More Short Answers to Real Questions
Hindu Americans comprise one of the fastest growing populations in the United States. Of the 1 billion Hindus worldwide, the Hindu American population currently numbers around 2 million, but this does not include the estimated 32 million others who derive inspiration from Hindu spirituality and practice Hindu teachings such as yoga and meditation. With growing numbers comes an increasing awareness of a place in American dialogue and the need for the accurate portrayal of the faith in line with its beliefs and practices. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) presents herein, more short answers to common questions about Hinduism. This booklet is an expansion of the original Short Answers booklet, found below.
Released: September 14, 2010
View the online version below or download a PDF.
What is meaning of the Swastika?
I've heard some Hindus use the term "Sanatana Dharma." What is that?
Do Hindus have Commandments?
What is moksha?
What is the red dot many Hindu women wear on their forehead?
How often is a Hindu supposed to pray?
Do Hindus believe in heaven or hell?
Why are so many Hindu Gods depicted blue in color or as animals?
Do Hindus belong to different demoninations? If so, can they intermarry?
What are the six major schools of thoughts in Hinduism?
What are the major Hindu holidays?
I read that yoga can't be claimed by any religion. Isn't yoga a Hindu practice?
Do I have to be Hindu to practice yoga?
Is Hinduism compatible with science?
Why does Hinduism have so many Gods?
Do Hindus have a "Bible"?
Do Hindus believe in reincarnation?
What is Karma?
What is Dharma?
What is the caste system and untouchability?
Why are many Hindus vegetarians?
What is the status of women in the practice of Hinduism?
Contrary to the hateful and violent meaning the Swastika has come to take on since its misappropriation by the Nazis, the original Swastika (as pictured below) is an ancient and holy symbol of auspiciousness and good fortune. It is still commonly used at the entrance of Hindu homes, in temples, and on invitations to auspicious occasions such as weddings and other rites of passage. In Sanskrit, the word is a combination of "Su," meaning "good," and "Asti," meaning "to exist." The four limbs of the Hindu Swastika have diverse symbolic meanings: the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva), the four stages of life (Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha, Sanyasa), the four goals of life (Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha), the four seasons, the four directions, and the four Yugas (Satya, Treta, Dvapara, Kali). The Swastika is also a sacred symbol for Buddhist, Jains, and Sikhs. Unfortunately, Hitler's usurpation of the Swastika still continues to overshadow the beautiful meaning behind this ancient Hindu symbol.
Sanatana Dharma and Hinduism are synonymous. The term Sanatana Dharma, loosely translated as "Eternal Law or Way," is self-referential. The term "Hindu," however, is a 12th century Persian abstraction referring to the Indic civilization they found espousing certain beliefs, practices and a way of life on the banks of the Indus (therefore Hindu) river. Over the centuries, the diverse followers of Sanatana Dharma, which include those who, amongst other concepts, accept the sanctity of the Vedas and other Hindu scripture; believe in one all-pervasive Divine (Brahman) which has no form or manifestations and is worshiped in infinite forms; believe in the laws of karma, dharma, reincarnation; and accept the ultimate goal of liberation (moksha) have adopted the references of Hindu and Hinduism. Other terms used to refer to Hinduism include Vedic, Sanskritic, Yogic, Indic and Ancient Indian.
Hinduism is a family of traditions that emphasizes experience and evaluation and thus, offers overarching guidelines rather than absolute lists of do's and don'ts or commandments in regulating individual behavior. For a Hindu, all actions are to be guided by dharma. Hindu ethical values flow from one's understanding of the nature of reality and inform the Hindu understanding of right and wrong. [See What is Dharma?]
Sage Patanjali's Yoga Sutra provides a very succinct codification of ten principles which are also found in numerous sources of Hindu scripture and teachings and considered the foundations for dharmic action. Of the ten, five are yamas or guides for social behavior and five are niyamas, or guides for personal behavior. The five yamas include non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual responsibility and abstention from greed. The five niyamas include cleanliness, contentment, austerity, scriptural study and loving devotion to God.
The ultimate purpose and goal for a Hindu's religious and spiritual practice is to attain moksha. Moksha is achieved through Self-realization (atma-jnana) or realization of one's true, divine nature. Hindus believe that each individual (anything living) is a divine soul, but that spiritual ignorance leads one to identify the self completely with the body and ego, thereby forgetting the divine nature of not only one's self, but all of existence. Moksha is characterized by the overcoming of spiritual ignorance; the complete elimination of material desires and attachments; the perfected ability to live in the present moment and experience absolute peace; and most importantly, the awakening of pure compassion towards all. Moksha also translates to liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth (samsara). Someone may attain moksha during his or her lifetime or upon the death of his or her physical body.
The "red dot" or bindi, once primarily a symbol of marriage, has largely become a fashionable accessory for Hindu females of all ages, regardless of their marital status. Traditionally, bindis were red or maroon in color, circular in shape, made of vermilion paste (kumkum), and applied with the ring finger of the right hand. Today, bindis come in all shapes, sizes, and colors and are often self-adhesive for convenience.
The male version of forehead markings is called a tilak and can be made of kumkum, sandalwood or sacred ash. It is applied in a variety of shapes including lines, U-shapes and dots. The tilak can be representative of an individual's deity tradition. The adornment of tilaks are not as prevalent as bindis. However, the marking of either is amongst the first requisite steps in most rituals and sacred ceremonies.
Both bindis and tilaks are placed approximately one centimeter above the center of the eyebrows, which is considered to be the sixth chakra, ajna, in Kundalini Yoga. The bindi is associated with the worship of God as the feminine divine. It is also indicative of the conceptual "third eye of spiritual wisdom", as Shiva, the greatest of Yogis, is depicted as having. Bindis and tilaks may also represent interdependence of both the feminine and masculine aspects of the Divine. Lastly, the bindi and tilak serve as reminders of a seeker's ultimate goal of enlightenment, liberation or moksha.
Prayer is integral to Hindu practice. Many Hindus follow set, obligatory guidelines in terms of specificity of prayers as well as timing, frequency and length while others may be more fluid and individualized in their practice. One is not necessarily guaranteed moksha upon the performance of certain types or amounts of prayer nor is anyone condemned for lack of prayer, but progress towards moksha is proportional to spiritual effort. Hindus may pray at a personal, home altar which is usually placed in a room or space dedicated for worship; at a temple; or wherever they may be (and without a altar) . Prayers may be to a specific deity or set of deities or to no deity in particular. Prayer may also vary in form and include:
- Rituals and offerings conducted by the individual or a priest
- Chanting of a particular deity's name or deity specific mantra (japa) using a mala. Often a mala, a looped thread which holds 108 beads, is used during chanting as an aid for keeping count and the devotee's concentration.
- Chanting of time specific slokas, including upon waking, while bathing, while lighting a sacred oil lamp, prior to eating, before studying and prior to retiring for the day
- Chanting of slokas for peace and universal well-being (including nature)
- Singing of devotional poems
- Studying scripture
Because Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation, the concept of heaven and hell as worlds of eternal glory or damnation do not exist in Hinduism. Hindus also do not ascribe to the concept of Satan or devil that is in eternal opposition to God. [See What is Karma? and Do Hindus believe in reincarnation?]
Some Hindus may believe in what is described in Hindu scriptures as two planes of existence that can be likened to heaven and hell. These are respectively svarga and naraka. Neither svarga or naraka, however, are permament or eternal. Both are intermediary planes of existence in which the soul might exhaust a portion of its karmic debt or surplus before taking physical birth once again to strive for moksha. [See What is moksha?]
The depiction of some Gods as blue toned is an example of the importance of symbolism in Hinduism. Blue, the color of the sky, represents the limitlessness of the sky and universe. Blue is also the color of water, which is life-sustaining. Swami Chinmayanada, a spiritual leader, explained that the human eye sees that which is infinite as blue so the blue tone serves as a reminder of the Divine’s infiniteness.
Because Hinduism teaches that all of nature is Divine, Hindus believe that God manifests in the various forms that are found in nature, including animals, rivers, mountains and earth. For example, Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles, is depicted with an elephant head which symbolizes wisdom, as elephants are recognized to be among the wisest of animals. Hanuman, worshipped as the perfect devotee and depicted as a monkey, symbolizes the individual’s ability to quiet the ever racing human mind through loving devotion to God and selfless service.
Hinduism is not divided by denomination, but by other categories, including deity traditions, sampradaya, parampara and darsana. Most Hindus belong to one of four major deity traditions - Shaivas, Shaktas, Vaishnavas, and Smartas. While all traditions share many beliefs and practices, the central deity worshipped as well as certain philosophical tenets differ. Shaivas primarily worship different forms of Lord Shiva, Shaktas worship Shakti or the Divine Mother in Her various forms, Vaishnavas worship forms of Lord Vishnu and Smartas worship different forms of six major deities including Lord Shiva, Shakti, Lord Vishnu, Lord Ganesha, Lord Subrahmanya and Lord Surya, holding them all to be forms of Brahman, the eternal, infinite, unchanging principle that is the substratum of the universe and is both immanent and transcendent.
Each deity tradition may also further branch into sampradayas. Adherents of a sampradaya have familial connections and/or strong faith in the heightened spirituality, divine experiences, and philosophical knowledge of the founder and/or current guru or swami (spiritual head) of the sampradaya. Hindus may also freely choose between different sampradayas based on their liking and understanding. A sampradaya following a particular lineage or succession of swamis is said to be of a particular parampara. Hindus of different deity traditions, sampradaya and parampara can intermarry although many choose to marry within these branches for a variety of reasons. [See What are the six major schools of thought in Hinduism?]
Over the ages, various schools of theology developed in Hinduism through a dynamic tradition of philosophical inquiry and debate. From timeless and universal questions such as the purpose of life to the relationship between humans and the Divine emerged many schools of thoughts or darshanas. Darshana literally means "seeing." In Hindu teachings darshana relates to the different ways of "seeing" the Divine and attaining moksha or liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Six darshanas are recognized as the most influential include Sankhya, Vaisheshika, Nyaya, Mimamsa, Yoga and Vedanta. While each school is comprehensive and complex, they are succinctly summarized below:
- Vaisheshika: considered one of the most ancient atomic theories founded by Sage Kanada. Sage Kanada held that all matter is made up of atoms and these atoms are activated through Divine intervention. Vaisheshika and Nyaya eventually merged.
- Nyaya: a system of logic proving the existence of the Divine as well as other core Hindu concepts such as karma. Nyaya insists that nothing is acceptable unless it is in accordance with reason and experience. The thoroughness of Nyaya logic and epistemology greatly influenced succeeding orthodox and unorthodox schools of thought.
- Sankhya: considered one of the oldest schools of thought. Sankhya divides all of existence into two categories - Purusha (divine consciousness) and prakriti (matter). Very little Sankhya literature survives today, and there is some controversy over whether or not the system is dualistic because it propounds the existence of these two categories.
- Mimamsa or Purva Mimamsa: interprets the rules of Vedic ritual, proffering perfection in ritual as a path towards moksha.
- Yoga: more aptly Raja Yoga focuses on quieting the mind through an eight limb system (Ashtanga yoga) as described in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras for a balanced life and ultimately moksha.
- Vedanta: arguably the most influential on modern Hinduism and relies primarily on transcending one's identification with the physical body for liberation. The means by which an individual can transcend one's self-identity is through right knowledge, meditation, devotion, selfless service, good works amongst other religious and spiritual disciplines. Major subschools of Vedanta include Advaita, Dvaita, and Visishtaadvaita.
Holidays and ways of celebrating those holidays are as richly diverse as the family of traditions called Hinduism. However, there are certain holidays that have come to be widely celebrated throughout the Hindu diaspora. Generally, Hindu holidays may commemorate a particular deity, season or event in history. Often times the same holiday may celebrate several different events or attributes of a variety of manifestations of the Divine (God). Hindu holidays don't necessarily fall on a specific day each year as the Hindu calendar is lunar.
- Shivaratri (February/March) - pays homage to Lord Shiva, the divine manifestation of transformation and regeneration
- Ramanavami (March/April) - celebrates the birth of Lord Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu and embodiment of dharma (righteousness)
- Krishna Janmashtami (August/September) - celebrates the birth and life of Lord Krishna, one of the most endeared incarnations of Vishnu and deliverer of the Bhagavad Gita
- Ganesha or Vinayaka Chaturti (August/September) - pays homage to Lord Ganesha or Lord Vinayaka, the son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati and divine manifestation of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune
- Navaratri (March/April, June/July, September/October, December/January, January/February) - A nine night celebration of the feminine divine that occurs five times a year (the spring and fall celebrations being amongst the more widely celebrated). The most popularly worshiped manifestations of the feminine divine include Goddess Durga representing the Mother Goddess and Shakti (Divine Energy), Goddess Saraswati representing knowledge, speech and the arts and Goddess Lakshmi, representing good health, wealth and prosperity. Many fasts and rituals associated with Navaratri are exclusive to women.
All of these celebrations may include fasting, temple visits, special rituals, chanting of mantras, singing of devotional prayers, dancing and all-night vigils.
- Makara Sankranti, Uttarayana or Pongal (January 14) - one of the few solar holidays that marks the transition of the Sun into Capricorn or Makara rashi on its celestial path and the northward journey of the sun. It also broadly coincides with the winter harvest in many parts of India. Hindus thank God for the bountiful harvest and may pay homage to Goddess Saraswati on this day as well as to ancestors. Pongal is widely celebrated in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.
- Holi (February/March) - Welcomes arrival of spring and the harvests it brings. It also celebrates triumph over divisiveness and negativity. A visually stunning event with people tossing colored powders in the air and using dyed water in an atmosphere where culture, camaraderie and oneness are honored. In the evening, the community lights bonfires and eats festive foods. One of the largest festivals in the world, Holi is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists.
- Raksha Bandhan / Veda Upakarma (August/September) - A holiday which celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters. Sisters tie a decorative sacred thread or amulet on the right wrist of her brothers (often including distant cousins and friends considered honorary brothers) with her prayers for his protection and well-being while sweets are exchanged. In return, brothers give their sisters small tokens or gifts of appreciation.
- Diwali or Deepavali (October/November) - One of the most celebrated Hindu festivals, commemorates the victory of good over evil. The word refers to rows of earthen lamps celebrants place around their homes. The light from these lamps symbolizes the illumination within the individual that can overwhelm ignorance, represented by darkness.
Yoga refers to spiritual disciplines that are essential to the understanding and practice of Hinduism. The term covers a wide array of practices, embodied in eight “limbs,” which range from ethical and moral guidelines to meditation on the Ultimate Reality. Yoga is a way of life that combines both physical and spiritual exercises, entails mastery over the body, mind and emotional self, and transcendence of desire. The ultimate goal is moksha. [See What is moksha?]
In the West, Yoga has largely become an asana-based (posture) physical practice, allowing practitioners to delink it from its Hindu philosophical and spiritual roots. But a perusal of the best known Yoga texts will demonstrate the contrary. Patajanli allots less than 25% of his revered Yoga Sutras to asana. The remainder focuses on what is essentially Hindu philosophy.
Yet, even when Yoga is practiced solely in the form of an exercise, its Hindu roots cannot be avoided. As the legendary Yoga guru B.K.S Iyengar points out in his famous Light on Yoga, "Some asanas are also called after Gods of the Hindu pantheon..." It is disappointing that many yogis regularly practicing Hanumanasana or Natarajasana continue to deny the Hindu roots of their Yoga practice.
In effect, the delinking of Yoga from its Hindu roots disenfranchises Hindus of recognition and appreciation for one of their ancestors' beneficial contributions to civilization and inhibits their ability to promote an accurate and deeper understanding of Hinduism.
Hinduism, as a non-proselytizing religion, never compels practitioners of yoga to profess allegiance to the faith or convert. Yoga is a means of spiritual attainment for any and all seekers. Thus, while one does not have to profess faith in Hinduism in order to practice Yoga or asana, Yoga is still an essential part of Hindu philosophy and the two cannot be delinked, despite efforts to do so.
Contrary to popular perceptions that Hinduism is a mystical religion exclusively concerned with transcendental concepts of spiritual practice, Hinduism has been a wellspring of scientific thought and contributed immensely to the global civilization spanning more than five millennia. As a religious practice aspiring to understand the eternal mysteries of existence, Hinduism has never been a regressive or closed dogma satisfied with historicentric interpretations of one holy book. Hindu scriptures describe the concept of planets in the solar system circling the sun and the earth as round and rotating on its axis. Ancient Hindus also made epochal strides astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, metallurgy, medicine (ayurveda) and surgery, including many findings upon which modern science, medicine and technology are based.
Revered Hindu sages, such as Swami Vivekanada and Paramahansa Yogananda, spent time working with and learning from scientists and saw compatibility with Hindu teachings. The French Nobel laureate Romain Rolland said, "Religious faith in the case of the Hindus has never been allowed to run counter to scientific laws," while Carl Sagan once called Hinduism the only religion whose time-scale for the universe matches the billions of years documented by modern science.
Short Answers to Real Questions about Hinduism: The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) presents herein, some short answers to common questions about Hinduism. This has been created with the help of noted Hinduism scholars and religious leaders. We sincerely hope this will serve as a useful primer for many.
Released: January 16, 2007
View the online version below, or download the PDF.
Most Hindus believe in one, all-pervasive Divine Reality, that is formless (Brahman) or manifests and is worshiped in different forms (Ishvara or God/Goddess). This belief in the existence of one Divine Reality with diverse manifestations can best be described as monism. Hindu monism is the foundation for understandings of God that range from non-dualistic - that existence and the Divine are not separate, but one and the same, to dualistic - that existence and the Divine, while sharing divine qualities, are separate. Hinduism also encompasses theologies of pantheism, that all of existence is Divine, to panentheistism, that all of existence is within the Divine, to a theology of the Divine being external to all of existence. The Sanskrit hymn, Rig Veda I.164.46:
Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti
Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.
And just as Hindus believe that Truth is one, called by many names, so too is God called by many names.
Hinduism is rich in scripture, but does not have a “Bible” in terms of one central, authoritative book. Hindu scripture is an extensive collection of ancient religious writings which expound upon eternal Truths that have been revealed by God and realized by the ancient sages and enlightened wise men. These Truths, which were passed on for generations through an extraordinary oral tradition, include the Vedas and Agamas, the Upanishads, the Epics, including the Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, the Puranas, lawbooks and many other philosophical and sectarian texts. Scripture in Hinduism, however, does not have the same place as it does in many other faiths. Hinduism is premised on realization, not revelation. To be enlightened, one must have personal experience of the Truths set out in the Vedas and other revealed scriptures. Important to note also is that the words of a living, enlightened teacher are as valid as the words of scripture.
Hindus believe that the soul is immortal and evolves by experiencing varied lives through the process wherein the soul reincarnates into different physical bodies through cycles of birth and death. Guided by the Laws of Karma (see below), the soul continues on its path of spiritual evolution. The ultimate aim of Hindus is for the soul to attain freedom from this continuous cycle of birth and rebirth and discover its divine origin.
Karma is the universal law of cause and effect. The critical and subtler understanding of karma is that each action has a reaction and that this cycle is endless. Thus if one sows goodness, one reaps goodness and conversely, if one sows evil, one will reap evil. To avoid the cycle of karma, Hindus strive to remain unattached to the fruits of their virtuous action in thought, word, and deed. When one can work without expecting rewards, Hindus believe that society as a whole benefits and the individual is freed from the cycle of karma and reincarnation. The Bhagavad Gita, III.19 and III.20 expounds on this:
Tasmad asakta satatam
Karyam karma samacara
Asakto hy acaran karma
Param apnoti purusah
Sampasyan kartum arhasi
Therefore, without attachment
Perform always the work that has to be done
For man attains to the highest
By doing work without attachment
Likewise you should perform with a view to guide others
And for the sake of benefiting the welfare of the world
Dharma is the mode of conduct for an individual that is most conducive to spiritual advancement. There are several categories of dharma, including Sanatana Dharma or Eternal Law, which encompasses the inherent laws of nature and the Divine, and sÄmanya dharma and vishesha dharma. Samanya dharma includes general laws that govern all forms and functions, including one’s duty to strive towards and achieve contentment; forgiveness; self-restraint; non-stealing; purity; control of senses; discrimination between right and wrong; spiritual knowledge; truthfulness; and absence of anger. Vishesha dharma, or special duties, expound upon social law or the laws defining an individual’s responsibilities within the nation, society, community and family; law according to life stage or the laws governing age-appropriate duties related to the natural process of maturing from childhood to old age; and personal law or the individualized application of dharma according to an individual’s sum of past karma, intelligence, aptitudes, tendencies, physical characteristics and community.
Caste was the division of the ancient Indic civilization based on four general occupational groupings (varna), which included workers, business people, law enforcers and lawmakers and priests. Within these four groups were thousands of sub-groups (jati). Over the millennia, what was to be a skills and aptitude based guild system was rigidified into a hereditary hierarchy. This distortion was a result of certain social practices and taboos gaining acceptance over time. The “lowest” class, deemed untouchables and considered to be outside of the four classes, was marginalized, facing widespread prejudice.
It should be emphasized that there is no basis for a discriminatory caste system in revealed Hindu scripture. Vedic and non-Vedic scripture advance the concept equality of all mankind as demonstrated in the ancient hymn:
Ajyesthaso akanishthaso ete sambhrataro vahaduhu saubhagaya
No one is superior, none inferior. All are brothers marching forward to prosperity.
Lacking an authoritative scriptural basis, it is unfortunate that the Hindu religion has been conflated with the reprehensible practice of social discrimination that has manifested as racism, religious persecution and slavery in other cultures throughout the world.
Despite immense societal discrimination and prejudices, however, there have been countless saints and sages from the “lower” castes who have profoundly impacted Hindu philosophy and devotional practice. To cite only a few: Sant Raidas, a chamar or cobbler who was the guru of Mirabai, the most famous of the women devotional poets of northern India; Sant Ramdev, a prominent devotional poet from central India important to both Hindu and Sikh traditions; and Sant Tiruvalluvar of southern India who wrote the Tirukkural, an influential scripture of sacred wisdom. Modern-day saints, with millions of followers worldwide include Mata Amritanandamayi or Ammachi who was born into a fishermen community and Satya Sai Baba who was born into an agrarian community.
Jurisprudence in modern India outlaws caste discrimination and contemporary Hindu spiritual leaders and organizations, including but certainly not limited to Raja Ram Mohan Roy; Mahatma Gandhi; Narayan Guru; Sri Shivamurthy Murugharajendra; Arya Samaj; Sahayoga Foundation have been engaged in eradicating this system from society.
Click here to see HAF's detailed report, Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste - Seeking an End to Caste-based Discrimination.
In India, more than 30% of all Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs are vegetarian because of the fundamental belief in non-violence, or in Sanskrit, ahimsa. The Vedas propound that all beings, from the smallest organism to man, are considered manifestations of God and members of a universal family. With this worldview, violence in thought, word or deed against a living being is contrary to the natural balance of the universe. Many Hindus, therefore, refrain from killing animals for food when a plethora of vegetarian alternatives are available.
One of the most profound attributes of Hinduism is the recognition and worship of the God as feminine. In fact, Hinduism is the only major religion, which has always worshipped God in female form and continues to do so today. Hindus revere God’s energy, or Shakti, through its personification in a Goddess. The Vedas are replete with hymns extolling the equality of men and women in the spiritual, social and educational realms. It is unfortunate, however, that the gender equality of the Vedic period and that of the Hindu view of the Divine has been corrupted by the realities of social practice and taboo. Yet, Hinduism remains one of a few major religions in which women have occupied and continue to occupy some of the most respected positions in the spiritual leadership including, Sharda Devi, The Mother, Anandamayi, Amritanandmayi Devi or Ammachi, Shree Maa, Anandi Ma, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and Ma Yoga Shakti.