The Hindu Trinity
Brahma - Vishnu - Shiva
Glossary of Indian Terms
acharya: spiritual teacher, preceptor.
advaita [not divided]: the one unchangeable, indivisible Truth; the one essence that cannot be described as real or non-real. Adi Shankaracharya wrote extensive commentaries on the major Vedantic scriptures to prove this conclusion.
Agni: Vedic god of fire.
ananda: divine bliss and happiness. A bliss that is not dependent on the objects or situations in the world or the mind, but inherent in each individual.
Aranyaka: the third section of each of the four Vedas that includes the explanations of the symbolism of the rituals and mental exercises for the contemplative life of the retiree (vanaprastha ashrama) to prepare him for the fourth stage of life (sannyasa ashrama).
Arya Samaj: Society of Aryans, founded in 1875 by the north Indian Swami Dayanand. He aimed to transform Hinduism from within by removing such extraneous, and often difficult to rationalize, elements as the Puranas, the epics that tell of the exploits of the various deities.
Arya(n): One of noble birth or character (Sanskrit). Also,
the family of Indo-European languages, therefore, the nomadic invaders who
brought a language of this group into
ashram: monastery, hermitage, place of retreat.
ashrama: the four orders or stages of a Hindu’s life—brahmacharya (student), grhastha (householder), vanaprastha (forest-dweller), sannyasa (renunciate).
Atharva Veda: In general, this Veda contain rituals for dealing with practical matters of life in the world. Its philosophical section contains the Mundaka, Mandukya and Prasna Upanishads.
Atma(n): the essential Divinity, or light of consciousness, in each individual; often translated into English as “Self”. See Brahman.
incarnation of the Divine made flesh in response to the collective karma of the
population of a given time, not because of individual, personal karma. Examples
Ayurveda: a system of the ancient knowledge (veda) of health and medicine that is so comprehensive it includes descriptions and drawings of the tools used in major surgeries. Its validity is now recognized by modern medical science.
Badrinath: one of the four great Himalayan pilgrimage centers; the Matha established by Adi Shankaracharya in the north for the preservation of the Hindu scriptures.
bhajan: devotional hymn or chant.
Bhagavad Gita [Song of the Lord]: a major scriptural poem contained in the Mahabharata epic. In the eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna gives the Divine Truth to his student Arjuna in the setting of the battlefield of the dynastic war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. The Gita is therefore intended as a practical guide to persons attempting to live a spiritual life in the world, rather than for renunciates.
bhakti/bhakta: devotion/devotee. Bhakti Yoga is the path to enlightenment through devotion to God, the Truth, or a holy teacher.
bhiksha: food obtained by begging or asking for alms. Also, the meal served when a sadhu is invited into the home.
Brahma (masculine gender): the deity of the Hindu trinity who is the creator of the universe. Do not confuse with Brahman, see below.
Brahman (neuter gender): the impersonal God, devoid of all qualities; the Omnipresent, All-pervading, Transcendent Reality. This supreme Reality is called Brahman when regarded as transcendent, and Atman when regarded as the Life Principle in the individual person. [Brahman is written in plain letters in the text.]
Brahman (Brahamana): the highest of the four Hindu castes. The priestly caste consists of many sub-castes depending on the area the priest comes from and the duties he performs, such as temple priest, family priest, astrologer, teacher, cook, etc. [Brahman is written in italicized letters in the text.]
Brahma(n) Sutras: one of the three authoritative books of Hinduism in which Sri Vyasa encapsulated the principles of Vedanta in 551 terse statements. These short verses were originally intended for ease of memorization, thereby ensuring their availability for mental reflection on the great truths of the Upanisads at any time or place.
Brahma(n) vichar: continually thinking on the nature of Brahman, the eternal Truth.
Brahma(n) vidya: knowledge of the eternal Truth, Brahman.
brahmachari (m), brahmacharini (f): One who moves in Brahman; that is, one
who continually fixes the mind on the eternal Truth. The more common
meaning is student, or one who practices spiritual discipline and
brahmacharya ashrama: the first of the four stages of life in the Hindu system. This period of life, usually from five to twenty-five years of age, is allotted to general education and the study of the Vedas for the understanding of, and preparation for, life.
[one of true wisdom]: Buddha is a title bestowed on an enlightened master. The
Buddha in the present cycle is Siddhartha Gautama
(563 BC) who was born in a small kingdom in present day
There are four castes, each with its own duties, rules, regulations and
hierarchy. Within each caste there are hundreds of subcastes,
variations and hierarchies.
The highest caste is the Brahman(a), or priest, teacher, scholar, advisor group. By virtue of their position in the society, they have more duties and are accorded heavier punishments than the other castes. For example, in the Mahabharata, a group of men had committed a crime. The Brahman(a) was given the death sentence, while the ones of lower castes were given sentences in prison, varying according to their caste.
The Kshatriya caste is referred to as the warrior caste. This caste includes everyone from the king to the foot soldier, their wives and children. In modern times, they have been court judges and administrators. Only Kshatriyas went to war, leaving the rest of the population free to carry on with their respective duties.
The third caste is the Vaishya, or merchant and farmer category. In general, this has been the wealthiest caste.
The fourth caste is the Shudra, or service caste. Anyone who performs services in the community, such as office executives, clerks, secretaries and persons in banking, communication and medical services.
Champak: a tree of the magnolia tree with small cream-colored blossoms that are very fragrant. A mature tree can reach 30 feet in height.
chandala: untouchable; one outside of the caste system. The outcastes were generally of the aboriginal native tribes.
Chandrakaladhara, Lord [moon + small part + ornament]: During the churning of the milky ocean by the gods and the demons, “Chandrakala” emerged on the day of the new moon. The gods prayed to Lord Shiva to wear this crescent moon on his head as an ornament with the hope that it would help cool his destructive anger.
(Indian National Congress): Organized in 1885 with the assistance of Allan
Hume, a retired British civil servant, for the purpose of giving Indians more
voice in public affairs. Congress was the principal political organ in
dal: dried beans that have had the outer husk removed. Any bean or pea may be made into a dal. Also, any soup or curry that is made from a dal.
darshan: to see or view, usually used in the context of “beholding”a holy person or an idol.
deva (m), devi (f) [dev = to shine]: god/goddess. All Vedic gods are functional names of the one supreme creative power manifesting in myriad forms; therefore, these deities, or shining ones, preside over and have the power to bless various activities in the world. In the context of Vedanta, the gods are symbolic of human inner psychological powers representing one’s ability to bless or curse oneself.
dharma [dhr = to support, sustain]: the inner essence or very foundations of a thing or being. Dharma may be translated as law, duty, harmony or essential Truth, according to the context.
dharma shala: overnight abodes or hostels that were constructed by pious people or kings to provide free food and shelter to traveling pilgrims.
traditional men’s wear in many parts of
Dravidian: the principal indigenous culture and language on the Indian sub-continent. It remains the source of the South Indian culture and language, Tamil, of today.
enlightenment: the direct experience that the individual Self (Atman) is one with the supreme Self (Brahman); also referred to as realization, Self-realization and liberation. The Sanskrit terms for enlightenment are moksha, mukti and nirvana.
Mahatma (Mohandas K.) (18969-1948) : The leader of the
Indian nationalist movement who voiced the ideal of non-violence. He dedicated his
life to searching for Truth and devising programs for the improvement of the
lives of the impoverished masses of
Ganesha: the elephant god of great wisdom and strength who is worshiped first in any ritual or new enterprise. He is invoked to remove obstacles in the practical matters of success in worship or in worldly endeavors, or to remove obstructions in spiritual practices done to attain
one of the four great
Gaudapada, Sri (700 AD): the guru of Govindapada Acharya, who was the Guru of Adi Shankaracharya. He authored the Mandukya Upanishad’s Karika, or commentary.
Gayatri: the most sacred verse in the Vedas (Rg III, 62:10) that invokes the Solar Deity, Savitri, for wisdom in daily living. It has been used in daily worship and in initiation ceremonies throughout the ages in Bharat.
ghat: slopes, steps; the steps that line the sacred rivers and temple pools to enable the worshipers to easily enter the water for a purification bath; therefore, also the most sacred places along these pools and rivers. The term ghat is also used for mountain ranges, such as the Western Ghats that borders and defines the state of Kerala.
ghee: butter that has been clarified using fire.
Gita: See Bhagavad Gita.
grhastha ashrama: the householder, or second stage of life of the Hindu. The householder lives according to a behavioral code given in the Dharma Shastra. In addition, he daily performs certain required rituals.
guru [one who dispels darkness]: a spiritual teacher who initiates seekers into the secrets of the sacred scriptures by the clearing of ignorance and misconceptions of life, thereby revealing the Eternal Truth. Colloquially, a teacher of any specialized knowledge.
Hanuman: the deity of wind and mental prowess. As the hero monkey who aided Lord Rama in the battle against evil, he exhibited great qualities as a supporter of dharma and devotee of the Lord. He is therefore idolized throughout India, particularly in the North, in the region of Rama’s ancient kingdom.
Hara: an epithet of Lord Shiva.
Hari: an epithet of Lord Vishnu.
Harijan: children of God; a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi for the Untouchables.
Havan: a fire ritual accompanied by the chanting of the sacred Vedic mantras for a communal or common purpose. In the Vedic age, Havans were performed to give offerings of ghee, milk or grain to please the deities. With the later philosophical development of Hinduism, their purpose evolved into a method of practicing renunciation.
Indus Valley Civilization (ca. 4000-1,500 BC): an advanced civilization in ancient India concurrent with the Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations. Numerous sites of ruins lie along the Indus River in present-day Pakistan.
japa: repetition, usually mentally, of a mantra to exclude all other thoughts and to build the power of concentration of the mind.
jnana: knowledge; wisdom of the absolute Reality.
Kailasa, Mount: peak of 22,280 feet in southwest Tibet in the Kailasa Range of the Himalayas. The pilgrimage path that girdles it is thirty miles long and reaches a height of 18,000 feet at one point. It is also called Kamgrimpoche (Tibetan).
karma [kr = to do]: action, work, deed; the sum of the effects of past actions producing results in the life of the world. According to the context, karma can be translated as destiny (the results of past actions) or duty (actions intended to produce good results in the future). In the Vedas, karma means only the action of performing the prescribed rituals.
karma phala: fruit, results, of actions in the world.
Kedarnath: one of the four great Himalayas pilgrimage centers.
Kerala: the Indian state established after Independence in 1951, composed of the small kingdoms on the Malabar coast of the Arabian Sea in which Malayalam was spoken, including Travancore, Calicut and Cochin. kovalam: geometric or floral designs made by the south Indians in front of their homes each morning. Traditionally, kovalams were made with rice powder to feed the birds and tiny crawling creatures. Now, they just use a white chalky powder for the kovalam, which is created anew daily.
Krishna, Lord: the ninth and most beloved Avatara. His life was immortalized with Sri Vyasa’s Bhagavatam and Bhagavad Gita.
Krishnamurthi, Jiddu (1895-1986): Born in Andhra Pradesh, he was groomed as a messianic figure by the theosophist Annie Besant. In 1928 he repudiated his role as the World Teacher and, to some extent, the role of all spiritual teachers. He spent his life principally in Europe and America writing and lecturing-being a spiritual teacher.
Krishnastami Day: Lord Krishna’s birthday. He was born after midnight on the eighth day of the dark moon in the month of Sravana (July-August) in a prison in Mathura.
kula guru: spiritual teacher of the household or clan.
laksharchana [lak = one thousand]: worship by chanting the one thousand name of a god or goddess.
Lakshmi, Sri: goddess of wealth and good fortune; symbol of auspiciousness and grace. Also called Sri, which means auspicious.
Lalita: an epithet of Parvathi, wife of Lord Shiva.
lila: divine play, particularly of the gods.
Madrasi: resident of Madras. During the British Empire the Madras Presidency included the sourthern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Mysore and Andhra Pradesh.
Mahabharata: an epic poem of ancient India detailing the history of the evolution of mankind through the lineage of the Bharata family. Written by Veda Vyasa, the poem of 100,000 verses is the longest epic poem in the world. It also contains the philosophical treatise, the Bhagavad Gita.
Maharaja: great king; can be used as both a secular and spiritual title.
maha samadhi: the great or final samadhi, that is, the death of a sage.
Therefore, the burial place of a sage is also referred to as a “samadhi.”
Mahatma: great soul.
mala: rosary used for meditation. It usually consists of 108 beads with a central (meru) bead, or turning bead, to enable one to count the number of repetitions of the mantra while chanting.
Malayalam: the native language of Kerala that originated with the Dravidian Tamil although it has numerous additions from indigenous influences and from Sanskrit. It is considered to be the most sanskritized of the native Indian languages.
mantra: a sacred syllable, word or phrase that represents the eternal Truth. Mantras may be used in daily life for protecting the mind from falling into agitation and for spiritual evolution by reflecting on their significance.
master: In India and Hinduism, the term refers to one who has mastered himself and has thereby mastered life.
Mandukya Upanishad: a philosophical treatise in the Atharva Veda. It is considered to be the most terse, yet most sublime and complete, of the Upanishads.
matha: monastery, seminary; one of the four centers established by Adi Shankaracharya for the preservation of the four Vedas and other sacred scriptures: Badrinath (north), Shringeri (south), Puri (east) and Dwaraka (west). These four mathas have established subsidiary mathas in their respective districts, such as at Kanchi and Kavir.
mauna: silence, the practice of maintaining silence to prevent the dissipation of energy to exercise discipline over the sense organs.
dynasty established in
seasonal rain-bearing winds that inundate most
lunghi: Malayalam word for a wrap-around cloth worn as a skirt by both men and women in Kerala (dhoti in Hindi). The mundu is the top cloth worn over the shoulder.
Nandi: the bull that sits in front of all Shiva temples. It faces Shiva, indicating that the materialistic, instinctual nature of creation is at peace when focused on Lord Shiva.
Narayana, Jaya Prakash (1902-1979): the
founder of the Congress Socialists in the early 1930’s and leader of the
Socialist Party. He was one of the few Indian nationalists educated in
Narayana: an epithet of Lord Vishnu.
Narayana Guru (1856-1928): Born in the low Ezahava caste in Kerala, he was a respected reformer who spent his life building temples, teaching Vedanta and preaching against social injustice.
nawab: the king or ruler of the Moslem kingdoms.
Jawaharlal (1889-1964): first Prime Minister of independent
nishkama karma: action performed without the taint of personal desire for results or reward.
Panchadasi [fifteen]: Vedantic text of fifteen chapters written by Swami Vidyaranya. It is an advanced introductory text (prakarana grantha) intended to unfold all the subject of Vedanta necessary for enlightenment, or to serve as a foundation for further study of Vedanta.
parampara: a line of teachers established by the handing down of the Eternal Truth from teacher to student.
prakarana grantha: introductory Vedantic texts that unfold the entire subject matter of Vedanta with or without reference to any of the terse Upanishads. The purpose of these texts were to explain all the concepts necessary for enlightenment in simple terms, so the subject could be understood without having to resort to the study of the thick scriptures and the lengthy logical analysis typical of the scholarly approach. Some of the most known are Atma Bodha, Vivekachudamani, Panchadasi, Vedanta Sara, Vedanta Paribhasa.
pranam: a prostration; often used as a salutation to show respect to a holy man.
prasadam: food, usually sweets, offered to the gods during a ritual. Afterwards, it is distributed among the participants as a consecrated offering along with ash, sandalwood paste or other items used in the worship.
Prastana Treya: the three foundation scriptures of Vedanta: Bhagavad Gita, Brahma(n) Sutras and the Upanishads.
prem: divine, selfless love, as opposed to romantic, self-centered love.
puja: worship, ritual; pujya: worshipful.
punya: good karma, or merit, accumulated from good actions.
Puranas: epics, or ancient legendary histories compiled by Veda Vyasa. There are eighteen Puranas, each of which contains the following five topics: 1) cosmology with various symbolic illustrations of philosophical principles, 2) secondary creation after periodic annihilation, 3) genealogy of gods and saints, 4) descriptions of the great epochs, 5) history of the royal dynasties.
ragi: Indian millet. It is dark brown when cooked and is the principal grain of many of the tribal and rural people.
in the Hindu kingdoms in
Rama, Sri: the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu; the hero-king of the epic Ramayana, who was the model of piety, morality as well as ethical behavior in the performance of worldly duties.
Ramakrishna, Sri (1836-1886): A Bengali sage who accepted and demonstrated the essential unity of all religions. He was the Guru of Swami Vivekananda, Swami Brahmananda and other founders of the Ramakrishna Mission.
Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950): A spiritual master who left home at sixteen years of age after an experience of enlightenment to spend the remainder of his life at Arunachala Mountain, meditating and teaching those who came to him. Ramana Maharshi is considered to be the last of the line of authentic sages of the ancient tradition. Somerset Maugham visited the sage in 1938, and later used him as the model for the holy man in The Razor’s Edge.
Ramayana: the history of Sri Rama; the epic poem of 24,000 verses, written by Sri Valmiki. The Ramayana dramatizes the trials of the individual, represented by Sita, in spiritual evolution.
rani: queen in the Hindu kingdoms in
rishi: a divinely inspired poet or sage; usually refers to the original preceptors of the Vedas, the original Hindu scriptures.
Rishikesh: a traditional spiritual center of the Hindu sages and sadhus.
It lies at
the foot of the
The oldest Veda, therefore, it contains much historical information. It is the
only Veda that appears to have been partially formulated outside of
roti: flat, round, unleavened wheat bread that is baked on an iron griddle, often called chapati.
rudraksha: a seed from a tree found in the
rupee: the Indian unit of currency; in recent years the value has fluctuated between 25 and 50 rupees per U.S. dollar.
sadhana: spiritual practice; any discipline performed for the purpose of turning one’s mind from the world and applying it to the spiritual truths.
sadhu: a practitioner of spiritual and virtuous values; in common usage, a sannyasi or wandering mendicant.
Sama Veda: The third and most poetic of the Vedas, whose mantras are to be sung during the sacrificial fire ceremonies. It contains the Chandogya and Kena Upanishads.
samadhi (sama = steady + dhi = intellect): a calm and pure mind in all circumstances, whether sitting in meditation or acting in the world. Also, a trance-like experience of divine ecstasy.
sambhar: a thick soup made of toor dal, vegetables, chilies and spices.
samsara: the process of the wordly life through successive births and deaths.
sannyasa ashrama: the fourth ashrama in the four stages of the Hindu’s life. At this time, the life in the world is renounced for the purpose of attaining enlightenment. Vows are administered by a sannyasi renunciate.
sannyasi: one who has renounced the world by taking the sannyasa vows.
Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Truth): the eternal principle of life that is the essence of all religious teachings; that knowledge, which remains, unchanged in all periods of time and states of consciousness. The religion based on the Vedas, which is best known by its foreign label of Hinduism.
Sanskrit: that which is well, or completely, done. The oldest language of mankind; the language of the original Hindu scriptures, developed for the communication of spiritual ideas and concepts, not for dealing with worldly or mundane concerns.
Saraswati: goddess of speech and learning who is the consort of Brahma, the creator.
sat: the essence of being, the essential, the true.
sat-chit-ananda: term used to express the ultimate experience of oneness: sat = Truth, Existence; chit = intelligence, consciousness; ananda = divine bliss.
satsang: association or nearness with the virtuous; therefore, discussions with, or time spent in the presence of, spiritual masters.
sattva (n.), sattvic (adj.): one of the three modes (gunas) of manifestation: sattva = calm, peaceful; rajas = active, agitated; tamas = dull inactive.
Savitri: The divine Solar deity, or the vitalizing power behind the visible sun, immortalized in the Gayatri Mantra.
Self: The nearest English equivalent of the Sanskrit word “Atman”, the essential Divinity of an individual.
seva: noble, altruistic service.
sevak: one who does seva, or service.
Shankara: an epithet of Lord Shiva; see Shankaracharya, Adi.
Shankaracharya: title given to the head of each of the four mathas set up by Adi [first] Shankaracharya and their subsidiaries.
Shankaracharya, Adi (730-820 AD): the great master of Advaita Vedanta who synthesized the Vedantic
teaching with clear commentaries, wrote many scriptural books, as well as
composed beautiful devotional hymns; commonly referred to by the name: Shankara. He renovated and established temples and founded mathas in the four directions in
shastras: all the scriptures of the Hindu religion.
Shiva: the third god of the Hindu trinity who is entrusted with the task of destruction, thereby enabling regeneration.
Shivaratri: Shiva’s night; the fourteenth day of the dark half of the month Magha (February) on which a rigorous fast is observed in honor of Lord Shiva.
Shringeri: The matha in the South established by Adi Shankaracharya in approximately the seventh century.
Shruti [shru = to hear]: the Holy Scriptures that were heard by the ancient rishis through direct revelation; the Vedas.
Sri (m), Srimati (f): a title of respect used in direct address or in writing; equivalent to Mr. and Mrs. in English.
swami (m), swamini (f): the title used by a sannyasi who has taken the vows of renunciation; literally one who is with oneself.
Swamiji: term used when directly addressing a swami, the suffix “ji”added to a name indicates respect in direct address.
Tamil: the language of the Dravidians of South India, from which Malayalam is derived.
Tamil Nadu: the state of
tapas: to shine, blaze or converge inner heat. Austerities on the physical level include yoga postures; on the mental level, consistent concentration; on the intellectual level, applying the concentration and thought to a divine ideal.
Tilak, Bal Gangadar (1856-1920): One of
India’s first prominent nationalist leaders. His efforts towards
turya: the substratum in which the waking, dream and sleep are perceived in the phenomenal or waking point of view; for convenience, it is referred to as the fourth, or turya, state of consciousness. It can be compared to water, which appears in the three states of ice, liquid and steam.
the sacred thread ceremony for the bestowal of the Gayatri
Mantra. The ceremony for the purpose of “bringing near or leading to”the Truth is performed by a priest and presided over by
the father of the boy being initiated.
Upanishad (seated below): the culmination, or philosophical section, of each of the four Vedas that reveals the essential oneness between God and man. These treatises are believed to have been compiled from 800 to 500 BC. They were meant to be taught by an enlightened teacher to students of a humble and receptive attitude, that is both mentally and physically “seated below.”
upasana (seated near): being near to the Lord through continual mental visualization of his form.
Uttarkasi: the Himalayan mountain village that has been the residence of many sages, including Swami Tapovanam.
vanaprastha ashrama: the third stage of a Hindu’s life. As a forest-dweller, he lives in semi-retirement at the edge of the family estate where he is separate from the family, but available in an advisory capacity as his sons take over his former duties. He passes the day in contemplation and study of the Aranyaka section of the Vedas.
vasana: innate tendency. These subconscious tendencies color all levels of our personality: our perceptions, emotions, thoughts and actions. It is postulated that they are brought with us into this life from previous births.
Vedanta (end of knowledge): system of non-dualistic philosophy based on the Upanishads, which are found in the last section of the Vedas. Vedanta proves the non-difference between the individual Self (Atman) and the Supreme Self (Brahman).
Vedas: the four principal books of sacred knowledge: Rg, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. Each Veda is divined into four sections to guide the four ashramas (stages) of life. The first, or Samhita, section contains the many mantras, which are hymns, prayers and formulas to be used in the various rituals during the grahastha ashrama. The second, or Brahmana, section is commentary on the meaning of the mantras with directions for their use in various rituals to produce results in worldly endeavors. The third section consists of treatises for contemplation and study including the symbolic meanings of the elements of the rituals. These mental exercises are meant to be used by those of the vanaprastha ashrama. This section is therefore named the Aranyaka or forest treatises. The fourth section contains the philosophical treatises, the Upanishads, intended for the final realization by those in the sannyasa ashrama.