The languid gaze. The elegant gesture. The whisper of silk. The goddess serenely voluptuous. The god lithe and supple. Chola Bronzes are among the world’s finest sacred sculpture, with an undeniable vitality as though they are about to take a breath.
A first impression is over in a heartbeat, but if you take the time to look deeper perhaps you may begin to see them as their Chola creators intended – metaphors in bronze of an absolute divine beauty.
Shailja and I wrote this Reference Library to help you gain a wider understanding of the spiritual context of this extraordinary sacred art. Whether you are casually browsing or searching for something specific, if you don’t find the information you need, just ask and we’ll help you find what you need.
We don’t make any claims to scholarship for this material. It was written from our personal perspective and just as it is for the other billion or so Hindu believers, we have chosen what it is true from the almost limitless array of truths Hinduism offers. You may not agree with everything you find here, but one of Hinduism’s wonderful qualities is inclusiveness and acceptance and we hope you’ll accept our Reference Library in the spirit with which it is offered.
Brahma (not to be confused with similar terms; Brahman and brahmin) created good and evil, night and day, and gods, demons, ancestors and humans from formless Brahman. It is said the universe was created when Brahma awoke and opened his eyes and will end when he goes back to sleep at the end of his day – a period of 4.32 million human years – the universe will end. Brahma is an abstract metaphysical ideal of a god, and lacks the earthy dramatic myths and legends of other deities, although he does feature in other god’s mythology. He is the bestower of boons upon various demons, boons which invariably create problems requiring divine intervention (and new opportunities) for other gods and goddesses to add to their legends. Brahma is thought to be aloof and unapproachable and isn’t worshipped with the devotional ardour of Shiva, Shakti or Vishnu. It is believed his work is done, and it is the various manifestations of Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti which have the power to power to affect our lives. On the next turn of the Wheel of Time, however, after the weary universe is destroyed by Shiva Nataraja, it is a reborn Brahma who will create the world anew. While his image is venerated somewhere in most major temples, only a handful of the half a million or so temples in India are dedicated solely to Brahma.
Brahma is believed to have created The Vedas, dispersing them in the four cardinal directions from his four mouths, although most of the credit ought to go to his wife, Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge.
Brahma is typically depicted in iconography as standing, his weight evenly upon both feet (samabhanga). He has four faces whose mouths disperse The Vedas in the four cardinal directions and four arms. In one hand he holds The Vedas, in the second he holds rosary beads (mala) symbolizing time, in the third he holds a ladle (sruva or shruk) symbolizing the means to feed a sacrificial fire, and in fourth a water jug (kamandalu) symbolizing the means from where all creation originates. In paintings, he is often depicted with the white beard of a sage. His vehicle (vahana) is a swan or goose.
Of the entire body of Hindu sacred texts, The Vedas alone are Sruti, ‘that which was heard.’ Embedded within The Vedas are essential treatises on the nature of Atman, our soul, and its relationship to Brahman, the Ultimate Reality.
Tradition tells of forest-dwelling sages (rishis) who developed a level of consciousness that enabled them to ‘hear’ in their hearts the truths of the universe, hence That Which is Heard. The rishis interpreted these truths to create The Vedas, the core of Hindu belief.
Another origin myth says Brahma created The Vedas whole, spreading them throughout the four directions of the cosmos from the four mouths of his four faces (note 1).
However they came to be, The Vedas are consist of four texts, passed down orally from Brahmin father to son before being transcribed into written Sanskrit some 3500 years ago (notes 2 and 3). As Sruti, The Veda’s four books of hymns, rituals, mantras, theology, are deemed scripture and therefore fixed.
Rig Veda is the oldest of the four and a collection of over 1,000 hymns over 10,000 verses, most of which praise one or another of the Vedic gods, such as Agni, Indra, Varuna, etc. Some of the Rig’s verses remain in use today for rites such as mantras, prayers, funerals and weddings. Some scholars believe some of these prayers and rituals are pre-historic; the Agni fire sacrifice being one (note 4).
Sama Veda is the basis for hymns sung using specific melodies derived from the Rig Veda.
Yajur Veda is a compilation of ritual mantras believed to have psychological and spiritual powers. Mantras are used in ritual and spiritual practice to carry the thoughts and prayers of devotees to the gods and goddesses.
Athar Veda, sometimes called ‘The Veda of magic formulas,’ a compilation of hymns describing esoteric knowledge of things like the treatment of ailments, the making of and defence against spells, domestic rituals such as rites of passage, as well as more in-depth theosophic treatises.
As documents written by mortals, The Vedas have been subject to endless examination, and these observations are set down as the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as early and late Upanishads, and all are deemed sacred by association with The Vedas.
While it is The Vedas, which are the foundation of Hindu belief and practice, it is the early Upanishads which elevate its core values. They were extracted from The Vedas over time and continue to evolve to the present day, where they are widely known as the Vedanta. In turn, the philosophical aspects of the Vedanta are discussed at length in the Brahma Sutra, which delves further into the concept of Brahman and Atman, critiques of other dharmic options such as Buddhism and Jainism, advice on achieving moksha through intense meditation and the benefits of spiritual knowledge.
In south India, The Vedas (Sanskrit for knowledge) are known as Marai (Tamil for ‘hidden, secret, mystery’) and the core of Hindu belief interpreted from a uniquely Tamil perspective. The worship of Shiva and Vishnu, in particular, bear the hallmarks of ancient pre-Vedic beliefs, possibly due to Harappan origins. South India was spared the turmoil of successive invasions such as those suffered in the north, so the old Vedic beliefs remain cohesive.
In pre-Vedic south India, the elemental forces affecting people’s lives were little understood. Mysterious natural events, such as monsoon rains and disease, were appeased through ritual sacrifice and over time the supernatural powers which oversaw these events took physical form as the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Deities were believed responsible for almost any event beyond the control of individuals and ritual offerings of prayer, flowers and symbolic food items to the gods and goddesses remain fundamental to the practice of Hinduism.
Over a span of centuries ancient Tamil beliefs, practices and mythology were being absorbed into Vedic beliefs and practices, but that process was interrupted in the 8th century AD when a devotional revolution took place in south India as the Bhakti movement was born. Wandering Tamil poet-saints singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti ignited a new, intimate, personal mode of worship independent of ritual, gender or caste and its focus on a personal connection between worshipper and deity remains the standard practice throughout Hinduism. Temple worship with priestly intermediaries is common, but Bhakti is the preferred mode of worship for daily puja rituals.
Over 600 years, these hymns and poems were compiled as sacred texts, the Triumurai for those devoted to Shiva, and the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, dedicated to Vishnu. They were composed in the Tamil language rather than the Vedic Sanskrit, and their passionate devotional hymns and poetic descriptions of the deities became a guide and reference, not just for Hindu scholars, musicians and dancers, but to Chola bronzesmiths as well.
Note 1 – It is said that Brahma created the seers solely to hear The Vedas and share them with humankind.
Note 2 – As facilitators of temple ritual, young Brahmins were, and are, required to memorize the Vedic hymns and mantras they will perform throughout their lives with subtle nuances of intonation and rhythm. Fastidious cross-checks ensure virtually no errors occur as this sacred knowledge is passed down through generations, and this oral tradition remains strong even today, with one Brahmin family in south India reportedly having passed The Vedas down without error for 3000 years.
Note 3 – Exactly when The Vedas were written down is unknown and likely to remain so. Contemporary Hindu nationalists in India claim The Vedas pre-date any other world religion, but because memory and speech leave no trace, that assertion is impossible to confirm. What no historian disputes, however, is Hinduism’s place as the world’s oldest living religion.
Note 4 – When Shailja and I married, the ceremony involved a series of sacrificial rites in Sanskrit around the temple’s sacred fire, all features of Vedic rituals.
The Vedas – That Which was HeardTerry Curell2019-11-07T09:38:55-08:00
The roots of Hinduism may go back as far as 9000 BC to the first indigenous civilizations in the Indus Valley, but as they say, the specifics are “lost in the mists of time.” Very little is known of pre-Vedic indigenous spiritual life in India, but scholars believe they were centred – just as they were for virtually every other indigenous culture – upon natural and cosmic forces such as storms, fire and the sun. These forces were eventually given names and superhuman character traits which would ultimately be absorbed into Vedic worship, as gods with physical form and specific characteristic and responsibilities such as Rudra, Agni and Surya. Much later, elements of Rudra’s characteristics would evolve to become those of Shiva, while Rudra’s importance would wane. Other Vedic gods represented more abstract qualities such as friendship (Mitra) and statecraft (Indra). A similar process applied to many other deities as well. The inclusive nature of Hinduism ensures ancient pre-Vedic beliefs live on as nature spirits, such as yakshas, which still guard springs and trees, while the homes of cobra-like deities, or nagas, such as anthills will often receive offerings of food and flowers (note 1).
While most scholars agree The Vedas would become the authoritative spiritual source of Hinduism (note 2), there is an ongoing debate over whether they originated with the religious beliefs of Aryans or Indus Valley civilizations. The Aryans were multi-ethnic, Sanskrit speaking, tribal nomads from what is now Iran, who moved into the Indus Valley around 4000 BP. The indigenous Indus Valley civilizations, on the other hand, were agriculturists with sophisticated civil engineering technology and extensive sea-going trade networks (note 3). While their writings have yet to be decoded, they likely spoke a Dravidian dialect, which may have formed the basis for the Tamil language (note 4). Aryan religious beliefs were based on ritual sacrifice to deities embodying natural forces such as storms, rain and rivers (Rudra), fire (Agni), and the sun (Surya). Vedic foundations of Hinduism are possibly a synthesis of Aryan and Harappan, beliefs and may have included yogic meditation and the concepts of Shiva and Shakti. The Vedas, in the form of hymns and poems, were passed down orally for thousands of years before being written in Sanskrit between 3700 and 2500 BP. Meanwhile, Aryan hierarchal social structure (varna) grew out of Vedic religious practice and later came to be known as the caste system (note 5).
The period from 1000 BC to 500 AD saw the peak of Vedic spiritual influence in India. As its ritual and practice grew more sophisticated, scholars and sages continued to expand Vedic thought in three further volumes of writings; Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. These texts introduced the concept of samsara, the cycle of birth and death, while later Upanishads developed the concept of Atman, the deep inner essence within the individual, and moksha, union with the Ultimate Soul; Brahman. The Vedas now offered an alternative to temple rituals, and it was now possible to worship a personal manifestation of Brahman.
Traditionally, access to The Vedas and performance of their rituals was the exclusive right of the literate upper caste. Brahmin control over access to God led to widespread spiritual dissatisfaction, and the masses began to believe the ritual performance was of less importance than the ritual’s meaning to the individual. A movement (Sramana) gained popularity, which encouraged an internalized spiritual path through personal ascetism, setting the stage around 2600 BP for the birth of Buddhism (note 6) and Jainism (note 7). Buddhism rejected Vedic ritual, seeking moksha through meditation, while Jains rejected the concept of both Brahman and Atman altogether, finding moksha through strict austerity, and by 400 BC, both religions had gained ground on Hinduism. It was reported by a Chinese diplomat that in Kanchipuram, (south India) alone, there were 100 monasteries and 10,000 monks. This was not to last, however, as Hinduism would eventually absorb many Buddhist and Jain principles and practices, and by 1200 AD, Buddhism was on the fringes of south Indian spiritual life.
Devotional practice in south India reflected the passionate nature of the Tamil people and proved to be fertile ground for a renewed burst of spiritual energy known as Bhakti. Beginning about 1400 600 AD ascetic Tamil poets wandered south India, reciting poems and singing devotional hymns of unparalleled beauty and passion, praising Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and Devi, the Mother Goddess. These poet-saints espoused a goal of mystical union with God bypassing the Brahmin controlled Vedic temple rituals with its divisions of caste and gender.
Eight hundred years ago the poetess-saint Mahadeviyakka wrote of her devotion to Shiva in terms not unlike that of a lover to their beloved;
“He bartered my heart, looted my flesh,
claimed as tribute my pleasure, took over all of me.
I’m the woman of love,
for my lord, white as jasmine.”
In the time of the Cholas, most Hindus wouldn’t disagree The Vedas were Hinduism’s spiritual source, though outside of Brahmin priests, very few would live their lives strictly according to Vedic precepts. The majority of popular Hindu practice is ritual worship to one or more or all the gods. Bhakti may be confined to one or two personal Gods, but a worshipper would be quite comfortable, for example, calling upon Ganesha to remove an obstacle in their lives in one moment and in the next to to beseech Boga Shakti to grant them a grandchild. Then as now, when devotees visit a large temple, for instance, they traditionally follow a circuit around the outside the main temple structure offering puja to stone icons, or mulamurti, installed in niches along the walls before they enter the inner temple. Hinduism’s innumerable deities are not deities in their own right but are manifestations of Brahman, The Ultimate Truth and Reality. Each god or goddess is a lens through which the worshipper is offered a brief glimpse of Brahman; therefore, there is no contradiction for a Saivite, for example, to offer devotion to Vishnu or a Devi or a sacred rock at their village well.
Note 1 – When the primary source of domestic water for so many rural Indians is a well or spring, and when a recent survey of doctors in India showed 46,000 deaths a year by snake bite, perhaps it is understandable that people would like to stay on the right side of yakshas and nagas.
Note 2 – It’s essential to bear in mind The Vedas were created by human beings rather than the literal word of a Creator Deity. They are, therefore, open to interpretation and have been for thousands of years, resulting in a truly vast body of sacred literature, added to and amended up to the present day.
Note 3 – The Harappans were the first in the Indian sub-continent to cast bronze sculpture in about 2500 BC.
Note 4 – Around 1700 BC, the Harappans migrated into south India after the collapse of their Indus Valley Civilisation following a 200-year drought.
Note 5 – Despite the efforts of today’s Indian government to eliminate the caste system, it is so ingrained by 4,000 years of Indian culture that such efforts have been mostly ineffectual. By the way, the word caste comes from the Portuguese word for colour.
Note 6 – The decline of Buddhism in India had more to do with the attraction of participation in social and cultural life rather than the Buddhist doctrine of renouncing and retreating from the world. Today in India, Buddhism is enjoying a modest rise in popularity, primarily due to the conflict of modern human rights values with a patriarchal Vedic caste system.
Note 7 – Jainism, with its extreme austerity, has never enjoyed mainstream popularity, though its beliefs have had a disproportionate effect upon Buddhism and Hinduism.
The History of HinduismTerry Curell2019-11-07T15:44:34-08:00
Mantras, (tr: mind instrument) are central to the ritual traditions of Hinduism. They are syllables, words, phrases or sentences having sacred power when repeatedly chanted, whispered or thought, usually in Sanskrit. The literal meaning of a mantra’s content is of less importance than its vibrational quality and is usually used in combination with an action of some sort, such as when making a ritual offering or when meditating to clear the mind of day to day clutter, allowing it to focus and concentrate. Should a specific mantra be gifted from a guru to a student it is empowered or brought to life in much the same way an icon is empowered when inhabited by a deity.
Mantra’s origins are Tantric and therefore strongly associated with the Shaktic energy permeating all planes of existence from the most sacred and subtle to our own base earthly level. Tantrics believe the Mantra itself is divine as if it were a deity in its own right.
The ultimate Mantra is, of course, the syllable OM (pronounced ahh–uhh–mm), which is identified with Brahman, the Ultimate Soul.
If the colour white contains every colour in the spectrum, then OM contains every sound in the cosmos’ vibrational spectrum. It is believed that once our vibration matches that of the cosmos (Brahmanda), slowly repeating OM clears the mind and connects us to the cosmos. OM is considered to be the essence of The Vedas distilled into one syllable and found in virtually all Vedic rituals from daily pujas to Vedic temple sacrifice. OM is also sacred to Buddhists and Sikhs.
Other mantras are prayers, such as the timeless Gayatri Mantra which is so important to Hindu belief it is embodied as the goddess, Gayatri. For many Hindus the Gayatri Mantra may be the only Sanskrit prayer they know;
Aum Bhuh Bhuvah Svah Tat Savitur Varenyam Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat
“O thou existence Absolute, Creator of the three dimensions,
We contemplate upon thy divine light. May He stimulate our intellect and bestow upon us true knowledge.”
The term Tantra is a term applied today to a broad range of exotic and erotic secular activities ranging from fitness yoga to couple’s therapy to pole dancing. Therefore it’s no surprise Tantra has an enthusiastic, though not particularly well-informed following worldwide. It’s safe to say few neo-Tantrists are aware of Tantrism’s deep significance to Indian spiritual practice, particularly the concept of personal connection with one’s chosen deity, or Bhakti. Puja, mudra, Mantra, chakra, mandala, temple architecture and even Chola Bronzes themselves all owe their existence to Tantric belief and practice.
As a matter of semantics, Tantra (tr; loom, warp, weave) is a term referring not so much to beliefs and practice as it does sacred text. These manuscripts were first transcribed from an ancient oral tradition late in the fifth century as the Agamas and Samhitas (note 1). Considered by Tantrikas as superior to orthodox Vedic Hindu and Buddhist scripture, they transcended association with either religious belief. Tantra takes the form of a conversation between the first yogi (Adiyogi) and their disciple. Depending upon their affiliation, some Hindu Tantrikas believe the guru is Shakti (note 2), Shiva or Vishnu. For instance, in Shakti Tantrism, it is Shakti manifesting as Kali who is the guru and Shiva is the disciple, while within Saivite Tantrism, it is Shiva sharing the wisdom of Tantra with Shakti. Buddhist Tantrikas (Vajrayanists), on the other hand, do not believe God manifests as deities; therefore, their Tantra offers a path to enlightenment through the primordial union of the male principle of compassion and the female principal of compassion. The metaphor for this union in iconography is male and female deities in a face to face sexual position with the female sitting within the crossed legs of the male, depicted in an icon known as Yab-Yam.
Fifteen hundred years ago, Tantrism introduced the revolutionary concept of The Divine Within, the idea that God was not a separate entity, but existed within us all (note 3). Traditional orthodox Hindu worship comprises lengthy Vedic rituals directed towards an abstract manifestation of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. The formless Brahman manifested in physical form as gods and goddesses such as Shiva, Kali, Vishnu, Krishna, Ganesha and others of the Hindu pantheon, however, the deity was always an ‘other,’ to be approached and worshipped as an unworthy supplicant as it was deemed presumptuous for a mortal to attempt a personal connection with a deity. On the other hand, Tantra believed divinity lay within us, lying dormant until energized through elaborate and lengthy ritual purification and preparation. To orthodox Hinduism, this concept was radical and tested the limits of inclusivity. Therefore, Tantric knowledge remained a closely guarded secret known only to the most evolved gurus, and passed down orally to initiates after years of disciplined study and yogic practice (guruparaṃparā).
The Tantric process of awakening the divinity within began with ritual purification of the body through its symbolic destruction. The deity was then awakened with sacred chants (Mantras), hand gestures (mudras) and the creation of sacred diagrams (yantras or mandalas). The newly awakened deity would then be ritually worshipped. It was believed an elaborate hierarchy of the cosmos was reflected like a mirror within the devotee’s body, particularly male (Purusha) and female (Prakriti) polarity, manifesting as the fearsome couple, Shiva Bhairava and Kali (note 4). Their union within the body was primarily visualized while in a deep meditative state; however, some sects believed only actual sex would lead to liberation (moksha). This sacred union was visualized through intense meditation upon Shakti as the flow of the female cosmic life force (prana) (note 4) from its source at the base of the spine (kundalini) upward through channels (nadi) through energy centres (chakras) (note 5) to the so-called “thousand-petaled lotus” (sahasrara) at the crown of the head, resulting in an intense feeling of spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being. The devotional ritual concluded with external worship (puja) of Maha Devi, the Great Goddess, a ritual involving all the senses; sight (an image of the deity), sound (bells and chants), smell (flower and incense offerings), touch (the application of fragrant oils or paste to the image), and taste (offerings of food and sweets). Tantric puja, particularly, became standard practice in all forms of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism by the sixth century (note 6). This new personal style of devotion revolutionized Hindu worship and came to be known as Bhakti.
The adoption of Tantric-style personal devotion led to the creation of temples, and within them, icons in stone and later in bronze became puja’s focus. Before the emergence of Tantrism, worship took place out in the open, in caves or other primitive shelters. The creation of temples and icons led in turn to these sacred images to be venerated as living beings in rituals resembling those accorded Chola monarchs. Sacred dance within the temples (Bharatnatyam) used the Tantric visual language of hand gestures (mudra) and body positions (asanas). By the time of the Cholas, these temples had evolved to become centres of secular power as well as holy communities of priests, musicians, dancers (note 7), poets, umbrella holders, cleaners and other support staff. The line between the secular and the spiritual began to blur further as sacred icons began assuming the roles of royalty in rites and processions, while conversely, the icons began to appear with the adornment (alankara) and clothing styles of their royal patrons. Icons, temples and puja are now fundamental elements of Indian spiritual devotion, and all have their genesis in Tantric traditions.
By the tenth century, Tantrism was widely and openly practiced throughout the subcontinent, however, some of its more controversial beliefs and practices were viewed with fear, suspicion, and in some cases, abhorrence. The intent of Tantrism’s more esoteric and secretive rituals was to consciously break ancient Vedic taboos, for instance by the ritual consumption of meat, alcohol and body fluids of various types (note 10), adulterous sexual offerings to Kali (note 11), possession and exorcism rites, all flouted Hindu prohibitions and hidden from public scrutiny. Tantric knowledge had always been a sacred trust, kept in strict secrecy and passed down orally from guru to disciple after years of preparation and purification (guruparaṃparā). When transcribed, the more dangerous rituals were written in a type of loose code to ensure their content would be understood only by initiates. The nature of this aspect of Tantric practice and the lengths to which its adherents went to preserve its secrets ensured Tantrism achieved notoriety and mystique spanning centuries.
But Tantrism was much more than taboo-breaking attacks upon the old Vedic Hinduism. Modern values were expressed a thousand years ago as respect and equality for all and veneration of the Divine Feminine. While none of these beliefs endeared Tantrism to orthodox Hinduism or Buddhism, tolerance (note 12) and inclusiveness (note 13) were, and are, hallmarks of India’s cultural and religious values and, even though Tantric practice stretched these values to their limit, it did not break them. As long as its practitioners were discrete and its rituals were out of the public eye, Tantrism was tolerated, though never openly encouraged. This uneasy relationship remained unchanged until Muslim invaders arrived in the 13th century when Tantrism was ruthlessly suppressed, it’s followers slain and its manuscripts destroyed. South India was spared the worst of these depredations, however (note 14), and over time Tantra’s less controversial beliefs and practices were absorbed into Hindu practice. Muslim invaders never got over the Himalayas, and Buddhist Tantra survived for a time in Tibet, but a pogrom by occupying Chinese troops in the early 1950’s effectively put an end to Tantrism. Today very little formal Tantric knowledge is known, creating an environment where the term Tantra is freely exploited by self-styled gurus.
Tantric belief also laid the foundation of yogic practice. It believes that with proper meditation, mudras and asanas, divine creative energy (Shakti) flows as prana within the human body. Energy centres (chakras) in the body are aligned along the spine, and when prana flows between the chakras through channels (nadis), the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being of the mind and body is maintained and balanced.
Note 1 – The term Tantrism is Western in origin and born of misconception and assumptions from non-Hindu scholars. To practitioners, it was simply the warp and weave of the fabric of their spiritual belief and practice. Tantra and sutra are terms which are also used interchangeably, tantra being the cloth and sutra being the sewing of that cloth. When referring to Tantra here, I use the past tense because, for all intents and purposes, Tantra as a defined system of belief and practice is a spent force. The Tantric spirit lives on, however, through its profound influence upon religious life throughout Asia.
Note 2 – Tantra’s core belief is Shakti as the dynamic creative energy of God. The male principle is cognitive, the female is dynamic, and both are co-equal and interdependent.
Note 3 – Hinduism, particularly as practiced during the Chola period, embraced stimulation of the senses as gifts from the gods. The Cholas saw little difference between the ecstatic bliss of sexual union with one’s beloved and the spiritual union between the worshipper and beloved deity. Both resulted in a mystical, blissful, out of body experience.
Note 4 – Prana and Shakti’s force of life are considered by many to be one and the same, hence the powerful connection between Tantra and Shakti.
Note 5 – Chakras are aligned along the spine and associated with colours, elements, planets or occult powers. Chakras draw in prana by spinning around their axes and holding it in their respective sphere to maintain and balance the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being of the mind and body.
Note 6 – The adoption of Tantric ritual, and particularly puja, was given further impetus when the first poet-saints (nayanars and alvars) began writing and performing devotional hymns and poems dedicated to their chosen gods and goddesses. Possibly inspired by Tantrism, their devotion was emotionally charged, at times even overtly sexual.
Note 7 – These dancers were known as devadasi and dedicated to temple service for life. On the walls of the great temple complex of Brihadisvara Temple in Tanjore are inscribed the names of 400 devadasis, with their addresses.
Note 8 – Of these texts, it is the Shilpa Shastra that guides the craftsmen (sthapathi) who create the exquisite Chola Bronzes.
Note 9 – A key element of Shakta Tantra is the belief that women are filled with the creative energy of Shakti and, therefore, spiritually more powerful than men. With its strong belief in equality between genders, in today’s terms, Tantrikas could be said to be feminists.
Note 10 – Menstrual blood was considered to be especially power due to its association with feminine creativity.
Note 11 – Anyone participating in the sexual ritual who lapsed from the psychic state of oneness with the divine (preman) into the reality of the moment could expect hellish consequences.
Note 12 – Indian spiritual beliefs were always eager to embrace new ideas to remain relevant. For instance, as Hinduism spread across the sub-continent, it absorbed local beliefs and deities under the overarching principle of Brahman, the Ultimate Universal Soul. All deities and their associated beliefs and practices were deemed facets of Brahman and, therefore, seamlessly absorbed into Hindu doctrine.
Note 13 – For example, the great Chola king and devout Saivite, Rajaraja Chola I, bore the cost of building and maintaining over 500 Buddhist monasteries within the Chola homeland.
Note 14 – In 1311, Muslim invaders reached the former Chola homeland. They only stayed a hundred years but had plenty of time to strip the temples of their bronzes, melting them down to cast cannon. Hundreds of Chola Bronzes were saved though by being buried in the earth and behind false temple walls; however, the locations of many were forgotten with time. Today lost hoards are discovered from time to time, but after such a long period of spiritual neglect are no longer deemed sacred and so find their way into museums or private collections. There was at least one instance though where an icon was discovered near its original home in a village temple. The local priest gave it a wash, put it back in the temple, reconsecrated it and carried on as though the intervening 700 years had never happened.
Shakti manifests Prakriti, Brahman’s dynamic feminine will and creative energy. Shakti is the Divine Feminine and Brahman’s Force of Life. Prakriti consists of three types of matter, or gunas, which are the essential elements of all nature. Prakriti and it’s counterpart, the male principle of Purusha, consciousness and spirit, are interdependent, equivalent and ineffective without the other.
In mythology, just as Purusha embodies in the form of the male gods, Shakti, as the active, creative power takes physical form as Devi. This form can be one of the three Maha Devis, The Great Goddesses; Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge, Music and Art, aligned with Brahma, the Creator; Lakshmi, Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune aligned with Vishnu the Preserver; and Uma, The Mother Goddess of Love and Devotion aligned with Shiva, the Destroyer (note 1). As the creative, regenerative and maintaining forces of the universe each Maha Devi, as well as other goddesses such as Kali, Ganga and Mari Amma, has unique set of roles and characteristics.
“She is the creative joy of life; herself the beauty, the marvel, the enticement and seduction of the living world”
Heinrich Zimmer; Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization
In pre-Vedic times, India’s indigenous peoples venerated powerful, independent goddesses, but as Hinduism spread the divine feminine principle was absorbed into the Vedic pantheon, and in doing so the goddesses lost much of their spiritual status. Hinduism’s spiritual source, The Vedas, reflected the values of a patriarchal nomadic culture that suppressed prehistoric feminine power, therefore, the goddesses were relegated to roles as wives and consorts. Devotional hunger for divine feminine energy was not to be denied, however, and powerful deities in their own right have re-emerged; Durga, the dispassionate demon killer; Kali, the fiery protector; and of course, Uma, the cool, sensual beauty and power behind Shiva’s cosmic role. Hindu belief continues to evolve into the modern era and as the need for Shakti’s energy grows, so does the influence of her Devis.
Note 1 – Uma is known by many names, Parvati chief among them, but our Reference Library is primarily focussed on the Chola Bronzes, therefore, we refer to the deities as they are known in south India.
The 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.
An 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.
nature as divine
The 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.
Securing 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).
stages of life
The 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.
Atman 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.
The 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.
Bhakti 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.
Any 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.
Hinduism’s priestly class charged with the duties of Vedic learning, teaching, and invoking the power of Brahman by performing rites and sacrifices.
Spirit, life-force, vitality. See also; Prana.
Psychic energy centres of the subtle body. Central to the Kundalini system of yogic practice. In Hindu belief there are seven chakras, in Buddhism four.
Dharma 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.
A 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.
The 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.
beyond the Indus
Anyone 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
A 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.
One 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).
Karma 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.
end of the world
The end of the world. Deities endure but mankind is lost.
loosely translated as play
A broad term for everything from Krishna playing with his friends to Brahma creating the universe spontaneously rather than intentionally.
Maithuna 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.
The 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.
For 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,
The transcendental realm. See also; Acintya.
revered son of Shiva and Uma
In 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.
The 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.
All 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.
Shiva as Supreme Deity
Saivites 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.
Possibly 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.
The 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.
The Eternal Way
The 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“.
The literary and sacred language of ancient India. An Indo-European language related to ancient Greek, Latin, and the modern languages of Europe - including English.
The all pervading nature of Brahman. Brahman is in all things and in all places. See also; Acintya.
energy and power
Shakti 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.
Devi as Supreme Deity
Followers 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.
Smartism, 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,
what is heard
Sruthi 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.
The 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.
thread or line
A thread or line that holds things together (think suture), usually in the form of a manual. See also; Kamasutra
Tantrism 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.
Followers 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.
The world we experience through our senses, therefore distorted by our desires, perceptions and expectations. See also; Prakriti and Maya.
Yoga 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.
Unit of Time
A 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/
Glossary of Terms – Hindu TheologyTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:15:14-08:00
The spiritual beliefs and practices of Hinduism’s one billion followers are chosen from the broadest possible spectrum of options. These choices are made, either unconsciously at a very young age as they absorb a particular set of beliefs from their family and community, or perhaps those choices are made later in life and may vary from the formal Vedic traditions of the Brahmins to the casual, informal style of the modern hipster. Should they choose to follow the orthodox tradition of The Vedas, even a basic grasp of Vedic principles requires a lifetime of dedicated commitment to the study of very thick books – a daunting prospect. Or they may follow the path of yoga where they may meditate and contemplate the nature of God – again a massive time commitment. Or they may choose a more personal style of worship such as Bhakti, the expression of personal love towards their chosen god(s) or goddess(es). There is no wrong way to worship in Hinduism for the simple reason that God is All.
A fundamental human need is connection, with our self, our family, and our friends. Many of us also long for connection with something greater, something transcendent, and in Hinduism that transcendent something is Brahman, The Great Soul of The Universe – eternal, infinite, formless, all-embracing, everything that ever was, is now, and ever will be. Hindus also believe that within each of us is a spark of Brahman’s essence, our, Atman. Our soul. (note 1).
“That which is the finest essence, This whole world has as its soul.
That is Reality. That art thou.”
Chandogya Upanishad 6.9.4
Basic Tenets; The three great religions of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism all share these fundamental beliefs.
Oneness; All forms of life – gods, humans, flora, and fauna – are one.
Time is cyclical and everything in the universe, including the universe itself, is endlessly cycling through creation, destruction, and rebirth (note 2),
Maya; Our experience of the world is transitory and illusional,
Samsara; All living beings are born and reborn in an endless reincarnation cycle of birth, an illusional life, death, and rebirth.
Karma; One’s good and bad actions accumulate through our life to determine the form into which we will be reborn.
Moksha; The spiritual goal of all three religions is release from Samsara.
Dharma, a value shared by all Indian faiths it has no simple definition and depends to a great degree upon the context in which it is used. A gross generalization might be to aspire to a righteous, dutiful and moral life,
Artha, translates as “meaning, purpose or essence.” In a personal sense, it means securing one’s career, wealth, and prosperity.
Kama, taking pleasure in the senses. Whether in the arts, in nature or sexuality, Kama is essential to a well-lived life, provided it doesn’t violate one’s dharma,
Moksha, only humans have the potential for the consciousness to transcend Maya and achieve Moksha, the transcendental and eternally blissful merging of one’s Atman (essence or soul) with Brahman, The Great Soul.
“The life span of a man is one hundred years. Dividing that time, he should attend to three aims of life in such a way that they support, rather than hinder each other. In his youth, he should attend to profitable aims (artha) such as learning, in his prime to pleasure (kama), and in his old age to dharma and moksha.”
Kama Sutra: 1.2.1 – 1.2.4
The four Vedic stages of Hindu life (ashramas) are Purusartha, literally “object of human pursuit”;
Brahmacharya (student life) where one builds the foundation of one’s life by learning how to live a life of Dharma through the study of sacred texts, philosophy, logic, and science.
Grihastha (household life) is when one strives to live a dharmic, family-centred life. This is the stage of life when one produces the food and wealth, or artha, which enable others in the family and community to pursue their stages of life. This is also the time of sensory pleasures, or kama when the person is most engaged in the world.
Vanaprastha (retired life) when the responsibilities as a householder are passed on the next generation. As a grandparent, your family comes to you for advice. It is a time when of gradual withdrawal from worldly affairs as the focus turns to moksha.
Sannyasa (renounced life) where the material life is left behind. Some at this point embrace an ascetic life, where possessions are few, and the focus is on a simple spiritual life.
Note 1 – This belief carries over into daily interactions with others. The anjalimudra, hands together, palms touching, fingers pointing up, thumb gently touching the Anahata, or heart chakra, is a gesture of respect to the tiny spark of Brahman in the person being greeted. Its literal meaning is, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”
Note 2 – Hinduism views time in great cyclic periods known as yugas. There are four such yugas, and today we live in the period known as Kali Yuga, the era of spiritual darkness, ignorance, and destruction.