksha is liberation: the soul’s release from the cycle of death and rebirth. It occurs when the soul unites with Brahman by realizing its true nature. Several paths can lead to this realization and unity: the path of duty, the path of knowledge, and the path of devotion (unconditional surrender to God).

Hinduism: 10 Unique Traditions Around India

Every culture and religion has traditions seemingly normal or taken for granted by followers but unusual and fascinating for outsiders. India, with its overwhelming cultural diversity, is rich with unique traditions that almost always amuse. Here is a list of ten unique traditions followed by Hindus from different parts of the country – from bizarre and truly unique festivals to unusual daily traditions.

Aadi Festival, where devotees smash coconuts on their heads
The 800-year-old Mahalakshmi Temple in Karur district of Tamil Nadu is host to a peculiar tradition during the Hindu Tamil festival of Aadi. The priest at the temple breaks coconuts on the heads of willing devotees who believe they will have their wishes granted by doing so.

Fire-Walking
Theemithi, or Thimithi, is a fire-walking ceremony observed in parts of Tamil Nadu involving devotees walking over a pit filled with burning hot wood. Most devotees who partake in this ritual are male, and at most times they do so with a pot of water or even milk balanced on their heads. It is meant to serve as an opportunity for people to express, prove, reaffirm and even test their faith.

Theyyam, or the dance of the gods
Called ‘the dance of the gods’, the Theyyam in Kerala involves the performance of a dance and various rituals by certain locals who are at the time of Theyyam considered to be possessed by a certain god. Considered thousands of years old, this ritual is performed in local shrines and sometimes at various households. The rituals vary from village to village, with blood sacrifice by the public butchering of a rooster being a common practice.

Dropping infants from the roof for good luck
Observed in a handful of places around the country is the controversial and terrifying ritual of dropping infants from a height of 50 feet onto a cloth held by a few men at the bottom. Practiced by both Muslims and Hindus, the ritual is supposed to bring good fortune to the baby. The ritual, considered to be more than half a century old, is practised most famously at the Baba Umer Dargah in Solapur, Maharashtra.

Serpent worship
Nag Panchami is a Hindu festival celebrated by the worship of snakes observed in some parts of the country.The village of Baltis Shirale near Mumbai is said to host one of the grandest snake worship ceremonies in the country, boasting of visitors coming from around the world to witness and pay respects. The ceremony varies around the country, with live snakes being worshipped in Bengal, Assam, Orissa, etc., while in Punjab a huge snake shaped from dough (made out of flour and butter contributed by the entire village) is taken to each household in the village after which it is publicly buried.

Marrying animals for better monsoons
Seen mostly in rural Meghalaya, Assam, Maharashtra, and Karnataka is the rather unusual ritual of marrying animals – mostly frogs – in order to please the rain gods. The weddings take place in much hyped public ceremonies. Weddings are also arranged between dogs or donkeys! Practitioners believe that the wedding ceremony will bring in monsoon.

Dahi Handi, the human pyramids of Janmashtami
The Dahi Handi ritual, which is widely organized during the Hindu festival of Janmashtami, involves organized groups of mostly young people climbing atop each other to form human pyramids aiming to reach and break a pot of butter suspended at a height of 20-40 feet. It is considered to be a re-enactment of Hindu deity Krishna’s childhood when he gathered his friends to form similar pyramids to steal butter stored at heights above his reach.

Immersing idols in water
A lot of major Hindu festivals in the country are celebrated by households, temples, and offices getting custom-made idols of various gods which they honour with various rituals over a span of day. The festival then comes to an end with the idols getting immersed in a nearby body of water. From Ganesh Chathurthi to the Durga Puja festival, this is a much hyped practice in some parts of the country. The practice usually signifies purification and welcoming a new start.

The Fire Fight of Kateel Durga Parameshwari Temple
Also known as Agni Keli, this ritual in Mangalore has hundreds of Hindu devotees throwing burning palm frond torches at each other with the belief that doing so will appease the goddess Durga. Split into two groups, the partakers, usually men, throw burning palm frond torches at the opposing group from a distance of about 10–15 meters, aiming to hit as many opponents as possible. Anyone who gets a burn gets sprayed with water.

Eating on the floor
You will find that most temples in the country, particularly in South India, serve meals to visitors on the floor. Hindu devotees sit on the floor cross legged with their plates (or banana leaves if in the southern half of the country) out of which they eat. This pose is said to maximize the body’s digestive abilities, but also signifies the importance of humility and equality to most worshippers. This is also a common practice in many households particularly in rural India.

Religion and Indian Philosophy

The majority of Asian Indians practice the Hinduism. The other major regions are Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam; and a small percentage of population practice Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Baha’I’ Faith.

  • 1. Hinduism
  • 2. Buddhism
  • 3. Jainism

Hinduism

About 900 million of the 6.5 billion world population are Hindus, making Hinduism the fourth-largest religion in the world. Most Hindus living in the United States are of Asian Indian origin. About 80% of Asian Indian immigrants practice Hinduism.

The US Hindu population is growing rapidly, from an estimated 227,000 in 1990 to an estimated 766,000 in 2001. Current estimates range from 1.1 to 1.5 million. Most US Hindus are either first-, second-, or thirdgeneration immigrants with their religious and cultural practices of Hinduism greatly influenced by their country of origin and their level of acculturation.

The correct name of this ancient religion is Sanatana Dharma, which means “eternal law” in Sanskrit. Also known as, the Hindu Dharma, Hinduism is one of the oldest organized religions in the world, tracing its roots back to 5000 BC. It originated in the Indian subcontinent on the banks of the Sindhu river (now Indus river) and was practiced by the Sindus (people who lived on the banks of the Sindhu), who were later known to the Greeks as Sindhus and finally as Hindus (a Persian word).

In contrast to some of the other organized religions, Hinduism can be more aptly described as a philosophy or way of life that has been subject to numerous interpretations over several millennia, now resulting in a religious practice that incorporates a remarkable diversity of cultural rituals and customs. Hinduism’s philosophical core is rooted for the most part in the three fundamental Hindu scriptures: the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagvad Gita. Since Hinduism’s inception over 5000 years ago, countless interpretations and reinterpretations of the sacred texts have obscured the line between religion and cultural practice. However, the philosophical tenets have remained remarkably constant.

18th/19th Century painting depicting Krishna and Arjuna at Kurukshetra—a scene from the Bhagvad Gita.

The pursuit and practice of the Hindu dharma is governed by a belief in karma (from the Sanskrit root kri meaning “action”)—the concept that every action leaves an imprint on one’s Atman (soul or spirit). Karma is determined by a universal law (or order) in which good actions produce good results and bad actions produce bad results. Karmic theory greatly influences the patient’s world view of health, death, and dying and of the Hindu’s explanatory model of illness.

Many Hindus may believe that pain and suffering (both physical and psychosocial) are the result of bad karma and not of medical or mental illness.

Many older and more traditional Hindu adults may believe their illness is caused by bad karma from a past life or by past actions in this lifetime, and they may not entirely believe in the organic etiology propounded by Western biomedicine. As a result, an illness may be viewed as something to be accepted and endured rather than fixed or cured. In some situations, these beliefs may induce a quiet fatalism that can result in therapeutic non-adherence.

The correct name of this ancient religion is Sanatana Dharma, which means “eternal law” in Sanskrit. Also known as, the Hindu Dharma, Hinduism is one of the oldest organized religions in the world, tracing its roots back to 5000 BC. It originated in the Indian subcontinent on the banks of the Sindhu river (now Indus river) and was practiced by the Sindus (people who lived on the banks of the Sindhu), who were later known to the Greeks as Sindhus and finally as Hindus (a Persian word).

In contrast to some of the other organized religions, Hinduism can be more aptly described as a philosophy or way of life that has been subject to numerous interpretations over several millennia, now resulting in a religious practice that incorporates a remarkable diversity of cultural rituals and customs. Hinduism’s philosophical core is rooted for the most part in the three fundamental Hindu scriptures: the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagvad Gita. Since Hinduism’s inception over 5000 years ago, countless interpretations and reinterpretations of the sacred texts have obscured the line between religion and cultural practice. However, the philosophical tenets have remained remarkably constant.

18th/19th Century painting depicting Krishna and Arjuna at Kurukshetra—a scene from the Bhagvad Gita.

The pursuit and practice of the Hindu dharma is governed by a belief in karma (from the Sanskrit root kri meaning “action”)—the concept that every action leaves an imprint on one’s Atman (soul or spirit). Karma is determined by a universal law (or order) in which good actions produce good results and bad actions produce bad results. Karmic theory greatly influences the patient’s world view of health, death, and dying and of the Hindu’s explanatory model of illness.

Many Hindus may believe that pain and suffering (both physical and psychosocial) are the result of bad karma and not of medical or mental illness.

Many older and more traditional Hindu adults may believe their illness is caused by bad karma from a past life or by past actions in this lifetime, and they may not entirely believe in the organic etiology propounded by Western biomedicine. As a result, an illness may be viewed as something to be accepted and endured rather than fixed or cured. In some situations, these beliefs may induce a quiet fatalism that can result in therapeutic non-adherence.

Language and Culture

Preferred Cultural Terms

Languages Spoken in India

  • • Hindi (by 40% of the population)
  • • Gujarati
  • • Punjabi
  • • Bengali
  • • Urdu
  • • Marathi
  • • Oriya
  • • Kannada
  • • Tamil
  • • Telugu
  • • Malayalam
  • • English

The preferred term for Americans with roots in India is Asian Indian. Within the Asian Indians the Hindi term Desi (meaning “from our country”) is used to indicate persons of Asian Indian Origin.

Language and Literacy

While there are more than three hundred languages and dialects spoken in India, Hindi, the national language is spoken by over 40% of the population. Some of the other languages that are spoken are Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu, Marathi, Oriya, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam. However, English is becoming a popular second language. Older Indian immigrants may not speak English and may need a translator for health care transactions.

Most Asian Indian immigrants are well-educated and many are well-qualified professionals:

  • 85% are high school graduates
  • More than 65% have college degrees
  • 43% have graduate or professional degrees

Degree of Acculturation

According to the most recent census, approximately 1.7 million Asian Indians live in the United States—80% being Hindus. An estimated 66,834 older Asian Indian adults live in the United States, most of whom are foreign born with an estimated 48,000 Hindu immigrant elders.

Two Groups of Older Hindu Immigrants

The older Hindu immigrant population can be categorized into two major groups:

  1. Those that immigrated around 1965 and have since settled in the United States
  2. Those who have come to live with their adult children who have immigrated to the
    United States.

Place in the Family

In traditional Indian society, extended family members usually live together as a single-family unit. Most elderly parents join their grownup children in the U.S. for providing antenatal, postnatal care, as well as childcare. Often, the husband’s parents will join the family after they have retired or when help is needed. The grandparents’ role in raising the children is highly respected, and they form the linkage to the Indian culture, religion, and heritage.

Dependence on Children

Older Asian Indian immigrants are often financially dependent on their children. They face the challenges of a culturally different society, such as:

  • a language barrier
  • culture mismatch
  • new lifestyle factors
  • role-reversal

Buddhism 

Buddhism is an ancient Indian religion founded by Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. Gautama was a Hindu Prince of Kapilavatsu. India who was deeply disturbed by the experiences of worldly suffering. He gave up his royal life and became an ascetic. After years of meditation, he attained bodhi (enlightenment) when sitting under the Bodhi tree in Gaya, India. Buddhism adheres to ahimsa (non-violence) and advocates for giving up worldly desire in order to attain nirvana or salvation.

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths were taught by Gautama Buddha after attaining Nirvana and are thought to be the essence of Buddhism:

  • 1. Life leads to suffering suffering (dukkha).
  • 2. Suffering is caused desire (kama).
  • 3. Suffering ends when a person gives up desire and enables attainment of the liberated state of Enlightenment (bodhi).
  • 4. Reaching this liberated state is achieved by following the eightfold path laid out by the Buddha.

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path is a way to attain prajña (consciousness) and thereby nirvana (liberation):

  • 1. 1. dṛṣṭi (Sanskrit for sight): viewing reality as it is, not just as it appears to be.
  • 2. saṃkalpa (intention): intention of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness.
  • 3. Vāca (Sanskrit for speech): speaking in a truthful and non-hurtful way.
  • 4. Karma (Sanskrit for actions): acting in a nonharmful way.
  • 5. ājīvana: a non-harmful livelihood.
  • 6. vyāyāma (Sanskrit for effort): making an effort to improve.
  • 7. smṛti (स्मृति Sanskrit for “that which is remembered”): Self-awareness and mindfulness with equanimity.
  • 8. samādhi (समाधि Sanskrit for state of consciousness): This is a temporary liberated state attained by dyana (meditation). Nirvana is a permanent state of liberation.

Buddhism is one of the largest religions in the world. Many Asian Indians are Buddhists. As Buddhism is derived from Hinduism, many of the Hindu tenets like karma, ahimsa and the concept of rebirth are followed in Buddhism. Most Buddhists are vegetarians.

Jainism (Samana Drarma

Jainism (Samana Drarma) is an ancient Indian religion derived from Hinduism. Jains believe in the wheel of time which revolves. During every upward (utsarpini) and downward (avasarpini) motion of this wheel of time, 24 Tirthankars (pathfinders or prophets) are thought to be reborn to propagate the eternal truth and help human being attain salvation.

According to Jainism, every living being has a soul. Every soul is potentially divine, with innate qualities of infinite knowledge, perception, power, and bliss (masked by its karma and desires). The present cycle, thought to be a downward swing, has 24 Tirthankars, the first of which was Rishabhdev and Vardhaman Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankar for this cycle of time. Vardhaman Mahavir is a prince-turned-ascetic who lived 2,600 years ago and was a contemporary of Gautam Buddha and is mistakenly thought to be the founder of Jainism.

The three gems of Jainism—Right Faith, Right Knowledge and Right Conduct provide the path to salvation. Jains believe that there is no supreme divine creator. The universe is thought to be self-regulated and every soul has the potential to achieve divine consciousness (siddha) through its own efforts.

Attaining Enlightenment

Jains believe that to attain enlightenment and ultimately liberation, one must practice the following ethical principles:

  • 1. Non-violence (Ahimsa) – to cause no harm to living beings. This is the fundamental vow from which all other vows stem. It involves avoiding intentional and unintentional harm to any other living creature.
  • 2. Truthfulness (Satya) – to always speak the truth Given that non-violence has priority, all other principles yield to it, whenever there is a conflict. For example, if speaking truth will lead to harm of violence, it is perfectly ethical to be silent. Thus Jains may practice non-disclosure and practice the concept of protective truthfulness.
  • 3. Non-stealing (Asteya) – to not take anything that is not willingly given.

Dietary Practices

Traditional Jains don’t normally eat or drink anything after sundown is because it is believed that this can cause the death of microorganisms that emerge in the dark. The Jain lifestyle is geared towards causing least harm to other creatures and the environment. Jains are vegetarians. They do not eat onions and garlic (as these are thought to increase sexual desires). Jains also do not eat any roots and tubers like potatoes and carrots because uprooting the plant leads to the death of the plant. Additionally uprooting the plant may result in the death of smaller underground insects and microbes.

Fasting

Many traditional Jains (especially women) undertake fasting. There are four common types of fasting:

  • 1. Vruti Sankshepa: limiting the number of items of food eaten
  • 2. Rasa Parityaga: giving up favorite foods
  • 3. Partial fasting: eating just enough food to avoid hunger
  • 4. Total fasting: giving up food and water completely for a short period

Fasting to death (Santhara or Sallenkhana)

Santhara or Sallenkhana is a procedure in which a Jain voluntarily stops eating and drinking with the intention of dying. In addition to voluntary cessation of eating and drinking, the practitioner of santhara also has to abandons desires (kama) and meditate as they peacefully await death which is thought to liberate their body from worldly ties and free the Atman imprisoned within.

Jain older adults may opt to undertake santhara at the end of life and they are revered by fellow Jains. Santhara deaths may be even celebrated publicly with friends and family showering praise and homage on them and families even placing full page announcement of the event in news papers.

It is to be noted that santhara is thought to be distinct from suicide. In santhara, the person stops eating and drinking and meditates constantly praying for liberation from worldly suffering while allowing nature to takes it course and resulting in the death of the body. Suicide, in contrast, is thought to be an act of violence.

Hindu Customs and Traditions

Hindu customs and traditions are an important part of Hinduism. Human civilization is incomplete without them. As Hinduism is the oldest religion on the earth, there are a lot of Hindu customs and traditions observed in India. Some customs are so important for the people that sometimes, they sacrifice their lives for them. Mainly, people living in villages in India are very conscious of these.

It does not mean that people living in the cities do not observe them but they are not as staunch as the people in villages are. There are literally thousands of customs and traditions in Hinduism. They vary from region to region and caste to caste. Many of them are common in all parts of India. We would try to list down each and every Hindu custom and tradition here.

Important Hindu Customs and Traditions:

  1. When Hindus meet each other, they greet each other by saying ‘Namaste’ or ‘Namaskar.’ They put together the palms of both hands while saying so. Some religious words like Ram Ram, Jai Mata Di, Jai Ram Ji Ki, Om Namah Shivay are also used sometimes.
  2. Before the start of any good work and social and religious ceremonies, Hindus worship Lord Ganesha and chant the mantra:

वक्रतुंड महाकाय सुर्यकोटि समप्रभ:
निर्विघ्नं कुरु में देव सर्वकार्येषु सर्वदा:

Vakratund Mahakay Suryakoti Samaprabhah Nirvighnam Kurumedevah Sarvakaryeshu Sarvadah

  1. Hindus do not wear footwear inside homes, temples, and other holy places. They do not enter the temples after consuming alcohol and/or nonvegetarian food.
  2. They apply a spot or standing line of kumkum between the eyebrows on the forehead at the time of worship.
  3. They do not eat nonvegetarian food on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Chaturthi, Ekadashis, and many other festival days.
  4. Most of the marriages are of an arranged type with the consent of the bride and groom. Marrying outside the caste is considered a bad practice.
  5. Arranged marriages generally take place within the respective castes only.
  6. Marriage is a big ceremony for them and they do not hesitate to take a loan for that. It is like a prestige issue.
  7. They do not kill snakes on Mondays and on the festival day of Nag Panchami.
  8. Hindus pierce the ears of babies and put golden earrings in them.
  9. Hindu girls and women pierce their noses also.
  10. A married Hindu woman wears a Mangalsutra around her neck, bangles in her hand, and toe rings, which indicate that she is married. She also applies a Kumkum spot or sticks a bindi between her two eyebrows.
  11. Showing respect to elders is an integral part of Hindu culture. A son must take care of his parents in their old age. Younger people touch the feet of their elders to show respect and take blessings from them. Mother, Father, and Teacher are considered as next to god and are highly respected.
  12. Hindus worship many deities. It is believed that there are 33 crore deities in Hinduism.
  13. Many festivals are celebrated throughout the year. There are different festivals for different deities. Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu, Laxmi, Parvati, Hanuman, Shri Ram, Shri Krishna, and Kartikeya are the most popular deities.
  14. Hindus believe that Lord Vishnu incarnates on the earth from time to time to restore Dharma.
  15. Lord Brahma is not worshiped separately as he is cursed. There is only one temple of Brahma in India which is in Pushkar, Rajasthan.
  16. Laxmi Pujan in Diwali is considered as the biggest festival of Hindus. On that day, they worship Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of money.
  17. Generally, Hindu women and girls wear clothes, which would cover all the body except the face such as Sari, Lehengas, Salwar Kameez, Ghagra choli, etc.
  18. A married Hindu woman considers her husband as God and the husband considers her as his Ardhangini (Half Body).
  19. Before going for a long journey, they put lemons under the wheels of vehicles. They believe that it would save them from perils. They also break the coconut and light incense stick in front of the vehicle for the same purpose.
  20. Many people tie seven chillis and a lemon woven in a thread or wire to the vehicle as they believe it saves them from negative energies.
  21. They tie a black doll over the front door of the house to stop bad powers from entering the house.
  22. A ceremony called Vastushanti is performed before going to live in a new house. The yajna performed during the ceremony is supposed to wipe out ghosts and other types of negative energies from the house.
  23. You would find an altar in every house which contains miniature idols of many Hindu deities. They clean and worship them every day.
  24. The idols or pictures of Hindu deities are kept in such a way that they do not face the South. The practice is observed in temples as well as homes also. It is believed that hell is located in the South and paradise in the North.
  25. If they accidentally touch someone with their foot, they apologize for it by touching the body of the person with their right hand and then touching the same hand on their forehead.
  26. Wastage of food or touching the food with feet is considered a bad habit and they avoid it as food is considered next to god.
  27. Tulsi or the basil plant is considered sacred and you would find it in front of every Hindu’s house.
  28. A guest is also considered next to god and given great respect.
  29. The naming ceremony of a newborn is performed on the 12th day of birth.
  30. Hindus pierce the ears of babies and put golden earrings in them.
  31. Most of the Hindus cremate dead bodies.
  32. During Pitroo-Paksha, Hindus pay homage to their ancestors and perform a rite known as Shraddha or Tarpan.
  33. Hindus eat food with their right hand only. Eating food with the left hand is considered bad and unhygienic. The majority of people use a hand instead of a spoon for eating.
  34. They do not sniff flowers that are to be offered to gods.
  35. They offer food to God before eating it.
  36. Hindus accept the religious offering known as Prasadam in their right hand only.
  37. Many Hindus fast on particular days of the week in order to show the devotion to the particular gods.
  38. Hindus perform idol worship because they believe that a part of the god resides in it.
  39. On auspicious days, Hindu women draw beautiful designs in front of their houses known as Rangoli.

Hindu Beliefs

Teaching your children about Hindu beliefs? Learn about the Hindu faith and the concepts of dharma, atman, moksha, karma and Brahman in Hinduism.

Hindu Beliefs

Hinduism is a world religion that has fused together various traditions and beliefs of the cultures of India throughout history. Starting in ancient history, the Hindu faith developed a series of sacred texts.

These sacred texts are known as the Vedas, and they are made up of:

  • The Rig Veda
  • The Samaveda
  • Yajurveda
  • Atharvaveda

Hindu people also have a series of fundamental concepts that are laid out in the sacred texts and show believers how to live their lives. These concepts are:

  • Dharma (the overarching moral law of Hinduism)
  • Purushartha (the main goals for life)
  • Varna (the Hindu social classes)
  • Atman (the soul)
  • Karma (cause and effect of your actions)
  • Samsara (reincarnation)
  • Moksha (becoming one with the Brahma)
  • Brahman (the ultimate power in the universe)

A Brief History of Hindu Religion

Hinduism is one of the oldest surviving world religion and has been worshipped in India uninterrupted for more than 4,000 years. The roots, customs and traditions of the Hindu faith developed at different periods during those 4 millennia and created what we know as modern Hinduism.

Unlike other religions, Hinduism has no single founder (such as Jesus Christ for Christianity). It is instead the fusion of many schools of thought from many cultures.

Around 1500 BC, the Indo-Aryan people migrated into the Indus Valley, and their language and culture blended with that of the indigenous people living in the region. It is believed that the blend of culture was effective for both cultures.

This early period, from 1500 BC to 500 BC, is the period when the sacred texts – Vedas – were first composed. It is now know as the ‘Vedic Period’ for modern Hindu people. Rituals such as sacrifices, chanting and dancing were common in the Vedic Period.

Throughout the following centuries, more eras and periods added new information, and traditions to the Hindu faith. The Epic, Puranic, and Classic Periods took place between 500 BC and 500 AD. During these periods, Hindus began to emphasize the worship of deities, especially Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi.

Hindu Offerings

 Offerings ( “prasad” ) placed in front of images or symbols of deities include flowers, flower petals, coconut, sweetmeats, morsels of food, colored powder, uncooked rice, fruit, milk, yogurt, ghee, fire water, and bells. Many people light oil lamps, incense or small pools of camphor oil on stone slabs. Sometimes the offerings are made to the sound of chants or beating drums, ringing bells, and blowing horns.

Some offerings are quite elaborate. Floating offerings made of jasmine flowers and candles are set up to light the way for religious rituals. Offerings to the Ganges consist of tiny boats made from maljhana leaves fastened together with twigs, with marigolds, rose petals and camphor inside. The camphor is lit before the offering is set afloat on the holy river. Worshipers sometimes dip their fingers in lamps lit by bell-clanging priests and press their warm fingers to their forehead.

Offerings generally symbolize one of the five element of existence: earth, water, fire, wind and ether. They are usually made to specific gods, often on a daily basis, and are seen as a kind bloodless sacrifice, or a symbol of sacrifices that were once at the heart of the Hindu relationship.

Many Hindus begin their day at home by making an offering on their family altar. Offerings are often the central acts of devotion performed at temples, ceremonies and festivals They are often performed as much out of self or family interest — for help passing an examination, the birth a boy, success in business or good health for a sick loved one — as an act of devotion to a god.

Offerings imply subordination and may include receiving back part of the items offered — after their spiritual essence has been taken. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says a flower, fruit, a leaf or handful of water offered to God will be accepted as an act of devotion. At temples cows often eat left behind as offerings.

Puja

“Pujas” (meritorious actions) refers to all forms of Hindu worship: prayers, prayer rituals, and offerings. They can be simple acts by worshipers at a temple or elaborate rituals performed with the help of Brahmin priests to mark special life cycle event. They usually involve chanting, bowing and leaving offerings before images.

 Many people don’t understand the significance of puja, whether conducted daily at home or at a temple. It can be performed on images of the elephant-headed God, Lord Ganesha, or the monkey-God, Hanuman, or on stones. Since God is omnipresent he should be present in stones, animals and statues. Hindus believe that one commits a grave error by seeing an essential distinction between an idol and the Supreme Lord, for they are one and the same. Pujas are usually directed to a specific deity. They often are made in conjunction with a request for protection and help or an expression of thanks. Their ultimate objective is to become one with the deity to which the prayer is directed.

A puja is supposed to bring five things together: 1) a pot containing water, representing the body; 2) “murtis” (an image of deity); 3) “prasad” (a flower or fruit offering, representing nature); 4) “yantras” (a mandala, or sacred pattern representing the universe); and 5) a “mantra”, or chant. The first four are optional. The last one is necessary. The mantra is viewed as essential to complete the ritual.

A puja usually involves some kind of offering and worship before an image. It is supposed to begin with a mantra that calls the deity and ends with the worshiper smearing blood-red vermillion paste or red powder ( “kumkum”) on the middle of the forehead of the image being worshiped. Lighting incense sticks and ringing brass bells, like matras, are seen as ways to get the attention of the gods.

There is often an element of give and take with puja. Sometimes an offering is made and a small portion is taken back. This portion is regarded as blessed and auspicious. In Hindu temples “puja” often takes the form of offerings at statues of gods followed by blessings, sometimes a mark on the forehead, by a priest. Most people give the priest a small amount of money after receiving the blessing. A Web site launched in the early 2000s arranges pujas at a choice of temples in Indian by proxy for a fee of $10 to $75 per prayer, with the cost determined by how elaborate the puja is.

Practicing Puja on a Hindu Image

Puja can conducted on an image of a god made of gold, silver, bronze or even clay. Before the puja, one bathes to signify the outer purification. Mantras and stotras are recited for inner purification. Even a very simple puja employs flowers. The smell of flowers smell is called vaasaana. Vaasaana is also an another name for the imprints in the jiva, which constitute the flavor/smell of our personality, habits etc. Flowers are picked up with the right hand and then, the fingers are pointed downward so that the flowers fall at the feet of the idol. The five fingers signify the five senses. The senses which are normally directed outward for pleasure are pointed downward to show that they are surrendered at the feet of the image. Usually, the flower is placed after uttering ‘namaH.’ While namaH means salutation, it is also a corrupt form of ‘na mama’ i.e not mine. Thus, when offering flowers, one says, ‘I am offering to you my senses, attributes, character but none of them are really mine. Everything is yours.’

The dedication of the body of the worshipper to the deity is a necessary prelude to ceremonial worship. In this rite the worshipper purifies and consecrates each part of his person that he may become fit to appear before a god. ‘No man should worship a deity so long as he himself has not become a deity. If the repetition of sacred utterances is performed without previous dedication of the parts of the body to the different deities, this repetition of mantras is demoniacal and without useful effect. To worship a deity, a man must become the Self of that deity through dedication, breath control, and concentration until his body becomes the deity’s abode.’ (Gandharva Tantra.)

1) The first step is the purification of the worshipper and of the accessories of worship. ‘The purification of the person of the worshipper consists in bathing, The purification-of-the-subtle-elements (bhuta shuddhi) of the body is done through breath control and through the dedication of the six main parts of the body to the six deities to which they correspond. After this the other forms of dedication are performed. 2) ‘The purification of the place of worship is done by cleaning it carefully, adorning it with an auspicious ornamentation made of powders of five colours, placing a seat and a canopy, using incense, lights, flowers, garlands, etc. All this must be done by the worshipper himself. ^*^

3) ‘Purification of the ritual utterances, the mantras, is done by repeating the syllables which compose them in the regular order and then in the reverse order. 4) ‘Purification of the accessories is done by sprinkling water consecrated with the basic mantra and the weapon-mantra (astra-mantra, i.e., the sound phat) and then displaying the cow-gesture (dhenumudra). 5) ‘Purification of the deity is done by placing the image on an altar invoking the presence of the deity through its secret mantra and the life-giving breathing-mantra (prana-mantra), bathing the image three times while reciting the basic mantra, then adorning it with garments and jewels. After this an offering of incense and light should be made.’ (Kularnava Tantra.) ^*^

Removing Obstacles: “’The worshipper should bow with respect to the deities of the doors, first at the eastern door of the house of worship, then, successively at the southern door, the western door, and the northern door. After this he should bow to his chosen deity present in the form of its yantra.’ (Nigama-kalpalata 14.) If the sanctuary has only one door, the worship of the deities of the three other directions should be done mentally. ‘The sacrificial house should be entered with the right foot’ (Shivarcana Candrika), with the left foot ff it is a left-hand sacrifice. ‘The worshipper should remove obstacles of celestial origin by the godly look (looking with wide-open, unblinking eyes). Obstacles of the intermediary world are removed with the help of water consecrated with the astra-mantra. Terrestrial obstacles are avoided by doing three taps with the heel of the right foot.’ (Shambavi Tantra.

Chanting, Meditating and Praising the Deity During Puja

‘Just as gold is freed from its dross only by fire and acquires its shining appearance from heat, so the mind of a living being, cleansed from the filth of his actions and his desires through his love for me, is transformed into my transcendent likeness. The mind is purified through the hearing and uttering of sacred hymns in my praise., (Bhagavata Puruna II, 14, 25.) The glorification of a deity is something different from meaningless praise. The Brhad-devata (1, 6) says: ‘The praise of something consists in the utterance of its name, the description of its shape, the proclaiming of its deeds, the mention of its family.’

‘We cannot know a thing without knowing its merits, its qualities. All knowledge or science is based on a form of praise. A dictionary is but the praise of words. The works of science are filled with glorification. Everything which is an object of knowledge is as such a deity and is glorified in the Scripture that deals with it.’ (Vijayananda Tripathi, ‘Devata tattva,’ Sanmarga,III, 1942.

‘Meditation is of two kinds, gross and subtle. In the subtle form meditation is done on the “body of sound,” that is, the mantra, of the deity. In the gross form meditation is on one image with hands and feet. . . . The suprasensory can seldom be reached by the mind; hence one should concentrate on the gross form.’ (Yamala Tantra.) ‘The worshipper should engage in meditation, gradually concentrating his mind on all the parts of the body of his chosen deity, one after another, from the feet to the head. He can thus acquire such an intense state of concentration that during his undisturbed meditation the whole body of the chosen deity will appear to his mind’s eye as an indivisible form. In this way the meditation on the deity in its formal aspect will gradually become profound and steady.’ (Siva Candra Vidyarnava Bhattacharya, Principles of Tantra

Japa, the Repetition of Mantras: ‘Japa, as the repetition of a mantra, has been compared to the action of a man shaking a sleeper to wake him up.’ (Woodroffe, The Garland of Letters, P. 211, with slight changes.) ‘Once the image of the chosen deity has been formed in the mind by concentration, the seed-mantra should be repeated, withdrawing the mind from all other thoughts……. Japa is of three kinds, audible, articulate but inaudible, and mental……. Japa concentration by this -means is perfected, the consciousness of the worshipper is transferred to the deity represented by the utterance and he ceases to have an individuality distinct from that of the deity.’ (Barada Kantha Majumdar. Principles of Tantra

Bathing a Deity in Milk

Reporting from New Delhi, Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “ Every morning, Hindu devotees haul buckets of fresh, creamy milk into this neighborhood temple, then close their eyes and bow in prayer as the milk is used to bathe a Hindu deity. At the foot of the statue, they leave small baskets of bananas, coconuts, incense sticks and marigolds. Milk is literally the nectar of gods in India. Most temples in the south use it at least twice a day to bathe Hindu statues, since it symbolizes the eternal goodness of human beings and is seen as a generous offering to the faith

Across the country, milk also symbolizes life and death. Bodies are anointed with purified butter before cremation. Milk is a main ingredient in paneer — a cheese-cube dish known here as the king of all foods — as well as yogurt, curries, tea and sweets. And milk is often the main meal for children younger than five.

Gods Go Hungry Due to High Food Prices

Ram Gopal Atrey, the head priest at Prachin Hanuman Mandir, noticed donations thinning for the morning prayers. He knew exactly why: inflation. With prices soaring for staples such as cooking oils, wheat, lentils, milk and rice across the globe, priests like Atrey say they are seeing the consequences in their neighborhood temples, where even the poorest of the poor have long made donations to honor their faith.

“But today the common man is tortured by the increases in prices,” Atrey lamented during one early morning prayer, or puja, adding that donations of milk were down by as much as 50 percent. He had recently met with colleagues from other temples, along with imams from local mosques, who reported similar experiences. “If poor people don’t even have enough for bread, how will they donate milk to the gods?” he said. “This is very serious.”

“At a hilltop temple in New Delhi, visitors headed inside for a 6:30 p.m. puja, during which the statue of a Hindu deity would be bathed in milk, sandalwood paste, water and honey. S. Shanti, 27, said she came to pray for a job in India’s railway service. With prices rising and a lack of work, she said, she had less to offer to the temple. “How can we manage?” Shanti said, as she looked over at other worshipers bearing small baskets of bananas and coconuts. “God please grant my wishes. Things are so costly now. We need help.””

Online Puja and Outsourced Prayers

Time-strapped Indians, who can’t make it to a temple to make offerings, can now do puja and have prayers said for them online. Reporting from Varanasi, Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Got an appeal for better health, or a nicer boss? Want a rich mate, or better grades for your kids? If you can’t make the pilgrimage here, an Internet connection and a small fee can book you the services of a priest at the Vishwanath Temple who will, as Indians like to say, “do the needful” for your plea to be heard on high. “It’s a demand of this day and age,” said Radhey Shyam Pathak, who runs the temple’s daily affairs. “This was not possible even 10 years back. There are many people who wish to come here but cannot. We can help.”

“The temple went online in August, and within a month received 180,000 hits on its website, shrikashivishwanath. That is more than double the average number of devotees who show up in person every month, braving difficult journeys, the smelly warren of narrow alleys leading to the temple, the security pat-downs outside the entrance and the gantlet of vendors hawking sweets, garlands of marigolds and jasmine, and other religious paraphernalia. Cyber-worshipers can be spared all of that — and in the bargain save some time, a commodity in increasingly short supply for the growing cohort of middle-class Indians busy with the trappings of secular affluence, from attending cocktail parties to shuttling their children to after-school tutorials. /+/ “Besides outsourcing a puja, or prayers and obeisances, visitors to the Vishwanath Temple’s website can enjoy a virtual audience with the Shiva lingam, the phallus-shaped symbol that represents the deity and resides in the temple’s inner sanctum. Animated icons shower the sacred image with offerings of flowers or milk. Hymns and chants drone through the speakers. “This is an association of religion and science — old beliefs and new ways to follow them,” said Abhishek Drolia, one of the website’s designers.

“Going high-tech is the latest twist in the history of the Vishwanath Temple, which for a thousand years has been home to one of the most important Shiva lingams in India. Other well-known shrines around India also have gone into cyberspace, and officials here were keen not to be left behind, especially with millions of Hindus living on distant shores. “It’s another way of broadcasting the message of the temple,” Pathak said. “It’s being mindful that we benefit all mankind.” The temple’s 22 priests are “gradually adjusting” to serving digital devotees, Pathak said, adding that the prayers conducted for those who book their services online are no different from those for adherents who appear in person. Whether the effect of the prayers is the same, on the god or the believer, depends on one’s point of view.

Shashi Menon, an electronics engineer, stumbled upon the temple’s website by accident and ordered a puja on behalf of his 5-year-old son, Sridhar. Menon, 44, lives near Mumbai, in western India; Varanasi is almost clear across the subcontinent. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to go there in the near future,” Menon said. He acknowledges that purists might take issue with Web-surfing worshipers like him, but that does not decrease the “psychological satisfaction” he felt in having a puja performed for his son in absentia. Ultimately, he said, “it’s all about faith.” “If you were to look at it in a more religious context or orthodox, conservative manner, then it’s obviously not the right way to do a puja. You need to be present,” Menon said. “But in modern times, you’ve got to use modern means.

Hindu Symbols

A bowl or pot of water is a symbol of fertility and the Water of Life. A conch shell represents “om,” the first sound heard during creation. A disc represents power and the rotation of the world. It has spokes and is often elaborately decorated. It also sometimes represents reincarnation.

Weapons and tools commonly depicted in images of gods and goddesses include: 1) the mace or club; 2) an elephant goad, a stick with a hook; 3) a fly whisk, a shaft with tufts of hair; 4) rosary beads; 5) a trident, an indestructible weapon often associated with Shiva. The latter is said to have the power to destroy everything that is evil.

Banyan trees and sala trees are symbols of knowledge. Teachers are often shown sitting beneath a tree, notably a banyan tree or sala tree, surrounded by followers. “Rudraksha” beads are sacred beads associated with Shiva. They are a symbol of his teaching. Rudraksha was an early name for Shiva.

The lotus is featured in Asian art and is a major symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism. It symbolizes self-development, enlightenment and purity because it it rooted in the mud, grows from through dirty water and without getting dirty and emerges as a thing of beauty. Asian lotus flowers contain a natural thermostat that kept its temperature constant.

Tikas, Hair and Body Marks

 Many Hindus have a small tuft of hair on the back of their head that is never supposed to be cut. It symbolizes that the wearer is a Hindu.

The “tikka,” or “tilak” is the universal sign of Hinduism. It is a mark placed at the center of the forehead by a priest and is regarded as a sign of devotion and blessing of the gods. It can be a small plastic dot, a smear of ash, vermillion powder or sandalwood paste or a large mark made with yogurt, rice and cinders. It a sign of good luck and is often associated with the all-seeing third eye found in the middle of the forehead of some gods.

Receiving a tikka is part of many rituals. Sometimes a smudge of sandlewood is applied first for purification, followed by a dab of vermillion. Grains of rice are sometimes stuck on a tikkato ward off demons.

Three stripes and a Y- or U-shaped symbol made with sandalwood paste turmeric or holy ash mark sects and castes and worshipers of Shiva and Vishnu.

To Hindus “each color is symbolic of a force of life.” Red is a sacred color, sometimes associated with important people. Black is associated with evil. White is linked with purity. Saffron is the sacred color of Hinduism. The colors of the Hindu trinity are red for Brahma, white for Shiva and black for Vishnu.

Swastika

The swastika is one of the holiest symbols in Hinduism. It represents the seat of God, the sun and is regarded as good luck. Arms bent in a clockwise direction have traditionally meant health and life and the movement of the sun. The Nazis used a swastika with arms bent in a counter-clockwise direction. The word swastika comes from two Sanskrit words “su” , meaning “good,” and “asti” , meaning “to exist,” and together they mean “let good prevail.”

The swastika is one of the oldest known symbols, even older than the ancient Egyptian Ankh. It has been found pottery and coins from ancient Troy show that date to 1000 B.C. and found on coins from ancient China and very old blankets made by American Indians. Some say it has been associated with Hinduism for 5,000 years. According to legend Buddha left behind swastikas instead of foot prints. A 10,000-year-old swastika was found painted on the wall of a cave.

 A majolica seal bearing a swastika was found at an Indus civilization state, dated to 2000 to 2500 B.C. Erica Wagner wrote in the Washington Post: “After the om, the swastika is still the second most important symbol in Hindu mythology — and Hindus understandably protested the proposed ban. The word itself is derived from two Sanskrit words, su (good) and asati (to exist); together they are taken to mean “may good prevail.” In Hindu thought, the 20-sided polygon can represent the eternal nature of the Brahman, or supreme spirit of the universe, because it points in all directions. Rudyard Kipling, who was strongly influenced by Indian culture, had a swastika on the dust jackets of all his books until the rise of Nazism made this inappropriate

Modern Hindus and Buddhist use swastikas to decorate temples, doorways and jewelry as a way to attract good fortune. Many Hindus wear them as a symbol of their faith like Christians wearing crosses. In 2005, there was a campaign among Hindus to “redeem” the swastika. The efforts was made after officials in Europe suggested the symbol be banned — after Britain’s Prince Harry wore a Nazi uniform to a party — because of the association of the symbol with death and hate and anti-Semitism.

Nazis and Swastika

The arms of the traditional Hindu and Buddhist swastika go in the opposite direction of the Nazi swastika. The original swastika adopted by the Nazi party in 1920 had arms that went in the same direction. It is believed that Allied wartime propaganda was responsible for the false belief that Hitler later reversed the swastika to the left-armed version because of its association with death.

Erica Wagner wrote in the Washington Post: “Hitler adopted it because of its links to Indian Aryan culture; the Nazis considered the early Aryans of India to be a prototypical “master race.” The Nazi party formally adopted the swastika — what they called the Hakenkreuz, or hooked cross — in 1920. In “Mein Kampf,” Adolf Hitler, who well understood the power of the visual over the power of the mere word, reflected in his writing the care put into its redesign: “I myself, meanwhile, after innumerable attempts, had laid down a final form; a flag with a red background, a white disk, and a black swastika in the middle. After long trials I also found a definite proportion between the size of the flag and the size of the white disk, as well as the shape and thickness of the swastika.

Indian ‘Holy Hair’

In India, women cut off their cut and offer it as a sacrifice at temples. AFP reported: “Hair is offered as a sacrifice to the hundreds of thousands of gods in the Hindu pantheon for reasons as diverse as wanting to ward off ill-health and misfortune or to bring luck and fortune. The practice is common in southern India, especially at temples in Tamil Nadu state where people from all over the country come to be shaved.

“On a religious festival day, up to 1,000 people, including 50 to 60 women, undergo the ritual at the Tiruttani temple north of Chennai. Indian women like Anandi Perumalswamy are the mainstay of the” custom. “Our favourite god is Lord Muruga. We had lots of problems, like debt, many types of problems,” said Perumalswamy, a 45-year-old mother-of-two. “I had prayed for my son to get married. I had promised that if he gets married, then I would offer my hair.” The marriage took place a few months ago and so she came to Tiruttani to uphold her part of the bargain.

“But those in the hair trade that feeds off the ritual fear for the future, as modern India changes on the back of its recent economic boom, opening up the vast country to more secular, consumerist pursuits and outside influences. “There has been a change or trend in the reduction of the younger generation going to the temple and tonsuring their hair,” said George Cherian, chief executive of Raj Hair International in the state capital Chennai. “They might cut their hair length half-way through but not necessarily fully shave their hair,”

Holy Hair Supplies Western Demand for Hair Extensions

Hair that is cut from women at temples often finds it way into hair extensions sold in Western countries. AFP reported: “Strong religious belief and spirituality coupled with sky-rocketing demand from fashion-conscious Western women has made India the world-leader in the hair extension trade. The South Asian country has long been the world’s biggest exporter of human hair and companies involved in the sector estimate that the business is now worth up to 8.5 billion rupees (nearly $200 million) a year.

“Tonnes of tresses are cut every day and mostly sold at auction to wholesalers, which then prepare and export them for use across the world. The practice has even become a lucrative side-line for temples, who use the money raised for charitable activities. Some suppliers have also gone into business themselves, cutting out the need for wholesalers.

“The vogue for hair extensions among Hollywood actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow, and other celebrities has pushed up demand for the beauty product. Cheaper synthetic hair was popular in the 1990s and caused a slump in business for Indian firms but human hair is now favoured, adding to its market value. Currently one kilogram of Indian hair fetches on average $250: 15 years ago the cost was $20 per kilo, said Cherian.The most expensive type is “remy” hair, which is shaved directly from the scalp. It makes up 25 percent of the market; “non-remy” hair, which accounts for the rest, comes from comb waste. “Indian hair is the most sought after for the only reason that it belongs to the same Caucasian race to start with,” said Cherian. “And the natural colour black matches the hair colour of the Africans as well as, when bleached… the colour of the Europeans or the Americans

“The end product is supplied to women like Fereena West, who goes to the ColourNation salon in central London, where a full head of natural Indian hair can cost more than $3,000 and take up to four hours to put in. “The hair extensions that I get, they’re quality. They’re 100 percent human hair and they are quite expensive but you have to pay for what you get,” said the 25-year-old part-time model.At the exclusive michaeljohn salon, also in London, one client who gave her name only as Natasha said getting extensions was money well spent. “It’s about 600 pounds ($970), which includes the hair and the cost of the stylist, so for me, three times a year, it’s worth it,” she said. “Hair extensions have become very popular because celebrities like (the singer and television presenter) Cheryl Cole have them and it’s become more known. “But I actually think it applies to an awful lot of people and not just celebrities. I think a lot of people have them because it’s stylish and because it helps the hair look good

HINDU TEMPLES AND TEMPLE ARCHITECTURE

HINDU TEMPLES

Angkor Wat Most Hindus worship over alters in their homes and at temples. Family altars are used for daily prayers. Temples are sought out for important matters or big events and occasions.

Unlike Christian churches which are places to worship, Hindu temples are “artificial mountains” built as objects of worship built to enshrine the image of a chosen deity. The Upanishads described them as a place “at the heart of this phenomenal world, within all its changing forms, dwells the unchanging Lord.”

Also unlike Christian churches, temples are generally not places where worshipers come to listen to sermons. Instead they are places where people come to engage in individual worship with deities and socialize with other people that they meet there. In the old days only kings, Brahmin priests and important nobles were allowed inside temples. Even today non-Hindus are generally not allowed to enter Hindu temples.

Worship at the temple is not congregational. Instead, individuals or small groups of devotees approach the sanctum in order to obtain a vision (darshana ) of the god, say prayers, and perform devotional worship. Because the god exists in totality in the shrine, any objects that touch the image or even enter the sanctum are filled with power and, when returned to their givers, confer the grace of the divine on the human world. Only persons of requisite purity who have been specially trained are able to handle the power of the deity, and most temple sanctums are operated by priests who take the offerings from worshipers, present them directly to the image of the deity, and then return most of the gifts to the devotees for use or consumption later at home.

The earliest existing examples of Indian architecture are stone Buddhist and Jain structures, some of them cut from rock caves. Temples before that were made of wood. The great period of Hindu temple building began in the A.D. 6th century. Much of the great architecture of India is Muslim rather than Hindu in origin. The Muslim Rajput maharajahs in Rajasthan and the Muslim Moguls produced great palaces and forts. Muslim influences began appearing in the 11th century. The period under the Moguls is regarded by many as the golden age of Indian architecture. The Taj Mahal is the most famous example of Mogul architecture.

Hindu Temple Architecture

 Hindu temple architecture combines harmony and symmetry with a high degree of outer adornment. Elements are designed to have correct proportions and exert a positive influence on their surroundings. What makes the architecture as a whole so beautiful is the way the small details harmonize and mix with the massive architecture.

The basic form of the temple in India is a square cell, oriented to the four cardinal directions, containing a platform with an image of the deity in the center, a flat roof overhead, and a doorway on the east side. In front of the doorway is a porch or platform, shaded by a roof supported by pillars, where worshipers gather before and after approaching the god. At the founding of the temple, priests establish a sanctified area in the center of the shrine and, while praying and performing rituals, set up the image of the god. The deity is then said to be one with the image, which contains or manifests the power of the god on earth. Every Hindu temple in India, then, exists as the center of the universe, where the god overlooks his or her domain and aids devotees.

Hindu temple plans are based on “yantras”: diagrams of the universe. The simple ones are a circle within a square, within a rectangle, with four gates to represent the four directions of the universe. At the center of the temple is the sanctuary, where an image or symbol of the temple deity is kept. The builders of temples were believed to possess magical powers.

The possibilities for additions and decoration on this basic plan are endless. Many temples sit on top of a cruciform platform, with a tall spire called “sikharas”, or spires, the north over the sanctuary, and broad gate towers, or “gapuras”, leading into the temple grounds, in the south.

Complex temples have hallways and galleries built off the sanctuaries. They are usually set on platforms, with stairways connecting different levels. Large temples sometimes have separate buildings for meditation halls, offices and other purposes, and elaborate porches. An effort is made to make sure all the structures are balanced and in harmony as is the case with the Hindu universe.

Hindu Temple Design

 An ancient architecture treatise called the “arthashashra” requires Hindu temples: 1) to be made of stone; 2) to have a pillared hall followed by tower-topped sanctum, with the hall preferably preceded by a porch; 3) to be adorned on the outside with carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses and scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

At a Hindu temple, different parts of the building have a different spiritual or symbolic meaning. 1) The central shrine is the heart of the worshipper. 2) The tower represents the flight of the spirit to heaven. 3) A priest may read, or more usually recite, the Vedas to the assembled worshippers, but any “twice-born” Hindu can perform the reading of prayers and mantras. 

Hindu temples typically consist of a prayer hall called a “mandapa” and a sanctuary, inner sanctum, or central shrine called a “garbhargriha”. The sanctuary contains an icon of the Hindu deity the temple is dedicated to and is off limits to everyone but priests at the temple. Around the sanctuary and prayer hall is a covered space for worshipers to walk in a clockwise fashion. Above the inner sanctum is the main “sikhara”, or central tower. It is usually a dome- or pyramid-shaped tower that represents Mt. Meru. Some temples have elaborately-decorated, often brightly-colored, gateways or gate towers known as “gapuras”.

The focus of a temple is the inner sanctum, which sits on elevated platform below the central tower. It is the most sacred part of the temple and symbolizes a womb. The icon in the sanctuary can either be statue or image of the god or a symbol of the god such as a linga representing Shiva. The icon is believed to produce a force field of sacred energy. The sanctuary shrine structure typically has a roof, a niche with the temple deity, a protective monster mask and images of Brahma and one of the avatars of Vishnu. Just outside the shrine is a vestibule dedicated to the mount of the temple god. Around the central shrine are images of gods associated with the temple god or popular gods.

Within the temple are shrines dedicated to other gods. They are often arranged in a very specific order and worshipers proceed from one shrine to the next in the order that is intended by the temple builder. A shrine for Ganesh is often one of the first ones because Ganesh is the remover of obstacles. Situated around the main temples are smaller secondary shrines dedicated to other gods or avatars or consorts of the god the temple is dedicated to. There may be others inside or outside the temples.

Hindu Temples and Mt. Meru

 Many temples are built as microcosms of Hindu cosmology with a central tower or towers representing Mt. Meru, the five-peaked home of the Hindu gods and the center of the Hindu universe. The halls, arranged around the sanctuary in a square plan, represent the mountains on the edge of the world. The galleries, corridors and halls are aligned with directions of the compass. Temple are usually built facing east towards the rising sun which is regarded as auspicious.

The central tower representing Mt. Meru is regarded as a cosmic axis between the heaven and the earth. Elaborate temples have a central tower surrounded by other towers. These towers represent the peaks of Mount Meru and are organized in a square plan around the central dome like a lotus flower and are often adorned with stucco or carved sandstone decorations. Their conical shape is formed by a series of stepped tiers that come together to form a rounded point at the top.

Great shrines and temples often have features connected with mountains. Some are painted white to symbolize the snowcapped Himalayas. Things like domes, spires, hexagonal or octagonal towers are representations of Mt. Meru, the peaks of Mt. Meru or other mountains. In the old days many temples had moats around them, representing the infinite ocean that surrounds Mt. Meru.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia is a good example of a Hindu temple.

Hindu Architectural Features

Most temples have an outer wall with “gopuras” (gates) that represents the four directions of the universe and are considered thresholds between the universe and the outer world. The gates are usually protected by sculpted warriors and sometimes river goddesses, such as Ganga or Jumna. The main gate is on the auspicious east side. The west was considered inauspicious and associated with death. The north was linked with elephants, which are valued because of their strength. The south was neutral.

Temples in southern India are known for their large gateways and barrel-vaulted roof which surmount the sacred inner chamber and temple hall. The great Khmer temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia is inspired by this style of architecture. Temples in northern India have more gently curved towers.

 Large temples usually contain many shrine-rooms and courts. The shrines usually have an altar were “prasad” (offerings) are left. Many temples have a sacred pool and tanks filled with water. Water is regarded as an important elements in making temples attractive to deities. Large temples often have a religious school.

Hindu Temple Decorations

Indian architecture is known for its highly decorative style. Their exteriors are often covered by multitudes of carved imagery, sculpted images of deities, narrative reliefs from mythology and rich decorative carvings. Panels, niches and friezes contain images of plants, of monkeys and elephants, and of men and women in all conceivable postures.

The exteriors are generally more highly decorated than the interiors which are usually relatively plain. As the worshiper moves from the outer part of the temple towards the sanctuary the amount of decorations declines. Around the sanctuary the amount of decoration is minimal so as not to take anything away or divert attention from the icon in the central shrine.

Subjects including nagas (mythical multi-headed cobras that protect sacred places), representations of Hindu gods and scenes from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. The gods can often be identified by attributes — Vishnu with a conch and Shiva with a trident — or by the their mount — a lion for Durga or a mouse for Ganesh.

Many Hindu temples feature phallic lingams in the sanctuary and images of asparas — dancing, bare-breasted women considered the epitome of female beauty — on the walls. Some have sexually explicit images.

Some towers have rows of lotuses or lotus buds or mythical and heroic figures. The amalak is an architectural form found on the upper part of some towers. It is derived from the gourdlike myrobalan fruit.

Temple Sculptures

 Vidya Dehejiam of Columbia University writes: “Architecture and sculpture are inextricably linked in India. Thus, if one speaks of Indian architecture without taking note of the lavish sculptured decoration with which monuments are covered, a partial and distorted picture is presented. In the Hindu temple, large niches in the three exterior walls of the sanctum house sculpted images that portray various aspects of the deity enshrined within. The sanctum image expresses the essence of the deity.

For instance, the niches of a temple dedicated to a Vishnu may portray his incarnations; those of a temple to Shiva, his various combative feats; and those of a temple to the Great Goddess, her battles with various demons. Regional variations exist, too; in the eastern state of Orissa, for example, the niches of a temple to Shiva customarily contain images of his family-his consort, Parvati, and their sons, Ganesha, the god of overcoming obstacles, and warlike Skanda.

The exterior of the halls and porch are also covered with figural sculpture. A series of niches highlight events from the mythology of the enshrined deity, and frequently a place is set aside for a variety of other gods. In addition, temple walls feature repeated banks of scroll-like foliage, images of women, and loving couples known as mithunas. Signifying growth, abundance, and prosperity, they were considered auspicious motifs.

Hindu Temple Worship

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Hindu temples are themselves objects of worship. Their typical form emulates the cosmic mountain that is the abode of the deity honored and housed in the temple. As the devotee circles the temple exterior in the proscribed direction, he or she worships the various gods portrayed on the walls, particularly the deity honored within. These images are arranged to aid the viewer on the path to spiritual release. Worship is usually individual rather than congregational, and only at times of religious festivals do crowds throng the temple compounds. A porch and gathering chamber lead to the inner sanc- tum, which lies beneath the central tower of the temple and contains the image of the main deity, usually made of stone.

 “Hindu worship has several distinctive features. Merit gathered through sight is called darshan. Viewing a temple itself accrues merit to the pilgrim who comes to see the god and makes offerings in the hope of receiving divine blessings. Hindus believe that the image of a god contains the actual living god, and that the god can see the devotee and thus bestow blessings upon him or her. Consequently, the eyes of the image are open. The consecration of a deity image includes a ritual to fill the figure with the breath of life (prana), followed by the “opening of the eyes” ceremony, in which the carving or painting of the eyes is finished and the eyes are opened with a ritual implement. Puja, the offering ritual before the image of a god, involves the other four senses as well. Through the intermediary of a priest, worshippers present flowers, food, and pour libations of water and milk over the image as they ask for its blessings. Mantras are chanted and bells rung.

“In South India, copper statues of deities were worshipped both inside and outside the temple. They were equipped with rings and carrying bases so they could be carried in processions on festival days. Like a living king, they could view and be viewed by their followers. Within the temple, statues of deities were bathed, fed, clothed, and entertained by singing and dancing. Whether in a temple or a home, daily acts of devotion include waking the image in the morning, washing, dressing, and feeding it. The image is honored as a guest would be. In this way, the devo- tee develops a close and loving relationship with his or her god. Seeing the image of a god in a Hindu temple is a very different experience from viewing sculpture in a museum gallery: although sculptural figures of the gods are depicted with luxurious jewels and diaphanous garments that fall in delicate folds, in daily pujas they are covered with real clothing and garlands of flowers, and the carved details of the sculpture would be seen only by the priests.”

On Chakkulathukavu Shree Bhagavathy Amman Temple, an important Kerala temple, and its famous idol, the utsavar deity of Goddess Sree Bhagavathy The Pioneer reported: “The Temple is dedicated to Goddess Durga who is worshipped and fondly referred to as Chakkulathamma or Amma by her devotees. This Temple is well known around the world because of the many miraculous happenings here and the Temple is today a popular pilgrim centre in India. The main attraction of this Temple is the cooking and offering of “Pongala” to the Goddess by devotees who wish to wash away their grief, problems, confusion, etc

Hindu Temple Customs

Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter some temples or some parts (particularly the inner sanctum) of temples. Sometimes there are signs indicating where non-Hindus are not allowed. Sometimes there are not. People should avoid entering a temple with items made from leather since cows are regarded as sacred. Women are not supposed to enter Hindu temples when the are menstruating. Some temples have two doors. One is for menstruating women and people from lower castes. The other is for ordinary Hindus.

Hindu temples that allow non-Hindus generally require visitors to remove their shoes and headwear. Short pants and skirts are often regarded as inappropriate dress. Men wearing shorts are sometimes given a sarong or robe at the entrance. Women should have their knees and arms covered. It is important to step over the threshold not on it when entering a temple. When moving around inside a temple or outside always move in a clockwise circular direction, with your right side facing the venerated object. To walk in a counterclockwise direction is regarded as inauspicious and disrespectful to the temple god.

Visitors to temples are sometimes offered a pieces of coconut or banana. It is considered a great honor to be offered these things. One should take it and eat it. It is considered sacrilegious to refuse. If you are worried about eating it for health reasons give it to someone else. Don’t throw it away. If someone puts a thread bracelet around you arm, you are expected to give them a few rupees.

India’s temples feed millions of people every day. They are among the world’s largest food buyers. Many have their own agricultural land. The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams temple in Madras spends $70 million a year to provide free meals. Sikh temples also provide lots of free meals.

As is true with mosques, Hindu temples use crackling loud speakers to blare chants and prayers. The Hindu equivalent of a muezzin is mandira, which is a form of chanting blasted out of loudspeakers at 5:00am.

Temple Rituals, See Rituals

Merits of Building a Temple

On The Merits of Building a Temple, the Agni-purana,’ XXXVIII, 1-50 reads: “Agni said: I will now describe the fruits of making temples for the residence of Vasudeva and other deities. He who attempts to erect temples for gods is freed from the sins of a thousand births. Those who think of building a temple in their minds are freed from the sins of a hundred births. Those who approve of a man’s building a temple for Krishna go to the region of Acyuta [Vishnu] freed from sins. Having desired to build a temple for Hari, a man immediately takes a million of his generations, past and future, to the region of Vishnu. The departed manes of the person who builds a temple for Krishna live in the region of Vishnu, well adorned and freed from the sufferings of hell.

“The construction of a temple for a deity dissipates even the sin of Brahmanicide. By building a temple one reaps the fruit which he does not even gain by celebrating a sacrifice. By building a temple one acquires the fruits of bathing at all the sacred shrines. The construction of a temple, which gives heaven, by a religious or an irreligious man, yields the fruit reaped by persons slain in a battle undertaken on behalf of the celestials. By making one temple one goes to heaven; by making three one goes to the region of Brahma; by making five one goes to the region of Shambhu; by making eight one goes to the region of Hari. By making sixteen one attains all objects of enjoyment and emancipation. A poor man, by building the smallest temple, reaps the same benefit which a rich man does by building the biggest temple for Vishnu. Having acquired wealth and built a temple with a small portion of it, a person acquires piety and gains favours from Hari. By making a temple with a lakh of rupees, or a thousand, or a hundred, or fifty, a man goes where the Garuda-emblemed deity resides. He who in his childhood even sportively makes a temple of Vasudeva with sand, goes to his region. He who builds temples of Vishnu at sacred places, shrines, and hermitages, reaps three-fold fruits. Those who decorate the temple of Vishnu with scents, flowers, and sacred mud, go to the city of the Lord. Having erected a temple for Hari, a man, either fallen, about to fall, or half-fallen, reaps twofold fruits. He who brings about the fall of a man is the protector of one fallen. By making a temple for Vishnu one attains to his region. As long as the collection of bricks of Hari’s temple exists, the founder of his family lives gloriously in the region of Vishnu. He becomes pious and adorable both in this world and in the next.

“He who builds a temple for Krishna, the son of Vasudeva, is born as a man of good deeds and his family is purified. He who builds temples for Vishnu, Rudra, the sun-god, and other deities, acquires fame. What is the use to him of wealth which is hoarded by ignorant men? Useless is the acquisition of riches to one who does not have a temple built with hard earned money for Krishna, or whose wealth is not enjoyed by the Pitris, Brahmanas, celestials, and friends. As death is certain for men, so is his destruction. The man who does not spend his money for his enjoyment or in charities and keeps it hoarded is stupid and is fettered even when alive. What is the merit of him who, obtaining riches either by an accident or manliness, does not spend it for a glorious work or for religion? [What is the merit of him] who, having given away his wealth to the leading twice-born, makes his gift circulated, or speaks of more than he gives away in charities? Therefore, a wise man should have temples built for Vishnu and other deities. Having entered the region of Hari, he acquires reverential faith in Narottama [Vishnu]. He pervades all the three worlds containing the mobile and the immobile, the past, future, and present, gross, subtle, and all inferior objects. From Brahma to a pillar everything has originated from Vishnu. Having obtained entrance into the region of the Great Soul, Vishnu, the omnipresent god of gods, a man is not born again on earth.

“By building temples for other gods, a man reaps the same fruit which he does by building one for Vishnu. By building temples for Shiva, Brahma, the sun, Candi, and Lakshmi-, one acquires religious merit. Greater merit is acquired by installing images. In the sacrifice attendant upon the setting up of an idol there is no end of fruits. One made of wood gives greater merit than one made of clay; one made of bricks yields more than a wooden one. One made of stone yields more than one made of bricks. Images made of gold and other metals yield the greatest religious merit. Sins accumulated in seven births are dissipated even at the very commencement. One building a temple goes to heaven; he never goes to hell. Having saved one hundred of his family, he takes them to the region of Vishnu. Yama said to his emissaries: ‘Do not bring to hell persons who have built temples and adored idols. Bring those to my view who have not built temples. Range thus rightly and follow my commands.

“’Persons can never disregard your commands, except those who are under the protection of the endless father of the universe. You should always pass over those persons who have their minds fixed on the Lord. They are not to live here. You should avoid from a distance those who adore Vishnu. Those who sing the glories of Govinda and those who worship Janardana [Vishnu or Krishna] with daily and occasional rites should be shunned by you from a distance. Those who attain to that station should not even be looked at by you. The persons who adore Him with flowers, incense, raiment, and favourite ornaments should not be marked by you. They go to the region of Krishna. Those who smear the body [of Vishnu] with unguents, who sprinkle his body, should be left in the abode of Krishna. Even a son or any other member born in the family of one who has built a temple of Vishnu should not be touched by you. Hundreds of persons who have built temples of Vishnu with wood or stone should not be looked at by you with an evil mind.’

By building a golden temple one is freed from all sins. He who has built a temple for Vishnu reaps the great fruit which one gains by celebrating sacrifices every day. By building a temple for the Lord he takes his family, a hundred generations past and a hundred to come, to the region of Acyuta. Vishnu is identical with the seven worlds. He who builds a temple for him saves the endless worlds and himself attains immortality. As long as the bricks will last, the maker [of the temple] will live for so many thousands of years in heaven. The maker of the idol attains the region of Vishnu and he who consecrates the installation of the same is immersed in Hari. The person who builds a temple and an image, as well as he who consecrates them, come before him.”

Patronage and Politics and Temples

 Since the sixth century, after the decline of Buddhism as the main focus of religious patronage, temples have been accumulating generous donations from kings, nobles, and the wealthy. The result is a huge number of shrines throughout the country, many of which, especially in South India, date back hundreds of years. The statuary and embellishment in some of the ancient shrines constitute one of the world’s greatest artistic heritages. The layout of major temples has expanded into gigantic architectural complexes.

Along with architectural elaboration has come a complex administrative system to manage the many gifts bestowed by wealthy donors in the past and continually replenished by the piety of devotees in the present. The gods are legal landholders and command substantial investment portfolios throughout the country. The management of these fortunes in many states lies in the hands of private religious endowments, although in some states, such as Tamil Nadu, the state government manages most of the temples directly. Struggles over the control of temple administration have clogged the courts for several hundred years, and the news media readily report on the drama of these battles. Several cases have had an impact on religious, or communal, affairs. The most spectacular case involved ownership of a site in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, claimed by Hindus as the site of Ram’s birth but taken over by Muslims as the site for a mosque, the Babri Masjid, built in 1528. After much posturing by the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP — Indian People’s Party) and its nationalist parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS — National Volunteer Organisation), matters came to a head in December 1992. Some 200,000 militant Hindus, under the direction of RSS marshals, descended on Ayodhya, razing the Babri Masjid to the ground on December 6, 1992. Reprisals and communal violence occurred throughout India and in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh. *

HINDU PRIESTS AND BRAHMINS

 People who acts as officials at temples, conducting or assisting on worship, are known as a “pujari” or priests. Their main duty is to act as intermediaries between the worshipers and god. These priests are supposed to be Brahmins — members of the highest ranking caste group that have traditionally been priests. Brahmin wear the sacred thread. They have traditionally been the final judge of purity and caretakers of temples. Only they could enter the inner sanctuaries of temples and invoke the deities there for a puja.

Technically Hindus are supposed to be assisted by a Brahmin priests when performing rituals or ceremonies, but most simple ceremonies such as making offerings, are done without one. A variety of intermediary priests, holy men and teachers perform and assist with rituals. Brahmin have traditionally have not performed rituals for lower castes anyway. In rural areas local headmen often preside over rituals.

These days Brahmins often serve as priests in temples for higher deities while priests from lower castes serve at temples for lower ranked gods. Many Brahmin either perform their temple duties as a kind of part time job or hobby. Many perform no priestly duties whatsoever. One Brahmin priest at a south Indian temple told the New York Times, “There’s no money in it any more. I hope my sons do something else. The income is not enough to live any more.”

Brahmins and Purity

Members of the highest priestly castes, the Brahmins, are generally vegetarians (although some Bengali and Maharashtrian Brahmins eat fish) and avoid eating meat, the product of violence and death. High-ranking Warrior castes (Kshatriyas), however, typically consume nonvegetarian diets, considered appropriate for their traditions of valor and physical strength.

A Brahmin born of proper Brahmin parents retains his inherent purity if he bathes and dresses himself properly, adheres to a vegetarian diet, eats meals prepared only by persons of appropriate rank, and keeps his person away from the bodily exuviae of others (except for necessary contact with the secretions of family infants and small children).*

If a Brahmin happens to come into bodily contact with a polluting substance, he can remove this pollution by bathing and changing his clothing. However, if he were to eat meat or commit other transgressions of the rigid dietary codes of his particular caste, he would be considered more deeply polluted and would have to undergo various purifying rites and payment of fines imposed by his caste council in order to restore his inherent purity.*

Lower Castes and Pollution

In sharp contrast to the purity of a Brahmin, a Sweeper born of Sweeper parents is considered to be born inherently polluted. The touch of his body is polluting to those higher on the caste hierarchy than he, and they will shrink from his touch, whether or not he has bathed recently. Sweepers are associated with the traditional occupation of cleaning human feces from latrines and sweeping public lanes of all kinds of dirt. Traditionally, Sweepers remove these polluting materials in baskets carried atop the head and dumped out in a garbage pile at the edge of the village or neighborhood. The involvement of Sweepers with such filth accords with their low-status position at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy, even as their services allow high-status people, such as Brahmins, to maintain their ritual purity

Members of the Leatherworker (Chamar) caste are ascribed a very low status consonant with their association with the caste occupation of skinning dead animals and tanning the leather. Butchers (Khatiks, in Hindi), who kill and cut up the bodies of animals, also rank low on the caste hierarchy because of their association with violence and death.*

However, castes associated with ruling and warfare — and the killing and deaths of human beings — are typically accorded high rank on the caste hierarchy. In these instances, political power and wealth outrank association with violence as the key determinant of caste rank.*

Brahmins

Brahmins are the highest ranking caste group and are the top of the varna system above Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras. Brahmins have traditionally been priests, either in temples or to particular families and have traditionally been better educated, held high positions and had land and money. Many have worked as teachers, scribes, landowners and government clerks. Today they are employed in a number of professions. Many fulfill their priestly duties only a part time basis.

Brahmins are expected to maintain a high level of purity, be literate in Sanskrit and other languages, and possess knowledge of Hindu liturgy. They eschew menial labor and often have very soft hands to prove it. They do not eat ginger, onions of potatoes because they grow in the unclean ground. In caste terms they consider themselves superior to Mahatma Gandhi who was Vaisya.

In terms of caste the poorest and most lowly Brahmins have traditionally looked upon themselves as superior to kings, who belong to the Kshatriya caste of warriors and nobles, which is lower than the Brahmin caste. Early in Aryan history the Brahmins gained political and religious superiority over the Kshatriyas. Brahmins maintained their power over the centuries by being the only caste allowed to learn the sacred language of Sanskrit.

Brahmins and other members of high castes are now referred to as Forwards. With the introduction of quotas to give members of lower caste more power and access to education and to public service jobs, many Brahmins are leaving India and seeking their fortune elsewhere. One Brahmin man told U.S. News and World Report, “There is an unwritten rule for Brahmins in Tamil Nadu: Get out as so you can — and stay out.”

Brahmins often live together is separate neighborhood. They began their day with a trip to the family prayer room, dab vermillion powder on their brow, light an incense stick or oil lamp and chant Sanskrit verses to a portrait of a Hindu deity such as Surya, the sun god.

Brahmin Priests and Women

Among Brahmins only men are allowed to serve as priest; women are often responsible for the daily pujas. Brahmin women are expected to bathe their husband’s feet each morning as a sign of respect.

Brahmins may act as family priests for upper castes but not lower ones. They can officiate at shrines and temples and at rituals associated with major festivals. They conduct all the rituals performed at a marriage, are present at important religious occasions and read excerpts from the vedas and other sacred Sanskrit texts and recite from the Puranas and the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Brahmins are sometimes paid for their services with cows rather than money.

Brahmin Customs

 Brahmin are expected to maintain a higher standard of purity and obey an elaborate set of taboos, which including vegetarianism (which sometimes means going without cheese, eggs or milk). Some Brahmins have long beards and shoulder-length hair. Brahmin priests are required to wash their rice in running water before eating. Priests in some places have been known to chose to die rather than eat unwashed rices. Describing a Brahmin he met, Theroux wrote, “He neither drank nor smoked…He got up at five every morning, had an apple, a glass of milk, and some almonds, he washed and said his prayers, and then he took a walk. Then he went to his office…He furnished his office sparsely.”

Many Brahmins have traditionally lived off earnings from their land and occasionally presided over events and temple rituals. A large amount of their time has been spent learning and reciting Sanskrit slokas. Brahmins have also served as scholars and teachers of the Vedas and participated in sacrifices, individual worship rituals and provided training and certification for lower-caste priests. Some large sacrifices take ten days to carry out and months to prepare.

Among the Nambudiri Brahmin in Kerala only the oldest son has traditionally been allowed to marry. Sometimes marriages are arranged at birth to stay within the confines of caste rules. Sometimes The oldest son took take as many as three wives. Dowries for girls were quite high and sometimes fathers took a second wife to save on the dowry for his daughter. Younger sons either remained celibate or formed semipermanent liaisons with somewhat lower matrilineal castes.

Many business and political leaders are Brahmins. Nearly all five-star hotels and top restaurants assign upper Brahmins to attend to their rich clients. When Daimler Benz began operating in India, the company found that it needed to hire Brahmins to deal with their upper class clients.

Brahmin have traditionally been very education minded. Brahmin mothers have been expected to stay home and tutor their children

Sacred Thread

 The sacred thread) is a symbol of highs status in the caste system: only the Brahmin and Kshatriya castes are allowed to wear it. It is comprised of three cotton threads that are looped over the shoulders across the chest and under the opposite arm. It signifies that the wearer is twice born: the first time by his mother and the second time when he is initiated into Hinduism and receives the sacred thread (which is known by many names, varying by region and community, including “janai, janeu, lagun, yajnopavita, yagyopavit, yonya” and “zunnar”).

The three intertwined threads symbolize the mind, body and act of speaking The knots tied in three threads symbolize the mastery of these three things by the wearer. The wearer is expected to keep the sacred thread clean and pollution free. If it becomes frayed, dirty or polluted by contact with lower castes or menstruating women it must be replaced. The wearer goes through great lengths — often tucking it behind his ear, to make sure it doesn’t get dirty when he goes to the bathroom, shaves or washes.

The sacred thread ceremony serves as a coming of age ceremony for the castes that wear it. Traditionally, at age seven years of age a boy’s head is shaved or his hair is cut, his body is throughly cleaned and his fingernails and toe nails are cut. If the head is shaved usually a small tuft of hair is left to show the boy is a Hindu. Before the ceremony the boy eats only one meal that can not contain meat, onions or garlic. At the ceremony which can be held at a home or a temples a Brahmin priest reads scriptures, invokes Vishnu and drapes the sacred thread over the initiates neck.

After being given the sacred thread the boy is fully initiated into his caste and is regarded as a man. He is allowed to eat with the men and is given new responsibilities. The cost of staging the ceremony can be quite high. Some times several poorer families join together to reduce costs.

School For Boys Becoming Priests

Reporting from New Delhi, Rama Lakshmi wrote in Washington Post: “Hidden in a tightly packed neighborhood of middle-class condominiums, cheap Chinese restaurants and garment sweatshops is a thriving 3,500-year-old Hindu tradition. It is a residential school that teaches young boys the art of chanting Hindu verses in classical Sanskrit and trains them to become Hindu priests. For eight years, they study religious rituals without material distractions.“Sriram Sharma, a thin 13-year-old with large eyes and a shy smile, has lived at the school for more than two years, memorizing and reciting the hymns from the Hindu religion’s oldest texts, called the Vedas. After six more years of training at the School of Vedas, he will become a Hindu priest who can perform prayer rituals involving fire worship and rhythmic incantations. He also studies math, English and Hindi for an hour each day. 

“The Vedas contain the sacred knowledge of Hindu religion and were passed down orally by sages,” Sriram says, standing in front of a mirror hung on a fading pink wall. He wears a white wraparound but is bare-chested and barefoot. In his palm, he grinds fragrant sandalwood, with which he cautiously draws a long U-shape on his forehead in a sign of devotion. “I have to get the shape right. It is an important tradition,” he explains as he drags his thumb up his forehead. Then he takes red vermilion powder and stamps a dot between his brows.

White threads hang diagonally from his bare shoulder like a sash, and a tiny tuft of hair is knotted at the back of his shaved head. Sriram is part of the old, unbroken chanting tradition that UNESCO, in 2003, proclaimed a masterpiece of “the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.” “Learning the Vedas is hard,” Sriram says, massaging his tuft with coconut oil before sitting down to chant the first prayer of the day, around 6:30 a.m. “At first, the school felt like a jail. I missed my mother and cried for weeks, but now this is home.”

“The older boys say they are eager to start their work in the real world and earn the social status that comes with knowledge of the Vedas. Hari Ramachandran says his father was a personal driver for a family and did not want his son to end up doing something similar. “Even doctors and engineers respect priests who know the Vedas,” says Hari, 16. “They would speak to us humbly. If I was a driver, they would bark at me and say, ‘Go, get the car out of the garage quickly.’

Life at School For Boys Becoming Priests

Describing the daily routine of the boys at the New Delhi school for priests, Rama Lakshmi wrote in the Washington Post, “The day begins for these 27 boys at 4:45 a.m., when the lights are switched on in the basement, where they sleep on jute floor mats. When a supervisor calls out, they uncurl lazily under the sheets and stretch. Some go back to sleep, while others stare at the floor vacantly for a few minutes.” Sriram “folds his sheet and mat and stacks them on the open stone shelf on the wall. He then steps tentatively into the cold shower and comes out shivering and chanting under his breath.“Soon the hall resounds with chanting, loud enough to wake the neighborhood. The boys cannot understand what they chant because the meaning of the hymns will be taught only after eight years of memorizing the procedures of Hindu rituals. A little boy sitting next to Sriram is having a bad start. He is seized by a bout of hiccups during the chanting but refuses to take a break“The boys follow a grueling routine of do’s and don’ts — they cook and eat only vegetarian food, wash their own clothes by hand, cannot call or visit their families, cannot take medicine except for a physical injury, and cannot watch television. Parents cannot bring any gifts. The teacher, a bearded middle-age man who set up the school 11 years ago, walks in to inspect their performance. He pauses in front of each boy, listens carefully and nods. “The boys are not allowed to go out. I keep them away from the world of illusions and desires. They lead pure, austere lives,” says G.K. Sitaraman, respectfully called “Guru ji.” “This school runs in an orthodox way, like thousands of years ago. The only difference is that we are no longer in the jungles“Each class begins with the students prostrate on the floor before the teacher. Sitaraman turns to the boys and says: “The knowledge of the Vedas is the only education that cannot be erased. Everything else is impermanent in this world.” But the mood is not always somber; the boys have fun even while chanting the divine revelations. They give one another sidelong looks, sharing an unspoken joke about a plump student who is washing a black stone idol of a Hindu deity in milk. “We call him ‘Tummy’ because he is fat,” Sriram explains between chanting sessions. “Every boy has a nickname here — ‘Snake,’ ‘Mouse,’ ‘Chili,’ ‘Bucktooth.’ I am ‘All-India Radio.’ They say I talk nonstop.

hortly before 11, as the boys gather around a ceremonial wood fire and dot their chests with ash, they speak in conspiratorial whispers. The topic is their daily game of cricket. “Did you hear that they will not let us play cricket in the park anymore?” says Kedarnath Dave, 12. “It is basement cricket for us from now on. The people living in the apartments do not want us mixing with their children anymore.

Indian Shrine Workers Allowed to Wear Underwear

 A shrine in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala used to require workers to wear only a dhoti, without underwear while performing certain duties until human rights activists and local authorities intervened, Reuters reported: Employees counting donations at a popular Hindu shrine in southern India will no longer have to take off their underpants at work after the local human rights commission intervened. Police and temple authorities imposed the dress code at the Sabarimala hill shrine in Kerala five years ago after thefts were reported from the shrine’s strongroom. Employees in the vault, all of whom were men, were made to work topless wearing only a dhoti — a cotton wrap worn around the waist — with nothing underneath.

But they found it degrading, and their union complained to the Kerala State Human Rights Commission. “The employees on duty are made to strip before an officer before leaving the office to ensure that they do not carry anything in their underwear,” said Chavara Gopakumar, the union leader. “It is humiliating and an insult to human dignity.” The state’s human rights commission agreedAuthorities at the shrine, which is dedicated to Ayyappa, a south Indian deity, said on Friday they would end the practice and have begun looking into electronic surveillance systems. Thousands of pilgrims flock to the shrine between November and January, bringing cash, precious metals and jewels in offerings. They are expected to forego meat, alcohol and sex for 41 days before arriving. Women of child-bearing age are forbidden

HINDU RITUALS, CEREMONIES, SACRIFICES AND INITIATIONS

HINDU CEREMONIES AND SACRIFICES

 Hindus have loads of ceremonies. There are family ceremonies, caste ceremonies. and village ceremonies. They can be as simple lighting a flame before a deity or as complex as an initiation ceremony for a young Brahmin with music, chants, recitations and offerings that last for hours. Some of the most elaborate rituals involve sacrifices.

Hindu ceremonies often have strict ritual requirements and participation is restricted to members of certain castes or ones own caste. Sacred water, preferably from the Ganges, is often sprinkle or poured as a purifying agent.

A number of ceremonies are prescribed for newborn babies. Immediately on birth, before the cutting of the umbilical chord, a short birth ceremony is performed. Ten days later a name-giving ceremony is held. The ten days in between the child and mother are regarded as ritually impure. After the name-giving ceremony they no longer are.

Some rituals feature animal sacrifices. Chickens, pigeons, goats and water buffalo may be sacrificed. They are usually beheading or have their throat slashed. The blood is used to consecrate an image of the a god or goddess being worshiped, and a portion of the animal, usually the head, is presented to the god or goddess. Sometimes animals are sacrificed to Shiva but almost never to Vishnu.

Being selected for a sacrifice is regarded as an honor for an animal. Before the sacrifice the sacrificer consults the animal, which is required to “nod” for the sacrifice to take place. If the animal does not respond the right away it is sprinkled with water to make it nod. If that doesn’t work the sacrifice is delayed and other methods are used to get the animal to nod. After the sacrifice the soul of the animal is believed to go straight to heaven

Sacrifices are the one time when devout Hindus are allowed to consume meat. Since the animal was killed for an honorable reason it is not a sin to consume its meat. Animals rights activists don’t agree. They sometimes stage protest outside temples, condemning animal sacrifices during the Festival of Lights.

See Kali

Hindu Initiations

Hindus are also into initiations. Induction into a Hindu sect, marriage and death are all seen as initiations and rites of passage.

The puberty initiation for a boy takes place between the ages of eight and 12. The boy is dressed like a holy man and put under the tutelage of a guru. The study period can last anywhere from a few months to a dozen years. When it is over the initiate takes a ritual bath and is expected to get married. Hindus are not circumcised. Muslim are.

The puberty initiation corresponds with the confirmation of Christians. Marking the matriculation of a child to adulthood, it has traditionally only been performed for boys in upper castes and now is mostly performed only for for boys in conservative Brahmin families.

In the initiation ceremony the boy recites a special verse from the “Rig Veda” and is given the sacred thread which is hung over left shoulder and under the right arm, and must be worn the rest of his life and not defiled or polluted in any way. In the old days only boys who went through this ritual were allowed to read the Vedas. It also marked the beginning of student stage in the boy’s life.

Diksha, a Hindu Initiation Ritual

The Romanian religious scholar Eliade Page wrote: “The Diksha must be performed by anyone who is preparing the soma sacrifice. The Rig-Veda seems to know nothing of the diksha, but it is documented in the Atharva-Veda. Here the brahmacarin- that is, the novice undergoing the initiatory puberty rite-is called the dikshita, ‘he who practices the diksha.’ Herman Lommel has rightly emphasized the importance of this passage (Atharva-Veda, XI, 5, 6); the novice is homologized with one in the course of being reborn to make himself worthy to perform the soma sacrifice. For this sacrifice implies a preliminary sanctification of the sacrificer-and to obtain it be undergoes a return to the womb. The texts are perfectly clearAccording to the Aitareya Brahmana (1,3; ‘Him to whom they give the diksha, the priests make into an embryo again. They sprinkle him with water; the water is man’s sperm. . . . They conduct him to the special shed; the special shed is the womb of the dikshita; thus they make him enter the womb that befits him. . . . They cover him with a garment; the garment is the caul. . . . Above that they put the black antelope skin; verily the placenta is above the caul. . . . He closes his hands; verily the embryo has its hands closed so long as it is within, the child is born with closed hands. . . . He casts off the black antelope skin to enter the final bath; therefore embryos come into the world with the placenta cast off. He keeps on his garment to enter it and therefore a child is born with a caul upon it.’The parallel texts emphasize the embryological and obstetrical character of the rite with plentiful imagery. ‘The dikshita is an embryo, his garment is the caul,’ and so on, says the Taittiriya Samhita (1, 3, 2.). The same work (VI,2, 5, 5) also repeats the image of the dikshita-embryo, completed by that of the hut assimilated to the womb-an extremely ancient and widespread image; when the dikshita comes out of the hut, he is like the embryo emerging from the womb. The Maitraiyatni- Samhita (III, 6,Ii) says that initiate leaves this world and ‘is born into the world of the Gods’; the cabin is the womb for the dikshita, the antelope skin the placenta. The reason for this return to the womb is emphasized more than once. ‘In truth man is unborn. It is through sacrifice that he is born’ (III, 6, 7). And it is stressed that man’s true birth is spiritual: ‘The dikshita is semen,’ the Maitrarayanit-Samhita adds (III, 6, l) that is, in order to reach the spiritual state that will enable him to be reborn among the Gods, the dikshita must symbolically become what he has been from the beginning. He abolishes his biological existence, the years of his human life that have already passed, in order to return to a situation that is at once embryonic and primordial; be ‘goes back’ to the state of semen, that is, of pure virtuality.Fire and

Hindu Ceremonies and Rituals

 Many ceremonies incorporate fire. Hindus believe that fires are sacred. Deities are honored and prayers are often made with the lighting of incense or oil lamps. Special guests are often seated in the seat nearest a fire. The central ritual of a wedding ceremony revolves around a fire. In ancient times wealthy families kept sacred fires burning in their homes at all time. Throwing wadded paper or cigarette butts into fire is consider sacrilegious.

Fire is symbolic of the divine light of the gods and “tapas”, or heat, which is acquired through penance. In the Rig Veda, it is suggested that world was created from a primeval fire ignited by Agni, the Fire God, and is associated with ancient sacrifice rituals in which people communicated with the gods. In the “Upanishads” fire is symbolic of internal power.

Describing a ritual in Madras held to mark the opening of a new business, Rebecca Mead wrote in The New Yorker, “A white-robed Indian priest…began a series of Sanskrit invocations. For two hours, the priest chanted and lit incense and threw offerings of rice and coconut and ghee into a holy flame…The priest burned some camphor to symbolize the evaporation of the ego in the fire of knowledge…The devotees dipped their hands into the flame and then made a motion as if to wipe their fingers over their faces and heads, symbolizing the burning of their egos.”

The new moon ceremony, known as “shraddha”, is performed to appease ancestors. It begins with a learned Brahmin of unimpeachable character sitting on sacred grass in an open place while burnt offering to the gods are made in a sacred fire. The central act is when the Brahmin takes three rice balls (representing the father, grandfather and great grand father of the deceased) and places them on the sacred grass that itself has been sprinkled with water from the Ganges. The ceremony ends when the rice balls are eaten by the guests. 

See the Goddess Agni, Hindu Weddings

Vedic Fire Ceremonies

Fire is sacred in many spiritual traditions, and has been used in religious rites for thousands of years. Along with water, earth, air and space, fire is one of the five essential elements all living beings consist of. In the Vedic scriptures, Agni, or Fire, is the messenger between the people and their Gods and the personification of the sacrificial fire

“The ritual of yajna, also known as yagya, havan, homa or Agnihotra, is one of the most ancient Vedic rituals. It consists of the kindling and consecration of a sacrificial fire, the invocation of one or more divinities, and the placing of offerings such as ghee, samagree (fragrant medicinal herbs) or grains into the flames. Sanskrit Mantras and prayers are recited during the ceremony, which is often performed during auspicious astrological moments. In modern Hinduism, fire ceremonies still play an integral part in daily worship, and are used as a symbolic form of communication with and honouring of the Divine. Everything offered into Agni, the sacred fire, is believed to reach the Gods. =

“Vedic Fire Ceremonies are performed for all types of occasions: to let go of patterns and obstacles in our lives, to express gratitude, for healing, purification of the environment and ourselves, or to pray for success with a particular venture. The main reason for me, however, is to connect and communicate with the Divine and to express gratitude for this life and everything I have been gifted with. Public Vedic Fire Ceremonies are usually performed on a Sunday morning, and on special occasions such as religious festivals, Equinoxes, Solstices, Full Moons and New Moons. =

Homa: the Sacred Hindu Fire Ceremony

Homa is the most ancient and sacred ceremony in the Vedic tradition of Sanatana Dharma. It is a fire in which forms of the Divine are invoked through the power of mantra and profound spiritual intention. Special offerings are cast into the fire while Sanskrit mantras are chanted, and the combined energy of the fire, offerings, and mantras generates powerful spiritual vibrations that bless and purify everyone present, spreading peace and healing through the world.

“The smoke that rises from a homa contains a powerful healing energy, and as it rises to the heavens it purifies the atmosphere, both physically and subtly, encouraging a peaceful environment and gentle weather. Even the damaging effects of natural catastrophes can be reduced through the performance of homas. The energetic vibrations that are invoked during a traditional Vedic fire ceremony represent the most powerful presence of the Divine on Earth. The element of fire is associated with the upward motion of the divine kundalini energy and is considered to be the most powerfully purifying element. Every kind of negative karma can be purified by the sacred homa fire, due to divine grace“Amma presides over the sacred fire ceremony, even performing the homa herself, sitting at the homa altar, and tending the fire with offerings including ghee, herbs, and flowers. Many sacred materials are offered into the fire that contain specific natural energies which are transformed by the flames and prayers.

Vedas on Fire Rituals

There are many mantras in the four Vedas related to Yajna (homa, fire rituals), which are regarded as necessary to perform holy and sacred Yajna properly and purely. The Vedas says: “He who desires a blissful life (heavenly atmosphere) must perform Yajna” and “One’s intellect is purified with the Yajna.” (Rigveda 3-32-12) 

Yajna is as ancient as the Vedas. The Rigveda is the first Veda, in which the very first mantra says: “Agni Meede Purohitam Yajnasya Devamritvijam,Hotaaram Ratna Dhaatamam.” (Rigveda 1-1-1-1). Agni is the fire god. The words”Purohit”, “Ritvij” and “Hotaa” are all related to Yajna and chants means for the Yajna to be performed with the guidance of Purohit – Ritvij – Hotaa, hence itself.

The chant “Aram Krinvantu vedim Samagnimindhataam Purah” (Rigveda: 1-170-4) commands the Supreme Soul to “Decorate the Yajna-Vedi” — your places where Yajna is performed, and do lit the sacred fire in it and raise it. “Aa Vakshi Devaam Iha Vipra Yakshi Cha” (Rigveda 2-36-4) means “O learned man! Invite the Gods and perform Yajna.” “Juhota Pra Cha Tishthata” (Rigveda 1-15-9) means “it is a God’s order to perform Yajna and develop.” “Pra Yajnamanmaa Vrijanam Tiraate” (Rigveda 7-61-4) means “performing sacred Yajna solves all problems of life.”

In the four Vedas the term “Yajna” appears 1184 times: 580 times in the Rig-Veda, 243 times in the Yajur-Veda, 63 times in the Sama-Veda and 298 times in the Atharva-Veda. Swami Dayanand Yajna said “Beginning from Agnihotra (the fire-ritual) unto Ashvamedha (the daily-ritual), or the material transaction and physical science that are used for the welfare for the universe is called Yajna”. (Aryoddeshyaratnamala) “Yajyo Vai Shreshthatamam Karmah” (Shatpath Brahmana: 1.7.3.5) means the Yajna Karma is the best Karma.

Purpose of Hindu Fire Rituals

Dr Vivek Arya wrote in “The whole purpose of performing the Yagna is to practice in yourself. People generally relate “Svaha” the meaning of which is I have explained above. Its basically giving up your “EGO” to “Agni” and it goes off as the smoke drifts away. But today, I have seen people offer oblations starting from clothes, gold, food and grains and so many to the fire. How do we interpret these ? As again, the individual wants to give up his materialistic desires and attain realisation of the “SELF”

There are also “Yagna” done to fulfil ones desires, but the way I take it is giving up from “EGO” which is the fundamental means to grow up either in spiritual life, family life or in corporate life because “EGO” would develop in you and will cause difficulties discriminating between the good and the bad As “Vivek Arya” mentioned Yagna should be done in places where there is excessive plant and/or tree growth where the Co2 released can be absorbed by the plants and efforts can be taken to see what is been offered to the fire altar.

Just imagine only ghee (with a mango leaves as a spoon) being offered on a dried cow dung, assuming everything is organic (cooked rice,honey, dates) the emission should be less. I have seen only organic food being offered, but has there been any scientific evidence to evaluate the gases released. Not sure if this can be made, why cant we employ a filter at our home while performing the “Yagna” and later on we can evaluate the particulate components

Types of Hindu Fire Rituals

The following is a list of fire rituals (homa) and their purpose. The causes of trouble are often identified by astrology. The more powerful rituals take considerable time (two hours or more).
Ganapati Atharvasheersha Homa – For obstacle clearance, wealth, fulfilling wishes. To get everything.
Ganapati Shadhakshari Homa – Wish fulfillment, curing skin deceases
Ganapati Moola mantra Homa -Wish fulfillment, attracting people
Modaka Ganapati Homa – Prime wish fulfillment
Chandi Homa – bring health, prevent poverty, Fulfill wants – Here No poverty is not only monetary it covers poverty of knowledge, poverty of security, poverty of peace…..etc – This is one of the powerful ritual
Aavahanti Homa – to gain wealth, health, family life
Shirimbira aarayikane Homa – Walk away from monetary poverty and get money
Rakshogna Homa – escape from 3 types of troubles- from enemies, spirits etc. or re balance 3 elements of body namely Vata, Pitta Kapha. (as per Ayurveda)

Manyusookta Homa – All wish fulfillment, Concurring enemy
Munchamitva Sookta Homa – Cure tuberculosis kind of major deceases
Akshibhyam Sookta Homa – Curing Major deceases
Vaatavaata Homa – Curing deceases related to Vaata ( paralysis ) as per Ayurveda body functions on 3 elements Vata, Pitta Kapha.
Pratyangira Maala mantra Homa – Over come Abhichara problem in one’s horoscope
Hanuman Maala Mantra homa – Kill the enemy, Kick out the enemy !
Datta maala mantra Homa – fulfill desires and money, Get out of trouble caused by negative energies.
Swarna akarshana Homa – attract money and gold – Swarna= Gold, Aakrshana= Attract.
Medha Dakshinamoorthi Homa – Become clever, attract knowledge, mental growth
Dharana Saraswati Homa – To be able to recall what is read and heard.
Vidyaranyakruta Shrisookta Homa – Let wealth, escape from poverty
Santaan GopalaKrishana Homa – To get fertility, Get child/ren
Pativedana sookta Homa – Get a Bridegroom
Vishawavasu Gandharva Homa – Get a bride
Dvishat Palayana sookta Homa – Make your enemy run away
Samid Ganapati Homa – Get success ..yes YOU CAN WIN!

Aaasham sookta Homa – Self protection and courage
Medha daarana Saraswati homa – To fill in some intelligence – NOW INTELLIGENCE INSIDE !
Aindra Tristhub Chintamani Mantra Homa – Gain money and wealth, precious metals
Malhari Saptashati Homa – Wish fulfillment, Get knowledge, self realization.
Agneyana Supatha Raye homa- Get back to right path, de criminalize.
Annatvarisruto Homa – Nullify planetary troubles
Karaveerabhadra Homa – Get blessings from Veerabhadra ( Warrior son of lord Shiva), Make your enemy run away.
Renuka Homa – Get blessings for Godess Devi, Abhichara trouble removal ( Abhichara is a astrological placement)
Achyuta ananta Homa – For getting rid of any decease.
Navagraha Homa – Get rid of Planetary troubles.
Shat Pranava mrutyunjaya Homa – Win over death trap and become long living.
Doorvankura ganapati Homa – For all purpose as wished before start of the Homa ritual

Dhanvantari Homa – For getting rid of deceases, Capture over the medicines ..means a medicines listen to the doctor. Dhanvantiari is the form of lord Vishnu who rules over the medication and prime god for Ayurveda practitioners.
Aghorastra Homa – Get rid of irritating troubles
Lakshami narayana Hrudaya Homa – Let the goddess of wealth (Lakshmi) bless you, get wealth.
Rudra Swahakara Homa – All wish fulfillment, Curing health problems.
Pavamana Sookta Homa – Get rid of all sins (including of last births), Get blessed by god.
Purusha sookta Homa – Get good children, get self realization, Get into universal bonding as per theory of attraction. (I did this this and really affected by life with immediate visible indication on same afternoon – Excuse Can’t give more details in public forum)
Gayatri Homa – All wish fulfillment, Gayatri Mantra is one among the prominent mantras in Hindu culture

Laza homa – Become a good speaker. Want to pitch to customer ? then it is for you.
Sudarshana Homa – Get rid of black magic, negative energies etc.
Bhrahmanaagni sookta Homa – Secure the fetus in womb
Saura Homa – Good health
Shiva panchakshari Homa – For pleasing Lord Shiva
Banashankari Homa – For pleasing Goddess Devi
Vishnu Sahasranama Homa – Get result on your wish, Get rid of bad behaviors and crookedness.
Kaala Sarpa Yoga Homa – Kalasarpa Yoga is a planetary position at birth which is considered bad for one, This homa nullifies the effect. Kalasarpa Dosha types, effects and Remedies – Vedic Astrology
Lalita Sahasranama Homa – Please the Goddess Devi
Shri Rama nama taaraka Homa – Please lord Rama
Kuja Rahu Sandhi shanto Homa – A junction of ruling planets in ones life, this is trouble some and life threatening. This homa is performed to reduce the ill effect of meeting with some accident etc, 2-3 months before that transition juncture time. Kuja Dosha and its effects
Rahu Bruhaspati Sandi shanti Homa – A junction of ruling planets in ones life. This homa is performed to reduce the ill effect 2-3 months before that juncture time. Rahu-Jupiter dasha, Rahu-Guru period, antardasha of planets
Shanaiswara Shanti Homa – Reduce effect of troubles given by Planet lord Shani
In addition to these there are more Shanti Homas. They are performed to either reduce or nullify the ill effect of planetary positions at birth or at the current time for an individual. A good astrologer can identify and suggest the remedy.

Athiratram, the World’s Oldest and Longest Religious Fire Ritual

In April, 2011, an ancient, elaborate Hindu fire ritual was was held in the village of Panjal in Kerala. Rama Lakshmi wrote in in the Washington Post: “For dozens of centuries, Hindu priests have performed an elaborate 12-day fire ritual, chanting hymns, making offerings to the sun god and praying for a world free of negative energy.” Today, “only two old men in the lush-green southern state of Kerala still know how to perform athiratram, perhaps the world’s oldest and longest religious fire ritual. 

“Every morning, Shankaranarayanan Akkithiripadu, a frail 77-year-old, smears sandalwood paste and ash on his forehead and arms, and ties his thin, gray hair into a tiny tuft above his left ear. He then begins teaching chants to young men, rushing to pass the tradition on. “This is the most supreme and the most difficult of all Vedic rituals,” he said. “It cannot be learned from watching videos or hearing CDs.” Athiratram and other rituals have been transmitted orally over centuries to a chosen few – from teacher to pupil, or father to son in the elite Brahmin community, the highest group among India’s rigid, vertical social hierarchy. Today, only 10 Brahmin families in Kerala are eligible to conduct this ritual, Akkithiripadu said.

“A large altar will be prepared in the shape of a bird, dedicated to the ageless god of fire, Namboodiri said. Animals will be sacrificed, but only symbolically. Milk, butter, fragrant leaves, medicinal twigs and rice will be poured into the fire. The stage will be set ablaze as an offering as the ritual ends. The elders say that each time athiratram is performed, an unseasonable rain occurs and an eagle glides over the site.

“Priests say that athiratram is difficult to perform. The chief conductor must survive on milk, fruit and wheat during the 12 days. He cannot scratch himself, or shave or speak to anybody. He must keep his fists closed tightly for the entire period; they are pried open with hot water and clarified butter after the ritual. The fire must be lit by rubbing two pieces of wood from a special tree against each other. Sometimes it takes hours to stoke a flame. On the 11th day, priests believe that all the gods and goddesses come down from heaven to listen to the chanting of a special hymn. “If it goes wrong, the main priest at the ritual will die the following year,” Akkithiripadu said. “It is the ultimate ritual for chanters like us.”

“The village last witnessed the ritual in 1975 when an American professor raised money around the world to revive it. Frits Staal, a professor of South and Southeast Asian studies at the University of California at Berkeley, filmed the event and wrote a book about it.” One person who 12 when she attended the 1975 ritual in Panjal with her grandfather said, “It rained immediately after. It was a revitalization of a long-forgotten tradition.” “Before Staal’s arrival, athiratram was conducted in private by a clutch of Brahmin families. “For the first time, it was opened to outsiders, not just foreigners but also Indians of all castes,” said Sivakaran Namboodiri, a doctor” who was one of the chanters.

Hinduism and Tantrism

 “Tantrism” is a highly ritualistic religion that combines beliefs in magic and esoteric philosophy and emphasizes mystic symbols, sacred chants, and other esoteric devotional techniques. Based on ancient animist religions, it uses shaman to dispel demons and appease the gods, and incorporates a number of “mudras” (ritual postures), “mantras” (sacred speech), “yantras” (sacred art) and secret initiation rites. Tantrism is practiced by both Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists. Among Hindus it is closely associated with Kali.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In the seventh century, Hinduism and Buddhism were influenced by Tantra, a new religious movement that employed esoteric knowledge to speed the believer toward spiritual liberation. The Hindu pantheon of gods expanded to include shaktis, female counterparts to male gods and personified as their consorts. Shakti is female energy, which activates the powers of the male gods and emanates from the goddess Devi. Many other goddesses represent aspects of Devi’s powers, for instance, Parvati, the beautiful, loving, and obedient consort of Shiva, and Durga, Chamunda, and Kali, whose actions and moods indicate anger, ferocity, and the horrific. This range of emotions symbolizes their multiple purposes and the variety of forms female energy and power can assume

Hindu Tantrism is based in part on a text called the Tantras, written between the A.D. 7th and 11th centuries but believed to be based on ideas that are much older. Much of text is written as conversations between Shiva and his consort. Hindu Tantrism has millions of followers and they include Buddhists and even Muslims as well as Hindus.

Hindu Tantrism involves seeking orthodox “dharma” , “siddhi” (spiritual or supernatural power) and “bukhti” (pleasure in higher worlds). Followers view the body as a microcosm of the universe and worship “shakti” (female energy), which they believe is especially powerful when united with the male energy force, which itself is powerless without the presence of shakti. Some sects classify their members according to their spiritual capacity. Many Tantric practitioners serve as healers.

Hindu Tantric Rituals

 Hindu Tantrism aims to combine the forces of the cosmos and the energies of the individual and teaches that god can only be worshiped by other gods and thus worshipers become deified by participating in Tantric rituals. By repeating Tantric scripture cosmic energy is released and focused so the individual can reach an altered state of consciousness. In some cases followers of Tantrism are said to be able to fly or levitate their bodies. To generate the energy to this requires instruction from a guru.

Tantrism has many iconoclastic elements. Some Tantric sects deliberately reverse dietary and sexual taboos. Some groups encourage members to have sex with members of different castes and engage in sexual acts and drink alcohol in places such as cremation grounds where it is usually forbidden for Hindus to be. The idea behind these acts is to acquire power by transcending ordinary life on Earth and turning ordinary customs and views on their ear.

In Tantric ritual performed by the Left-Handed Sect a “hero” partakes in the “Five Ms” in successive stages: “madya” (wine), “matsya” (fish), “mamsa” (meat),”mudra” ( parched grain) and finally “maithuna” (sexual intercourse). The idea is for the “hero” to rise above body and the flesh while remaining a part of it.

Mudras can be body positions or hand positions. They are intended to invoke a response in the mind of people who observe them. They can also be used in dances to express feeling and stories. Some hand gestures include: 1) “Anjali” (divinity with a person expressed by the praying hands position); 2) “Pushpaputa” (an offering to a divinity expressed with two hands cupped together); and 3) “Makula” (a lotus blossom in bud expressed by a hand with the palm pointed upwards and the all the fingers together.

Sex, Violence and Tantric Rituals

 In the West, some people have turned to Tantrism as a way of prolonging sex.

In 2003, a childless couple in Uttra Pradesh that desperately wanted a son hired a Tantric practitioner who arranged for the abduction of a 6-year-old child that was mutilated and killed while Tantric mantras were chanted. The ritual ended with the childless woman washing herself in the blood of the dead child. Several such killing were reported, prompting the government to force many Tantric practitioners out of business.

The bloodiest ritual are often associated with Kali. The idea behind the child sacrifices is that Kali will reward you with a child if you give one to her.

Some associate Tantrism with witchcraft. Some groups in Varanasi reportedly eat human flesh taken from cremation grounds.

SACRED COWS, HINDUISM, THEORIES AND COW SMUGGLERS

SACRED COWS AND HINDUISM

 The cow is considered sacred in the Hindu religion — and not just the cow itself but everything that come out of it is sacred as well. Milk, urine, curds, dung and butter from cows, Hindus believe, will cleanse the body and purify the soul. Even the dust of footprints of cows has religious meaning. Hindu livestock has entered in the English language in the form of the expression of shock (“Holy cow!”) and to describe something that is preserved at great length for no rational reason (“sacred cows”).

Hindus believe that each cow contains 330 million gods and goddesses. Krishna, the god of mercy and childhood, was a cowherd and a divine charioteer. At festivals honoring Krishna priests shape cow dung into images of the god. Shiva, the god of revenge, rode through heaven on a bull named Nandi and image of Nandi marks the entrance to Shiva temples. 

India is home to more cattle than any other country. But cows are not the only things that are sacred. Monkeys are also revered and not killed because of their association with the Hindu god Hanuman. The same also true with cobras and other snakes that appear in a number of sacred contexts such as the bed that Vishnu is sleeps on before creation. Even plants, particularly lotuses, pipal and banyan trees and basil plants (associated with Vishnu), are loved and a great effort is made not to harm them in any way.

Hindu Love of Sacred Cows

Hindus love their cows so much priests are called in to bless newborn calves and calendars picture the faces of beautiful women on the bodies of white cows. Cows are allowed to wander around pretty much wherever they like. People are expected to avoid them rather than visa versa. Police round up ill bovines and let graze on grass near their stations. Retirement homes have even been set up for aging cows.

 Cows are routinely decorated with garlands of orange marigolds placed around their necks and silver jewelry fitted around their legs. Some cows wear strings of blue beads and small brass bells to “make them look beautiful.” Hindu devotees are periodically anointed with a holy mixture of milk, curds, butter, urine and dung. Their bodies are oiled with clarified butter.

A son’s most sacred obligation is to his mother. This notion is embodied in the sacred cow, which is worshiped “like” a mother. Gandhi once wrote: “the cow is a poem of pity. Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dumb creation of God.” Sometimes it seems that life of cow is more valuable than human life. Murderers sometimes get off with lighter sentences than someone who accidently kills a cow. One religious figure suggested having all he cows designated to be destroyed be airlifted to India instead. The expense for such an effort is quite high for a country where children die everyday from diseases that could be prevented or cured with cheap drugs.

Hindus spoil their cows. They give them pet names. During the Pongal festival, which celebrates the rice harvest in southern India, cows are honored with special foods. “The cows at Varanasi station are wise to the place,” says Theroux.” “They get water at the drinking fountains, food near the refreshment stalls, shelter along the platforms and exercise beside the tracks. They also know how to use the crossover bridges and climb up and down the steepest stairs.” Cow catchers in India refer to fences to prevent cows from entering stations.

Reasons for the Hindu Love of Cows

The reverence of cows is tied in with the Hindu precept of “ahimsa”, the belief that it is a sin to harm any living creature because all life forms, from bacteria to blue whales, are also seen as manifestations of the unity of God. The cow is also revered as a symbol of the Mother Goddess. Bulls are great revered but not as sacred as cows.

 “Hindus venerate cows because cows are the symbol of everything that is alive,” wrote Columbia anthropologist Marvin Harris. “As Mary is to Christians the mother of God, the cow to Hindus is the mother of life. So there is no greater sacrifice for a Hindu than killing a cow. Even the taking of a human life lacks the symbolic meaning, the unutterable defilement, that is evoked by cow slaughter.”

In “Man on Earth” John Reader wrote: “Hindu theology says 86 reincarnations are needed to transform the soul of a devil into the soul of a cow. One more, and the soul takes on a human form, but killing a cow sends the soul all the way back to the form a devil again…The priests say to look after a cow is in itself a form of worship. People..put them in special sanctuaries when they are too old or sick to be kept at home. At the moment of death, devout Hindus themselves are anxious to hold the tail of a cow, in the belief that the animal will guide them safely to the next life. [“Man on Earth” by John Reader, Perennial Library, Harper and Row.]

Hindu Prohibition of Eating Beef

There are strict taboos concerning the killing cows and the eating of meat in Hinduism and in India. Many Westerners have a hard fathoming why cattle are not slaughtered for food in a country were hunger is an everyday concern for millions of people. Many Hindus say they would rather starve than harm a cow.

 “It seem probable that the sense of unutterable profanity elicited by cow slaughter has its roots in the excruciating contradiction between immediate needs and long-run conditions of survival, “wrote Columbia University anthropologist Marvin Harris, “”During droughts and famines, farmers are severely tempted to kill or sell their livestock. Those who succumb to this temptation seal their doom, even if they survive the drought, for when the rain come, they will be unable to plow their fields.”

Beef is occasionally consumed by Muslims and Christians and even sometimes by Hindus, Sikhs and Parsis. Muslims and Christians have traditionally not eaten beef out of respect to Hindus, which in turn have traditionally not eaten pork out respect to Muslims. Sometimes when a severe famine occurs Hindus do resort to eating cows. In 1967 the New York Times reported, “Hindus facing starvation in the drought-stricken area of Bihar are slaughtering cows and eating the meat even though the animals are sacred to the Hindu religion.”

A large portion of the meat of cattle that die naturally is eaten by “Untouchables;” other animals end up in Muslim or Christian slaughterhouses. Lower Hindu castes, Christians, Muslim and animists consume an estimated 25 millions bovines that die each year and make leather out of their hide.

Origin of Cow Worship in India

No one is exactly sure when the custom of cow worship became widely practiced. A line in a poem from A.D. 350 mentions “worshiping cows with sandal paste and garlands.” An inscription dating back to A.D. 465 equates killing a cow with killing a Brahmin. At this time in history, Hindu royalty also bathed, pampered, and placed garlands on their elephants and horses.

 Cattle have been important in South Asia for a long time. Images of cows painted in the late stone age appear on the walls of caves in central India. People in the ancient Indus city of Harappa yoked cattle to plows and carts and carved images of cattle on their seals.

Some scholars have suggested that the word “cow” is a metaphor in the Vedics for the poetry for the Brahmin priests. When a Vedic poet exclaims: “Don’t kill the innocent cow? he means “don’t write abominable poetry.” Over time, the scholars say, the verse were taken literally

The taboo on eating beef began in earnest around A.D. 500 when religious texts began associating it with the lowest castes. Some scholars have suggested custom may have coincided with the expansion of agriculture when cows became important plowing animals. Other have suggested the taboo was linked with beliefs about reincarnations and the sanctity of life of animals, particularly cows.

Ancient Cow Eating in India

According to Vedic texts, cattle was regularly eaten in India during the early, middle and late Vedic periods. According to historian Om Prakash, author “Food and Drinks in Ancient India”, oxen and barren cows were offered at rituals and eaten by priests; cows were eaten at marriage feasts; slaughterhouses existed; and the flesh of horses, rams, buffalo and probably birds were all eaten. In the later Vedic period, he wrote, oxen, big goats, and sterile cows were slaughtered and cows, sheep, goats and horses were offered as sacrifices.

 The Ramayana and the Mahabharata have references to beef eating. There is also plenty of evidence — cattle bones with human teeth marks — from archeological digs. One religious text referred to beef as “the best kind of food” and quoted a 6th century B.C. Hindu sage as saying, “Some people do not eat cow meat. I do so, provided it’s tender.” The Mahabharata describes one king who was famous for slaughtering 2,000 cows a day and distributing meat and grain to Brahmin priests.

See Aryan, Sacrifices

In 2002, Dwijendra Narayan Jha, a historian at the University of Delhi, caused a big uproar when he asserted in his scholarly work, “Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions” that ancient Hindus ate beef. After excerpts were released on the Internet and published in an Indian newspaper, his work was called “sheer blasphemy” by the World Hindu Council, copies were burned in front of his house, his publishers stopped printing the book and Jha had to be taken to work under the protection of police. Academics were surprised by the brouhaha. They saw the work as a simple historical survey that rehashed material that scholars had known for centuries.

Reasons for Hindu Cow Worship

Harris believed that the custom of cow worship came about as an excuse not to provide meat at feasts and religious ceremonies. “Brahmins and their secular overlords found it increasingly difficult to satisfy the popular demand for animal flesh,” Harris wrote. “As a result, meat eating became the privilege of a select group…while the common peasants…had no choice but to preserve their own domestic stock for traction, milk and dung production.”

Harris believes that in the middle of the first millennium B.C., Brahmins and other members of the upper-caste elite ate meat, while members of the lower caste did not. He believes that reforms introduced by Buddhism and Jainism — religions that emphasized the sacredness of all living things — led to the worship of cows and the taboo against beef. Harris believes that the reforms were made at a time when Hinduism and Buddhism competed for the souls of people in India.

Harris says that the beef taboo may not have completely taken hold until the Muslim invasion of India, when the practice of not eating beef became of way of distinguishing Hindus from beef-eating Muslims. Harris also asserts that the worship of cows became more widely practiced after population pressures made severe droughts especially hard to endure.

“As population density grew,” Harris wrote, “farms became increasingly smaller and only the most essential domesticated species could be allowed to share the land. Cattle were the one species that could not be eliminated. They were the animals that drew the plows upon which the entire cycle of rainfall agriculture depended.” Oxen had to be kept to pull the plows and a cow was needed to produce more cattle.”Cattle thus became the central focus of the religious taboo on meat eating…The conversion of beef into forbidden flesh originated in the practical life of individual farmers.”

Theory Behind the Sacred Cows and Hinduism

In a paper entitled the “Cultural Ecology of Indian’s Sacred Cow” Harris suggested that the Hindu attitude toward cattle must have evolved for some practical ecological reason. He studied areas where cattle roamed about aimlessly and areas where there were no cattle and found out that people were much better off with cattle than without them. [“Man on Earth” by John Reader, Perennial Library, Harper and Row.]

Even though Hindus do not use cattle as a source of meat, the animals do provide milk, fuel, fertilizer, plowing power, and more cows and oxen. Zebu cattle require little maintenance and the don’t use up land that could be used to grow crops. They are resourceful scavengers that get most of their food from grass, weeds or garbage that are used by humans.

According to one study in West Bengal, most of the food consumed by milk-producing cattle was waste from human products like rice straw, wheat bran and rice husks. According to the scientist who conducted the study, “Basically, the cattle convert items of little direct human value into products of immediate utility.”

Poor farmers can afford to utilize sacred cows or bulls because they primarily feed off land and scraps that don’t belong to the farmer. If the farmer kept the cow on his own property the grazing land utilized by the cow would seriously eat into the land the farmer needs to raise crops to feed his family. Many of the “stray” cattle have owners who let them loose during the day to scavenge for food and are brought into homes at night to be milked. Indians like to purchase their milk straight from the cow. That way they are sure its fresh and not mixed with water or urine.

Sacred Cows as a Source of Food and Plowing Animals

Harris found that even though the average milk production of a cow was low they still supplied 46.7 percent of the nation’s dairy production (with buffalo supplying most of the remainder). They also ironically provided the country with a large portion of it meat. [“Man on Earth” by John Reader, Perennial Library, Harper and Row.]

Hindus consume large amounts milk, buttermilk, and curds. Most Indian dishes are prepared with ghee (clarified) butter, which comes from cows. If cows were slaughtered for meat they would yield much less food over the long run than if were allowed to live and give milk.

Most farmers use hand-wrought ploughs drawn by a pair of oxen or buffalo to break the land. But not every farmer can afford their own draft animals or borrow a pair from a neighbor. So how do farmers without animals prepare their fields? Hand plows are too inefficient and tractors are even more expensive and inaccessible than oxen and buffalo. Many farmers who can’t affore their own animals harness sacred cattle, preferably oxen (bulls), found wandering around near their farms.. Cattle are also widely used to turn wheels that draw water. City cows provide useful function as well. They eat garbage and waste thrown on the streets, pull carts, serve as lawnmowers and provide dung for city people.

The Zebu cattle in India are ideally suited for their role. They can survive on scrub, sparse grass and agricultural waste and ate very hardy and able to survive droughts and high temperatures. See Zebu cattle, Livestock.

Dung and Urine from Sacred Cows

The greatest benefit that bovines provide, said Harris, is fertilizer and fuel. About half of India’s population earns less than a $2 a day and they survive primarily on food the grow themselves. On this income, farmers can hardly afford commercial fertilizer or kerosene for stoves. About half of the usable cow dung in India is used as fertilizer; the other is used for fuel. Harris estimated that 340 million tons of nutrient-rich dung fell on farmer’s fields in the 1970s and an additional 160 millions fell on waysides scavenged by the cows. Another 300 million tons was collected and used as fuel or building material.Dung is often collected while it is still steaming and shaped in pancake-like patties, which are dried and stored and later used as cooking fuel. Firewood is in short supply in many areas. One survey found that dung was the sole source of cooking and heating fuel in nine out of ten rural households in the 1970s. Cow dung is often preferred over kerosene because it burns with a clean, slow, long-lasting flame that doesn’t overheat the food. Meals are usually cooked over a low heat for hours , which frees women to take care their children, tend their gardens and perform other chores.

Cow dung is also mixed with water to make a paste which is used as flooring material and wall cover. Cow dung is such a prized material that a great efforts is made to collect it. In the countryside women and children are usually responsible for collecting dung; in the cities sweeper castes collect and make a good living selling it to housewives. These days cattle dung is increasingly being used to provide biogas.

Hindu nationalists in India operate a laboratory that is devoted to developing uses of cow urine, much of it from cows “rescued” from Muslim butchers. Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New York Times, “In one room, its white-washed walls spattered with saffron-hued posters of Lord Rama, devout young Hindus stood before test tubes and beakers full of cow urine, distilling the holy liquid to get rid of the foul-smelling ammonia and make it drinkable. In another room tribal women in garishly colored saris sat on the floor before a small hill of white powder, dental powder made from cow urine…The nearest, and probably unwilling, consumers of the various products made from cow urine were the poor tribal students in the primary school next to the lab.”

Hindu nationalists have heralded the patenting of cow urine as a medicine in the United States as proof that traditional Hindu practices are superior to modern medicine, which is only starting to catch up. Cow dung as been used for centuries as a medicine. it is now made into pills.

Cow Shelters and Laws Protecting Sacred Cows

 With the exception of two states, the slaughter of cows is forbidden by Indian law. Bulls, bullocks and she buffalos are protected up to 15 years of age. The two states were slaughtering cows is allowed is Kerala, which has many Christians and is known for liberal thinking, and West Bengal, which is predominately Muslim.

It is okay yell and curse at a sacred cow, push, kick and hit them with a stick, but you can never, never injure or kill one. According to an ancient Hindu verse anyone who plays a role in the killing of a cow will “rot in hell for many years as their hairs on the body of the cow so slain. Drivers that hit a sacred cow take off after the collision if they know what is good for them before the mob forms. Muslims often have to especially careful.

In some parts of India killing a cow accidently can result in a multi-year prison sentence. One man who accidently killed a cow when he hit it with a stick after it raided his granary was found guilty of “gao hatya” “cow murder” by a village council and had to pay a substantial fine and host a banquet for all the people in his village. Until he fulfilled these obligations he was excluded from village activities and was unable marry off his children. It took the man more than a decade to pay of the fine and raise the money for the banquet.

In March, 1994, New Delhi’s new fundamentalist Hindu government approved a bill banning the slaughter of cows and the sale or possession of beef. Those arrested for possession of beef faced prison sentences up to five years and fines of up to $300. Police were given the authority to raid shops without notice and hold people charged with cow murder in jail without bail.

Wandering Cows and Cow Shelters in India

 Many of the cows found wandering the streets are dairy cows who have gone dry and been released. Cattle left to wander are supposed to be left to die naturally, with their meat consumed by dogs and vultures, and the skins licensed by Untouchable leatherworkers. But that is not always what happens. To keep traffic flowing cows have been banished from the streets of Bombay and quietly picked up in New Delhi and taken to sites outside the city.

The 1994 bill mentioned above also established 10 “cow shelters” in Delhi — home of an estimated 150,000 cows at that time — for old and sick cows. Supporters of the bill said, “We call the cow our mother. So we need to protect our mother.” When the bill was passed legislators shouted “Victory to mother cow.” Critics said it was an attempt to restrict the eating habits of non-Hindus. Between 1995 and 1999, BJP government appropriated $250,000 and set aside 390 acres of land for “gosadans” (“cow shelters). Of the nine cow shelters that have been set up only three were really functioning in 2000. As of 2000, about 70 percent of the 50,000 or so cattle brought the shelter had died.

Sometimes wandering cattle are not so benign. In the early 2000s, three sacred bulls ran amok in a small villages south of Calcutta, goring to death four people and injuring 70 others. The bulls were give as a gift to a local Shiva temple but became aggressive over the years and became found of rampaging through the local market and tearing up stalls and attacking people.

Indian Politics and Sacred Cows

 Sacred cows play a big part in Indian politics. The emblem of Indira Gandhi’s political party was a calf suckling a mother cow. Mohandas K. Gandhi wanted a total ban on cow slaughter and advocated a cow bill of rights in the Indian constitution. During the Mad Cow Disease crisis in Britain, the World Hindu Council announced that it would offer “religious asylum” to any cattle chosen for extermination. There is even an All-Party Cow Protection Campaign Committee.

Laws against the slaughter of cattle have been a cornerstone of the Hindu nationalist platform. They are also seen as a means to vilify Muslims, who are sometimes stigmatized as cow-killers and cow eaters. In January 1999, a government commission was set up to look after the nation’s cows.

Every year, there are bloody riots in India involving Hindus who have accused Muslims of being cow killers. One riot in Bihar in 1917, left 30 people and 170 Moslem villages looted. In November, 1966, about 120,000 people led by holy men smeared with cow dung protested cow slaughter in front of the Indian Parliament building and 8 people were killed and 48 were injured in the riot that followed.

Killing Sacred Cows in India

It is estimated that about 20 million cattle die every year. Not all die natural deaths. Large numbers of cattle are disposed off every year as evidenced by India’s huge leathercraft industry. Some cities have measures allowing the slaughter of obstructive cattle. “Many are picked up by truck drivers who take them to illegal slaughter houses where they are killed “the favored method is slitting their jugular veins. Often the slaughterers staart skinning the animals before they are dead.

 Many calves are killed soon after they are born. On average for every 70 cows for every 100 oxen. Since an equal number of young cows and oxen are born, this mean that something is happening to the cows after they are born. Oxen are more valuable than cows because they are stronger and used to pull plows.

Unwanted cows are gotten ride in numerous ways that apparently do not conflict with taboo against slaughtering cattle: young ones have a triangular yokes placed around their necks which caused them to jab their mothers udder and get kicked to death. Older ones are simply tied to a rope a left to starve. Some cows are also quietly sold to middlemen who take them to Christian or Muslim slaughterhouses.

The slaughter of cows had traditionally been done by Muslims. Many butchers and meat “wallahs” have reaped good profits from discreetly delivering beef to meat eaters. Hindus play their part. Hindu farmers sometimes allow their cattle to taken for slaughter. Much of the meat is smuggled to the Middle East and Europe. During the mad cow disease crisis much of the slack caused by a lack of beef production in Europe was made up for by India. Leather products from India end up in leather goods in the Gap and other stores.

Trafficking of Sacred Cows in India

Most of the cow slaughtering in India is done in Kerala and West Bengal. There is huge trafficking network for from cattle other states taken to Kerala and West Bengal. An official with the Ministery of Social Justice and Empowerment, told the Independent. “The ones going to West Bengal go by truck and train and they go by the millions. The law say you cannot not transport more than four per truck but they are putting in up to 70. When they go by train, each wagon is supposed to hold 80 to 100, but the cram up to 900. I’ve seem 900 cows coming of the wagon of a train, and 400 to 500 of them came out dead.”

The official said the trade exists through corruption. “An illegal organization called the Howrah Cattle associate fakes permits saying the cattle of meant for agricultural purposes, for plowing fields, or for milk. The stationmaster at the point of embarkation gets 8,000 rupees per train-load for certifying the cows are healthy and being used for milk. The government vets get X amount for certifying them as healthy. The cattle are unloaded just before Calcutta, at Howrah, then beaten and taken across to Bangladesh.”

Bangladesh is the largest exporter of beef in the region even though it has virtually no cattle of its own. Between 10,000 and 15,000 cows cross the border every day. You can reportedly figure out the route the took by following their trail of blood.

 The official said. “On the route to Kerala they don’t bother with trucks or trains; they tie them and beat them and take them on foot, 20,000 to 30,000 per day.” The animals are reportedly not allowed to drink and eat and are driven forward with blows to their hips, where they have no fat to cushion the blows. Those that fall down and refuse to move have chile pepper rubbed in their eyes.”

“Because they have walked and walked, and walked the cattle have lost a lot of weight, so to increase the weight and the amount of money they will receive, the traffickers make them drink water laced with copper sulfate, which destroys their kidneys and make it impossible for them to pass water’so when they are weighed they have 15 kg of water inside them and are in extreme agony.”

The cattle are sometimes slaughtered using primitive and cruel techniques. In Kerala they are often killed with a dozen hammer blows that turn their heads into a pulpy mess. The slaughterhouses workers claim that the meat of cows killed in this fashion taste sweeter than cows killed by slits to their throats or are killed with stun gins. “Cattle salesmen reportedly slashed the legs of healthy cattle to claim they were disable and eligible for slaughter.”

SADHUS, HINDU HOLY MEN

 “Sadhus” are wandering ascetics affiliated with a wide range of Hindu religious orders and schools. Found throughout India and Nepal, they are seen in towns and cities and walking along roads with begging pots and staffs. They are respected by Hindus and given food in return for their blessings and prayers. They are also known as babas. A fakir is a holy man who lives by begging.

Sadhu have been around for at least 2000 years . They were called “the silent ones” or the “the long haired ones” in ancient Vedic verses. In ancient times sadhuism was regarded as the highest form of religious life and the power of sadhu penance was such, it was said, that the gods unsuccessfully set down cosmic beauties to try to seduce them and generals laid down their arms rather than wage war against a city protects by a “sadhus” . Originally only Brahmins were allowed to become sadhus. Now members of any caste can become one. They take vows of chastity and poverty, adopt ascetic practices, observe certain religious regulations, survive on charities, and provide religious services to those in need. They are expected to severe ties with family or home and wear markings and clothes associated with the sect they belong too.

There are believed to be around five million sadhus belonging to several thousand schools or sects in India. Most sadhus are males. The few females ones are called “sadvin” (the feminine of sadhu). The most conservative sadhus, the “nagas”, wear only a loin cloth and have long stringy locks of hair that resemble dreadlocks. Some have nicknames like “Long Haired Man” in honor of locks that if uncoiled would reach the ground.

Sadhus are revered by Hindus as representatives of the gods. Being a sadhu is one of the stages of life a person is expected to pass through. Even so in the caste system sadhus often occupy a position roughly equal to that of domestic servants.

 There are several types and groups of Sadhus. Thirteen akharas (group/ school/institution of sadhus) — including Juna, Nimrohi, Digambar, and Nirvani — participated at the month-long Maha Kumbh Mela held in Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh in April and May, 2016, Of these akharas, seven followed Shavism (a Shiva sect), three followed Panchayati and three were Vaishnavite (Vishnu followers). The main types of sadhus at Simhastha were: 1) Naga sadhus, naked sadhus who smear their bodies with ash and have long matted hair; 2) Shirshasinse, who remain standing, sleeping with their heads resting on a vertical poles, and meditating standing on their heads; 3) Kalpvasis, who remain by the river banks and devote their time to meditating, performing rituals, and bathing numerous times a day; 4) Urdhwavahurs, who have emaciated bodies from rigid spiritual practices; and 5) Parivajakas, who who have taken a vow of silence. Constant exposure to the weather makes the Naga sadhus resistant to temperature extremes. Their eyes are bloodshot from constantly smoking charas (marijuana), which they believe aids enlightenment. 

Wha t is Dharma in Hinduism?

Dharma means duty, virtue, truth and morality. It outlines a moral law of right and wrong that Hindus follow in everyday life, behaving correctly and taking their duties seriously. This Hindu belief brings stability to a person’s life. Dharma is a universal concept, but outlines a slightly different law for everyone depending on their age, gender and social position. For example, a child’s dharma is to work hard at school. The dharma of a parent, is to raise their children and support their family.

Every person’s dharma is called sva-dharma. To act against your dharma is known as adharma.

All Hindu beliefs and concepts are founded on living in accordance to dharma. Dharma is also an important concept in Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism.

 Dharma Information

Purushartha

Purushartha refers to the four main goals of life within Hinduism. These are:

  • Dharma – moral values;
  • Artha – economic values;
  • Kama – pleasure;
  • Moksha – liberation.

Using the Purushartha to provide structure to your life will allow a person to live a meaningful life. Working with the Purushartha allows a person to make good decisions and live a meaningful life.

Artha refers to having the materials you need to support yourself and your family. It’s the basis for dharma and kama.

Kama relates to pleasure in general. To practice kama, a person’s pleasures, such as art, music or kindness, must align with that person’s life purpose and duty.

Moksha is a liberation achieved when dharma is lived by and artha and kama are practised correctly.

Varna

Varna refers to social classes within Hinduism. A part of Dharma, Hindu’s also believe in Varna, which outlines the different social classes, and their duties. The Four Varnas are:

  • Shudras – workers;
  • Vaishyas – merchants;
  • Kshatriyas – protectors or society;
  • Brahmanas – provide education and leadership.

This Lesson Pack can offer you a helping hand when teaching your children about the duties within the Hindu belief system.

Related to Varna is Ashrama – the four stages of life stated in ancient Indian texts. People in the top three classes, Vaishyas, Kshatriyas and Brahmanas, are known as ‘twice-born’. This refers to them being born once, then born again when males receive a sacred thread as a symbol of their status. They will go through the Ashramas, these are:

  • Brahmacarya – student;
  • Grihastha – householder;
  • Vanaprastha – retired;
  • Samsara – reincarnate.

Atman

Atman refers to a person’s ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. Hindus believe that atman is part of the spirit of Brahman, their ultimate God. Hindus also believe the atman is eternal, meaning it never dies.

Karma

Karma means ‘action’, and refers to the Hindu law of cause and effect. This is where the actions of a person, influence the future of that person. Within Hinduism, Hindu’s believe that good behaviour that corresponds with dharma will have positive outcomes. Poor behaviour, against dharma, will result in bad outcomes.

Karma has also become an important spiritual concept to many people, regardless of what religion they belong to.

Samsara

Karma is central to samsara, which means ‘reincarnation’. This is a core Hindu belief and is defined as a continuing cycle where the soul (atman) is reborn and life renews over and over as a result of karma. If you behave in accordance with dharma, this will result in positive outcomes that allow your soul to be reborn. A soul can be reborn into a physical body, or an animal.

Reincarnation is a central belief in Hinduism. Hindu values along with gods and goddesses.

Moksha

Moksha is the ultimate goal within Hinduism, to leave this cycle of rebirth (samsara) and become one with the god Brahma. Hindu’s believe that in order to achieve moksha, Hindus must follow one of the three paths, the path of duty, the path of knowledge, or the path of devotion.

Brahman

Brahman is a Sanskrit word meaning transcendent power. The Hindu belief in Brahman is the belief in a power that upholds the world. Particular Hindu deities are manifestations of Brahman. Brahma is the Hindu creator god and creator of the Vedas.

CULTURAL CONNECTION

Hinduism is unique compared to other religions for a varied number of reasons. Hinduism is noted as the world’s oldest existing religion, dated as far back as the 2nd millennium BCE. Hinduism does not have one founder or core doctrine that can be referenced. The religion is an assembly of religious, philosophical and cultural ideas and practices that originated in the country of India.

The name Hinduism is new, compared to the age of the religion, British writers created the name in the beginning of the 19th century.

According to some, an individual is born into Hinduism. However, in today’s culture, one does not need to be of Indian decent to practice Hinduism. It is not exclusive to one nationality or race.

Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion. It has one billion adherents, which makes up 15 percent of the world’s population. Christianity is the world’s largest religion with 2 billion followers, and second largest with 1.3 billion followers is Islam. According to the Pew Research Center 0.7 percent of the United States population are Hindus.

It is important to be culturally competent when it comes to an individual’s faith and beliefs. If you are a colleague of, provide treatment to, or just interact with someone of the Hindu faith, it is imperative to have an understanding and respect for their religion.

With their cultural and religious beliefs, those of the Hindu faith can have varying views on matters such as food, holidays, general beliefs and more.

Due to the fact that Hinduism does not require followers to accept any one idea, the religion is much more cultural rather than creedal.

The Hinduism religion has a belief of reincarnation, meaning that after one dies they are reborn. A large belief of Hindu’s is that karma is a big influence on how positive, or negative, conditions are in an individual’s present life.

When it comes to the Hinduism diet there are varying beliefs. Due to a lack of scriptural documentation there are varied ideologies. Some Hindus are purely vegetarians, whereas others only eat non-vegetarian foods on Mondays, Tuesdays, Saturdays, Chathurthis, Ekadashis and celebrations of festivals.

When it comes to medication, Hindu patients may not be given medicine that has been derived from cows, pigs or other animals.

At your organization, it is recommended to provide education and training to your staff regarding the religious and cultural beliefs of the Hindu faith. That training can explain and aid in developing cultural competency in different ideologies that you, or your employees, may not have engaged with before.

CulturaLink can help you and the Hindu community by providing consulting, education and training. Not only will CulturaLink give an organization access to top-of-the-line instruction, but they also are equipped the knowledge on those of Hindu faith and what steps must be taken to provide a competent workplace, quality care in healthcare and how to generally be understanding and empathetic of someone who is a believer of Hinduism

HINDU BELIEFS

Hindus believe in four “purushartha” (aims of the living, or instrumental and ultimate goals): 1) “artha” (material prosperity); 2) “kama” (satisfaction of legitimate desires); 3) “dharma” (moral conduct and duties associated with one’s station in life); and 4) “moksha” (obtaining release from the cycle of deaths and rebirths). These aims are thought to apply to everyone, regardless of caste, from Brahmin to Untouchables.

1) Most Hindus believe in a Supreme God, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him. 2) Hindus believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, governed by Karma. 3) Hindus believe that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived

Hindus talk about the impermanence of relationships in the material world. In the Bhagavad Gita it is written that “the company of people who don’t believe in seeking eternal truth is bad company.” According to the Hindu view, there are four goals of life on earth, and each human being should aspire to all four. Everyone should aim: 1) for dharma, or righteous living; 2) artha, or wealth acquired through the pursuit of a profession; 3) kama, or human and sexual love; and, 4) finally, moksha, or spiritual salvation. Tripura Rahasya, 18: 89 reads: “Second-hand knowledge of the self gathered from books or gurus can never emancipate a man until its truth is rightly investigated and applied; only direct realisation will do that. Realise yourself, turning the mind inward.”

Vedanta, the basis of Hinduism, states that the individual human soul (atman) originates and merges with the Brahman (the all-in-one ‘impersonal’ God and the universal soul) . There are three different philosophies on this concept. 1) Advaita (non-duality), which implies that there is an identity of Brahman and atman; 2) Dvaita (duality), which maintains that Brahman and Jatman are united; and 3) Visistadvaita (qualified non-duality), which maintains Brahman and Jatman are fundamental united but have crucial differentiations. These view were were promoted by Sri Adi Shankara, Sri Ramanuja and Sri Madhva. Among other concepts which are not as widely embraced but still followed by some Hindus are dvaitadvaita (dual-non-dual doctrine), suddhadvaita (pure non-dualism), and acinntyaa bhedabheda (oneness and difference). These were promulgated by Nimbarka, Vallabha and Vidyabhusana. All the above philosophers have written commentaries on the prasthana-traya (triple canon) of the vedanta, which are the Upanishads, Brahma Sutra and Bhagavad Gita.

Monotheism and Hinduism, See Hindu Gods

Flexibility of Hindu Beliefs

Many Hindus view life, existence and cosmology as too complicated to be followed a simple creed. It is therefore up to an individual or group to pick the aspects of the religion that they feel applies to them. According to the “advaita” philosophy the world and everything in it is an illusion and is one. There is only one divine principle in Hinduism and all the different gods are manifestations of this cosmic unity. Hindus often say, “We believe God is everywhere…We believe God is you, too.” The only essential truth and desire is the one that is possessed within. Other things found in life are generally distortions and untruths.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “From its beginnings, Hinduism has possessed a remarkable ability to assimilate rather than reject new ideas. It has developed complex overlays of beliefs, cults, gods, and forms of worship. Hindus recognize no single founder or prophet. There is no single holy book similar to the Bible or Qur’an; the religion is not supervised and interpreted by a hierarchy of priests, and its great texts were not inscribed but handed down as an oral tradition. Hindu worship is based on a one-to-one relationship between devotee and god rather than being congregational. This practice intensified beginning in the seventh century with the popularity of bhakti, passionate personal devotion to an individual god or goddess. Over the centuries, a number of important poets and musician-saints emerged from the bhakti tradition whose works, such as the Gita Govinda, became classics of Indian culture.”

Hindu beliefs and scriptures are less monolithic and more diverse than Islam and Christianity and often yield contradictory arguments. On the issue of when life begins, Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New York Times, “The ancient system of Indian medicine known as Ayurveda assumes that fetuses are alive and conscious when it prescribes a particular mental and spiritual regimen to pregnant women. This same assumption is implicit in “The Mahabharata,” the Hindu epic about a fratricidal war apparently fought in the first millennium B.C. In one of its famous stories, the warrior Arjuna describes to his pregnant wife a seven-stage military strategy. His yet-to-born son Abhimanyu is listening, too. But as Arjuna describes the seventh and last stage, his wife falls asleep, presumably out of boredom. Years later, while fighting his father’s cousins, the hundred Kaurava brothers, Abhimanyu uses well the military training he has learned in his mother’s womb, until the seventh stage, where he falters and is killed.” However, Early in “The Mahabharata,” there is a story about how the hundred Kaurava brothers came into being. Their mother had produced a mass of flesh after two years of pregnancy. But then a sage divided the flesh into 100 parts, which were treated with herbs and ghee, and kept in pots for two years — from which the Kaurava brothers emerged.”

Hindu Universe and Creation

 The Hindu universe is much larger and multidimensional that the Christian one. It is conceived as an egg with 21 different zones (made up of six heavens, one earth, seven netherworlds and seven hells) or a mandala with a square divided into a number of small squares around the Supreme Deity, which is the source of all existence and has been compared to a radioactive spider at the center of a web emitting energy that is absorbed by all other objects in the universe.

Western religion has traditionally divided the world into the mortal and non-mortal with a clear time line to the future or the past. Hindus see many more possibilities. According to Hindu philosophy the universe is eternal but always changing. Everything is continually being born, growing and dying and being reborn. All matter is composed of five basic elements: earth, fire, water, space and sky. Humans are part of nature and susceptible to the same rules as everything else. The thing that separates humans from animals is their sense of inner consciousness, and the ability to understand the cosmos.

“For the Hindu,” the historian Daniel Boorstin wrote, “the creation was not a bringing into being of the wonder of the world. Rather it was dismemberment, a disintegration of the original Oneness. For him the Creation seemed not the expression of a rational benevolent Maker in wondrous new forms but a fragmenting of the unity of nature into countless limited forms…For the Hindu our very notion of creation was reversed. Instead of transforming nothing into everything the Hindu creation broke into countless imperfect fragments what was already there.”

The Vedas do not say much about a Creator or Creation. In one story the universe was prepared by a primeval Lord of Beings named Prajapati, who was sacrificed before the universe was created. How he was created and who sacrificed him is not clear. In the Upanishads the original human is an Adam-like man who asks for company and then is pleased when a female is made from his body.

Creation of the World According to the Upanishads

 Creation of the World According to the Upanishads: 1) There was nothing whatsoever here in the beginning. By death indeed was this covered, or by hunger, for hunger is death. He created the mind, thinking ‘let me have a self’ (mind). Then he moved about, worshiping. From him, thus worshiping, water was produced. . . .
2 . . . .. That which was the froth of the water became solidified; that became the earth. On it he [i.e., death] rested. From him thus rested and heated (from the practice of austerity) his essence of brightness came forth (as) fire.
3) He divided himself threefold (fire is one-third), the sun one-third and the air one-third. He also is life [lit., breath] divided threefold, . . . (Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad, 1, 2, 1-3.)

1) The Sun is Brahman-this is the teaching. An explanation .thereof (is this). In the beginning this (world) was non-existent. It became existent. It grew. It turned into an egg. It lay for the period of a year. It burst open. Then came out of the eggshell, two parts, one of silver, the other of gold. That which was of silver is this earth; that which was of gold is the sky. What was the outer membrane is the mountains; that which was the inner membrane is the mist with the clouds. What were the veins were the rivers. What was the fluid within is the ocean. (Chandogya Upanishad, III, 19, 1-2.)

The sage Uddalaka presents another view: in the beginning was Being alone: 1 In the beginning, my dear, this was Being alone’ one only without a second. Some people say ‘in the beginning this Was non- being alone, one only; without a second. From that non-being, being was produced.’
2) But how, indeed, my dear, could it be thus? said he [i.e., the sage Uddalaka], how could being be produced from non-being? On the contrary, my dear, in the beginning this was being alone, one only, without a second.
3) It thought, May I be many, may I grow forth. It sent forth fire. That fire thought, May I be many, may I grow forth. It sent forth water. . . .
4) That water thought, May I be many, may I grow forth. It sent forth food. . . . (Chandogya Upanishad, VI, 2, 1-4.)

Creation in the Rig Veda

In the “Hymn of Creation” the Brahma poets in the Rig-Veda raised doubts about how and what occurred at creation could ever be known:

 “But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation.
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?


Whence all creation had its origin.
he, whether he fashioned it to whether he did not.
he, who surveys it all from the highest heaven.
he knows?or maybe even he does not know.”

The “Hymn of the Primeval Man” tells how the castes were created before the heavens:


“When they divided the Man
into many part did they divide him?
What was his mouth, what were his arms.
what were his feet and feet called?
The Brahma was his mouth
of his arms was made the warrior
His thighs became the Vaisya.
of his feet the Sudra was born

The moon arose from his mind
from his eye was born the sun
from his mouth Indra and Agni
from his breath the wind was born.


From his navel came the air.
from his head there came the sky
from his feet the earth, the 4 quarters from his ear. thus they fashioned the worlds.


With sacrifice the gods sacrificed to Sacrifice
these were the first of the sacred laws.
These mighty beings reached the sky.
where the eternal spirits, the gods. “

Creation of Self, Women, Cows and Animals

According to the Hindu creation myth, at the beginning of time, Self (“Atman” ) sat alone. Looking around and seeing only himself, he said, “This is I” (That is why even today men and women identify themselves first as “I”). Since the Self had incinerated all the evil that had existed before, he therefore was a person (“purusha” ). When faced with the thought of loneliness, Self said, “As there is nothing but myself, why should I fear?

With his fear gone, Self realized that a lonely man can feel no delight. Since he was as large as a man and woman together he divided himself in two and created his wife Yagnavalkya, who said after coming into being, “We two are thus (each of us) like half a shell.” In the great void Self embraced his wife and men were born. [Ibid]

Afterwards Yagnavalkya said, “How can he embrace me after having produced me from himself. I shall hide myself.” She then turned herself into a cow. Self then became a bull and embraced her, hence cows were born. She then became a mare and he stallion, producing horses. Asses, goats and sheep were created in a similar fashion, and so it went until all the members of the animal kingdom were created, even ants. [Ibid]

Hindu Cosmology Cycles

Hindus and Buddhist view life and time in a cosmological sense as an “unending universe of unending cycles.” They generally do not have end of the world scenarios. Even creation is seen as something that occurs again and again. By contrast Jews, Christians and Muslims all have end of the world scenarios, foretold by natural disasters and other calamities, that feature the accession to heaven by the faithful. “Cosmos”, incidently, is a Sanskrit word for justice.

The basic cycle in Hindu time is a “kalpa” “a “day” in the life of Brahma. Each kalpa lasts 4.32 billion earth years. A “night of Brahma’”lasts the same amount of time. A “year of Brahma” is comprised 360 such days and nights, and Brahma lives for one hundred such years. Each kalpa marks another Re-creation of the world. During each kalpa-night the universe is once again gathered up into Brahma’s body, where it becomes “the possibility of still another Creation on the next day.”

Each cycle begins with Vishnu lying asleep on the thousand-headed cobra “Sesha”. From his naval grows a lotus that give birth to Brahma, who creates the universe. Vishnu awakes and governs over the kalpa, which ends when he goes back to sleep and the universe once again is sucked into his body.

Each “kalpa” contains fourteen smaller cycles, “manvantara” , each of which lasts for 306,720,000 years Within each of these cycles a new Manu, or presiding god, is created and he in turn re-creates the human race. Within each “manvantaras” , there are seventy-one aeons or “mahayugas”, a thousand of which comprise a kalpa. Within each “mahayuga” there is a cycle of four “yugas” , each of which is a different age of the world, including in turn 4,800, 3,600, 2,400 and 1,200 ‘years.’ Each of the four yugas shows a decline in civilization and morality from the “yuga” just before, until finally the world is destroyed by flood and fire to be prepared for yet another cycle of Creation.

Change on earth is slower than man can grasp. We are currently in the Kali Yuga, the last, darkest and most miserable cycle in Hindu cosmology. This cycle is said to have begin with the battle described in the “Bhagavad Gita” . Following it will be a period of light, expressed in the 1960s as the Age of Aquarius.

Hindu Heaven and Hell

Hindus believe that all living creatures — from bacteria to blue whales, and even some plants — have souls, which are essentially equal, and all these life forms are manifestations of the unity of the universe. This is why Hindus are vegetarians and abhor killing animals; and “ahimsa” , the belief that it is a sin to harm any living creature, is an important precept in Hinduism. The concept was eluded to in the Upanishads and contrasts sharply with doctrines of Western religions which holds that mankind is a special creation on a plane higher than other creatures.

Life and death are seen as meaningless cycles. Life itself is often characterized as a dream that has little to with relevance of the true nature of things in terms of the universe, cosmology and forces behind life. Reality is like an onion whose successive layers have to be pealed to reveal the universe eternal truth. On this subject Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:
“Do not say
God gave us this delusion.”
You dream you are a doer.
You dream that action is done.
You dream that action bears fruit.
It is your ignorance.
It is your delusion
That gives these dreams.”

Hindus believe in “Paramatman” (the eternal, blissful self), which contradicts the Buddhist belief in the impermanent and transitory nature of things.

Mt. Meru

 Reincarnation is the transmigration of the soul from one life form to another. It doesn’t just apply to humans but to all creatures and some non-living things too. Transmigration of the soul can take place from a human or creature into another human or creature up or down a scale based on good and evil deeds (See Karma Below). If a person has lived a virtuous life he moves up the scale, say, from a low caste to a high caste. If a person has lived an unworthy life he moves down the scale, say, from a low caste to a rat.

Reincarnation is a belief found in most Asian religions and is a cornerstone of all the major religions found in India except Islam. The Hindu idea of reincarnation is roughly the same regardless of which Hindu god an individual venerates most.

The Hindu concept of reincarnation first appeared in the Upanishads and is believed to have originated in the Ganges Plain and was absorbed b the Aryan-centered Hinduism as the Aryans moved into the Ganges Plain. Beliefs in reincarnation are not just found in India and Asia but are found in tribal cultures all over the world and were held by the ancient Greeks, Vikings and other groups in the West. Ideas about reincarnation are probably very old and were held by people who lived in Neolithic times.

Hindu Holy Rivers

Hindus regard India as the Holy Land. There are seven holy rivers in India, of which the Ganges is the holiest and most well known. They are all associated with Shiva. According to one legend, Shiva leaped in the water of the Ganges as it fell from heaven to the earth. The water matted his hair and divided into the seven holy rivers.

Rivers are regarded as sacred and treated with deep reverence because of their purifying effect. Bathing in a sacred river and/or drinking its waters can wash away a lifetime’s worth of sins and being cremated on the shores of holy river and having your ashes thrown in the river can allow you to escape the cycle or reincarnation of be delivered directly to heaven.

For many Indians the Narmada River is just as sacred as the Ganges. Lepers have claimed to be cured after taking a dip in it. Every year thousand of Hindu pilgrims perform a “pradakshina” of the Narmanda and walk every inch of both banks. The Brahmaputra in Hindu cosmology is the only male river.

Ganges

Pouring Ganges Holy water The Ganges flows for 1,560 miles from the Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south. It drains an area of 450,000 square miles and directly affects the lives of 300 million people. The Ganges Plain which was covered by a shallow sea as recently as 10,000 years ago. A third of India’s people (200 million) live in the Ganges Plain, where the population averages over 1,000 people per square mile, one of the highest in the world.

On the banks of the Ganges and other river you will see dhoti-clad men doing yogic push ups, wrestling or swing huge stone-headed clubs over their head. At Hindu temples along the Ganges pilgrims bathe in the water, make offerings, touch the temple walls, ask advice of sadhus, receive blessing from priest and gather water in jugs to take home.

The Ganges is named after Ganga, a river goddess who descended from heaven and had her fall broken by Shiva’s hair. She is the second wife of Shiva. Her sisters are Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri. Prayers honoring all these holy relatives are recited in the holy river when the bathers submerge themselves to be purified. The Ganges is sometimes referred to as “the liquified from of God.”

Ganges and Hinduism

For Hindus the Ganges is the sacred river known as Gangaji, or Mother Ganges. It is comprised of amrita (“the nectar of immortality”) that flows to earth from heaven. Hindus believe that bathing and/ or drinking it waters can wash away a lifetime’s worth of sins. Being cremated on its shores and having one’s ashes thrown in the river can allow one to escape the cycle or reincarnation of be delivered directly to heaven.

Ganga represents fertility because she provides water for land and is considered a second wife of Shiva. She is often depicted with a bowl of water in one hand and lotus flower in another, sitting on a makara, a legendary sea monster.

 The Ganges is regarded as the link between heaven and earth. In one Hindu story, the Ganges fell from the foot of Vishnu, the preserver, and traveled across the Milky Way before getting lodged in the foot of Shiva, the destroyer and restorer. On top of mythical Mount Meru in the Himalayas, Shiva calmed the river and let it fall to earth.

In another story, the Ganges River was created by the goddess Ganga to wash away the condemned souls of King Sagar’s 60,000 sons who had been burned to a crisp by the gaze of the sage Kapali. The sons had cursed Kapali of stealing their father’s horse (which had placed in the sage’s ashram by the mischievous thunderstorm god Indra). Ganga was summoned by King Sagar and the god Shiva was called in to catch Ganga, lest she wash away the entire earth. Shiva ensnared her in his hair — the Himalayas — and she remained their until she managed to escape near Gangotri, where upon she dropped from the mountains and flowed to the sea redeeming the souls of the Sagar’s 60,000 sons.

Bathing in the Ganges

Hindus bath in, drink and throw the cremated ashes of the dead in the Ganges. Sprinkling holy water from the Ganges over one’s head is believed to wash away sins, purify unclean souls and heal the sick. Bathing in the Ganges even once is supposed to ensure salvation. If a person dies in the Ganges or a has a few drops of Ganges placed on his tongue as he breaths his last breath it is believed he will achieve absolute salvation, escape the toil of reincarnation and be transported to Shiva’s Himalayan version of heaven.

 Every morning Hindus gather on the shores of the Ganges to bathe and pray for liberation from the world. The pouring of marigolds into the Ganges is a traditional peace offering. The river carries the petals to the oceans and the far corners of the world, carrying the promise of peace with them. Many people collect water from the Ganges in bottles. Some devoted Hindu take Ganges water to drink when they travel abroad.

According to the maharajah of Varanasi. “It is only after my ritual bath and while I am eating that I cannot touch anyone other than members of my household who have performed the same purification rituals. To do so would make me ritually impure. But goodness does not come only by touching and eating with people; it comes from much more.”

Hinduism and Science

Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, an author and meditation facilitator, wrote in the Huffington Post: “Some would comment that faith is only necessary when it comes to matters of religion and that science is based on empirical evidence. Although this sounds nice, it’s not 100 percent accurate. For example, we all believe in the existence of the atom. But how many people on the planet have actually seen an atom with their own eyes? I’m not in any way denying the existence of the atom. Nor do I dis-believe the people who have measured its existence. The point made here is that we are placing faith in those who have done the experiment and we are accepting their results. The masses are placing faith in the few who have done the experiment.

“Another item we place implicit faith in is the “Big Bang Theory,” which tells us that the universe began 15-20 billion years ago from a single point. Who can prove to us the reality of a phenomena that took place tens of billions of years ago? There’s no instant replay when we’re dealing with life and time. We can’t be shown what happened that far in the past. There may be some evidence and reason to believe that this is how it happened, but at the end of the day we can’t know for sure and that’s where faith comes in.

“In a recent article, in the U.S. News and World Report, physicist Roger Penrose theorized that the Big Bang might be one in a cycle of such events, suggesting that the universe has had multiple existences. This is common knowledge to one familiar with Vedic philosophy and cosmology, which very clearly indicates that the universe has had many births and deaths. The centuries-old wisdom of the Vedic texts doesn’t stop there. They claim that our universe is just one of many universes, a concept entertained by modern science and referred to as “the multiverse theory.” The description given is that our universe is one mustard seed in a bag full of a practically uncountable number of mustard seeds. This concept is toyed with in famous Hollywood movies such as “Contact” and “Men In Black.”

 “In the West, Einstein is credited with the Theory of Relativity. However, one might be quite surprised to learn that there are multiple examples of it in the Puranic texts of India. Einstein’s hypothetical experiment known as the “twin paradox” suggests that if one of a pair of twins travels to outer space at high speed, while the other remains on earth, when the space traveling twin returns, he will be younger than his counterpart on earth.

“The following passages from the Bhagavat Purana communicates the relativity of time: “One’s life endures for only one hundred years, in terms of the times in the different planets… Eternal time is certainly the controller of different dimensions, from that of the atom up to the super-divisions of the duration of Brahma’s life; but, nevertheless, it is controlled by the Supreme. Time can control only those who are body conscious, even up to the Satyaloka or the other higher planets of the universe.”

“There is also a story from the Puranas which parallels Einstein’s hypothetical experiment. A yogi, upon exiting the earthly realm for the higher planetary realms, was informed by the inhabitants of these higher realms that millions of years had instantly passed on Earth in the mere moments since he had entered the higher realms. They also told him that all of his relatives and everyone he had ever known was deceased. We can pass this off as myth or fable, but one should ponder how these texts of ancient India are coming up with concepts that are so close to modern scientific theories.

“There is a wonderful synergy between science and spirituality within the Vedic tradition, and I don’t believe there is a real border dividing them. It’s all just wisdom and knowledge, which is what the term Veda means. These are all truths that are meant to inform us of the world and universe we inhabit so that we can understand our place in it. These truths help us to ultimately transcend the realm of matter, shed the material body we inhabit and endeavor to re-enter the spiritual realm.”

HINDU LOVE OF LIFE AND EXISTENCE

Hindus believe that all living creatures — from bacteria to blue whales, and even some plants — have souls, which are essentially equal, and all these life forms are manifestations of the unity of the universe. This is why Hindus are vegetarians and abhor killing animals; and “ahimsa” , the belief that it is a sin to harm any living creature, is an important precept in Hinduism. The concept was eluded to in the Upanishads and contrasts sharply with doctrines of Western religions which holds that mankind is a special creation on a plane higher than other creatures.

Life and death are seen as meaningless cycles. Life itself is often characterized as a dream that has little to with relevance of the true nature of things in terms of the universe, cosmology and forces behind life. Reality is like an onion whose successive layers have to be pealed to reveal the universe eternal truth. On this subject Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:
“Do not say
“God gave us this delusion.”
You dream you are a doer.
You dream that action is done.
You dream that action bears fruit.
It is your ignorance.
It is your delusion
That gives these dreams.”

Hindus believe in “Paramatman” (the eternal, blissful self), which contradicts the Buddhist belief in the impermanent and transitory nature of things.

Hindu Beliefs

Hindus believe in four “purushartha” (aims of the living, or instrumental and ultimate goals): 1) “artha” (material prosperity); 2) “kama” (satisfaction of legitimate desires); 3) “dharma” (moral conduct and duties associated with one’s station in life); and 4) “moksha” (obtaining release from the cycle of deaths and rebirths). These aims are thought to apply to everyone, regardless of caste, from Brahmin to Untouchables.

 1) Most Hindus believe in a Supreme God, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him. 2) Hindus believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, governed by Karma. 3) Hindus believe that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived.

Hindus talk about the impermanence of relationships in the material world. In the Bhagavad Gita it is written that “the company of people who don’t believe in seeking eternal truth is bad company.” According to the Hindu view, there are four goals of life on earth, and each human being should aspire to all four. Everyone should aim: 1) for dharma, or righteous living; 2) artha, or wealth acquired through the pursuit of a profession; 3) kama, or human and sexual love; and, 4) finally, moksha, or spiritual salvation. Tripura Rahasya, 18: 89 reads: “Second-hand knowledge of the self gathered from books or gurus can never emancipate a man until its truth is rightly investigated and applied; only direct realisation will do that. Realise yourself, turning the mind inward.”

Vedanta, the basis of Hinduism, states that the individual human soul (atman) originates and merges with the Brahman (the all-in-one ‘impersonal’ God and the universal soul) . There are three different philosophies on this concept. 1) Advaita (non-duality), which implies that there is an identity of Brahman and atman; 2) Dvaita (duality), which maintains that Brahman and Jatman are united; and 3) Visistadvaita (qualified non-duality), which maintains Brahman and Jatman are fundamental united but have crucial differentiations. These view were were promoted by Sri Adi Shankara, Sri Ramanuja and Sri Madhva. Among other concepts which are not as widely embraced but still followed by some Hindus are dvaitadvaita (dual-non-dual doctrine), suddhadvaita (pure non-dualism), and acinntyaa bhedabheda (oneness and difference). These were promulgated by Nimbarka, Vallabha and Vidyabhusana. All the above philosophers have written commentaries on the prasthana-traya (triple canon) of the vedanta, which are the Upanishads, Brahma Sutra and Bhagavad Gita.

Flexibility of Hindu Beliefs

Many Hindus view life, existence and cosmology as too complicated to be followed a simple creed. It is therefore up to an individual or group to pick the aspects of the religion that they feel applies to them. According to the “advaita” philosophy the world and everything in it is an illusion and is one. There is only one divine principle in Hinduism and all the different gods are manifestations of this cosmic unity. Hindus often say, “We believe God is everywhere…We believe God is you, too.” The only essential truth and desire is the one that is possessed within. Other things found in life are generally distortions and untruths.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “From its beginnings, Hinduism has possessed a remarkable ability to assimilate rather than reject new ideas. It has developed complex overlays of beliefs, cults, gods, and forms of worship. Hindus recognize no single founder or prophet. There is no single holy book similar to the Bible or Qur’an; the religion is not supervised and interpreted by a hierarchy of priests, and its great texts were not inscribed but handed down as an oral tradition. Hindu worship is based on a one-to-one relationship between devotee and god rather than being congregational. This practice intensified beginning in the seventh century with the popularity of bhakti, passionate personal devotion to an individual god or goddess. Over the centuries, a number of important poets and musician-saints emerged from the bhakti tradition whose works, such as the Gita Govinda, became classics of Indian culture.”

Hindu beliefs and scriptures are less monolithic and more diverse than Islam and Christianity and often yield contradictory arguments. On the issue of when life begins, Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New York Times, “The ancient system of Indian medicine known as Ayurveda assumes that fetuses are alive and conscious when it prescribes a particular mental and spiritual regimen to pregnant women. This same assumption is implicit in “The Mahabharata,” the Hindu epic about a fratricidal war apparently fought in the first millennium B.C. In one of its famous stories, the warrior Arjuna describes to his pregnant wife a seven-stage military strategy. His yet-to-born son Abhimanyu is listening, too. But as Arjuna describes the seventh and last stage, his wife falls asleep, presumably out of boredom. Years later, while fighting his father’s cousins, the hundred Kaurava brothers, Abhimanyu uses well the military training he has learned in his mother’s womb, until the seventh stage, where he falters and is killed.” However, Early in “The Mahabharata,” there is a story about how the hundred Kaurava brothers came into being. Their mother had produced a mass of flesh after two years of pregnancy. But then a sage divided the flesh into 100 parts, which were treated with herbs and ghee, and kept in pots for two years — from which the Kaurava brothers emerged.”

Hinduism, Reincarnation and Transmigration

 Reincarnation is the transmigration of the soul from one life form to another. It doesn’t just apply to humans but to all creatures and some non-living things too. Transmigration of the soul can take place from a human or creature into another human or creature up or down a scale based on good and evil deeds (See Karma Below). If a person has lived a virtuous life he moves up the scale, say, from a low caste to a high caste. If a person has lived an unworthy life he moves down the scale, say, from a low caste to a rat.

Reincarnation is a belief found in most Asian religions and is a cornerstone of all the major religions found in India except Islam. The Hindu idea of reincarnation is roughly the same regardless of which Hindu god an individual venerates most.

The Hindu concept of reincarnation first appeared in the Upanishads and is believed to have originated in the Ganges Plain and was absorbed b the Aryan-centered Hinduism as the Aryans moved into the Ganges Plain. Beliefs in reincarnation are not just found in India and Asia but are found in tribal cultures all over the world and were held by the ancient Greeks, Vikings and other groups in the West. Ideas about reincarnation are probably very old and were held by people who lived in Neolithic times.

Atman

The Upanishads, originating as commentaries on the Vedas between about 800 and 200 B.C., contain speculations on the meaning of existence that have greatly influenced Indian religious traditions. Most important is the concept of atman (the human soul), which is an individual manifestation of brahman . Atman is of the same nature as brahman , characterized either as an impersonal force or as God, and has as its goal the recognition of identity with brahman . This fusion is not possible, however, as long as the individual remains bound to the world of the flesh and desires. In fact, the deathless atman that is so bound will not join with brahman after the death of the body but will experience continuous rebirth. This fundamental concept of the transmigration of atman , or reincarnation after death, lies at the heart of the religions emerging from India.

Atman means ‘eternal self’. The atman refers to the real self beyond ego or false self. It is often referred to as ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ and indicates our true self or essence which underlies our existence. There are many interesting perspectives on the self in Hinduism ranging from the self as eternal servant of God to the self as being identified with God. The understanding of the self as eternal supports the idea of reincarnation in that the same eternal being can inhabit temporary bodies.

“The idea of atman entails the idea of the self as a spiritual rather than material being and thus there is a strong dimension of Hinduism which emphasises detachment from the material world and promotes practices such as asceticism. Thus it could be said that in this world, a spiritual being, the atman, has a human experience rather than a human being having a spiritual experience.” |

Hindu Beliefs About Reincarnation

 Reincarnation is viewed as a never-ending set of cycles ( “yugas” and “ kalpas” ). One may be reincarnated millions of times. The doctrine that the soul repeatedly dies and is reborn is called “samsara” (Sanskrit for migration). “Karma” determines what a person is reincarnated as. Escape from the weary cycle of reincarnation can be achieved through escape into “an unchanging anonymous Absolute” and attaining “moksha” , the Hindu equivalent or “nirvana” . For More on These Ideas See Below.

Hindus believe that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives (samsara) and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived (karma). In a lifetime people build up karma, both good and bad, based on their actions within that lifetime. This karma affects their future lives and existences. People must take responsibility for their actions either within this life time or the next. Death is a key part of this cycle and is treated with specific importance. Death is the last samsara (cycle of life) referred to as the ‘last sacrifice’.”

According to Hindu theology an “atman” (an internal self or soul) dwells in each person as a kind of cosmic energy that exists beyond worldly reality and karma and doesn’t require good deeds or prayers to improve on itself. The problem is that few creatures can tune into their atman and thus require deeds and prayer to help them establish their place in the world Reincarnation helps them do this and evolve to reach closer to their atman.

The cycles of birth and death are perceived a continuations of the disintegrating force of Creation while transmigration of the soul from one life to another is viewed a perpetuation of the separation of the individual from the unifying force of existence. The aim of the individual is to “get off the wheel,” to escape the cycle and merge finally with the Oneness that was there before Creation began. into the original One. Methods used on the path of escaping reincarnation include yoga, meditation, and charity. Since the chances of escaping it are quite low people are encouraged to work to achieve a better position in their next life by doing good deeds, living simply and praying a lot.

Behavior at the end of one’s life and last thought before dying are believed to be very important in determining how an individual will be reincarnated. Thus a great deal of care goes into making sure a person is well cared before they die and after. This is achieved by creating a calm atmosphere and reading Vedic scriptures and reciting mantras so the soon-to-be-dead can earn as much merit as possible.

Karma

Karma is the means in which a person controls his or her destiny through good or evil deeds. Defined by some scholars as “the whole ethical consequences of one’s actions,” it is a moral force that survives death, determines one’s existence in future lives and has defined existence in past lives.

Karma is a Sanskrit word that means “work” or “action” and the “result of a work or action.” It describes a “reap what you sow” and the “cause and effect” doctrine in which good actions will be rewarded and bad actions will be punished on both universal and individual levels and influence one’s reincarnation. The emphasis in karma beliefs is not based on punishment for bad deeds but rather on improving one’s karma by learning from one’s mistakes and performing pure deeds, praying, mediating and taking actions to purify oneself.

The concepts of reincarnation, caste and karma are linked, with karma being carried over from one life to the next, determining the life or caste of a person in their next life. Based on whether their karma is generally good or bad, people are reborn in higher or lower castes. Some sinners come back as animals that befits their crimes. A meat stealer may come back as a jackal, a grain thief as a rat. The worst sinners are condemned to the lowest hells where they are eaten by birds or cooked in pots.

Indian religious tradition sees karma as the source of the problem of transmigration. While associated with physical form, for example, in a human body, beings experience the universe through their senses and their minds and attach themselves to the people and things around them and constantly lose sight of their true existence as atman , which is of the same nature as brahman . As the time comes for the dropping of the body, the fruits of good and evil actions in the past remain with atman , clinging to it, causing a tendency to continue experience in other existences after death. Good deeds in this life may lead to a happy rebirth in a better life, and evil deeds may lead to a lower existence, but eventually the consequences of past deeds will be worked out, and the individual will seek more experiences in a physical world. In this manner, the bound or ignorant atman wanders from life to life, in heavens and hells and in many different bodies. The universe may expand and be destroyed numerous times, but the bound atman will not achieve release.

Yoga, Gurus and Achieving Moksha

The true goal of atman is liberation, or release (moksha ), from the limited world of experience and realization of oneness with God or the cosmos. In order to achieve release, the individual must pursue a kind of discipline (yoga, a “tying,” related to the English word yoke) that is appropriate to one’s abilities and station in life. For most people, this goal means a course of action that keeps them rather closely tied to the world and its ways, including the enjoyment of love (kama ), the attainment of wealth and power (artha ), and the following of socially acceptable ethical principles (dharma).

From this perspective, even manuals on sexual love, such as the Kama Sutra (Book of Love), or collections of ideas on politics and governance, such as the Arthashastra (Science of Material Gain), are part of a religious tradition that values action in the world as long as it is performed with understanding, a karma-yoga or selfless discipline of action in which every action is offered as a sacrifice to God. Some people, however, may be interested in breaking the cycle of rebirth in this life or soon thereafter. For them, a wide range of techniques has evolved over the thousands of years that gives Indian religion its great diversity. The discipline that involves physical positioning of the body (hatha-yoga), which is most commonly equated with yoga outside of India, sees the human body as a series of spiritual centers that can be awakened through meditation and exercise, leading eventually to a oneness with the universe. Tantrism is the belief in the Tantra (from the Sanskrit, context or continuum), a collection of texts that stress the usefulness of rituals, carried out with a strict discipline, as a means for attaining understanding and spiritual awakening. These rituals include chanting powerful mantras; meditating on complicated or auspicious diagrams (mandalas); and, for one school of advanced practitioners, deliberately violating social norms on food, drink, and sexual relations. *

A central aspect of all religious discipline, regardless of its emphasis, is the importance of the guru, or teacher. Indian religion may accept the sacredness of specific texts and rituals but stresses interpretation by a living practitioner who has personal experience of liberation and can pass down successful techniques to devoted followers. In fact, since Vedic times, it has never been possible, and has rarely been desired, to unite all people in India under one concept of orthodoxy with a single authority that could be presented to everyone. Instead, there has been a tendency to accept religious innovation and diversity as the natural result of personal experience by successive generations of gurus, who have tailored their messages to particular times, places, and peoples, and then passed down their knowledge to lines of disciples and social groups. As a result, Indian religion is a mass of ancient and modern traditions, some always preserved and some constantly changing, and the individual is relatively free to stress in his or her life the beliefs and religious behaviors that seem most effective on the path to deliverance. *

Karma, Character and Behavior

Hinduism teaches one to accept the injustices of life and be patient for rewards that may not materialize until their next life. High positions are not earned and low positions must be accepted. Some scholars have argued that beliefs in transmigration and karma originated as a way to explain social and economic discrepancies, to create an incentive to act morally and to offer people who were dealt a bad set of cards some hope in the future, in their next life.

It has also been argued that beliefs of karma and reincarnation encourage passivity with Hindus accepting their often miserable fate and taking little initiative to improve their lives or get rid of the poverty and misery around them. The beliefs also produce a resigned “inshallah” approach to life — with victims of bad events chalking up the events to bad karma, and in some cases even feeling relieved because they feel their bad karma has been used up and better things will happen in the future.

Parkish Louis, of the Indian Social Institute, a Delhi think tank, told the Financial Times, “People have been for centuries oppressed, passive, paralyzed and marginalized by beliefs of karma and destiny. People are accepting their misery in the name of religion and beliefs.” This attitude is also said to encourage irresponsibility and make people more accepting of corruption than they otherwise would be.

The Soul, Death and Afterlife in Hinduism

 There is little mourning when a Hindu dies because they believe that once a person is born he or she never dies. Krishna said in the Bhagavad-Gita that “Worn-out garments are shed by the body: worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within…New bodies are donned by the dweller, like garments.” Death is often viewed in a positive light: as an escape from one life on the road to a better an ultimate moksha (nirvana), shanti (peace) and paramapada (the ultimate place).

“Atman” (the self or spiritual soul) is seen as a kernel that lies at the center of a large onion and is only revealed after the layers around it — associated with the body, passions and mental powers — are removed in a step by step fashion. The Taittiriya Upanishad defines five layers or sheaths (from the outer to the kernel): 1) the body 2) bio-energy, the equivalent of Chinese qi; 3) mental energy; 4) intuition and wisdom; 5) pure bliss achieved mainly through meditation. These layers can be removed through self actualization and the kernel of eternal bliss can ultimately be realized.

On the subject of death one passage in the Rig Veda reads:


“When he goes on the path that lead away the breath of life.
Then he will be led by the will of the gods
May your eye go to the sun, you life’s breath to the wind
Go to the sky or the earth, as is your nature. “

The Vedas refer to two paths taken after death: 1) the path of the ancestors, where the deceased travels to a heaven occupied by ancestors and is ultimately reborn; 2) the path of gods, where the deceased enters a realm at the sun and never returns. The latter is the equivalent of reaching nirvana and escaping reincarnation. There is also a reference to a hell-like “pit” where sinners are punished.

At death the sheaths break apart one by one, and go their separate ways revealing the atman, which departs the body and goes on a path defined by an individual’s karma. In most cases the individual goes to a niche in the cosmos occupied by his ancestors or to one of the 21 heavens and hells of Hindu cosmology and remains there for duration defined by their karma until he or she is ready to be reborn.

Moksha

“Moksha” is the Hindu equivalent of “nirvana” . It means “release” or “liberation” and refers to the release from the cycle of deaths and rebirths and merging of the personal self with the cosmic self. In the Vedas, there are references to sages experiencing eternal bliss but little is said on how they achieved it or what it was like. The “Upanishads” describes the path to moksha as a quest “from the unreal….to the real; from the darkness…to light; from death…to immorality.” One who attains moksha is called a “jivam-mukta”, or freed soul. After death “he goes to light [traveling] from the sun to the moon from the moon to lightning…This is the path of the gods…Those that proceed on this path do not return to the life.”

 Moksha is something that has to occur in natural rather than deliberate way. It can only be attained when all desire and attachment, including the desire for moksha have been overcome. Descriptions of it tend to be focused more on achieving it than what it is like. The Bhagavad Gita reads: “The man who has reached perfection attains the Supreme Being, which is the end, the aim, and the highest condition of spiritual knowledge…Imbued with pure discrimination, restraining himself with resolution, having rejected the charms of sound and other objects of the senses, and casting off attachment and dislike; dwelling in secluded places, eating little, with speech, body and mind controlled, engaging in constant meditation and unwaveringly fixed in dispassion, abandoning egotism, arrogance, violence, vanity, desire, anger, pride, and possession, with calmness, ever present, a man is fitted to be the Supreme Being. And having thus attained the Supreme Being, he is serving sorrow no more, and no more desiring but alike towards all creatures he attains to supreme devotion.”

Moksha is obtained through the acquisition of knowledge and by overcoming ignorance . The three main ways to obtain moksha are known as “marga” . They are 1) “jnana”, the way of knowledge; 2) “bhakti”, the way of devotion; and 3) “karma” , the way of action. There are many sects, guides, teachers and gurus that provide assistance on the path to moksha. Yoga is among the methods that modern Hindus turn to in their quest for it (See Yoga). Moksha is not an easy thing to attain. It can thousands even millions of lifetimes to achieve.

Ashrama: Hindu Stages of Life

Hindus believe in four stages of life ( “ashrama”): 1) “brahmacarin” (life of student); 2) “grhastha” (becoming a householder, which includes marriage, having children and working); 3) “vanaprastha” (retiring to the forest to become a hermit and meditate); and 4) “sannyasi” (becoming a mendicant that renounces worldly possessions and wanders the countryside begging).

The ashrama system is as follows:

1) Brahmacarya – ‘celibate student’ stage in which males learned the Veda;

2) grihastha – ‘householder’ in which the twice born male can experience the human purposes (purushartha) of responsibility, wealth, and sexual pleasure;

3) Vanaprastha – ‘hermit’ or ‘wilderness dweller’ in which the twice born male retires from life in the world to take up pilgrimage and religious observances along with his wife; and

4) Samnyasa – ‘renunciation’ in which the twice born gives up the world, takes on a saffron robe or, in some sects, goes naked, with a bowl and a staff to seek moksha (liberation) or develop devotion.”

These apply mostly to men. Inherent to the stage of the householder is the belief that the pursuit of money, power, fame and glory are all legitimate pursuits as long as they don’t harm others. The pursuit of religious enlightenment is something that takes place after one’s family is provided for. The last two stages place an emphasis on gaining merit before death to improve one’s karma and gain a better position through reincarnation.

Hindu Philosophical Concepts

 Hinduism also has a deeply philosophical side. Many scholars suggest that philosophical inquiry and speculation began in India before its did anywhere else, even ancient Greece. The Hindu philosophy of the Upanishad period is particularly rich. Perhaps one reason this is so is that Hinduism has traditionally been tolerant of and absorbed so many different — and sometimes conflicting — ideas and beliefs and organized them into elastic networks that allows these ideas to coexist and have a vehicle for expression.

The primary theme of much of Hindu philosophy is rising above the cycle of reincarnation and getting close to the Supreme Being. Before the Christian era Six “Darshanas” (schools of thought) were created to offer different methods to address these themes: 1) “Nyaya” (logic and analysis); 2) “Vaishenshika” (nature consisting of atoms distinct from the soul); 3) “Sankya” (the reality and duality of matter and soul): 4) “yoga” (moral control through physical postures); 5) “mimmsa” (sacrificialism); and 6) “Vedanta” (the idea that the world is an illusion that detracts from gaining absolute knowledge). The latter is alive and well. The other five are largely extinct.

See Life and Existence, Hindu Concept of Self

The most famous Hindu thinker is Sankara, an A.D. 9th century Brahmin from Kerala who was able to harmonize and provide a framework for Hindu thought and make sense of its apparent contradictions. He argued that salivation was in the hands of the individual and emphasized meditation as a way of achieving it. Ramanuju, a 12th century Tamil Brahmin thinker, is also regarded a great Hindu theistic philosopher. He argued that devotion was the best path to eternal bliss and that salvation was awarded by the grace of God. Ramananda, who taught in Varanasi in the 15th century, and his student Kabir, were opposed to the caste system and tried ro reform Hinduism.

Purushartha

Professor Flood of Oxford University wrote: “Hinduism developed a doctrine that life has different goals according to a person’s stage of life and position. These goals became codified in the ‘goals of a person’ or ‘human goals’, the purusharthas, especially in sacred texts about dharma called ‘dharma shastras’ of which the ‘Laws of Manu’ is the most famous. In these texts three goals of life are expressed, namely virtuous living or dharma, profit or worldly success, and pleasure, especially sexual pleasure as a married householder and more broadly aesthetic pleasure. A fourth goal of liberation (moksha) was added at a later date. The purusharthas express an understanding of human nature, that people have different desires and purposes which are all legitimate in their context.

“Over the centuries there has been discussion about which goal was most important. Towards the end of the Mahabharata (Shantiparvan 12.167) there is a discussion about the relative importance of the three goals of dharma, profit and pleasure between the Pandava brothers and the wise sage Vidura. Vidura claims that dharma is most important because through it the sages enter the absolute reality, on dharma the universe rests, and through dharma wealth is acquired. One of the brothers, Arjuna, disagrees, claiming that dharma and pleasure rest on profit. Another brother, Bhima, argues for pleasure or desire being the most important goal, as only through desire have the sages attained liberation. This discussion recognises the complexity and varied nature of human purposes and meanings in life.”

Hindu Merit and Penitence

 The idea of merit get more attention in Buddhism than Hinduism but is still important in Hinduism. It is linked with karma. Merit is sort of like brownie points that helps one ascend to higher reincarnation levels and eventually reach the state of enlightenment. Earning merit is essentially the same thing as earning good karma and has been described as a “spiritual bank account” in which “doing bad things are withdrawals; making merit is a deposit.”

Extreme forms of penitence are central parts of Thaipusam, a festival celebrated at Batu Caves outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Devotees carry “kavadis” (large, colorful steel frames) supported on spikes, spears and hooks that pierce their flesh and skin. The devotees wear the kavadis to fulfill thanksgiving vows for having had their prayers answered the previous year. The participants fast and abstain from sex and alcohol for a month before the ritual so they are pure. Apples, fruit and coconuts and other objects carried on the kavadis are presented at Lord Subramaniam’s shrine. Devotees also saw and place spikes through their tongue and make quarter-size holes in their cheeks with lances and stick a poles though them. Cheek piercing with sharpened metal rods is part of prayer ceremonies held in the Punjabi city of Ludhiana.

Some women have the word Rama written over and over again across their saris and cloaks. Women of the Namdhari sect even tattoo Sanskrit lines of the word across their face.

Penitence, See Sadhus, Holy Men

Hindu Miracles

Hindus have traditionally regarded miracles as forms of play used by the Gods to amuse themselves. Kenneth Woodward wrote in Newsweek: “For more than three millenniums, India has been a land of living saints. It is also a land of nearly countless local gods and goddesses — some 3 million of them, by one recent estimate. All gods, however, are but different forms of a single Absolute (Brahman) which is also the ground (Atman) of everyone who exists. Just as Hindu gods can descend in human form, so the Hindu saint can achieve god-like consciousness. Thus, through rigorous meditation and other yogic practices, the practitioner can decant his bottled divinity. Given this view, the line between human and divine is not as distinct as in the West.

“Maharaj Krishna Rasgotra, a retired foreign secretary of India, remembers the precise day almost 30 years ago when he became a devotee of Saty Sai Baba, India’s most celebrated living saint. Over the years, the government official often witnessed Baba work his signature miracle — producing out of air mounds of vibhuti, sacred ash that his devotees credit with healing properties. But it was in 1986 that Rasgotra experienced Baba’s power firsthand. After suffering a heart attack, Rasgotra lay in a hospital recovery room. Among the hovering doctors and nurses he saw Baba, though the saint was a thousand miles away. When physicians told him he needed bypass surgery to avoid a fatal attack, Rasgotra consulted Baba in person, who told him he didn’t need it. Rasgotra skipped surgery and today, at 75, he plays 18 holes of golf regularly. “I have total faith in Baba,” says Rasgotra. “Whatever he says comes about. Whenever you are with him you feel you’re shedding something and acquiring a new kind of life.

DHARMA AND HINDU VIEWS ON MORALITY AND SOCIAL ISSUES

DHARMA

symbols used in Dharmic religions

Dharma is an important concept in Hinduism but is difficult to define. Some translate it as meaning “universal justice” or “natural law” but is best viewed as doing what is required based on one’s position and stage in life. Other important moral concepts found in Hinduism include: 1) “prarabdha” (fate); 2) “anugraha” (divine grace); and 3) “papa” (moral evil).

Dharma is basically a code of moral conduct and duties and is regarded as one of the most important truths sought by individuals in their lifetime. It is linked with righteousness and responsibility and is sometimes viewed as living in accordance with one’s caste traditions. Among Buddhists dharma it the ultimate reality, the eternal truth to which Buddha was “awakened.”

While religion means to bind, Dharma means to hold. What man holds on to is his inner law, which leads from ignorance to Truth. Though reading of the scriptures (shastras) would not directly lead you to self-realization, the teachings of the seers provide a basis and a path for spirituality. Despite being the oldest religion, the truth realized by the seers prove that the Truth and path provided by Hinduism is beyond time.

Professor Gavin Flood of Oxford University wrote: “Dharma is an important term in Indian religions. In Hinduism it means ‘duty’, ‘virtue’, ‘morality’, even ‘religion’ and it refers to the power which upholds the universe and society. Hindus generally believe that dharma was revealed in the Vedas although a more common word there for ‘universal law’ or ‘righteousness’ is rita. Dharma is the power that maintains society, it makes the grass grow, the sun shine, and makes us moral people or rather gives humans the opportunity to act virtuously.

“But acting virtuously does not mean precisely the same for everyone; different people have different obligations and duties according to their age, gender, and social position. Dharma is universal but it is also particular and operates within concrete circumstances. Each person therefore has their own dharma known as sva-dharma. What is correct for a woman might not be for a man or what is correct for an adult might not be for a child.

“Correct action in accordance with dharma is also understood as service to humanity and to God. The idea of what has become known as sanatana dharma can be traced back to the puranas. Those who adhere to this idea, addressing one’s eternal dharma or constitution, claim that it transcends other mundane dharmas – that it is the para dharma, the ultimate dharma. It is often associated with bhakti movements, who propose that we are all eternal servants of a personal Deity, thus advocating each act, word, and deed to be acts of devotion. In the 19th Century the concept of sanatana dharma was used by some groups to advocate a unified view of Hinduism.”

Dharma and the Bhagavad Gita

Bhagavad Gita. This text, set before the great battle of the Mahabharata, depicts the hero Arjuna riding in his chariot driven by his charioteer Krishna between the great armies. The warrior Arjuna questions Krishna about why he should fight in the battle. Surely, he asks, killing one’s relatives and teachers is wrong and so he refuses to fight.

“Krishna assures him that this particular battle is righteous and he must fight as his duty or dharma as a warrior. Arjuna’s sva-dharma was to fight in the battle because he was a warrior, but he must fight with detachment from the results of his actions and within the rules of the warriors’ dharma. Indeed, not to act according to one’s own dharma is wrong and called adharma.

“Correct action in accordance with dharma is also understood as service to humanity and to God. The idea of what has become known as sanatana dharma can be traced back to the puranas – texts of antiquity. Those who adhere to this idea of one’s eternal dharma or constitution, claim that it transcends other mundane dharmas – that it is the para dharma, the ultimate dharma of the self. It is often associated with bhakti movements, who link an attitude of eternal service to a personal deity.

Hindu Morality

Adharma is behavior that is opposed to one’s dharma. Adharma and dharma are somewhat like yin and yang in that they oppose one another but are also complimentary and they way they oppose each other is relative. Good and evil, right and wrong and truth and falsehood are can all be viewed in terms of dharma and adharma but are relative to an individual and his or her position in life.

The great Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata give a lot of attention to dharma and adharma. See Concepts in the Bhagavad Gita

The concept of purity is important. Hindus believed that purification of the body leads to purification of the mind and ones position in the world (or caste) is determined by the purity or impurity of past deeds ( “karma” ). The five polluting “pancamakra” are: 1) wine; 2) meat; 3) fish; 4) parched grain; and 5) sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman. The idea of purity is at the heart of the caste system. See Caste System.

Hinduism and Character

Some argue Hinduism encourages tolerance and open-mindedness. There is no right way or wrong way to practice Hinduism; no correct code of ethics or values; no proselytizing.

Children are brought up to follow the customs and ethics of their parents but are encouraged to decide for themselves which gods and goddesses are right for them. Individuals often practice group rituals for their family and private rituals for themselves.

It has been said that Hinduism encourages fatalistic pacificism and that holiness is often equated with passivity and renunciation. See Karma

See Karma, Character and Behavior

Hinduism and Materialism

Hinduism has traditionally frowned upon the accumulation of material wealth. The “comforts” of the body do not necessarily promise peace of mind. Eternal bliss holy men say is achieved through by “controlling your desires and imposing self-discipline.”

Renouncing materialism is something that has traditionally been associated with old age and holy men not working men caring for his wife and children. In keeping with Hindu beliefs about the stages of life a man with a family “cannot hope to realize all his spiritual capabilities until his responsibilities are over and he can leave the world.”

Inherent to the stage of the householder (a man with a family) is the belief that the pursuit of money, power, fame and glory are all legitimate pursuits as long as they don’t harm others. The pursuit of religious enlightenment is something that takes place after one’s family is provided for. The last two stages of life place an emphasis on gaining merit before death to improve one’s karma and gain a better position through reincarnation.

The best time to renounce material concerns says a Hindu treatise is “when a householder sees his skin wrinkled, and his hair white, and the sons of his sons, then he may resort to the forest…he should live without fire, without a house, a silent sage subsisting on roots and fruit.”

See Sadhus

Hindu Views on Contraception and Abortion

Hindu medical ethics are guided by the principle of ahimsa (non-violence), which says that all life is sacred and should be loved, revered and protected. Many believe this means it is not only bad to kill living beings, but to also to kill embryos. Hindus believe All life is sacred because all creatures are manifestations of the Supreme Being. When considering abortion, the Hindu way is to choose the action that will do least harm to all involved: the mother and father, the foetus and society. Hinduism is therefore generally opposed to abortion except where it is necessary to save the mother’s life. In practice, however, abortion is practiced in Hindu culture in India, because the religious ban on abortion is sometimes overruled by the cultural preference for sons. This can lead to abortion to prevent the birth of girl babies, which is called ‘female foeticide’.

“Classical Hindu texts are strongly opposed to abortion: one text compares abortion to the killing of a priest; another text considers abortion a worse sin than killing one’s parents; another text says that a woman who aborts her child will lose her caste Traditional Hinduism and many modern Hindus also see abortion as a breach of the duty to produce children in order to continue the family and produce new members of society. Many Hindus regard the production of offspring as a ‘public duty’, not simply an ‘individual expression of personal choice’ (see Lipner, “

“The status of the foetus in Hinduism: The soul and the matter which form the foetus are considered by many Hindus to be joined together from conception. According to the doctrine of reincarnation a foetus is not developing into a person, but is a person from a very early stage. It contains a reborn soul and should be treated appropriately. By the ninth month the foetus has achieved very substantial awareness. According to the Garbha Upanishad, the soul remembers its past lives during the last month the foetus spends in the womb (these memories are destroyed during the trauma of birth). The Mahabharata refers to a child learning from its father while in the womb.

Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New York Times, “The ancient system of Indian medicine known as Ayurveda assumes that fetuses are alive and conscious when it prescribes a particular mental and spiritual regimen to pregnant women. This same assumption is implicit in “The Mahabharata,” the Hindu epic about a fratricidal war apparently fought in the first millennium B.C. In one of its famous stories, the warrior Arjuna describes to his pregnant wife a seven-stage military strategy. His yet-to-born son Abhimanyu is listening, too. But as Arjuna describes the seventh and last stage, his wife falls asleep, presumably out of boredom. Years later, while fighting his father’s cousins, the hundred Kaurava brothers, Abhimanyu uses well the military training he has learned in his mother’s womb, until the seventh stage, where he falters and is killed

“But the religions and traditions we know as Hinduism are less monolithic and more diverse than Islam and Christianity; they can yield contradictory arguments. Early in “The Mahabharata,” there is a story about how the hundred Kaurava brothers came into being. Their mother had produced a mass of flesh after two years of pregnancy. But then a sage divided the flesh into 100 parts, which were treated with herbs and ghee, and kept in pots for two years — from which the Kaurava brothers emerged.”

“Abortion and Reincarnation: The doctrine of reincarnation, which sees life as a repeating cycle of birth, death and rebirth, is basic to Hindu thinking. The doctrine of reincarnation can be used to make a strong case against abortion: If a foetus is aborted, the soul within it suffers a major karmic setback. It is deprived of the opportunities its potential human existence would have given it to earn good karma, and is returned immediately to the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Thus abortion hinders a soul’s spiritual progress. Reincarnation can also be used to make a case that abortion should be permitted. Under the doctrine of reincarnation, abortion only deprives the soul of one of many births that it will have. The consequences of abortion in the framework of reincarnation are therefore not as bad as they are in those religions where a soul gets only one chance to be born and where abortion deprives the soul of all possibility of life.”

“There is no ban on birth control in Hinduism. Some Hindu scriptures include advice on what a couple should do to promote conception – thus providing contraceptive advice to those who want it. However, most Hindus accept that there is a duty to have a family during the householder stage of life, and so are unlikely to use contraception to avoid having children altogether. Because India has such a high level of population, much of the discussion of birth control has focussed on the environmental issue of overpopulation rather than more personal ethics, and birth control is not a major ethical issue.

Ahimsa and Hindu Views on Animal Ethics

Hinduism is a term that embraces many different although related religious ideas. Therefore, there is no clear single Hindu view on the right way to treat animals. However, in general, the doctrine of ahimsa leads Hindus to treat animals well and many Hindus are vegetarian. The cow is greatly revered by Hindus and is regarded as sacred. Killing cows is banned in India and no Hindu would eat any beef product. In addition: 1) Butchery and related jobs are restricted to people of low caste; 2) Most Hindus believe that non-human animals are inferior to human beings; 3) Some Hindu temples keep sacred animals; 4) Some Hindu gods have animal characteristics. Ganesh has the head of an elephant. Hanuman takes the form of a monkey.

The Hindu view towards living things is guided by Ahisma, a concept that originated in Jainism but is also widely accepted in Hinduism and Buddhism. Ahimsa is often translated simply as non-violence, but its implications are far wider; it is more than not doing violence, it is more than an attitude, it is a whole way of life. And for modern Jains the concept also includes the positive elements of working for justice, peace, liberation, and freedom, if doing so does not involve violence.

Literally translated, Ahimsa means to be without harm; to be utterly harmless, as Jains see it, not only to oneself and others, but to all forms of life, from the largest mammals to the smallest bacteria. Mahatma Gandhi was a famous advocate of Ahimsa, as it informed his policy of passive resistance, satyagraha (combining the Sanskrit terms for ‘truth’ and ‘holding firmly’) – which he adopted towards the occupying British forces during the period leading up to Indian independence. Some Jains have criticised this as being a subtle form of violence.

Jain Beliefs About Ahimsa

Jains believe that the only way to save one’s own soul is to protect every other soul, and so the most central Jain teaching, and the heart of Jain ethics, is that of ahimsa (non-violence).” The Jain founder “Mahavira taught that: ‘there is no quality of soul more subtle than non-violence and no virtue of spirit greater than reverence for life.’ In practical terms the biggest part that ahimsa plays in the lives of lay Jains today is in the regulation of their diet.

Jains believe that life (which equals soul) is sacred regardless of faith, caste, race, or even species. Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any creature or living being. In following this discipline Jain monks may be observed treading and sweeping in their temples with the utmost of care so as to avoid accidentally crushing crawling insects, or wearing muslin cloths over their mouths in case they should accidentally swallow a fly.

Ahimsa basics: 1) Refraining from violence: One should refrain from violence to any living creature. Violence includes: physical violence, mental violence and verbal violence. 2) Violence can be committed in several ways, all of which should be avoided: committing it yourself, asking others to commit violence, encouraging others to commit violence, assenting to or condoning violence. 3) Violence involves violent intention as well as physical harm. This is controversial among Jains and both the points below are disputed. Accidental physical harm may not count as violence if there was no violent intention, but lack of compassion or care may be a sufficiently violent intention. 4) Ahimsa is positive as well as negative, so it’s good to: forgive, promote tolerance, be compassionate, give to charity, work for peace, protect the environment, work for kindness to animals, and do one’s daily work in a just and honest way.

Hindu Beliefs About Ahimsa

Hindus view ahimsa as non-violence, honest compassion and true love. It is one of the five yamas, which are the ethical, moral and societal guidelines for yogis. Many Hindus believe that ahimsa can be distilled into a practice of non-violence in all aspects of life, from the physical to the mental and em

Hierarchy of Inspiration on Ahimsa: a flow chart depicting the inspiration on Ahimsa and Satya (truth) in the contemporary history

“The principle of ahimsa must be understood in subtle ways, not only in gross. To harm anyone in the slightest way, even by disrespect, will harm the person doing the action as well as the one receiving it. The perfect practice of ahimsa, then, is very rare. For though not many people would actually kill their fellows, it is common to find people slashing at one another with angry words, or with contemptuous glances.”

Hindu View on Euthanasia

There are several Hindu points of view on euthanasia. Most Hindus would say that a doctor should not accept a patient’s request for euthanasia since this will cause the soul and body to be separated at an unnatural time. The result will damage the karma of both doctor and patient. Other Hindus believe that euthanasia cannot be allowed because it breaches the teaching of ahimsa (doing no harm). However, some Hindus say that by helping to end a painful life a person is performing a good deed and so fulfilling their moral obligations.

“Hinduism is less interested than western philosophers in abstract ideas of right or wrong. Rather it focuses on the consequences of our actions. For Hindus, culture and faith are inextricable. So although many moral decisions taken by Hindus seem more influenced by their particular culture than by the ideas of their faith, this distinction may not be as clear as it seems. Hindus live their lives according to their dharma – their moral duties and responsibilities. The dharma requires a Hindu to take care of the older members of their community.

“Hindus believe in the reincarnation of the soul (or atman) through many lives – not necessarily all human. The ultimate aim of life is to achieve moksha, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. A soul’s next life is decided by karma, as the consequence of its own good or bad actions in previous lives. You could regard a soul’s karma as somehow representing the net worth of its good and bad actions. A soul cannot achieve moksha without good karma. Another important principle is ahimsa, not being violent or causing harm to other beings.

“Killing (euthanasia, murder, suicide) interferes with the killed soul’s progress towards liberation. It also brings bad karma to the killer, because of the violation of the principle of non-violence. When the soul is reincarnated in another physical body it will suffer as it did before because the same karma is still present.

otional. One can achieve this by embracing love: learning to love deeply, and being open to being loved.

in Hindu terms ahimsa “doesn’t mean to not harm or kill, which can sometimes be inevitable, such as when one eats meat or even plants, or accidentally steps on bugs. Ahimsa is about the intent, rather than the action itself. It is an attitude of universal benevolence. The Hindu mystic Patanjali wrote a scripture called the Yoga Sutras, where he outlines yamas (restraints, or what one should not do) and niyamas (observances, or what one should do). Ahimsa is the first of the yamas. Patanjali says that once ahimsa is mastered, even wild animals and ferocious criminals will become tame and harmless in our presence.

Traditionally ahimsa is taken to mean that a person should not kill. This is why vegetarianism is so widespread in India. Some Hindus believe that one should not kill or harm anything even to save one’s own life. Some sects in India go to great measures to follow this, such as boiling water to avoid killing germs when they drink it. The term was popularized in modern times by Mahatma Gandhi. By non-violent resistance he led India to political emancipation from Britain.

“Ahimsa, rightly understood, is the ultimate weapon; it turns one’s enemy into a friend, thereby banishing the possibility of further conflict. In the practice of yoga, it is important to understand that the same life flows in the veins of all creatures. What Patanjali referred to, essentially, was the attitude of the mind, rather than the literal acts of the body. It is one’s attitude that can either lead him toward liberation, or hold him in greater bondage. An attitude of harmlessness (and its corollary, a feeling of universal benevolence) is what is meant by ahimsa. It is not possible in any case kill anyone: The soul is immortal. What is possible, however, by wishing harm to another living being, is develop a consciousness of death, which causes harm to the perpetrator.

episode from the Mahabharata: Krishna and the Pandava princes battle demons

“The doctrine of karma means that a Hindu tries to get their life in a good state before they die, making sure that there is no unfinished business, or unhappinesses. They try to enter the state of a sannyasin – one who has renounced everything. The ideal death is a conscious death, and this means that palliative treatments will be a problem if they reduce mental alertness. The state of mind that leads a person to choose euthanasia may affect the process of reincarnation, since one’s final thoughts are relevant to the process

“There are two Hindu views on euthanasia: By helping to end a painful life a person is performing a good deed and so fulfilling their moral obligations. By helping to end a life, even one filled with suffering, a person is disturbing the timing of the cycle of death and rebirth. This is a bad thing to do, and those involved in the euthanasia will take on the remaining karma of the patient. The same argument suggests that keeping a person artificially alive on a life-support machine would also be a bad thing to do. However, the use of a life-support machine as part of a temporary attempt at healing would not be a bad thing”

Prayopavesa: Hindu Suicide

Suicide: Prayopavesa, or fasting to death, is an acceptable way for a Hindu to end their life in certain circumstances. Prayopavesa is very different from what most people mean by suicide: 1) it’s non-violent and uses natural means; 2) it’s only used when it’s the right time for this life to end – when this body has served its purpose and become a burden; 3) unlike the suddenness of suicide, prayopavesa is a gradual process, giving ample time for the patient to prepare himself and those around him for his death; 4) while suicide is often associated with feelings of frustration, depression, or anger, prayopavesa is associated with feelings of serenity.

“Prayopavesa is only for people who are fulfilled, who have no desire or ambition left, and no responsibilities remaining in this life. It is really only suitable for elderly ascetics. Hindu law lays down conditions for prayopavesa: 1) inability to perform normal bodily purification death appears imminent or the condition is so bad that life’s pleasures are nil; 2) the decision is publicly declared; and 3) the action must be done under community regulation

“An example of prayopavesa: Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, a Hindu leader born in California, took his own life by prayopavesa in November 2001. After finding that he had untreatable intestinal cancer the Satguru meditated for several days and then announced that he would accept pain-killing treatment only and would undertake prayopavesa – taking water, but no food. He died on the 32nd day of his self-imposed fast.

Organ donation

No religious law prohibits Hindus from donating their organs and tissues. Life after death is a strong belief of Hindus and is an ongoing process of rebirth. This could be seen as reflecting positively on the concept of organ donation and transplantation. A minority argument, though, says that if someone donates an organ as intrinsic to the body as a heart, the principle of karma means the recipient will have to return the favour in the donor’s next life – which means the donor will have to have a next life. Hindus hope to be liberated from the cycle of rebirth, so this would be a disadvantage. However, most Hindus would view this argument as selfish

“According to Shaunaka Rishi Das of the Oxford Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu Studies, most Hindus take the view that after the soul has departed, the body is no more than a machine, and there is nothing to stop the parts being shared with others. Decisions about organ donation and transplantation are left to individuals to make, but there are many references that support the concept of organ donation in Hindu scriptures. In the list of ten Niyamas (or virtuous acts) in the Hindu scriptures, Daan (or selfless giving) is third, and is held as being very significant within the Hindu faith. That which sustains is accepted and promoted as Dharma (righteous living). This could also be seen as supporting the idea of organ donation.

“But, the only constraint on the idea of organ donation is imposed by the very nature of Dharma. Every act or intention of anyone should be dharmik. Therefore, it is right to donate organs, only if the act of donating an organ has beneficial results. In Hindu mythology there are also traditions which support the use of body parts to benefit others. Scientific papers also form an important part of the Vedas. Sage Sushruta looks at features of organ and limb transplants, and Sage Charaka deals with internal medicine.”

Hindu Views on War

Like most religions Hinduism includes both teachings that condemn violence and war, and teachings that promote it as a moral duty. The teachings that condemn violence are contained in the doctrine of ahimsa, while those that permit it centre around the Kshatriyas – the warrior caste.” But again it is important to keep in mind that “Hinduism is a label that covers a wide range of Indian religious groups. While there are many differences between the various traditions they have a great deal in common.

Hindus believe that it is right to use force in self-defence: Rig Veda 1-39:2 reads: 1) May your weapons be strong to drive away the attackers; 2) may your arms be powerful enough to check the foes; and 3) let your army be glorious, not the evil-doer. On the conduct of war, the Rig Veda sets down the rules of war in 6-75:15, and says that a warrior will go to hell if he breaks any of them. The rules are: 1) do not poison the tip of your arrow; 2) do not attack the sick or old; 3) do not attack a child or a woman; and 4) do not attack from behind

A key teaching on war is contained in the story of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna was about to go into battle when he discovered many of his relatives and friends were on the opposing side. Arjuna didn’t want to kill people he loved, but was persuaded to do so by Krishna. Krishna tells Arjuna that he should fight, for the following reasons: 1) it is his duty – his dharma – to fight because he was born a warrior; 2) he was born a member of a warrior caste and his duty to his caste and the divine structure of society are more important than his personal feelings; 3) violence only affects the body and cannot harm the soul, so killing is not a fault and there is no reason for Arjuna not to kill people, nor should he be sorry for those he has killed behind this lies the Eastern idea that life and death are part of an illusion, and that the spiritual is what matters.

There is no official Hindu line on capital punishment. However, Hinduism opposes killing, violence and revenge, in line with the principle of ahimsa (non-violence). Even so India still retains the death penalty.

Hindu Views on Peace

Ahimsa is one of the ideals of Hinduism. It means that one should avoid harming any living thing, and also avoid the desire to harm any living thing. Ahimsa is not just non-violence – it means avoiding any harm, whether physical, mental or emotional. In modern times the strongest proponent of ahimsa was the Indian leader Gandhi, who believed that ahimsa was the highest duty of a human being. Ahimsa, non-violence, comes from strength, and the strength is from God, not man. Ahimsa always comes from within.

“Underlying Hindu opposition to killing or violence is the concept of Karma, by which any violence or unkindness a person carries out will return to them at some time in the future by the natural law of the universe. When Hindus are violent (other than as a matter of duty), philosophers argue that this is because those who do harm do so because they have yet to evolve to a level where they understand and seek peaceful conduct.

Hinduism contains some of the earliest writings about peace. Rig Veda 10 – 191:2 goes:
Come together, talk together,
Let our minds be in harmony.
Common be our prayer,
Common be our end,
Common be our purpose,
Common be our deliberations,
Common be our desires,
United be our hearts,
United be our intentions,
Perfect be the union among us.

Mahatma Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind”. However, Gandhi did not equate ahimsa with non-killing – he accepted that killing because it was a person’s duty, and doing so in a detached way without anger or selfish motives, would be compatible with ahimsa.

HINDU RITES AND PRACTICES: CHANTING, BATHING, LIFE-CYCLE RITES AND VEGETARIANISM

HINDU RITES

 Hindu religious rites are classified into three categories: 1) Nitya rituals, which are performed daily and consist in offerings made at the home shrine or performing puja to the family deities; 2) Naimittika rituals, which are important but only occur at certain times during the year, such as celebrations of the festivals, thanksgiving and so on; and 3) Kamya, rituals such as pilgrimages which are “optional” but highly desirable

Three rites are held before birth to: 1) promote conception, 2) increase the likelihood of a boy, and 3) safeguard the fetus. There are also ceremonies for the first trip outside the house and the first sight of the sun, usually the fourth month after birth; the first feeding with solid food, and the first pierced ear. Boys have their head shaved in a ceremony that leaves them with one slender lock of hair.

Life-Cycle Rituals

A detailed series of life-cycle rituals (samskara , or refinements) mark major transitions in the life of the individual. Especially orthodox Hindu families may invite Brahman priests to their homes to officiate at these rituals, complete with sacred fire and recitations of mantras. Most of these rituals, however, do not occur in the presence of such priests, and among many groups who do not revere the Vedas or respect Brahmans, there may be other officiants or variations in the rites.

Ceremonies may be performed during pregnancy to ensure the health of the mother and growing child. The father may part the hair of the mother three times upward from the front to the back, to assure the ripening of the embryo. Charms may serve to ward off the evil eye and witches or demons. At birth, before the umbilical cord is severed, the father may touch the baby’s lips with a gold spoon or ring dipped in honey, curds, and ghee. The word vak (speech) is whispered three times into the right ear, and mantras are chanted to ensure a long life. A number of rituals for the infant include the first visit outside to a temple, the first feeding with solid food (usually cooked rice), an ear-piercing ceremony, and the first haircut (shaving the head) that often occurs at a temple or during a festival when the hair is offered to a deity. *

A crucial event in the life of the orthodox, upper-caste Hindu male is an initiation (upanayana ) ceremony, which takes place for some young males between the ages of six and twelve to mark the transition to awareness and adult religious responsibilities. At the ceremony itself, the family priest invests the boy with a sacred thread to be worn always over the left shoulder, and the parents instruct him in pronouncing the Gayatri Mantra. The initiation ceremony is seen as a new birth; those groups entitled to wear the sacred thread are called the twice-born . In the ancient categorization of society associated with the Vedas, only the three highest groups — Brahman, warrior (Kshatriya), and commoner or merchant (Vaishya) — were allowed to wear the thread, to make them distinct from the fourth group of servants (Shudra). Many individuals and groups who are only hazily associated with the old “twice-born” elites perform the upanayana ceremony and claim the higher status it bestows. For young Hindu women in South India, a different ritual and celebration occurs at the first menses. *

The next important transition in life is marriage. For most people in India, the betrothal of the young couple and the exact date and time of the wedding are matters decided by the parents in consultation with astrologers. At Hindu weddings, the bride and bridegroom represent the god and the goddess, although there is a parallel tradition that sees the groom as a prince coming to wed his princess. The groom, decked in all his finery, often travels to the wedding site on a caparisoned white horse or in an open limousine, accompanied by a procession of relatives, musicians, and bearers of ornate electrified lamps. The actual ceremonies in many cases become extremely elaborate, but orthodox Hindu marriages typically have at their center the recitation of mantras by priests. In a crucial rite, the new couple take seven steps northward from a sacred household fire, turn, and make offerings into the flames. Independent traditions in regional languages and among different caste groups support wide variations in ritual. *

After the death of a family member, the relatives become involved in ceremonies for preparation of the body and a procession to the burning or burial ground. For most Hindus, cremation is the ideal method for dealing with the dead, although many groups practice burial instead; infants are buried rather than cremated. At the funeral site, in the presence of the male mourners, the closest relative of the deceased (usually the eldest son) takes charge of the final rite and, if it is cremation, lights the funeral pyre. After a cremation, ashes and fragments of bone are collected and eventually immersed in a holy river. After a funeral, everyone undergoes a purifying bath. The immediate family remains in a state of intense pollution for a set number of days (sometimes ten, eleven, or thirteen). At the end of that period, close family members meet for a ceremonial meal and often give gifts to the poor or to charities. A particular feature of the Hindu ritual is the preparation of rice balls (pinda ) offered to the spirit of the dead person during memorial services. In part these ceremonies are seen as contributing to the merit of the deceased, but they also pacify the soul so that it will not linger in this world as a ghost but will pass through the realm of Yama, the god of death. *

Hindu Child Rites

Hindu rituals (sanskars) begin before a child is born. Hindus believe that it is the responsibility of each individual to continue the Hindu race and therefore soon after a couple are married, a prayer called Garbhadana (conception) is recited for fulfillment of one’s parental obligations. Although Hindu scriptures explain the rituals, it is possible that Hindu rituals and rites will differ according to particular castes and regions.

“During the third month of pregnancy the ceremony of Punsavana (foetus protection) is performed. This is done for the strong physical growth of the foetus. The Simantonnyana is performed during the seventh month. This is the equivalent of a baby shower and means ‘satisfying the craving of the pregnant mother’. Prayers are offered for the mother and child with emphasis on healthy mental development of the unborn child. Hindus believe that mental state of a pregnant woman affects the unborn child. Once the child enters the world, Jatakarma is performed to welcome the child into the family, by putting some honey in the child’s mouth and whispering the name of God in the child’s ear.

“Other rituals include a naming ceremony (Namakarna), the Nishkarmana (the child’s first trip out) and the Annaprashan (the child’s first taste of solid food). The ear-piercing ceremony (Karnavedha) and first haircut (Mundan) ceremonies are also considered highly significant. These sacraments are performed on both the sexes. Hindus believe that the piercing of a hole in the lower lobes of the ear have benefits of acupuncture. Head shaving is connected to the removal of impurities. When the child reaches school-going age, the Upanayana (sacred thread) ceremony is performed. The three strands of the sacred thread represent the three vows (to respect the knowledge, the parents and the society) taken before the start of formal education.”

Annaprashan — also known as annaprasana, annaprashan vidhi, annaprasan, or Anna-prasanam — is a Hindu sanskar ritual that marks an infant’s first intake of food other than milk. Commonly referred to in English as First Rice, the ceremony is usually carried out when the child is about 6 months of age and is usually arranged in consultation with a priest, who arranges an auspicious date on which to conduct the ceremony. The term annaprashan literally means “food feeding” or “eating of food”.

Annaprashan is an occasion for celebration, and extended family, friends and neighbours will be invited to attend. The mother or grandmother will prepare a small bowl of payesh (boiled rice, milk & sugar) which is blessed in a brief puja. The child will generally be held in the mother’s lap, and a senior male family member (grandfather or uncle) will feed it a small spoonful of the payesh, to general celebration. Other members of the family then take turns to give the child a taste. The feeding ceremony is often followed with a game, in which the child is presented with a tray containing a number of objects. These will include a bangle or jewel (symbolising wealth), a book (symbolising learning), a pen (symbolising career) and a clay pot or container of earth/soil (symbolising property). The child’s future direction and prospects in life are indicated by the object which it prefers to hold and play with.

Bathing in the Ganges

Ganges Bath Hindus bath in, drink and throw the cremated ashes of the dead in the Ganges. Sprinkling holy water from the Ganges over one’s head is believed to wash away sins, purify unclean souls and heal the sick. Bathing in the Ganges even once is supposed to ensure salvation. If a person dies in the Ganges or a has a few drops of Ganges placed on his tongue as he breaths his last breath it is believed he will achieve absolute salvation, escape the toil of reincarnation and be transported to Shiva’s Himalayan version of heaven.

Every morning Hindus gather on the shores of the Ganges to bathe and pray for liberation from the world. The pouring of marigolds into the Ganges is a traditional peace offering. The river carries the petals to the oceans and the far corners of the world, carrying the promise of peace with them. Many people collect water from the Ganges in bottles. Some devoted Hindu take Ganges water to drink when they travel abroad.

According to the maharajah of Varanasi. “It is only after my ritual bath and while I am eating that I cannot touch anyone other than members of my household who have performed the same purification rituals. To do so would make me ritually impure. But goodness does not come only by touching and eating with people; it comes from much more.”

Vedic Chanting

Tradition The of Vedic chanting was inscribed in 2008 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: “The Vedas comprise a vast corpus of Sanskrit poetry, philosophical dialogue, myth, and ritual incantations developed and composed by Aryans over 3,500 years ago. Regarded by Hindus as the primary source of knowledge and the sacred foundation of their religion, the Vedas embody one of the world’s oldest surviving cultural traditions.

“The Vedic heritage embraces a multitude of texts and interpretations collected in four Vedas, commonly referred to as “books of knowledge” even though they have been transmitted orally. The Rig Veda is an anthology of sacred hymns; the Sama Veda features musical arrangements of hymns from the Rig Veda and other sources; the Yajur Veda abounds in prayers and sacrificial formulae used by priests; and the Atharna Veda includes incantations and spells. The Vedas also offer insight into the history of Hinduism and the early development of several artistic, scientific and philosophical concepts, such as the concept of zero.

Expressed in the Vedic language, which is derived from classical Sanskrit, the verses of the Vedas were traditionally chanted during sacred rituals and recited daily in Vedic communities. The value of this tradition lies not only in the rich content of its oral literature but also in the ingenious techniques employed by the Brahmin priests in preserving the texts intact over thousands of years. To ensure that the sound of each word remains unaltered, practitioners are taught from childhood complex recitation techniques that are based on tonal accents, a unique manner of pronouncing each letter and specific speech combinations. 

Indian life, only thirteen of the over one thousand Vedic recitation branches have survived. Moreover, four noted schools – in Maharashtra (central India), Kerala and Karnataka (southern India) and Orissa (eastern India) – are considered under imminent threat.”

Hindu Mantras and Yantras

Mantras are chants usually based on sacred scriptures taken from the Vedas. They are necessary for “puja” and are seen as a ways of linking heaven and earth and summoning a deity. The most common mantra is “Om,” the sacred sound of the Vedas. It is said to be the first sound heard during creation.

Mantras are usually chanted in Sanskrit and sometimes accompanied by pounding drums and clanging brass bells and cymbals. Some mantras consist of simply repeating a deity’s name over and over. Hindus believe that chanting the names of deities will speed up their path to salvation and help them achieve “moshka” and escape from reincarnation.

“Mandalas” are diagrams of the universe that is viewed as a concentric set of squares with the Supreme Being at the center. “Yantras” are diagrams of the universe based on mandalas and related to various deities and uses. Simple ones consist of a circle within a square, within a rectangle, with four gates to represent the four directions of the universe. More complex ones are made of upward and downward pointing triangles centered around the central point of the deity. Yantras are models of force and sound and serve meditation aides.

Hinduism and Respect for Animals

Hinduism is a term that embraces many different although related religious ideas. Therefore, there is no clear single Hindu view on the right way to treat animals. However, in general, the doctrine of ahimsa leads Hindus to treat animals well. The cow is greatly revered by Hindus and is regarded as sacred. Killing cows is banned in India and no Hindu would eat any beef product. In addition: 1) Butchery and related jobs are restricted to people of low caste; 2) Most Hindus believe that non-human animals are inferior to human beings; 3) Some Hindu temples keep sacred animals; 4) Some Hindu gods have animal characteristics. Ganesh has the head of an elephant. Hanuman takes the form of a monkey

The Hindu view towards living things is guided by Ahisma, a concept that originated in Jainism but is also widely accepted in Hinduism and Buddhism. Jains believe that the only way to save one’s own soul is to protect every other soul, and so the most central Jain teaching, and the heart of Jain ethics, is that of ahimsa (non-violence).” The Jain founder “Mahavira taught that: ‘there is no quality of soul more subtle than non-violence and no virtue of spirit greater than reverence for life.’ In practical terms the biggest part that ahimsa plays in the lives of lay Jains today is in the regulation of their diet.

While some Hindus believe that all animals are sentient beings and thus do not eat meat, many others eat meat just as many Jews eat non-kosher foods and Muslims occasionally drink alcohol. Hindu spiritual leaders (priests, swamis and gurus) and holy men (sadhus) are more likely to be vegetarian than lay Hindus.

Vegetarianism and Hindus

Many Hindus practice vegetarianism, but not all of them. By one estimate only 30 to 35 percent of Hindus are vegetarians. Even though they make up a minority of Hindus, they make up the vast majority of vegetarians worldwide, who total over 300 million people.

Hindus that practice vegetarianism do so because of the spiritual belief of ahimsa — the principle of nonviolence against all living things. Ahimsa prescribes negative karma on a variety of levels for the slaughter and consumption of meat products, On top of this, Hindus regard cows as sacred and most Hindus do not eat beef just as most Muslim don’t eat pork.

Shashank Bengali wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ India may be overwhelmingly Hindu… but national surveys suggest that less than half the population is vegetarian.” India is home to “sizable minorities of Muslims, Zoroastrian Parsis, Christians from western India and Bengalis from the east; all generally non-vegetarians. Some of Mumbai’s best-loved dishes include meat and seafood: Persian-inspired lamb cutlets, aromatic chicken biryani and the pungent dried fish known as Bombay duck.”

On Hare Krishna, vegetarianism, Bradley wrote: “Hindus believe that animals are children of Krishna, created by God with a soul. Therefore, to eat an animal is an affront to God. Moreover, it’s bad for your consciousness: Because the slaughter of animals is violent, when you eat meat, fish or fowl, you are subjecting yourself to more violent thoughts and, perhaps, violent behavior. In Hinduism, cooking is intertwined with spirituality. Hare Krishnas believe they are cooking for the pleasure of God. They never sample the food they are cooking, since it must be offered to Krishna first. Moreover, Hindus believe that food absorbs the consciousness of the cook. If you are angry and elbow deep in the lentils or kneading dough for chapattis (unleavened bread), Hindu philosophy claims that your emotions are transferred to the food — and then to the person who eats the meal. It is one reason monks don’t go to restaurants, because it raises the question, “Whose consciousness are you eating today?””

Do Vegetarians Live Longer Than Meat Eaters?

“Vegans eliminate all animal products from their diet, including meat, dairy and other products processed using animal products, such as some forms of sugar and wines… As would be expected, the risk was found to be most pronounced among people who also engaged in other unhealthy activities, including having a history of smoking, drinking heavily or being obese. However, caution should be exercised when interpreting the results, as other more complex social and environment factors could affect the results rather than being solely related to diet. For instance, vegans are more likely to be younger than the general population and therefore have much lower mortality rates. Similarly, vegans can be more likely to come from socially affluent backgrounds, which can also influence mortality risk.

HINDU WORSHIP: PUJA, DARSHAN, ALTARS, SYMBOLS AND PERSONAL GODS

HINDU WORSHIP

Aarti fire ritual on the Ganges
at the ghats of Varanasi It can be argued that what defines a Hindu is not the god that he or she worships but the rituals and lifestyle that he or she follows. There is often a great deal of overlapping and little distinction between religious and secular life, with prayers, initiations, ceremonies, festivals and rituals taking up a large chunk of a Hindu’s daily routine and life.

Are Hindus idol worshipers? Some non-Hindus regard Hindus as idol worshipers because of the adulation and offerings they give images and symbols of their gods. Hindus however don’t see it that way. They attention they give to images is not seen as idol worship but rather a way of recognizing that God is in everything. According to to the Hindu view, all objects are regarded as “living embodiments” of God (arca) and all methods of worship are ways of revering God. Making offerings to images, or “idols”, is called puja (“image worship”) and it refers to the belief that the entirety of creation is a form of God and that his form is in everything. Hindus do not see this as worshiping an idol because Hinduism describes it as a direct worship of God (who is in everything) instead of the worship of a representation of God.

Children are brought up to follow the customs and ethics of their parents but are encouraged to decide for themselves which gods and goddesses are right for them. Individuals often practice group rituals for their family and private rituals for themselves. Hindu religious customs, beliefs and the gods people worship can often vary greatly from place to place and even from caste to caste in one locality. Even so Hindus generally observe broadly similar rules regarding food, marriages and burial.

The ritual world of Hinduism, manifestations of which differ greatly among regions, villages, and individuals, offers a number of common features that link all Hindus into a greater Indian religious system and influence other religions as well. The most notable feature in religious ritual is the division between purity and pollution. Religious acts presuppose some degree of impurity or defilement for the practitioner, which must be overcome or neutralized before or during ritual procedures. Purification, usually with water, is thus a typical feature of most religious action. Avoidance of the impure — taking animal life, eating flesh, associating with dead things, or body fluids — is another feature of Hindu ritual and is important for repressing pollution. In a social context, those individuals or groups who manage to avoid the impure are accorded increased respect. Still another feature is a belief in the efficacy of sacrifice, including survivals of Vedic sacrifice. Thus, sacrifices may include the performance of offerings in a regulated manner, with the preparation of sacred space, recitation of texts, and manipulation of objects. A third feature is the concept of merit, gained through the performance of charity or good works, that will accumulate over time and reduce sufferings in the next world.

Hindus are theoretically obliged to perform the “Five Great Sacrifices” three times a day but few of them other than devout, old-fashion Brahmins actually do. They consist of 1) the worship of Brahma by reciting the Vedic verses; 2) the worship of gods with burnt offering; 3) the worship of living spirits by offering food to animals and insects, and scattering grain in four direction, the center, in the air and on household utensil; 4) the offering of hospitality to members of one castes; and 5) the giving of offering to one’s ancestors. Good Hindus are also expected to give their ancestors a rice ball on the first new moon day of every month and periodically give offerings to the household spirit that lives in the northeast corner of the house

Similar obligations are required in a Hindu’s lifetime. There are some forty sacramental rites (“samskaras” ) which an orthodox high-class Hindu is expected to perform or have performed on his behalf at various stages of his life. Many of these rarely take place. Most of them are very ancient in origin and feature sacraments and rites thought be similar to those performed in ancient Greece and Rome.

Types of Hindu Worship

Hindu worship, or puja, involves images (murtis), prayers (mantras) and diagrams of the universe (yantras). Central to Hindu worship is the image, or icon, which can be worshipped either at home or in the temple. Hindu worship is primarily an individual act rather than a communal one, as it involves making personal offerings to the deity. Worshippers repeat the names of their favourite gods and goddesses, and repeat mantras. Water, fruit, flowers and incense are offered to god.”

A Hindu can worship at home or in a temple. Worship at home: The majority of Hindu homes have a shrine where offerings are made and prayers are said. A shrine can be anything: a room, a small altar or simply pictures or statues of the deity. Family members often worship together. Rituals should strictly speaking be performed three times a day. Some Hindus, but not all, worship wearing the sacred thread (over the left shoulder and hanging to the right hip). This is cotton for the Brahmin (priest), hemp for the Kshatriya (ruler) and wool for the vaishya (merchants).

Temple worship: At a Hindu temple, different parts of the building have a different spiritual or symbolic meaning. 1) The central shrine is the heart of the worshipper. 2) The tower represents the flight of the spirit to heaven. 3) A priest may read, or more usually recite, the Vedas to the assembled worshippers, but any “twice-born” Hindu can perform the reading of prayers and mantras.

Worship of Personal Gods

For the vast majority of Hindus, the most important religious path is bhakti (devotion) to personal gods. There are a wide variety of gods to choose from, and although sectarian adherence to particular deities is often strong, there is a widespread acceptance of choice in the desired god (ishta devata ) as the most appropriate focus for any particular person. Most devotees are therefore polytheists, worshiping all or part of the vast pantheon of deities, some of whom have come down from Vedic times. In practice, a worshiper tends to concentrate prayers on one deity or on a small group of deities with whom there is a close personal relationship.

Puja (worship) of the gods consists of a range of ritual offerings and prayers typically performed either daily or on special days before an image of the deity, which may be in the form of a person or a symbol of the sacred presence. In its more developed forms, puja consists of a series of ritual stages beginning with personal purification and invocation of the god, followed by offerings of flowers, food, or other objects such as clothing, accompanied by fervent prayers. Some dedicated worshipers perform these ceremonies daily at their home shrines; others travel to one or more temples to perform puja , alone or with the aid of temple priests who receive offerings and present these offerings to the gods. The gifts given to the gods become sacred through contact with their images or with their shrines, and may be received and used by worshipers as the grace (prasada ) of the divine. Sacred ash or saffron powder, for example, is often distributed after puja and smeared on the foreheads of devotees. In the absence of any of these ritual objects, however, puja may take the form of a simple prayer sent toward the image of the divine, and it is common to see people stop for a moment before roadside shrines to fold their hands and offer short invocations to the gods. *

Since at least the seventh century A.D., the devotional path has spread from the south throughout India through the literary and musical activities of saints who have been some of the most important representatives of regional languages and traditions. The hymns of these saints and their successors, mostly in vernacular forms, are memorized and performed at all levels of society. Every state in India has its own bhakti tradition and poets who are studied and revered. In Tamil Nadu, groups called Nayanmars (devotees of Shiva) and Alvars (devotees of Vishnu) were composing beautiful poetry in the Tamil language as early as the sixth century. In Bengal one of the greatest poets was Chaitanya (1485-1536), who spent much of his life in a state of mystical ecstasy. One of the greatest North Indian saints was Kabir (ca. 1440-1518), a common leatherworker who stressed faith in God without devotion to images, rituals, or scriptures. Among female poets, Princess Mirabai (ca. 1498-1546) from Rajasthan stands out as one whose love for Krishna was so intense that she suffered persecution for her public singing and dancing for the lord. *

A recurring motif that emerges from the poetry and the hagiographies of these saints is the equality of all men and women before God and the ability of people from all castes and occupations to find their way to union with God if they have enough faith and devotion. In this sense, the bhakti tradition serves as one of the equalizing forces in Indian society and culture. *

House Altars and Domestic Worship

Most Hindu homes have family altars with garish pictures of Hindu gods and photographs of living and dead family members. Sometimes they are decorated with tinsel and colored lights. Here family members perform their daily “puja” (prayers and offerings). Some traditional large Hindu houses have an entire prayer room with a large elaborate altar. Most small houses have an altar on the side or corner of one of the rooms. Wealthy families sometimes have a large shrine outside their home.

Hindus also have roadside shrines and theoretically they can make offerings anywhere that has some connection to the gods . Some times red powder is smeared on sacred rocks or at the bases of trees. Basil, known as “tulsi” , is a sacred plant. It is often found growing in special planter and periodically receives puja.

The home is the place where most Hindus conduct their worship and religious rituals. The most important times of day for performance of household rituals are dawn and dusk, although especially devout families may engage in devotion more often. For many households, the day begins when the women in the house draw auspicious geometric designs in chalk or rice flour on the floor or the doorstep. For orthodox Hindus, dawn and dusk are greeted with recitation from the Rig Veda of the Gayatri Mantra for the sun — for many people, the only Sanskrit prayer they know. After a bath, there is personal worship of the gods at a family shrine, which typically includes lighting a lamp and offering foodstuffs before the images, while prayers in Sanskrit or a regional language are recited. In the evenings, especially in rural areas, mostly female devotees may gather together for long sessions of singing hymns in praise of one or more of the gods.

Minor acts of charity punctuate the day. During daily baths, there are offerings of a little water in memory of the ancestors. At each meal, families may set aside a handful of grain to be donated to beggars or needy persons, and daily gifts of small amounts of grain to birds or other animals serve to accumulate merit for the family through their self-sacrifice. *

Prayer Rooms and Family Altars Under Temples.

Darshan and Hindu Veneration of Images

 Darshan (also spelled Darsan) is an important aspect of Hindu worship. It refers to viewing an image of a deity. “A Hindu goes to a temple,” writes historian Daniel Boorstin, “not to ‘worship,’ but rather ‘for “darśan”” …Darsan is a two-way flow of vision. While the devotee sees his god, so too the god sees the devotee, and the two make contact through their eyes. In the building of a new temple…when the images of the gods are made, their eyes are the last to be completed…The bulbous or saucer eyes that make Indian paintings of gods seem so bizarre to us are clues to the dominance of vision in the Hindu’s relation to his gods. Many gods, like Shiva and Ganesh, have a third eye in the center of their foreheads. Brahma, the Thousand Eyes, regularly has four heads, to look in all directions at once, and sometimes he has leopard-spot eyes all over his body.”

The importance given darshan can be appreciated by the attention that is sometimes lavished on images that are worshiped. In large temples where there are a large number of attendants, the image is woken up in the morning and washed, fed and prepared with flowers and incense before it is placed on its throne in the shrine room. In some cases the images are fanned and entertained with music throughout the day. In the old days many temples had their own troupe of dancers that entertained the images and could be enjoyed by worshipers for a fee.

Darshan is also associated with people of great holiness. Great leaders like Gandhi are also believed to possess darśan. When Indians glimpsed the Mahatma through the window of trains on his travels across India they were “taking darsan” and Gandhi was giving it. The importance of eye contact between the gods and humans helps explain why Hindu disdain eye contact in public, even between husband and wife.

Boorstin wrote: “The Hindu is dazzled by a vision of the holy, not merely holy people but places like the Himalayan peaks where gods live, or the Ganges which flows from Heaven to Earth, or countless inconspicuous sites where gods or goddesses or unsung heroes showed their divine mettle. The Hindu pilgrims trek hundreds of miles just for another darśan…Each of the cities sacred to each of the thousands of gods offers its own special darśan.”

Sadhu Customs and Duties

In India of the 1990s, several hundred thousand Hindu and Jain sadhus and a few thousand holy women (sadhvis ) live an ascetic life. They have chosen to wear ocher robes, or perhaps no clothing at all, to daub their skin with holy ash, to pray and meditate, and to wander from place to place, depending on the charity of others. Most have given up affiliation with their caste and kin and have undergone a funeral ceremony for themselves, followed by a ritual rebirth into their new ascetic life. They come from all walks of life, and range from illiterate villagers to well-educated professionals. In their new lives as renunciants, they are devoted to spiritual concerns, yet each is affiliated with an ascetic order or subsect demanding strict adherence to rules of dress, itinerancy, diet, worship, and ritual pollution. Within each order, hierarchical concerns are exhibited in the subservience novitiates display to revered gurus. Further, at pilgrimage sites, different orders take precedence in accordance with an accepted hierarchy. Thus, although sadhus have foresworn many of the trappings of ordinary life, they have not given up the hierarchy and interdependence so pervasive in Indian society.

Hindus Sadhus and Buddhist monks have some similar customs. Both wander from place to place, surviving off alms and the goodness of others. In India it is a tradition for old men to leave their families and seek salvation. This is rooted in the Hindu belief in four stages of life: 1) studentship; 2) becoming a householder; 3) retiring to the forest to meditate; and 4) becoming a mendicant (“sannyasi”).

During the third stage a man is expected to move into a hut in the forest with his wife and perform religious exercises. During the forth stage a man is expected to renounced all his worldly possession and become a beggar and devote himself totally to religion. According to the Laws of Manu:

He should not wish to die.
nor hope to live.
but await the time appointed
as a servant awaits his wages…
Rejoicing in the things of the spirit.
calm.
caring in for nothing.
abstaining from sexual pleasure.
himself his only helper.
he lives in the world.
In hope of eternal bliss”

Some sadhus wander and travel a great deal. Others are more sedentary. Their religion duties include acts of self purification, worship, participation in religious discourses, making pilgrimages and studying religious texts. They also preach, teach religious doctrine, help the poor and troubled, and open schools and hospitals.

Many sadhus are Shaivaites. See Sects

A shaved head is a sign of penance. Many devotees have shaved heads this when they first become sadhus. The offering of water is considered a sign of respect. A water pot in some sects is the only possession a sadhu is allowed to own. It is the equivalent of the begging bowl of a Buddhist monk.

Sadhu Clothes and Markings

Sadhus generally identify which sect they belong to by clothing color, symbols on specific parts of their body and possessions such as a rosary, water pot or staff. Sometimes body adornments are expressions of sadhus individuality and artisanship rather than symbols of a sect.

 Some Hindu holy men wear saffron robes, holy beads and have a vermillion and ash spot on their forehead. Others wear only a loin cloth. Some wear only a loin cloth and a gold chain or a gold bracelet. Some wear nothing at all. Nagas are known for walking around completely naked.

Many sadhus follow rules in which they are allowed to grow hair in five areas: their head, their upper jaw, their chin, their armpits and their pubic areas. Some sadhus shave their entire bodies. Brahmin sadhus are identified by a sacred thread that runs diagonally from their left shoulder to their waist under their right arm.

During important festival sadhus cover their bodies with paint, sandalwood ash, and even sequins. On holy days some loin-cloth-clad sadhus wrap flowers around the top-knot in the their hair and smear their bodies with ashes. Sometimes their outfits can be quite elaborate. One mendicant was observed in a Mysore village with more than 100 different items on his body. It took him a couple of hours to dress and put on all his religious markers.

Some sadhus cover themselves with the ash of cremated bodies. Some tikkas are made from the ash of incense. Others place the mark of Vishnu on their brow or tattoo their forehead with mantras of Lord Rama and his wife Sita. In Pushkar, one journalist saw holyman with no arms or legs.

Sadhu Lifestyle

Sadhus generally are not part of any distinct community. They either live in monasteries (called “ashrams” , “matha” or “mandira” ), if they have chosen a sedentary lifestyle, or take up temporary residence in pilgrimage shrines, if they are on a pilgrimage. Each sects has its own monasteries and pilgrimage shrines. Many monasteries and shrines are supported by lay people who receive spiritual counseling in return for their support. Many sadhus camp out at night when they are wandering around or are put up by almsgivers.

 The sadhu lifestyle places a premium on austerity, discipline and self-control. A sadhu’s daily routine includes exercise intended to purify the physical body and elevate the mind, reading sacred verses, and attempting to reach levels of ecstacy through prayer. Generally, the only possessions owned by holy men are a wooden staff, an aluminum begging pot and a cloth bag slung around the neck with a few possessions, such as maybe a spoon, some scriptures and religious mementos. Holy men are supposed to beg only for food, discarding items given to them, saying “I never touch money. It buys only trouble. I would have to fight off thieves. Please, all I want is world peace.”

Sadhus are almost totally dependant on the generosity of others for their subsistence. Some supplement what they receive in alms from begging by serving as spiritual mentors, manufacturing amulets, tickling people with feather dusters, fortunetelling, performing exorcisms, singing, juggling, selling medicinal herbs, tattooing, interpreting dreams, reading palms, casting spells and making potions. Many make and sell talisman known as “kavacga” which are supposed to attract good spirits and repel evil ones.

Many sadhus smoke marijuana and hashish. Some sadhus sit in their huts and smoke hashish all day in water pipes. Others smoke chillums and joints full of hashish.

Some sadhus have never been married. Other remain married while functioning as sadhus. Many leave their families. It has been suggested that unhappy family lives and marital collapse is the reason that many men decide to become sadhus. Some are orphans or runaways that were adopted by a sadhu order. These generally receive some kind of training that can last months or years before they begin wandering the countryside. Some become sadhus by following the Vedic progression of life stages. They often go through an initiation process and change their names when they become sadhus. Many sadhus have university degrees and families that miss them.

Sadhu Religious Activities

It is difficult to generalize about the religious activities of sadhus because they are a diverse group and the sects they belong to have many different traditions, customs, practices and beliefs. Their activities are directed at different gods. Many sadhus light sacred fires when they camp in the monasteries and pilgrimage shrines they stay in. Before sadhus are initiated into a higher level they are symbolically cleansed by clay oil lamps.

 Some sadhus spend their entire lives on pilgrimages or even a single pilgrimage. Indra, the god of travelers, once said: “All his sins are destroyed by his fatigues and wanderings.” Others sit in the lotus position on a pair of stacked stones in a cave. As an act of devotion some sadhus put a lime at the end of a spear and then dip the spear in the Ganges. Others chant the name of the monkey god Hanuman a thousand times before a holy fire. After giving advise many sadhus give a banana, a sweetmeat, and a spoonful of Ganges water.

When asked why he spent the winter in a cave at 13,000-foot-high source of the Ganges with two meters of snow around him a sadhu told National Geographic, “God wanted me to do this spiritual work, to meditate and introspect on the spiritual truths of the scriptures. Why, for instance, is it written, and what does it mean, that the Ganges washes away sin? Can I give any scientific interpretation? Only by committing my own body and mind to this research can I hope to find the answer. Often when I sit by the Ganges I slowly open my heart and pour one after another my doubts. Mother Ganges always answers.”

Some sadhus are fierce Hindu nationalists involved in anti-Muslim activities (See Ayoda Temple). Others are involved in environmental activities. Sadhus have demonstrated in Allahabad, for example, demanding that the Ganges be cleaned up.

Sadhu Feats and Acts of Penitence

Hindu acetic do things like spend years with their left hand raised into the air, standing on one leg or lying on a bed of cactuses. Often have a blanket next to them to collect coins or food. Some bury themselves neck-deep in sand, pierce their tongues with spikes, stare at the sun, sleep standing up, mediate for hours while suspended from a rope, lay between fires, live in trees and refuse to talk for years. Hindus believed that severe penance will liberate them from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Many of sadhus smoke marijuana or hashish to ease their suffering.

Sadhus sometimes bury their head, a feat of breath control that requires mastery of yoga techniques. In 1837, a yogi named Hari Das war buried alive without air, food, liquid or any attention, After being excavated he was easily revived and went on to live a long life.

One sadhu at the Pushkar Fair became famous for lifting a 35-kilogram brick with his penis. Some sadhus are said to have the ability to talk with monkeys. Sometimes they are sought out by people for help keeping monkeys from raiding their gardens.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the silent Indian “fakir” Mastram Bapu stayed in the same spot by a road in the village of Chitra for 22 years, from 1960 to 1982. Swami Maujgiri Maharaja stood for 17 years (from 1955 to November 1973) performing “Tapasya” (penance) in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh. When sleeping, he leaned against a plank

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Radhey Shyam Prajapati stood motionless for world record of 18 hours, 5 minutes and 5 seconds in January 1996. Rajikumar Chakraborty did the static wall sit (Samson’c chair) for 11 hours and 5 minutes at the Panposh Sports Hostel in April 1994.

In the old days, some a Hindu mystics wore sandals with rows of nails pointed upwards into the feet meant to prove the wearer’s piety. On a fire walker that wore such shows, Melville Chater wrote in National Geographic in 1931: “Indian mystics will tell you that by self-inflicted tortures the soul reaches through flesh-numbing ecstacy toward higher states of being that lie between it and the Absolute.” The nails may have also toughened up the feet for firewalking through embers so hot “spectators must shelter their faces from it.” A look at the soles of the feet of the firewalkers revealed “ash, dust, but no burns.”

Rolling Baba

To gain merit Hindus sometime roll sideways through the dirty, cobblestone streets of Kathmandu while in a praying position. Followed by a procession of saffroned-robed devotees the rollers sometimes keep it up for hours.♀

Mohan Das, the Ludkan Baba (“Rolling Baba”), drew international attention in 2004 when he rolled over 1,300 kilometers between Agra and Lahore to promote good relations between India and Pakistan. He wore bandages on his legs and sweat bands on his arms and was able can move at a fast walking pace and cover 30 kilometers a day. On a typical day he rolled from 7:00am to noon and 3:00pm to 7:00pm, stopping occasionally for a rest or to give blessings. On some down hill sections he said he reached speeds of 15mph. Devotees swept glass and other obstacles out his way but he rolled through cow dung and garbage. One of his biggest obstacles was pavement that melted in the 50 degree C heat. At night he slept in camps with his devotees.

 Nick Meo wrote in the Times, “Rolling Baba’s matted dreadlocks slap against the sweltering tarmac of National Highway No. 2 as incredulous drivers beep and swerve to avoid him. Every few miles traffic comes to a complete stop when villagers swarm on to the road to seek the holy man’s blessing, forming a chaotic scrum with an entourage of hymn-chanting pilgrims trailing in his wake.” Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “He lies flat on the ground, turning himself over and over like a runaway log, limbs flailing as he bumps across potholes, splashes through mud puddles and falls deeper into a spiritual trance.”

Rolling Baba said he became a sadhu at the age of 12 after he touched a drying boy and saved his life. He said he lived for several years in a cave and ate nothing but grass and spent seven years standing up, leaning against a swing when he slept. He began rolling in 1983 as a way to earn more merit by making his journeys from one pilgrimage site to another more demanding. n 1994, he rolled 2,500 miles across India. By 2004, he figured he had rolled more than 320,000 kilometers.

On his trip to Lahore, Das often rolled with cigarette in his mouth. He smoked five packs of cigarettes a day and got energy from drinking countless cups of tea. He told the Los Angeles Times, “I move during cyclones, during blazing summers and cold winters. I think of God. I think of Mother Earth and then I roll and roll and roll. I don’t get dizzy. I don’t consume any food just tea and cigarettes. At night I eat fruits, roti, whatever I can lay my hands on.”

Aghoris: Extreme Sadhus That Eat the Dead

The most extreme sadhus, the aghoris , turn normal rules of conduct completely upside down. Rajesh and Ramesh Bedi, who have studied sadhus for decades, estimate that there may be fewer than fifteen aghoris in contemporary India. In the quest for great spiritual attainment, the aghori lives alone, like Lord Shiva, at cremation grounds, supping from a human skull bowl. He eats food provided only by low-ranking Sweepers and prostitutes, and in moments of religious fervor devours his own bodily wastes and pieces of human flesh torn from burning corpses. In violating the most basic taboos of the ordinary Hindu householder, the aghori sadhu graphically reminds himself and others of the correct rules of social behavior.Holy men of the 1,000-year-old Aghor sect of Shiva worshipers in Varanasi drink whiskey from human skulls, have sex with corpses and eat the charred remains of the dead from funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges. They eat corpses in the belief that ingesting dead flesh will make them ageless and give them supernatural powers. By breaking humanity’s strict taboos they claim to transcend society and come closer to enlightenment. They say human meat tastes good and identify the brains as the best part.In a story on “Feeding on the Dead,” a 10-minute documentary about the Aghori sect by director Sandeep Singh, Associated Press reported: There are about 70 Aghori sadhus at a given time, and they remain with the sect for 12 years before returning to their families. Unlike other Hindu holy men, most of whom are vegetarian teetotalers, the Aghoris consume alcohol and meat. But it is their consumption of human flesh — a practice whose origins remain a mystery — which has earned them the condemnation of other Hindus and relegated most Aghori sadhus to living around crematoriums in the hills around the holy city of Varanasi.

Singh and three cameramen waited with an Aghori sadhu — whose name is not mentioned in the film — for 10 days in June before finding a floating corpse. Hindus generally cremate the dead, but bodies are sometimes ceremonially disposed of in the Ganges. “The body was decomposed and bluish in color, but the sadhu was not afraid about falling sick,” Singh told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. “He sat on the corpse, prayed to a goddess of crematoriums and offered some flesh to the goddess before eating it.” Singh said the sadhu ate part of the corpse’s elbow, believing the flesh would stop him from aging and give him special powers, like the ability to levitate or control the weather. Singh did not see any of those powers on display.

Laws of Manu on the Indian Ascetic

‘The Laws of Manu,’ VI, 33-65 reads: 33)But having thus passed the third part of (a man’s natural term of) life in the forest, he may live as an ascetic during the fourth part of his existence, after abandoning all attachments to worldly objects. [1 Reference here is to the ideal four stages (ashramas) of the Brahman’s life: student (brahmacarin), householder (grihastha), hermit or forest-dweller (vanaprastha), and finally, ascetic or mendicant (yati, bhikshu, parivrajaka, samnyasin)]
34) He who after passing from order to order, after offering sacrifices and subduing his senses, becomes, tired with (giving) alms and offerings of food, an ascetic, gains bliss after death.
35) When he has paid the three debts, let him apply his mind to, (the attainment of) final liberation; he who seeks it without having paid (his debts) sinks downwards.
36) Having studied the Vedas in accordance with the rule, having begat sons according to the sacred law, and having offered sacrifices according to his ability, he may direct his mind to (the attainment of) final liberation. . . .

41) Departing from his house fully provided with the means of purification (Pavitra), let him wander about absolutely silent, and caring nothing for enjoyments that may be offered (to him).
42) Let him always wander alone, without any companion, in order to attain (final liberation), fully understanding that the solitary (man, who) neither forsakes nor is forsaken, gains his end.
43) He shall neither possess a fire, nor a dwelling, he may go to a village for his food, (he shall be) indifferent to everything, firm of purpose, mediating (and) concentrating his mind on Brahman. . . .
45) Let him not desire to die, let him not desire to live; let him wait for (his appointed) time, as a servant (waits) for the payment of his wages.

46) Let him put down his foot purified by his sight (Lest he injure any small animal, or step on something impure), let him drink water purified by (straining with) a cloth, let him utter speech purified by truth, let him keep his heart pure.
47) Let him patiently bear hard words, let him not insult anybody, and let him not become anybody’s enemy for the sake of this (perishable) body.
48) Against an angry man let him not in return show anger, let him bless when he is cursed, and let him not utter speech, devoid of truth, scattered at the seven gates ( seven bodily orifices?).
49) Delighting in what refers to the Soul (atman), sitting (in the postures prescribed by the Yoga), independent (of external help), entirely abstaining from sensual enjoyments, with himself for his only companion, he shall live in this world, desiring the bliss (of final liberation). . . .

  1. By the restraint of his senses, by the destruction of love (Or, affection, passion, raga), and hatred, and by the abstention from injuring the creatures (Ahimsa, non-injury), he becomes fit for immortality.
    61. Let him reflect on the transmigrations of men, caused by their sinful deeds, on their falling into hell, and on the torments in the world of Yama,
    62 On the separation from their dear ones, on their union with hated men, on their being overpowered by age and being tormented with diseases,
    63. On the departure of the individual soul from this body and its new birth in (another) womb, and on its wanderings through ten thousand millions of existences,
    64. On the infliction of pain on embodied (Limits), which is caused by demerit, and the gain of eternal bliss, which is caused by the attainment of their highest aim, (gained through) spiritual merit.
    65. By deep meditations, let him recognize the subtle nature of the supreme Soul, 

Kumbh Mela Sadhus

Sadhus (Hindu holy men) dominate the melas. They arrive from all over India and set up camps near the Ganges, where they pray, meditate, give blessings, do yoga, chant mantras and engage in discourses on various matters. Not all the sadhus fit the image of stereotypical holy men. Some arrive in fancy, air-conditioned cars. According to Indian newspapers many are fakes who just trying to make a fast buck.

In a 1991 book on sadhus, Rajesh Bedi wrote, “When the stars were in a particular position, the sadhus simply followed the great river to their confluences and stayed there until others from all directions, joined them. Then they discussed the state of the body politic , the economic condition of the people and the philosophical an theological questions.”

The sadhus are organized into monastic orders called akharas , which are led supreme leaders called shankarachrayas . Describing their procession to the Ganges, Burns wrote, they “marched across pontoon bridges to the bath ghats…The crowds tossed garlands of marigolds and shouted, ‘We bow to you, oh holy men!’ ‘We kiss your feet!’ and ‘Long live Lord Ram!”

Leading the procession into the Ganges are hundreds of naked, ash-covered sadhus with tridents, the symbol of Siva. After them come followers on camels, horses and elephants and millions of pilgrims who approach the sacred site from boats as well as on land by foot. The ashes that cover the naked sadhus comes from dung fires.

“The sadhus and their leaders, many of them carried to the ghats in gaily-colored palanquins shaded from the sun by gold and crimson parasols, waved back regally,” Burns wrote. The sadhus “marched to the river in triumph, headed by hundreds of stark naked Nagas sadhus, the warrior-like holy men who constitute a kind of commando force.”

Sadhu Organization and Guru Infrastructure at the Kumbh Mela

Tom Downey wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “I traveled to the central sector where the 16 major akharas were located. The Juna akhara is the most powerful and influential of these. Inside a large compound, consisting of orange tents arrayed around a massive orange flag hoisted high above the encampment on a pole, the sadhus sat next to fires that their disciples helped keep burning day and night. 

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In a country with a reputation for poor infrastructure and checkered garbage collection, the management of this spiritual smorgasbord is impressive. The festival site, administered by the government here in the north-central state of Uttar Pradesh, boasts temporary water pipes, power lines, police stations and 90 miles of makeshift road. “I can’t find my guru’s place,” said Subhash Barot, a physician from Indore. “It’s overwhelming

At the control center, administrator Mani Prasad Mishra is ringed by supplicants seeking better locations, more electricity, new neighbors. Sadhus are allocated specific sites and pay no rent; the limited number of shops allowed into the area pay for the privilege. “It’s nothing but complaints,” he said with a sigh. “This is definitely the most challenging job of my career.” 

“As the sun ascends, Sri Amar Bharti Baba attracts curiosity-seekers and supplicants eager to see his right arm, held aloft for three decades in a supreme act of denial and willpower. The sadhu’s fingers have fused, their curled, blackened nails resembling talons. His left hand reaches for the hashish he chain-smokes to open his spiritual channels. “There’s only five or six doing this in the world,” said Horst Brutsche, 57, a German devotee of 18 years known as Datta Bharti. “It’s definitely not for me

Tolerance hangs over the fair like the midmorning haze, the best of a Hindu tradition that finds spiritual truth in Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha as well as its own 330 million gods. “All people are God’s children, our brothers,” said Naga Baba Bodhi Giri Maharaj, wearing mutton-chop sideburns and little else. “Even Pakistanis.” Hindu sects gently elbow for recruits in a nation with a declining interest in asceticism and the growing lure of worldly pleasures, seeking to attract pilgrims through posters, tutorials and food. Naresh, the farmer, has learned when various ashrams ring their dinner bells. “The free food is great,” he saidA late-morning crowd heads for Sri Panchayti Akhara Nirmala’s chandelier-adorned compound in search of free tea as Sikh sadhu Nihang Singh voices reservations about all the talk of peace and love. “I’m open to war,” he said, dressed in purple robes, a spear and flip-flops. “Sometimes you must beat back evil.” Outside, pilgrims in sandals and bare feet sidestep stray dogs scrounging for samosas past a line of naked ascetics known as nagas, many of them sitting cross-legged tending log and cow-dung fires.

Kumbh Mela Holy Men in 2013

Frank Jack Daniel of Reuters wrote: “More than 2,000 years old, the festival is a meeting point for the Hindu sadhus, some who live in forests or Himalayan caves, and who belong to dozens of inter-related congregations. The sects have their own administration and elect leaders, but are also known for violent clashes with each other. Some naked, some wrapped in saffron or leopard-print cloth and smoking cannabis pipes, the holy men hold court by fire pits in sprawling camps decorated with coloured neon lights, where they are visited by pilgrims who proffer alms and get blessings.

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “One naga, Radhey Puri Naga Baba, hasn’t sat down for 10 years, even to sleep. He leaned on a pole to protect an infected right foot as he blessed people’s foreheads between hits on a hash pipe. “I’m not looking for enlightenment,” he said, advising tourists on their best camera angle. “There’s no particular reason I’m doing this.” Another naga walked past, his penis adorned with a fake diamond ring and beads. “These are ornaments in worship of the lord,” explained the Shiva devotee, known as Lightning Baba.

Tom Downey wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “I traveled to the central sector where the 16 major akharas were located….The first sadhu I saw was a peculiar sight: a bearded, dreadlocked white guy smoking a stone chillum filled with hashish who, after he exhaled, began speaking with a distinctively American accent. Baba Rampuri, a 63-year-old U.S. native raised in California who joined the Juna akhara over 40 years ago and has since ascended its ranks, gestured to me to sit down before him. One of his followers, also clad in the orange robes of the akhara, prepped and passed Rampuri another chillum of hashish, which sadhus smoke as part of a holy ritual to improve their focus while meditating. He carefully wrapped a piece of white cloth around the bottom hole and proceeded to inhale deeply before passing it along to another followerDaniel wrote: “Despite their asceticism, the sects, known as akharas, are moving with the times.

Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji, who leads one of the main groups, has a Facebook page. Some gurus advertise on billboards and posters to attract followers, others drive trucks and chat on cellphones. At the riverbank, men with dreadlocked beards to their feet vied for media attention with yogis supporting heavy weights with their genitals, while others holding golden brellas, flags and swords rubbed sand on their bodies after the dip. ”I feel pleasure,“ grinned

Digambar Navraman Giri,” who said he had not sat down for a year, even sleeping on foot. “This is why I became a sadhu,” he said, steam rising from his body in the cold air and wearing nothing but two rings on his fingers. Baba Ram Puri was given to his guru by his parents when he was barely one year old. At 31, he is now a young spiritual leader himself and says Indians with disposable income want to support traditional holy men. “They earn a lot of money but they don’t get peace, so they turn to spirituality,” he said, sitting on cushions by a smoking fire. “That’s why we continue to grow in strength

Jim Mallinson, a Sanskrit scholar and expert on sadhus, says that, while exact numbers are hard to come by, it appears the sects are growing in strength and size, and the fair is becoming more religious. “I suspect it is because the emerging middle classes are more than happy to spend their surplus cash on sustaining the sadhu tradition,” he said.” 

HINDU VIEWS ON DEATH

 The death of an infant or young child — a common event in India — causes sorrow but usually not major social disruption. The death of a married adult has wider repercussions. Among Hindus, the demise of a lineage member immediately ritually pollutes the entire lineage for a period of several days. As part of the mourning process, closely related male mourners have their heads and facial hair shaved, thus publicly declaring their close links to the deceased. Various funeral rites, feasts, and mourning practices affirm kinship ties with the deceased and among survivors. Crucial social bonds become visible to all concerned.

Most Indians see their present lifetimes as but a prelude to an afterlife, the quality of which depends on their behavior in this life. Muslims envision heaven and hell, but Hindus conceptualize a series of rebirths ideally culminating in union with the divine. Some Hindus believe they are destined to marry the same person in each of their lifetimes. Thus people feel connected with different permutations of themselves and others over cosmic cycles of time. *

On the subject of death one passage in the Rig Veda reads:
”When he goes on the path that lead away the breath of life.
Then he will be led by the will of the gods
May your eye go to the sun, you life’s breath to the wind
Go to the sky or the earth, as is your nature. “

The doctrine of karma means that a Hindu tries to get their life in a good state before they die, making sure that there is no unfinished business, or unhappinesses. They try to enter the state of a sannyasin – one who has renounced everything. The ideal death is a conscious death, and this means that palliative treatments will be a problem if they reduce mental alertness. The state of mind that leads a person to choose euthanasia may affect the process of reincarnation, since one’s final thoughts are relevant to the process.

Moment of Death as Described by the Upanishads

The Moment of Death as Described by the Upanishads “When this self gets to weakness, gets to confusedness, as it were, then the breaths gather round him. He takes to himself those particles of light and descends into the heart. When the person in the eye turns away, then he becomes non-knowing of forms. [When his body grows weak and he becomes apparently unconscious, the dying man gathers his senses about him, completely withdraws their powers and descends into the heart. Radhakrishnan

He is becoming one, he does not see, they say; he is becoming one, he does not smell, they say; he is becoming one, he does not taste, they say, he is becoming one, he does not speak, they say; he is becoming one, he does not hear, they say; he is becoming one, he does not think, they say; he is becoming one, he does not touch, they say; he is becoming one, he does not know, they say. The point of his heart becomes lighted up and by that light the self departs either through the eye or through the head or through other apertures of the body. And when he thus departs, life departs after him. And when life thus departs, all the vital breaths depart after him. He becomes one with intelligence. What has intelligence departs with him. His knowledge and his work take hold of him as also his past experience. (Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad, IV, 4, 1-2.)

Verily, when a person departs from this world, he goes to the air. It opens out there for him like the hole of a chariot wheel. Through that he goes upwards. He goes to the sun. It opens out there for him like the hole of a lambara. Through that he goes upwards. He reaches the moon. It opens out there for him like the hole of a drum. Through that he goes upwards. He goes to the world free from grief, free from snow. There he dwells eternal years. (ibid.,.V, II,I.)

The Soul and Afterlife in Hinduism

Hindus often have little interest in the afterlife. There is little mourning when a Hindu dies because they believe that once a person is born he or she never dies. Krishna said in the Bhagavad-Gita that “Worn-out garments are shed by the body: worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within…New bodies are donned by the dweller, like garments.” Death is often viewed in a positive light: as an escape from one life on the road to a better an ultimate moksha (nirvana), shanti (peace) and paramapada (the ultimate place).

“Atman” (the self or spiritual soul) is seen as a kernel that lies at the center of a large onion and is only revealed after the layers around it — associated with the body, passions and mental powers — are removed in a step by step fashion. The Taittiriya Upanishad defines five layers or sheaths (from the outer to the kernel): 1) the body 2) bio-energy, the equivalent of Chinese qi; 3) mental energy; 4) intuition and wisdom; 5) pure bliss achieved mainly through meditation. These layers can be removed through self actualization and the kernel of eternal bliss can ultimately be realized.

The Vedas refer to two paths taken after death: 1) the path of the ancestors, where the deceased travels to a heaven occupied by ancestors and is ultimately reborn; 2) the path of gods, where the deceased enters a realm at the sun and never returns. The latter is the equivalent of reaching nirvana and escaping reincarnation. There is also a reference to a hell-like “pit” where sinners are punished.

At death the sheaths break apart one by one, and go their separate ways revealing the atman, which departs the body and goes on a path defined by an individual’s karma. In most cases the individual goes to a niche in the cosmos occupied by his ancestors or to one of the 21 heavens and hells of Hindu cosmology and remains there for duration defined by their karma until he or she is ready to be reborn.

Hindu Beliefs About Reincarnation

Reincarnation is viewed as a never-ending set of cycles ( “yugas” and “ kalpas” ). One may be reincarnated millions of times. The doctrine that the soul repeatedly dies and is reborn is called “samsara” (Sanskrit for migration). “Karma” determines what a person is reincarnated as. Escape from the weary cycle of reincarnation can be achieved through escape into “an unchanging anonymous Absolute” and attaining “moksha” , the Hindu equivalent or “nirvana” . For More on These Ideas See Below.

Barbara Bradley of NPR wrote: “According to Hindu philosophy, human beings are not always reborn as human beings. Some are, but others are promoted to still higher forms, forms beyond our present experience, and others are degraded to lower species. One’s future status depends on whether one lives in harmony with nature’s laws or violates them. Only human beings can gain freedom from the cycle of birth and death. According to the Bhagavad Gita, whatever a person thinks about at the time of death determines what sort of body he or she will take in the next life. Those death-bed thoughts shape the next body — what sort of eyes, nose, ears and tongue, as well as what sort of hands and legs and other bodily features one will have. And what one thinks about at death depends largely on one’s thoughts and actions during life.”

According to Hindu theology an “atman” (an internal self or soul) dwells in each person as a kind of cosmic energy that exists beyond worldly reality and karma and doesn’t require good deeds or prayers to improve on itself. The problem is that few creatures can tune into their atman and thus require deeds and prayer to help them establish their place in the world Reincarnation helps them do this and evolve to reach closer to their atman.

The cycles of birth and death are perceived a continuations of the disintegrating force of Creation while transmigration of the soul from one life to another is viewed a perpetuation of the separation of the individual from the unifying force of existence. The aim of the individual is to “get off the wheel,” to escape the cycle and merge finally with the Oneness that was there before Creation began. into the original One. Methods used on the path of escaping reincarnation include yoga, meditation, and charity. Since the chances of escaping it are quite low people are encouraged to work to achieve a better position in their next life by doing good deeds, living simply and praying a lot.

Behavior at the end of one’s life and last thought before dying are believed to be very important in determining how an individual will be reincarnated. Thus a great deal of care goes into making sure a person is well cared before they die and after. This is achieved by creating a calm atmosphere and reading Vedic scriptures and reciting mantras so the soon-to-be-dead can earn as much merit as possible.

Hindu Heaven and Hell

Hindus believe that all living creatures — from bacteria to blue whales, and even some plants — have souls, which are essentially equal, and all these life forms are manifestations of the unity of the universe. This is why Hindus are vegetarians and abhor killing animals; and “ahimsa” , the belief that it is a sin to harm any living creature, is an important precept in Hinduism. The concept was eluded to in the Upanishads and contrasts sharply with doctrines of Western religions which holds that mankind is a special creation on a plane higher than other creatures.

Life and death are seen as meaningless cycles. Life itself is often characterized as a dream that has little to with relevance of the true nature of things in terms of the universe, cosmology and forces behind life. Reality is like an onion whose successive layers have to be pealed to reveal the universe eternal truth. On this subject Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:
“Do not say
God gave us this delusion.”
You dream you are a doer.
You dream that action is done.
You dream that action bears fruit.
It is your ignorance.
It is your delusion
That gives these dreams.”

Hindus believe in “Paramatman” (the eternal, blissful self), which contradicts the Buddhist belief in the impermanent and transitory nature of things.

Mt. Meru

Reincarnation is the transmigration of the soul from one life form to another. It doesn’t just apply to humans but to all creatures and some non-living things too. Transmigration of the soul can take place from a human or creature into another human or creature up or down a scale based on good and evil deeds (See Karma Below). If a person has lived a virtuous life he moves up the scale, say, from a low caste to a high caste. If a person has lived an unworthy life he moves down the scale, say, from a low caste to a rat.

 Reincarnation is a belief found in most Asian religions and is a cornerstone of all the major religions found in India except Islam. The Hindu idea of reincarnation is roughly the same regardless of which Hindu god an individual venerates most.

The Hindu concept of reincarnation first appeared in the Upanishads and is believed to have originated in the Ganges Plain and was absorbed b the Aryan-centered Hinduism as the Aryans moved into the Ganges Plain. Beliefs in reincarnation are not just found in India and Asia but are found in tribal cultures all over the world and were held by the ancient Greeks, Vikings and other groups in the West. Ideas about reincarnation are probably very old and were held by people who lived in Neolithic times.

Astral Cosmos — Hindu Heaven

The Theravada Buddhist scholar Dr. Gamini Karunanayake wrote: “ In the book ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’, Swami Yogananda’s guru Sri Yukteswar after his death came back to his beloved devotee, in flesh and blood form to give a sermon on the after life in other planes of existence. Sri Sathya Sai Baba’s mother Easwaramma, who died long years ago has been seen on several occasions in her physical form talking to Sai Baba in his Ashram. Swami Yogananda while lecturing on a topic of a spiritual nature had seen some of his devotees who died earlier, seated in the lecture hall, in their astral bodies and listening to his lecture. 

“It has also been stated that, the astral cosmos is much larger than the physical cosmos, and infinitely more beautiful. It is teeming with astral beings who have arrived from the physical world. The environment there is extremely beautiful, and pleasant. There are beautiful flowers, streams, waterfalls etc. The fruit trees hear extremely delicious fruits. There are no snakes and insects but birds and butterflies are present. The climate is always a very comfortable spring time with no extremes of temperature.

“Communication among all astral world residents is by telepathy or thought transference astral persons can sometimes observe human activities, but certain human beings who are spiritually developed can view the astral world e.g. Swami Yogananda was able to see the spirit of the mother of one of his devotees after she died of breast cancer. She was being escorted by astral helpers to her new residence in the astral world. Her career was fully cured. There is extremely melodious heavenly music composed by famous musicians Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Kabirdas, Mirabhai who are now living in the astral heavens.

Astral Inhabitants

Dr. Karunanayake wrote: “The astral inhabitants are not born from the wombs of a woman, but they automatically arrive in the youthful form and are welcomed into household occupied by persons who have similar spiritual and mental tendencies. As such there are no differences of opinion of serious nature and therefore there is always peace and harmony in the household and the community. Friends of previous lives in the physical world recognise each other in the astral world. One can meet several fathers, mothers, brothers, wives, husbands and other relatives of previous lives. As such, it is difficult to decide whom to love in particular as all have been connected at sometime or other. That is why all religious teachers advise us to love everybody equally.

 Astral inhabitants can reincarnate into the physical or causal worlds. Their life span is about 1,500 to 2,000 years. Our being is composed of three parts. (1) physical body (2) Astral body (3) causal body. These three bodies are joined together due to the force of unfulfilled desires. The Causal body is composed of mind and ideas and is represented by a spark of light. In Buddhism, the beings in the Brahma lokas are of two types. Those with a body (Rupa) and those with mind only (Nama). Beings of the physical world can go direct to the Brahma worlds, if they have developed their minds in meditation to a very high level. The beings in the causal world are only one step away from total liberation or Nirvana. They have only to apply themselves to get rid of the remaining traces of desires to achieve liberation.

People who accumulate good or wholesome Karma by performing Dana, Seela, Bhavana (charity, morality, meditation) need not unduly fear death, as they will be able to be happy in life beyond. Others who accumulate bad or unwholesome Karma will have to improve themselves sooner than later, to avoid the consequences in this very life, and in the life beyond.

“They are entertaining vast astral audiences. Most of us living in the physical world are able to contact our dead relatives living in the astral world. When we are in deep sleep astral body detaches from the physical body and goes to the astral planes. When we wake up, we are not able to recollect but the astral beings know this and therefore they do not miss us so much. During the Second World War, the great Indian Saint Sri Aurobindo who is now living in the highest of the astral heavens decided that he should stop Adolph Hitler from destroying the world. Hitler summoned a conference of his Military Generals to decide on whether he should first attack Russia or Britain.

He told the generals to decide on that issue and he himself retreated to another room to ‘meditate’. It was at this stage that Sri Aurobindo intervened to influence Hitler mind that he should first attack Russia and not Britain. This decision taken by Hitler against the advice tendered by his Generals resulted in disastrous consequences for Hitler and Nazi Germany. Thus Sri Aurobindo saved the world from the Nazi dictator (Ref Howard Murphen “Where the road ends”)”

Dead Woman Kept for Five Days; Believed She Would Come Back to Life

In August 2012, the Star of Malaysia reported: “Tension was high in Sathamangalam village in Namakkal district, about 300 kilometers from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, after a family refused to bury the body of woman who had died five days ago. Tamil Nesan reported that villagers had to call the police to retrieve the body and bury it.

Police said Muthusami, 70, the husband of the deceased Chinnammal, 65, and his son Palanivel had kept the body for five days, believing that the dead woman would come back to life. Other villagers learnt about the death only after the body started decomposing. The father and son had been conducting prayers in the house for five days, hoping that Chinnammal, who had been bedridden for a year, would return. When neighbours asked the father and son to bury the body, they refused and threatened them. Police were informed and a post-mortem was conducted before the body was buried.

Aghoris: Extreme Sadhus That Eat the Dead

Holy men of the 1,000-year-old Aghor sect of Shiva worshipers in Varanasi drink whiskey from human skulls, have sex with corpses and eat the charred remains of the dead from funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges. They eat corpses in the belief that ingesting dead flesh will make them ageless and give them supernatural powers. By breaking humanity’s strict taboos they claim to transcend society and come closer to enlightenment. They say human meat tastes good and identify the brains as the best part.

In a story on “Feeding on the Dead,” a 10-minute documentary about the Aghori sect by director Sandeep Singh, Associated Press reported: There are about 70 Aghori sadhus at a given time, and they remain with the sect for 12 years before returning to their families. Unlike other Hindu holy men, most of whom are vegetarian teetotalers, the Aghoris consume alcohol and meat. But it is their consumption of human flesh — a practice whose origins remain a mystery — which has earned them the condemnation of other Hindus and relegated most Aghori sadhus to living around crematoriums in the hills around the holy city of Varanasi.

HINDU FUNERAL CUSTOMS

 In keeping with the Hindu custom of swift cremation, bodies are cremated within 24 hours after death, if at all possible, even if close relatives can not attend the funeral. Ideally cremation is done within 12 hours after death, or at the very latest before sundown on the next day if death occurs late in the afternoon. The first person families of the dead usually call is the “ice wallah” in the nearby market. Normally the eldest son carries out the funerary rites. He lights the funeral pyre after first placing a burning stick in the mouth of the deceased. One of the primary reasons that Hindus wish for a son is that only sons can carry out funeral rites. It is possible to substitute another relative for a son but this is generally regarded as much less effective.

There is little mourning when a Hindu dies because they believe that once a person is born he or she never dies. Often there is little crying. Some Indians have said this is because the point of a funeral is to show respect not sadness. Other say it is because Hindu believe the dead are off to a world far better than the one they left behind.

Traditionally women have not been allowed at cremations because they might cry. Their tears like all bodily fluids are regard as pollutants. Women are not supposed to enter the cremation area or even watch what goes on inside it. This includes close relatives and family members. They may help lay out the body at home but carrying the body, gathering the wood and lighting the fire are all considered man’s work.

It is preferable for a Hindu to die at home. Traditionally a candle is lit by the head of the deceased. The body is then placed in the entranceway of the house with the head facing south. The body is bathed, anointed with sandalwood, shaved (if male) and wrapped in cloth. It is preferable for cremation to take place on the day of death. The body is then carried to the funeral pyre by the male relatives and prayers are said to Yama, the god of death. Sometimes the name of God (Ram) is chanted. While doing this the pyre is circled three times anti-clockwise. This is usually done by the male relatives of the family, lead by the chief mournerOn the funeral pyre the feet of the body are positioned pointing south in the direction of the realm of Yama and the head positioned north towards the realm of Kubera, the god of wealth. Traditionally it is the chief mourner who sets light to the pyre. This is done by accepting flaming kusha twigs from the Doms’ who are part of the Untouchable Hindu caste responsible for tending to funeral pyres. The body is now an offering to Agni, the god of fire.After cremation the ashes are collected and usually scattered in water. The River Ganges is considered the most sacred place to scatter ashes. Similarly, Benares (the home of Siva, Lord of destruction) is a preferred place of death because it takes the pollution out of death and makes it a positive event. Anyone who dies here breaks the cycle of life and achieves moksha (enlightenment or release).

Hindu Preparations for Dying

 When death is imminent the dying person is taken from his bed and laid on the ground, facing south, on a layer of sacred grass. Then a series rites is carried out, presided over by the oldest son or another male relative. These include: 1) the vratodyapana (“completion of the vows”), in which all the vows that the dying has not yet complected are magically completed and ten gifts are made in the name of the dying in one last effort to earn merit ; 2) savraprayascitta (“atonement for everything”), in which is a cow is donated to Brahma to absolve the dying of all his sins and guarantee he or she is carried over the river into heaven; and 3) a ritual bath in holy water from the Ganges.

When death occurs verses from the Vedas should be recited in the ear of the dying. Behavior at the end of one’s life and last thought before dying are believed to be very important in determining how an individual will be reincarnated. Thus a great deal of care goes into making sure a person is well cared before they die and after. This is achieved by creating a calm atmosphere and reading Vedic scriptures and reciting mantras so the soon-to-be-dead can earn as much merit as possible. It is believed that if a person’s final thoughts are angry or disturbed he may end up in hell.

Hindu Mourning Period and Departure of the Soul

Hindus believe that the soul exists in a ghost-like state for 10 to 30 days until it is ready to move on to the next stage. For ten to 30 days after a funeral, depending on the caste, the mourners are secluded from society while daily ceremonies. with special ones on 4th, 10th and 14th days, are performed to provide the souls of the deceased with a new spiritual body needed to pass on to the next life. These rites involve offering rice balls and vessels of milk to the deceased. Mourners are expected to refrain from cutting their fingernails, combing their hair, wearing jewelry or shoes, reading sacred texts, having sex and cooking their own food. If not properly performed the soul may become a ghost that haunts its relatives.

After the tenth day, the soul move on and the mourners are regarded as purified. The 12th day after a death has special meaning for Hindus. It is when the soul passes on to the next life. The day is marked by special prayers. A caste dinner is given on the 12th or 13th day after special “ritual of peace” is performed to mark the ending of the mourning period . The ritual involves the chanting of mantras while making a fire and placing four offerings in the fire and touching a red bull.

The full mourning period lasts two weeks to a year depending on the age of the deceased and the closeness of the relationship to him or her. At the end of a mourning period for his mother a son shaves his head. Sometimes this is done in a river and the hair carried away is a “sign of renewal.” When the morning period is complete the eldest son become the head of the family and the wife of a deceased man becomes a widow.

There are restrictions on eating salt, lentils, oil and a number of other foods during the mourning period. Restrictions on the eldest son are even stricter. He often can eat only one meal a day consisting of rice, ghee and sugar and must shave all the hair from his body and conduct hours of rituals and take periodic ritual cold baths for a period of mourning that lasts up to one year.Rites with offerings known as shaddha are periodically held after a person has died to nourish the soul in the afterlife. The rites are often performed once a year and feature a feast with a plate of food of food offered to the dead. Hindu believe the living must feed the dead living in the World of the Fathers. If the ancestors are properly taken care of they will reward the living with prosperity and sons. The shaddha is thought to day back to the Aryans. It is viewed as a meeting between the living and the dead. The souls of the dead who are nor properly buried are thought live outside the World of Fathers as ghosts that torment their relatives until they are there. custom 

Hindu Inheritance

Inheritance was given to this who were obligated to perform shraddha. Since only males can perform the shraddha only they could receive an inheritance. Men without sons could adopt a boy or appoint a daughter, if he had one, to give birth to a boy. Since one male can only serve one the grandson or adopted son gave up the right to perform shraddha to his immediate family. 

The concept of shraddha was an Aryan idea supplanted by the idea of reincarnation but many of its beliefs remain.

Village women are given their inheritance at birth because they are not a son.

HINDU CREMATIONS

 There are about 3.14 million deaths a year in India. Most people are cremated. For the part most cremations are still done the way they have been done for centuries, by following the final life ritual called antyesti, outlined in the Grihya Sutras. The average cost of a funeral is $12 to $71.

Cremation is an extremely important ritual for Hindus. They believe it releases an individual’s spiritual essence from its transitory physical body so it can be reborn. If it is not done or not done properly, it is thought, the soul will be disturbed and not find its way to its proper place in the afterlife and come back and haunt living relatives. Fire is the chosen method to dispose of the dead because of its association with purity and its power to scare away harmful ghosts, demons and spirits. The fire god Agni is asked to consume the physical body and create its essence in heaven in preparation for transmigration. Cremations are still associated with sacrifices. The god Pushan is asked to accept the sacrifice and guide the soul to its proper place in the afterlife.

Not everyone is cremated. Holy men, lepers and people with small pox have traditionally been buried, with holy men traditionally buried in a vertical position preserved with salt. Small children under two are not cremated because their soul does not need purifying. In many cases today they are not buried but are taken to the middle of the Ganges or another sacred river and dropped to the river bottom with a weighed stone. Families who can not afford the wood for cremation sometimes throw unburned corpses in the Ganges. In some cases an effigy is burned to symbolize cremation. Few people are buried. These are victims of suicide, murder, or some other kind of violence who, it is believed, have souls that will not rest, no matter what is done to the corpse.

Cremation has remained common, possibly because cemeteries are a waste of space. New electric crematoriums are becoming more popular. They are more efficient and cleaner, and save precious fuel and forests.

Early Cremations in India

 It is not clear how and why the custom of cremation evolved. By the time the earliest Hindu texts were written around 1,200 B.C. it was already an established custom. There is some archeological evidence that in the distant past burial was the norm and later cremation with a secondary burial became common place and this gave way to cremation, the dominant custom today.

From the time of the Rig Veda, which contains passages possibly written as far aback as 2000 B.C., Hindus have cremated the dead although small children and ascetic were sometimes buried and low caste members sometimes buried their own. One passage from the Rig Veda addressed to Jataedas!, the fire that burns that corpse, goes.
O Jataedas! When you thoroughly burn this [departed person],
Then may you hand him over to the pitris [i.e. heavenly fathers]!
When he [the deceased] follows thus [path] that leads to a new life,
May he become on that carries out the wishes of the gods

Sometimes animals were sacrificed at the funerals. Another passage from the Rig Veda reads:
O Jatavedas! May you burn by your heat the goat that is youre share!
May your flame, may your bright light burn that goat;
Carry this [departed soul] to the world if this who do good deeds
By means of youre beneficent bodies [flames]!

It is not known why the custom of cremation was adopted, Some have suggested 1) it is a method of purification, of releasing the soul from a polluted body; 2) it symbolizes the transitory nature of life, of destruction and rebirth; or 3) it eliminated the body as a health risk and doesn’t take up valuable land.

Preparations Before a Cremation

Family members have traditionally prepared the body of the deceased. Before cremation, the body is wrapped and washed, with jewelry and sacred objects intact, in a plain sheet. A red cloth is used for holy people. Married women are buried in their wedding dress and an orange shroud. Men and widows have a white shroud.

 Later the body is dressed in fine clothes and the nail are trimmed and thumbs are tied together while scriptures are read. Often some leaves of the Tulasi tree and few drops of sacred water are placed in the mouth of the deceased. In ancient times the funeral bed was made from rare wood and antelope skin. These days it is made from bamboo or common kinds of wood and no animal skins are used.

While the corpse is in the house no family member or neighbor can eat, drink ir work. Hindus don’t like it when non-Hindus touch the corpse so an effort is made make sure that any non-Hindus who touch a copse at a hospital are wearing rubber gloves. In the old days the body was disemboweled, fecal matter was removed and the abdominal cavity was filled with ghee or some other pure substance. But this is no longer done. Autopsies are regarded as extremely offensive. Some customs vary according to caste, cultural background and region from which the funeral participants are from.

After the body has been prepared it is carried by male relatives on a flower-draped bamboo bier to the cremation ghats. There is no coffin. Sometimes if the deceased died on an inauspicious day the body is taken out of the house through a hole in a wall rather than the doorway. Male relatives that carry the shrouded body chant “Rama nama satya hai,” the name of the God of Truth. The eldest son is in the lead. He has been purified in a special ritual and carries a fire kindled in the home of the deceased. The fire is carried in a black earthen pot. If the procession is near the Ganges the body is immersed in the river before being placed on the funeral pyre.

Hindu Cremation

Cremations take place at special cremation grounds. The body is anointed with ghee (clarified butter). Men are sometimes cremated face up while women are cremated face down. The funeral pyre is often made of corkwood and offerings of camphor, sandalwood and mango leaves. A typical pyre is made of 300 kilograms or so of wood. Rich families sometimes pay for the entire pyre to be made up of sandalwood. In Kerala mango wood is often used. because wood is scarce and expensive. Some poor families use cow dung instead of wood. In any case, wood is usually piled on the pyre until only the head is visible. Mantras are recited to purify the cremation grounds and scare away ghosts. Offerings are made to Agni, the fire god, at an altar.

 Possessions of the deceased are often placed on the pyre. Death is believed to be contagious and it is thought that contact with these possessions could cause death. Sometimes a wife climbs on the pyre and climbs off before the fire is lit, an acknowledgment of suttee (wife-burning) custom without actually carrying it out. Sometimes goats is circled around the pyre three times and given to Brahmins. This symbolizes an ancient cow sacrifice.

The eldest son or youngest son — often with his head shaved and wearing a white robe out of respect — usually lights the fire. Before this is done the shroud of the deceased is cut and the body smeared with ghee and a brief disposal ceremony is led by a priest. The son lights a torch with the fire from the black earthen pot and takes the torch and a matka (clay pot with water) and walks around the pyre seven times. Afterwards the matka is smashed, symbolizing the break with earth. The torch is used to light the funeral pyre: at the foot of a deceased woman or at the head of a deceased man. The Brahmin priest reads sacred verses from the Garuda Purana, speeding the dead person’ soul to the next life.

Burning of the Body During Hindu Cremation

As the pyre burns the mourners jog around the fire without looking at it, chanting “ram nam sit hair: (“God’s name is truth”) in the inauspicious clockwise direction. The priest intones; “Fire, you were lighted by him, so may he be lighted from you that he may in the regions of celestial bliss.” It takes about three or four hours for a body to burn.

The fire is left to burn itself out. In that time the body is transformed to ashes, and it is hoped the skull explodes to release the soul to heaven. When the fire has cooled, if the skull has not cracked open spontaneously, the oldest son splits it in two. If the cremation is done near the Ganges the bones and ashes are thrown into the Ganges.

Few tears are shed. The cremation of Indira Gandhi was broadcast around the world. After witnessing her cremation presided over by her son Rajiv, one visiting dignitary asked him , “Could you really do that to your mother?” On the third day after the funeral the cremation bones are thrown into a river, preferably the Ganges, and for ten days rice balls and vessels of milk and libations of water are offered to the deceased.

Varanasi, the Lovely Place to Die

Jim Lo Scalzo wrote in U.S. News and World Report, “For a city where people come to spend the last moments of their lives, Varanasi feels eternally—and exquisitely—alive. The holiest city in Hinduism is a place without vanity, where millions of pilgrims come each year to exhibit the most private moments of their religious life: to pray, to wash away their sins, to die. Here the road to salvation is a river, the Ganga Ma, or Mother Ganges, and few places on Earth offer such dramatic and public displays of elemental worship.

“Though the Ganges is an actual deity, its heightened status in the Hindu pantheon is grounded in the material; the river irrigates one of the largest and most densely populated watersheds in the world. This is the Indian heartland, where rich alluvial soil gave rise to the region’s first civilization and now helps feed the entire country. Hindus thus venerate Ganga Ma as a giver of life—and, confoundingly, as a means of liberation from it.

“To die in Varanasi, on the river’s sacred banks, is to free oneself from samsara, the seemingly endless cycle of death and rebirth; it enables one to forgo further reincarnations and achieve moksha, or spiritual liberation. Moksha is not a place but a goal, one similar to Buddhist enlightenment, an emancipation from temporal desires and all the suffering that goes with them. Moksha is what every Hindu desires most, a supreme realization of the self, and there is no faster route than these waters.

“A bend in the river. But why here? Why, on a river that is more than 1,500 miles long, did Varanasi emerge where it did? “Thousands of years ago the spot was the nexus of some important trade routes,” says John Hawley, professor of religion at Columbia University’s Barnard College. “It was also unusual in that the river, which flows southeast, here makes a sharp turn and flows north, as if it were looking back at its origins.

“The northern direction was considered very auspicious,” concurs Travis Smith, a Varanasi expert and assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Department of Religion. “And it was significant to Varanasi’s development,” because it allowed worshipers and temples on the western side of the river to directly face the rising sun. According to Smith, Varanasi soon “became associated with wandering ascetics. As a trading center, it was a good place to get alms.”

Today, Varanasi’s cremation ghats are still at the city’s heart—literally and metaphorically—and still face the rising sun. Several thousand bodies a month are consumed by fires that, day and night, never go out. Barefoot men use bamboo poles to rotate the blackened bodies, and the resulting smoke hangs above the river complex like a thin blue veil. The bone and ash that remain are shoveled into the river. It is not uncommon to see uncremated corpses in the river as well—the bodies of infants who are still considered pure and not in need of cremation, floating alone in the caramel-colored water. 

The river’s unsightly shade of brown isn’t caused by silt alone. Though the Ganges begins as glacial melt high in the Himalayas, it is soon sullied with pollution. By the time its water reaches Varanasi, the Ganges seems less a river than a roux, a toxic mix of raw sewage (the river’s fecal level is 1.5 million times India’s safe level for drinking), industrial chemicals, and corpses. Yet for the millions of pilgrims who come to Varanasi annually, pilgrims who collect, bathe in, and, yes, drink this water, the river’s austere origins are still enough to assuage such mortal concerns.

Beyond the waterfront, Varanasi’s interior is a dark and dirty labyrinth, one so narrow that a sleeping cow can block your passage. The air is heavy. Bouquets of patchouli incense compete with India’s signature odors—car exhaust and coal fires. Ocher-robed ascetics—garlands of marigolds around their necks, tridents in their hands—wander these passageways, as do hustlers, dope pushers, and beggars. As the primordial home of Shiva, that most fertile of Hindu gods, the city is cluttered with phalluses, both stone and real. The former emerge from temples and sidewalks like concrete posts, the latter hang from sadhus, or Hindu holy men, whose only dress, if you can call it that, is the ashes from the cremation ghats spread over their bodies like powder. It seems an impossible amalgam, a city that is revered for, and made beautiful by, its facilitation of death. And yet that’s precisely the case for Varanasi. Death becomes it

Hindu Cremations in Varanasi

 Varanasi (Banaras, or Benares) is the place every Hindu hopes to be when he or she dies so they can escape the cycle of rebirth and death. If a person dies in the Ganges or has Ganges water sprinkled on them as they breath their last breath it is believed they achieve absolute salvation, escaping the toil of reincarnation to be transported to Shiva’s Himalayan version of heaven.

Cremations have been taking place in the Ganges for thousands of years. Perhaps a 100,000 cremated bodies are thrown in the Ganges every year. In Varanasi, funeral parties wait for their turns on the steps of the ghats (cremation grounds). Bundles carried through the streets are often corpses. On the roads leading to Varanasi you will often see shrouded corpses placed on the roofs of vehicles like surfboards or kayaks. There is even a caste that specializes in sifting through the ashes and mud at the bottom of Ganges for rings and jewelry.

The processions with the corpse to the ghat are often accompanied by singing, dancing and drumming. They often have a festive atmosphere. Relatives chant “Rama nama satya hai.” The body is immersed once in the Ganges and then anointed with ghee (clarified butter), lashed to a platform and wrapped in bright yellow fabric. The pyre is lit with a flame from a temple. Periodically the embers of the fire pyre are poked by boys with six foot poles to keep the fire burning.

Descriptions of Cremation in Varanasi

Describing the burning ghats at Varanasi in 1933, Patrick Balfour wrote: “Through stagnant water, thick with scum and rotting flowers, we drifted towards the burning ghats, where a coil of smoke rose into the air from a mass of ashes no longer recognizable as a body. One pyre, neatly stacked in a rectangular pile, had just been lit, and the corpse swathed in white, protruded from the middle.” 

“An old man surrounded with marigolds, sat cross-legged on the step above. Men were supporting him and rubbing him with oil and sand, he submitted limply to their ministrations, staring, wide-eyed, towards the sun…’Why are they massaging him like that?’ I asked the guide…’Because he is dead.'”

 “And then I saw them unfold him from his limp position and carry him towards the stack of wood. Yet he looked no more dead than many of the living around him. They put him face downwards on the pyre, turned his shaved head towards the river, piled wood on top of him and set it alight with brands of straw, pouring on him butter and flour and rice and sandalwood.”

“The ceremony was performed with detatchment and a good deal of chat, while uninterested onlookers talked among themselves. When I drifted back, some ten minutes later, the head was a charred bone and a cow was placidly munching the marigold wreathes…The body takes about three hours to burn. Sometime less if more wood is added. The richer a family is the more wood they can afford. While its burning Dom teenager poke at the logs as if it were a campfire. Sometimes cows stand around the fire to get warm.”

“When the wood is burned to ashes, the breastbone f the deceased is often still intact. It is given to the eldest son who tosses it in the Ganges. After the family of the deceased leaves Dom children descend on the on the ashes looking for coins, nose studs or gold teeth.”

Reporting from Varanasi in 2007, Bruce Wallace wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Cremation fires crackle all day long on the chipped concrete steps of this riverside holy city, the blazes spewing ash and flakes over the mourners who crowd its famous piers. Sweating, bare-chested men stoke the funeral pyres, squinting against the sting of smoke as they lug and stack the bundles of logs needed to burn the procession of Hindu dead. And when the bodies are incinerated and the families have taken away the ashes of their loved ones, the men sweep the residue into the Ganges River. The detritus of death, mingling with life.

“Devout Hindus regard cremation as an essential rite that frees the soul from the body, enabling its journey to the next level. But with India’s Hindu population of about 800 million ensuring a massive number of open-air cremations, there is a growing awareness that this adherence to religious orthodoxy carries a toll for the temporal world.”

Doms and Hindu Cremation

The cremations in Varanasi and other places are performed by the Doms, a subcaste that makes their living burning bodies for cremations for a fee that ranges considerably depending on the wealth of the family. The Doms are a caste of Untouchables. Touching a corpse after death is viewed as polluting and thus only Untouchables are designated to do this kind of work. So terrible is this work, it is said, Doms are expected to weep when their children are born and party when death releases them from their macabre responsibilities.

 In addition to charging money for performing the cremations the Doms also take a cut from the exorbitantly-priced wood sold near the ghats. The Doms in Varanasi have become very wealthy from their trade and some Indians have accused them of “extortion” because of the high prices they charge and the fact they often take money from poor families that struggle to pay for the cremations. Because they are the only ones allowed to perform the cremations, the Doms have established a monopoly that allows them to charge very high prices. When customers can’t pay the full price the Doms hold back the supply of wood and bodies end up half-burned.

In the 1980s the Dom Raja controlled the ghats and the supply of wood used to burn the 35,000 or so bodies brought to Ganges in Varanasi for cremations. The Raja did not perform a cremation unless he was paid in advance the $45 or so for the wood, and often he demanded an extra payment to guarantee the soul would be liberated. These payments, some claimed, made him the richest man in Varanasi.

Describing an encounter with the Dom Raja, Geoffrey Ward wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “The Dom Raja himself sat cross-legged on a string bed inside his darkened room. Eight hangers on sat at his feet around a little table on which rests a brass tumbler and half-empty bottle of clear homemade liquor. The Dom Raja was immensely fat, nearly naked and totally bald. His thick fingers were covered with big gold rings. When he spoke he slurred his words. I had not brought him a handsome gift, he finally mumbled, so he saw no reason to speak further with me.”

After the Hindu Cremation

After the cremation fire is extinguished the focus of the funeral ritual changes to purifying the relatives of the deceased who are looked upon as ritually impure from their exposure to the corpse. If he hasn’t done so already the eldest son or presiding male relative shaves his head and wears a white robe after the cremation. On the day after pyre was lit he often pours milk over pyre.

After the cremation family members wash themselves in water in trenches north of the pyre and pass under a cow yoke propped up by branches, and offer a prayer to the sun. They then walk off led by youngest son and don’t look back. In the first stream they encounter they bath while shouting out the name of the deceased. Afterwards they place rice and peas on the ground to confuse ghosts and then walk to a pleasant place and relate stories about the deceased. When they arrive at home they touch several objects — a stone, fire, dung, grain, a seed, oil and water — in proper order to purify themselves before they enter their houses.

Remains in the Ganges

After the cremation the bones and ashes of the deceased are thrown into the Ganges. Even those who are not cremated near the Ganges have their ashes placed there. Rock guitarists Jerry Garcia and George Harrison are among those who had their ashes scattered in the Ganges. In the old days thousands of uncremated bodies were thrown into the Ganges during cholera epidemics, spreading the disease and producing more corpses.

Today only bones and ashes are supposed to be scattered in the river. Even so the cremation process, especially among those who can not afford the large amount of wood needed to incinerate the entire body, leaves behind a lot of half burned body parts. To get rid of the body parts special snapping turtles are bred and released in the river that are taught to consume dead human flesh but not bother swimmers and bathers. These turtles consume about a pound of flesh a day and can reach a size of 70 pounds.

In the early 1990s, the government built an electric crematorium on the side of the Ganges, in part to reduce the amount of half-burned bodies floating down the river. Even after the system was introduced most people still preferred the traditional method of cremation.

80 Bodies in Ganges From Apparent ‘ Water Burial’

Water burials are banned in India, but the practice still takes place because of beliefs among some Hindus that unwed girls should not be cremated, and that a water burial ensures that she will be reborn into the same family. This is believed to have been the fate of 80 bodies that surfaced in northern India in 2015. Poor families who cannot afford cremations also prefer to deposit the deceased in bodies of water such as the Ganges.

Parth M.N. wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Authorities in northern India said that some 80 bodies that surfaced in the Ganges River this week – many of them children – had been given traditional water burials and were not victims of foul play. Villagers in Pariyar, 50 miles from the city of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh state, noticed the floating bodies after dogs and vultures were seen in the area, prompting local officials to investigate. “The dead bodies were buried in the water,” said Saumya Agarwal, the district magistrate of Unnao, which includes Pariyar. “They resurfaced as the water levels receded.”

The bodies were badly decomposed, indicating they had been in the water for a substantial time, officials said. Authorities conducted DNA tests and cremated the bodies in the soil according to the wishes of local residents, Agarwal said.“Water burials are discouraged because of environmental reasons but it is true that they have not stopped entirely – especially in the case of unwed girls,” Agarwal sad.

Environmental Damage from Hindu Cremations

Bruce Wallace wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “It takes a lot of wood to burn a body: The demand for funeral pyres strips the country of more than 50 million trees annually, according to some estimates. Cremations also release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And the body parts sometimes dumped into rivers and streams add further toxicity to water that is already badly polluted.

“We have come to a stage where if we don’t come up with a solution for dealing with the dead, we are going to affect the survival of the living,” said Anshul Garg, director of Mokshda, a nonprofit group in New Delhi that is campaigning for an environmentally friendly approach to cremation. ^^

“In traditional Hindu cremations, the body is placed atop a pile of wood. The corpse is then covered with more wood and burned in the open air. Mokshda says this method requires as much as 880 pounds of wood to burn a single corpse (though the wood porters in Varanasi say the amount is closer to 600 pounds), a process that can take as long as six hours.” Yet the realities of the outside world intrude even on this holiest of Hindu cities. Yadav recalled the wood shortage of 2005, when scarcity meant the bodies backed up on the ghats while they waited for supplies. The price of wood is 50% higher than it was five years ago.” ^^

Green Cremation

Wallace wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Mokshda’s alternative is the “Green Cremation System,” a cremation bier it developed 15 years ago and has been tinkering with since. The organization believes it has perfected its design, saying it can burn a body using a mere 220 pounds of wood in a third of the time.

“Wood is integral to Hindu cremation rites, a symbolic connection between the body and the earth, which is why the first layer of wood is laid on the ground. The Mokshda system’s innovation is to place that first layer of wood on a raised metal grate, allowing for better air circulation. A chimney is placed over the pyre to cut heat loss. “We have improved the flow of air and where there is a proper flow of air, your combustion efficiency increases,” Garg said. “This is not a new technological gizmo. It’s a simplicity, like improving the efficiency of a wood stove.”

“Mokshda’s system has made only tiny inroads so far. It has 12 units of its latest model, which on average costs about $30,000, in operation, with orders for 80 more in the pipeline. But the potential demand is enormous. Mokshda says it has identified 800 crematoriums across India as possible users. The Delhi metropolitan area alone has about 350 crematoriums, their flaky residue occasionally drifting over nearby neighborhoods. ^^

“Mokshda says its system can succeed where the electric one failed because it allows Hindus to perform traditional rituals. The challenge is to convince devout Hindus that using less wood does not break with orthodoxy. Even Garg acknowledges that it will be a while before Mokshda’s cremation bier is welcome in a place such as Varanasi.”

“And in his office on Varanasi’s back streets, Kameshwar Upadhyay, a Hindu scholar known for his strict views, looked thoughtfully at photographs of the Mokshda system and didn’t dismiss it as heretical. He acknowledged that India is groaning under the stress of an expanding population. And if he was not about to welcome the Mokshda system in the spiritual center of Varanasi, he thought it might not be a bad idea in big cities.

“There is a provision that after death, a person needs to be completely de-linked from this Earth, and fire helps in that goal,” Upadhyay said. “But there are changing situations that come to us on Earth and we have to work out compromises for that. As long as mukhagni and kapal kriya can be followed, there should be no problem. “Fire,” he said, “is fire.””

Resistance to Green Cremation

Wallace wrote: But the Mokshda system faces two big obstacles to acceptance. For one thing, improving cremation methods is a low priority for cash-strapped municipalities facing a host of public health issues. An even greater obstacle is the resistance of traditionalists who don’t want to mess with a matter as sensitive as the fate of a loved one’s soul. “We have changed other rituals — marriage, eating habits, clothing — but rituals around death are the hardest to change,” Garg said. “People are hesitant to talk about death; there is a fear. So they say they’ll stick with what they’ve been following through the ages.”

Munshi Ghat in Varanasi

“The government also has largely failed to get Hindus to sign on to environmentally friendly cremations. Beginning in the 1960s, municipal governments began installing electric or gas-fueled crematoriums, offering to dispose of bodies at a fraction of the cost of traditional cremations, which can be $50 to $75, depending on the quality and amount of wood used. But most Hindus have balked at this option, saying that oven-like crematoriums prevent them from carrying out important rituals such as the mukhagni, in which a fire is lighted in the body’s mouth, and the kapal kriya, in which the corpse’s skull is shattered by a blow from a bamboo stick to release the soul.

“It is mostly unclaimed corpses that are burned in electric and gas crematoriums, stigmatizing them as being for the poorest of the poor. “It’s a good method — there’s less pollution because you are not dumping lumps of flesh into the river — but we don’t get many bodies,” said Panchdev Singh, 47, the operator of Varanasi’s electric crematorium. There are no bodies awaiting Singh’s attention. One of his two machines is out of order, and business has fallen off since 2000, when the municipality raised the price to about $12. “Now the only people who come here are the very poor or the ones brought in by the police,” Singh said.

“I doubt it would be a hit here,” said Dinesh Yadav, 21, who has taken over the family wood business, running a gang of 10 porters for cremations on Varanasi’s ghats, or riverside steps. “People want to do it the Hindu way. Older people, especially, will never settle for being burned with less than the required quantity of wood.” “A time will come when we’ll probably have to move to a new way,” he said.

Shaivites

The Shaivas or Shaivites (devotees of Shiva) have the largest numbers of followers. These are grouped into numerous subdivisions. Some of these groups trace their origin back to cults that existed at the time of the arrival of the Aryans. Some sects are orthodox. Other are regarded as reformist or even radical. each sect has its own traditions, customs and beliefs, associated with a particular teacher.

Many sadhus (holy men) are Shaivites. They traditionally have worn mated hair and tried to live like Shiva himself. They sometime carry tridents, the symbol of Shiva. Shiva himself was an ascetic for a while and images of him often depict him as one. Some sadhus engage in extreme forms of self mortification. Most shaivaties are more modest and revere Shiva as a god of life and grace.

Shivaism puts great emphasis on the appeasement of evil spirits. Carved wooden lingam Lingams (or lingas) are the phallic symbols that honor Shiva and represent male energy, rebirth, fertility and the creative forces of the universe. They are found in varying sizes in many Hindu temples. A typical one is shaped like an erect phallus and made of polished stone. The vertical shaft is sometimes divided into the parts symbolizing the Hindu Trinity.According to the Shiva Purana “it is not the linga that is worshiped but the one whose symbol it is.”Lingams are usually set on a round base called a yoni , which represents Shakti and the female force. A channel is carved on the base to allow ablutions to flow out. Shiva worshipers like to pour cows milk on lingams, sprinkle them with flowers and red powder and make offering of fruits and sweets. The lingam and the base together are a sort of ying and yang statue that symbolizes the entire universe and the union and interaction between male and female power.

Shaktism

Shaktas are worshipers of the goddess Shakti (also known as Devi)—Shiva’s wife. Members include both lay people, who worship images of the goddess in their homes, and ascetics. who lives in temples and ashrams. The sect revolves around gurus (living teachers) and shakta pithas (sacred places). Kali and Tara are the main forms of the goddess although ten different forms are worshiped. There is also worship of local goddesses such as Manasha, the snake goddess, and other well-known Hindu gods such as Saravati, Durga, Radha, Parvao and Gayatro Devo.

There are two main types of Shaktism in India: 1) Shrikula, (the family of the goddess Sari), which is located in southern India and views the goddess primary as a benevolent sources of wealth and fertility; and 2) Kalikula, which is associated mostly with northern and eastern India and sees the goddess as a force of wisdom and freedom. Kalikula means “family of Kali” (Kali— the Goddess of Death— is a form of Shakti). It is opposed to the conservative Brahministic tradition. Modern Shaktism empathize the universality of all religions and places Shaktism in that context.

Shaktism is also connected with the Shaivism and the worship of Shiva, the husband of the goddess, but Shakti is treated as the central character and Shiva serves as her assistant. The term shakti means creative power and the power of creation without which Shiva would have no life. Some statues of Kali in Calcutta show her stepping on Shiva, who looks as if he’s dead.

Some Shakti sects use sexual imagery and even employ sexual rites in their worship. Sexual aspects of tantrism often have links with Shaktism. This is based partly on the belief that creation was the result of sexual intercourse between the Supreme God and his spouse, the Mother Goddess. Some see the Mother Goddess as the creator god and supreme deity because without here creation would not be possible.

Shakti Practices

The emphasis of Shaktism is often on the worship of Kali, who is regarded as a loving mother of her children, beautiful on the inside but is fierce-looking on the outside. Often depicted with sharp teeth and a necklace of skulls, she is believed to bring her followers deep insights and positive rebirth. Some worship her communally by chanting mantras, making offerings and partying front of images of the goddess. Others rely on more solitary methods such as practicing yoga and Tantric exercises while sitting alone at a burial ground surrounded by cremation ash and bones. Some exorcisms and trances are done in association with the sect.

Shakti pithas are considered as dwelling places of the goddess and are linked with the story of Sati and her death. Sometimes a sacrificial ceremony is conducted that represents the discovery of the dead Sati by Shiva who went wild with grief and did a dance of destruction while holding Sati’s’s corpse in his arms. Shaktas believed the gods feared Shiva would destroy the world and cut Sati’s body into pieces. Shiva stopped his dance and the places where here body parts fell became pithas, places where the goddess would live forever.

Kundalini yoga is often practiced by Shaktas. The main aim is to awaken the goddess Kundalini, who sleeps on the lowest energy center of the body, at the coccyx, and guide her up the spine to the head, where she unites with Shiva. The technique utilizes breath control and visualizing spiritual channels and deities within the body.

Until the 18th century Shaktism was an esoteric religion practiced mainly by yogis. At that time Shakti devotion poets made the religion accessible to lay people not initated into the complex meditative and Tantric practices of the sect. These people often participated in the sect not to achieve liberation but rather to find a place in the afterlife in Kali’s paradise. Shakti ascetics often dress in red clothing, have long matted hair and wear rosaries ( malas ) made from bone and ruraksha berries.

Vaishnava

Vaishnavas are people who worship Vishnu, either as himself or one of his form or incarnations (avatars). Vaishnava worship revolves around the worship of forms and images of Vishnu. The Bhagavata Purana , the sacred text of Vaishnavas, is thought to have originated in southern India. Often the form that is worshiped is done in certain way specific to a certain place. In West Bengal he is worshiped as Krishna, in Puri as Rama, and in Pandarpur as Vithoba.

Vaishnavas usually come in three types: 1) lay people, who worship Vishnu or one of his incarnation primarily through a household altar and participation in temple festivals; 2) a devotee who lives in a community of a monastery or ashram; and 3) an ascetic who lives in a meditation hut in the forest. Ascetics and monks are initiated in a sect led by a particular guru and vow to lead a religious life.

Vishnuism puts great emphasis on the duty and devotion. Important Vaishnava figures include Caitany (founder of the “sampradaya” tradition, which including the Hare Krishna movement); Ramanuj, a scholar who preached a god-centered philosophy; and the “bhakhti” (“devoted to love”) poets. Poets such as Mirabai and Surdas Surdas wrote: “Without devotion to God, you will make yourself into a stale crumb to be eaten by the tiger of Time.”

Vaishnavaism

Vishnu’s worshippers, usually called Vaishnava, consider him the greatest god. They regard the other gods as lesser or demi gods. Vaishnava worship only Vishnu. Vishnu monotheism is called Vaishnavism. According to the Sri Vaishnava Home Page: Sri Vaishnavism is a multifaceted tradition that has both popular and philosophical aspects. Over its long history, Sri Vaishnavism has influenced nearly every aspect of Indian religious life., including its vibrant temple culture, the philosophical love poetry of the Alvar saints, the Vedanta discourses of the Upanishadic sages, the penetrating insight of the acharyas — all culminating in the grand philosophy of Visishtadvaita.

“Visishtadvaita is the system of thought embodied by the Vedanta, the philosophical portion of the Vedas, India’s ancient scriptures. The central idea of Visishtadvaita is this: there exists an Ultimate Principle, an Absolute Being that is the source and substratum of all that exists. This immanent spirit is the inner guide and controller of the whole universe with all its diverse animate and inanimate elements. Communion with this gracious, omnipotent Supreme Being constitutes the supreme end of existence. Such communion is attainable exclusively through self-surrender and undivided, loving meditation.” \=\

Among the most famous Vaishnava temples are Srirangam, Tirupati and Tiruvahindrapuram, Famous Alvar saints include Andal, Nammalvar, Tiruppaan and Tirumangai. Ramanuja is one of the most influential philosophers of India, and the most important teacher of Sri Vaishnavism. His most well-known works are The Vedarthasangraha and The Sribhashya. Vedanta Desika is one of the foremost poets and philosophers of India. A versatile genius, he permanently set Ramanuja’s philosophy on firm footing and produced lovely, moving stotras. Manavala Mamuni is perhaps the greatest and best loved Sri Vaishnava acharya. He is responsible for the renewal of Sri Vaishnavism in the 15th century.

Bengali Vaishnavas

Among the Bengali Vaishnavas. Krishna is regarded as the supreme deity rather than an incarnation of Vishnu and he his is worshiped with his consort Radha as if they are one. A 15th century mad saint named Caitanya is worshiped as a form of the deity and there is a belief that divinity is best understood through emotions and sublimated eroticism. Followers regard the milkmaids that loved Krishna when he was young as the model devotees and try to emulate their intense love in hopes that it will help them enter Krishna’s paradise after they die.

Bengali Vaishnava ascetics and monks often dress in saffron or white robes, have a shaven head and tlaka marks made with white clay on their faces and bodies. They eat little, wake up at 4:00am and chant several lakhs of mantras (one lakh equals 100,000 repetitions).

Vaishnava worship revolves around the worship of forms and images of Krishna. This is done at temple gatherings, festivals, worship ceremonies and processions. The gatherings often include music, chanting, singing and the telling of stories of Krishna’s life. There is an egalitarian and ecstatic aspect of Bengali Vaishnava. The goal of many of these ceremonies is to achieve a spontaneous state of love like that of Krishna’s milkmaid devotees, without members of the Brahmin caste. Caitanya was famous for the intensive frenzies of joy and sorrow he experienced when thinking of Krishna. Sahajiya or Tantric Vaishnavism incorporates sexuality onto both its beliefs and practices.

COMPARING THE FOUR MAJOR DENOMINATIONS

As just seen, the spectrum of Hindu religiousness is found within four major sects or denominations: Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism and Smartism. Among these four streams, there are certainly more similarities than differences. All four believe in karma and reincarnation and in a Supreme Being who is both form and pervades form, who creates, sustains and destroys the universe only to create it again in unending cycles. They strongly declare the validity and importance of temple worship, in the three worlds of existence and the myriad Gods and devas residing in them. They concur that there is no intrinsic evil, that the cosmos is created out of God and is permeated by Him. They each believe in maya (though their definitions differ somewhat), and in the liberation of the soul from rebirth, called moksha, as the goal of human existence. They believe in dharma and in ahimsa, noninjury, and in the need for a satguru to lead the soul toward Self Realization. They wear the sacred marks, tilaka, on their foreheads as sacred symbols, though each wears a distinct mark. Finally, they prefer cremation of the body upon death, believing that the soul will inhabit another body in the next life. While Hinduism has many sacred scriptures, all sects ascribe the highest authority to the Vedas and Agamas, though their Agamas differ somewhat. Here, now, is a brief comparison of these four denominations.

On the Personal God/Goddess

Saivism: Personal God and temple Deity is Siva, neither male nor female. Lords Ganesha and Karttikeya are also worshiped.

Shaktism: Personal Goddess and temple Deity is Shri Devi or Shakti, female, worshiped as Rajarajeshvari, Parvati, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Kali, Amman, etc. the Divine Mother.

Vaishnavism: Personal God and temple Deity is Vishnu, male. His incarnations as Rama and Krishna are also worshiped, as well as His divine consort, Radharani.

Smartism: Personal God and temple Deity is Ishvara, male or female, worshiped as Vishnu, Siva, Shakti, Ganesha and Surya or any Deity of devotee’s choice, e.g., Kumara or Krishna.

On the Nature of Shakti

Saivism: Shakti is God Siva’s inseparable power and manifest will, energy or mind.

Shaktism: Shakti is an active, immanent Being, separate from a quiescent and remote Siva.

Vaishnavism: No special importance is given to Shakti. However, there are parallels wherein the divine consorts are conceived as the inseparable powers of Vishnu and His incarnations: e.g., Krishna’s Radharani and Rama’s Sita.

Smartism: Shakti is a divine form of Ishvara. It is God’s manifesting power.

On the Nature of Personal God

Saivism: God Siva is pure love and compassion, immanent and transcendent, pleased by our purity and sadhana.

Shaktism: The Goddess Shakti is both compassionate and terrifying, pleasing and wrathful, assuaged by sacrifice and submission.

Vaishnavism: God Vishnu is loving and beautiful, the object of man’s devotion, pleased by our service and surrender.

Smartism: Ishvara appears as a human-like Deity according to devotees’ loving worship, which is sometimes considered a rudimentary self-purifying practice.

On the Doctrine of Avatara

Saivism: There are no divine earthly incarnations of the Supreme Being.

Shaktism: The Divine Mother does incarnate in this world.

Vaishnavism: Vishnu has ten or more incarnations.

Smartism: All Deities may assume earthly incarnations.

On the Soul and God

Saivism: God Siva is one with the soul. The soul must realize this advaitic (monistic) Truth by God Siva’s grace.

Shaktism: The Divine Mother, Shakti, is mediatrix, bestowing advaitic moksha on those who worship Her.

Vaishnavism: God and soul are eternally distinct. Through Lord Vishnu’s grace, the soul’s destiny is to worship and enjoy God.

Smartism: Ishvara and man are in reality Absolute Brahman. Within maya, the soul and Ishvara appear as two. Jnana (wisdom) dispels the illusion.

Spiritual Practice

Saivism: With bhakti as a base, emphasis is placed on sadhana, tapas (austerity) and yoga. Ascetic.

Shaktism: Emphasis is on bhakti and tantra, sometimes occult, practices. Ascetic-occult.

Vaishnavism: Emphasis is on supreme bhakti or surrender, called prapatti. Generally devotional and nonascetic.

Smartism: Preparatory sadhanas are bhakti, karma, raja yoga. The highest path is through knowledge, leading to jnana.

Major Scriptures

Saivism: Vedas, Saiva Agamas and Saiva Puranas.

Shaktism: Vedas, Shakta Agamas (Tantras) and Puranas.

Vaishnavism: Vedas, Vaishnava Agamas, Puranas and the Itihasas (Ramayana and Mahabharata, especially the Bhagavad Gita).

Smartism: Vedas, Agamas and classical smriti Puranas, Itihasas, especially the Bhagavad Gita, etc.

Regions of Influence

Saivism: Geographically widespread, strongest in South and North India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Shaktism: Geographically widespread, most prominent in Northeast India, especially Bengal and Assam.

Vaishnavism: Geographically widespread, especially strong throughout India, North and South.

Smartism: Geographically widespread, most prominent in North and South India.

Paths of Attainment

Saivism: The path for Saivites is divided into four progressive stages of belief and practice called charya, kriya, yoga and jnana. The soul evolves through karma and reincarnation from the instinctive-intellectual sphere into virtuous and moral living, then into temple worship and devotion, followed by internalized worship, or yoga, and its meditative disciplines. Union with God Siva comes through the grace of the satguru and culminates in the soul’s maturity in the state of jnana, or wisdom. Saivism values both bhakti and yoga, devotional and contemplative sadhanas, or disciplines.

Shaktism: The spiritual practices in Shaktism are similar to those in Saivism, though there is more emphasis in Saktism on God’s Power as opposed to Being, on mantras and yantras, and on embracing apparent opposites: male-female, absolute-relative, pleasure-pain, cause-effect, mind-body. Certain sects within Shaktism undertake “left-hand ” tantric rites, consciously using the world of form to transmute and eventually transcend that world. The “left-hand ” approach is somewhat occult in nature; it is considered a path for the few, not the many. The “right-hand ” path is more conservative in nature.

Vaishnavism: Most Vaishnavites believe that religion is the performance of bhakti sadhanas, devotional disciplines, and that man can communicate with and receive the grace of the Gods and Goddesses through the darshan (sight) of their icons. The paths of karma yoga and jnana yoga lead to bhakti yoga. Among the foremost practices of Vaishnavites is chanting the holy names of the Avataras, Vishnu’s incarnations, especially Rama and Krishna. Through total self-surrender, prapatti, to Vishnu, to Krishna or to His beloved consort Radharani, liberation from samsara (the cycle of reincarnation) is attained.

Smartism: Smartas, the most eclectic of Hindus, believe that moksha is achieved through jnana yoga alone defined as an intellectual and meditative but non-kundalini-yoga path. Jnana yoga’s progressive stages are scriptural study (shravana), reflection (manana) and sustained meditation (dhyana). Guided by a realized guru and avowed to the unreality of the world, the initiate meditates on himself as Brahman, Absolute Reality, to break through the illusion of maya. Devotees may also choose from three other non-successive paths to cultivate devotion, accrue good karma and purify the mind. These are bhakti yoga, karma yoga and raja yoga, which certain Smartas teach can also bring enlightenment.

The 5 Principles and 10 Disciplines of Hinduism

The specific principles and disciplines of Hinduism vary with different sects: but there are commonalities which represent the bedrock of the religion, expressed and reflected in the ancient writings of the Vedas. Below are brief descriptions of these common principles and disciplines.

5 Principles

The principles of Sanatana Dharma were made to create and maintain the proper working of a society and its members and governors. Regardless of the circumstances, the principles and philosophy of Hinduism remain the same: the ultimate aim of human life is to realize its true form.

God Exists. According to the Hindu religion, there is only one Absolute Divine, a singular force that joins all facets of existence together known as the Absolute OM (sometimes spelled AUM). This divine is the Lord of All Creation and a universal sound that is heard within every living human being. There are several divine manifestations of the OM, including Brahma, Vishnu, and Maheshwara (Shiva).

All Human Beings Are Divine. Ethical and moral behavior is considered the most prized pursuit of human life. The soul of an individual (jivatma) is already part of the divine soul (the Paramatma) although it remains in a dormant and deluded condition. It is the sacred mission of all humans to awaken their soul and make it realize its true divine nature.

Unity of Existence. The seekers aim to be at-oneness with God, not as separate individuals (oneness of self), but rather a closer connection (at-one-ness) with God.

Religious Harmony. The most basic natural law is to remain in harmony with its fellow creatures and the universal.

Knowledge of 3 Gs. The three Gs are the Ganges (the sacred river in India where the cleansing of sins occurs), the Gita (the sacred script of the Bhagavad-Gita), and the Gayatri (a revered, sacred mantra found in the Rig Veda, and also a poem/intonement in the same specific meter).

10 Disciplines

The 10 disciplines in Hinduism include five political goals called Yamas or Great Vows, and five personal goals called Niyamas.

The 5 Great Vows (Yamas) are shared by many Indian philosophies. The Yamas are political goals, in that they are broad-based social and universal virtues in the form of moral restraints or social obligations. 

Satya (Truth) is the principle that equates God with soul. It is the mainstay of the basic moral law of Hinduism: people are rooted in Satya, the greatest truth, unity of all life. One should be truthful; not act fraudulently, be dishonest or a liar in life. Further, a true person does not regret or brood over losses caused by speaking truth.

Ahimsa (Non-violence) is a positive and dynamic force, that means benevolence or love or goodwill or tolerance (or all of the above) of all living creatures, including the objects of knowledge and various perspectives.

Brahmacharya (Celibacy, non-adultery) is one of the four great ashrams of Hinduism. The beginning student is to spend the first 25 years of one’s life practicing abstinence from the sensual pleasures of life, and instead concentrate on selfless work and study to prepare for life beyond. Brahmacharya means stringent respect of personal boundaries, and the preservation of vital life force; abstinence from wine, sexual congress, meat-eating, consumption of tobacco, drugs, and narcotics. The student instead applies the mind to studies, avoids things that ignite passions, practice silence,

Asteya (No desire to steal) refers not just to the theft of objects but to refrain from exploitation. Do not deprive others of what is theirs, whether it is things, rights, or perspectives. An upright person earns his or her own way, by dint of hard work, honesty, and fair means. 

Aparigraha (Non-possessiveness) warns the student to live simply, keep only those material things that are required to sustain the demands of daily life.

The five Niyamas provide the Hindu practitioner with rules to develop the personal discipline essential to follow the spiritual path

Shaucha or Shuddhata (Cleanliness) refers to the internal and external purification of both body and mind.

Santosh (Contentment) is the conscious reduction of desires, the limiting of attainments and possessions, narrowing down the area and scope of one’s desire.

Swadhyaya (Reading of scriptures) refers not just to the reading of the scriptures but the use them to create a neutral, unbiased and pure mind ready to conduct the self-introspection required to create a balance sheet of one’s omissions and commissions, overt and covert deeds, successes and failures.

Tapas/Tapah (Austerity, perseverance, penance) is the performance of physical and mental discipline throughout a life of asceticism. Ascetic practices include observing silence for long periods of time, begging for food, remaining awake at night, sleeping on the ground, being isolated in the forest, standing for a prolonged time, practicing chastity. The practice generates heat, a natural power built into the structure of reality, the essential link between the structure of reality, and the force behind creation.

Ishwar pradihan (Regular prayers) requires the student to surrender to the will of God, perform every act in a selfless, dispassionate and natural way, accept the good or bad results, and leave the result of one’s deeds (one’s karma) to God.

Spirituality in Medicine Hinduism

What does a hospital chaplain do? What kind of training do they receive?

Hospital chaplains offer spiritual guidance to patients and their families. They are representatives of faith traditions; chaplains use the principles of psychology and spirituality.  Some responsibilities for chaplain include answering faith-based questions, providing spiritual guidance to patients and staff across various belief systems, prayer upon request, and lending a kind, listening ear.

What do you think are the most fundamental aspects of Hinduism?  Sangeetha Kowsik, spiritual life advisor at New York University

Hinduism has no central scripture like the Bible, Torah or Quran; there are multiple scriptures and ways of practice. Hinduism is a faith of inclusivity based on the principle Ekam Sat (all is one) meaning all faiths, all religions of this world, are equal. Other phrases that contribute to the principles of Hinduism are Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (universal family) which is a Sanskrit phrase found in Hindu texts such as the Maha Upanishad (religious text), which means the world is one family. Ahisma (nonviolence), means noninjury to all living beings, nature, animals and mankind, including nonviolence through speech, thought or action.

What should providers know about Hinduism to better serve patients of that faith tradition?

Always ask a patient what tradition within Hinduism they follow in order to better serve them. Hinduism is vast and extremely diverse in its practice. It can’t be defined since traditions and practices vary from family to family and culture to culture.

What do you think is the most unique aspect of Hinduism?

Hinduism is unique because it accepts all ways of worship, ways of seeking the divine. Many Hindus believe all faiths lead to the same divine. When some Hindus attend churches, mosques and synagogues they feel no different than entering a Hindu temple. It is a faith of tolerance, oneness and universal consciousness.

What are some of the religious traditions, rituals and holidays?

Skanda Shashti (January): a day of fasting to celebrate Lord Skanda’s victory over a demon.

Vasant Panchami (February): celebrating Goddess Saraswati, the goddess of fine arts, music and knowledge.

Shivarathri (March): the night of Lord Shiva the cosmic dancer/destroyer a principal deity of Hinduism.

Devi Navarathri (April): nine nights, ten days celebrating the feminine divine, Goddess Durga.

Ram Navami (April): Lord Ram’s birthday, celebrated on the last day of Chaitra Navaratri (first month of the Hindu calendar).

Hanuman Jayanthi (April): Lord Hanuman’s birthday, symbol of strength and energy.

Ganesha Chathurti (September): Lord Ganesha’s birthday, the remover of all obstacles and the first deity of Hinduism.

Deepavali/Diwali (November): festival of lights, usually four days in length, celebrating the triumph of good over evil.

The most important tradition for Hindus is puja (ritual prayer) which is an act of worship; it depends on the individual how they choose to perform. Some Hindus enjoy going to a Hindu temple, while others prefer staying at home and doing their prayers. Puja in temples is performed by trained priests who study at Gurukulam (schools in India) and are well versed in scriptures and prayer rituals. Each priest is trained in a unique tradition, Hindus who want pujas performed by a priest must define which school or tradition of Hinduism they belong too.

What are some of the symbols of Hinduism and what do they symbolize?

Om, a sacred sound and a spiritual symbol in Hinduism and other Indian religions, Buddhism and Jainism. It signifies the essence of Atman, the ultimate reality, consciousness. It’s a syllable that is chanted either independently or before a spiritual recitation. The meaning and connotations of Om vary between the diverse schools within and across the various traditions. It’s part of the iconography found in manuscripts, temples, monasteries and spiritual retreats in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

What is the added value of spiritual care?

As individuals grow, change and struggle, spiritual care provides hope and purpose along the way, regardless of belief systems. Spiritual care assists the hospital in aiding patients’ overall treatment and providing holistic care.

How can chaplains support physicians? How may they work together?

A hospital is a challenging environment surrounded by sickness, death and darkness. A chaplain can provide care for both physicians and their patients spiritually by giving them examples from religious scriptures or being there lending a kind ear.

Philosophy

In the Hindu tradition, the discussion and understanding of philosophy is a fundamental tool for a spiritual aspirant to attain moksha, liberation of the soul from the cycle of birth and death. The sound philosophical base of the Swaminarayan Sampraday, and particularly the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, is grounded in the Aksharbrahma-Parabrahma philosophy derived from the Vedas and revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan. This philosophy teaches aspirants to worship Paramatma and to realize their true form to be the atma and not simply the body. The attainment of ekantik dharma is at the heart of the practical application of this philosophy in the life of a spiritual aspirant. Bhagwan Swaminarayan taught His followers that the path to moksha is a comprehensive approach combining dharma, bhakti, gnan, and vairagya. This philosophical understanding is maintained with the continued presence of Aksharbrahma in the form of the guru. Today, Mahant Swami Maharaj offers spiritual guidance on the path towards moksha to millions of people by leading a life of utmost discipline and adherence to the Aksharbrahma-Parabrahma philosophy.

The Five Eternal Elements

When Bhagwan Swaminarayan set out on His spiritual journey at eleven years of age, He halted only after getting a reply to the question He had asked all across India. On His quest, He asked about the five eternal elements as revealed in the Vedas. He found a reasonable answer in Loj from Ramananad Swami’s chief disciple, Muktanand Swami. He accepted Ramanand Swami as His guru and then established the Swaminarayan Sampraday in Gujarat. Bhagwan Swaminarayan describes these five eternal elements and their relationship in great detail throughout the Vachanamrut. These five eternal elements are: jiva, ishwar, maya, Brahma, and Parabrahma.

Jiva – The Soul

One’s true identity is not this human body, but the jiva that resides within it. The jiva, also called ‘atma’ or soul, is eternal – it cannot be destroyed. The jiva has no gender; it is neither male nor female.

Bhagwan Swaminarayan discusses the nature of the jiva throughout the Vachanamrut. It is said to reside in our bodies in the same area as the heart. “Childhood, youth, old age, stoutness, thinness, birth and death are all aspects of the body; so they should never be thought of as belonging to the atma. On the other hand, being uncuttable, being unpierceable, not aging, being immortal, being the embodiment of gnan [wisdom], being the embodiment of bliss, and being characterized by eternal existence are all aspects of the atma; they should in no way be considered as belonging to the body.” The jiva is free and pure, but we believe that we are restrained by maya. Once we understand that we are not this body and worship Purna Purushottam Narayan, we realize that our jiva is free from the clutches of maya and is worthy of moksha. The very essence of the Brahma-Parabrahma spiritual journey is to believe one’s self to be the atma and not this body, to become atmarup, and to worship Purna Purshottam Narayan.

Ishwar – Divinities

Ishwar transcends the jiva. It is the next element above the jiva. These beings partake in the creation, sustenance, and destruction of each universe. Ishwars are conscious spiritual beings that have greater realization than jivas. While the jiva must work to realize its divine presence within the human body, ishwar is aware of that divinity. There are infinite ishwars, and but they are all bound by maya. Just as Purna Purshottam Narayan controls the jiva, He also controls the ishwars. Like the jivas, ishwars too aim to surpass maya and attain moksha.

Maya – Ignorance

Maya is the ignorance that separates the jivas and ishwars from Brahma and Parabrahma. It is the desire that hinders a spiritual aspirant’s path to moksha. Maya directly translates to attachment for worldly objects. Maya is the instrument through which Parabrahma facilitates karma and moksha. Only when a devotee is able to overcome maya — overcome the darkness of attachment to worldly objects — is he or she able to attain moksha. Maya manifests from physical matter, and it is difficult for the jiva or ishwar to transcend. Bhagwan Swaminarayan has advocated the jiva to engage in constant bhakti or devotion to God, to be able to move beyond maya and towards one’s liberation.

Aksharbrahma – The Eternal Abode

The gunatit sadhu, Aksharbrahma, is the pathway to God and to moksha. It is only through Aksharbrahma that a jiva can associate itself with God and understand Him well enough to seek complete refuge in Him, thereby bringing the jiva out of the darkness of maya and into the light of Parabrahma. Aksharbrahma is known to have two forms. One, which is formless and pure chaitanya, is known as Chidakash. In its other form, that Aksharbrahma remains in the service of Purshottam Narayan (Vachanamrut Gadhada I-21) and is the abode where God and the liberated jivas reside. Mahant Swami Maharaj is revered as the current form of Aksharbrahma by Swaminarayan devotees around the world. He guides jivas to realize their true form and steer them past the bounds of maya to attain moksha.

Parabrahma – God

The Supreme God is referred to as Purna Purushottam Narayan or Parabrahma. In the Vachanamrut, Bhagwan Swaminarayan has described this Supreme God as all-knowing, all-powerful and yet compassionate. This Parabrahma governs all the other four elements of jiva, ishwar, maya and brahma. Swaminarayan devotees believe Bhagwan Swaminarayan to be Parabrahma.

In the Vibhuti Yoga Adhyaya of the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Shri Krishna speaks of that Supreme God living and working through him.

Bhagwan Swaminarayan in the Vachanamrut says that Purna Purushottam Narayan resides in Akshardham and visits this Earth to establish dharma for the sake of His devotees. He describes the characteristics of this Supreme God: He is the all-doer (sarva karta); He has a divine form (divya sakar); He is supreme and above all else (sarvopari); and that He is always present in human form (pragat).

Worship of God with the Guru – Akshar Purushottam Philosophy

The Akshar Purushottam Upasana is a philosophy that establishes worshiping God along with His sadhu.

As per this philosophy, Parabrahma is Supreme God. He is the ultimate entity – the creator, sustainer, and destroyer. Akshar or Aksharbrahma is Parabrahma’s ideal devotee. Akshar remains present on Earth through the ‘gunatit’ ideal sadhu. God works through such an ideal sadhu.

The Sanskrit word upãsanã is a compound of two words: ‘upa’ meaning near; and ‘ãsanam’ meaning to sit. Upasana is the spiritual means for a devotee to attain an eternal place near God.

To develop complete conviction in this upasana, a devotee must develop firm faith in five truths: a) God, or Purna Purshottam Narayan, is the all-doer (sarva karta); b) He has a divine form (divya sakar); c) He is supreme and above all else (sarvopari); d) He is always present on Earth in human form (pragat); and e) the gunatit sadhu is the pathway to moksha. The essence of the Aksharbrahma-Parabrahma spiritual journey is to believe one’s self to be the atma and not this body, to become atmarup, and to worship God.

This philosophy is the foundation of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha. It was revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan and formally established by His third spiritual successor, Shastriji Maharaj. Bhagwan Swaminarayan outlines this upasana in the Vachanamrut.

God – Purna Purushottam Narayan

Hindus believe that there is only one Supreme God, present in many different forms. That one Supreme God is referred to as Purna Purushottam Narayan. In the Vachanamrut, Bhagwan Swaminarayan has described this Supreme God as all-knowing, all-powerful and yet compassionate. Swaminarayan devotees believe Bhagwan Swaminarayan to be that God.

In the Vibhuti Yoga Adhyaya of the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Shri Krishna speaks of that Supreme God living and working through him.

Bhagwan Swaminarayan in the Vachanamrut says that Purna Purushottam Narayan resides in Akshardham and visits this Earth to establish dharma for the sake of His devotees. He describes the characteristics of this Supreme God: He is the all-doer (sarva karta); He has a divine form (divya sakar); He is supreme and above all else (sarvopari); and that He is always present in human form (pragat).

The All-Doer – Sarva Karta

The notion that God, Purna Purushottam Narayan, is the all-doer is a Hindu concept found in the Ishaavasya Upanishad, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Vachanamrut. For a believer, it is important to understand Purna Purushottam Narayan to be the all-doer because that knowledge itself is moksha; it is the key to salvation. It is because of the will of God that the universe comes to exist. The trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh are the creator, sustainer and destroyer, respectively, of the universe. However, the will and the power to perform their duties originates from Purna Purushottam Narayan.

When a devotee understands that all things happen at the resolve of Purna Purushottam Narayan, he or she has completely surrendered to Him and can become fearless knowing that all that befalls him or her has been willed by Purna Purushottam Narayan for his/her benefit.

This does not absolve the devotee of responsibility – although the circumstances are not in the individual’s control, how each person deals with it is up to the individual. The devotee needs to have faith, keep God at the center of all activities and decide on his/her actions accordingly.

Having Divine Form – Sakar

A principal belief of Swaminarayan devotees is that Purna Purshottam Narayan is ‘sakar’, that He has a divine form. In Vachanamrut Gadhada II-13, Bhagwan Swaminarayan describes the true form of God. He states that God, having a human form with two arms, two legs, and two eyes, sits at the center of one’s soul. That divine form is surrounded by very bright divine light. As spiritual aspirants, we must progress past that light through meditation and understanding, to see the physical form of God. If one cannot see that form, the devotee’s mind becomes affixed on the light, limiting his spiritual progress and keeping him from liberation. In Vachanamrut Gadhada I-45, Bhagwan Swaminarayan cites the ancient Hindu scriptures saying, “Purushottam Bhagwan eternally possesses a form, and that form is luminous. The Shrutis also mention, ‘That God looked towards maya….’ Now if this scripture refers to God as able to see, does that mean that He only has a pair of eyes and nothing else? In reality, He does have hands and feet; this proves that God has a form.” Further mention of this belief is found in various Hindu scriptures including the Mundak Upanishad and in the philosophies of Ramanujacharya, Vallabhacharya, and Madhvacharya. Bhagwan Swaminarayan strongly asserted the existence of God’s divine form and urged that devotees should believe the same to be true, saying in Vachanamrut Gadhada III-39, “To realize God as being formless is a sin much graver than even the panchmahapap, the five grave sins. There is no atonement for that sin…. One should keep a firm conviction in the form of God and staunchly worship Him. This is My message to you. So please imbibe these words firmly in your life.”

Believing Purna Purushottam Narayan to have a form is the basis for many Hindu beliefs and rituals, such as murti puja, bhakti, and even the building of mandirs.

Above All Else – Sarvopari

God, Purna Purushottam Narayan, is sarvopari, the Supreme God. When a devotee truly understands that God is absolute, that devotee’s jiva is worthy of attaining moksha and staying eternally in His presence in Akshardham.

Akshardham is the divine abode of Bhagwan Swaminarayan where His eternal form is present along with Aksharbrahma, in the presence of all the liberated jivas. Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s greatness is revealed in the Vachanamrut, when He speaks about His incarnation on Earth as having the sole purpose of liberating countless souls. Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s first spiritual successor, Gunatitanand Swami, also discusses this unparalleled greatness in his work, the Swamini Vato. Paramhansas who lived during Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s time also documented their interaction with His supreme form in the Bhaktachintamani, Haricharitramrut Sagar, and Harililamrut.

The belief that the form of God a devotee worships is the Supreme Being is necessary for devotees to secure the confidence and faith needed to progress on their spiritual journey. Bhagwan Swaminarayan has advocated that His devotees maintain firm faith in the Supreme God’s omniscience while also respecting all other divinities.

Always Present – Pragat

Bhagwan Swaminarayan promised His followers that He would remain present on Earth to provide guidance. He remains present through His ideal devotee, Aksharbrahma, through His scriptures and His divine murtis. In Vachanamrut Gadhada I-68, Bhagwan Swaminarayan explains, “God says that He dwells with all His powers and divinity in the eight types of murtis and the God-realized or Gunatit Sant.” The Shrimad Bhagavata Purana states that God’s presence through Akshar is more prevalent than His presence through a murti. One of the six reasons that Bhagwan Swaminarayan manifested on Earth was to establish His eternal presence for each generation of jivas.

It is through the association with Akshar that a spiritual aspirant attains moksha. Purna Purushottam Narayan is present today through the gunatit sadhu. Mahant Swami Maharaj is the gunatit sadhu through whom Purna Purshottam Narayan works today.

Guru – Aksharbrahman – The Gunatit Sadhu

Realizing God’s glory is the first half of understanding Swaminarayan philosophy. The second part is appreciating the glory of God’s eternal abode, Aksharbrahman. Aksharbrahman’s authority is second only to that of Parabrahma in the entire universe. The Chandogya and Mundak Upanishads both mention that Aksharbrahman is responsible for the creation and sustenance of this universe.

Aksharbrahman is manifest both with form and without form.

When understood without form, he pervades God’s entire creation and forms the basis of all that creation.

With form, Aksharbrahman can be understood in three ways; As the abode holding God and His liberated devotees; As being in personal attendance to God in His abode; And as being present on earth as the gunatit guru to guide Parabrahma’s devotees.

In Vachanamrut Gadhada I-54, Bhagwan Swaminarayan cites the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana and says that the gunatit sadhu, Aksharbrahman, is the only pathway to God and to moksha. He is responsible for helping the jiva realize Parabrahma. God works and accepts the devotion of spiritual aspirants through Aksharbrahman. It is only through Aksharbrahman that a jiva can associate itself with God and understand Him well enough to seek complete refuge in Him, thereby bringing the jiva out of the darkness of maya and into the light of Parabrahma.

The Shrimad Bhagavata Purana states, “God dispels the ignorance of maya through His Dham [abode].” Aksharbrahman is that Dham. Bhagwan Swaminarayan elaborates by saying, “That Aksharbrahman has two forms. One, which is formless and pure chaitanya, is known as Chidakash. In its other form, that Aksharbrahman remains in the service of Purshottam Narayan.” (Gadhada I-21). Association with Aksharbrahman to help the jiva realize Parabrahma is known as becoming aksharrup or brahmarup.

In the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Shri Krishna tells Arjun, “One who becomes Brahmarup, whose mind is always content, who does not lament in any way, who does not crave for any object, who has equanimity for all living creatures – that individual attains my bhakti.” For the jiva to reach this state, it must be guided by Aksharbrahman. That Aksharbrahman should become the jiva’s guru and teach the jiva about the glory of God so that the jiva may understand Him.

Mahant Swami Maharaj is revered as the current form Aksharbrahman by Swaminarayan devotees around the world. He is helping aspirants on the path to spiritual enlightenment. His true greatness is not his dedication to society through humanitrarian services or even his construction of mandirs and complexes to preserve Indian culture. His true greatness lies in guiding jivas to realize their true form and steering them past the bounds of maya to attain moksha. Those that come into contact with him can sense that God resides in his pure heart. 

Scriptures

Scriptures are an integral component of religion. They preserve the religion’s sacred teachings and doctrines. Many cultures and religions have survived for thousands of years because their teachings have been safeguarded in the form of scriptures, passed on from one generation to the next.

Hindu Sanatan Dharma has three scriptures that form the basis of its philosophy and teachings. These are the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, and the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita. Together these three are referred to as the Prasthanatrayi, or ‘the three that establish Hindu Dharma.’ All Hindu schools of thought, including the Swaminarayan faith, base their philosophy on these three scriptures.

Within the Swaminarayan Sampraday, the Vachanamrut, the Shikshapatri, and the Swamini Vato set forth the principles and doctrines of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. The Vachanamrut is a compilation of His teachings to the sadhus and followers – a unique compendium of question-and-answer sessions in Gujarati prose. The Shikshapatri is the code of conduct written by Bhagwan Swaminarayan for all His followers – sadhus and lay people. The Shikshapatri is unique for its transparency, written in times when access to knowledge and rules was usually limited to just a few. Swamini Vato is a compilation of the teachings of Aksharbrahman Gunatitanand Swami, which supports the Vachanamrut and clarifies its philosophy.  

The philosophy and basic beliefs of BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha followers stem from these scriptures, Hindu beliefs, and guidance from the spiritual lineage that has continued the work of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. 

Vachanamrut

There are three scriptures that are unique and central to the Swaminarayan faith. Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s discourses over a 10 year span have been documented in the Vachanamrut, the main scripture of the Swaminarayan faith. Bhagwan Swaminarayan personally dictated the basic code of conduct to be followed by all disciples in the Shikshapatri, a short list of basic precepts. Quotations from the first spiritual successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Gunatitanand Swami, form the third main scripture, Swami ni Vato.

Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s daily discourses to devotees and sadhus have been documented in the Vachanamrut, the main scripture of the Swaminarayan faith. The Vachanamrut is a historical collection of 273 spiritual discourses delivered by Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan between 1819 CE and 1829 CE. The word ‘Vachanamrut’ in Sanskrit means ‘divine nectar (amrut) in the form of words (vachan).’ Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan has described the Vachanamrut as being the quintessence of all scriptures.

Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan has taken the most profound concepts of Hindu philosophy from the Prasthanatrayi and simplified them so that they can be universally understood. It is filled with sound logic, simple metaphors and analogies, and divine revelations that provide philosophical and practical answers to questions about spiritual living. Different talks in the Vachanamrut address a range of daily and philosophical topics, from removing base instincts of ego and jealousy to recognizing the true guru.

The Vachanamrut, considered as one of the most authentic scriptures in the world, was complied by four senior paramhansas of Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan: Gopalanand Swami, Muktanand Swami, Nityanand Swami and Shukanand Swami.

These four compilers truly grasped the intricate philosophical concepts elaborated upon by Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan in the Vachanamrut; it was only then that these discourses could be written accurately. They compiled the discourses of Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan verbatim.

One of the main factors confirming the authenticity of the Vachanamrut is its attention to detail with regard to its date, setting, people present, and lastly its endorsement by Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan. At the beginning of each Vachanamrut, the place, time of day, and date are given. The compilers then describe what Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan was wearing from head to toe, what He was holding in His hand, and what He was sitting on; what city and where in the building He was seated (many of these buildings can still be seen today); what direction He was facing; and who was sitting in the assembly before Him. Many of the descendants of the devotees present during the dialogues are still living in Gujarat today. The compilers also included the 18 Sanskrit aphorisms at the end of the Vachanamrut, the cities where the dialogues took place, and their numbers. The Sanskrit aphorisms are of great importance in establishing the authenticity of the Vachanamrut; their inclusion has prevented later interpolations. The details help give the reader a visualization of the Vachanamrut.

The four paramhansas then presented the collection of Vachanamruts to Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan for scrutiny. This can be seen in Loya 7, where Nityanand Swami shows the collection (as completed up to that date) to Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan, who examines it and is greatly pleased with it. Lastly, Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan also testifies to the truthfulness of His talks on several occasions. In Gadhada III-2, He says, “I swear by this assembly of sãdhus that there is not even the slightest untruth in this matter.” In Vachanamrut Gadhadã II-8, He says, “I have delivered this discourse having heard and having extracted the essence from the Vedas, the Shãstras, and the Purãnas and all other words on this earth pertaining to liberation. This is the most profound and fundamental principle; it is the essence of all essences. For all those who have previously attained liberation, for all those who will attain it in the future, and for those who are presently treading the path of liberation, this discourse is like a lifeline.” Finally, in Vachanamrut Gadhada III-39, Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan proclaims, “Whosoever understands these facts and thoroughly consolidates them has accomplished everything; indeed, he has nothing more to achieve   

Shikshapatri

Having observed the decline in morality and social harmony, Bhagwan Swaminarayan wrote the Shikshapatri to help improve the then current state of society over 200 years ago. The Shikshapatri, personally dictated by Bhagwan Swaminarayan, is a unique code of conduct aimed at a more transparent society. Especially for His time, having a single code of conduct for all of society was both unorthodox and groundbreaking.

The Shikshapatri is one of the primary scriptures of the Swaminarayan Sampraday. Blending contemporary social mores with a strong spiritual ideal, Bhagwan Swaminarayan condensed the standards for behavior in just 212 Sanskrit shlokas. The Shikshapatri was written in Vadtal, Gujarat, on February 12, 1826 CE (Maha Sud 5, Vikram Samvat Year 1882). In the Shikshapatri, Bhagwan Swaminarayan has instructed His devotees in matters of health, hygiene, dress, diet, etiquette, diplomacy, finance, education, friendship, morality, habits, penance, religious duties, celebrations, and other areas. The codes are applicable to devotees from all stages and walks of life – young or old; man or woman; married, unmarried, or widowed; householder or sadhu. The central premise of the Shikshapatri, as mentioned in its 116th shloka, is that an aspirant should aim to identify himself as one with Brahma, separate from the (physical) bodies, and offer devotion to God. Furthermore, Bhagwan Swaminarayan has instructed all of His devotees to read the Shikshapatri daily so they constantly remain aware of their duties.

Bhagwan Swaminarayan presented a copy of the Shikshapatri to Governor Sir John Malcolm when they met on February 26, 1830. That original copy is preserved today in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

Swamini Vato

Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami, Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s first spiritual successor, once asked Bhagwan Swaminarayan, “What do you value most: meditation, behaving as self-realized person, serving the sick, or talking about Bhagwan’s mahima?” Bhagwan Swaminarayan replied, “Talking about Bhagwan is the greatest service a devotee can perform.” Taking this command as his divine duty, Gunatitanand Swami would not miss a single opportunity to speak to people about the supremacy of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. To fulfill this, Gunatitanand Swami incessantly used his speech through katha in the praise of Bhagwan. In Junagadh, Gunatitanand Swami set a schedule for sadhus to continuously do katha for 24 hours a day!

Some of Gunatitanand Swami’s closest devotees, such as Swami Jaga Bhakta, Thakkar Naran Pradhan, Harishankarbhai Raval, Sadguru Balmukunddas Swami, Sadashankar Amarji and many others who lived and traveled with Gunatitanand Swami, had taken note of all these talks with great devotion. These were then compiled and called Swamini Vato, which means ‘[Gunatitanand] Swami’s discourses.’ Afterwards, Gunatitanand Swami instructed Achintyanand Brahmachari to give discourses on these talks and recognized it as a religious text. These talks were first published by Balmukund Swami in five chapters and then in seven chapters by Krishnaji Ada.  BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha published a new edition based on the latest research and critical study of the original text.

The Swamini Vato are the essence of the spiritual teachings of Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami. They are regarded as a comprehensive commentary on the Vachanamrut and offer the spiritual aspirant a lucid explanation of the Vachanamrut. In the Swamini Vato, Gunatitanand Swami has emphatically spoken about the glory, divinity, and supremacy of Bhagwan Swaminarayan; the importance of swadharma (one’s own dharma); atmagnan (knowledge of the soul); the futility of sensual pleasures; detachment; and devotion with the knowledge of the glory of Bhagwan. Gunatitanand Swami often said, “These are the revelations of Akshardham. They will grant you liberation from the cycle of birth and death. They are capable of resolving all our doubts and misgivings. These are narrations of divine episodes related to Bhagwan Purushottam. They will abolish the darkness of ignorance.”

The following are a few excerpts from the Swamini Vato:

“God Himself has said, ‘I am not so won over by penance, sacrifices, yoga, vows, alms-giving and the like means as by satsang.’ And what is satsang? It is to be humble with and to live by the commands of the great sadhu, who has dharma, divine knowledge, detachment and devotion to God accompanied by profound knowledge of His glory and greatness.”

“True meditation is of a higher worth than the observance of moral codes, but spiritual knowledge excels meditation. Yet higher still is to live in accordance with the wishes of a bona fide sadhu, because this encompasses the former three.”

“Human birth is meant for God realization. However, death may steal this opportunity any moment. This act of ‘realization’ is an accomplishment to be fulfilled in a short life-span, like stringing a pearl by the light from a flash of lightening.”

“This body is not yours and to identify yourself with it is ignorance. You can never be freed from this ignorance save by the grace of God and His sadhu.”

Central Hindu Scriptures

Hindu theology is based on the Vedas and Hindu philosophy has been clarified in the Prasthantrayi. The Vedas are revered as the oldest scriptures and contain spiritual and philosophical knowledge. The four Vedas – Rig Veda, Sam Veda, Yajur Veda, Atharva Veda – are supplemented by the Upanishads, the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras as pillars of Hindu philosophy. Hindu philosophies are derived from the Prasthantrayi, which is the collective name for the Upanishads, the Bhagwad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. These have been accepted as treasures of wisdom for centuries in India. Bhagwan Swaminarayan placed emphasis on studying the Vedas and the historic Hindu scriptures of the Prasthanatrayi.

The Vedas

The foundational scriptures for Hindus are the Vedas. A practising Hindu is generally defined as one who believes in the authority and sanctity of the Vedas. Hindus consider the Vedas not man-made, but to be revealed by God. Before being written down, the Vedas were taught for a long time from generation to generation in oral tradition.

The Rig Veda is considered the most important Veda, containing Sanskrit ‘mantras’ or prayers to the nature gods to grant riches, progeny, long life, peace  and eternal happiness. Many Hindu philosophical ideas have their basis in the Rig Veda, including that of one Supreme Reality, monotheistic worship and bhakti. The Yajur Veda mantras deal with the rituals of worship or the ceremonial aspect of Hindu worship and belief. The Sama Veda contains Rig Vedic mantras set to music, with all its mantras being set to the seven basic notes. The Atharva Veda has mantras that deal with health, friendship, trade and commerce, and many other aspects of life in Vedic times.

The Upanishads

The Upanishads refers to that divine knowledge which loosens the bonds of attachment, removes ignorance, and helps one understand one’s true self and the true form of Bhagwan. The dialogues in the Upanishads are conversations between the enlightened guru and their disciples in the gurukuls – ancient forest academies – of India.

The Upanishads are also referred to as Vedanta, the conclusion of the Vedas, both chronologically and philosophically, as they teach the highest spiritual knowledge. There are over 200 Upanishads, each with a unique identity and a theme. Out of the 200, only 10 to 12 are considered to be the older works; they are the basic sources of ancient Hindu philosophy. The Upanishads contain the enlightened teachings that are the essence of Hindu philosophy dealing with the nature and relation of God, jiva, moksha, and the material world.

The ten main Upanishads are the Isha, Katha, Kena, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka. Each of these ten Upanishads has been interpreted and discussed by the different Acharyas: Shanka, Ramanuj, Madhva, Nimbark, Vallabh, and Chaitanya. All Hindu schools of thought must establish their philosophy based on the mantras of these 10 scriptural masterpieces.

The ancient Katha Upanishad’s story of child Nachiketa’s encounter with Yamaraj, the God of Death, and the explanation of what happens after death is presented everyday at Swaminarayan Akshardham-Gandhinagar’s Sat-Chit-Anand Water Show with live actors and special effects. Moreover, BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha’s sadhus study many of the Upanishads as part of their training and have authored detailed essays on the Upanishads, which can be found in the Enlightening Essays section.

The Brahma Sutras

The Brahma Sutras are the second scripture considered a pillar of Hindu philosophy. The Brahma Sutras are known as tarka scriptures, or scriptures based on logic. Badarayan Rishi or Veda Vyas wrote the Brahma Sutras to share the knowledge of the Upanishads in short mantras using logic. However, towards the end of the text Veda Vyas says, “tarko apratishtitaha,” which means, “logic is not the basis of spirituality.” Logic can be argued and debated. Faith in God and spiritual progress is only attained by faith.

According to Sankara, the earliest commentator of the Brahma Sutras, there are 191 adhikarans and 555 sutras arranged in 4 chapters (adhyãyas). Each chapter is further divided into 4 sections called pãds.

The first chapter, Samanvaya (harmony), explains that all the Vedantic texts speak of Bhagwan, the Ultimate Reality, and to reach Him is the goal of life. The second chapter, Avirodha (non-conflict), discusses and refutes the possible objections against Vedanta philosophy. The third chapter, Sadhana (the means), describes the process by which the jiva can achieve moksha. The fourth chapter, Phala (the fruit), talks about the state that is achieved when one has attained moksha.

The sutras are brief, containing mostly two to four Sanksrit words. Almost all renowned acharyas have authored a commentary based on the Brahma Sutras, and thus, the Brahma Sutras have influenced all schools of Hindu philosophy.

The Shrimad Bhagwad Gita

The Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, also known as the Gita, is the third and final scripture forming the foundation of Hindu philosophy. Hindus have great reverence for this divine manuscript. The text is composed of 700 verses spread across 18 chapters, or adhyayas. It is part of a much larger work, the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic poem written by Veda Vyas. 

The Gita speaks of performing one’s own swadharma, or duty, without the expectations of merit or its fruit. This is the only way to please God and realize His true form. This learning is delivered in the Gita as a dialog between Shri Krishna and Arjun, on the battlefield of the Mahabharata war. The warrior Arjun loses heart and the strength to face his enemies in battle, which includes his gurus, elders, and relatives. The loss of this strength symbolizes a greater loss; it symbolizes Arjun unable to perform his duty.

The questions raised by Arjun about right and wrong, duty and responsibility  – and the answers given by Shri Krishna – are still relevant and valid today, nearly 5,000 years later. The knowledge of the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita is eternal. Shri Krishna elaborates on various Vedantic philosophies with examples and analogies. He describes the knowledge of self-realization and the process by which a human being can establish an eternal rapport with God. Some of the most famous verses discuss the concept of stability of the body, mind, and soul. A famous shloka from the Gita’s introduction gives the beautiful anology of Arjun being a calf drinking the nectar-like milk of the Gita from the Upanishadic cow offered by Shri Krishna, the cowherd.

After much discussion, Arjun is still unconvinced. Lord Krishna then utters the conclusive shloka, “Sarva dharmaan parityajya…,” which means, “Oh Arjun, leave all your ideas about right and wrong, and surrender to my will. I shall free you from any consequences of your actions and deliver moksha to you.” Thus, the Bhagavad Gita is a call to action, a dialogue between God and man in which God is exhorting man to perform his duties as per the wish of God and thus fulfilling his spiritual as well as worldly duties.

The Shrimad Bhagavad Gita’s simplicity and universal messages can be imbibed by all, thus making the Gita an important philosophical and religious classic of our world.

Other Swaminarayan Scriptures

Bhagwan Swaminarayan bequeathed a legacy of mandir, scripture, and sadhu to His followers for their continued guidance on the spiritual path. He gave talks which were written down in the Vachanamrut, wrote His devotees’ ideal code of conduct in the Shikshapatri, and inspired Gunatitanand Swami to speak of the glory of God which has been recorded in Swami ni Vato.

In addition to these main scriptures, Bhagwan Swaminarayan inspired many of His sadhus to study languages and write poetry and prose in Sanskrit, Braj, and Gujarati. The matchless treatises written by His sadhus include the Bhaktachintamani, the Satsangi Jivan, and the Haricharitramrut Sagar. Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s teachings, immortalized during His own lifetime in these scriptures, reinforced the principles of ekantik dharma. Nishkulanand Swami prominently extols this fact at the end of every chapter of his Bhaktachintamani. To Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s name he attaches the prefix, Shrimad Ekantik Dharma Pravartak, or ‘Propounder of Ekantik Dharma.’

In addition, the daily occurrences of Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s spiritual successors have been recorded, and these biographies also serve as scriptures for devotees. 

Bhakta Chintamani

The Bhaktachintamani is a scripture detailing the divine exploits of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Bhaktachintamani literally means ‘the wish fulfilling gem of the devotee,’ as those devotees who wish to ponder upon the divine actions of Bhagwan Swaminarayan may look upon this book as a wish fulfilling gem.

Nishkulanand Swami authored this scripture in Gujarati and chiefly employed the famous Chopai stanza form. Although Nishkulanand Swami was illiterate, he could compose in verses, highlighting his deep devotion to Bhagwan Swaminarayan. This work is comprised of 164 chapters. In addition to depicting the divine occurrences of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Nishkulanand Swami vividly describes the celebration of Holi and Annakut festivals. The authenticity of this work is seen in the great detail provided about the places visited by Bhagwan Swaminarayan and the list of eminent devotees belonging to respective towns and villages. Key chapters include chapter 64, the Fagva Chapter, and chapters 76 and 103 to 105, which discuss the supremacy of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Chapters 106 to 110, which discuss the subjects of non-attachment and freedom from passion, avarice, taste, and ego, also merit study. Shastriji Maharaj, the third spiritual successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, often recommended the chanting of the verses from this scripture to overcome difficulties.

Harichritramrut Sagar

Haricharitramrut Sagar literally means ‘the ocean of the nectar episodes of Hari,’ which is another name of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Considered as the authoritative biography of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, an eye-witness account, its staggering length of 80,000 sakhis (a system of poetic versification), renders this an epic in its own right, over three times the length of the Ramayana.

The history of the creation of this masterpiece is as intriguing as its contents. On several occasions, Bhagwan Swaminarayan related His life, from birth until arrival in Loj, to Muktanand Swami. In Vikram Samvat Year 1881 (1825 CE), Bhagwan Swaminarayan bestowed upon Muktanand Swami the opportunity to offer bhakti by writing His life episodes until his last breath. Muktanand Swami performed this task diligently, writing details in the form of Kharda, a rough format to be systematically restructured later. He continued writing and dictating the Khardas prolifically until Bhagwan Swaminarayan passed away in 1830. Grief-stricken by His departure, Muktanand Swami’s poor health deteriorated rapidly, and he passed away one and a half months later. In Vikram Samvat Year 1914 (1858 CE), Adharanand Swami, himself an artist and sculptor, but not a poet, commenced the mammoth versification of the Haricharitramrut Sagar from Muktanand Swami’s Khardas. Divinely inspired, Adharanand Swami composed the sakhis, akin to that of the Ramayana, in Vraj Hindi. The work is comprised of 28 chapters, beautifully named as purs, or waves, each divided into tarangs, or ripples, in consonance with the sagar’s (ocean’s) imagery.

Satsangi Jivan

‘Satsangi’ signifies a member of the fellowship of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, and ‘jivan’ means life. This scripture contains details of the life to be lived by a disciple in Satsang. It was written in Sanskrit by Shatanand Swami.

In Gadhapur, Shatanand Swami composed some verses in praise of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who upon hearing such praises became pleased with Shatanand Swami and requested that he ask Him for a boon. Shatanand Swami asked permission to compose a work depicting Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s divine exploits on this Earth, to which Bhagwan Swaminarayan agreed. The writing of this scripture commenced on Magshar Sud 6 Vikram Samvat Year 1885. During the course of its composition, Shatanand Swami continually verified its content with senior sadhus and Bhagwan Swaminarayan, establishing its authenticity.

Comprised of 5 volumes and 17,627 verses, it incorporates: the constitution and brief history of the Sampraday; details of festivals and rituals; vows of disciples; modes of worshipping God and expiation of sins; Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s philosophical principles, such as Vishishtadvaita and dharma, gnan, vairagya, and bhakti; and the divine episodes of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Also included are the vows and penances for sadhus, known as the Dharmamrut and Nishkam Shuddhi.

Jivan Charitro

A guru’s life can teach as much to a follower as his lectures. The lives of Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s spiritual successors have been recorded, and these biographies also serve as scriptures for devotees. Their lives illustrate the principles and philosophy taught by Bhagwan Swaminarayan, providing an ideal example of spiritual living for all devotees.

Gunatitanand Swami

Gunatitanand Swami was the first spiritual successor and guru and is recognized as Akshar, the eternal abode of God. He was the mahant of Junagadh mandir for 40 years and led a life of great simplicity. He continuously conducted discourses to explain Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s philosophy. His teachings have been compiled in the Swamini Vato, revered as one of the three main scriptures, along with the Vachanamrut and Shikshapatri, of the Swaminarayan faith. His cremation place, Akshar Deri in Gondal, is regarded as a sacred place of pilgrimage.

Pragji Bhakta

Pragji Bhakta , commonly called Bhagatji Maharaj, was the second spiritual successor. He was not a sadhu but a householder from the lowly tailor caste, both of which would have been considered shortcomings anywhere else but in the progressive Swaminarayan faith. His spirituality shone through in spite of insurmountable problems, and he clarified the role of Akshar in Swaminarayan philosophy. For those who understood this philosophy, he promised, “I will take away your robes of illusion and clothe you in robes eternal.”

Shastri Yagnapurushdas

Shastri Yagnapurushdas , known as Shastriji Maharaj, was the third spiritual successor. He displayed his intellectual and divine powers from childhood. He never compromised on the truth and remained firm in his principles. He left the Vadtal diocese to propagate Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s philosophy of Akshar Purushottam. To further this philosophy, he founded the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha as a formal organization in 1907 CE. Beginning with just five sadhus and a few devotees, he erected five mandirs and worked tirelessly to spread Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s message. He appointed Yogiji Maharaj and Pramukh Swami Maharaj as the next successors of Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s spiritual lineage.

Sadhu Gnanjivandas

Sadhu Gnanjivandas was the fourth spiritual successor. He was initiated into the sadhu fold at the age of 16 and was called ‘Yogi’ by everyone because of his transparent divinity and abundant joy. He established special children and youth centers to involve youths with satsang. Yogiji Maharaj initiated many youths into the sadhu fold, forming an educated core for the organization’s spiritual and humanitarian activities. His spontaneous joy, unassuming humility, and unflinching faith in God and the goodness of each individual captivated thousands.

Sadhu Narayanswarupdas

Sadhu Narayanswarupdas is popularly known as Pramukh Swami Maharaj and is also referred to as ‘Swamishri’ by devotees. He is the fifth spiritual successor and President of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha. As a sadhu, he leads an austere life without any personal wealth or belongings. His profound love for God rises beyond any borders of nation or race. He is the inspirer of all BAPS spiritual and humanitarian projects, from mandirs in the United States to medical camps in India. His belief in the power of prayer and his affinity for all people are the foundations of his leadership. He has traveled to thousands of villages and towns and sanctified thousands of homes with his visits. He still meets devotees everyday despite his age and continues to personally inspire and lead people towards better lives.

Hindu Beliefs

Hindu Sanatan Dharma is often known as a democratic religion. The Vedas say that there are many paths to the same destination: moksha. That is why Hindu Sanãtan Dharma embraces a great diversity of beliefs about God or Bhagwan, the universe, and the path to moksha. Though followers of Hindu Sanãtan Dharma may seem to be following different paths to Bhagwan, the core beliefs are the same. These core beliefs form the essence of Hindu Sanãtan Dharma and have been practiced since the beginning of time. All Hindus believe in the revealed scripture (the Vedas) and one Supreme God. All paths lead to a common goal of salvation, of the soul’s freedom from a temporal body. Hindus also believe in the sacredness of life, compassion, service, reincarnation, and the laws of karma and dharma. Most Hindus build mandirs which are dedicated to the Supreme and believe that a true guru is needed on the path to moksha.

Belief in the Revealed Scriptures

The two qualifying features of a Hindu are faith in one Supreme God and belief in the authority of the Vedas and following the principles enshrined in them. The Vedas are accepted by everyone in Hindu dharma. The Vedas are ancient shastras taken as direct revelations by God to the enlightened rishis of India. As such, they have not originated at a particular time in history and are believed to be eternal and of divine origin. The Vedas are also known as the Shruti Shastras. Shruti means ‘that which is heard,’ i.e., the divine utterances revealed to the rishis by Bhagwan.

The Vedas consist of over 100,000 verses with additional prose. There are four Vedas: Rig Veda, Sãm Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. Each of the four Vedas are comprised of four parts: Samhitã (hymns), Brãhman (manual of rites and rituals), Ãranyak (forest treatises), and the Upanishads (enlightened teachings that contain the essence of Hindu philosophy dealing with the nature and relation of God, jiva, maya, and moksha). In past centuries, students would devote their entire lives to learning the Vedas orally from their gurus, passing on this knowledge for generations. The shlokas would be recited during the performance of a yagna, a common form of the early Vedic religion. Students would recite them as they were written, some would recite them backwards, and yet others would recite them in different patterns to make sure that each mantra was accurately passed down word for word. These methods have ensured the consistency and credibility of the Vedas through the centuries of their existence. 

Parabrahma

Another core belief of Hindu Dharma is that of Parabrahma, Paramãtmã, Parameshwar, One Supreme Bhagwan, or God who is unparalleled and the highest entity. Parabrahma manifests in various forms, but He is one and supreme. The Rig Veda proclaims, “Ekam sat viprãhã bahudã vadanti,” meaning “Truth is one, but the wise describe it in many ways.” Hindu Dharma is monotheistic, worshipping one but with respect for all Gods and spirituality. To be more precise, it is henotheistic, meaning the belief in and worship of one Supreme God without denying the existence of other ‘gods’ or forms of the Supreme God.

Parabrahma is sat-chit-ãnanda, that is, eternal, consciousness, and bliss. Parabrahma is ‘sarvopari’, supreme and all-powerful; ‘sãkãr’, possessing a divine and personal form; ‘sarva kartã’, the all-doer; ‘antaryami’, the all-knower; and ‘pragat’, ever-present on Earth through a gunatit guru. Parabrahma comes on Earth in human and other forms to liberate the pious souls, to fulfill devotees spiritual wishes, and to destroy evil. He possesses infinite divine qualities, out of which six are prominent: gnãn’, knowledge; ‘shakti’, strength; ‘virya’, power; ‘aishwarya’, divinity; ‘tej’, brilliance; and ‘bal’, strength.

Parabrahma is independent, and His divine power prevails over all.  He is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer. He is the only controller of infinite universes. He is above maya and controls it with His power. Through His association, jivas and ishwars can become divine. In His transcendental form, He has a human form and resides in His divine abode called Aksharadhãm. In His immanent form, He pervades Aksharbrahma, ishwars, jivas, mãyã, and infinite universes. Parabrahma is also present as antaryãmi and sãkshi, or witness in each of us. 

Guru

The guru is one of the most important concepts of Hindu Sanatan Dharma. The word ‘guru’ can be defined as one who dispels the darkness of ignorance. The term guru was originally used to refer a spiritual teacher, but over time has come to refer to any teacher. The main duties of the guru are to perform the initiation ritual of aspirants into satsang, dikshã ceremony of youths into renunciation, murti pratishthã ritual, and offer discourses to devotees. The guru pacifies the inner turmoils of countless followers by meeting, counseling, and blessing them, whether in person, through letters, or telephone calls. He strikes a rapport with the devotees, fulfills their wishes, and inspires love for and faith in Bhagwan. It is through the guru that the disciple realizes and attains Bhagwan.

On a spiritual platform, Parabrahman or God is present on Earth through the satpurush. In Vachanamrut Gadhada I-54, Bhagwan Swaminarayan cites the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana and says that the true guru, the satpurush, is the only pathway to God and to moksha. He is responsible for helping the jiva realize Parabrahman. Parabrahman works and accepts the devotion of spiritual aspirants through the satpurush. It is only through Aksharbrahman – the true guru in Akshar Purushottam philosophy – that a jiva can associate itself with God and understand Him well enough to seek complete refuge in Him. Due to maya, the jiva is clouded and distracted from its association with God. By associating with Aksharbrahman, the jiva becomes divine. All of the actions and experiences of the jiva become divine, thereby bringing the jiva out of the darkness of maya and into the light of Parabrahman.

The jiva also relies on Aksharbrahman to become brahmarup. Nestled close to the heart, the jiva is encased in emotional and physical attachment that blinds the jiva from realizing God. The Shrimad Bhagavata Purana states, “God dispels the ignorance of maya through His Dham.” Aksharbrahman is that Dham. Bhagwan Swaminarayan elaborates by saying, “That Aksharbrahman has two forms. One, which is formless and pure chaitanya, is known as Chidakash. In its other form, that Aksharbrahman remains in the service of Purshottam Narayan.” (Gadhada I-21). It is only though Aksharbrahman that the jiva can shed the darkness of attachment that surrounds it, those attachments that keep the jiva from realizing God’s greatness. Association with Aksharbrahman to help the jiva realize Parabrahman is known as becoming aksharrup or brahmarup.

In the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Shri Krishna tells Arjun, “One who becomes Brahmarup, whose mind is always content, who does not lament in any way, who does not crave for any object, who has equanimity for all living creatures – that individual attains my bhakti.” For the jiva to reach this state, it must be guided by Aksharbrahman. That Aksharbrahman should become the jiva’s guru and teach the jiva about the glory of God so that the jiva may understand Him.

Creation and Dissolution of the Worlds

At the time of creation, Purushottam Bhagwan, who transcends even Akshar, inspires Akshar, and as a result, Purush manifests from Akshar. Purushottam Bhagwan through Purush inspires Prakruti. In this way, as Purushottam successively enters the various entities, the activities of creation take place. Thereafter, Pradhan-Purush pairs are produced from Prakruti-Purush. From Pradhan-Purush, mahattattva (cosmic intelligence) is produced. From mahattattva, the three types of ahamkar (that which produces the sense of ‘I,’ ‘mine,’ and ego) are produced. From ahamkar, the bhuts (five fundamental elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether), the vishays, the indriyas (the sense-organs), the antahkarans (the inner instrument – the mind), and their presiding deities are produced; from those, Virat-Purush is produced. From the lotus extending from Virat-Purush’s naval, Brahma is produced. From that Brahma, Marichi (mind-born son of Brahma) and the other prajapatis (progenitors of mankind) are produced. From them, Kashyap, the son of Marichi, is produced. He is the creator of the gods, demigods, demons, animals, and the whole of creation. Purushottam Bhagwan enters and dwells in all of the above entities as their cause and antaryami.

Pralaya refers to the dissolution of the world which occurs at the end of Brahma’s life. Brahma has a life span of 100 years on the divine scale, which is equal to 3.1104 x 1014 human years. At the end of this period, everything up to, but not including, Akshar gets destroyed, after which the process of creation starts again.

Karma and Dharma

“As you sow, so shall you reap” is a common phrase in life which concisely sums up the law of karma. Karma is the universal Hindu law of cause and effect which holds a person responsible for his or her actions and effects. According to one’s good or bad actions, Bhagwan rewards or punishes. The word ‘karma’ means human action or deed; we are constantly performing karmas whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. A person’s karma is responsible for good or bad consequences in his or her life. Nothing in this world happens accidentally or coincidentally; there is a reason behind everything though it may not be clear to us at that time. Good actions produce happiness and bad actions lead to suffering and misery in the present or next life. A person’s past actions govern his present, and his present actions have an effect on his future. This means that every person is, to a certain degree, the creator of his own destiny.

All of our karmas are performed in one of two ways. The first way is called nishkãm karma, when actions are performed without any expectation of material gain, ego, or material desires. Nishkãm karmas are only performed to fulfill one’s duties and please God. The second way is called sakãm karma, when actions are performed with an expectation of material desire or purpose. Bhagwan Swaminarayan taught the ideal of performing one’s karmas without the expectation of material gain. He stressed the need for an aspirant to have one desire – to please God even while performing nishkãm karma.

In Hindu Dharma there are 3 types of karmas:

Kriyamãn karma are karmas being acquired every moment. The fruits of these karmas can be attained in this life, the next, or after many births.

Sanchit karma is an accumulation of karmas containing the sum total of all a person’s karmas from one or many past lives. The fruits of these karmas are being experienced or have yet to be experienced.

Prãrabdha karma is a part of one’s sanchit karma that is being experienced in this birth. For example, the attributes and conditions of one’s physical body and mental capacities are due to one’s prãrabdha karmas.

Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan has explained in His discourses that God has given every person the freedom of action, and therefore, he or she is responsible for performing karmas that either result in punya (merits) or pãp (sins). Furthermore, Bhagwan is the giver of the fruits of one’s good and bad karmas when He determines the consequences of one’s karmas. No karma by itself can produce or give results, but when Bhagwan so decides, only then can one experience its good or bad effects. The karma principle is not a self-operating system in which karmas automatically bring or give one results. This is because karmas by themselves are inanimate.

Dharma

Dharma is the very foundation of life. It is moral law combined with spiritual discipline that guides one’s life. Dharma means ‘that which holds,’ i.e., the people of this world and the whole of creation cannot exist without dharma to hold them in place. Dharma is an all-inclusive term used to mean righteousness, morality, religion, responsibility, and duty. Dharma includes the practice of religious disciplines and duties, such as honesty, brahmacharya, and non-violence. The purpose of dharma is not only to help one’s jiva come closer with Bhagwan, but it also suggests a code of conduct that is intended to secure both worldly joys and eternal bliss. The practice of dharma gives an experience of happiness, strength, and tranquility within one’s self and makes life disciplined.

Reincarnation and Liberation

Reincarnation, or punarjanma as it is called in Sanskrit, is the principle of rebirth in which a person’s jiva progresses through many births on its path to moksha, or liberation. Hindu Dharma preaches that while death may destroy the body, the jiva is immortal—it never dies. The jiva is intrinsically pure, but because of the layers of desires and ignorance of ‘I-ness’ and ‘my-ness,’ it goes through transmigration in the cycle of births and deaths, which is refered to as samsar. At the time of death, the jiva takes on another body with respect to its karmas. Every karma performed produces a result which must be experienced either in this life or the next.

As long as the jiva is warped in maya, it remains attached to material desires and is subject to the cycle of births and deaths. According to the Purãnas, the jiva passes through 8,400,000 different births, which includes all of the phyla in the animal and plant kingdoms, before it attains a human form. Depending on our karmas, our jiva will regress into a lower life form due to base karmas or progress into a higher life form due to righteous karmas. A jiva’s birth into a human body is the highest and rarest of all births. In a human birth, the jiva’s main purpose is to worship God in order to achieve moksha and to free itself from maya and the cycle of births and deaths.

Liberation

According to the Hindu shastras, moksha should be the ultimate goal of human life. Moksha is the liberation of the soul from maya, all material bondages, desires, and the cycle of birth and death. The liberated jiva then resides in Bhagwan’s divine abode, Akshardham, where it eternally experiences the divine bliss of Bhagwan. In Akshardham, each jiva has an individual identity, as they have always had. In Akshardham, the jivas are eternal and countless, each different from one another. After a jiva leaves its mortal body, it attains a divine body by the grace of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who comes to take it to Aksharadhãm. In Aksharadhãm, all the muktas (souls who are released from the cycle of births and deaths) are subservient to Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan and forever remain absorbed in the bliss of His darshan.

The ignorance of maya cannot be conquered by the jiva alone. For this reason, it needs the contact and association of the human form of Bhagwan or the gunatit sadhu. Only through a profound spiritual association with either Bhagwan or the gunatit sadhu and their grace, can a soul become brahmarup or ãtmarup, realizing oneself to be ãtma and rising above maya.

Mandirs

Mandirs are a longstanding Hindu tradition. A mandir is a place of worship for Hindus. A mandir is a place where the mind becomes still and man experiences inner peace. For centuries, the mandir has remained a hub for life, a community forum where people forget their differences and voluntarily unite to serve society. It functions as a center for learning about man, nature, and Bhagwan. A mandir is where ethics and values are reinforced into the lives of children and adults. It is where people celebrate festivals and seek refuge during difficult times. It cultivates talents in various arts, music, and literature that are offered in the service of Bhagwan and the community.

Devotees visit mandirs to offer worship and devotion to the murti of Bhagwan, which is installed within the inner sanctum. The murti is consecrated by reciting Vedic mantras after which it becomes the manifest form of Bhagwan, not just a statue sculpted from stone or metal. Devotees revere and worship the murti as a living form of Bhagwan; they bathe it, adorn it in exquisite garments and ornaments, feed it, and put it to sleep. Furthermore, devotees come into contact with sadhus who reside at the mandir. The sadhus hold spiritual discourses to impart knowledge to the devotees and explain the philosophical doctrines of Hindu Dharma. The sadhus help transform hundreds of lives by leading people on the path of spirituality and morality. Moreover, the sadhus help console and free people from their addictions and bad habits.

In the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha there are two types of mandirs. The first type is known as the shikharbaddha mandir. These mandirs are built according to the principles of ancient Hindu Shilpa Shastras in the north Indian Nãgara style in which there are three shikhars and domes. Mandirs also represent a living form of Bhagwan, which is why devotees lovingly build such grand and majestic mandirs with intricate carvings. Footwear is removed upon entering a mandir because it is not only a place of worship but an object of worship as well; every part of a mandir is sacred. In the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, shikharbaddha mandirs usually have the following features:

Aarti – performed five times a day.

Mahapuja – performed every morning between the two morning aartis.

Katha – performed 3 to 5 times a day.

Sadhus – the only individuals allowed to care for the murtis, such as adorning the murtis with clothes and ornaments, and live within the mandir complex.

Murtis – made of either stone or metal; in the first shrine are Shri Harikrishna Maharaj and Shri Rãdhã-Krishna Dev; in the center shrine is Shri Akshar Purushottam Maharaj – Bhagwan Swaminarayan and Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami; in the last shrine is Shri Ghanshyam Maharaj – Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s childhood form.

The second type of mandir found in the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha is known as the hari mandir. Hari mandirs are generally built of cement, concrete, and steel and serve as a place of worship. They mainly have stone murtis of Shri Akshar-Purushottam Mahãrãj, Shri Rãdhã-Krishna Dev, and the BAPS guru paramparã. The pujari of a hari mandir is generally a householder devotee who performs ãarti twice a day. He is also responsible for adorning the murtis with clothes and ornaments and looks after the upkeep of the entire mandir. He holds katha twice a day. BAPS sadhus regularly visit the hari mandirs to deliver discourses and for home visits in the neighboring cities and villages.

Compassion and Nonviolence: Ahimsa

All of the ideals of Hindu wisdom can be summarized into one word: ahimsa. Nonviolence is an ancient principle of Hinduism. Hindus are known to be peace-loving, and India is possibly the only large nation to not have had any colonial conducted war campaigns despite its great wealth. Even the Indian independence movement to free it from British colonial power was uniquely and successfully conducted in a nonviolent manner.

Ahimsa is the Hindu belief that symbolizes love, genuine care, and compassion towards all living beings. The principle of ahimsa extends far beyond avoiding causing physical harm; it also includes avoiding causing harm through speech and thought. Ahimsa is non-injury in mind, speech, and action towards any creature. Specifically:

In Mind – not to think maliciously of others.

In Speech – not to use foul language, swear, backbite, or quarrel.

In Action – avoid injury to any person or creature.

The Swaminarayan faith, like most branches of Hinduism, is non-proselytizing—it does not believe in using force for religious ends. Other than defensive purposes, the use of weapons is discouraged. Bhagwan Swaminarayan preached this principle of ahimsa to His followers and asked them to conduct their lives peacefully with respect and love for all. In the Vachanamrut Gadhada I-69, He explains that in order to attain moksha, one should practice ahimsa dharma.

There are many reasons why Hindu Dharma strongly advocates ahimsa. Hindus believe that Bhagwan pervades all living and non-living things. Bhagwan pervades humans, animals, plants, mountains, and the whole of creation; hence, all life is sacred and should be loved and revered. In addition, the law of karma teaches that whatever we do through word, thought, and deed will return to us whether it is in this life or the next. If we cause harm in any way, it will eventually revert back to us in an equal or amplified intensity. 

Vegetarianism

The principle of ahimsa is the foundation for the Hindu practice of vegetarianism. What we eat affects not just our body but also our thoughts and actions. Man’s appetite for meat inflicts devastating harm on Earth itself, stripping its precious forests to make way for pastures. Moreover, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniya Swami in his book, Dancing with Siva, says “Hindus teach vegetarianism as a way to live with a minimum of hurt to other beings, for to consume meat, fish, fowl or eggs is to participate indirectly in acts of cruelty and violence against the animal kingdom.” He also goes on to say, “The meat-eater’s desire for meat drives another to kill and provide that meat. The act of the butcher begins with the desire of the consumer.” In other words, the desire to eat meat is as sinful as the act of actually eating it. Pramukh Swami Maharaj speaks of the emotional damage caused to another living being: “Imagine someone eating your mother, father, brother, sister, or child. Animals have feelings and dependencies too. By taking away someone’s life we are depriving many around them of what is rightfully theirs.”

Pramukh Swami Maharaj has spoken in his discourses about eating pure, home-cooked food for better health of the body, mind, and soul. Just as unclean food can have an effect on our digestive system, certain types of foods can negatively affect our thinking as well. Bhagwan Swaminarayan prescribed that His followers should eat only vegetarian food, strictly avoiding meat, fish, and eggs. He also prescribed that onions and garlic, which have tamasic properties, should not be consumed by His followers.

The purest food is that which is prepared at home or in the mandir for offering to God. To promote healthy food, the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha now provides food courts serving vegetarian food at its mandirs and centers.

Genuine Respect for Other Faiths

Hindu Dharma believes that no particular religion is better than another; all genuine religious paths are facets of Bhagwan’s pure love and light, deserving tolerance and understanding. Hindu Sanatan Dharma not only teaches tolerance for other religions but respect as well. Everyone is entitled to their own path, and none should be mocked or persecuted. Hindu Sanatan Dharma is classified as henotheistic: belief in and worship of one Supreme Bhagwan without denying the existence of other Gods or forms of the Supreme Bhagwan. The often quoted proverb that conveys this attitude is, “Ekam sat anekah panthah,” which means, “Truth is one, paths are many.” No one path is correct; we are all striving for the same goal in our own unique way. It is this tolerance and belief in the all-pervasiveness of Divinity that has allowed India to be home to followers of virtually every major world religion for thousands of years. Nowhere on Earth have so many religions lived and thrived in such close and harmonious proximity as in the home of Hindu Sanatan Dharma—India. 

Service – Seva

Hinduism preaches serving both God and humanity, as one begets the other. Seva is a Sanskrit word that means more than just service or to serve. It means to serve without the existence of one’s own identity – to serve selflessly. Bhagwan Swaminarayan revived the true meaning of seva and initiated many humanitarian projects among His followers, ranging from digging wells to serving the ill. His personal example, set as a teenager while traveling through southern India, was the selfless service of an ill stranger. Sevakram was a Brahmin who had contracted dysentery. Neelkanth Varni, as Bhagwan Swaminarayan was known at that time, stopped on His travels to nurse Sevakram back to good health, staying for over two months until he was well again.

Pragji Bhakta, the second spiritual successor, set very high standards of seva. For many months, he served the mandir, sadhus, and devotees for twenty hours every day and slept for only four hours. Yogiji Maharaj, the fourth spiritual successor, stressed seva as a form of bhakti and personally engaged in seva like washing utensils and sweeping the floor. Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the fifth spiritual successor, has shown the same inclination for seva and never tires of it. Even over the age of 90 , he still spends hours personally meeting and writing to devotees for their well-being and personal growth.

Following the lead of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the devotees of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha also regularly engage in seva. Medical activities are organized to help communities. Educational initiatives guide children on future courses to follow. Volunteers engage in relief activities when a disaster strikes in their area. Blood drives, career fairs, walkathons for charity are among the activities conducted regularly by volunteers from BAPS centers across the world. Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s adage, ”In the joy of others, lies our own,” propels the organization to devote time and energy towards humanitarian activities in the service of others. 

Moral Disciplines

Morality is a component of spirituality. The BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha encourages a lifestyle rooted in spirituality and purity. Followers of the Swaminarayan faith lead a life of non-violence, service, and devotion to God. Pramukh Swami Maharaj emphasizes the importance of living honestly, working ethically, and giving back generously to the community. These values thus lend to a strong spiritual foundation for devotees. Bhagwan Swaminarayan enunciated key moral disciplines for sadhus and householders.

For Householders:

Live an addiction-free life; Do not partake in drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.

Consume a strict vegetarian diet free from tamasic foods, such as onion and garlic.

Refrain from stealing, violence, slander, and fraud.

Live a morally pure life free from adultery.

For Sadhus:

Nishkam – Live a life free from lust; Follow the discipline of eight-fold celibacy.

Nissneh – Live a life free from attachment; Offer complete service and love for God.

Nisswad – Live a life free from gluttony or vicarious taste; Relish only in the flavor of God’s splendor.

Nirman – Live a life free from ego; Practice humility and selfless service.

Nirlobh – Live a life free from greed; Satisfaction is only derived from attaining God.

Additional moral disciplines that all devotees and sadhus follow are as follows:

1. No Violence – Not to abuse, hurt, or kill any living being.

2. No Adultery – Not to commit adultery or excessively associate oneself with the opposite sex.

3. No Consumption of Meat – Not to eat meat or take medicines derived from meat.

4. No Consumption of Alcohol  – Not to consume alcoholic drinks or take medicines mixed with alcohol.

5. No Suppression  – Not to suppress or take advantage of those who are helpless.

6. No Committing Suicide  – Not to commit or even contemplate suicide.

7. No Theft – Not to steal or take anything without the owner’s permission.

8. No Slander – Not to slander or blacken the character and lives of others.

9. No Vilification – Not to vilify other deities or religions. Respect all faiths.

10. No Impurities – Not to take food which is impure, not prepared with filtered water, or prepared by unknown hands.

11. No Atheistic Association – Not to keep the company of atheists or listen to lectures given by non-believers.

Hindu Practices

Rituals are an important part of everyday life in the Hindu tradition. These rites and rituals are not rooted in blind faith or superstition; rather, they have a practical application and relevance to people’s everyday lives. BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha followers live by the code of conduct established by Bhagwan Swaminarayan and by the guidance of the current guru. These practices stabilize the mind and purify its thoughts. They are the answer to maintaining one’s focus on God amidst one’s daily routine. This section provides an introduction to these timeless Hindu rites and rituals.

Daily Puja

The word ‘puja’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘puj,’ meaning to worship or to adore. Nitya Puja, or daily puja, is a prayer ritual performed every morning by Hindu devotees. A devotee can communicate with God during daily puja and convey one’s concerns and feelings directly to God. Puja helps an individual concentrate on the divine murti of God and His gunatit sadhu. It helps to calm the mind and quiet its many thoughts. Each morning, after having brushed and bathed but prior to eating or drinking, devotees put on freshly washed clothes and sit facing in a northern or eastern direction on a clean piece of cloth, or asana. The northern direction symbolizes the path for spiritual progress, and the sun rises in the eastern direction, symbolizing enlightenment. Devotees then lay out before them the murtis of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and the guru parampara on another asana while reciting a Sanskrit verse inviting them to grace their puja. Thereafter, a male devotee places a tilak-chandlo made from chandan and kumkum on his forehead, while female devotees apply a kumkum chandlo. During puja, followers of Bhagwan Swaminarayan meditate on His divine form and their atma, acknowledging that their existence is separate from the body. They then engage in dhyan, yoga/pranayam, mansi, mala, dandavat, pradakshina, and prarthana. Devotees recite another shloka signaling the end of the puja and then read 5 shlokas from the Shikshapatri. After finishing puja, devotees say “Jai Swaminarayan” to those present and bow down, or perform panchang pranam, to their parents. Beginning each day in this manner spiritually prepares one’s mind for the stress associated with daily tasks.

Tilak-Chandlo

The tilak-chandlo has been a Hindu tradition, especially in the Vaishnav Sampraday, for thousands of years as a symbol of victory, auspiciousness, and belonging to a particular faith. Tilak, a mark of Hindu Sanatan Dharma, comes from the Sanskrit word ‘til’ which means sesame seed. The sesame seed has great importance in yagnas and charity. A tilak is imprinted on a person’s forehead because it is the location through which one can channel Divinity, thus enhancing the spiritual character of an individual. Male devotees of the Swaminarayan Sampraday apply a tilak and chandlo on their foreheads during their puja. The tilak is made of chandan, or yellow sandalwood paste, and the chandlo is made of kumkum, or red saffron powder. Female devotees only apply a chandlo, commonly known as bindi, on their foreheads. The tilak is representative of Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s feet, and the chandlo is representative of the devotee. In this way, the meaning of the tilak-chandlo is two-fold. First, it represents a devotee remaining at the service of God’s feet. Secondly, it represents the dual devotion to God and the gunatit guru. In the Swaminarayan Sampraday, Bhagwan Swaminarayan introduced the tilak-chandlo to His paramhansas by applying a sample on Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami’s forehead. Today, millions of devotees wear the tilak-chandlo on their forehead, proudly symbolizing their affinity to Hindu dharma and their faith in Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Pramukh Swami Maharaj and Mahant Swami Maharaj.

Mala

A mala is a string of wooden beads, similar to a rosary, which devotees pass through their middle finger and thumb. One mala contains 108 beads. The Swaminarayan mantra is chanted as each bead is turned. Devotees perform anywhere from 5 to 51 malas during their daily pujas. Many devotees also complete additional malas when their schedules permit, such as during their commute to work and prior to retiring to bed at night. Chanting the Swaminarayan mantra while turning the mala is an extremely effective method to pacify one’s mind and silence its many fleeting thoughts. 

Darshan

Faith and intense attachment to the divine form of God are necessary to understand the role darshan plays in a Hindu’s life. Darshan in Sanskrit means ‘seeing, to see, or be seen by God or His gunatit sadhu.’ However, the true import of darshan is much more than its literal meaning. Darshan is the zeal for even a glimpse of God and His gunatit sadhu. Millions of Hindus travel to mandirs that are not only difficult to reach but contain dense crowds of thousands of people trying to catch a glimpse of the murtis. The expression of satisfaction, serenity, and joy on the face of a devotee who has just completed darshan truly captures the essence of darshan. Devotees perform darshan of the murtis upon arriving at the mandir. However, darshan does not have to be performed at a mandir. Devotees can do darshan of different murtis during the course of the day at home, in their office, before driving in their cars, and even before a major exam of a murti in their wallet. The faithful gather in thousands to perform the darshan of Mahant Swami Maharaj for his morning puja ritual. 

Dandvat Pranam

Dandvat Pranam is a ritual during which devotees offer their respects and surrender themselves to God and His gunatit sadhu by bowing down. ‘Danda-vat,’ a Sanskrit word, literally means lying on the floor like a stick. Devotees perform dandvat pranam by lying fully prostrate on the floor with their arms stretched out towards the murtis. It is a symbol of complete submission that reminds devotees to respect God and cultivate humility. All of mankind’s karmas are performed through mind, body, or speech, and every karma in life should be offered to Bhagwan. Eight specific parts of the body should touch the floor:

Jãnubhyãm – thighs

Padabhyãm – feet

Karãbhyãm – hands

Urasã – chest

Manasã – mind

Shirasã – head

Vachasã – speech

Drushtyã – eyes

In addition to the religious aspects, dandvat pranam, a combination of three yogic postures, tones the muscles of the neck, shoulders, chest, and lower back, relieves backaches, increases flexibility of the spinal column, increases the efficiency of the pancreas and adrenals, and helps prevent diabetes. At BAPS Swaminarayan mandirs around the world, devotees perform dandavat pranam after having darshan of the murtis and as part of the arti ceremony.

Arti

Arti is the symbolic waving of a lighted wick in a clockwise motion in front of the murti of Bhagwan while singing a prayer. It symbolizes the removal of darkness by true spiritual enlightenment. Arti is a tradition dating back thousands of years. In ancient times, there was little light inside the mandirs, and even less light actually reached the garbha gruh, or the inner sanctum of the mandir where the murtis are located. The only way to have darshan of the murtis was from the light cast from a divo, a clay lamp with a cotton wick dipped in ghee. During arti, this lamp was held near each part of the murti so that devotees could properly see all the parts of the murti. Today, millions of Hindus devoutly perform arti in their homes or attend arti at mandirs every day.

In the Swaminarayan Sampraday, around 66 artis have been composed by the paramhansas. Of these, the most commonly sung is the arti written by Sadguru Muktanand Swami. After his guru Ramanand Swami passed away and appointed Bhagwan Swaminarayan as his successor, Muktanand Swami was reluctant to accept Bhagwan Swaminarayan as the present form of God. Ramanand Swami gave him divine darshan and explained the true greatness of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Muktanand Swami rushed to Bhagwan Swaminarayan and seated him on Ramanand Swami’s asana. From his heart flowed the words to the arti, “Jay Sadguru Swami….”

Based on the Akshar-Purushottam doctrine revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Brahmaswarup Shastriji Maharaj (Swami Yagnapurushdasji), the third spiritual successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, enshrined the murtis of Parabrahman Purushottam Bhagwan Swaminarayan and Aksharbrahman Gunatitanand Swami in the central shrines of majestic BAPS shikharbaddha mandirs in Gujarat. Thus, he established the tradition of offering devotion to Purushottam (Narayan) and his ideal devotee Akshar (Swami).

In keeping with the Hindu Dharma tradition of singing the glory of the enshrined deities of a mandir, His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj, the sixth spiritual successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, inspired the composition of an arti dedicated to the glory of Akshar and Purushottam, that is, Swami and Narayan. This arti is known as the ‘Shri Swaminarayan Arti’. It sings the praise of Swami or Akshar and Narayan or Purushottam.

This Shri Swaminarayan Arti is sung daily in BAPS mandirs, countless homes and on festive occasions reminding disciples of the glory of the divine forms of Akshar and Purushottam to whom they offer devotion.

Devotees visit their local mandirs and participate in this sacred ritual on a daily basis. In shikharbaddha mandirs, arti is performed five times a day, while in hari mandirs, arti is performed two times a day.

The lyrics of Shri Swaminarayan arti are:

જય સ્વામિનારાયણ, જય અક્ષરપુરુષોત્તમ,

અક્ષરપુરુષોત્તમ જય, દર્શન સર્વોત્તમ….. જય સ્વામિનારાયણ….ટેક

મુક્ત અનંત સુપૂજિત, સુંદર સાકારમ્,

સર્વોપરી કરુણાકર, માનવ તનુધારમ્… જય સ્વામિનારાયણ…..૧.

પુરુષોત્તમ પરબ્રહ્મ, શ્રીહરિ સહજાનંદ,

અક્ષરબ્રહ્મ અનાદિ, ગુણાતીતાનંદ…… જય સ્વામિનારાયણ….૨.

પ્રકટ સદા સર્વકર્તા, પરમ મુક્તિદાતા,

ધર્મ એકાંતિક સ્થાપક, ભક્તિ પરિત્રાતા….. જય સ્વામિનારાયણ…૩.

દાસભાવ દિવ્યતા સહ, બ્રહ્મરૂપે પ્રીતિ,

સુહૃદભાવ અલૌકિક, સ્થાપિત શુભ રીતિ…. જય સ્વામિનારાયણ…૪.

ધન્ય ધન્ય મમ જીવન, તવ શરણે સુફલમ્,

યજ્ઞપુરુષ પ્રવર્તિત સિદ્ધાન્તં સુખદમ્……. જય સ્વામિનારાયણ, જય અક્ષરપુરુષોત્તમ,

                                    જય સ્વામિનારાયણ….૫.

Jay Swāminārāyan, Jay Akshar-Purushottam,

Akshar-Purushottam jay, darshan sarvottam… Jay Swāminārāyan…

Mukta anant supujit, sundar sākāram,

Sarvopari karunākar, mānav tanudhāram… Jay Swāminārāyan… 1

Purushottam Parabrahma, Shri Hari Sahajānand,

Aksharbrahma anādi, Gunātitānand… Jay Swāminārāyan… 2

Prakat sadā sarvakartā, param muktidātā,

Dharma ekāntik sthāpak, bhakti paritrātā… Jay Swāminārāyan… 3

Dāsbhāv divyatā saha, brahmarupe priti,

Suhradbhāv alaukik, sthāpit shubh riti… Jay Swāminārāyan… 4

Dhanya dhanya mam jivan, tav sharane sufalam,

Yagnapurush pravartita, siddhāntam sukhadam… Jay Swāminārāyan,

Jay Akshar-Purushottam, Jay Swāminārāyan… 5

Thal

Thal is a form of bhakti in which devotees offer pure vegetarian food to the murtis. During thal, devotees sing devotional verses describing the different types of food being offered to God. The ashta kavis in Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s time wrote hundreds of different thals mentioning thousands of delicacies. While singing thal, devotees lovingly thank Bhagwan for providing them with the basic necessities to live, including ample nutritious food.

Thal is offered three times during the day at mandirs. Thal is performed right before or after the aarti ritual in mandirs. The greatest display of such bhakti is seen on the day of the New Year at the Annakut festival. Thousands of vegetarian items are prepared and offered as bhakti, symbolizing a form of appreciation and devotion to God.

Panchang Pranam

Devotees bow down to their parents every day after doing their daily puja. This gesture is a symbol of reverence and gratitude to their parents. 

Namaste

You will often see Hindus great each other by saying ‘Namaste’ or ‘Jai Swaminarayan.’ That greeting is not simply a replacement for the word ‘hello’ to welcome an individual. The Hindu ‘Namaste’ is a sign of respect for the other person’s atma. It is bowing down to the the Paramatma or God inside everyone’s atma. Hindus believe that God resides in each person and should be treated, respected, and greeted accordingly. Namaskãr (Namaste) comes from the Sanskrit word ‘namaha,’ meaning to bow. During the namaskãr, we press our palms together and then bow our head and upper body to the person we meet. Also known as pranam, this is Hindu Sanatan Dharma’s modest ritual of greeting. Performing namaskãr naturally makes one humble. Humility has an immensely benevolent effect on the opposite person, instantly making them feel comfortable. The ancient rishis were experts on human psychology. They advocated this ritual of namaskãr because it effectively established a rapport with the other person. Moreover, the ancient rishis noted that performing namaskãr protects us from any undesirable vibrations of the opposite person. In the early 1980s, scientists at the University of British Columbia in Canada observed that performing namaskãr also protects us from the transfer of bacteria and viruses commonly associated with the Western tradition of shaking hands. 

Daily Satsang Reading

Devotees read a variety of scriptures daily. Devotees read 5 shlokas from the Shikshapatri in their daily puja. Also during their daily puja or throughout the course of their day, devotees read one passage from the Vachanamrut and five Swamini Vato and spend an additional ten to fifteen minutes studying other texts, such as biographies of the guru parampara, various scriptures by the paramhansas, and contemporary publications on spiritual living.

Cheshta

Every night before going to bed, devotees sing the ‘Cheshta’, a collection of devotional poems, describing the divine murti and actions of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. These poems describe in great detail the many divine mannerisms of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, such as His eating habits, how He sat in a spiritual assembly, and how He fell asleep. Recalling these lila charitras has been prescribed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan as the only means to eternal happiness and peace of mind. You can listen to the chesta and incorporate it into your nightly routine.

Abhishek

Abhishek is a sacred Vedic tradition through which people offer bhakti by pouring water, milk, or panchamrut on murtis. While pouring the liquid, devotees generally chant mantras, offer prayers, or sing bhajans. Devotees pray to God and ask for a sankalp, or wish, as a form of blessings for doing the abhishek. In ancient times, people performed abhishek by dipping kush, or darbha grass, in water and then sprinkling it on the murti. Pramukh Swami Maharaj has revived this tradition by installing a Nilkanth Varni abhishek murti in many BAPS mandirs around the world.

Mahapuja

Mahapuja is a worship ritual that allows many devotees to simultaneously participate in prayer. During this ritual, devotees pray to God and ask for harmony, world peace, and an unhindered path to completing a particular endeavor. The first mahapuja was performed on June 2, 1830 CE (Jeth Sud 11 Samvat Year 1886) in Gadhada by Gopalanand Swami, a senior sadhu. Aksharbhrama Gunatitanand Swami instructed Gopalanand Swami to perform the mahapuja in front of Gopinath Dev at Gadhadha Mandir. On that day, Gopalanand Swami explained the glory of the mahapuja: “Here in Junagadh, resides Aksharbhrama Gunatitanand Swami. Those that perform a mahapuja here will be freed from emotional, mental, physical, and financial miseries.” Today, mahapujas have become an integral part of the festivities in murti pratishtas, commencements, inaugurations, housewarmings, and even birthday celebrations. Mahapujas are performed every morning in shikharbaddha mandirs around the world and on Poonam, or full moon nights, in hari mandirs. 

Prarthana

Prarthana, or praying, is your direct line of communication with God and His gunatit sadhu at times when you feel abandoned or lost. Prarthana is the key to overcoming obstacles and to finding solace in life. Prarthana provides a medium through which sorrows can be shared and comfort can be received from the selfless love of Bhagwan and His sadhu. Simply close your eyes and think of Bhagwan and His sadhu.

Some of the most renowned prarthanas in the Hindu tradition are mentioned in the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana. Gajendra, the King of the Elephants, prays to Vishnu to save him from a crocodile pulling away at his feet in the middle of the stream. It symbolizes his last and final cry of desperation. Bhagwan Vishnu comes to save Gajendra.

A similar prarthana by Draupadiji, the wife of the Pandavas, is mentioned in the Mahabharata. After being dragged to the courtroom by the evil Dushasana to be undressed in front of the very eyes of Hastinapura, Draupadiji tries to ask the Pandavas, five mighty warriors, for help. After that fails, she tries to hold on to the cloth of the sari in the grip of her teeth. When her teeth let go of the last bit of cloth, she prays to Shri Krishna for his support. Shri Krishna aids her and keeps feeding spool after spool of cloth until the evil Dushasana stops pulling her sari. This prarthana highlights Draupadiji’s failed attempts for help from everyone around her except God. She realizes that she should have prayed to and sought refuge in Shri Krishna first.

Bal-Bhakta Prahlad’s prayer to Vishnu was of a different kind. After Nrusinh avatar kills Prahlad’s evil father, Hiranyakashyapu, Bhakta Prahlad asks for true protection. He prays to be saved from the attacks of his base instincts. This prayer symbolizes the importance of asking for the ‘right things’—true protection should be sought from our inner desires and not physical or material troubles.

In the Swaminarayan Sampraday, the prarthana by Yogiji Maharaj to his guru Shastriji Maharaj in Mahelav asks for the same. It asks for protection from his inner vices. He asks for positive perspective and the ability to understand the glory of God, His sadhu, and His devotees. This prarthana is published in its entirety in the Yogi Gita.

Meditation

The society we live in today is centered on instant gratification and quick rewards. The reality of our fast-paced world is that if you fail to keep moving forward, you risk falling behind your peers. The mental, physical, and emotional stress you can experience from this lifestyle can cause permanent damage to your body and mind.

Mental stability is vital for avoiding the harmful effects of stress. Although we must remain in step with everyone else, we must also be at peace mentally in order to succeed. This mental stability is available through meditation.

From Vedic times, Hindu Sanatan Dharma has explained the advantages of meditation. Meditation soothes the mind, bringing one into a deeper state of awareness. It helps to clear thoughts and anxieties, allowing one to focus completely on God and his/her own spiritual progress.

Meditation is a practice that is essential for spiritual progress. Without meditation, one cannot attain an elevated spiritual state. Read on to learn more about the different types of meditation described in the ancient scriptures and prescribed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan and Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami for devotees.

Atma Vichar

Atma vichar is to meditate upon your atma. Our true identity is not this physical body but the soul that brings life to it. By focusing on the atma, we are able to remain calm and stable in extreme situations.

We spend our lives chasing worldly pleasures, trying to satisfy the desires of our senses. This false sense of reality is based on the misconception that we believe we are this body. The happiness we receive from indulging in materialistic objects is temporary, and in our constant pursuit of them, we forget that one day our bodies will no longer exist.

The goal of life is to be freed from the cycle of births and deaths, to attain moksh, and to permenantly reside in Akshardham, the abode of God. By separating ourselves from our body and realizing ourselves to be atma, we remain aware of what we must accomplish in life. Atma vichar should be done every morning as part of our daily puja.

Paramatma Vichar

Paramatma vichar is to meditate on Paramatma, or the Supreme God, and His true form. Paramatma literally means above atma, signifying God’s supremacy. To contemplate on His mahima, or glory, and to realize His greatness is Paramatma vichar.

Paramatma vichar reminds us that God is the final authority. He is omnipotent and the cause and creator of everything around us. We come to understand that everything in this world happens according to His wishes.

Paramatma vichar also reminds us that there is no other way of attaining liberation other than devotion to Him. By meditating on Paramatma, we are given the strength to continuously worship Him despite facing difficulties in daily life.

Smruti

Smruti is to meditate on the divine actions and incidents of God and His gunatit sadhu. In Vachanamrut Gadhada I-3, Bhagwan Swaminarayan says that by remembering the divine incidents of God and His Sadhu, you will attain moksha (liberation) even if you cannot remember His form or murti.

Devotees from around the world do smruti throughout the day while driving, eating, walking, working, and even before sleeping. They reminisce about moments they have shared with their guru or even those that others have experienced, which through smruti can become their own. The incidental effect of smruti is the happiness it brings to our minds, allaying any negative influences. 

Mansi

Mansi puja is the mental worship of God. Mansi puja is not limited to a particular time of day and does not require a specific place or accommodation. It is primarily performed during daily puja every morning, but ideally, mansi puja is performed five times a day. During mansi vichar, members of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha focus their minds on the divine form of God. Many of them reminisce, or do smruti, of various murtis and relive moments they have experienced with their guru. In their mansi puja, they offer bhakti in various forms by mentally singing His praises, serving Him, feeding Him, putting Him to sleep, and bathing and adorning Him with garments and ornaments. Mansi puja is not imagining; it is believing that God is omniscient and accepting your service through your mental offerings. Some devotees also introspect on their day’s work and actions, which enables them to improve their productivity and spiritual output for the following day.

Mahima Vichar

Mahima vichar is to meditate on the greatness of Bhagwan and His gunatit sadhu. Mahima vichar, also called prapti vichar, helps us appreciate how fortunate we are for being blessed with the company of God and His pragat, or ever-present, gunatit sadhu.

Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami cites this method as one of the best ways to remove our inner instincts. Constantly thinking of the greatness of God and His gunatit sadhu helps us realize that their power and strength is enough for us to eradicate all of our base desires.

Many times mahima vichar also implies thinking of the glory of God’s devotees. This enables us to overlook people’s minor faults and develop a positive outlook on life and those around us.

Yogiji Maharaj was the embodiment of mahima vichar. 

Dhyan

Dhyan literally means meditation. To do dhyan is to meditate on Bhagwan’s image. During dhyan, the mind is focused solely on God and His gunatit sadhu. In Hindu Sanatan Dharma, murtis are used to help focus our minds on God as they are a tangible form of divinity. It is believed that Bhagwan Swaminarayan and the guru parampara actually reside within the murtis, so dhyan is done with the feelings that they are present in front of us. By focusing the mind and senses on Bhagwan Swaminarayan and the guru parampara, worldly desires are subdued. Dhyan also improves concentration as it involves striving to prevent the mind from thinking of materialistic thoughts. This concentration in turn is useful in all aspects of life – school, work, and so forth. By doing dhyan, the murti of Bhagwan becomes imprinted in our hearts. Dhyan stabilizes and soothes the mind as it focuses on God’s divine image. Dhyan should be done every morning during puja.

Satsang Sabha and Personal Satsang

To reinforce Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s teachings to live a spiritually charged and morally pure life, followers of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha regularly attend weekly sabhas and participate in ghar sabha. Weekly satsang sabha and ghar sabha provide a practical escape from the fast-paced, materialistic environment in which we live. Moreover, Daily Personal Satsang offers a daily dose of spirituality in an online format. Darshan of murtis from around the world and guru darshan maintains one’s focus on God admidst one’s daily routine.

The most common feature of satsang is the weekly assembly attended by devotees at the mandir or center nearest to their homes. These assemblies are weekly gatherings for all ages, where readings of the scriptures and singing of kirtans is combined with prayers and discourses. Programs at the assemblies are presented by both children and adults.

Satsang Sabha for Your Family

Ghar Sabha is an effective way to build and maintain a healthy relationship within a household. During ghar sabha (literally translated to home assembly), members of the family jointly perform prayers, such as aarti, and participate in spiritually-oriented discussions, whether related directly to God or having to do with their day at school or work. Many times, families address obstacles encountered on their spiritual and worldly quests. This exercise vastly improves communication within the home and also provides a platform for sharing and seeking advice from family members.

Ghar Sabha

The concept of ghar sabha is an innovative initiative introduced by Pramukh Swami Maharaj. Conflicting schedules and varied interests make it increasingly difficult for members of a family to spend quality time together. Ghar sabha offers a solution to this by enabling family members to gather daily to discuss satsang concepts and share updates and happenings from each others’ lives. This daily dose of communication gives parents and children a better understanding of each other’s spiritual, physical, and emotional needs. Janak Patel from Surat, India notices the difference ghar sabha made in interacting with his eleven-year-old son: “He was really hard to talk to. I knew he was hanging out with people his age that were pulling him further away from our family and closer to things I didn’t want my son around. One day he came home and said he wanted to start doing ghar sabha. What I realized was that he wanted to talk to me about it all along; he just didn’t know how to. Today, we openly discuss his plans for the day, night, and even who he is spending time with. I feel like I didn’t know my son until I started doing ghar sabha.”

Pramukh Swami Maharaj launched this initiative as a remedy to social and familial unrest in our communities. He says, “Ghar sabha e ghar ni shobha che,” which means “Ghar sabha is the only way to truly beautify our homes.”

Families are given access to videos, discussion topics, and short presentations which can be shared in their ghar sabha along with traditional prayers. Tutorials are also provided at training seminars and weekly forums. Ghar sabha has reinforced the family dynamic for thousands of families. 

Weekly Satsang

Every Sunday, men, women, and children gather at BAPS mandirs and cultural complexes around the world to attend weekly satsang sabhas. This tradition was started by Yogiji Maharaj and continues to be the focal point of the BAPS community. It provides the idyllic retreat and dose of spirituality needed after a week’s worth of work in a fast-paced, materialistic environment. During sabha, the congregation participates in dhoon, bhajan, mansi, video presentations, cultural programs, and spiritual discourses by sadhus or learned devotees.

Hindu Festivals and Holidays

Baisakhi is April is New Year’s Day on the Hindu calendar. It is celebrated with dancing and festivities all over northern India. New year marks the beginning of spring and the coming of the monsoon, which arrives in most India in May or June and lasts through the summer. Ramnavami in March or April is a celebration of Lord Ram’s birthday. It is observed throughout the country. It is held in the Hindu month of Chaitra (March-April). Janmashtami in August is celebrates the birthday of Lord Krishna throughout the country with procession, fasting and rituals at temples.

Shivaratri, or the night of Shiva, during the month of Magha (January-February), celebrates Shiva’s emanation of the universe through his cosmic dance, and is a day of fasting, visiting temples, and in many places staying up all night to sing devotional songs. On the fourth day in the month of Bhadra (August-September) comes the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi. Families and businesses prepare for this festival by purchasing brightly painted images of Ganesh and worshiping them for a number of days. On the festival itself, with great celebration, participants bathe the images (and in most cases permanently dump them) in nearby rivers, lakes, or seas. Janmashtami, the birthday of Krishna, also occurs in the month of Bhadra.

The Kali Festival in November features terra cotta images of the goddess Kali, holding severed heads, and hundreds of “pandals”, fake buildings made of cotton stretched over bamboo. Some of the pandals are decked out in colored lights, and brightly painted with moving snakes, film stars and deities. Some cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. In 1996, there were replicas of the Victoria Memorial airport that were over 30 meters long.T he festival features all night partying and fireworks. The climax is when the pandals are dragged in the streets to be destroyed by traffic and the images of Kali are dragged into the river.

Havan is the sacred nine day fire ceremony in December. During this ceremony village elders worship nine little girls which Brahmans believe are just like goddesses. The girls are given sweets, saris and money and their feet are strung with flowers as a symbol of female modesty. The festival honors the mother-goddess Matabai. Ram Lila is a month-long festival celebrating the marriage of Rama to his wife Sita described in the epic ” Ramayana”. Actors act out episode of the god’s life, particular the story of Sita abduction by the demon-kings Ravana and Lanka and Rama’s rescue with the help of the monkey-god Hanuman.

Holi

Holi (Festival of Colors) celebrates the destruction of the demon Holika and marks the beginning of the Hindu New Year. Originally a fertility rite, it is celebrated throughout India with the throwing of colored powder and water on friends and passers-by. People often wear yellow to symbolize spring and green to symbolize the earth. The celebration usually begins on the eve of Holi with a large bonfire to symbolize the killing of Holika and the end of the old year. The holiday is a chance to have a good time, let normal codes of behavior slide and make mischief.

In Rajasthan, men drink opium and perform stick dances. In central India, after drinking a liquid laced with hashish, boys heave cow dung at houses and men try to capture a bag of brown sugar on top of a pole defended by stick-wielding women who are not shy about whacking the men as hard as they can. In western India, people toss buckets of colored water on unsuspecting victims from windows, smear each other with colored powders and squirt one another with high powered brass squirt guns.

Holi is held at the end of the month of Phalguna (February-March). People also engage in cross-dressing and play tricks on each other. Dyes mixed in water are dropped on women at the Dauji Temple of Uttar Pradesh at a festival that celebrates the “passion of the Hindu god Krishna for his lover Radha. In the legend “gopi” (cowgirls) showered the couple with colorful flower petals.” Holi is primarily a northern festivals and receive varying amounts of attention in other parts of the country. Holi is not that big in Tamil Nadu.

Ganesh Festival

Ganesh Chaturthi on September is a 10-day Hindu celebration honoring the elephant-headed god Ganesha. In Bombay and Maharashtra there are large processions with huge crowds that immerse images of Hindu Gods in the Arabian Sea and lakes. Local competitions and other festivities are held. Celebrants often powder their faces and bodies in bright colors. Ganesh Chaturthi falls on the fourth day in the month of Bhadra (August-September). Families and businesses prepare for this festival by purchasing brightly painted images of Ganesh and worshiping them for a number of days. On the festival itself, with great celebration, participants bathe the images (and in most cases permanently dump them) in nearby rivers, lakes, or seas.

Half of Bombay’s population turns out for the celebration. Ganesh idols are displayed in houses for ten days. Thousands of brightly painted imaged of Ganesh—made of plaster-of-Paris, wood, mud, coconut hair and spray paint— are paraded through the streets and placed in homes or special shrines. Most are relatively small but some are seven or eight meters feet high. The biggest ones sometimes belong to gangsters and are part of their efforts to win public goodwill. The festival climaxes at Chowpatty Beach where hundreds of thousands people gather, many of them dousing images of Ganesh in the water, “purifying the faithful and sending the Ganesh back to the realm of the gods.” The day after celebration the beach looks like a battlefield, with images and limbs of Ganesh sticking out of the water and lying on the beach.

The Ganesh festival evolved into present form in the late 19th century as an expression of displeasure towards the British at a time when political rallies were banned but religious festivals weren’t. At that time skits often had political messages as freedom fighters attempted to rouse the people. So many Ganesh images are deposited in the water that large numbers of fish die from toxins from the paint and an impermeable layer made by the plaster of Paris exists on the sea floor. Environmentalists have raised a fuss and argued that the practice should be stopped.

Dussehra (Navratri)

Dussehra in late September and early October is one of India’s most colorful festivals. Also known as Navratri, It commemorates Ram’s victory over Ravana, the demon king in the “Ramayana”, and the rescue of his wife Sita—and celebrates the triumph of good over evil. In east India and Bangladesh it honors Durga slaying of the buffalo demon. Here, large images of Durga are paraded in the streets and immersed in a river on the last day. (See Durga Puja Below).

Dussehra is the ten-day festival late in the month of Asvina (September-October) according to the Shaka calendar, India’s official calendar. On the ninth day of Dusshera, people bless with sandalwood paste the “weapons” of their business life, including everything from plows to computers. On the final day of Dussehra, in North India celebrating crowds set fire to huge paper effigies of Ravana.

In Delhi and other places in north India, plays are held that recall Rama’s defeat of the demon Ravana and the rescue of his wife Sita. The event climaxes with 80-foot-high paper-and-wood effigies of Ravana being paraded through the streets and consigned to flames. Some of the effigies have fireworks that explode in their eyes. At Kullu, in Himachal Pradesh, people dress as local deities from neighboring villages converge for a huge celebration. Caparisoned elephant processions are held in Mysore. Dussehra is primarily a northern festivals and receives varying amounts of attention in other parts of the country. It is not that big in Tamil Nadu and southern India.

Diwali

Diwali (the Festival of Lights) in late October or early November is regarded as the happiest festival in India. It is a five-day event that climaxes on a new moon in the Hindi month of Kartick. Celebrated by most of India’s people including Muslims and Sikhs, Diwali commemorates the homecoming of Lord Rama and his wife Sita to north India after the victory over Ravana, the demon-king of Sri Lanka in the epic “Ramayana”. People light rows of lamps and place them on sills around their houses, set off gigantic amounts of fireworks, pray for wealth and good fortune, distribute sweets, and send greeting cards to friends and business associates.

Diwali (also known as Divali, Dipavali and Deepavali) is the biggest Hindu festival. It symbolizes prosperity and good will. People celebrate by inviting Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, into the house. Lamps are lit to drive out the demon Alakshmi and help Rama and Sita find their way home. The holiday is also linked with trade and the beginning of the financial year.

Like New Year’s Day in the West, Diwali is a time to usher out the old and ring in the new. Small flickering lamps are placed in front of freshly-cleaned houses and clay lamps are sent drifting down the rivers and waterways. Markets are hung with tinsel. Sparklers, firecrackers, Roman candles and rockets are set off. Large fireworks displays are held. Puju is performed at homes and temples. People exchange gifts, give each other sweetmeats, and send Diwali cards to one another and party in the streets.

Affluent families enjoy lawn parties and the poor light up their sections of sidewalks with the few lamps they can afford. People pray for their troubles to end and for children to grow to be men and women. Outside the cities, villagers start the day by patching their houses with dung and mud, and fisherman gamble with cowrie shells. In the Punjab structures are outlined with oil lamps and people ask the gods for prosperity. Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims generally take part in the celebration.

Diwali falls in the Hindu month of Kartika (October-November). It is officially a one-day holiday, but in reality it becomes a week-long event when many people take vacations. One tradition links this festival to the victory of Krishna over the demon Naraka, but for most devotees the holiday is a recreation of Ram’s triumphant return with Sita, his wife, from his adventures.

HINDU CALENDARS AND INDIAN TIME

HINDU VIEW OF TIME

Hindus and Buddhist view life and time in a cosmological sense as an “unending universe of unending cycles.” They generally do not have end of the world scenarios. Even creation is seen as something that occurs again and again. By contrast Jews, Christians and Muslims all have end of the world scenarios, foretold by natural disasters and other calamities, that feature the accession to heaven by the faithful. Cosmos , incidently, is a Sanskrit word for justice.

The Hindu lunar calendar has a cycle of 60 years, which Indian call “Poorna Shashti.” Oxford Professor Gavin Flood wrote for the BBC: “Hindus in general believe that time is cyclical, much like the four seasons, and eternal rather than linear and bounded. Texts refer to successive ages (yuga), designated respectively as golden, silver, copper and iron. During the golden age people were pious and adhered to dharma (law, duty, truth) but its power diminishes over time until it has to be reinvigorated through divine intervention. With each successive age, good qualities diminish, until we reach the current iron or dark age (kali yuga) marked by cruelty, hypocrisy, materialism and so on. Such ideas challenge the widespread, linear view that humans are inevitably progressing.

The basic cycle in Hindu time is a kalpa “a “day” in the life of Brahma. Each kalpa lasts 4.32 billion earth years. A “night of Brahma’”lasts the same amount of time. A “year of Brahma” is comprised 360 such days and nights, and Brahma lives for one hundred such years. Each kalpa marks another Re-creation of the world. During each kalpa-night the universe is once again gathered up into Brahma’s body, where it becomes “the possibility of still another Creation on the next day.”

Each cycle begins with Vishnu lying asleep on the thousand-headed cobra Sesha . From his naval grows a lotus that give birth to Brahma, who creates the universe. Vishnu awakes and governs over the kalpa, which ends when he goes back to sleep and the universe once again is sucked into his body.

Each kalpa contains fourteen smaller cycles, manvantara , each of which lasts for 306,720,000 years Within each of these cycles a new Manu, or presiding god, is created and he in turn re-creates the human race. Within each manvantaras , there are seventy-one aeons or mahayugas , a thousand of which comprise a kalpa. Within each mahayuga there is a cycle of four yugas , each of which is a different age of the world, including in turn 4,800, 3,600, 2,400 and 1,200 ‘years.’ Each of the four yugas shows a decline in civilization and morality from the yuga just before, until finally the world is destroyed by flood and fire to be prepared for yet another cycle of Creation.

Change on earth is slower than man can grasp. We are currently in the Kali Yuga, the last, darkest and most miserable cycle in Hindu cosmology. This cycle is said to have begin with the battle described in the Bhagavad Gita . Following it will be a period of light, expressed in the 1960s as the Age of Aquarius.

Hindu Calendar

India has used the Hindu calendar since their ancient days. The ancient Hindus, Chinese, Egyptians, Babylonians all used 365-day calendars. The Hindu calendar and times scheme is rooted in the Laws of Manu, which states that the world was created and destroyed many times in cycles of 4000, 3000, 2000 and 1000 years. Some Hindus count the years beginning in 3102 B.C., the beginning of the Kali Yuga time cycle. In the past Hindus used calendars bases on dynastic eras and also used the Kali Yuga time cycle. The “Kali” era is “a subdivision of the canonical mahayuga of 4,320,000 sidereal years and the yuga of 432,000 years. Other Indian schemes set dates from beginning with a battle or a calendar reform. All were complicated by local variations of dealing with the differences between the lunar and solar year

Over the years, the calendar has been edited and changed as India has changed. There are several variations of the Hindu calendar in use today, each of which is used in specific region of the country. These calendars usually over small matters. One thing they all have in common is the names of the twelve months. A basis for astrology and religion, the calendar is made up of both solar and lunisolar calendars.

The earliest Hindu calendars grew out of astronomical philosophies that developed in the time of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. time. Lunar months are the basis of the calendar and are determined around the phases of the moon.

While there are many different variations of the Hindu calendar, there is a standard version of the calendar that serves as the national calendar of India. In 1957, a Calendar Reform Committee met to establish a standard lunisolar calendar to synchronize leap years with those observed by the Western calendar. The first standard Hindu calendar marked Saka Era, Chaitra 1, 1879 as the initial date of the newly reformed calendar system. In Western calendar terms, this date would be written as March 22, 1957.

Hindu Months, Weeks and Days

According to the Hindu calendar, dawn marks the beginning of the new day. Where the Western calendar divides the day into hours, the Hindu calendar marks passage of time with fifteen muhurtas, each of which is about forty-eight minutes in length. The first two muhartas are typically used for spiritual time. Sunrise, noon, and sunset are considered to be the most important times of the day. They are marked by the chanting of the Gayatri mantra by Brahman priests.

The Hindu calendar marks the days of the week and refers to them as the Vasara. As is true with the Western calendar there are seven days in a week. Some variations of the Hindu calendar have the days written in traditional Sanskrit. They days on Hindu calendar are: Ravi (Sunday), Soma (Monday), Mangala (Tuesday), Budha (Wednesday), Guru or Brhaspati (Thursday), Sukra (Friday), and Sani (Saturday).

The Hindu calendar is divided into twelve months that correspond with the phases of the moon. Each month is approximately 29.5 days but varies somewhat according to celestial movements. Each month is broken down into two two-week periods: a Dark one (waning moon) and a Light one (waxing moon), each of which is fifteen lunar days. In some months, a day is eliminated so the months are in sync correlate with the shorter lunar cycle. The first day of the month varies from calendar to calendar. Generally, in North India, the full moon marks the first day of the month, while in South India, the occasion is marked by the new moon

The names of the months are based on the Zodiac signs as they follow the movement of the sun throughout the year. The names of the months and their corresponding Zodiac signs are: Chaitra (Aries), Vaisakha (Taurus), Jyaistha (Gemini), Asadha (Cancer), Sravana (Leo), Bhadrapada (Virgo), Asvina (Libra), Kartika (Scorpio), Agrahayana (Sagittarius), Pausa (Capricorn), Magha (Aquarius), and Phalguna (Pisces).

Hindu Years

Makara Sankranti marks the beginning of a Hindu new year and occurs when the sun enters into the area of the constellation Capricorn. It is most commonly measured as the day after the new moon during the month of Chaitra. The calendar divides the year into six seasons. Hindu years have specific names. There are 60 names corresponding to individual years that repeat every 60 years. The first year is called Prabhava. It repeats every 60 years

Hindu years are numbered in eras, with the most commonly used system corresponding to the Vikrami Era. The numbering of the years also correlates to the epoch of the current era. In terms of the Western Calendar, the epoch of the current era is marked as January 23, 3102 BC. This date is chosen for spiritual reasons, as the date revered for the eternal return of Sri Krishna. The numbering of the years counts the years that have elapsed since the moment Sri Krishna’s return.

Hindu Calendar and Festivals

The calendar marks important religious festival and worship days. Most holidays are fixed in accordance with the Hindu lunar calendar. This calendar used is divided into 12 lunar months of 29 to 30 days. This calendar determines when harvest festivals, some temple festivals and the Hindu New Year are celebrated. Every 30 months an additional month is added to keep the calendar in sync with the solar year.

Hindu festivals are called “melas”. They are often held on dates based in the Hindu calendar and are associated with seasonal changes. Festivals mix worship with having fun and are regarded as a time when caste distinctions are suspended and the emphasis is on creating a community spirit. There are large festivals celebrated nationwide such as Holi and Diwali as well as local festivals dedicated to regional deities and events important to a certain place.

The world largest gatherings are a series of melas (festivals) held on the Ganges attended by millions of Hindu pilgrims who enter the river in hopes of washing away their sins. There are four major melas: in Allahabad (Prayag), in Haridwar, in Nasik, and in Ujjain. Each one is held every 12 years, which means that one of four is held every three years. The one in Allahabad is by far the largest. It attracts over 50 million people. The others attract about 10 million each. See Kumbh Mela Below.

Crazy Times Zone Differences in South Asia

All of India is under a single time zone, which is Greenwich Mean Time plus 5.5 hours Time zones are a half an hour different in Pakistan and India. Nepal is 15 minutes different from India. It is 5:45 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). In Sri Lanka, time zones are 20 minutes different from the rest of the world. Time zones are different in the Sinhalese-controlled and Tamil-controlled areas. The time in Tamil areas is one half hour before the time in Sri Lanka proper. When it is 7:00am in the Tamil areas it is 7:30am in Sri Lanka proper.

Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Consider this: Pakistan lies west of India and is usually half an hour (yes, half an hour) behind its political archrival. But by winding its clocks forward today, Pakistan is now half an hour ahead of India, whose time remains unchanged. The situation seems a little absurd, like California being ahead of Utah. Or take India and its little neighbor Bangladesh. Imagine India as a friendly country with its arm slung over Bangladesh’s shoulder. The hand on the shoulder is India’s northeast corner, a sizable chunk of territory connected to the rest of India by a thin arm of land.

“Now, a Bangladeshi who crosses his country’s western border finds himself in India, whose time is set to half an hour behind Bangladesh. So far, so good. But if he goes in the opposite direction, across the eastern frontier, he finds himself in India yet again, and still has to turn his watch back 30 minutes, even though the sun will rise earlier than it did when he was at home. Maybe this feels too much like the movie “Groundhog Day.” To escape the time warp, you flee to Nepal, home of Mt. Everest, scruffy backpackers and an easygoing spirituality. .

“Ah yes, the timeless Himalayas. If less is more, that is. Its time zone is different from that of any other country in South Asia — indeed, any other country on Earth — in an attempt, perhaps, to assert Nepal’s individuality. Official time as decreed by Katmandu, the Nepalese capital, falls on the 15- or 45-minute mark relative to most of the rest of the world. So, for example, when it’s 6 p.m. in New Delhi, in Katmandu it’s 6:15 p.m. A worried mother in Los Angeles calling Nepal at 7:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time will reach her mountain-trekking daughter just as the young woman is sitting down to a cup of butter tea for breakfast at 8:15 the next morning. After the daughter scales Everest at 1 p.m., snaps a photo and starts climbing down the Chinese side of the mountain, she’ll find that she has suddenly lost 2 1/4 hours for her descent, because according to China, it’s already 3:15 p.m. .

“The head-spinning clutch of time zones attests to the fact that a country’s official time is linked as much, if not more, to political considerations as scientific ones. For years, the island nation of Sri Lanka, off India’s southern tip, operated according to the same time as India: 5 1/2 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT+5 1/2 . To save energy, the Sri Lankan government decided in 1996 to nudge ahead its official time and, after a bit of experimentation, eventually settled on half an hour earlier, or GMT+6. Buddhist astrologers warned that the change would bring bad luck. And Tamil Tiger rebels, who controlled the north and east of the island, refused to switch. “Then the Sri Lankan military decided to operate on the same time as the insurgents. So you had half of the government and the rest of the country on a different time zone,” said Dilip Ahuja, a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. “It was so confusing that they just gave up and went back to 5 1/2 hours.

Pakistan’s Switch to Daylight Savings Time Deepens South Asian Time Confusion

In June 2008, Pakistan became the first nation in South Asia to adopt daylight saving time, Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The three-month experiment is aimed, as elsewhere, at cutting energy costs by taking advantage of long summer days. But what might make practical sense for Pakistan is yet another headache for a region that already clocks up more than its share of chronological confusion. For residents of South Asia, figuring out what time it is in the next country, let alone beyond that, can be an exercise in frustration. Ahuja knows so much about time zones because he and two co-authors published a paper last year recommending that India adjust its own official time to GMT+6

“By shifting ahead half an hour, the country could shave at least 0.3% off its annual electricity consumption, a saving of $250 million, the study said. Other potential benefits include fewer car accidents (India suffers more traffic fatalities and injuries “than entire continents,” the study noted), less street crime and the virtue of being “on the hour,” in sync with 95% of the world, instead of on the half-hour. .

“Ahuja and his co-authors rule out splitting India into two time zones for east and west, although the country is big enough to accommodate such a division. China insists on a single fixed time for the entire nation, despite spanning several potential time zones, for the sake of national unity, and India should stick to the same principle, Ahuja said. It’s just that he hopes the Indian government will, out of simple pragmatism, take up his suggestion to shift everyone’s clocks to half an hour later. It would be, he said, about time.

Life Cycle Events in India

Life cycle events are often celebrated with great fanfare in India. In the old days there were between 12 and 16 such events but now birth, the first hair cutting, marriage and death are the main ones that are commemorated. Ceremonies and rituals vary greatly depending on region and caste. The first life-cycle event takes place when a woman is seven months pregnant when she is honored as the Mother Earth Goddess, with family members placing flowers in her hair and giving her bangles to symbolize fertility. Traditionally, a women was secluded for six to ten days after a birth and the first clothes given to the child were not new, a custom believed to have been tied to the high mortality rate.

Throughout much of India, a baby’s birth is celebrated with rites of welcome and blessing–songs, drums, happy distribution of sweets, auspicious unguents, gifts for infant and mother, preparation of horoscopes, and inscriptions in the genealogist’s record books. In general, children are deeply desired and welcomed, their presence regarded as a blessing on the household. Babies are often treated like small deities, pampered and coddled, adorned with makeup and trinkets, and carried about and fed with the finest foods available to the family. Young girls are worshiped as personifications of Hindu goddesses, and little boys are adulated as scions of the clan.

On around the tenth day after birth a priest is summoned for a naming ceremony. The name is often selected in accordance with the child’s horoscope, with the priest “blowing” the name into the child’s ear and writing it on unpolished rice. Some families still hold a small celebration when a child eats solid food for the time. A bigger deal is made when children get his first haircut. A special barber is brought in for the task. Sanskrit verses are chanted as the hair is cut or shaved and the first hair is offered to the gods asa kind of sacrifice.

Traditionally nothing big happened on a person’s birthdays other than the first one, but birthdays are increasingly being marked with Western style celebrations by urban and middle and upper class families. A coming of age ceremony is still held in some areas for girls when they reach puberty. It traditionally meant that the girl had reached marriageable and was marked with the girl being presented her first sari. Hindus are not circumcised. Muslim are. After a big wedding ceremony individuals are often not honored again until their 60th birthday (60 marks the completion of a cycle of five 12 year period, an auspicious achievement). Sometimes a big celebration is held when a person reaches 80.

HINDU FESTIVALS, CELEBRATIONS AND HOLIDAYS

HINDU FESTIVALS

Vaisakhi is a Hindu and Sikh festival celebrated according to the solar calendar on April 13 or 14 and is observed in different in different places in India. In northern India, Vaisakhi is regarded as harvest festival. People buy each other gifts and celebrate with dancing. In the Himachal Pradesh state, Vaisakhi honors the Goddess Jwalamukhi (also known as Durga, Mata, Amba). In Bihar it honors Surya (the Sun-God). In Bengal, Vaisakhi marks the beginning of the New Year. People make rangolis, or floral patterns, at the entrance of their homes. Vaisakhi also marks the New Year in southern South of India. Pooram festivals, with processions honoring Lord Vishnu are held. In Assam, Vaisakhi is celebrated as Rangali Bihu (colours). What all versions of Vaisakhi have in common is that Hindus celebrate them by visiting temple to pay their respect and seek blessings, and exchange gifts and sweets with friends and family members.

Varsha Pratipada is the Hindu Spring New Year. Diwali, in the autumn, is also a new year but many Hindus (particularly from South India) prefer to celebrate their new year on Varsha Pratipada, which is held on the first day of Chaitra (the first month of the Hindu lunar year, in March and April). It is an auspicious day and it symbolises renewal. It is a good day to start new ventures and it is also a lucky day astrologically. Varsha Pratipada means Birth of the Year. New Year and the beginning of spring mark the coming of the monsoon, which arrives in most India in May or June and lasts through the summer.

Havan is the sacred nine day fire ceremony in December. During this ceremony village elders worship nine little girls which Brahmans believe are just like goddesses. The girls are given sweets, saris and money and their feet are strung with flowers as a symbol of female modesty. The festival honors the mother-goddess Matabai. Ram Lila is a month-long festival celebrating the marriage of Rama to his wife Sita described in the epic Ramayana. Actors act out episode of the god’s life, particular the story of Sita abduction by the demon-kings Ravana and Lanka and Rama’s rescue with the help of the monkey-god Hanuman.

Swaminarayan Jayanti celebrates the birthday of Lord Swaminarayan (1781-1830), the founder of the Swaminarayan tradition, on the ninth lunar day in the fortnight of the waxing moon in the month of Chaitra (March–April). Devotees of Lord Swaminarayan celebrate his birthday by fasting and offering a large variety of food to sacred images of Swaminarayan in temples. The day passes in worship and reflection. In the evening, celebrations include scriptural discourses, devotional singing, and live enactments of episodes from the life of Swaminarayan. At precisely 10.10pm, believed to be the time of Swaminarayan’s birth, the arti ritual is performed symbolising the auspicious birth. Festivities continue into the night and with the breaking of the fast the following morning.

Hindu Festivals That Honor Hindu Gods

Mahashivaratri, or the great night of Shiva, during the month of Magha (January-February), celebrates Shiva’s emanation of the universe through his cosmic dance, and is a day of fasting, visiting temples, and in many places staying up all night to sing devotional songs. On the fourth day in the month of Bhadra (August-September) comes the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi. Families and businesses prepare for this festival by purchasing brightly painted images of Ganesh and worshiping them for a number of days. On the festival itself, with great celebration, participants bathe the images (and in most cases permanently dump them) in nearby rivers, lakes, or seas. Janmashtami, the birthday of Krishna, also occurs in the month of Bhadra.

Janmashtami in August is celebrates the birthday of Lord Krishna throughout the country with procession, fasting and rituals at temples. Ramnavami in March or April is a celebration of Lord Rama’s birthday. It is observed throughout the country. It is held in the Hindu month of Chaitra (March-April).

Hanuman Jayanti is a festival that commemorates the birth of Hanuman, the popular monkey God and symbol of strength and energy. A popular festival, it can be celebrated individually or in the temple where the sacred text, the Hanuman Chalisa, is recited. This text is – a set of prayers glorifying Hanuman, describing his past times and adventures. Depending on the temple where it is performed, the text is either recited non-stop for 24 hours or performed a set number of times. Special Pujas and offerings are made to Hanuman. Sometimes sacred fire ceremonies are carried out. In some places, colorful processions fill the streets. People dance, carry idols of Lord Hanuman and some people wear masks and tails to imitate the monkey God. The celebration is usually accompanied by a period of fasting and then a big vegetarian feast.

Diwali

Diwali (the Festival of Lights) in late October or early November is regarded as the happiest festival in India. It is a five-day event that climaxes on a new moon in the Hindi month of Kartick. Celebrated by most of India’s people including Muslims and Sikhs, Diwali commemorates the homecoming of Lord Rama and his wife Sita to north India after the victory over Ravana, the demon-king of Sri Lanka in the epic “Ramayana”. People light rows of lamps and place them on sills around their houses, set off gigantic amounts of fireworks, pray for wealth and good fortune, distribute sweets, and send greeting cards to friends and business associates.

Diwali (also known as Divali, Dipavali and Deepavali) is the biggest Hindu festival. It symbolizes prosperity and good will. People celebrate by inviting Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, into the house. Lamps are lit to drive out the demon Alakshmi and help Rama and Sita find their way home. The holiday is also linked with trade and the beginning of the financial year.

Like New Year’s Day in the West, Diwali is a time to usher out the old and ring in the new. Small flickering lamps are placed in front of freshly-cleaned houses and clay lamps are sent drifting down the rivers and waterways. Markets are hung with tinsel. Sparklers, firecrackers, Roman candles and rockets are set off. Large fireworks displays are held. Puju is performed at homes and temples. People exchange gifts, give each other sweetmeats, and send Diwali cards to one another and party in the streets.

Affluent families enjoy lawn parties and the poor light up their sections of sidewalks with the few lamps they can afford. People pray for their troubles to end and for children to grow to be men and women. Outside the cities, villagers start the day by patching their houses with dung and mud, and fisherman gamble with cowrie shells. In the Punjab structures are outlined with oil lamps and people ask the gods for prosperity. Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims generally take part in the celebration.

Diwali falls in the Hindu month of Kartika (October-November). It is officially a one-day holiday, but in reality it becomes a week-long event when many people take vacations. One tradition links this festival to the victory of Krishna over the demon Naraka, but for most devotees the holiday is a recreation of Ram’s triumphant return with Sita, his wife, from his adventures.

Holi

Holi (Festival of Colors) is a Hindu festival that welcomes the spring and celebrates the new life and energy of the season. Usually held in March, Holi celebrates the legend of Prahalad and Krishna and the destruction of the demon Holika with the throwing of colored powders and the smearing of colored paints. Holi comes from the word “hola”, meaning to offer oblation or prayer to God in thanksgiving. The festival gives thanks for a good harvest and is celebrated in the spring when flowers bloom and seeds sprout. People often wear yellow to symbolize spring and green to symbolize the earth. For some it marks the beginning of the Hindu New Year.

Originally a fertility rite, Holi is celebrated throughout India with the throwing of colored powder and water on friends and passers-by. The celebration usually begins on the eve of Holi with a large bonfire to symbolize the killing of Holika and the end of the old year. The holiday is a chance to have a good time, let normal codes of behavior slide and make mischief. Bonfires are lit and food offerings are roasted.

Holi is primarily celebrated northern India and Nepal and receives varying amounts of attention in other parts of the country. Holi is not that big in Tamil Nadu. Although it has religious roots, not much religious activity goes on during the celebration. Holi features gender rivalry, with contests between men and women, and public flirting, Strict rules of separation between castes are abandoned. The festival is officially marked on the day after the full moon during the month of Phalunga, which falls in February-March. Holi is seen by some as the Hindu festival that is nearest in spirit to St. Valentine’s Day.

Holi is a great leveller. By the time everyone has been covered in paint and coloured water, it’s pretty hard to see any of the normal clues as to who is what caste, or what class. And because no-one is likely to take designer clothes out for a soaking, there’s not much chance of seeing who is rich and who is poor. Holi is a festival that’s enjoyed by both high and low. Indian newspapers are likely to show pictures of ministers, even prime ministers, seriously splashed with paint

Max Benwell wrote in The Independent, “Holi takes place over two days, and is a celebration of fertility, colour, and love, as well as the triumph of good versus evil. It is often associated with the coloured powders that end up coating its participants after they’ve thrown them at each other. But this is just one part of Holi, which is split into two events: Holika Dahan and Rangwali Holi. Holika Dahan takes place the night before Rangwali Holi. Wood and dung-cakes are burned in a symbolic pyre to signify good defeating evil (in Hindu Vedi scriptures, the God Vishnu helps burn the devil Holika to death). The next morning, people gather in public spaces and take part in Rangwali Holi. This is a raucous affair where people chase each other around, throwing handfuls of coloured powders (known as gulal) at one another, while getting drenched in water. The timing of Holi is synchronised with the moon, which means that the dates of each celebration varies year on year.

“Holi is mostly seen as a time for people to get together and enjoy themselves. It is purported to be a time when friends, families and communities can get together without any concern for caste or ethnicity, although how much this holds true in reality is debatable. That said, there are certain groups that take its religious elements more seriously than others. In the Braj region of India, celebrations last for 16 days.

Holi Activities

Holi is an energetic and fun Indian festival, filled with laughter and naughty tricks. People celebrate the festival by smearing each other with paint, and throwing coloured powder and dye around and enjoy dance films, the Holi dance, Indian wine, beer, food and conversation. Some people engage in cross-dressing and play tricks on each other. Dyes mixed in water are dropped on women at the Dauji Temple of Uttar Pradesh at a festival that celebrates the “passion of the Hindu god Krishna for his lover Radha. In the legend gopi (cowgirls) showered the couple with colorful flower petals.”

“ Holi is a time when traditional roles and levels of status in Indian society are turned upside down. Distinctions of caste, class, age, and gender are suspended. In one part of India there is a tradition of men and women taking part in a mock battle, however one of the rules is that the men are not allowed to fight back. During Holi celebrations in India it’s possible to behave pretty outrageously. You can throw paint at strangers, soak your friends with coloured water while saying “don’t feel offended, it’s Holi”, and, unless you’re very unlucky, no-one will be upset. (But don’t try this outside India.

During the evening of the full moon, bonfires are lit in the streets. These bonfires not only purify the air of evil spirits, but mark the story of Holika and Prahalad. The next day, people of all ages go into the streets for jollifications and paint-throwing. Describing the festival in Chandigarh, the BBC reported: It was a sunny day, offering a perfect setting for the revellers. The festivities picked up around 10 a.m. with kids targeting passersby with their colour-filled ‘gubaras’ and ‘pichkaris’ from roof-tops and shouting ‘Holi hai’. “Soon the entire city was dominated by ‘youth brigades’ zipping around on their jeeps, cars and mo-bikes, with loads of colour packed on their vehicles. During the great cupid festival townsfolk dance at the touch of brownish water thrown from squirt-guns. Everything is coloured yellowish red and rendered dusty by the heaps of scented powder blown all over. They are seized by pretty women while all along the roads the air is filled with singing and drum-beating. Drenched in the ‘Holi’ spirit to the core, they spared none. Everyone coming in their way got a splash of colour either spewed by water-jets or from different shades of ‘gulal’.

In Rajasthan, men drink opium and perform stick dances. In central India, after drinking a liquid laced with hashish, boys heave cow dung at houses and men try to capture a bag of brown sugar on top of a pole defended by stick-wielding women who are not shy about whacking the men as hard as they can. In western India, people toss buckets of colored water on unsuspecting victims from windows, smear each other with colored powders and squirt one another with high powered brass squirt guns.

The Rajasthan opium ceremony is a low-key affair with turbaned men preparing an opium drink for guests to drink. It is regarded as an act of hospitality. Guest drink it from their open palms. Jay Tindall wrote in“I took part in an opium ceremony in a Rajput village. Here, the men gather three or four times per day to drink opium together. The men who have gathered in their colorful turbans are not engaging in any ordinary tea ceremony — to be frank, they are addicted to opium. Yet drinking opium is not the same as smoking it. There is a certain energy and euphoria which comes forth. Like most of the men, I drank the opium from the hands of a village elder, rather than using a cup. If I was there again I suppose I’d do it again – it is basically what all the men do. It is their social drink, if you will

Holi History and Legend

Holi is an ancient festival. Mentions of it can be dated back to fourth century poetry, and it was described in a 7th century play called Ratnaval: “Witness the beauty of the great cupid festival which excites curiosity as the townsfolk are dancing at the touch of brownish water thrown from squirt-guns.They are seized by pretty women while all along the roads the air is filled with singing and drum-beating. Everything is coloured yellowish red and rendered dusty by the heaps of scented powder blown all over.”

Holi It was originally a spring festival of fertility and harvest. Now it also marks some Hindu legends. Max Benwell wrote in The Independent, “First and foremost is the burning of the devil Holika, but it also draws on the legend of Radha and Krishna. Krishna loved Radha, but felt self-conscious about how different their skin-colours were. So on the advice of his mother, he went and playfully painted her face so it was the same colour as his. It is said that lovers often celebrate Holi in this tradition, by colouring their faces the same colour during the celebrations.

main Holi legend. Holika was a female demon, and the sister of Hiranyakashyap, the demon king. Hiranyakashyap considered himself ruler of the Universe, and higher than all the gods. Prahalad was the king’s son. His father hated him because Prahalad was a faithful devotee of the god Vishnu. One day the king asked him “Who is the greatest, God or I?” “God is,” said the son, “you are only a king.” The king was furious and decided to murder his son. But the king’s attempts at murder didn’t work too well. Prahalad survived being thrown over a cliff, being trampled by elephants, bitten by snakes, and attacked by soldiers.

“So the king asked his sister, Holika, to kill the boy. Holika seized Prahalad and sat in the middle of a fire with the boy on her lap. Holika had been given a magic power by the gods that made her immune to fire, so she thought this was a pretty good plan, and Prahalad would burn to death while she remained cool. But it’s never wise to take gods’ gifts for granted! Because Holika was using her gift to do something evil, her power vanished and she was burned to ashes. Prahalad stayed true to his God, Vishnu, and sat praying in the lap of his demon aunt. Vishnu protected him, and Prahalad survived.

“Shortly afterwards, Vishnu killed King Hiranyakashyap and Prahad ruled as a wise king in his father’s place. The moral of the story is that good always wins over evil, and those who seek to torment the faithful will be destroyed. To celebrate the story, large bonfires are burned during Holi. In many parts of India, a dummy of Holika is burned on the fire.

Holi Powder and Colors

“Holi is messy, there is no getting around that. People throw powder paint (called “gulal”) at each other (yes, even at complete strangers) and no-one seems to mind. The air is often bright with clouds of coloured powder. Gold and Silver used to be popular colours with young women, but are currently unfashionable. The more gadget-minded fill water pistols or long syringes (called pichkaris) with coloured water for distance squirting. Balloons and folded paper water bombs full of coloured water are another useful weapon of fun.

“Holi colours used to be made from the flowers of the ‘tesu’ tree. These would be gathered from the trees, dried in the sun, and then ground up. When this powder was mixed with water it produced an orange-red coloured fluid. Gulal is powdered colour, and Indian streets are bright with stalls selling powders of different colours for days before the festival. Abeer (small crystals of mica) is used to make sparkly colours. Because of health fears natural colours such as mehndi, haldi, besan and maida have become popular again.

“In the last few years there has been much concern about gulal and abeer being mixed with dangerous material, and people becoming ill, or even blind as a result of using it. Small bits of mica (chamkili) are used to give the ‘gulal’ a shine. When smeared on the face, mica and colour powder might get into the eyes and affect the cornea leading to abrasions and loss of sight. Another expert warned: “Many Holi colours sold in the market are oxidized metals or industrial dyes mixed with engine oil and can have dangerous effects on the skin and eyes.

Max Benwell wrote in The Independent, The best way to prevent any powder from sticking to your skin is to moisturise well beforehand. Some people also oil their hair so that the powder is easier to remove, or wear a hat. It is also recommended that anyone taking part uses home-made powders with ingredients that are guaranteed to be non-harmful. One way you can do this is by putting together a mix of flour, water and a few splashes of food dye

Dussehra is held late in the month of Asvina (September-October) according to the Shaka calendar, India’s official calendar. On the ninth day of Dusshera, people bless the “weapons” of their business life, including everything from plows to computers, with sandalwood paste. On the final day of Dussehra, in North India celebrating crowds set fire to huge paper effigies of Ravana.

In Delhi and other places in north India, plays are held that recall Rama’s victory over the demon Ravana and the rescue of his wife Sita. The event climaxes with 80-foot-high paper-and-wood effigies of Ravana being paraded through the streets and set on fire. Some of the effigies have fireworks that explode in their eyes. At Kullu, in Himachal Pradesh, people dress as local deities from neighboring villages converge for a huge celebration. Caparisoned elephant processions are held in Mysore. Dussehra is primarily a northern festivals and receives varying amounts of attention in other parts of the country. It is not that big in Tamil Nadu and southern India.

Durga Puja in Calcutta and West Bengal

Durga Puja in late September, Early October is the biggest event in Kolkata (Calcutta) and other cities in West Bengal. Held at the same time as Dussehra, it lasts for up to three weeks and honors the ten-armed, demon-chasing goddess Durga (Kali). Durga Puja is particularly important for Hindus in Bengal. After worshiping Durga for nine days, her image is taken to the streets in a procession and there is much celebration and dancing. To mark Durga leaving her mother after the nine day visit, her image is cast into water.

13-Year-Old Boy Dies from Holi Powder

In 2012, Lindsay Goldwert wrote in the New York Daily News, “Toxic dye is being blamed for a mass poisoning and one death amid the joyous Hindu celebration of Holi in India. More than 200 people were hospitalized in Mumbai following the two-day Festival of Colors, where celebrants toss vibrantly colored powders, reports The Times of India

“A 13-year-old boy, Vikas Valmiki, died after being sickened. The hospitalizations began after revelers began complaining of giddiness, nausea, vomiting and burning sensations on the skin. While the government is investigating what caused the mass poisoning, police suspect chemicals dumped by local leather dealers.

“”There is a major leather tanning industry in Dharavi,” said assistant commissioner of police Prabhakar Satam. “It is possible that some children mistook leftover tanning dye for Holi colors and traded in it.” For a decade, health authorities have been cracking down on dangerous chemicals often found in the brightly colored pigments used on Holi, such as lead, mercuric sulfide, Prussian blue and silica.

Makar Sankranti

Mankar Sankranti on January 14th is one of the most important Hindu festival. It is a harvest celebration that marks the sun’s entrance into the constellation Capricorn and celebrates the sun’s journey into the northern hemisphere, a period which is considered to be highly auspicious. It is considered to forget about sad and unpleasant moments in the past and look forward to new phases of life full of purity, knowledge and wisdom.

Mankar Sankranti is one the biggest festival in southern India where it is known as Pongal and Uzhavar Thirunal. In Tamil Nadu, family groups boil rice with milk, sugar and turmeric (the mixture is known as pongal) in homes and temple until it spills out of the pot (the greater the spillage the better) and eat it communally. Pongal lasts for three days. On the first day, pongal is offered to the Rain God. On the second day, it is offered to the Sun God. On the third day, family cattle are bathed and adorned with flowers, bells and colors to recognize all the hard work they have done in the fields.

There is a wide variation in how Makar Sankranti is celebrated in different regions of India and it goes by different names. In villages in and around Thanjavar, cattle and oxen have their horns painted red and green and garlands are placed around their necks. Some are raced. Women make geometric patterns known as kolams with rice powder. The festival is widely celebrated in West Bengal, where it is known at Shantiniketan as Paush Mela.

In Gujarat and Maharashtra, where the festival is known as Uttarayan. the young and the old are honored and colorful kites are flown. In Punjab, Makar Sankranti is known as Lohri. Huge bonfires are lit on the eve of Sankranti. Sweets, sugarcane and rice are thrown on the bonfires and friends and relatives gather together. In Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, it is named Maghi. Here people, before the celebration, people prepare sweets and savory dishes to celebrate the harvest. In Uttar Pradesh, the celebration is called Kicheri. It is considered a particularly auspicious time to take a bath. Large groups of people take baths in the Sangam at Prayagraj where the rivers Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswathi flow together.

On the day of Makar Sankranti, the sun enters the area of the constellation Capricornm which is known as Makar in India. The term ‘Sankranti’ refers to the movement of the sun from one zodiac sign into another. This is why it is named Makar Sankranti. The celestial event occurs on the same day every year and is one of the few Hindu festivals celebrated on a fixed date rather than a moveable one set by the Hindu lunar calendar. Makar Sankranti is regarded as the beginning of an auspicious phase or a holy phase of transition. It also marks the end of an inauspicious phase which begins around mid-December. Makar Sankranti marks the beginning of warmer and longer days. It is believed that any sacred ritual can be performed from this day onwards.

Because the festival is celebrated in the winter, people like consume food which gives them energy and makes them feel warm. One such food — Tilguls or Laddu of Til (Sesame) — is made with jaggery and given as an offering to the Goddess Saraswati. People greet each by saying Tilgul Ghya Aani God God Bola. Several Melas or fairs are held on Makar Sankranti, the most famous of which is the Kumbh Mela, which is held every 12 years at one of four holy locations: Haridwar, Prayag, Ujjain and Nashik. Mini melas include the Magh Mela, held annually at Prayag, the Gangasagar Mela held at the Ganges River, Tusu Mela in parts of Jharkhand and West Bengal.

Navaratri

Navaratri (Meaning “Nine Nights”) is one of the greatest Hindu festivals. Held over nine days as the name implies in late September and early October, it symbolizes the triumph of good over evil and takes place around harvest time. The festival honors Durga, the mother goddess who also represents power. Durga annihilated the demon Mahishasura after a relentless battle lasting nine days and nights. During this period Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati — three major Hindu goddesses — are worshipped as three different manifestations of Shakti, or cosmic energy. Navratri is also known as Durga Puja. The last day is called Dussehra.

“Navaratri is a festival in which God is adored as Mother. It is said that Shiva gave permission to Durga to see her mother for nine days in the year and this festival also remembers this visit. Families make an attempt to return home on these days, and leave on the tenth. Hinduism is the only religion in the world which has emphasised to such an extent the motherhood of God.|::|

“To celebrate a good harvest and to propitiate the nine planets, women also plant nine different kinds of food grain seeds in small containers during these nine days and then offer the young saplings to the goddess. Some devotees of Durga observe a fast and prayers are offered for the protection of health and property. A period of introspection and purification, Navaratri is traditionally an auspicious time for starting new ventures.

“Navaratri is celebrated by communities getting together for dances and nightly feasts of great variety and delicacy are offered to guests and family. For women, Navaratri is a time for shopping for new clothes and new pots. It is an auspicious time to buy gold or jewellery and the gold markets are open late each night. Women dress elaborately each day for the puja or rituals and nightly dances.

“Another part of the puja may involve designing puja-thalis or aartis which are decorated plates in honour of the mother goddess, Amba (Ambika). The most colourful and elaborate celebrations take part in Bengal, where huge idols of the goddess are worshipped. In Gujarat painted earthern pots with water or a lamp inside symbolise the power of the goddess. The flame symbolises everlasting divine power whilst the fluid water is transitory.”.

Dussehra

Dussehra (also spelled Dasera, Dussera) is one of India’s most colorful festivals. Held at the same time as the nine-day Navaratri festival, with a tenth day, it marks the triumph of good over evil, and the motherhood of God. In northern India, Dussehra commemorates Rama’s victory over Ravana, the demon king in the Ramayana, and the rescue of his wife Sita—and celebrates the triumph of good over evil. The ten days represent the ten heads of Ravana, and each day is used by Hindus to get rid of bad characteristics, such as lust and jealousy. The tenth day is known as the Day of Victory. In east India and Bangladesh it honors Durga’s slaying of the buffalo demon. Here, large images of Durga are paraded in the streets and immersed in a river on the last day. (See Durga Puja Below).

Dussehra is held late in the month of Asvina (September-October) according to the Shaka calendar, India’s official calendar. On the ninth day of Dusshera, people bless the “weapons” of their business life, including everything from plows to computers, with sandalwood paste. On the final day of Dussehra, in North India celebrating crowds set fire to huge paper effigies of Ravana.

In Delhi and other places in north India, plays are held that recall Rama’s victory over the demon Ravana and the rescue of his wife Sita. The event climaxes with 80-foot-high paper-and-wood effigies of Ravana being paraded through the streets and set on fire. Some of the effigies have fireworks that explode in their eyes. At Kullu, in Himachal Pradesh, people dress as local deities from neighboring villages converge for a huge celebration. Caparisoned elephant processions are held in Mysore. Dussehra is primarily a northern festivals and receives varying amounts of attention in other parts of the country. It is not that big in Tamil Nadu and southern India.

Durga Puja in Calcutta and West Bengal

Durga Puja in late September, Early October is the biggest event in Kolkata (Calcutta) and other cities in West Bengal. Held at the same time as Dussehra, it lasts for up to three weeks and honors the ten-armed, demon-chasing goddess Durga (Kali). Durga Puja is particularly important for Hindus in Bengal. After worshiping Durga for nine days, her image is taken to the streets in a procession and there is much celebration and dancing. To mark Durga leaving her mother after the nine day visit, her image is cast into water.

Durga Puja is also known as the Kali Festival, Kali Puja, Shyama Puja or Mahanisha Puja. The festivities include merrymaking and family reunions, and displays of papier mâché statues of Durga, riding a lion and defeating demons.

Durga Puja is celebrated on the new moon day of the Hindu month Kartik especially in West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Assam and Bangladesh. It features terra cotta images of the goddess Kali, holding severed heads, and hundreds of pandals, fake buildings made of cotton stretched over bamboo. Some of the pandals are decked out in colored lights, and brightly painted with moving snakes, film stars and deities. Some cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. The festival features all night partying and fireworks.

In Calcutta, the festival climaxes with procession in which statues of the goddess are carried to the Hooley river and immersed in the water. People watch as statues break up into floating body parts. Afterward the praying continues in the Midan. In 1996, there were replicas of the Victoria Memorial airport that were over 30 meters long. The climax is when the pandals are dragged in the streets and destroyed by traffic and the images of Kali are dragged into the river.

Ganesh Chaturthi

Ganesh Chaturthi is a celebration in September honoring the birth of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom and prosperity and destroyer of obstacles. Also known as Ganapati, Ekadanta, Vinayaka, Pillaiyar and Heramba, Ganesh is one of the most popular Hindu deities. Possessing an elephant’s head on a human body and the son of Shiva and his wife Parvati, he is particularly sought out and prayed to when people are beginning a new enterprise or starting a new business. At this time, he is believed to bless the Earth with his presence.

In places such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, Ganesh Chaturthi is a grand 10-day occasion. Huge clay statues of Ganesha are taken to the streets accompanied by music, dance and merry-making. In other places the occasion is celebrated more modestly at home with hymns sung and offerings made to Ganesh. Sweets are also distributed because in Hindu legend Ganesh liked them. The biggest celebrations are Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. On the fifth day of the festival in Mumbai. Ganesh idols are immersed in the sea. In some places you can see large idols of Ganesh pulled on bullock carts.

In Mumbai (Bombay) and Maharashtra there are large processions with huge crowds that immerse images of Hindu Gods in the Arabian Sea and lakes. Local competitions and other festivities are held. Celebrants often powder their faces and bodies in bright colors. Ganesh Chaturthi falls on the fourth day in the month of Bhadra (August-September). Families and businesses prepare for this festival by purchasing brightly painted images of Ganesh and worshiping them for a number of days. On the festival itself, with great celebration, participants bathe the images (and in most cases permanently dump them) in nearby rivers, lakes, or seas.

Half of Bombay’s population turns out for the celebration. Ganesh idols are displayed in houses for ten days. Thousands of brightly painted imaged of Ganesh—made of plaster-of-Paris, wood, mud, coconut hair and spray paint— are paraded through the streets and placed in homes or special shrines. Most are relatively small but some are seven or eight meters feet high. The biggest ones sometimes belong to gangsters and are part of their efforts to win public goodwill. The festival climaxes at Chowpatty Beach where hundreds of thousands people gather, many of them dousing images of Ganesh in the water, “purifying the faithful and sending the Ganesh back to the realm of the gods.” The day after celebration the beach looks like a battlefield, with images and limbs of Ganesh sticking out of the water and lying on the beach.

History of Ganesh Chaturthi

The Ganesh festival evolved into present form in the late 19th century as an expression of displeasure towards the British at a time when political rallies were banned but religious festivals weren’t. At that time skits often had political messages as freedom fighters attempted to rouse the people. So many Ganesh images are deposited in the water that large numbers of fish die from toxins from the paint and an impermeable layer made by the plaster of Paris exists on the sea floor. Environmentalists have raised a fuss and argued that the practice should be stopped

Geeta Anand wrote in the New York Times, “In the late 19th century, after the British banned political gatherings, a leader of India’s independence movement got the idea of spreading nationalist sentiment by organizing a street festival around Ganesh.Two followers of that leader, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, lived in Keshavji Naik Chawl, a housing complex in Mumbai of tiny three-room apartments along open-air corridors, a common housing design for middle-class residents at the time, and one still in use today. The Ganesh festival was started in that chawl in the 1890s. “The objective was to create an awakening among the people against British rule,” said Madhukar Keshav Dhavalikar, a former archaeology professor and former director of Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute in Pune, India.  

“The festival spread across the country, although Mumbai remains its heart and soul. In the same chawl where it all began in the late 19th century, residents, some of whose families have lived there for three generations, keep the tradition alive. They have succeeded in holding onto the tradition’s low-key origins, centered on cultural activities, even as the festival has evolved into an ever-noisier competition for the largest, most beautiful statue.”

Ganesh Chaturthi in Khetwadi, Mumbai

Geeta Anand wrote in the New York Times, “The giant plaster-of-paris statue of Ganesh…is the most famous in Khetwadi, one of Mumbai’s oldest, densest neighborhoods, near where the festival was first celebrated. Almost every alley features yet another wildly decorated, ardently worshiped Ganesh. But this one, Khetwadi Cha Ganraj, or the Ganesh of Khetwadi, often wins awards as the most beautiful. That fame drew the Balsaras and thousands of others on Wednesday, the last day before the deity would join about 50,000 other statues across the city in a procession of dancing crowds to the ocean, where the idols will be gently lowered into the water. “More than 160,000 Ganesh statues had already been dropped in the city’s waterways, some just a foot tall and worshiped in people’s homes, others close to 30 feet high, paid for by politicians and businessmen as centers for worship and merriment at the festival.  

“Despite the surrounding city, the community has maintained its village feel. On Wednesday, the courtyard in the chawl was an oasis of calm in the midst of all the urban hustle. Children ran in and out of the apartments, most of which had their doors wide open; women wearing saris cooked dinner; and men in shorts napped and watched TV. “You can just enter anyone’s room,” said Vinod Satpute, a 58-year-old flight attendant with Air India, whose parents moved to the chawl decades ago. “It doesn’t matter if he’s eating or sleeping. That’s his problem.”

“A few streets down, vast crowds gathered around the Khetwadi Cha Ganraj. The first statue went up here in the neighborhood’s Lane No. 12 in 1959, and this year’s celebration cost close to $75,000, financed in large part by corporate donations. The costs cover not just the giant, elaborately painted and dressed Ganesh, but also the themed room that holds the deity — this year, a “Rome and Rajasthan palace.” Two huge chandeliers hang overhead as 12 speakers boom temple music at a deafening volume. A crane holds a video camera that beams live footage to a smartphone app and to a YouTube site. In addition to many flower garlands, this Ganesh wears a 33-pound necklace of pure gold, the gift of an anonymous donor in 2008, said Ganesh Mathur, who was among those in charge of the Khetwadi Cha Ganraj this year.

“Along the street, almost every alley has been transformed into a tent with an enormous Ganesh inside. Crowds throng, buying cotton candy, toys, tea and watermelon slices, as couples and families make a day of visiting the idols. Lines snake around almost every tent, inside of which crowds gape at the latest iteration of the revered god. At the Khetwadi Cha Ganraj, it was time for the evening prayers. As they finished, workers on ladders used peacock feathers to dust Ganesh’s massive arms and pink fingernails. Then they began replacing the deity’s many flower garlands with fresh ones. At that, the Balsaras, until now engaged in deep prayer at the back of the room, rushed forward and shouted to the attendants over the temple music that they wanted to take the discarded garlands home. In minutes, they were weaving their way through the motorcycles and street vendors outside, arms buried in red and white flowers, convinced that another great year lay in store for them and for everyone else.”

Raksha Bandhan

Raksha Bandhan is a festival in August that celebrated mainly in northern and western India with young women tying colorful silken rakhi on their wrists and pledge their love. According to the BBC, “Raksha Bandhan, also abbreviated to Rakhi, is the Hindu festival that celebrates brotherhood and love. It is celebrated on the full moon in the month of Sravana in the lunar calendar. The word Raksha means protection, whilst Bandhan is the verb to tie. Traditionally, during the festival sisters tie a rakhi, a bracelet made of interwoven red and gold threads, around their brothers’ wrists to celebrate their relationship. It is a significant festival in the Hindu calendar, followed eight days later by Janamashtami..

Today the festival has developed with others joining in the festivities: 1) Priests tying rakhis around the wrists of congregation members; 2) close friends tying rakhis to express their relationship; 3) women tying rakhis around the wrists of the prime minister and other politicains; and 4) people tying raktis around the wrists of soldiers.

“It is believed that when a woman ties a rakhi around the hand of a man it becomes obligatory for him to honour his religious duty and protect her. Traditional stories state that rakhis are blessed with sacred verses and are encompassed by them. This festival has evolved over the years to encompass the importance of many people in Hindu society, yet foremost it continues to honour and uphold the relationship between a sister and brother.

“Sometimes rakhis are consecrated in rice and grass before they are given, and they are traditionally tied by people familiar with the Vedas. Following these customs the rakhi is believed to remove sin from one hand and provide safety to the other. The protection offered by a rakhi is believed to remain for a year. As the rakhi is tied, a prayer is offered asking for happiness and prosperity. Today rakhis are often decorated with multi-coloured silk thread, and often adorned with stones and beads. Once the rakhi has been tied a mantra is chanted either in Sanskrit or Punjabi. At the end of the ceremony the sister places a sweet in her mouth. Following this her brother gives her a small monetary gift of appreciation.”.

Krishna Janmashtami (Krishna Jayanti)

Krishna Janmashtami (Krishna Jayanti) is a festival in August that celebrates the birthday of Lord Krishna, one of the most popular Hindu gods, throughout the country with processions, fasting and rituals at temples. It occurs in the month of Bhadra. Krishna is perceived by most Hindus to be an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, who is regarded as the highest avatar. Krishna is considered to be a warrior, hero, teacher and philosopher by Hindus..

“Krishna’s birthday is celebrated eight days after Raksha Bandhan in the month of Sravana and celebrations are spread over two days. The first day is called Krishan ashtami or Gokul ashtami. The second day is known as Kaal ashtami or more popularly Janam ashtami. Given the significance of Krishna in the Hindu pantheon, Krishna Janmashtami is celebrated with great importance and consideration.

“For the 48 hour period Hindus are likely to forego sleep and instead sing bhajans, which are traditional Hindu songs. It is believed that Krishna was born at midnight and it is at this time that the true festivities commence. Food is prepared from milk and curds said to have been favoured by Krishna. Some Hindus choose to fast for the first day of Krishna Janmashtami, choosing only to eat after the midnight celebrations.

“Dances and songs are used to venerate and remember this supreme God. Plays are also carried out re-enacting scenes from Krishna’s early life. In Temples images of Krishna are bathed and placed in cradles, whilst the shankh (conch shell) is played and bells are rung. Holy mantras are also chanted to venerate Krishna.”.

Mahashivratri

Mahashivratri (also known as Shivaratri) is a Hindu festival dedicated to Shiva. Mahashivaratri means “the great night of Shiva” and is held during the month of Magha (January-February). It celebrates Shiva’s emanation of the universe through his cosmic dance, and is a day of fasting, visiting temples, and in many places staying up all night to sing devotional songs. There is an all-night vigil held at 900-year-old Lingaraja Temple in the capital of Orissa, Bhubaneswar. Worshippers light butter lamps and priest with torches run through the crowds and climb up the dome of the temple to celebrate the end of a fast.

“While most Hindu festivals are celebrated during the day, Mahashivratri is celebrated during the night and day that come just before the new moon. Each new moon is dedicated to Shiva, but Mahashivratri is especially important because it is the night when he danced the ‘Tandav’, his cosmic dance. It also celebrates the wedding of Shiva and Sati, the mother divine. Night represents evil, injustice, ignorance, sin, violence, and misfortune. Tradition says that Shiva, like his symbol the new moon, appeared in order to save the world from darkness and ignorance, before the world entered complete darkness.

“Devotees of Shiva observe a fast during Mahashivratri and stay up all night at a place of worship. Shiva is offered special food made from the fruits of the season, root vegetables, and coconuts, during ritual worship. Those who observe the Mahashivratri fast only break their fast the next morning, and eat the prasad (food offerings) offered to Shiva.

“In temples, Shiva linga – the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva – is worshipped. Devotees flock to the temples to perform the ritual of bathing the Shiva linga. It is bathed with milk, water and honey, and then anointed with sandalwood paste, and decorated with flowers and garlands. The legend of Lubdhaka. Young girls observe the fast and worship Shiva so that he may bless them with good husbands. They sing devotional songs in praise of the lord, and holy texts are chanted throughout the night. The pandits in the temples perform the puja (religious worship) according to the scriptures. This is done four times during the night.

“The legend surrounding the festival of Mahashivratri says that Lubdhaka, a poor tribal man and a devotee of Shiva, once went into the deep forests to collect firewood. At nightfall, he became lost and could not find his way home. In the darkness, Lubdhaka climbed a bel tree, and sought safety and shelter in its branches until dawn. All night, he could hear the growls of tigers and wild animals, and was too frightened to leave the tree. In order to keep himself awake, he plucked one leaf at a time from the tree and then dropped it, while chanting the name of Shiva. By sunrise, he had dropped thousands of leaves on to a Shiva lingam, which he had not seen in the darkness. Lubdhaka’s all-night worship pleased Shiva. By the grace of Shiva the tigers and wild animals went away, and Lubdhaka not only survived but was rewarded with ‘divine bliss’.”.

Rama Navami

Rama Navami is a celebration of Lord Rama’s birthday. It is observed throughout the country during the Hindu month of Chaitra (March-April). Lord Rama, son of King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, was an incarnation of Vishnu and the hero of the Ramayana, the Sanskrit epic of 24,000 stanzas. A continuous recital of the book takes place for about a week prior to the celebration and on the day itself, the highlights of the story are read in Hindu temples. The celebrations are particularly big at places associated with Rama, like Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh and Ramesvaram in Tamil Nadu. Events there attract thousands of devotees.

The house is thoroughly cleaned on Rama Navami and is also decorated. Offerings of fruit and flowers are placed on the family shrine and after an early bath, prayers are recited. The youngest female member of the household leads the puja (prayers) by applying a red tilak (mark) to all the other members of the family before everyone joins together in worship. An image or picture of baby Rama is placed in a covered cradle. At noon the covering is removed and Prasad (special sacred food) is offered to Rama, which may then be shared amongst the congregation. The festival is a focal point for moral reflection and being especially charitable to others. There is an element of fasting. Some people don’t eat certain foods, particularly things like onions, garlic, some spices and wheat products.

DISASTERS AND STAMPEDES AT TEMPLES, PILGRIMAGES AND FESTIVALS IN INDIA

TEMPLE AND FESTIVAL DISASTERS IN INDIA

HINDU RITUALS AND ROUTINES – WHY DO WE FOLLOW THOSE?

  1. Why do we light a lamp?

In almost every Indian home a lamp is lit daily before the altar of the Lord. In some houses it is lit at dawn, in some, twice a day – at dawn and dusk – and in a few it is maintained continuously (Akhanda Deepa). All auspicious functions commence with the lighting of the lamp, which is often maintained right through the occasion.

Light symbolizes knowledge, and darkness, ignorance. The Lord is the “Knowledge Principle” (Chaitanya) who is the source, the enlivener and the illuminator of all knowledge. Hence light is worshiped as the Lord himself.

Knowledge removes ignorance just as light removes darkness. Also knowledge is a lasting inner wealth by which all outer achievement can be accomplished. Hence we light the lamp to bow down to knowledge as the greatest of all forms of wealth.

Why not light a bulb or tube light?

That too would remove darkness. But the traditional oil lamp has a further spiritual significance. The oil or ghee in the lamp symbolizes our vaasanas or negative tendencies and the wick, the ego. When lit by spiritual knowledge, the vaasanas get slowly exhausted and the ego too finally perishes. The flame of a lamp always burns upwards. Similarly we should acquire such knowledge as to take us towards higher ideals.

Whilst lighting the lamp we thus pray:

Deepajyothi parabrahma

Deepa sarva tamopahaha

Deepena saadhyate saram

Sandhyaa deepo namostute

I prostrate to the dawn/dusk lamp; whose light is the Knowledge Principle (the Supreme Lord), which removes the darkness of ignorance and by which all can be achieved in life.

  • Why do we have a prayer room?

 Most Indian homes have a prayer room or altar. A lamp is lit and the Lord worshipped each day. Other spiritual practices like japa (repetition of the Lord’s name), meditation, paaraayana (reading of the scriptures), prayers, and devotional singing etc is also done here. Special worship is done on auspicious occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, festivals and the like. Each member of the family – young or old – communes with and worships the Divine here.

The Lord is the entire creation. He is therefore the true owner of the house we live in too. The prayer room is the Master room of the house. We are the earthly occupants of His property. This notion rids us of false pride and possessiveness.

The ideal attitude to take is to regard the Lord as the true owner of our homes and us as caretakers of His home. But if that is rather difficult, we could at least think of Him as a very welcome guest. Just as we would house an important guest in the best comfort, so too we felicitate the Lord’s presence in our homes by having a prayer room or altar, which is, at all times, kept clean and well-decorated.

Also the Lord is all pervading. To remind us that He resides in our homes with us, we have prayer rooms. Without the grace of the Lord, no task can be successfully or easily accomplished. We invoke His grace by communing with Him in the prayer room each day and on special occasions.

Each room in a house is dedicated to a specific function like the bedroom for resting, the drawing room to receive guests, the kitchen for cooking etc. The furniture, decor and the atmosphere of each room are made conducive to the purpose it serves. So too for the purpose of meditation, worship and prayer, we should have a conducive atmosphere – hence the need for a prayer room.

Sacred thoughts and sound vibrations pervade the place and influence the minds of those who spend time there. Spiritual thoughts and vibrations accumulated through regular meditation, worship and chanting done there pervade the prayer room. Even when we are tired or agitated, by just sitting in the prayer room for a while, we feel calm, rejuvenated and spiritually uplifted.

  • Why do we do Namaste?

Indians greet each other with namaste. The two palms are placed together in front of the chest and the head bows whilst saying the word namaste. This greeting is for all – people younger than us, of our own age, those older than friends, even strangers and us.

There are five forms of formal traditional greeting enjoined in the shaastras of which namaskaram is one. This is understood as prostration but it actually refers to paying homage as we do today when we greet each other with a namaste.

Namaste could be just a casual or formal greeting, a cultural convention or an act of worship. However there is much more to it than meets the eye. In Sanskrit namah + te = namaste. It means – I bow to you – my greetings, salutations or prostration to you. Namaha can also be literally interpreted as “na ma” (not mine). It has a spiritual significance of negating or reducing one’s ego in the presence of another

The real meeting between people is the meeting of their minds. When we greet another, we do so with namaste, which means, “may our minds meet,” indicated by the folded palms placed before the chest. The bowing down of the head is a gracious form of extending friendship in love and humility.

The spiritual meaning is even deeper. The life force, the divinity, the Self or the Lord in me is the same in all. Recognizing this oneness with the meeting of the palms, we salute with head bowed the Divinity in the person we meet. That is why sometimes, we close our eyes as we do namaste to a revered person or the Lord – as if to look within. The gesture is often accompanied by words like “Ram Ram”, “Jai Shri Krishna”, “Namo Narayana”, “Jai Siya Ram”, “Om Shanti” etc – indicating the recognition of this divinity.

When we know this significance, our greeting does not remain just a superficial gesture or word but paves the way for a deeper communion with another in an atmosphere of love and respect.

  • Why do we prostrate before parents and elders?

Indians prostrate before their parents, elders, teachers and noble souls by touching their feet. The elder in turn blesses us by placing his or her hand on or over our heads. Prostration is done daily, when we meet elders and particularly on important occasions like the beginning of a new task, birthdays, festivals etc. In certain traditional circles, prostration is accompanied by abhivaadana, which serves to introduce one-self, announce one’s family and social stature.

Man stands on his feet. Touching the feet in prostration is a sign of respect for the age, maturity, nobility and divinity that our elders personify. It symbolizes our recognition of their selfless love for us and the sacrifices they have done for our welfare. It is a way of humbly acknowledging the greatness of another. This tradition reflects the strong family ties, which has been one of India’s enduring strengths.

The good wishes (Sankalpa) and blessings (aashirvaada) of elders are highly valued in India. We prostrate to seek them. Good thoughts create positive vibrations. Good wishes springing from a heart full of love, divinity and nobility have a tremendous strength. When we prostrate with humility and respect, we invoke the good wishes and blessings of elders, which flow in the form of positive energy to envelop us. This is why the posture assumed whether it is in the standing or prone position, enables the entire body to receive the energy thus received. The different forms of showing respect are :

Pratuthana – rising to welcome a person

Namaskaara – paying homage in the form of Namaste

Upasangrahan – touching the feet of elders or teachers. Shaashtaanga – prostrating fully with the feet, knees, stomach, chest, forehead and arms touching the ground in front of the elder. Pratyabivaadana – returning a greeting

Rules are prescribed in our scriptures as to who should prostrate to whom. Wealth, family name, age, moral strength and spiritual knowledge in ascending order of importance qualified men to receive respect. This is why a king though the ruler of the land, would prostrate before a spiritual master. Epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata have many stories highlighting this aspect.

  • Why do we wear marks (tilak, pottu and the like) on the forehead?

The tilak or pottu invokes a feeling of sanctity in the wearer and others. It is recognized as a religious mark. Its form and colour vary according to one’s caste, religious sect or the form of the Lord worshipped.

In earlier times, the four castes (based on varna or colour) – Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra – applied marks differently. The brahmin applied a white chandan mark signifying purity, as his profession was of a priestly or academic nature. The kshatriya applied a red kumkum mark signifying valour as he belonged to warrior races. The vaishya wore a yellow kesar or turmeric mark signifying prosperity as he was a businessman or trader devoted to creation of wealth. The sudra applied a black bhasma, kasturi or charcoal mark signifying service as he supported the work of the other three divisions.

Also Vishnu worshippers apply a chandan tilak of the shape of “U”, Shiva worshippers a tripundra of bhasma, Devi worshippers a red dot of kumkum and so on).

The tilak cover the spot between the eyebrows, which is the seat of memory and thinking. It is known as the Aajna Chakra in the language of Yoga. The tilak is applied with the prayer – “May I remember the Lord. May this pious feeling pervade all my activities. May I be righteous in my deeds.” Even when we temporarily forget this prayerful attitude the mark on another reminds us of our resolve. The tilak is thus a blessing of the Lord and a protection against wrong tendencies and forces

The entire body emanates energy in the form of electromagnetic waves – the forehead and the subtle spot between the eyebrows especially so. That is why worry generates heat and causes a headache. The tilak and pottu cools the forehead, protects us and prevents energy loss. Sometimes the entire forehead is covered with chandan or bhasma. Using plastic reusable “stick bindis” is not very beneficial, even though it serves the purpose of decoration.

  • Why do we not touch papers, books and people with the feet?

To Indians, knowledge is sacred and divine. So it must be given respect at all times. Nowadays we separate subjects as sacred and secular. But in ancient India every subject – academic or spiritual – was considered divine and taught by the guru in the gurukula

The custom of not stepping on educational tools is a frequent reminder of the high position accorded to knowledge in Indian culture. From an early age, this wisdom fosters in us a deep reverence for books and education. This is also the reason why we worship books, vehicles and instruments once a year on Saraswathi Pooja or Ayudha Pooja day, dedicated to the Goddess of Learning. In fact, each day before starting our studies, we pray:

Saraswati namasthubhyam

Varade kaama roopini

Vidyaarambham karishyaami

Sidhirbhavatu me sadaa

O Goddess Saraswati, the giver of

Boons and fulfiller of wishes,

 I prostrate to You before

 starting my studies.

May you always fulfill me?

  • To touch another with the feet is considered an act of misdemeanor. Why is this so?

Man is regarded as the most beautiful, living breathing temple of the Lord! Therefore touching another with the feet is akin to disrespecting the divinity within him or her. This calls for an immediate apology, which is offered with reverence and humility.

  • Why do we apply the holy ash?

The ash of any burnt object is not regarded as holy ash. Bhasma (the holy ash) is the ash from the homa (sacrificial fire) where special wood along with ghee and other herbs is offered as worship of the Lord. Or the deity is worshipped by pouring ash as abhisheka and is then distributed as bhasma.

Bhasma is generally applied on the forehead. Some apply it on certain parts of the body like the upper arms, chest etc. Some ascetics rub it all over the body. Many consume a pinch of it each time they receive it.

The word bhasma means, “that by which our sins are destroyed and the Lord is remembered”. Bha implied bhartsanam (“to destroy”) and sma implies smaranam (“to remember”). The application of bhasma therefore signifies destruction of the evil and remembrance of the divine. Bhasma is called vibhuti (which means “glory”) as it gives glory to one who applies it and raksha (which means a source of protection) as it protects the wearer from ill health and evil, by purifying him or her.

Homa (offering of oblations into the fire with sacred chants) signifies the offering or surrender of the ego and egocentric desires into the flame of knowledge or a noble and selfless cause. The consequent ash signifies the purity of the mind, which results from such actions.

Also the fire of knowledge burns the oblation and wood signifying ignorance and inertia respectively. The ash we apply indicates that we should burn false identification with the body and become free of the limitations of birth and death. This is not to be misconstrued as a morose reminder of death but as a powerful pointer towards the fact that time and tide wait for none.

Bhasma is specially associated with Lord Shiva who applies it all over His body. Shiva devotes apply bhasma as a tripundra. When applied with a red spot at the center, the mark symbolizes Shiva-Shakti (the unity of energy and matter that creates the entire seen and unseen universe).

Bhasma has medicinal value and is used in many ayurvedic medicines. It absorbs excess moisture from the body and prevents colds and headaches. The Upanishads say that the famous Mrityunjaya mantra should be chanted whilst applying ash on the forehead.

Tryambakam yajaamahe

Sugandhim pushtivardhanam

Urvaa rukamiva bhandhanaan

Mrytyor muksheeyamaa amrutaat

“We worship the three-eyed Lord Shiva who nourishes and spread fragrance in our lives. May He free us from the shackles of sorrow, change and death – effortlessly, like the fall of a rip brinjal from its stem.

  • Why do offer food to the Lord before eating it?

Indians make an offering of food to the Lord and later partake of it as prasaada – a holy gift from the Lord. In our daily ritualistic worship (pooja) too we offer naivedyam (food) to the Lord.

The Lord is omnipotent and omniscient. Man is a part, while the Lord is the totality. All that we do is by His strength and knowledge alone. Hence what we receive in life as a result of our actions is really His alone. We acknowledge this through the act of offering food to Him. This is exemplified by the Hindi words “tera tujko arpan”– I offer what is Yours to You. Thereafter it is akin to His gift to us, graced by His divine touch.

Knowing this, our entire attitude to food and the act of eating changes. The food offered will naturally be pure and the best. We share what we get with others before consuming it. We do not demand, complain or criticise the quality of the food we get. We eat it with cheerful acceptance (prasaada buddhi).

Before we partake of our daily meals we first sprinkle water around the plate as an act of purification. Five morsels of food are placed on the side of the plate acknowledging the debt owed by us to the Divine forces (devta runa) for their benign grace and protection, our ancestors (pitru runa) for giving us their lineage and a family culture, the sages (rishi runa) as our religion and culture have been “realised”, aintained and handed down to us by them, our fellow beings (manushya runa) who constitute society without the support of which we could not live as we do and other living beings (bhuta runa) for serving us selflessly.

Thereafter the Lord, the life force, who is also within us as the five life-giving physiological functions, is offered the food. This is done with the chant

praanaaya swaahaa,

apaanaaya swaahaa,

vyaanaaya swaahaa,

udaanaaya swaahaa,

samaanaaya swaahaa,

brahmane swaahaa

After offering the food thus, it is eaten as prasaada – blessed food.

  1. Why do we fast?

Most devout Indians fast regularly or on special occasions like festivals. On such days they do not eat at all, eat once or make do with fruits or a special diet of simple food.

Fasting in Sanskrit is called upavaasa. Upa means “near” + vaasa means “to stay”. Upavaasa therefore means staying near (the Lord), meaning the attainment of close mental proximity with the Lord. Then what has upavaasa to do with food?

A lot of our time and energy is spent in procuring food items, preparing, cooking, eating and digesting food. Certain food types make our minds dull and agitated. Hence on certain days man decides to save time and conserve his energy by eating either simple, light food or totally abstaining from eating so that his mind becomes alert and pure. The mind, otherwise pre-occupied by the thought of food, now entertains noble thoughts and stays with the Lord. Since it is a self-imposed form of discipline it is usually adhered to with joy.

Also every system needs a break and an overhaul to work at its best. Rest and a change of diet during fasting is very good for the digestive system and the entire body.

The more you indulge the senses, the more they make their demands. Fasting helps us to cultivate control over our senses, sublimate our desires and guide our minds to be poised and at peace.

Fasting should not make us weak, irritable or create an urge to indulge later. This happens when there is no noble goal behind fasting.

The Bhagavad-Gita urges us to eat appropriately – neither too less nor too much – yukta-aahaara and to eat simple, pure and healthy food (a saatvik diet) even when not fasting

  1. Why do we do pradakshina (circumambulate)?

We cannot draw a circle without a center point. The Lord is the center, source and essence of our lives. Recognizing Him as the focal point in our lives, we go about doing our daily chores. This is the significance of pradakshina.

Also every point on the circumference of a circle is equidistant from the center. This means that wherever or whoever we may be, we are equally close to the Lord. His grace flows towards us without partiality.

  1. Why is pradakshina done only in a clockwise manner?

The reason is not, as a person said, to avoid a traffic jam! As we do pradakshina, the Lord is always on our right. In India the right side symbolizes auspiciousness. So as we circumambulate the sanctum sanctorum we remind ourselves to lead an auspicious life of righteousness, with the Lord who is the indispensable source of help and strength, as our guide – the “right hand”.

Indian scriptures enjoin – matrudevo bhava, pitrudevo bhava, acharyadevo bhava. May you consider your parents and teachers as you would the Lord. With this in mind we also do pradakshina around our parents and divine personages.

After the completion of traditional worship (pooja), we customarily do pradakshina around ourselves. In this way we recognize and remember the supreme divinity within us, which alone is idolized in the form of the Lord that we worship outside.

  1. Why do we regard trees and plants as sacred?

The Lord, the life in us, pervades all living beings, be they plants or animals. Hence, they are all regarded as sacred. Human life on earth depends on plants and trees. They give us the vital factors that make life possible on earth: food, oxygen, clothing, shelter, medicines etc.

Hence, in India, we are taught to regard trees and plants as sacred. Indians scriptures tell us to plant ten trees if, for any reason, we have to cut one. We are advised to use parts of trees and plants only as much as is needed for food, fuel, shelter etc. we are also urged to apologies to a plant or tree before cutting it to avoid incurring a specific sin named soona

Certain trees and plants like tulasi, peepal etc., which have tremendous beneficial qualities, are worshipped till today. It is believed that divine beings manifest as trees and plants, and many people worship them to fulfill their desires or to please the Lord

  1. Why do we ring the bell in a temple?

Is it to wake up the Lord? But the Lord never sleeps. Is it to let the Lord know we have come? He does not need to be told, as He is all knowing. Is it a form of seeking permission to enter His precinct? It is a homecoming and therefore entry needs no permission. The Lord welcomes us at all times. Then why do we ring the bell?

The ringing of the bell produces what is regarded as an auspicious sound. It produces the sound Om, the universal name of the Lord. There should be auspiciousness within and without, to gain the vision of the Lord who is all-auspiciousness.

Even while doing the ritualistic aarati, we ring the bell. It is sometimes accompanied by the auspicious sounds of the conch and other musical instruments. An added significance of ringing the bell, conch and other instruments is that they help drowned any inauspicious or irrelevant noises and comments that might disturb or distract the worshippers in their devotional ardour, concentration and inner peace

As we start the daily ritualistic worship (pooja) we ring the bell, chanting:

Aagamaarthamtu devaanaam

gamanaarthamtu rakshasaam

Kurve ghantaaravam tatra

devataahvaahna lakshanam

I ring this bell indicating

the invocation of divinity,

So that virtuous and noble forces

enter (my home and heart);

and the demonic and evil forces

from within and without, depart.

  1. Why do we worship the kalasha?

First of all what is a kalasha? A brass, mud or copper pot is filled with water. Mango leaves are placed in the mouth of the pot and a coconut is placed over it. A red or white thread is tied around its neck or sometimes all around it in a intricate diamondshaped pattern. The pot may be decorated wit designs. Such a pot is known as a kalasha.

When the pot is filled with water or rice, it is known as purnakumbha representing the inert body which when filled with the divine life force gains the power to do all the wonderful things that makes life what it is.

A kalasha is placed with due rituals on all-important occasions like the traditional house warming (grihapravesa), wedding, daily worship etc. It is placed near the entrance as a sign of welcome. It is also used in a traditional manner while receiving holy personages. Why do we worship the kalasha? Before the creation came into being, Lord Vishnu was reclining on His snake-bed in the milky ocean. From His navel emerged a lotus from which appeared Lord Brahma, the creator, who thereafter created this world.

The water in the kalasha symbolizes the primordial water from which the entire creation emerged. It is the giver of life to all and has the potential of creating innumerable names and forms, the inert objects and the sentient beings and all that is auspicious in the world from the energy behind the universe. The leaves and coconut represent creation.

The thread represents the love that “binds” all in creation. The kalasha is therefore considered auspicious and worshipped. The waters from all the holy rivers, the knowledge of all the Vedas and the blessings of all the deities are invoked in the kalasha and its water is thereafter used for all the rituals, including the abhisheka.

The consecration (kumbhaabhisheka) of a temple is done in a grand manner with elaborate rituals including the pouring of one or more kalashas of holy water on the top of the temple. When the asuras and devas churned the milky ocean, the Lord appeared bearing the pot of nectar, which blessed one with everlasting life.

Thus the kalasha also symbolizes immortality. Men of wisdom are full and complete as they identify with the infinite Truth (poornatvam). They brim with joy and love and respect all that is auspicious. We greet them with a purnakumbha (“full pot”) acknowledging their greatness and as a sign of respectful and reverential welcome, with a “full heart”.

  1. Why do we consider the lotus as special?

The lotus is the symbol of truth, auspiciousness and beauty (satyam, shivam, sundaram). The Lord is also that nature and therefore, His various aspects are compared to a lotus (i.e. lotus-eyes, lotus feet, lotus hands, the lotus of the heart etc.).

The lotus blooms with the rising sun and close at night. Similarly, our minds open up and expand with the light of knowledge. The lotus grows even in slushy areas. It remains beautiful and untainted despite its surroundings, reminding us that we too can and should strive to remain pure and beautiful within, under all circumstances.

The lotus leaf never gets wet even though it is always in water. It symbolizes the man of wisdom (gyaani) who remains ever joyous, unaffected by the world of sorrow and change. This is revealed in a shloka from the Bhagwad-Geeta

Brahmanyaadhaaya karmaani

Sangam tyaktvaa karoti yaha

Lipyate na sa paapena

Padma patram ivaambhasaa

He who does actions, offering them to Brahman (the Supreme), abandoning attachment, is not tainted by sin, just as a lotus leaf remains unaffected by the water on it.

From this, we learn that what is natural to the man of wisdom becomes a discipline to be practiced by all saadhakas or spiritual seekers and devotees. Our bodies have certain energy centers described in the Yoga Shaastras as chakras.

Each one is associated with lotus that has a certain number of petals. For example, a lotus with a thousand petals represents the Sahasra chakra at the top of the head, which opens when the yogi attains Godhood or Realisation. Also, the lotus posture (padmaasana) is recommended when one sits for meditation. A lotus emerged from the navel of Lord Vishnu. Lord Brahma originated from it to create the world. Hence, the lotus symbolizes the link between the creator and the supreme Cause.

It also symbolizes Brahmaloka, the abode of Lord Brahma. The auspicious sign of the swastika is said to have evolved from the lotus

  1. Why do we worship tulasi?

In Sanskrit, tulanaa naasti athaiva tulasi – that which is incomparable (in its qualities) is the tulasi.

For Indians it is one of the most sacred plants. In fact it is known to be the only thing used in worship, which, once used, can be washed and reused in pooja – as it is regarded so self-purifying

As one story goes, Tulasi was the devoted wife of Shankhachuda, a celestial being. She believed that Lord Krishna tricked her into sinning. So she cursed Him to become a stone (shaaligraama). Seeing her devotion and adhered to righteousness, the Lord blessed her saying that she would become the worshipped plant, tulasi that would adorn His head

Also that all offerings would be incomplete without the tulasi leaf – hence the worship of tulasi.

She also symbolises Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu. Those who wish to be righteous and have a happy family life worship the tulasi.

Tulasi is married to the Lord with all pomp and show as in any wedding.

This is because according to another legend, the Lord blessed her to be His consort. Satyabhama once weighed Lord Krishna against all her legendary wealth. The scales did not balance till a single tulasi leaf was placed along with the wealth on the scale by Rukmini with devotion.

Thus the tulasi played the vital role of demonstrating to the world that even a small object offered with devotion means more to the Lord than all the wealth in the world.

The tulasi leaf has great medicinal value and is used to cure various ailments, including the common cold.

Yanmule sarvatirhaani

Yannagre sarvadevataa

Yanmadhye sarvavedaascha

Tulasi taam namaamyaham

I bow down to the tulasi, At whose base are all the holy places, At whose top reside all the deities and In whose middle are all the Vedas.

  1. Why do we blow the conch?

When the conch is blown, the primordial sound of Om emanates. Om is an auspicious sound that was chanted by the Lord before creating the world. It represents the world and the Truth behind it.

As the story goes, the demon Shankhaasura defeated devas, the Vedas and went to the bottom of the ocean. The devas appealed to Lord Vishnu for help. He incarnated as Matsya Avataara – the “fish incarnation” and killed Shankhaasura. The Lord blew the conch-shaped bone of his ear and head. The Om sound emanated, from which emerged the Vedas

All knowledge enshrined in the Vedas is an elaboration of Om. The conch therefore is known as shankha after Shankaasua. The conch blown by the Lord is called Paanchajanya. He carries it at all times in one of His four hands.

It represents dharma or righteousness that is one of the four goals (purushaarthas) of life. The sound of the conch is thus also the victory call of good over evil.

Another well-known purpose of blowing the conch and the instruments, known traditionally to produce auspicious sounds is to drown or mask negative comments or noises that may disturb or upset the atmosphere or the minds of worshippers.

Ancient India lived in her villages. Each village was presided over by a primary temple and several small ones. During the aarati performed after all-important poojas and on sacred occasions, the conch used to be blown. Since villages were generally small, the sound of the conch would be heard all over the village. People who could not make it to the temple were reminded to stop whatever they were doing, at least for a few seconds, and mentally bow to the Lord. The conch sound served to briefly elevate people’s minds to a prayerful attitude even in the middle of their busy daily routine.

The conch is placed at the altar in temples and homes next to the Lord as a symbol of Naada Brahma (Truth), the Vedas, Om, dharma, victory and auspiciousness. It is often used to offer devotees thirtha (sanctified water) to raise their minds to the highest Truth. It is worshipped with the following verse.

Twam puraa saagarot pannaha

Vishnunaa vidhrutahakare

Devaischa poojitha sarvahi

Panchjanya namostu te

Salutations to Panchajanya

the conch born of the ocean

Held in the hand of Lord Vishnu

and worshipped by all devaas

  1. Why do we say shaanti thrice?

Shaanti, meaning “peace”, is a natural state of being. Disturbances are created either by others or us. For example, peace already exists in a place until someone makes noise.

Therefore, peace underlies all our agitations. When agitations end, peace is naturally experienced since it was already there. Where there is peace, there is happiness. Therefore, every one without exception desires peace in his/her life.

However, peace within or without seems very hard to attain because it is covered by our own agitations. A rare few manage to remain peaceful within even in the midst of external agitation and troubles. To invoke peace, we chant prayers. By chanting prayers, troubles end and peace is experienced internally, irrespective of the external disturbances. All such prayers end by chanting shaanti thrice.

It is believed that trivaram satyam – that which is said thrice comes true. For emphasizing a point we repeat a thing thrice. In the court of law also, one who takes the witness stands says, “I shall speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”

We chant shaanti thrice to emphasise our intense desire for peace. All obstacles, problems and sorrows originate from three sources

Aadhidaivika : The unseen divine forces over which we have little or no control like earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions etc.

Aadhibhautika: The known factors around us like accidents, human contacts, pollution, crime etc

Aadhyaatmika : We sincerely pray to the Lord that at least while we undertake special tasks or even in our daily lives, there are no problems or that, problems are minimised from the three sources written about above.

May peace alone prevail. Hence shaanti is chanted thrice.

It is chanted aloud the first time, addressing the unseen forces. It is chanted softer the second time, directed to our immediate surroundings and those around, and softest the last time as it is addressed to oneself.

  • Why do we offer a coconut?

In India one of the most common offerings in a temple is a coconut. It is also offered on occasions like weddings, festivals, the use of a new vehicle, bridge, house etc. It is offered in the sacrificial fire whilst performing homa. The coconut is broken and placed before the Lord. It is later distributed as prasaada.

The fibre covering of the dried coconut is removed except for a tuft on the top. The marks on the coconut make it look like the head of a human being. The coconut is broken, symbolising the breaking of the ego. The juice within, representing the inner tendencies (vaasanas) is offered along with the white kernel – the mind, to the Lord.

A mind thus purified by the touch of the Lord is used as prasaada ( a holy gift). In the traditional abhishekha ritual done in all temples and many homes, several materials are poured over the deity like milk, curd, honey, tender coconut water, sandal paste, holy ash etc. Each material has a specific significance of bestowing certain benefits on worshippers. Tender coconut water is used in abhisheka rituals since it is believed to bestow spiritual growth on the seeker.

The coconut also symbolises selfless service. Every part of the tree -the trunk, leaves, fruit, coir etc. Is used in innumerable ways like thatches, mats, tasty dishes, oil, soap etc. It takes in even salty water from the earth and converts it into sweet nutritive water that is especially beneficial to sick people. It is used in the preparation of many ayurvedic medicines and in other alternative medicinal systems.

The marks on the coconut are even thought to represent the three-eyed Lord Shiva and therefore it is considered to be a means to fulfill our desires.

21. Why do we chant Om?

Om is one of the most chanted sound symbols in India. It has a profound effect on the body and mind of the one who chants and also on the surroundings. Most mantras and vedic prayers start with Om.

All auspicious actions begin with Om. It is even used as a greeting – Om, Hari Om etc. It is repeated as a mantra or meditated upon. Its form is worshipped, contemplated upon or used as an auspicious sign.

Om is the universal name of the Lord. It is made up of the letters A (phonetically as in “around”), U (phonetically as in “put”) and M (phonetically as in “mum”). The sound emerging from the vocal chords starts from the base of the throat as “A”. With the coming together of the lips, “U” is formed and when the lips are closed, all sounds end in “M”.

The three letters symbolize the three states (waking, dream and deep sleep), the three deities (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), the three Vedas (Rig, Yajur and Sama) the three worlds (Bhuh, Bhuvah, Suvah) etc. The Lord is all these and beyond.

The formless, attributeless Lord (Brahman) is represented by the silence between two Om Chants. Om is also called pranava that means, “that (symbol or sound) by which the Lord is praised”. The entire essence of the Vedas is enshrined in the word Om. It is said that the Lord started creating the world after chanting Om and atha. Hence its sound is considered to create an auspicious beginning for any task that we undertake. The Om chant should have the resounding sound of a bell (aaooommm).

The formless, attributeless Lord (Brahman) is represented by the silence between two Om Chants. Om is also called pranava that means, “that (symbol or sound) by which the Lord is praised”. The entire essence of the Vedas is enshrined in the word Om. It is said that the Lord started creating the world after chanting Om and atha. Hence its sound is considered to create an auspicious beginning for any task that we undertake. The Om chant should have the resounding sound of a bell (aaooommm).

  • Why do we do aarati?

Towards the end of every ritualistic worship (pooja or bhajan) of the Lord or to welcome an honored guest or saint, we perform the aarati. This is always accompanied by the ringing of the bell and sometimes by singing, playing of musical instruments and clapping.

It is one of the sixteen steps (shodasha upachaara) of the pooja ritual. It is referred to as the lighted lamp in the right hand, which we wave in a clockwise circling movement to light the entire form of the Lord.

Each part is revealed individually and also the entire form of the Lord. As the light is waved we either do mental or loud chanting of prayers or simply behold the beautiful form of the Lord, illumined by the lamp. At the end of the aarati we place our hands over the flame and then gently touch our eyes and the top of the head.

We have seen and participated in this ritual from our childhood. Let us find out why we do the aarati?

Having worshipped the Lord of love – performing abhisheka, decorating the image and offering fruits and delicacies, we see the beauty of the Lord in all His glory. Our minds are focused on each limb of the Lord as the lamp lights it up. It is akin to silent open-eyed meditation on His beauty. The singing, clapping, ringing of the bell etc. denote the joy and auspiciousness, which accompanies the vision of the Lord.

Aarati is often performed with camphor. This holds a telling spiritual significance. Camphor when lit, burns itself out completely without leaving a trace of it. It represents our inherent tendencies (vaasanas). When lit by the fire of knowledge which illumines the Lord (Truth), our vaasanas thereafter burn themselves out completely, not leaving a trace of ego which creates in us a sense of individuality that keeps us separate from the Lord.

Also while camphor burns to reveal the glory of Lord, it emits a pleasant perfume even while it sacrifices itself. In our spiritual progress, even as we serve the guru and society, we should willingly sacrifice ourselves and all we have, to spread the “perfume” of love to all. We often wait a long while to see the illumined Lord but when the aarati is actually performed, our eyes close automatically as if to look within. This is to signify that each of us is a temple of the Lord.

Just as the priest reveals the form of the Lord clearly with the aarati flame, so too the guru reveals to us the divinity within each of us with the help of the “flame” of knowledge (or the light of spiritual knowledge). At the end of the aarati, we place our hands over the flame and then touch our eyes and the top of the head. It means – may the light that illuminated the Lord light up my vision; may my vision be divine and my thoughts noble and beautiful

The philosophical meaning of aarati extends further. The sun, moon, stars, lightning and fire are the natural sources of light. The Lord is the source of this wonderous phenomenon of the universe. It is due to Him alone that all else exist and shine. As we light up the Lord with the flame of the aarati, we turn our attention to the very source of all light, which symbolizes knowledge and life.

Also the sun is the presiding deity of the intellect, the moon, that of the mind, and fire, that of speech. The Lord is the supreme consciousness that illuminates all of them. Without Him, the intellect cannot think, nor can the mind feel nor the tongue speaks. The Lord is beyond the mind, intellect and speech. How can this finite equipment illuminate the Lord? Therefore, as we perform the aarati we chant;

Na tatra suryo bhaati na chandra taarakam

Nemaa vidyuto bhaanti kutoyamagnib

Tameva bhaantam anubhaati sarvam

Tasya bhasa sarvam idam vibhaati

He is there where the sun does not shine,

Nor the moon, stars and lightning.

then what to talk of this small flame (in my hand),

Everything (in the universe) shines

only after the Lord,

And by His light alone are we all illumined.

6 Things Hindus Do, and which ones you can do too!

1. Marks on the Forehead

This is the easiest one to spot from the outside. If you see someone with special markings on their forehead, they are almost certainly Hindu.

Some of the markings signify the kind of Hindu someone is. For example, three stripes across the forehead signifies that someone was at a Shiva temple that morning. Two vertical lines connected at the center of the eyebrows means they worshipped at a Vishnu temple. Generally only serious practitioners have these elaborate markings on their forehead.

Other markings are simple displays of devotion. After the woman of the house performs her daily puja, she will go around to everyone in the house and apply a very small mark of ash or paste to the forehead. She puts the mark on everyone, including her atheistic son who doesn’t believe any of it. The small mark is a sign that the puja was done and the home has been blessed.

It is very common for Hindu women to wear a bindi on their forehead. This has become more of a fashion accessory for women, and it is not uncommon to see it on women from other religions as well. However, it is traditionally the mark of a Hindu woman. In certain parts of India, there are particular marks that show if a woman is married or not, but these will vary from place to place.

There is some religious significance to all these markings (especially the more elaborate ones), but the beliefs are less important than the behavior. Hindus wear markings more so because “that’s what we do”, than “I believe this mark deepens my meditation or connects me to the third eye of Shiva.”

Tips for the outsider:

If you are attending a function and someone is walking around putting a mark on everyone’s head, feel free to accept it. No one will think you have converted to Hinduism. It’s also fine to refuse if you are not comfortable. Non-Indian women can wear a bindi when they are out (especially if they are attending a function like a wedding), but it is best to only wear it with Indian clothes.

2. Doing Pujas

A puja is a worship event for Hindus. Pujas can be very short and simple, or extremely elaborate. The most simple is the daily puja that the woman of the house performs. It might be as quick as a few minutes, or it might go on for fifteen or more. More elaborate pujas, like dedicating a new home, involve calling in a priest. The exact elements of a puja will vary from community to community, but here are a few common elements:

  • A lamp with oil
  • Burning incense
  • Bells
  • Flowers
  • Fruit
  • Camphor
  • An image of the deity
  • Chanting of sacred scriptures
  • A pot with mango leaves

Most Indian homes will have a puja room built-in. This is a special place where the puja is done and the puja items are kept. Otherwise, pujas can be done in temples or large rented halls.

Tips for the outsider:

If you are attending a puja, just stand politely. After the puja is finished, you may be offered some food or someone may want to make a mark on your forehead. Both of these are fine for you to accept or reject as you are comfortable, but your Indian friend would prefer you accept. Also, since the home is seen as a kind of temple, remember to take off your shoes when entering a Hindu home.

3. Participating in seasonal Hindu festivals

There are too many seasonal Hindu festivals to mention here. All of them have their own special story and way to celebrate. Festivals are also very regional; very few festivals are celebrated all across India (Diwali being the most notable exception, though even the interpretation varies across regions). Festivals are primarily about being with family, eating specific food, and having a puja at home.

Tips for the outsider:

If you are a manager, be sensitive to your Indian team members’ fes