The Hindu religion, exactly like the country of its birth, is unique.
Where Christians have the Bible and the Muslims their Koran, Hindus can pick from a whole range: the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagwad Gita, the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. (See Scriptures & Folklore for more)
Major Hindus Deities
Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Lakshmi, Parvati, Saraswati, Durga, Rama, Hanuman, Krishna or Ganesha are some of the most popular deities.You may worship any of them or just concentrate on the Supreme Spirit which is believed to be enshrined in every person.
Some Hindus begin the day with a visit to the neighborhood temple; others adhere to fasts and rituals. While some go on pilgrimages and bathe in holy rivers; still others declare all rituals redundant. Hinduism thrives and revels in all its contradictions. Within its elastic structure, it allows great flexibility and is much more tolerant than any other religion of the world.
Concepts & Beliefs
Though casually described as the self, atman is actually the eternal within us. You could call it the spirit or soul that is enshrined in every human being. When an individual attains moksha, his atman is believed to merge with the divine or the universal consciousness.
Derived from the Sanskrit root dhara (to bear, to support, to maintain), dharma literally means `that which is established by law, duty or custom'. When used in the context of Hinduism, it implies an order of values which links the individual to the social and the cosmic. Hindus believe that each act bears certain consequences in individual, social, ethical and cosmic terms. A dharmic act, therefore, is one that brings positive results.
The four ashrams or stages of life prescribed for a Hindu presume that a person will live to a good 100 years. The first 25 years are set aside for learning, the next for life as a householder, then comes the quarter dedicated to self-control and abstinence and the last quarter involves renunciation or withdrawal from the world.
Actions or deeds performed by an individual in a lifetime. In fact, karma is believed to accrue from past births. Moksha simply cannot be attained till one has neither good nor bad deeds to one's credit.
A sacred syllable or ritual incantation which is believed to have the power to convert word into reality, like the root mantra Om which is supposed to be the sound of the vibration of the world when it was being created.
Generally the illusion that this tangible world is the real world and success herein the ultimate goal of life. According to Hinduism the real world is the world of the soul, not of the body and the senses.
Final release or liberation of a soul from the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
The internal ecstasy attained through meditation by a yogi (someone who has renounced the world to lead a life of meditation). This is usually the final stage of ecstasy when the soul transcends the human body to merge with the cosmos.
The endless cycle of death and rebirth which believes that a soul is reincarnated till it has evolved enough to attain moksha.
A Hindu is expected to perform certain rituals throughout this life from the moment of conception of life to death. Numbering to about 40, these samskaras include a child's naming ceremony, marriage and the funeral rites performed by the off-spring of the dead.
Religious texts that describe an esoteric path to enlightenment. However, tantra is usually understood as a term with negative connotations. In this context it refers to sorcerous practices that centre around the cult of the goddess and may involve sexual orgies.
A symbolic diagram used as an aid to meditation usually associated to tantra. A condensed symbol of the cosmos; abstract lines, shapes and colors go into the making of a yantra.
Yoga can broadly be described as the method of attaining the ultimate goal (liberation of soul from the body) by mastering the body, the senses and the mind through physical exercises and meditation. (see Yoga under Healing Systems of India)
Sadhus, the Wandering Hermits
A sight peculiar to India and Hinduism is that of saffron-clad hermits with matted locks who often travel from one holy place to another with scarcely a possession in the world. Just look around you, whether you are in a major metro, a state capital, a small town or a tiny hamlet, you'll spot a sadhu somewhere on the landscape.
Their bodies smeared with ash, forehead anointed with sandalwood paste, sadhus carry all their material possessions with them: a begging or alms bowl, a wooden staff, a woolen blanket and many a rudraksha or tulsi mala around their neck or wrists.
Some of them travel alone, others in small groups. Some have taken vows of silence, some can be found standing on one foot for years while others unpredictably burst into songs of religious ecstasy, especially when high on ganja (hash or grass). Others go about chanting hymns or indecipherable mantras. These men are simply free spirits - the eternal wanderers in search of an elusive nirvana.
Gods & Goddesses
Brahma is the first of the powerful Hindu Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer. The creator of life, he said to be Prajapati, the creator of the Vedas (see Scriptures & Folklore). He is often depicted as a wise old bearded man standing on a lotus, which has led to his being referred to as one 'born of a lotus'.
The goddess of learning and wisdom, Saraswati is the consort of Brahma. She is believed to have invented the Sanskrit language and is the patroness of the arts and sciences. Floating on a lotus, she is often shown playing the veena (a stringed musical instrument).
Vishnu or Narayana
One of the three most powerful Hindu gods, Vishnu is the second of the Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer. When Vishnu is asleep on the coils of Ananta (the many-headed snake), the universe is in a state of dissolution. When he wakes up, the universe evolves. The cycle goes on thus., and it goes on forever. Periodically, Vishnu descends to earth to protect truth and virtue and to destroy evil. His earlier avatars (incarnations) were in animal forms. In his seventh, eighth and ninth incarnations, Vishnu appeared as Rama, Krishna and Buddha respectively.
Vishnu's consort, Lakshmi, is the Goddess of wealth, plenty and prosperity. Bedecked with jewellery, she is shown sitting on a lotus. When Vishnu appeared on earth in the form of Rama, she faithfully followed as his wife Sita. In Vishnu's avatar as Krishna, she became both Radha and Rukmini.
Shiva, the most-feared of the Hindu gods, has the aspect of an ascetic and is the destroyer in the great Trinity. He has many roles to play. He is the Great Yogi meditating on Mount Kailasa (in the Himalyas). He is Nataraja (Lord of Dance), creating and destroying. He is Bhooteshwar, the lord of wandering spirits and lost souls. He is Pashupatinath, the lord and protector of all animal life. In another aspect he is the seed of life and his phallic symbol is worshipped in many temples. The cobra, the bull Nandi, the trishul (trident) and the linga (phallus) are all symbols of Shiva.
Shiva's spouse is Shakti (Energy) in the forms of Uma, Parvati and Durga. While Shiva stays aloof meditating on Mount Kailash, his power to act is embodied the form of the goddess or Devi. In her beneficent form she is Parvati, while in her terrifying form she appears as Kali. The cult of Shakti worship is especially strong in North India and in the eastern state of West Bengal.
The elephant-headed god, son of Shiva and Parvati, is known for his wisdom and brings prosperity. His birthday is considered the most auspicious day of the year and Hindus always invoke his name before beginning any new enterprise.
Vishnu in his avatar as Rama is referred to as Purshottam, the perfect man whose each act is governed by dharma. The purpose of the incarnation was to rid mankind of the menace of the powerful, ten-headed demon-king, Ravana.
The most human of the Hindu gods, as a child he delighted in stealing butter. As a youth wearing a crown of peacock feathers and dressed in yellow silk, he held cows spellbound as the flute-playing cowherd. As the beloved of all the gopis (milkmaids), he held them entranced with the magic of his flute and performed the rasleela (dance) with them. In his mature years, Krishna appears as an astute statesman and later the wise philosopher whose teachings are embodied in the Bhagwad Gita.
One of the most important festivals of South India, Pongal is a harvest festival in honor of the sun and the rain god. The celebration begins on January 13 and goes on for three days. The first is devoted to the rain god, the second to the sun god and the third to the worship of cows and oxen.
A spring festival held in January celebrated by wearing yellow clothes. In West Bengal, Saraswati, the goddess of learning, is especially honored.
This festival of colors is celebrated in spring every year and involves people dousing each other with colored water and powder. Drinking bhang, a marijuana based drink, adds to the laughter, joy and merry-making during Holi. The origin of the festival is not entirely known though many link it with the story of Prahlada, the child devotee of Vishnu, whose evil father sought to have him killed by fire. Prahlada was of course saved by Vishnu and his father and aunt were killed instead. So Holi celebrates the triumph of good over evil.
The day marks the nuptials of the ascetic god Shiva with Parvati, the daughter of the king of Himalayas. People throng to the splendidly lit temples till midnight. Celebrated some time in the month of February-March, the festival is of special importance to women as Parvati blesses them with marital bliss.
A festival dedicated to Adisesha or Ananta (infinite), the serpent on whom Lord Vishnu rests between the dissolution of one universe and the creation of another. It is usually celebrated in July-August. Snakes are supposed to have power over rainfall and keep evil and ill-luck from homes.
A festival held on the fourth day of the Hindu month of Bhadra (August/September) dedicated to Ganesh. It is celebrated with particular ardor in the state of Maharashtra.
The birthday of the lovable Lord Krishna is celebrated at the midnight hour in the month of August. Tableaus depicting scenes from the life of Krishna crop up in every locality of every city and town in India with great fanfare. Another common practice is to dress little girls and boys as the eternal lovers Radha-Krishna. Devotees actually touch their feet to seek blessings and offer gifts or money.
A nine-day festival devoted to the worship of the goddess Durga. Beautifully made clay images of Durga are consecrated and worshipped for nine days before being immersed in a river or sea on the tenth day.
A major Hindu festival celebrated in April-March to mark the birth of Lord Rama.
This 10-day festival in October marks the victory of Lord Rama over the demon-king Ravana. The entire Ramayana (see Scriptures & Folklore for details) is enacted during the nine days while the 10 th is saved for the grand finale. Huge effigies of Ravana, brother Kumbhakarna and son Meghnath are traditionally erected and then burnt down at dusk as a symbol of the victory of Good over Evil. The nine-day
in October, the most popular festival of Bengal, coincides with this festival.
This day in November marks the homecoming of Lord Rama in the kingdom of Ayodhya, whose people are believed to have lit earthen lamps to welcome him. The practice continues till today as all homes are lit brilliantly and firecrackers burst in celebration. The festival also honors Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and is rather special for the trading and merchant communities of India.