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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?

1. Does Hinduism have a founder?

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), Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, 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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2. What are the sacred texts of Hinduism?

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 Tantrasrecognised 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 and Sikhism.

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3. Do Hindus Worship Many Gods or One?

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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4. What do Hindus believe about the Nature of God?

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 on Him.

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 Dasha 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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5. What about Karma, Reincarnation and the Hindu view of time?

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 of samsara'.

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 Brahman. 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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6. What do the different gods represent?

Brahma- The Creator

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.

Vishnu - The Preserver (also known as Narayana, Hari, and by the names of his various incarnations)

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 step.


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 Tirupati is found at Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh.

Shiva - The Destroyer (also known as Maheshwara, Nataraja, Hara)

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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7. Do Hindus worship idols?

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 rejected.

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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8. What is the caste system?

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 jati (meaning 'birth caste' - as opposed to varna, meaning caste by personal characteristics and inclination) have been ostracised by the four recognised varnas.

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 the past.

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9. How do Hindus view other religions?

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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10. How do Yoga and meditation relate to Hinduism?

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 B.C.

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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11. What is meant by the AUM symbol?

AumAUM 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 its meaning.

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 time.

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 of time.

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 unchanged.

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 mantra.

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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12. Where can I find out more?

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 sites:

The Hindu Universe -
National Hindu Students Forum -

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The above information is provided purely to provide an introduction to some of the various facets of Hindu tradition and religion, and any opinions contained therein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of our membership.