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
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 ones 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
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
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 childs 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, youll 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
Vishnus 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 Vishnus 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.
Shivas 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
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
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
A major Hindu festival celebrated in April-March to mark the birth of
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 10th
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
in October, the most popular festival of Bengal, coincides with this
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.