Hinduism: Basic Terms and Concepts
Hinduism: Basic Terms and Concepts
Hinduism pertains to the major world religion arising from the Indian subcontinent and consisting of numerousl and varied systems of philosophy, belief, and ritual. It also refers to a rich aggregate of tradition of practices and texts, some of which date to the 2nd millennium BCE or possibly earlier.
1. Hinduism is a religious tradition of Indian origin, encompassing the beliefs and practices of Hindus. The word ‘Hindu’ is taken from the name of the river ‘Sindhu,’ or ‘Indus.’
2. ‘Aryan’ is a word which means ‘noble’ was used as a self-designation by Indo-Iranian people. The term was employed by the Indic people of the Vedic period in India as an ethnic label for themselves, as well as to designate the noble class and geographic location known as ‘Āryāvarta’ where Indo-Aryan culture was based (“Aryan,” n.d.).
3. Hinduism’s most sacred scriptures are the Vedas (‘Books of Knowledge’). Veda (Sanskrit, “knowledge”) refers to the most ancient sacred literature of Hinduism, or individual books belonging to that literature. ‘Vedas’ designates a collection of texts written in Sanskrit from about 1200 BCE to 100 CE, considered the absolute authority for religious knowledge and a test of Hindu orthodoxy.
4. The Rig-Veda contains more than 1000 hymns (Sanskrit ‘rig’), written in various poetic meters, and collected into ten books. It was used by the ‘hotri’ priests, or reciters, who entreated the gods by reading its hymns aloud. Written as early as 1500 BC, the Rig Veda is the oldest of the four Vedic collections and one of the oldest enduring sacred texts in the world.
5. The Sama-Veda includes verse portions taken largely from the Rig-Veda. It was used by the ‘udgatri’ priests, or chanters, who sang its hymns, or melodies (Sanskrit ‘sama’). The Sama Veda was also chanted in fixed melodies by the adhvaryu priests. Each contains about 2,000 verses.
6. The Yajur-Veda, which currently consists of two recensions, both of them partly in prose and partly in verse and both containing roughly the same material (though differently arranged), encompasses sacrificial formulas (Sanskrit ‘yaja,’ ‘sacrifices’). The Yajur Veda was used by udgatri priests and comprises short prose to go with ritual acts, many of which are addressed to the ritual instruments and offerings.
7. TheAtharva-Veda, which is partly attributed by tradition to a rishi named Atharvan, comprises almost exclusively of a wide variety of hymns, magical incantations, and magical spells. Basically for personal, domestic use, it was not originally accepted as authoritative because of its deviant nature.
8. Brahmanas are prose commentaries and are concerned primarily with the details and the interpretation of the sacrificial liturgy. Supplemental to the Brahmanas are later esoteric works known as forest treatises, the Aranyakas from Sanskrit ‘aranya,’ which means ‘forest.’
9. In Hinduism, theology is commonly characterized by the Hindu triumvirate, or trimurti. The triumvirate consists of three gods who are accountable for the creation, upkeep, and destruction of the world.
10. The ‘Upanishads’ constitute the core of Indian philosophy. They are collections of writings where all the essential teachings that are fundamental to Hinduism — the concepts of 'karma' (action), 'samsara' (reincarnation), 'moksha' (nirvana), the 'atman' (soul), and the 'Brahman' (Absolute Almighty) are found. They also lay down the key Vedic doctrines of self-realization, yoga, and meditation.
11. The Bhagavad Gita, often referred to as simply the Gita, refers to a Hindu scripture written about 2000 years ago. It is a 700-verse Hindu scripture in Sanskrit that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata (chapters 25 - 42 of its 6th book). Its verses have rhyming lines which is why many view it as a poem or a song.
12. In the Upanishads, ‘brahman’ (divine power) refers to the supreme existence or absolute reality. The definition of brahman includes being the eternal, conscious, irreducible, infinite, omnipresent, and the spiritual core of the universe of finiteness and change.
13. On the other hand, ‘atman’ is a term used for the breath or the soul and principle of life. It pertains to the universal self, identical with the eternal core of the personality that after death either transmigrates to a new life or attains release (moksha) from the bonds of existence.
14. Yoga (Sanskrit ‘yuga,’ meaning ‘yoke’) is one of the classic systems of Hindu philosophy, distinct from the others by the marvels of bodily control and the supposed magical powers attributed to its advanced devotees. Yoga upholds that through the practice of specific disciplines, a person may achieve liberation from the limitations of flesh, the delusions of sense, and the hazards of thought, and thus attain union with the object of knowledge.
15. Karma-yoga, or the yoga of selfless action or work, aims to face the problem of ignorance by doing away with the ego. It is said that the ego, born of ignorance, that binds us to this world through attachment. The ego generates a dreamland of divisive existence that disclaims the rights of others.
16. Bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion or love, is the process of internal cleansing. Bhakti-yoga preaches that love is the most basic human emotion and is cosmocentric and divinely inspired in its purest form.
17. Raja-yoga, the yoga of psychological exercises, intends to attain the Divine by kindling the flame of knowledge of the Self within. Since it is lack of knowledge that binds the human soul to the world of dreams and desires, only Self-realization can dismiss this ignorance.
18. Jnana-yoga, the yoga of knowledge, is the path of knowledge. The darkness of ignorance can only be dismissed by the light of knowledge. Jnana-yoga teaches that knowledge has two aspects: fire and light.
19. Vishnu (“The Pervader”) is the preserver and protector of the universe. As such, his role is to return to the earth in troubled times and reinstate the balance of good and evil. Vishnu has been incarnated nine times so far, but Hindus believe that he will be reincarnated one last time close to the end of this world.
20. In Hinduism, ‘karma’ is a concept which explains causality through a system where beneficial effects are derived from past beneficial actions and harmful effects from past harmful actions, generating a system of actions and reactions throughout a soul’s (Atman's) reincarnated lives forming a cycle of rebirth. All human efforts and deeds are subject to this law of karma, and thus this produces a dual-edged sword.
1. The Yajur Veda was used by udgatri priests and comprises short prose to go with ritual acts, many of which are addressed to the ritual instruments and offerings. It was also used by the adhvaryu, priests who recited appropriate formulas from the Yajur-Veda while actually performing the sacrificial actions.
2. The ‘Upanishads’ constitute the core of Indian philosophy. They are collections of writings where all the essential teachings that are fundamental to Hinduism — the concepts of 'karma' (action), 'samsara' (reincarnation), 'moksha' (nirvana), the 'atman' (soul), and the 'Brahman' (Absolute Almighty) are found.
3. The Bhagavad Gita, often referred to as simply the Gita, refers to a Hindu scripture written about 2000 years ago. It is a 700-verse Hindu scripture in Sanskrit that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata (chapters 25 - 42 of its 6th book).
4. Kāma (pleasure) involves the pleasure of the senses, both aesthetic (refined artistic) pleasures and sensual or sexual pleasure.
5. In Hindu philosophy, the term ‘atman’ also refers to the true essence of everything, including the universe. The atman is believed to be the only thing that truly exists, an immortal substance that transmigrates from body to body.
6. According to Vedānta (a school of Hindu thought), the highest goal of existence is the attainment of the identity or union of the individual’s innermost self or atman with the ultimate reality or Brahman.
7. “For example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. studied the teachings of Gandhi, the famous Hindu leader, and learned this concept of atman is Brahman. Dr. King incorporated it into his own Christian theology and used it as a central idea in his theory of non-violent, passive resistance in the American civil rights movement. …
8. Karma-yoga, or the yoga of selfless action or work, aims to face the problem of ignorance by doing away with the ego. It is said that the ego, born of ignorance, that binds us to this world through attachment. The ego generates a dreamland of divisive existence that disclaims the rights of others.
9. The first and highest varna is that of a Brahmin. It consists of priests, teachers, and wise men. The Brahmin priests have the largest amount of religious authority in Hindu society.
10. Horace Hayman Wilson (1786-1860) is an English orientalist who lived many years in India and translated numerous Sanskrit texts. He was the first to make a translation of the complete Rig Veda. The following is his translation of Rig Veda 10:129 in its entirety (“The Creation in Rig Veda,” n.d.):
1. The core teaching of Hinduism is the attainment of liberation in the identification of Atman and Brahman through the Four Yogas. It means that ideally, each Hindu’s life goal is to follow Hindu prescribed ways, such as the yogas, to attain moksha, which is one’s atman’s blissful union with the universal spirit or Brahman.
2. Shiva (“Auspicious One”), on the other hand, has the role of destroying the universe in order to re-create it. It is believed that his powers of destruction and recreation are employed even now to terminate the illusions and imperfections of this world, paving the way for useful change.
3. The first traceable roots of Hinduism lie with the conquering Aryans, who moved into the northwest of the Indian subcontinent from about 1500 BC. The Aryans’ priestly caste, the Brahmans, was responsible for the sacrificial rites.
4. For Hindus, the Veda is said to be a symbol of unchallenged authority and tradition. Before the writing down of the current texts, sages called ‘rishis’ communicated the Vedic matter orally, changing and expounding it in the process.
5. Brahmanas are prose commentaries and are concerned primarily with the details and the interpretation of the sacrificial liturgy. Supplemental to the Brahmanas are later esoteric works known as forest treatises, the Aranyakas from Sanskrit ‘aranya,’ which means ‘forest.’
6. The philosophical concepts taught in the Upanishads served as the basis of one of the six orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy, the ‘Vedanta.’ “Some 150 Upanishads exist (108, according to the traditionally accepted number). Most are written in prose with interspersed poetry, but some are entirely in verse.
7. For Hindus, the Gita is a source of wisdom and the truth. The Bhagavad Gita is in the form of a dialogue between the incarnate god Krishna and a human hero, Prince Arjuna, on the holy field before the start of the Kurukshetra War.
8. Atman is part of the universal brahman, with which it can commune or even fuse” (“Atman,” n.d.).
9. Many Hindus traditionally choose a personal deity, a saguna form of Brahman with whom they can feel a direct personal connection. Devotion to this deity may take various forms, including prayer, ceremonial worship, chanting of the deity’s name, and pilgrimage to sites sacred to the deity.
10. The identification of Atman and Brahman is captured in the phrase "atman is Brahman." It reflects Hinduism’s primary view about ultimate reality and our human relationship to it.