Glossary of Terms – Hindu Theology

CategoryTermTranslationDescription
Hindu TheologyAcintyabeyond thoughtThe nature of Brahman is acintya, beyond the limit of human comprehension, which presents a problem for those wishing to connect with God. The solution is to focus worship upon a comprehensible aspect of Brahman in the form of a god or goddess. See also; Puja and Murti.
Hindu TheologyAhimsanon-violenceAn ethical code of non-violence toward all living beings, Ahimsa’s premise that all living beings have the spark of the divine spiritual energy. Early Vedas (ca 1000 BCE) applied Ahimsa to other humans, but by 800 BC the code was also applied to animals. Ahimsa is a fundamental principle of Jainism and to a lesser extent, Hinduism and Buddhism. The Mahabharata states several times Ahimsa is the highest moral value.
Hindu TheologyAnimismnature as divineThe indigenous belief the natural world and human beings are of equal value. Animist values are local, and beliefs vary between clans and tribes, though some, such as a sun god or fertility goddess, are common to all. Particularly in the rural areas of south India prayers are still being offered to animals, trees, springs, rivers, rocks and forest spirits, while animist elements live on within Hinduism in the form of Shiva's deer (mrga) and Buddha's bodhi tree. See also; Dohada and Mrga.
Hindu TheologyArthaaquiring wealthSecuring wealth and comfort for the welfare of the world. One of Purusharthas’ four aims in life. The focus of arthic devotion is Vishnu as the source of all duty and Lakshmi as the source of all wealth. See also; Purusharthas, Dharma (spiritual path), kama (desire) and moksha (Oneness).
Hindu TheologyAshramastages of lifeThe Ashrama System divide’s one’s life into four stages; student (brahmacharya), householder (grihastha), retired (vanaprastha) and renunciation (sannyasa). Ashrama, along with Purusartha, or the four goals of life, are very important elements of Indian philosophy and believed to lead to fulfilment, happiness and eventual liberation (moksha). See also; Purusartha and Dharma.
Hindu TheologyAtmanour soulAtman is the inner essence, the soul, of every plant, animal, human or god. If the sun is Brahman, then Atman is a photon of light and eternal; unaffected by the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. When one’s Atman takes physical form, awareness of its true nature is obscured and veiled by the illusion of the body as the self. One’s spiritual path, therefore, is to strip away illusion and rediscover the true nature of one’s Atman as one with Brahman. “It could be said that in this world…the atman has a human experience rather than a human being having a spiritual experience”. Gavin Flood. See also; Brahman, moksha and samadhi.
Hindu TheologyAvatarincarnationThe appearance or incarnation of a deity on earth. Most often associated with the ten avatars of Vishnu. Sometimes used to refer to a particularly respected mortal such as a guru.
Hindu TheologyBhaktidevotionBhakti is salvation through personal love and devotion to God. The focus of the worshipper's daily home puja ritual is often an icon of the deity, created on a smaller scale to the stone icons within their local temple. In Tami, bhakti is known as Anbu. The meaning and function of these sacred bronzes in bhakti involve a number of important ritual concepts, including, in Sanskrit: utsavas (festivals), puja (worship), darshana (seeing [god]), abhisheka (anointment), alamkara (embellishment), and avatara (divine descent). See also; Achala, Murti, Utsavamurti, Upasana, Atman, Moksha, Darshan, Ishta Deva, Alwar.
Hindu TheologyBrahmanThe ImmensityAny attempt to define a concept as vast and complex as Brahman is bound to fail, but here goes; Brahman is eternal, infinite, formless, all-embracing, everything that ever was, is now, and ever will be. It is The Great Soul and Ultimate Reality.
Hindu TheologyBrahmin
priestly casteHinduism’s priestly class charged with the duties of Vedic learning, teaching, and invoking the power of Brahman by performing rites and sacrifices.
Hindu TheologyCaitanyaSpirit, life-force, vitality. See also; Prana.
Hindu TheologyChakrawheelPsychic energy centres of the subtle body. Central to the Kundalini system of yogic practice. In Hindu belief there are seven chakras, in Buddhism four.
Hindu TheologyDharmapathDharma is a complex code of ritual, social and ethical behaviour which maintains the order of society and in the larger sense, the cosmos. For the Hindus of south India, dharma is the dutiful pathway leading to oneness with Brahman. For Buddhists, dharma is following the path of the Buddha's teachings. For Jains, dharma is righteous conduct. See also; Sanatana Dharma, Ashrama, Purusharthas.
Hindu TheologyGanacosmic elementA gana is an anarchic cosmic element and unwittingly created when Brahma created the universe out of the formless Brahman. Ganesha, as Remover of Obstacles assisted Brahma and Saraswati to bring order out of gana chaos, hence his name.
Hindu TheologyHatha YogaforceThe yogic discipline dedicated to physical exercise in order to help the mind to relax and improve concentration while enhancing the body’s strength and flexibility. The technique is coordinating a number of asanas in fluid movement with controlled breathing. Hatha yoga dates as far back as Hinduism’s Vedic roots in the 1st millennium BCE.
Hindu TheologyHindubeyond the IndusAnyone who self-indentifies as Hindu. The term didn’t exist until the 13th century when medieval Persians coined the word to describe the land “beyond the Indus (River)”. Until “Hindu” came into popular usage during the early part of the colonial era, its spiritual beliefs were known simply as Sanatana Dharma, The Eternal Way. See also; Sanatana Dharma
Hindu TheologyJnanaKnowledgeA total experience of reality as opposed to the illusory of Maya. Jnana in it’s highest form sets the soul, atman, free of samsara. Ajnana, or avidya, is the illusion that keeps the soul from liberation, or moksha. See also; Maya, Atman, Samsara, and Moksha.
Hindu TheologyKamadesireOne of Hinduism’s four aims in life; erotic or aesthetic pleasure. The personification of this desire is the Divine Couple; Shiva, as Lord of mind, body and senses, and Shakti as Mother Goddess; source of creation and fertility. See also; Purusharthas, Dharma (spiritual path), artha (material wealth) and moksha (Oneness).
Hindu TheologyKarmaactionKarma means action or intent. An individual’s action will cause an effect, influencing the individual’s life, either in the present life, or in one’s future reincarnated lives, or in heaven or hell. Karma is independent of any deity or divine judgement and a fundamental concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, though its scope and specifics vary. For instance, in Budhhist thought, in addition to a person’s action, even a person’s word or thought will affect their future life.
Hindu TheologyKelpaend of the worldThe end of the world. Deities endure but mankind is lost.
Hindu TheologyLilaloosely translated as playA broad term for everything from Krishna playing with his friends to Brahma creating the universe spontaneously rather than intentionally.
Hindu TheologyMaithunamortal loversMaithuna is a Tantric term for ritual union, physical or metaphysical, of a male/female couple. Just as neither spirit (male principle) nor matter (female principle) by themselves are effective only when working together in harmony, maithuna is effective only then when the union is consecrated. In union the couple become divine: Shakti and Shiva. An orthodox Hindu point of view is that unless this spiritual transformation occurs the union is carnal and sinful. Maithuna is best known illustrated in the Lakshmana temple structures of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh.
Hindu TheologyMayaillusionThe illusory nature of the world perceived as reality. Maya is the play (lila) of God enacted through Shakti, his creative and dynamic energy or force. Maya is our illusion that our physical selves and the world we experience are separate and apart from Brahman.
Hindu TheologyMokshaliberationFor Hindus in south India moksha is the essential goal of their spiritual experience. It is attaining a permanent state of oneness with Brahman thus breaking the endless and painful cycle of birth and rebirth (samsara). Over time disciplines and esoteric practices evolved to reach moksha; meditation (particularly yoga), trance, breath control, and the repetition of words or phrases of divine power (Mantras). See also; Darshan, Purusharthas, Smartism,
Hindu TheologyNiskalaheavenThe transcendental realm. See also; Acintya.
Hindu TheologyPillaiyarrevered son of Shiva and UmaIn south India at the time of the Chola Empire, Ganesh became known as Pillaiyar. In what has become the state of Tamil Nadu, Ganesha is still known by that name.
Hindu TheologyPurusarthaslife’s goalsThe four chief aims of human life. They are, from lowest to highest: sensual pleasure (kama), worldly status and security (artha), personal righteousness and social morality (Dharma), and liberation from the cycle of reincarnation (moksha). See also; Ashrama, Dharma.
Hindu TheologyPurushaEastern DawnAll that is eternal, indestructible and all pervasive; the cosmic cognitive male principle. Purusha exists only when unified with the female principle of Shakti, the cosmic dynamic and creative force of life. Purusha and Shakti are interdependent, equivalent and each principle is ineffective without the other. See also; Shakti.
Hindu TheologySaivismShiva as Supreme DeitySaivites worship Shiva as supreme over all other gods and goddesses. They believe Shiva alone is the personification of Brahman. Saivites are more inclined toward asceticism than adherents of other Hindu sects and may be found wandering India with a tilak of three horizontal stripes on their foreheads performing self-purification rituals. They worship in the temple and practice yoga, striving to be one with the Shiva within. See also; Vaishnavism, Shaktism, Tantrism and Smartism.
Hindu TheologySamkhyarational theologyPossibly pre-Vedic, the Samkhya philosophy is closely related to yoga in that it is believed through deep meditation the mind may rationally attain sacred truths through deductive reasoning rather than direct experience of the divine, aka Bhakti.
Hindu TheologySamsaraendless reincarnationThe endless, painful cycle of death and rebirth undergone by living beings and ruled by the laws of karma. All Indian religions share a belief in some form of samsara. See also; Karma.
Hindu TheologySanatana DharmaThe Eternal WayThe Hindu system of belief and practice as it was known before medieval Persians used the term “Hindu” to describe “The country beyond the Indus River“.
Hindu TheologySanskritthird eyeThe literary and sacred language of ancient India. An Indo-European language related to ancient Greek, Latin, and the modern languages of Europe - including English.
Hindu TheologySarvagatagone everywhereThe all pervading nature of Brahman. Brahman is in all things and in all places. See also; Acintya.
Hindu TheologyShaktienergy and powerShakti is the life force of Brahman, The Ultimate Reality. Shaktic energy is interdependent and co-equal with Purusha, the male cognitive principle. To understand the difference a metaphor might be that if Purusha is the book then Shaki is the book’s meaning. In mythology, Shakti manifests as the Divine Female, goddesses such as Uma, Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati, as well as other lesser goddesses such as Ganga. See also; Adi Shakti, Shaktism, Purusha and Acintya.
Hindu TheologyShaktismDevi as Supreme DeityFollowers of Shaktism believe Shakti is the supreme power and creative energy in the Universe. Shaktism’s foundational text is the Deva Mahatmya, The Glory of The Goddess. Shaktism is closely related with Tantric Hinduism, which teaches rituals and practices for purification of the mind and body. Shaktas may use chants, real magic, holy diagrams, yoga and rituals to call forth cosmic forces. Shakti as Devi in her many forms is worshipped throughout India but most popular in eastern India. See also; Deva Mahatmya, Tantrism and Smartism.
Hindu TheologySmartismpolytheist sectSmartism, unlike sectarian Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism, believe more than one god represents various aspects and principles of one supreme entity, Brahman, The Immensity. Where a Saivite, for example, believes Shiva to be the Supreme Deity over all other gods, a Smartist recognises Brahman as the highest principle in the universe and worships Brahman in one of six forms: Ganesha, Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, Surya and Skanda. Smartism is a relatively modern Hindu tradition and, generally speaking, popular with contemporary Hindus. See also; moksha, darshan,
Hindu TheologySruthiwhat is heardSruthi are sacred texts which make up the central canon of Hinduism. They span most of the history of Hinduism, beginning with some of the earliest known Vedas and ending with the early modern era Upanishads. Sruthi are transcendent and authoritative scripture over anything written by humans. They are believed to have come from the gods to ancient sages (rishis) who then translated what they heard into human language, ie Sanskrit. Sruthi existed in the mind of the gods before the beginning of time. The core Sruthii are; Rig Veda, hymns recited by the chief priest (hotr); the Yajur Veda (hymns recited by the chief priest’s assistant (adhvaryu), Sama Veda (hymns sung by the udgatr), and Atharva Veda (a Brahmin priest overseeing the ritual). See also; Vedas and Sruti.
Hindu TheologySuryaSun GodThe chief solar deity in Hinduism. Surya is the chief of the nine planets and important elements of Hindu astrology. He is often depicted riding a chariot harnessed by seven horses which may represent the seven colours of the rainbow or the seven chakras in the body. Surya’s origins lie in pre-Vedic Aryan spiritual belief although other indigenous groups also worshipped the sun under different names and personifications.
Hindu TheologySutrathread or lineA thread or line that holds things together (think suture), usually in the form of a manual. See also; Kamasutra
Hindu TheologyTantraHindu sectTantrism is an ancient accumulation of stringent rituals, practices and ideas which has had a profound influence upon Hindu, Buddhist and Jain ritual. In theory Tantras are concerned with: Yoga, temple architecture, icon creation, and religious practices; in reality, they tend to deal with such aspects of popular Hinduism as spells, rituals, and symbols. They are distinguished along Hindu sectarian lines between the Shaiva Agamas, the Vaishnava Samhitas, and the Shakta. Outside of Asia the sexual aspect of Tantric ritual has been grossly exaggerated, as the union of female and male principles has far greater depth and meaning when their union is metaphysical. After suppression first by medieval Mughals in India and modern Chinese in Tibet, very little orthodox Tantric knowledge exists. See also; moksha, Mantra, mudra, yoga, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Smartism.
Hindu TheologyVaishnavismHindu sectFollowers of Vaishnavism worship Vishnu and all his aspects and incarnations as the Supreme Deity and the personification of Brahman, The Immensity. Followers are generally non-ascetic, monastic and devoted to meditative practice and ecstatic chanting. They also wear a U shaped mark on the forehead with a long stripe between the two arms of U. Vishnu is worshipped throughout India but most popular in northern India. See also; Shaivism, Shaktism, Tantrism and Smartism.
Hindu TheologyVikritiModified Prakriti.The world we experience through our senses, therefore distorted by our desires, perceptions and expectations. See also; Prakriti and Maya.
Hindu TheologyYogato joinYoga is as old, complex, diverse and inclusive as Hinduism itself and central to all of its major Hindu traditions. Yoga and Hinduism are very powerful either on their own or practiced together. Central to Hindu theology is the belief that yogic philosophy and techniques began with Shiva, although followers of Vishnu or Krishna attribute them to be the originators. Modern yogic practice originated with the sutras of Patanjali in the 2nd century CE and later medieval Tantric yoga practices. Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th century is credited with bringing yogic practice to the West. See also; Adiyogi, Tantra and Yogeshwara.
Hindu TheologyYugaUnit of TimeA yuga is a unit of cyclic time believed to be 432,000 mortal years in length. A dvapana is twice the time of a single yuga), a treta (thrice) and a satya quadruple) for a total of 4.32 million years, a yurgic cycle repeating itself endlessly. Each yuga has its own characteristics involving levels of spirtuality and spans of life. Our current yuga, the Kali, began 5000 years ago and is the worst of times, a time of quarrel and deceit. Morality and spirituality is at its lowest ebb and the maximum span of life one can expect is only 100 years. For more see; http://sanskrit.org/time-in-hinduism-the-yuga/