Frequently Asked Questions
Hinduism is one of the world's oldest religious traditions. It is often described as Sanatana Dharma by Hindus themselves, meaning "the eternal religion". The word "Hinduism" as it is used in common parlance usually refers to a myriad of religious sects and belief systems that came into existence in the Indian subcontinent since approximately 5000BC; therefore it is often difficult to make definitive statements about Hinduism in general. However, some of the more readily identifiable general characteristics of the "Hindu phenomenon" are discussed here.
1. Does Hinduism have a founder?
2. What are the sacred texts of Hinduism?
3. Do Hindus worship many gods or one God?
4. What do Hindus believe about the Nature of God?
5. What about Karma, Reincarnation and the Hindu view of Time?
6. What do the different gods represent?
7. Do Hindus worship idols?
8. What is the caste system?
9. How do Hindus view other religions?
10. How do Yoga and meditation relate to Hinduism?
11. What is meant by the AUM symbol?
12. Where can I find out more?
Uniquely among the major world religions, Hinduism does not have a single
founding figure or prophet. The collective wisdom of many seers and sages
(both men and women) is recorded in the Hindu scripture known as the Veda,
meaning 'knowledge' in Sanskrit.
Even until very recently, the writings of various eminent Hindu thinkers
and philosophers have often been adopted as canonical texts by certain Hindu movements.
In this respect, Hinduism is an evolving tradition which allows newer wisdom
to be integrated with established thought.
The Saptarishis (Seven sages) are among the oldest personalities in Hindu mythology; other important thinkers include
Adi Shankaracharya (8th century),
Ramanujacharya (11th century),
Madhvacharya (13th century),
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (15th century),
Tulsidas (16th century),
Dayananda Sarasvati, (all 19th century) and
Mahatma Gandhi (19th-20th century).
Many Hindu traditions hold in esteem mystics as well as scholarly thinkers
such as those mentioned above.
The Naayanmaars and Azhvaars were Tamil mystics who influenced the development of Shaivism (worship
of Shiva as the supreme) and Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu as supreme) respectively in the southern parts of India.
In the northern and central regions of India, holy men and women known as the Sants
had a profound influence on Hindu thought.
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Although there are a wide variety of sacred texts adopted by the various
Hindu sects, those which can be said to be common to most Hindu sects are
known as the Vedas. These are divided into four books: the
Rig Veda(hymns), Sama Veda(chants), Yajur Veda (ritual formulae) and Atharva Veda(magic and spells).
The language of the Vedas is Vedic Sanskrit, and the power of the Veda is meant to stem not only from the meaning of the words but the pronounciation of the Sanskrit words with the correct intonation and stresses. For centuries before the Vedas were written down, they were handed down orally from teacher to student taking care to preserve these nuances.
Each Veda is dividided into Samhita, Aranyaka, Brahmana
and Upanishad sections; the well known Upanishads are taken
from this last part of the Veda. The earlier three sections of each
Veda contain hymns, discourses on the hymns and prescriptions for ritual,
and the Upanishads explore the deeper philosophical meaning of the hymns.
Much of current and past Hindu thought draws heavily from the Upanishads,
and is therefore called Vedanta (meaning 'end of the Vedas').
The Vedas are treated as revealed scripture or Sruti; the
sages (rishis) are believed to have received these hymns from a divine
source rather than having composed the hymns themselves. Numerous
other texts fall under the category of 'remembered tradition' or
Smrti; these include the law books (for example, the Manu dharmashaastra
which contains an exposition on Hindu law), the mythological texts (Puranas)
and the epics - including the well known Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The Mahabharata contains the Bhagavad Gita (the Lord's Song) - a
book of great importance which, although not officially categorised as
revealed scripture, is revered as such by many religious Hindus. The
Gita, as it is commonly known, presents the philosophies of the Vedas
and Upanishads within a theistic framework and is set as a conversation
between Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu (see later)
and Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers, before the commencement of
the Mahabharata war (believed to have taken place circa 3000-1500BC although
more precise dates are not known).
Many Hindu sects recognise additional scriptures, which are often treated
as being of equal importance as the Vedas. Some examples include
the Caitanya Caritamrta, the Bhagavatam (both Vaishnava texts),
the Divya Prabhandam - treated as the 'Tamil Veda' in Sri Vaishnavism,
the Tirumurai (Shaivism) and the various Agamas, Sutras and
by different sects. In modern mainstream Hinduism, verses
from the Veda proper such as the Purusha Sukta still form part of
daily worship liturgy, alongside verses from the puranas and other
scriptures mentioned above.
Some religions which are occasionally described as existing within the
Hindu fold actually reject the authority of the Vedas, such as Jainism
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The answer to this question is a complex one and again depends heavily
on the sect which one refers to. The Hindu tradition includes many
belief systems: polytheism, monotheism, monism, dualism, qualified monism
and even atheism have all had a part to play in the development of the
Hindu phenomenon. What is common to most of these sects is a belief
in the authority of the Vedas, and therefore the various Vedic gods such
as Surya (sun god), Agni (god of fire), Vayu (god
of wind), Varuna (god of the oceans) and Indra (king of the
gods) all have a place in the many different Hindu theologies.
However, the aforementioned Vedic deities are not widely worshipped by
Hindus today. Far more familiar nowadays are the gods Vishnu, Shiva,
Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati and Ganesha, and the reason for their rise
in importance in worship may be attributed to the increased influence of
the Puranas on the religion of the masses since the Vedic age (~3000BC),
in which worship of these gods is advocated. Of particular importance
is the Trimurti or 'Hindu Trinity' of Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver
of the universe) and Shiva (destroyer). For a fuller description
of these gods, see below.
The Vedas themselves suggest an ultimate unifying principle behind this
plethora of divine beings: the Rig Veda states that "Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudah
Vadanti" - the wise call the One Truth by many names. Indeed, most
Hindus would affirm belief in a single all pervading Deity as the ultimate
recipient of worship to any god - as expressed in the prayer.
AkAshAt patitam tOyam yathA gacchati sAgaram
sarva dEva namaskArah kEshavam pratigacchati
(as raindrops falling from the sky all ultmately meet their end in the ocean,
prayer to all gods ultimately goes to Lord Keshava).
Different sects often revere one God as most identifiable with the Supreme
Principle, with other gods being subordinate or facets of the One Supreme
God. For example, Vaishnavas revere Lord Vishnu and his various
manifestations as the Absolute Truth. For Shaivas, Lord Shiva
is the One Supreme God, and for Shaaktas the Mother Goddess (referred
to by various names including Parvati, Durga, etc. - often identified as
the consort of Shiva) is revered above all other deities. It is probably
reasonable to generalise therefore, that most religious Hindus believe
in a single Absolute Principle - Brahman - which is accessible in
many forms to different people.
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The nature of the Supreme Being is described in a variety of ways in the
different Hindu traditions. The created universe is variously identified
as being identical to the Supreme (advaita), a part of the Supreme
(visistaadvaita) or separate from the Supreme (dvaita). These
are some of the main schools of thought which have resulted in the emergence
of various sects and sub-sects; a whole host of other viewpoints exist
which are too numerous to discuss here.
The soul of an individual is known as the Atman and the Supreme
Self or Paramatman
is the all-pervasive consciousness principle
which is identified with Brahman. For the advaitin, experience of
God involves understanding the fundamental oneness of Atman and Paramatman;
the visistaadvaitin holds that the ultimate realisation is recognising
one's insignificance before the Divine while simultaneously understanding
that all is a part of the Divine; and for the dvaitin the highest understanding
is that the Lord is supreme and the dependence of the whole of creation
Advaita sects (such as those drawing inspiration from Adi Shankaracharya's
teachings) hold that the Supreme Being is ultimately formless, impersonal,
all-pervading and wholly beyond human comprehension. The various
deities represent the different facets of the Absolute, allowing the Divine
to be accessible to humans in personified form through the worship of these
deities. However, ultimately the personal conception of God is merely
a stepping stone onto the more fundamental experience of Oneness. Visistaadvaita
and Dvaita sects (such as those following the teachings of Madhva and Ramanujacharya
respectively) hold that the Supreme Being is ultimately a personal God,
possessing divine attributes such as grace, mercy, compassion and love
for His creation. For these sects, God has a divine form which is
perfect and infinitely sublime. The formless, impersonal view of
advaita is still seen as important but subordinate to the ultimate personal
experience of God. Worship of God in personified form is a very direct
form of perceiving the Divine for these sects.
The concept of Divine Incarnation is also widespread in Hinduism.
In particular, most sects recognise the Ten Incarnations of Vishnu (the
Avatara). Lord Vishnu is traditionally ascribed the role
of preserver and maintainer of the universe, and in this role is believed
to have become incarnate in the physical world nine times in the past,
with one incarnation left to come (see later). The purpose of these
incarnations is laid out in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna - Himself
an incarnation of Vishnu - states that "Whenever
dharma(righteousness, religious duty) is threatened, I take on bodily form. To protect
dharma, I keep appearing here" (Gita, 4:7).
In fact most groups recognise the importance of the various interpretations
outlined here, with distinctions in belief between groups being somewhat
blurred nowadays. Mystic union with the Supreme and devotion to God
are prominent features in most Hindu theologies (see Yoga).
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Karma and reincarnation are so embedded in Hindu thought that even some
of the daughter religions of Hinduism (such as Buddhism and Jainism) have
adopted them as cardinal principles. The law of Karma states that
all actions have an effect which manifests either in this lifetime or the
next. The mainstream belief is that all souls are continually reincarnated
in various different bodies depending on the karma accrued in previous
lives. The ultimate aim is to break free of the cycle of birth and
re-birth (samsara) by freeing oneself from the shackles of karma.
One's actions are believed to dictate the body received in the next birth;
most sects hold that being born as a human provides the best opportunity
for departing from the cycle of re-birth. Good works in one's previous
life are believed to cause a future birth in a situation where spirituality
is easily cultivated; otherwise the soul is born in a species for which
the main aim is sensual enjoyment, keeping the soul entangled in the 'web
Different sects identify the ultimate aim of existence, or moksha,
in different ways. For the advaitin the 'endgame' is to experience
the mystical underlying oneness of the individual soul and the supreme
For the dvaitin or visistaadvaitin, the ultimate state is
one of servitude to the Supreme Lord for eternity in his divine abode,
with a distinction being made between the server and the served (although,
fundamentally, the server is a part of the served in visistaadvaita thought).
For most sects the way to experience moksha may be through doing good or
sacred works, dedicating one's self and all of one's thoughts and deeds
to God, or meditating on the nature of God. These three methods
of union are related to the various types of Yoga.
The cyclic nature of life is also parallelled in the Hindu view of time.
Unlike in the semitic religions, the world is continually 'created' and
'destroyed' by emanation (Kalpa) and withdrawal back into (praLaya),
Brahman. Each Kalpa consists of 1000 cycles of four yugas
or 'ages', called Satya, Treta, Dwapara and Kali. A
full cycle of the four yugas lasts for 4,320,000 years. In each successive
age the amount of truth and goodness in society decreases a quarter-fold;
we are currently believed to be in the Kali yuga where evil
and dishonesty are supposed to exert three times the influence of goodness
in the world. Additionally, a Kalpa is divided into 14 Manvantaras,
each presided over by a figure known as a Manu. This figurehead
is traditionally the author of the shastras such as the Manu smrti.
These beliefs about Karma and creation are interpreted in many different
ways. Some Hindus may hold these doctrines as being literally true;
many other Hindus see these teachings as metaphorical - for example, the
decrease in goodness in the successive Yugas could be seen as a personal
reminder for the present, to uphold dharma (righteousness) even
in circumstances where the prevalent climate is adharma (evil, anarchy).
The teachings about karma can be seen as reminders that every action is
intricately connected with others and that we should therefore aim to be
responsible in all our decisions. As with all other features of Hinduism,
there is a wide range of opinions on this subject and the debate continues.
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Lord Brahma personifies the creative aspect of the Supreme Being.
His four heads signify omniscience and in his hand he holds the Vedas.
Brahma is not worshipped extensively today, because his work (creation)
is done for the current cycle. After the final dissolution of the
universe (praLaaya), Brahma is reborn to create the universe again.
Lord Vishnu personifies the aspect of the Deity who preserves righteousness
and takes care of the well being of the world. He is portrayed as
beneficent, never angry and compassionate. In his role as the preserver,
he is believed to have manifested on earth in human or animal form (avataras)
nine times to protect the good and punish the wicked, with one incarnation
left for the end of the current age.
The Ten Incarnations (as given in the Bhagavata Purana):
Vishnu descended in the form of a giant fish to save the Saptarishis
(seven sages), animals and plants from the great flood at the dissolution
of the universe before the creation of the current universe. Some
similarities can be seen between this story and the story of the Great
Flood in the Old Testament.
In this avatara Vishnu assumes the form of a Tortoise. The gods (devas)
and demons (asuras) were churning the ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality.
Vishnu as Kurma supports the mountain, and then ensures that the nectar
goes to the gods and not to the demons.
In this avatara, Vishnu assumes the form of a boar and protects the earth
(Bhumi devi) from the demon Hiranyaksha at the dawn of creation.
Here Vishnu assumes a half-man half lion form to slay the demon Hiranyakashipu,
brother of Hiranyaksha. In the process he saved Prahlad, the son
of Hiranyakashipu who was a staunch devotee of Vishnu.
In this avatara Vishnu assumes the form of a brahmin dwarf to reclaim the
heavens and the earth for the gods and humans from the righteous demon
King Bali (grandson of Prahlad). Bali, having promised Vamana three
steps of land, is astonished when Vamana grows in size and in his first
two steps, claims back the earth and heavens. So as to not go back
on his word, Bali offers Vamana his head as the resting place for the third
Here Vishnu incarnates in a priestly family as Rama, but takes up the axe
(becoming 'Parashurama', or 'Rama of the Axe' to exterminate the warrior
caste who had become greedy and power-drunk.
Rama is the second most well known avatara. Born to King Dasharatha
and Queen Kausalya, Rama is seen by many as the embodiment of virtue.
After being sent to exile in the forest (due to a plot hatched by one of
Dasharatha's other queens, Kaikeyi), his wife Sita is captured by the demon
king Ravana, who takes her to his abode at Lanka. To rescue her,
Rama enlists the help of the Vanaras (monkeys) including Hanuman,
who is venerated today as the ultimate example of devotion to God.
Rama is worshipped alongside his brother Lakshmana and wife Sita.
Krishna is far and away the most widely known avatara. Born in prison
to Vasudeva and Devaki, by a miracle Vasudeva is freed and he is taken
by night to the house of Nanda and Yashoda at Gokul. There he grows
up tending the cattle, engaging in various mischievous exploits and becoming
the sweetheart of many of the cowherd girls (gopis). Indeed, the
love play (lila) of Krishna with the gopis is held by many to symbolise
the eternal yearning of the soul for God. Many Vaishnava mystics
wrote extensive poetry on submitting to God in the same way that the gopis
submit to Krishna's advances.
Later in life, Krishna slays his evil uncle Kamsa, and then goes on to
befriend the righteous Pandavas. In the Mahabharata war, where the
Pandavas fight to recover their kingdom Hastinapura from their wicked cousins,
the Kauravas, Krishna assumes the role of Arjuna's charioteer (Arjuna was
the third eldest of the five Pandavas). In this role, Krishna is
credited with singing the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna before battle,
where Arjuna is perplexed about the dilemma of choosing between sparing
his cousins and fighting for righteousness. The Bhagavad Gita continues
to inspire and give solace to many today.
Part of Hinduism's distinct character is the ability to assimilate features
of other belief systems. In adopting Buddha as an incarnation of
Vishnu, Hinduism legitimised the Buddhist movement despite its rejection
of the Vedas. In some schools of thought, Buddha is considered to
have preached a false doctrine to deceive those who rejected the Vedas.
However, most Hindus and Buddhists find many points of congruence between
the two faiths and the concept of ahimsa
in particular (non-violence
to all living beings) is a case in point; indeed it may be due to Buddhist
and Jain influences that vegetarianism became more widespread in hinduism.
According to the Hindu view of time, creation progresses through four ages
or Yugas. The first
Yuga is known as 'Satya Yuga' and
is meant to be an age when righteousness and goodness prevail and religious
duty is observed, and the next three (Treta, Dwapara and Kali) see the
successive increase of negative or evil influences by a quarter with the
passage of each Yuga. The current age, then, represents the nadir
for the righteous, and at the end of this age Vishnu is predicted to incarnate
as Kalki to purge the world of evil and usher in the next cycle of Yugas,
starting with Satya Yuga again.
In some versions of the dasha avatara, Buddha is replaced by Balarama,
brother of Krishna. Additionally, Vishnu is believed to have many
other earthly manifestations, such as Venkateshwara whose temple
found at Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh.
Shiva is perhaps the most enigmatic and compelling deity in the Hindu pantheon.
Traditionally described as Lord of destruction, He is often portrayed as
angry and quick to punish. To His followers, however, he is the true
Supreme Lord of all that exists, and it is only through him that Brahma
and Vishnu perform their roles as creator and preserver. Another
popular depiction of Shiva is as Nataraja, "Lord of the Dance",
where his cosmic dance represents His continual work to liberate souls
and the demon on which he dances represents avidya (ignorance).
He is encircled by a ring of fire representing the cycle of time.
The union of Shiva with his consort Parvati is representative of continual
creation and preservation - paradoxically, he is also portrayed as a celibate
ascetic, deep in meditation. Indeed, Shiva is often seen as the deity
in which all opposites such as these are reconciled and co-exist; and the
symbol used most widely to represent Shiva reflects this fundamental Unity
- the aniconic Shiva Linga.
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Idol worship is not actually mentioned in the Vedas themselves. The
practice of idol worship is recommended in the mythological texts (the
Puranas) and may also be linked to Buddhist and Jain influences.
It has long been widespread amongst most Hindu traditions and is recognised
by them as being a valid and proper method of worship. This is often
the aspect of Hinduism viewed with most suspicion by followers of Christianity,
Judaism and Islam because of the strong directives in those religions against
idol worship. However one needs to bear in mind the fact that Hinduism
evolved in a completely different setting to these religions; and even
when the prevalent Hindu philosophies became more monotheistic in nature,
idol worship was in general integrated into their theologies rather than
For most religious Hindus, idols provide a focus for worship and are a
reminder of those facets of the Supreme Being represented by the particular
deity. Moreover, if an idol is properly installed according to the
Vedic tradition in a temple, it is believed to be a fully real manifestation
of the Deity itself. Worship of the idol then becomes direct worship
of the Deity; the act of viewing the Deity is known as darshan. Having
darshan of the deity is believed to be an act of grace on the part of the
deity. Temple worship is understood in the Hindu traditions as a
way to engage all of the senses in perception of God - through the aroma
of incense, the placing of hands over the camphor flame, the tasting of
the sanctified food offered to the Deity (prasaadam), seeing the
Deity, and through hearing the Sanskrit hymns. The traditional Vedic
Aarti (worship) ceremony which is in widespread use throughout most Hindu
traditions venerates the god being worshipped as a revered house guest,
and includes symbolic actions such as welcoming the deity into the home,
washing the deity's feet and hands, offering the deity new clothes, food
and drink. Each of these actions is meant to engender respect and
love for God in the mind of the worshipper.
Some more recently formed movements such as the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj
do not encourage idol worship since it is not mentioned in the Vedas, which
to them hold the ultimate authority over the Puranas and other smrti texts.
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The Vedas and associated literature describe a division of society into
four varnas:brahmins (teachers and religious leaders), kshatriyas
(warriors and defenders of the community), vaishyas (merchants and traders)
and shudras (manual workers). This system is referred to as varnashrama
dharma in the scriptures. There is evidence to suggest that this
system of classification was originally based on the occupation an individual
decided to take up and their characteristics and inclinations; a person's
caste was therefore a matter of their own free choice. However, as
professions became associated with families the caste distinctions ossified
into the rigid system we are more familiar with today, where the circumstances
of a person's birth dictates their caste and strict taboos have evolved
concerning relations between castes. A hierarchy evolved in which the brahmins
placed themselves highest, followed by kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras.
Brahmans regarded themselves as the sole intermediaries between the lay
people and God; some smrti texts also reveal very negative attitudes
towards lower castes in the past.
The Vedas (which have authority over
smrti texts) generally uphold
the brahmins as noblest amongst humans because they were responsible for
the education and spiritual wellbeing of the community, which was perceived
to be the highest good. However, they also guard against mistaking
birth as an indication of brahminhood:
Does birth make one a brahmana? No. Since many great souls have sprung from
other classes ... there are many rishis who stood first amongst teachers
of divine knowledge, yet did not know the circumstances of their birth.Therefore
birth does not make one a brahmana.
(Vajrasucika Upanishad, Sama Veda)
(NB 'brahmana' is the original Sanskrit for 'brahmin')
Since the seventh century, many seminal movements have served to underline
the irrelevance of a person's birth circumstances (particularly the bhakti
movement). However it is evident that
varnashrama dharma has
long been severely misused, and has resulted in the oppression of huge
numbers people in the name of religion. Particularly disturbing is
the phenomenon of untouchability, whereby people expelled from their
(meaning 'birth caste' - as opposed to varna, meaning caste by personal
characteristics and inclination) have been ostracised by the four recognised
However, modern attitudes have significantly changed amongst Hindus, and
certainly outside India caste barriers based on birth are breaking down.
In India, where the caste system carries the most authority, large efforts
are being made to eradicate caste-based prejudice and redress the historical
imbalance between the castes. Playing a large part in this liberalisation
is the increased availability of information; the realities of modern life
are compelling people to re-assess their interpretation of religion and
move towards values which are much less influenced by the constraints of
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Since Hinduism is itself a conglomerate of religions, an attitude of tolerance
and acceptance of the validity of other belief systems has long been a
part of Hindu thought. The sometimes huge and persisting disparity
in beliefs between various sects show that Hindus are not necessarily eager
to sweep aside differences, but the debates between sects have remained
largely verbal in nature and have rarely resulted in violent conflict.
Even when differences in belief are apparently irreconcilable, there is
often an understanding that ultimately, all sincerely followed religious
paths lead to the same ultimate goal.
This attitude towards other sects has also been applied in the encounter
of Hinduism with other religions. Throughout the past, communities
of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Zoroastrians (Parsis) have settled in
the Hindu regions of India to be afforded with dignity and freedom to practice
their faith as they wish. Furthermore, the immigrant communities
have been allowed to prosper and individuals from these communities have
often become prominent figures in society. Relations between Hindus
and other religious groups have traditionally been very friendly, while
the religious character of both groups is not compromised.
Philosophically speaking, most religious Hindus today will enthusiastically
acknowledge the wisdom of all major world religions while arguing that
one must remain sincere to one's own faith to reach God. While conversion
between Hindu sects has certainly happened in the past, particularly into
the bhakti-based sects (those espousing devotion to God as the means
for the ultimate salvation of mankind), this phenomenon is largely confined
to within Hinduism and reached a peak in activity in the past. Mainstream
Hindu thought holds that conversion between religions is contrary to spriritual
development and the fundamental unity of all religions is an evident truth,
not simply an attempt at easing relations between sectarian groups.
This conviction is often given scriptural backing by the following verse
from the Rig Veda:
"Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudah Vadanti"
"the wise call the One Truth by many names".
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The word 'Yoga' means 'Union' in Sanskrit. In the most general terms,
Yoga refers to any practice which serves to uncover the fundamental unity
of the individual self (atman)and the Universal Self (paramatman),
with variations in meaning depending on the philosophical paradigm (advaita,
dvaita etc.) adopted. The Bhagavad Gita provides a concise and general
description of the various different types of Yoga, and these are elaborated
on in the Yogasutra written by Patanjali around the second century
Karma Yoga means "Yoga through action". The Gita describes
this as selfless action, done not for personal gain but offering the fruits
of all action to the Supreme.
Jnana Yoga means "Yoga through knowledge". In this school of
thought, meditation on the Supreme and empirical analysis allows perception
of the Absolute Truth.
Bhakti Yoga means "Yoga through devotion". Definitively described
in the Gita, it is the method of union through complete submission
of the self in loving devotion to a personal Deity. In contrast to
the other types of Yoga, it does not involve renunciation but requires
all of a person's faculties to be engaged constantly in devotional activites.
The facets of Yoga known most widely in the West are described here.
They are considered to be stepping stones on the path to experience of
the ultimate bliss, and incidental benefits of the practice of Yoga
are increased flexibility and the development of other powers.
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AUM is the most sacred symbol, mantra and sound in all Hindu traditions.
Hindu creation myths hold that it is the primordial sound from which all
other sounds emerged; it is the mantra which comprises all other mantras.
A full description of its significance would run into volumes, so here
is a (comparatively brief!) extract from 'The Concise Light on Yoga' by
B. K. S. Iyengar (Unwin Paperbacks, 1980):
The symbol AUM is composed of three syllables, namely the letters A, U, M,
and when written has a crescent and dot on its top. A few instances of
the various interpretations given to it may be mentioned here to convey
The letter A symbolises the conscious or waking state (jagratha-avastha), the
letter U the dream state (svapna-avstha) and the letter M the dreamless
sleep state (susupta-avastha) of the mind and spirit. The entire symbol,
together with the crescent and the dot, stands for the fourth state (turiya-avastha),
which combines all these states and transcends them. This is the state
of samadhi (1).
The letters A, U and M symbolise respectively speech (vak), the mind (manas)
and the breath of life (prana), while the entire symbol stands for the
living spirit, which is but a portion of the divine spirit.
The three letters also represent the dimensions of length, breadth and depth,
while the entire symbol stands for the perfect man (a sthita-prajna), one
whose wisdom is firmly established in the divine.
They represent the three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter, while the
entire symbol stands for the Creator, who transcends the limitations of
They stand for the three gunas or qualities of sattva (goodness), rajas (passion)
and tamas (ignorance or darkness), while the whole symbol represents a
gunatita, one who has transcended and gone beyond the pull of the gunas.
The letters correspond to the three tenses - past, present and future - while
the entire symbol stands for the Creator, who transcends the limitations
They also stand for the teaching imparted by the mother, the father and the
Guru respectively. The entire symbol represents Brahma Vidya, the knowledge
of the Self, the teaching which is imperishable.
The A, U and M depict the three stages of yogic discipline, namely, asana (2),
pranayama (3) and pratyahara (4). The entire symbol represents samadhi
(1), the goal for which the three stages are the steps.
They represent the triad of Divinity, namely, Brahma - the creator, Visnu -
the Maintainer, and Siva - the Destroyer of the universe. The whole symbol
is said to represent Brahman from which the universe emanates, has its
growth and fruition and into which it merges in the end. It does not grow
or change. Many change and pass, but Brahman is the One that ever remains
The letters A, U and M also stand for the mantra 'Tat Twam Asi' ('That Thou
Art'), the realisation of man's divinity within himself. The entire symbol
stands for this realisation, which liberates the human spirit from the
confines of his body, mind, intellect and ego.
After realising the importance of AUM, the yogi focusses his attention on his
beloved Deity adding AUM to the name of the Lord. The word AUM being too
vast and too abstract, he unifies his senses, will, intellect, mind and
reason by focussing on the name of the Lord and adding the word AUM with
one pointed devotion and so experiences the feeling and meaning of the
The yogi recalls the verses of the Mundakopanisad:
"Taking as a bow the great weapon of the Upanisad, one should put upon it an arrow
sharpened by meditation. Stretching it with a thought directed to the essence
of That, penetrate the Imperishable as the mark, my friend. The mystic
syllable AUM is the bow. The arrow is the Self (Atma). Brahman is the target.
By the undistracted man is It penetrated. One should come to be in It,
as the arrow in the mark."
Definitions used here:
- (1) samadhi - a state of super-consciousness brought about by profound meditation,
in which the individual aspirant (sadhaka) becomes one with the object
of his meditation - Paramatma or the Universal Spirit.
- (2) asana - posture
- (3) pranayama - rhythmic control of the breath
- (4) pratyahara - withdrawal and emancipation of the mind from the domination
of the senses and exterior objects
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This FAQ only provides a very general introduction to the Hindu religion.
For further information, we recommend you take a look at some of the following
The Hindu Universe - www.hindunet.org
National Hindu Students Forum - www.nhsf.org.uk
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