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Hinduism (An Alphabetical Guide)

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Item Code: NAS610
Author: Roshen Dalal
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9780143423171
Pages: 522
Other Details 9.00 X 7.00 inch
Weight 600 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

Hinduism is one of the world's oldest religions; an amalgam of diverse beliefs and schools, it originates in the Vedas and is rooted in Indian culture. Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide illuminates complex philosophical concepts through lucid definitions, a historical perspective and incisive analyses. It examines various aspects of Hinduism, covering festivals and rituals, gods and goddesses, philosophers, memorials, aesthetics, and sacred plants and animals. The author also explores pivotal ideas, including moksha, karma, dharma and samsara, and details the diverse commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and other important texts, Citing extensively from the regional languages, the book describes Hinduism's innumerable myths and legends, and looks at the many versions of texts including the Ramayana and Mahabharata, placing each entry in its historical context and tracing its evolution to the present.

About the Author

Roshen Dalai was born in Mussoorie and studied in various schools across the country. After a BA (Hons) in history from the University of Bombay, she completed an MA and PhD in ancient Indian history from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has taught at both school and university, and been involved in research in the fields of history, religion and philosophy, and education. Apart from books, she has written numerous articles and book reviews. After working for many years as an editor, she is now a full-time writer, living in Dehradun.


Hinduism, the religion of over eighty per cent of the population of India, has a variety of beliefs and practices, with a certain underlying unity. The religion does not have a single founder, and its present form emerged over time. Some of the main concepts and aspects of Hinduism, as well as a brief summary of its history, are given below.

Basic concepts

Brahman Brahman is one of the main philosophical concepts in Hinduism. The term is described and explained in many Upanishads, which form part of Vedic literature, as well as in later sources. Brahman is the source of all, the One Truth, the underlying reality of the world. Everything emerges from, and returns to, it. It is the creator of all, and permeates creation. Thus the Taittiriya Upanishad states: [Brahman is] 'that from which beings are born, that in which when born they live, and that into which they enter at their death.' Brahman has no form or shape, and is neither male nor female. It is eternal, infinite and always existed. Brahman has never been created, and can never be destroyed.

Most philosophical texts are in agreement on the nature of Brahman, but they differ regarding the relationship of Brahman with God or gods, the individual, and the world.

God God, known as Ishvara, Bhagavan, Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Devi, or by any other name, is an essential aspect of Hinduism. God is revered and worshipped in one form or the other, and there are an infinite number of gods.

Brahman is not god, but according to some theories, all gods emanate from Brahman. Brahman contains infinite possibilities, hence the number and variety of gods is also infinite. But there are other theories which identify the chief deity worshipped, whether Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Rama, Devi or Mahalakshmi, with the highest entity, which is Brahman. Thus Shiva, or any of the others, can be both supreme, above all other deities,'and one of the Trimurti, the three gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, which in this context are created by the supreme Shiva.

In the choice and worship of a deity, Hinduism has great flexibility. Worshipping a god is a personal decision, and there is a special term for it, Ishta Devata, one's own personal deity. A caste, group or family can also have its own special deity, but an individual can worship this along with any other or others.

There are also numerous minor deities and spirits.

The world The world too, emanates from Brahman, The Katha Upanishad says, 'Brahman, the immortal, contains all worlds in it, and no one goes beyond it.' However the world is created by a god. Traditionally, Brahma is the creator, but in different texts the creator can be any of the deities, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva or Mahadevi. Time is cyclical, hence the world changes over vast periods of time of yugas, mahayugas, manvantaras and kalpas. There is no concept of a permanent perfect world. Perfect worlds can exist but with time everything changes. Only Brahman remains the same.

According to some philosophical concepts, the world is essentially unreal, a false construct, believed to exist only because one does not have true knowledge. This is related to the idea that nothing that changes has a true reality, only the eternal can be considered real. However, others feel the world is real, even though it is subject to change.

The individual Each living being has an eternal soul, which does not die when the body dies. Animals and plants too have souls. The nature of the soul is analysed by several philosophers. Its essence is said to be identical with Brahman, though in practice, it is different. In other theories, each soul, though derived from Brahman or from God, is unique. It can rise to the same level, but is not exactly the same. The soul is known by different names, including atman and jiva.

Reincarnation Belief in reincarnation is an important aspect of Hinduism. Each soul undergoes the experiences of successive lives. After death, the soul is reincarnated in a new body. It may spend some time in one of the heavens or hells, or it may be reincarnated immediately. Stories in texts indicate that people can be reincarnated as animals, and animals as people.

Karma Karma, implying the result of ones actions, good or bad, is linked to the concept of reincarnation. Karma determines the family into which one is born, and the limitations within which one exists. The implications of this concept are the acceptance of one's status and position in life, one's successes, failures, sorrows and joys. It also implies that one controls one's own destiny, right actions leading to progress in the next life. Alternatively, karma provides the right sphere of influences for the individual to progress.

Moksha: the goal In this cycle of existence, of endless change, death and rebirth, creation and destruction, there is only one ultimate goal for the individual, which is moksha or mukti, liberation from this and all other worlds. All agree on this, though the nature of moksha is disputed. It is considered identity with Brahman, with the deity of one's choice, or close proximity with a deity. Whatever its exact nature, it is a blissful state.

The path

There is no single path towards this ultimate goal, the paths are endless and varied, infinite like the gods. Among the various path, three main paths of devotion, knowledge and action are described. A human birth is usually essential for moksha, though there are exceptions.

Bhakti Bhakti is one of the important paths. It implies worship, total surrender and personal love of god in any form. Forgetting everything and everyone else, the devotee yearns for a glimpse of God, and finally for total union. Hence the path of bhakti is one of love and surrender to God. Bhakti is described in several texts, and the exact form of such a path is elaborated on in different sects, which describe types and stages of bhakti.

Karma Karma, or action is another path. Karma is a complex term, also indicating destiny, and the law of cause and effect, but as a path to reach the divine, it is interpreted as selfless action. The person on this path performs all actions in the world with great sincerity and puts in immense effort. But such a person remains detached from the results of these efforts, and does not bother about success or failure. Every action is performed as a dedication to god, and that in itself is completion. Failure or success are irrelevant.

jnana Jnana or knowledge is another path. Through this one strives to understand the nature of the world, of god, Brahman, and reality. A highly intellectual and complex path, the person following this needs self-awareness, and the ability to understand what is real and unreal, through study and discrimination. Finally only the real, or the Truth, remains.

Sacrificial worship and rituals Rituals can also be a path to moksha. Performing rituals correctly, including all acts of worship, leads to an occult communication with the divine, and an indifference to the outer world. Nyasa is .a special type of ritual, through which aspects of a deity are transferred into one's own body. Rituals can also include festivals and fasts.

Yoga There are a number of different types of yoga, which means union, implying a union with the divine. Yoga is both a philosophy and a practical application of certain techniques. One type of yoga, known as Raja Yoga, focuses on a gradual transformation of the body and mind by following ethical precepts, specific body postures known as asanas, breathing techniques and meditative practices.

Tantra Tantra is again a practical technique with philosophical apects that can be used to reach the divine. It is considered a dangerous path, which should be practised only under the guidance of a guru.

Other paths There are several other paths which are prescribed by different sects, which include aspects of these. 'Pathless' paths are also referred to, indicating that moksha or liberation can at times be instantaneous, and unplanned; a pathless path also implies a path that one creates for oneself.


Though a guru is not essential to attain moksha, traditionally a guru has great importance, providing guidance along the chosen path. In case an individual belongs to any sect, it is essential to follow the guidelines laid down by the gurus of the sect. A guru can belong to the past or the present.

Daily life

Not every human being can attain moksha in one lifetime, hence there are other aspects of life to be kept in mind as one lives through successive lives. In daily life, a Hindu is aware of various concepts in varying degrees.

Karma and reincarnation are common concepts, accepted by all. Worship of a deity is largely followed. In addition, daily life can include a series of rituals such as specific fasts, and the celebration of various festivals. It also includes aspects of dharma, artha and kama.

Dharma, artha, kama Dharma, artha and kama are considered three aspects of life. The concept of dharma is closely related to that of karma. Though a complex term with different meanings, in this sense dharma implies right action according to one's position in society. Dharma can be based on caste, or on one's role in life, as a mother, father, head of a household, daughter, sister or brother. Dharma refers to all ethical actions.

Artha implies the pursuit of wealth. It is a legitimate goal for those living in society, but no incorrect means should be used in acquiring wealth. Once acquired, wealth should sustain not merely oneself but others who may be dependent on one, or who may not have adequate means. Ancient texts state that animals, birds, and unknown guests should also be fed, not merely members of one's own family.

Kama, love and sex, is also a legitimate activity, within reasonable limits and according to social norms.

Caste Caste, initially based on occupation, is an aspect of dharma or right action. Though no longer rigid in urban areas, caste still has an influence on actions, particularly on marriage.

Other aspects

The sannyasi or ascetic The sannyasi, ascetic or person focused on attaining moksha has only one goal, and does not need to follow dharma, artha, or kama, or bother about karma. Thus Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita says, 'Abandon all karmas and come to me.'

Attitude to other religions Depending on one's level of education, understanding of philosophy, and status in life, Hindus have varying responses to those of other religions. Those who understand the concept of Brahman do not see any difference between one religion and another. While such understanding may not be common, it is implicit in the Hindu recognition and reverence for Sufi saints, or for guruS such as Mehr Baba or Nirmala Devi who have non-Hindu origins. It is clearly understood and propagated by gurus such as Sathya Sai Baba.

Co-existence within defined spheres, with recognition and respect for the beliefs of others, is one response to those of other religions. In the past, both kings and ordinary people made an active effort to celebrate festivals of other religions, and to accommodate different beliefs. To some extent, this approach continues today.

With changing social norms, inequality in income, and scarce resources, whether of employment or education, intolerance has grown. There have also been political-events such as Partition, which have inspired mass murders. More recently, politicians are known to fuel intolerance for their own political gains. Despite this, in general, most Hindus are in favour of a pluralistic and tolerant society, worshipping whichever deity appeals to them, and following various gurus and sects, and allowing those of other religions to worship in their own way.

Different names Hinduism is also referred to as Sanatana Dharma, or the eternal religion. Hinduism has certainly changed over time, but there is one particular aspect of it that is described as sanatana or eternal in early texts, and that is Brahman. Sanatana or eternal thus can be related to the concept of Brahman. Some proponents and gurus of Hinduism state that the Vedas are eternal, and thus Sanatana Dharma refers to this aspect of Hinduism.

A living religion Hinduism is actually a dynamic, living religion, that has not only changed substantially over time, but also has innumerable local and regional forms. A single deity can have hundreds of variants, depending on the ethos and nature of its location. A single story is retold a thousand times with some scenes elaborated and explained, some deleted, and some entirely new. Yet in both cases the essence of the original remains.

Is Hinduism one or many? Some scholars differentiate between Vedism and Hinduism, that is the earlier and later traditions in Hinduism. Others comment that Hinduism, with its diversity, is not one religion, but many. However, Hinduism has had an unbroken continuity from the time of the Vedas to the present. In addition, though there is diversity, there are also unifying factors. In philosophy there was recognition that different viewpoints could be refuted and debated within the same broad framework. Variant philosophies still used the same terminology, of Brahman, Atman, Ishvara, jiva, maya, karma, transmigration, God's grace, bhakti, and means of moksha or liberation. They also used a similar methodology, analysing the pramanas or means of valid knowledge, using logic, concepts of fallacy, and similar methods of refutation.

At some point in time, the essential nature of a deity was recognized, thus it became possible for one deity to subsume the others. While the concept of Brahman may not have been popularly understood, a similar concept of one deity having a wide variety of forms was widely accepted. Myths and legends were also consciously created which provided a unifying element, as is clearly seen in the Puranas.


While the main principles of the religion are given above, a brief overview of its historical development is given below, indicating aspects of continuity and change.

To begin with, despite there being certain unifying elements, initially no single term was used for the religion. This is not unusual, as no religion was named at its foundation. The term Hinduism was commonly used only from medieval days. Hindu, the Persianized form of Sindhu, the name of the river Indus, was first referred to in a Persian inscription of the sixth century BCE. From about the eighth century, it was used to refer to the people who lived to the east of the river, that is in India. Later it was used for all those in India, who did not consciously identify with any other religion. Medieval Islamic writers described existing practices and beliefs, using the term Hindu. The word Hinduism was introduced by the British. The term Brahmanical was also used. Though this latter term can have different meanings, scholars generally use it in the sense of mainstream Hinduism, which tended to absorb minor cults and local deities, or of an early form of Hinduism.

Elements of Hinduism can be traced to Vedic or even pre-Vedic times. Terracotta female images, dating to before 4000 BCE, are thought to be the first representations of a mother goddess or fertility deity, though some scholars question this. The Indus Civilization (2500-1800 BCE), despite its undeciphered script has representations on seals interpreted as male and female deities, considered by some scholars as Proto Hindu. The Rig Veda, usually dated between 1500 and 1000 BCE, describes a number of deities, mainly personifications of nature, while the later Vedas, dating to between 1000 BCE to 600 BCE, describe sacrifices to gain power and control. The caste system also began to develop at this time. The Upanishads, the last part of the Vedic literature, have philosophical ideas, while the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, include stories and legends of the gods. The epics also refer to other categories of beings, rakshasas, daityas, danavas, yakshas and nagas.

In the sixth century BCE, new philosophies emerged, two of which, Buddhism and Jainism, later grew into separate religions. The six classic systems of Hindu philosophy, Samkhya, Vaisheshika, Vedanta, Mimamsa, Nyaya and Yoga, also developed. By the second century BCE, images in stone began to be made, and deities were represented on coins. Deities included representations of Buddhist, Jain, and Brahmanical (Hindu) images. Coins of around the second century BCE, show that local kings in north India used the names of deities mentioned in the Vedas, such as Indra, Surya, Brahma, Prajapati, Brihaspati in their names, indicating that Vedic deities were still worshipped. Between the second century BCE and third century CE images depict yakshas, yakshis, nagas and various Brahmanical deities, apart from Jain and Buddhist deities. Some Greek deities were also depicted on coins of the Indo-Greeks and other, dynasties non-Indian in origin. Prom the first century CE, deities such as Shiva, Vishnu, Varaha, Vamana, Karttikeya, Ganesha, Garuda, Krishna, Balarama, Lakshmi, Parvati and Durga are more common. The transition had thus been made from the Vedic deities, who now had an inferior position, to the deities still worshipped today.

The Puranas are among the chief texts of Hinduism. The Puranas known today probably originate before the first century CE, but in the form available, date from the second to fourth centuries CE and later. Written in Sanskrit by brahmanas, they were perhaps the first attempt to coordinate different aspects of Hinduism, though the religion was not named. Though there are numerous Puranas, eighteen major Puranas are recognized and each of these lists or refers to the others. Each Purana has many different aspects though it may primarily refer to one aspect of Hinduism such as Shaivism or Vaishnavism. Popular myths and legends were incorporated, local cults were brought into the mainstream, and gods were related to one another through similar myths. All the minor and major deities of the time appear in the Puranas and links were created between the new deities and the Vedic gods, though some of the connections are tenuous. Various philosophical concepts, customary laws and practices, accounts of sacred sites, and of festivals and fasts were also incorporated in these texts. At the same time there were concepts of the 'other' of people who did not follow the same practices, though even these were included in myths and legends. The gods and their images were described, along with rules for erecting them, and setting up temples. Simultaneously the Dharma Shastras were written, laying down rules of conduct, many of which were also incorporated in the Puranas. Though the Puranas tried to reconcile different aspects, they did not attempt to impose uniformity. By this time north Indian deities were prominent in the south, though local gods remained popular. Northern myths were modified to suit southern traditions, and northern gods were given southern names. The Manimekhalai, a Tamil text dated between the second and sixth centuries CE, describes the philosophies and sects present in the Tamil country at that time. The text begins with the celebration of the festival of Indra. It addition it refers to followers of the Buddha, of Jainism, Mimamsa, Vaisheshika, Vedism, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, the Ajivikas and materialists. Slightly later, Xuanzang, the Chinese pilgrim who visited India in the seventh century, states that in Harsha's kingdom in northern India, apart from the Buddha, the three main deities worshipped were Aditya or Surya, Shiva and Vishnu. He also mentions the Kapalikas, Bhutas, Jutikas, and followers of the Samkhya and Vaisheshika sects. Bana, writing around the same period, adds that the followers of Kapila and Kanada (founders of Samkhya and Vaisheshika) and of the Upanishads (Vedanta) were present in the region.

By the seventh century, the two main sects of Vaishnavism and Shaivism in the south propagated bhakti, or loving devotion to god, through the Alvara and Nayanar saints. Shankara of the ninth century, later known as Adi Shankaracharya, established Hindu mathas or religious centres, and spread the message of Advaita, providing unifying institutions and a unifying philosophy that still forms the basis of Hinduism today. Ramanuja, Madhya and others responded with different interpretations of Vedanta. Meanwhile the bhakti movement spread to Maharashtra, focusing on the worship of Vishnu, and from the fourteenth century prominent bhakti saints appeared in the north, many worshipping Krishna or Rama, with others worshipping God without attributes or form (Nirguna Bhakti). Sufi saints and the emergence of Sikhism in the fifteenth century also influenced Hinduism.

A parallel development from around the eighth century was the development of Tantrism, particularly in east India, and the corresponding importance given to Shakti, or female power.

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