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.
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
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.
Vishnu ranks among the Maha Devas, the Great Gods. Brahma creates the Universe and Shiva destroys it, enabling Brahma to create it anew. Between creation and destruction, Vishnu preserves the universe’s cosmic order, its Dharma, when it is disturbed. The gods ask Vishnu to intervene and he leaves his formless state on the heavenly plane, descending to earth in the form of an avatar. Vishnu has manifested as ten avatars or incarnations, and each serves a specific form and purpose.
Vishnu’s avatars are;
Matsya, the Fish, who rescued the first man and the creatures of the earth from a great flood – a myth common to many cultures,
Kurma, the Tortoise, supported the stick on his back used to churn an ocean of milk to recover treasures,
Varaha, the Boar, after a thousand-year battle, raised the Earth out of from the sea with his tusks after the demon, Hiranyaksha, dragged it to the bottom of the ocean,
Narasimha, the Lion-Man, slew Hiranyakashipiu after Brahma had conferred a boon that the demon couldn’t be harmed or killed indoors or out, by day or night, nor by any weapon. The demon was causing trouble both in heaven and on earth, and when Hiranyakashipiu threatened his son Prahlada, a Vishnu devotee, Narasimha leapt from a pillar on a porch (neither indoors nor out) at dusk (neither day nor night) and tore out his heart with his claws,
Vamana, the Dwarf, appeared when Bali, a demon king, ruled the universe when the gods lost their power. Vamana visited Bali and begged for as much land as he could cover in three steps. Laughing, Bali granted the wish. As Vamana, Vishnu assumed the form of a giant whose first step bestrode the whole earth, the middle world with the second and with the third step, sent Bali down to rule the underworld,
Parasurama appeared as an angry, axe-wielding priest who came into the world to restore dharma to a social order corrupted by an arrogant Kshatriya (warrior) caste,
Rama, another popular Hindu deity, is the central figure in the Ramayana, an epic where Rama slays the multi-headed demon, Ravanna, who had kidnapped Rama’s devoted wife, Sita,
Krishna is a hugely popular deity in Hinduism. He was born mortal and is the playful butter loving toddler; the eternally beautiful, blue-skinned, flute-playing, gopi-seducing, cow-herding youth; and the worldly charioteer speaking to Arjuna on the battlefield in the epic, Bhagavad Gita, the definitive treatise on the practice of Hinduism.
Balarama is Krishna’s rarely worshipped, physically powerful, older brother who shares some of Krishna’s adventures. Later legends have Buddha or Jesus of Nazareth replacing Balarama as the ninth avatar (note 1),
Kalki, the mighty warrior, is Vishnu’s last incarnation and is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, our present time. Kalki will come to rid the world of evil riding a white horse and carrying a flaming sword.
Vishnu in his traditional form is portrayed in one of two ways; standing (samabhanga) on a lotus with four arms and hands holding attributes and weapons (note 2).
Or he is portrayed resting on the coiled snake floating on the cosmic ocean (note 3). As Vishnu awakens, the universe is created. A lotus emerges from his navel and out of the unfolding lotus emerges Brahma, the Creator, who then manifests the universe which Vishnu maintains and preserves. After Shiva destroys the universe, Brahma is enfolded in the lotus, withdraws into his navel, and Vishnu falls asleep once again. As he sleeps, he dreams the universe as it will be created when the next cycle begins, a cycle without beginning or end, the Hindu concept of time (note 3).
A foundational Hindu belief is the importance of the interdependent balance of male and female energies in major deities. The male cognitive force (Purusha) is ineffective without the creative female energy of Shakti (Prakriti), personified in Vishnu’s case by Lakshmi, the Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune. If Purusha is the word, Prakriti is the meaning. A romantic aspect of the myths whenever Vishnu descends to earth as an avatar he is accompanied by Lakshmi in her reincarnated form. For example, when Vishnu incarnates as Rama, Lakshmi is born as Sita.
Vishnu’s vehicle (vahana) is Garuda, a giant eagle able to spread knowledge of The Vedas. Garuda has great courage and sometimes portrayed in winged human form with an eagle’s beak.
Beginning in the 6th century in south India, Vaishnavite (note 4) poet-saints (alvars) roamed south India singing Vishnu’s praises in a deeply personal manner (note 5). This intimate relationship with God in turn inspired a new devotional style of worship known as Bhakti. Out of which arose practices formerly associated with Tantric rituals, such as puja and material images representing the gods (murti) which were believed to be able to temporarily host the deity, given the appropriate rituals and intensity and purity of heart of the devotee.
Note 1 – Hinduism is all-inclusive. When a new focus of worship, such as Buddhism or Christianity emerges, from a Hindu perspective they manifest a fresh aspect of Brahman, the Ultimate Universal Soul, and are enfolded into Hindu belief.
Note 2 – In the first hand a conch, Sankha, represents the spread of the sacred sound ‘Om’; in the second the disc, Vajira, representing the chakra, the wheel of time; the third holds his club, Gada, representing the elemental force from which all physical and mental powers are derived; and in the fourth he holds the lotus, Padma, symbol of purity and unfolding creation.
Note 3 – Variously known as either Sesha (remainder) or Ananta (endless) who represent the sleeping universe.
Note 4 – Vaishnava is the sectarian belief that Vishnu or one of his avatars, Krishna in particular, is Supreme Lord. Vaishnavism has many sub-sects.
Note 5 – The equivalent for devotees of Shiva is Saivism and for the many aspects of Devi, Shaktism, all with many sub-sects.