Reporting on Hinduism

The goddess Lakshmi. Creative commons image by Natesh Ramasamy via Flickr
The goddess Lakshmi. Creative commons image by Natesh Ramasamy via Flickr

With nearly one billion followers, Hinduism is the third-largest organized religion in the world behind Christianity and Islam. 

Most Hindus are in India, but there is a growing population in the United States. Hindus often land in news reports when they are the object of a hate crime or act of discrimination or are targeted for conversion, when a temple is opening or installing deities or when there is a dispute over recognizing holidays in schools. Doing stories about Hindus often involves seeking them out.

This guide provides journalists with background information on Hinduism and a brief guide to covering Hinduism in the United States.

Background

Overview

Hinduism is the oldest surviving major religious tradition. Although few specifics can be known about its origins, it developed as a synthesis of religious movements in India, a country with an established history of more than 5,000 years. Thus, there is no single founder.

Here at Mira’s Temple the legendary Meera (Mira), the mystic poet and leading light of Bhakti movement, prayed to Lord Krishna in Chittorgarh Fort. Creative commons image by Koshy Koshy
Here at Mira’s Temple the legendary Meera (Mira), the mystic poet and leading light of Bhakti movement, prayed to Lord Krishna in Chittorgarh Fort. Creative commons image by Koshy Koshy

Prehistoric religious traditions existing in the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization, for which India was named, fused with Vedism, the sacrificial tradition of Indo-European settlers. The language of these Indo-Europeans developed into the ancient Indian Language of Sanskrit, closely related to Latin, Greek and English.

India’s proto-Hinduism Vedism tradition developed from the texts of the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. The Rig-Veda is the oldest surviving work, followed by Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda and the Atharva-Veda, which were all composed between 1500 and 800 BC and passed on through the oral tradition.

The six branches of Hindu philosophy developed in around the second century B.C.: Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta. The Bhakti movement, still influential today, developed out of the influence of the monotheistic religions Shaivism and the influence of Islamic rulers. Reform movements developed out of the 18th century colonial movement, inspired by western culture.

Branches & groups

Hindu sects

  • Vaishnavism

    Vaishnavism is the branch of Hinduism that sees Vishnu, or one of his reincarnations, as the Supreme God. Adherents to Vaishnavism are called Vaishnavites or Vaishnavas. Approximately 80 percent of Hindus are Vaishnavites. The Vedas, the Bhagavad Vita, the Bhagavata Purana, the Vishnu Samhita and the Gita Govinda are regarded as especially important in Vaishnavism. Vaishnavims is distinguished by its consideration of God as a personal being. Vaishnavism identifies six qualities of God: all knowledge, all power, supreme majesty, supreme strength, unlimited energy and total self-sufficiency.

  • Shaivism

    Shaivism (also written as Saivism and Shavism) is the branch of Hinduism that sees Siva as the Supreme God. It is regarded as the oldest Hindu denomination. Shaivism is prominent throughout India, with particular influence in Southern India and Sri Lanka. Shaivism is a very mystical denomination. Siva is considered to transcend physical form and is seen as symbolizing the entire universe. Shaivism emphasizes self-realization and attaining moshka (liberation).

  • Shaktism

    Shaktism is the branch of Hinduism that sees the goddess Devi as the Supreme deity. The Tantras, which were written as Shaktism was developing between the fourth and seventh centuries, are the only holy Hindu texts in which Devi takes the role of the Supreme, and as a result, they are particularly influential in Shaktism. Shaktism looks at the Supreme Goddess as the source of life and the controller of nature. Shaktism is seen by many as being complementary to Shaivism. Devi is represented as Shiva’s consort, so Shiva embodies the male principle and Devi embodies the female.

  • Smartism

    Smartism is the branch of Hinduism that worships five deities, Vishnu, Shiva, Surya, Ganesha and Devi. Any deity may be worshipped in Smartism. Adherents to Smartism are called Smartas. Smartas comprise the smallest of the four Hindu sects. In Smartism, all of the deities are regarded as equals, though individuals are allowed to give preference to one particular deity according to their personal beliefs. Smartism is linked to the ideology of Shankara. All of the Hindu epics and Puranic literature is accepted by Smartism.

Example Coverage

“India surprise: After visit, will religious freedom be Obama’s legacy?” Jan. 28, 2015, Udit Thakur, Christian Science Monitor

Speaking to a nation that last spring elected Mr. Modi, an ardent Hindu nationalist, to high office, Obama said:

“India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith, as long as it is not splintered along any lines, and it is unified as one nation.”

Since Obama and first lady Michelle Obama yesterday left for Saudi Arabia, the comments have gone viral and been hotly debated in the media. And they’ve been appreciated among religious minorities, Christian and Muslim alike. — Read more.

 

Abused Hindu goddesses recall violence against women

By Richard S. Ehrlich, Religion News Service
Sept. 13, 2013

(RNS) A new public campaign in India uses powerful images of three Hindu goddesses with bruised faces to raise awareness about violence against women.

The ad campaign is titled “Abused Goddesses” and portrays the beaten faces of three Hindu female deities: Saraswati, Durga and Lakshmi.

“Today more than 68 percent of women in India are victims of domestic violence,” the caption reads. “Tomorrow it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to,” the posters say. “Pray that we never see this day.”

The goddess Saraswati holds her Veena with a bruised face. RNS image courtesy HindustanTimes.com
The goddess Saraswati holds her Veena with a bruised face. RNS image courtesy HindustanTimes.com

The ads were created to raise funds for Save Our Sisters, an initiative of Save the Children India that “works to prevent the trafficking of young girls and women for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation,” according to the organization’s website.

“SOS also works as an advocacy group that sensitizes stakeholders such as the police, magistrates, tourism boards, and other government officials.”

The posters include an emergency hotline people can use if they are the victim of abuse or have information about a case.

A Mumbai-based advertising agency, Taproot India, created the posters. The firm won awards for its use of costumed female models photographed in traditional hand-painted Hindu renditions of the three goddesses.

Makeup artists added cosmetic touches to the models before they were photographed, to depict cuts and bruises on their faces.

Saraswati (also spelled Sarasvati) is the goddess of knowledge, music and art and is frequently portrayed playing a long, stringed sitar-like instrument. Durga is Lord Shiva’s divine spouse. She rides a tiger, and her multiple hands carry a conch shell and various weapons. Lakshmi is portrayed with lotus blossoms and gold coins.  She can help people attain goals, money and spiritual enlightenment.

Violence against women in India has been a serious problem for decades, and concern was heightened by the gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, 23, on a bus in New Delhi in December 2012.

Fresh cases of violence against women frequently occur across the country, though many attacks are not reported to police. More than 244,000 cases of violence against  women were reported to authorities during 2012, according to the BBC.

Core Beliefs

Overview

Hinduism is an unusual religion because there is no single founder, teacher or prophet, nor a set of beliefs; there are variations by community and region. 

Hinduism’s primary belief is that the soul does not die; it is reborn as either a human or animal every time the body dies. Under Hinduism’s rule of karma, every act affects how the soul will be reborn. This cycle of birth and rebirth continues until the soul achieves spiritual perfection and is united with the Supreme Being. 

Hinduism has many deities, which all are manifestations of one god. The primary trio is made up of Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva (also spelled Siva), the destroyer. Hindus believe that animals have souls, and some are worshipped as deities. These beliefs have evolved over several thousand years and are embedded in ritual, mystical and ascetic practices.

There is no single Hinduism. “Hinduism has never been a ‘creed’ with a set of beliefs,” writes Harvard University’s Diana Eck, “but rather a culture and way of life.” It is the third-largest organized religion in the world. Hindus believe in one transcendent Supreme Being, reincarnation and karma. In the 1980s and 1990s, the editors of Hinduism Today attempted to summarize nine core beliefs of Hinduism for non-Hindu readers encountering the faith for the first time.

Doctrine

Hinduism has an extensive textual tradition, the bulk of which addresses philosophy, mythology and theology. 

Issues of polytheism, monotheism and the relationship of the One to the Many arise frequently in these texts, most notably the Vedas. 

The concepts of dharma (spiritual living), moksa (release from the reincarnation cycle bringing ultimate peace) and karma (the judicious law of cause and effect) shape the discussions around foundations of Hinduism.

A priest distributes prasada to worshipers in Agara, Karnataka, India. Creative commons image by Harsha K.R.

Practice

Puja, or ritual praise, is an essential component of Hindu practice, which includes offerings to the deities and the sharing of food (prasada). The practice of prasada represents an acknowledgment of the generosity of life and possibility.

Society

This area of Hindu life is commonly associated with the caste system. There are four main classifications (varna) – Brahmins, or scholars and priests; Kshatriyas, or rulers and warriors; Vaishyas, or artisans; and Shudras, or laborers. 

There is a fifth group, which are considered the lowest on the totem pole in Hindu society — the “Untouchables.”

Story and performance

Narrative storytelling about the major deities is a cornerstone of Hindu life. Whether through spoken word or live performance, religious epics pass down stories of love, strife and dharma.

Bhakti

Bhakti is a tradition of devotion to a spiritual teacher or personal God. Devotional poems have been written throughout history to show a relationship between the participant and the deity.

Example coverage

“How Hindu-Americans Are Using Diwali To Teach About The Faith” — Oct. 23, 2014, Jaweed Kaleem, The Huffington Post

The last time Manav Lalwani celebrated the holiday Diwali in his parents’ home city of Mumbai, he was 6 years old. He remembers “lots, lots of fireworks and very little else.” Growing up Indian-American Hindu family that was heavily involved in its religious and cultural communities, Diwali, known as the “festival of lights,” was for him a time of prayer to the goddess Lakshmi, lighting diyas — small oil lamps — elaborate dinners with family and going out to see the latest Bollywood hit with friends.

But this year, the 27-year-old who lives in Secaucus, New Jersey, has traveled to India for one of the biggest and most widely observed Hindu holidays — Jains and Sikhs also celebrate it — in India’s biggest city. And he’s brought along four friends, including two who aren’t Hindu, to teach them what it’s about. — Read more.

Parents take teaching Hinduism into their own hands

By Megan Sweas, Religion News Service
Oct. 13, 2013

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (RNS) Children are usually the primary complainers about Sunday school, but when Mudita Bahadur started looking for excuses not to take her children to the Hindu temple on Sunday, she knew she had to make a change.

“One, it’s dogmatic and two, it’s inconvenient,” she said of the Hindu classes held a 45-minute drive away from her home in Santa Monica, Calif.

Manjusha Kulkarni (center left) and other moms play the role of Brahmin or priests, while their children, the untouchables, stand at the edge of the room during a lesson on caste. The self-organized Bal Kendra group teaches Hinduism from a progressive perspective.

Bahadur decided to take her children’s religious education into her own hands. For the past three years, she and other Indian parents have been teaching their children about religion in each other’s living rooms.

The do-it-yourself approach permits them to instill pride and progressive values in a traditional manner, the parents say.

Today, 10 families rotate hosting the Santa Monica Bal Kendra (children’s organization) one Sunday a month from 10 to noon. The children, ages 6 to 12, sit on the living room floor in a circle with a handful of parents surrounding them.

After Bahadur led the circle in Sanskrit prayers at a recent meeting, the host, Berkeley Sanjay, gave a lesson on the caste system. He directed the students to pick up their shoes, designating them as shoe cleaners — a category of untouchables — and move to the edge of the room. One leaned over the couch to get closer to her mom, who was playing the role of Brahmin, or priest. 

Sanjay forced the girl to step away. “Is this allowed?” he asked. “Can people holding onto shoes touch the Brahmin?”

After discussing how and why the caste system came to be, Sanjay asked the kids how they felt. Separated, frustrated, abandoned, they answered.

“People who are actually in that position probably feel much deeper,” 12-year-old Adya Mohanty, Sanjay’s daughter, said. She had learned about caste from a textbook in her sixth grade class, but she appreciated her father’s hands-on lesson. “Here, we considered whether it was right or wrong.”

At a Hindu temple, the religious leaders might be defensive about an issue like caste, said Manjusha Kulkarni, the executive director of South Asian Network and one of more progressive parents in the group.

Kulkarni says she never enrolled her daughters in a formal religious education program because she had bad experiences at temples. One priest, for instance, told her that women shouldn’t work outside the home, Kulkarni recalls. After Hurricane Katrina, another priest dismissed her five-year-old daughter’s questions about suffering.

“Here’s a child asking a question that’s really fundamental to religion — why do bad things happen to good people? And he’s not taking it seriously at all,” Kulkarni said.

The Bal Kendra group also attracted Kulkarni because it reminded her of the group she grew up with in Montgomery, Ala. “The reason we had to form it is because there wasn’t anything — there wasn’t an institution to go to,” she said of her childhood group.

Even today, temples are found only in large cities with a high concentration of Indian Americans, said Gordon Melton, a religion scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Melton said that fewer than 1 million of the 2.5 Indian Americans (not all of whom are Hindu) are affiliated with a Hindu temple even by “the loosest standards.” Hindu Americans are less likely to be affiliated with a congregation than other Americans, Melton said, because of the lack of temples and because Hinduism isn’t a congregational tradition.

Some American Hindus have stopped attending traditional temples and have instead taken on the role of religious educators themselves. RNS photo by Sally Morrow
Some American Hindus have stopped attending traditional temples and have instead taken on the role of religious educators themselves. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

“In the Christian church being part of a worshiping community and regularly attending worship is part of the demands of the faith,” he said. At Hindu temples, “you show up, you do your little ritual and then you leave.”

Still, Melton predicts the percentage of Hindu Americans affiliated with temples will increase as temples become more common and American Christianity influences Hinduism.

The religious education program that Bahadur didn’t like, for instance, is an American phenomenon — and it cannot expand fast enough, according to its director, Swami Ishwarananda of the Chinmaya Mission of Los Angeles.

“Sunday school is a very good format, and I’m sure that most of the kids here are aware of their own friends going,” he said.

The Los Angeles mission educates 1,300 students, age 4 to 18, at its Tustin headquarters in Orange County and at six satellite locations every Sunday. Still, there’s a waiting list for the classes.

Ishwarananda dismisses Bahadur’s concern that the program is dogmatic. “Every culture has its pluses and minuses,” he said.

Bahadur says formal religious education runs against the traditions of Hinduism.

 “It’s a very individual religion and when you start getting into these mass organizations, there has to be something that becomes more rule oriented in order to keep things organized,” she said.

Bahadur wants her 9- and 11-year-old children to take pride in their culture, but not uncritically.

As the Bal Kendra’s discussion of caste concluded, Bahadur pointed out that some use the Hindu concept of karma — which says that past lifetimes determine one’s dharma or place in society — to justify caste. 

“What can we take from [these concepts] that doesn’t have to do with the caste system?” Bahadur asked, proposing the question for the next month’s discussion.

The point of having such discussions in religious education, she said, is to encourage “the kids to always ask questions and not just swallow it whole.” 

Celebrations

Diwali

Diwali, the five-day Hindu festival of lights, is the most popular festival in the Hindu diaspora and is celebrated by Sikhs and Jains as well as Hindus. 

Singapore population includes a large South Indian origin population, who have celebrated Diwali and other Hindu festivals for over a century. Little India in Singapore decorated a week before Diwali. Creative commons image by Shankar S.
Singapore population includes a large South Indian origin population, who have celebrated Diwali and other Hindu festivals for more than a century. Little India in Singapore is decorated a week before Diwali. Creative commons image by Shankar S.

Though very popular in India, it is also popular in the United States, where the Hindu population has topped 1 million — tripling in 15 years.

Diwali symbolizes the victory of dharma, and good over evil. The word is a variation of the Sanskrit word “Deepavali” and refers to the rows of earthen lamps celebrants place around their homes. 

Hindus believe that the light from these lamps symbolizes the illumination within the individual that overwhelms ignorance, represented by darkness.

Diwali commemorates the return of the avatar Lord Ram (the incarnation of Lord Vishnu), his wife Sita and brother Lakshman to their capital, Ayodhya, after 14 years of exile. The residents of Ayodhya, overjoyed at the return of their beloved king, lit lamps in his honor. Thus, the entire city looked like a row of lights.

Diwali is also observed by Sikhs, who celebrate the release of the Sixth Guru, Hargobind, from captivity by the Mughal Emperor Jehangir, and Jains, who commemorate the day Lord Mahavira attained nirvana, or liberation, after his death in 527 B.C.

At Diwali, relatives and friends exchange food and gifts. 

At weddings, the families of the bride and bridegroom exchange gifts, otherwise, gift exchange is not central to mainstream Hindu tradition.

Holi

Holi is a spring festival celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and others in northern India. It marks the end of the winter season and the celebration of springtime flowers.

Durga Puja

Durga Puja is a five-day annual festival to celebrate the goddess Durga, including the worship of Shiva, Lakshmi, Ganesha, Saraswati and Kartikeya. It is the biggest biggest Hindu festival celebrated in Bangladesh.

Example Coverage

“Why these Hindus celebrate the Muslim festival of Moharram” — Nov. 5, 2014, Ishaan Tharoor, The Washington Post

Yesterday, Indian Shiites commemorated Ashura, which for them is a day of mourning that honors the martyrdom of the Imam Husain, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was supposedly killed at the 7th century Battle of Karbala. That historical event prefigured the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, and is remembered annually through passion plays known as the ta’ziyeh or taziya and startling scenes of ritual scouring and self-flagellation.

Joining the throngs in Delhi on Tuesday was an unusual community of mourners. They carried out their own taziya procession and beat their chests in lamentation. But they were Hindus, not Muslims. — Read more.

Holi festival a hit not only among Hindus

By Katherine Davis, Religion News Service
March 17, 2014

(RNS) India burst with color Monday (March 17), as Hindus observed the playful festival of Holi by dashing each other with brightly colored powder.

Americans partake of the spring festival, too. But at the largest Holi festival in the United States, the majority of participants won’t be Hindus — they’ll be Mormons.

“In Utah, if you go anywhere and mention the Festival of Colors to anybody, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about and their face will light up,” said Caru Das, priest at Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah, and the main organizer of the town’s Holi celebration, known as the Festival of Colors, which will be celebrated this year on March 29 and 30. 

Spanish Fork, about 10 miles south of Provo and Brigham Young University, has been home to a congregation of Hare Krishna devotees since 1982. They started hosting Holi celebrations in 1989. When festival organizers introduced rock bands into the mix, the thousands of young students up the road began to take notice. Das said the first few festivals had about 300 attendees; a few years later it was 3,000, then 10,000. In recent years, the numbers have been close to 70,000, spread out over two days.

“It’s one of the biggest events” in the area, said Garrett Gray, a Mormon and a sophomore business management major at BYU. “I’d say a huge majority of students go.”

Festival organizers have found a niche serving young people who want to have fun, but without the alcohol or drug use associated with other kinds of rock concerts or large festivals, Das said.

People of all ages celebrate Holi, the Festival of Colors, at the Hindu Temple & Cultural Center of Kansas City on March 30, 2013. RNS photo by Sally Morrow
People of all ages celebrate Holi, the Festival of Colors, at the Hindu Temple & Cultural Center of Kansas City on March 30, 2013. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

“It kind of worked out ideally,” Das said. “They can actually express themselves spiritually without the taint of unwanted activities going on in the same venue.”

While Mormon students make up a large portion of the crowd at the Spanish Fork Festival of Colors, they are not the only demographic represented. Sonal Yadav moved to Utah to pursue a master’s in business administration at BYU. A Hindu, raised in New Delhi, she said Holi has always been her favorite holiday.

Yadav said she was thrilled to discover Spanish Fork had a Holi festival. “I went both days,” she said. “I had a blast. I really enjoyed myself!”

In India, most Hindus celebrate Holi with spontaneous games between friends or neighbors, so Yadav said Spanish Fork’s festival, which has a $3 admission fee, a concert stage and a formal countdown to kick off the color throwing, is not exactly like home. But the friendly and fun atmosphere, she said, is the same.

Yadav’s only criticism of the event, which celebrates renewal and love of the divine, is that some of the religious elements of the holiday seem to get lost in translation.

For example, she said the young Mormons at the festival happily chanted “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna,” the god the festival celebrates. But she added: “I would be surprised if those youngsters really knew what the festival was all about.”

Gray agreed that he and most of his friends were in the dark about the meaning behind the colors.

“To be honest, I really don’t know what it symbolizes for their religion, and I think the majority of people there feel that same way,” Gray said.

But Das said the intention of the festival is to create a welcoming space for people of all faiths. Das is continuing to grow his festivals to “let everyone experience this wonderful event.” The Festival of Colors, in its 25th year, now has events in seven cities across the Western U.S., including Las Vegas and Los Angeles. But Spanish Fork’s festival, with its surprising blend of Mormon and Hindu attendees, remains the largest.

“I imagine there’s probably a few people who would argue that it’s not consistent with our beliefs,” Gray said, “but for the most part, I love to embrace and appreciate all cultures and religions.”

Yadav said her Mormon peers have been very welcoming to her as a Hindu and she credits their cultural sensitivity with their missions work abroad.

She said she chose BYU because she wanted a school with strong family values, said that even after two years on the mostly Mormon campus, she feels her Hindu faith has only grown stronger. Having engaged in religious discussions with her classmates and attended a few Mormon services with her friends, she said she sees strong parallels between the religions.

“When you put colors on your face you cannot make out one from another who the person is,” she said. “Really, it’s the colors of brotherhood, love and friendship.” 

Scripture

There are many sacred texts in Hinduism. The best-known include the Gitas, Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads.

The Gitas

  • The Devî Gita

    This is a translation of the Devi Gita by Swami Vijnanananada.

  • The Bhagavad Gita

    This epic is actually book six of the Mahabharata, but often stands on its own. It is told as a dialogue between Krishna and the soldier Arjuna on a battlefield before the fighting begins. It was composed about 200 B.C. Sacred-Texts.com has an online translation by Edwin Arnold.

The Vedas

  • The Rig Veda

    This is the Ralph T.H. Griffith English translation of the Rig Veda. This was one of the first e-texts developed for this site. Each page of this is cross-linked with the Sanskrit text of the Rig Veda.

  • The Sama Veda

    The Sama Veda, or Veda of Holy Songs, third in the usual order of enumeration of the three Vedas, ranks next in sanctity and liturgical importance to the Rig Veda, or the Veda of Recited Praise. Its Sanhita, or metrical portion, consists chiefly of hymns to be chanted by the Udgatar priests at the performance of those important sacrifices in which the juice of the Soma plant, clarified and mixed with milk and other ingredients, is offered in libation to various deities. The collection is made up of hymns, portions of hymns and detached verses, taken mainly from the Rig Veda, transposed and re-arranged, without reference to their original order, to suit the religious ceremonies in which they were to be employed.

  • The Yajur Veda

    Translation from the original Sanskrit of the Veda of the Black Yajus School, titled Taittiriya Sanhita.

  • The Atharva Veda

    This is the Ralph T.H. Griffith translation of the Atharvaveda. The Atharvaveda is a Vedic-era collection of spells, prayers, charms and hymns. There are prayers to protect crops from lightning and drought, charms against venomous serpents, love spells, healing spells and hundreds of verses, some derived from the Rig Veda, that are all very ancient.

The Puranas

  • The Puranas

    The Puranas are a narrative of the history of the cosmos from creation to destruction. There are 17 or 18 divided into categories named for the Hindu deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

  • The Vishnu Purana

    This is a translation of the Vishnu Purana by Horace Hayman Wilson.

  • The Garuda Purana

    This is a translation by Ernest Wood of an abridged version of the Garuda Purana.

The Upanishads

  • The Upanishads

    These are mystical texts often written in the form of dialogues between deities and men. They were composed between 400 and 200 B.C. Sacred-Texts.com has an online translation by Max Müller.

The S’rîmad Devî Bhâgawatam

The Prem Sagar of Lallu Lal

The Mahabharata

  • The Mahabharata

    The Mahabharata is an ancient religious epic originally composed in Sanskrit. It tells of the many adventures of Krishna.

The Ramayana

  • The Ramayana

    This is an epic tale of the adventures of the deity Rama who fights to free his love, Sita, from the hold of Ravan, the King of Ceylon. Sacred-Texts.com has an online translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith.

Example Coverage

Is yoga religious? An Indian court mulls mandatory school exercises

By Vishal Arora and Anuradha Sharma, Religion News Service
Oct. 28, 2013

NEW DELHI (RNS) The Supreme Court of India is weighing whether yoga has a religious element, as it decides if public schools may teach the ancient discipline in the country where it originated.

India’s school policy considers yoga an integral component of physical education. But the court has expressed caution, and is considering arguments that yoga has a religious component. 

The issue is complicated because India is a secular democracy but has pockets of Hindu nationals who would like to force their way of life on others.

Private yoga instructor Shailendra Singh (far right) leads a group of young professionals at The Yoga Guru club in Noida in Delhi's suburbs. RNS photo by Vishal Arora
Private yoga instructor Shailendra Singh (far right) leads a group of young professionals at The Yoga Guru club in Noida in Delhi’s suburbs. RNS photo by Vishal Arora

“Can we be asking all the schools to have one period for yoga classes every day when certain minority institutions may have reservations against it?” the courtasked Oct. 18, referring to Christian and Muslim groups.

The issue is affecting other countries too. In July, a California judge ruled that the teaching of yoga in public schools does not establish a government interest in religion. 

The decision came after parents sued the Encinitas Union School District to stop yoga classes introduced to elementary schoolchildren in the upscale suburb just north of San Diego.

India’s two petitioners want the court to direct all schools run or funded by the federal government to include yoga as a subject in the first through eighth grades. They cite the 2005 National Curriculum Framework, which says yoga is vital for health and physical education.

“Yoga is man-making and character building education, which is so essential in modern materialistic age,” said Jagdish Chander Seth, a lawyer who is one of the petitioners.

Seth explained that the word “yoga” literally means “union with God,” and the discipline was developed “with intense effort of Great Rishis (spiritual leaders) since time immemorial.”

But he added that yoga had no connection with any particular religion. “(Yoga) is a path for spiritualism through healthy body and mind,” and schools should teach it as “science of breathing and physical postures,” he said.

Sanskrit words like “pranayama” and “Om” could be substituted with other words, he suggested.

Pranayama are breathing exercises, some of which involve chanting of “Om,” a mystical Sanskrit sound considered sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.

But some Christian and Muslim leaders oppose the move.

“Yoga, as it is currently practiced in India, is not merely a physical exercise. It has a strong component of faith to it,” said John Dayal, a Christian leader and member of the National Monitoring Committee for Minority Education.

“Some of the exercises, such as surya namaskar (sun salutation), have a strong religious overtone. … It is not possible to purge religious tones from yoga,” he said.

Mohammad Salim, national secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a Sunni Muslim organization in India, said most Muslims will not accept yoga as a compulsory subject.

“Some forces are using yoga to strengthen their agenda of cultural nationalism,” he said. “Yoga can’t be made compulsory in India, which is a secular democracy.”

However, Umer Ahmed Iyasi, the chief imam of the All India Organization of Imams of Mosques, believes yoga is just physical exercise, and part of India’s rich heritage and culture.

India’s most popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev is accused of promoting Hindu nationalism alongside yoga.

Of India’s 1.2 billion people, 80 percent are Hindu, 13 percent are Muslim and 2 percent are Christian. The Indian Constitution guarantees a certain autonomy to minorities to administer their institutions. Many students from minority communities go to schools run or aided by the government, which account for about 80 percent of all schools in the country.

Major Issues

Overview

As with any immigrant group, the question of how much to assimilate into American society and culture is a major one for Hindus born overseas. 

Below are some issues involving assimilation that are of concern to Hindus in America.

Identity

  • Determining what it means to be Hindu in America. Raising their American-born children in their faith has forced immigrant parents to define Hinduism’s beliefs and doctrines to an extent that they would not have had to do in India or other places where the religion is indigenous.
  • Constructing temples. Issues concerning the construction of Hindu temples in the U.S. have to do with freedom of religion, land use and the challenges of satisfying the religious needs of a diverse Hindu-American population. One U.S. temple may have to serve Hindus from Northern and Southern India, Guyana and the Caribbean, as well as their American-born children. Conflict can arise over style of architecture, selection of temple deities and priests. Temples in America also serve a range of purposes that Indian temples do not, with many functioning as community meeting halls, cultural resource centers and religious education schools as well as places of worship. In June 2006, the first national meeting of Hindu mandir (temple) executives was held in Atlanta. Executives came from 57 temples in more than 20 states, Canada and the Caribbean Islands. They passed resolutions on pan-Hinduism in North America, textbooks and community service. See the group’s website.
  • Monitoring textbooks. This has been a growing concern among American Hindus since 2005, when California proposed the adoption of nine school textbooks that some Hindus felt misrepresented their religion and were otherwise discriminatory. In September 2006, a California judge ruled that the state did not have to withdraw the textbooks but agreed that the process by which they are adopted is unfair. Out of the conflict, the Hindu Education Foundation was formed, and it now holds educational seminars for educators and parents in other states.

Example coverage

“In Minnesota, Big Moment for a Temple for Hindus” — June 28, 2009, Christina Capecchi, The New York Times

MAPLE GROVE, Minn. — Amid the soybean fields and silos on the outskirts of this town, a testament to the Hindu faith, a 43,000-square-foot temple, has risen.

The location, direction (facing east) and elevation (at the highest point in the vicinity) of the building have been chosen according to Hindu rules. Even the minute of the temple’s final consecration — 12:01 p.m. Sunday — was chosen because it was considered the most auspicious time. — Read more.

Discrimination

Responding to insensitivity, intolerance and hate crimes. Hindus are joining together to defend their faith and educate others in response to temple vandalism (in Minnesota) and recent remarks by public officials, including then-Sen. George Allen, R-Va., (who in August 2006 called a man of Indian heritage a “macaca”) and then-U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Fla. (who the same month said that to elect non-Christians would be to “legislate sin”). These efforts to educate communities have resulted in growing interfaith contact.

Example coverage

“Bringing South Asian stories to Seattle’s screens” — Oct. 28, 2014, Laila Kazmi, PBS News Hour

When Rita Meher screened her first short film, she had no idea that it would lead to a career devoted to bringing South Asian stories to the Pacific Northwest. It was 2002 and, as an immigrant from India, she had only been a U.S. citizen for about a year.

”I had never made a film before, didn’t know anything about making films.”

The film, which she screened for a small audience in Seattle, was based on a personal encounter that Meher had in the days after 9/11 attacks.

“I experienced racial slurs, I was told, ‘Go back to your own [expletive] country,’ and there was a beer bottle thrown at my window,” said Meher. “It shook me up and my friend suggested, ‘Why don’t you make a film about it and tell people about it instead of keeping it to yourself?’”

Meher did just that, and she and her friend went on to form an organization called Tasveer, meaning ‘picture’ in Hindi and Urdu. — Read more.

Advocacy

  • Working to get Hindu holidays recognized by school districts and businesses. New York now takes religious holidays, including Hindu ones, into account when scheduling exams. New Jersey schools recognize Diwali as a holiday, but Tampa, Fla., recently did away with school off-days for religious holidays altogether, prompting angry responses from many parents.
  • Becoming politically involved. As with other immigrant groups, Hindu-Americans feel pulled in two directions politically. Those who are American citizens know that becoming involved in American politics is a major path to assimilation. But most also feel deep political ties to their country of origin. Striking a comfortable balance can be difficult. The Hindu American Foundation divides its resources among a number of political causes, lobbying American Congress members on a range of issues, from human rights in India to wider recognition of Diwali as a holiday.
  • Promoting language. There is a small but growing move to promote the speaking of Sanskrit, the classical language of India and the liturgical language of Hinduism, among the Hindu diaspora, especially in America. The move was started by a group of students at the University of Maryland and young professionals from the same area. They launched a website in July 2006.

Example Coverage

“New Battleground In Textbook Wars: Religion in History” — Jan. 25, 2006, Daniel Goldman, The Wall Street Journal

The victors write the history books, the saying goes. But increasingly, religious advocates try to edit them.

Religious pressure on textbooks is growing well beyond Christian fundamentalists’ attack on evolution. History books are the biggest battleground, as groups vie for changes in texts for elementary and secondary schools that cast their faiths in a better light.

Two Hindu groups and a Jewish group have been set up in the past three years as textbook watchdogs, adding to Islamic advocates who have monitored history textbooks since 1990. In addition, some Sikhs have started to complain about being short-changed in history textbooks. — Read more.

 

Hindu group wants a monument on Oklahoma Capitol grounds

By Greg Horton, Religion News Service
Dec. 11, 2013

OKLAHOMA CITY (RNS) A few days after a group of Satanists announced plans to donate a memorial on the grounds of the Oklahoma Capitol, a Hindu organization said it would apply for permission to erect a statue of Hanuman.

The two groups suggested that Oklahoma legislators opened the door to such displays when they pushed through a bill in 2009 giving permission for a Ten Commandments monument to be placed on the Capitol grounds.  The monument, paid for with private funds, was placed there in 2012.

Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, issued a press release Tuesday (Dec. 10) announcing the group’s intention to apply. Zed said the design would follow.

Hanuman, the monkey king, is an important deity in Hinduism, the world’s third largest faith. He is most popular among devotees of the avatar Lord Ram and others following a devotional path. There are more temples and roadside shrines to Hanuman than to any other deity in all of North India. For Hindus, Hanuman is one of the finest exemplars of a life of love and service of God.

The Ten Commandments monument is the subject of a lawsuit filed by Baptist minister Bruce Prescott and the American Civil Liberties Union. The monument is also the reason groups are now filing for permission to place additional monuments — an equal-access issue of which Oklahoma legislators were aware when they passed the legislation.

Rep. Earl Sears, a Republican from Bartlesville, Okla., who called the Satanist monument offensive, was less inclined to speak directly about a Hindu monument.

“We have a system in place to process these requests,” Sears said. “I stand by my comments that we are a faith-based nation, and I know that once you open the door on this sort of thing that you can’t know where or how it will end up. We’ll just let the system work.”

Trait Thompson, chairman of the Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Commission, which approves all monuments, declined to comment, saying only that a good-faith application would be voted on by the commission. 

Demographic Information

Overview

Indian pilgrims wait for the sunrise at Kanniyakmari, Tamil Nadu, India. Creative commons image by Patrik M. Loeff
Indian pilgrims wait for the sunrise at Kanniyakmari, Tamil Nadu, India. Creative commons image by Patrik M. Loeff

There is disagreement about the number of Hindus in the U.S. Temples do not require membership, so there is no official count. There have been few surveys, and results have varied depending on the way information was collected and how questions were phrased. Current estimates range from three-quarters of a million to 1.2 million.

Temple affiliation

  • The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York reported religious affiliation of adults in the United States: Although less than 1 percent – 766,000 adults – reported themselves as Hindu, that represents a more-than-threefold increase since the 227,000 in 1990. Fifty-two percent of Americans said they are Protestant, .5 percent are Catholic, 14.1 percent “no religion,” 1.3 percent Jewish and 0.5 percent Muslim or Islamic.

Adherents

  • The World Christian Database at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that there are slightly more than 1.1 million Hindus in America.
  • The Pluralism Project of Harvard University maintains a page on religious statistics and relies on various sources to count 1.2 million Hindus in the U.S. The project lists Hindu temples and centers in the U.S.

Example Coverage

Orlando retirement complex caters to aging Hindu immigrants

By Sraavani Pere, Religion News Service
Feb. 5, 2013

(RNS) Fifty years after they began arriving from India, the first generation of Indian-Americans is retiring and finding itself in a quandary.

Although many have the resources to live comfortably in retirement, some still depend on their children and suffer from social isolation as they navigate old age in an adopted country.

The problem is likely to grow as the influx of Indian immigrants rises; the country’s estimated 2.8 million Indian Americans are second only to Chinese Americans as the nation’s largest Asian population.

“Indians came here in the late ’60s mostly as professionals and focused on building their careers and educating their children,” said Rajeshwar Prasad, president of the National Indo-American Association for Senior Citizens. “They never really planned anything for their retirement.”

While numerous organizations have emerged to provide Indian-Americans with senior day care, in-home respite and adult education, such services are mostly temporary solutions.

Recognizing the problem, information technology professional Iggy Ignatius started a gated community in Orlando, Fla., developed specifically for Indian-American seniors. This community, called “ShantiNiketan,” or “abode of peace” in Sanskrit, has been his long-cherished dream.

The India-born Ignatius saw retirement housing communities mushrooming all over the country, especially those catering to specific health and lifestyle needs.

He also understood that Indian-Americans can feel out of place in many retirement communities. Their need for Indian food, Hindu prayer rooms or even companions who can speak their mother tongue could pose potential challenges.

So Ignatius bought land in Orlando, Fla., in 2008, and with the help of friends and veterans in the community, he started constructing Phase 1 of ShantiNiketan.

With 54 condos and a common clubhouse for dining and recreation, ShantiNiketan is a snug haven for seniors of Indian origin. Everything at the complex is Indian, starting with the food offered to the Hindu gods displayed in the prayer room.

Tara Choksi after the prayer and meditation at Shantiniketan, located in Tavares, Fl. Shantiniketan is a gated retirement community catering to Indian immigrants. Residents dine on vegetarian meals, partake in daily yoga as well as Bhajans (prayer) everyday at noon. Some women dress in traditional sarees and their is a strong sense of community. RNS photo by Julie Fletcher
Tara Choksi after the prayer and meditation at Shantiniketan, located in Tavares, Fl. Shantiniketan is a gated retirement community catering to Indian immigrants. Residents dine on vegetarian meals, partake in daily yoga as well as Bhajans (prayer) everyday at noon. Some women dress in traditional sarees, and there is a strong sense of community. RNS photo by Julie Fletcher

“ShantiNiketan is the first retirement housing plan targeting a specific immigrant group in the country,” said Ignatius. “Orlando was the obvious choice because of its tropical climate and proximity to tourist attractions like Disney World, giving children and grandchildren incentive to visit their parents in ShantiNiketan.”

A two-bed, two-bath condo costs approximately $160,000, with a monthly expense of $800 per person including food, housekeeping and taxes.

Resident Ashwin Pandya, a retired doctor from New York, describes life in ShantiNiketan as “mini India.” Pandya enjoys the social life and conveniences of the community.

Ignatius and his team have designed a schedule to keep occupants engaged and entertained with meals, yoga, music classes and Bollywood movies in the clubhouse. The staff makes it a point to celebrate all Indian festivals.

“After my daily activities, I just sit under a tree and chat with my friends,” Pandya said. “That happens only in ShantiNiketan.”

The project has proven to be a financial success. All 54 condos in the first phase have sold; a second phase of 120 condos is under construction. Ignatius plans to have an assisted-living facility with round-the-clock nursing services within the premises by 2014.

“More and more people are entering the phase of life I am in now,” added Pandya, the retired doctor. “They have their children here, but their hearts are in India. ShantiNiketan is best suited for such people.”

Notes on Coverage

General guidelines

  • Do not refer to Hindu deities as gods or goddesses. Hindus worship deities, which are representations of the one god they believe in; they are monotheistic, like Christians, Jews and Muslims. Hindu worship involves meditating, chanting and worshipping icons of the deities, which can include bathing them and making offerings to them. Deities are represented by statues or pictures (murti) in temples.
  • Do not confuse Hindu with Hindi, which is a language.
  • Do not assume all Hindus have the same beliefs and practices. Hinduism is not one religion but is a collection of traditions with great variations among them. In India, beliefs and practices vary widely by region.

American life

  • Explore ways that Hindus are adapting rituals to American life (home altars, arranged marriages, house blessings) or passing on their faith to American-born generations.
  • Many Americans’ introduction to Hinduism is through the spiritual practice of yoga, which is sometimes adopted by other faiths or stripped of spiritual content altogether.
  • In America, variation in beliefs are sometimes maintained, but are often not.
  • In India, the various Hindu traditions are often at odds —sometimes violently—with each other. The same is sometimes true among Hindus in the United States. This is a sensitive topic, but Hindus are aware of it.

Visiting a Hindu temple

  • Casual clothing is permitted. Shoes should be removed before entering the sanctuary.
  • Worshipers sit or stand in a room called the natmandir.
  • Arriving late and leaving early are both generally acceptable, but attendees should be silent except when chanting.
  • Priests lead the service. Panditji is a term used to address a priest.
  • Guests should address a monk as Swamiji.
  • Statues or pictures represent deities.
  • A round black stone called the narayana shalagram symbolizes totality in service.
  • Other ritual related objects in service are flowers, incense, water from the Ganges River and lamps with five wicks dipped in clarified butter.
  • Guests can choose to participate or not participate.
  • Cameras with flash, video cameras and tape recorders can be used with the permission of the priest.

Special terms

  • Mantras: Repeated prayers
  • Murti: A statue or picture representing a deity
  • Prasad: Sacremental food
  • Thakur: Lord or God

International sources

South America

  • Argentina Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center

    The Argentina Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center is an organization that promotes Hinduism and Hindu Dharma throughout Argentina. The website offers current news articles, additional associations on Hinduism and resources on celebrations and festivals.

  • Ashram Vrajabhumi

    Ashram Vrajabhumi is an organization in Brazil that offers resources for “simple living and high thinking” through Hindu meditation and prayer.

  • Hindu Society of Berbice

    The Hindu Society of Berbice is a nonprofit religious organization in Guyana that promotes and preserves Sanatan Dharma and Hindu culture by engaging its community in Hindu projects, programs and activities.

    Contact: 592-333-3429.

Canada

  • Canadian Hindu Advocacy

    The Canadian Hindu Advocacy organization works to defend, support and promote Hinduism and religious tolerance throughout the country.

  • Canada Sri Ayyappan Hindu temple

    The Canada Sri Ayyappan Hindu temple in Ontario is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to the promotion of the preachings of Lord Ayyappa and the education of cultural values of Hindu Dharma of the community.

  • Mandakranta Bose

    Mandakranta Bose is a professor emerita at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She is an expert on the Ramayana.

  • Hindu Federation

    The Hindu Federation in Canada is an organization that unites the different Hindu temples across the country and provides resources on the practices, beliefs and history of the religion.

  • Sindhi Cultural Association of Toronto

    Sindhi Cultural Association of Toronto is an organization that works to serve the Sindhi community in Canada and educate the community on Sindhi beliefs, culture and heritage.

  • Voice of Dharma

    Voice of Dharma in Canada is an organization that is dedicated to promoting Hinduism within the community by promoting Hindu festivals and services, and by providing resources on Hindu scriptures and prayers.

  • Leslie Orr

    Leslie C. Orr is a professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal. One of her areas of specialty is Hinduism in the West. She is the author of the book Donors, Devotees and Daughters of God: Temple Women in Medieval Tamilnadu.

  • Arvind Sharma

    Arvind Sharma is a professor of comparative religion at McGill University in Montreal and specializes in modern Hindu thought. He is the author of Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction.

  • Katherine K. Young

    Katherine K. Young is a professor of Hinduism at McGill University in Montreal. She specializes in comparative ethics between the religions of South India.

Europe

  • Bhaktivedanta College

    Bhaktivedanta College, located in Belgium, is an international institution that serves the educational needs of spiritually minded students. The college is able to do this by applying Krishna conscious principles to contemporary lifestyles and by educating its students on the history and practices associated with Hinduism.

  • Hindu Council UK

    The Hindu Council UK is an organization in the United Kingdom that works to unite the Hindu community, while representing their different denominations, to provide them with a more effective voice on policy matters with the government. The organization also works to promote the education of the general public on Hinduism.

  • Hindu Forum of Britain

    The Hindu Forum of Britain (HFB) is the largest umbrella body for British Hindus with more than 350 member organizations throughout the United Kingdom. HFB works in public policymaking, project development for the Hindu community and interfaith development with other faith communities in Britain.

  • Hindu Forum of Europe

    The Hindu Forum of Europe, based in Belgium, was founded in 2006 with the mission to promote education on Hinduism throughout Europe and to provide a unity of Hindu organizations throughout the continent.

  • Hindu Temple of Scotland

    The Hindu Temple of Scotland in Glasgow is a nonprofit organization that promotes Hinduism and supports local Hindu communities by providing educational classes on the religion and opportunities and resources to practice it.

  • Indian Sindhi Association of Madrid (ISAOM)

    The Indian Sindhi Association of Madrid (ISAOM) is an organization that promotes Sindhi culture within Madrid by hosting and supporting local practices and festivals associated with Hinduism.

  • Italian Hindu Union (Unione Induista Italia)

    The Italian Hindu Union (Unione Induista Italia) is an organization located in Italy that works for the protection, coordination, practice and study of culture and Hindu religion.

  • Monastic Order Vaisnava

    The Monastic Order Vaisnava, under the spiritual guidance of Srila Bhakti Bibudha Bodhayan Maharaja, is a French organization that provides resources on Hindu history, scriptures, practices, philosophies and conferences.

  • National Council of Hindu Temples UK (NCHTUK)

    The National Council of Hindu Temples UK (NCHTUK) is an organization that links over 200 Hindu temples and faith organizations throughout the country. The organization works to benefit the Hindu communities around the U.K.

  • Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple Berlin

    The Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in Berlin is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to the promotion of Hinduism in Berlin and Germany by providing resources on religious customs, traditions and practices in Hinduism.

Middle East

  • Ananda Marga

    Ananda Marga is a global network of centers in nearly every country that provides support and education focused on the welfare of humanity and the world. The organization promotes meditation centers, schools, children’s homes, food distribution centers, disaster relief organizations and community development projects. The organization’s mission is twofold; “self-realization and the welfare of the universe.”

    The organization has a location in the Lebanon.

  • Indian Community Association of Egypt

    The Indian Community Association of Egypt is an online organization that unites Indian communities across Egypt by providing updates and news on Hindu activities and events within the communities and its members.

  • Yoga of Love

    Yoga of Love is an organization in Jerusalem that encourages mental and physical improvements in daily life through the integration of daily yoga. The website provides information and resources on the philosophies of yoga, such as vegetarianism, education for universal values, relationship building, community life and social contribution.

Asia

  • Brahma Kumaris

    Brahma Kumaris is a spiritual, educational institution that works to promote humanism, tolerance and enthusiasm for spreading Hinduism across the globe. The institute is located in India.

  • Hindu Association of Hong Kong

    The Hindu Association of Hong Kong serves nearly 100,000 Hindus from South, South East and Far East Asia. Contact the temple priest, Shri. Hiro Sharma.

  • Indian Community Activities Tokyo (ICAT)

    Indian Community Activities Tokyo (ICAT) is an association of Indians living in the Kanto area of Japan. The website provides updated information on festivities and and community activities within the Hindu community in Japan.

    Contact: 045-681-7181.
  • Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture

    The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture provides educational resources on religions around the world, including each of their different practices, beliefs and histories. It is based in Kolkata, India.

  • Sri Ranganathar Swamy Temple

    The Sri Ranganathar Swamy Temple in India has a website that provides resources on Hindu worship, temples, festivals and practices. It is based in Tamil Nadu, India.

  • Singapore Dakshina Bharatha Brahmana Sabha

    The Singapore Dakshina Bharatha Brahmana Sabha is an organization that provides resources on Hinduism, such as practices, festivals, current news and links to other informational resources. Contact the president, Sri G Srinivasan.

Organizations

Think Tanks and University Centers

  • The American Institute of Indian Studies

    The American Institute of Indian Studies is a consortium of universities and colleges in the United States at which scholars actively engage in teaching and research about India. It is at the University of Chicago.

  • The Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions

    The Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions is at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It is the nation’s first Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions, and it works to encourage the teaching, understanding and research of Hindu culture.

  • Hindu University of America

    The Hindu University of America in Orlando, Fla., is the only university in the West entirely dedicated to the study of all things Hindu.

  • The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies

    The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies in Oxford, England, is one of the largest and most comprehensive centers for the study of Hinduism in the West.

    Contact: +44 01865 304300.

National Political, Cultural, and Social Organizations

  • Hindu American Foundation

    The Hindu American Foundation is an advocacy organization for the Hindu American community. The foundation educates the public about Hinduism, speaks out about issues affecting Hindus worldwide and builds bridges with institutions and individuals whose work aligns with HAF’s objectives. HAF focuses on human and civil rights, public policy, media, academia and interfaith relations. It is based in Washington, D.C.

    Contact: 202-223-8222.
  • Hindu Mandir Executives’ Conference

    Hindu Mandir Executives’ Conference (HMEC) is an annual initiative seeking development of network between the executives of all Hindu mandirs of America. HMEC strives to create a Hindu-American community rooted in its traditions and enhancing the American society.

  • Hindu Students Council

    The Hindu Students Council describes itself as “an international forum that provides opportunities to learn about Hindu heritage through various activities, events and projects” on college campuses in the United States and abroad.

  • The Hindu Temple Society of North America

    The Hindu Temple Society of North America is based within the Ganesh Temple in Flushing, N.Y. Its president is Dr. Uma Mysorekar.

  • South Asian Journalists Association

    The South Asian Journalists Association posts links to Hindu community leaders across the United States and provides resources on legal issues, immigration and hate crimes as they relate to South Asians, including Hindus.

  • Campus Samskritam

    Campus Samskritam is a network of students, alumni and faculty of several universities spread across the U.S. aimed to promote the learning and usage of spoken Sanskrit among the campus communities. Under the guidance of Samskrita-Bharati, the Campus Samskritam network helps organize workshops, regular study groups and other Sanskrit related activities in several places in and around various campuses through which students learn to speak in Sanskrit.

  • Vedic Foundation

    The Vedic Foundation is a nonprofit that works “to re-establish the greatness of Hinduism.” The foundation, which is based in Austin, Texas, was a major plaintiff in the California textbook controversy.

  • Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) of America

    The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) of America is an organization that works to promote Hinduism among transplanted Hindis and to educate others about the religion. Its president is Abhaya Asthana. It is based in Houston, Tex.

Youth/Summer Camp

  • Hindu Heritage Summer Camp

    The Hindu Heritage Summer Camp is a summer camp program designed to help Hindu youth reconcile their religion with what it means to be an American. It is an example of one of many Hindu camps across the country. The India Community Center in Rochester, N.Y., runs it. Padmanabh Kamath is the camp’s president.

Leaders and religious centers

Gurus in the United States

A number of religious teachers have migrated from India to America, and a few are American-born. Here is a list of the more prominent gurus who have roots in Hinduism and have large followings in the United States as well as around the world.

  • Mata Amrtanandamayi Devi

    Mata Amrtanandamayi Devi, also known as Ammachi or Amma, is called the “hugging saint.” Her main ashram is in New York City.

  • Gurumayi Chidvilasananda

    Gurumayi Chidvilasananda is the leader of Siddha Yoga, which was founded by Baba Muktananda. There are ashrams and meditation centers around the world. In the U.S., there are ashrams in New York, Boston and Oakland, Calif.

    Contact: 845-434-2000.
  • Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

    Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is credited with bringing Transcendental Meditation to the West. TM was a major component of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and had many celebrity adherents, including the Beatles and Mia Farrow. He died in 2008, but since 9/11, his followers have pursued “the Maharishi effect,” a power they believe can be found in collective meditation that can be used for good.

    Contact: 1-888-532-7686.
  • Mother Meera

    Mother Meera is an India-based guru with an ashram in Colorado.

  • Sai Baba

    Sai Baba was an Indian-born guru who claimed between 6 million and 100 million adherents and 130 centers around the world before his death in 2011. He taught the unity of all world religions as different paths to the same God. Sai Baba’s followers credit him with many miracles.

Hindu Teachers and Clergy

  • Gautam Jain

    Gautam Jain is a teacher of Vedanta based at the Vedanta Cultural Foundation in Somerset, N.J.

  • Naranji Durlabhji Pandya

    Naranji Durlabhji Pandya is the temple priest at the Hindu American Religious Institute in New Cumberland, Pa.

    Contact: 717-774-7750.
  • Pravrajika Vrajaprana

    Pravrajika Vrajaprana is a nun at the Vedanta Society of Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara, Calif. She says two issues confronting contemporary Hinduism are how it is practiced differently outside of India and how Hindus identify themselves – as Hindus or Indians or citizens of the countries in which they live now. Those answers can affect the way they practice the religion and how they pass it on to their children.

  • Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami

    Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami is the spiritual leader of the Saiva Siddhanta Church and publisher of Hinduism Todaya magazine of global Hinduism, which is published at Kauai’s Hindu Monastery in Kapaa, Hawaii.

    Contact: 808-822-7032 ext. 227.
  • Swami Yogatmananda

    Swami Yogatmananda is the priest of the Vedanta Society of Providence in Rhode Island.

    Contact: 401-421-3960.

Directory of U.S. Hindu Temples and Monasteries

  • India NET Hindu Temples

    IndiaNET.com maintains a state-by-state directory of Hindu temples in the United States.

  • Harvard University Pluralism Project

    Harvard University’s Pluralism Project maintains a directory of Hindu religious centers in the United States.

  • HinduMandir.US

    HinduMandir.US maintains a list of Hindu temples in the United States and features photographs of the different American Hindu statues of deities.

Ashrams and religious communities

Additional resources

U.S. Sources & Resources

In the Northeast

  • Lawrence A. Babb

    Lawrence A. Babb is a professor in the department of anthropology and sociology at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass. He teaches a course on religions in South Asia and has studied Hinduism as practiced in India. He has also written about modern interpretations of Hinduism.

  • Edwin F. Bryant

    Edwin F. Bryant is an associate professor of religion at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where he teaches courses in Hindu philosophy and religion. He specializes in the Krishna tradition and the Hare Krishna movement.

  • Catherine Cornille

    Catherine Cornille is a professor of theology at Boston University. Her research interests focus on the Theology of Religions, the theory of Interreligious Dialogue, concrete questions in the Hindu-Christian and Buddhist-Christian dialogues, and the phenomenon of inculturation and intercultural theology. She wrote about Mother Meera in The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States (2004).

  • Richard H. Davis

    Richard H. Davis is a professor of religion at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. He is an expert in the Shaiva traditions of India. He can discuss the rise of Indian nationalism and how it makes itself felt in the U.S., as well as provide background information on the textbook debate. 

  • Corinne G. Dempsey

    Corinne G. Dempsey is an associate professor of religious studies at Nazareth College and the author of The Goddess Lives in Upstate New York: Breaking Convention and Making Home at a North American Hindu Temple, a profile of a South Indian community in Rush, N.Y.

  • Diana L. Eck

    Diana L. Eck is a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. She is one of the foremost scholars of Hinduism, having traveled and written widely about India and its religions. She is also director of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, which explores the religious diversity of the U.S. 

  • Thomas A. Forsthoefel

    Thomas A. Forsthoefel is an associate professor of religious studies at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. He is the co-editor of Gurus in America.

  • Ariel Glucklich

    Ariel Glucklich is an of professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He teaches a course in Hindu religious traditions and has written several books on Hindu dharma. He is the author of Dying for Heaven: Holy Pleasure and Suicide Bombers — Why the Best Qualities of Religion Are Also Its Most Dangerous.

  • Daniel Gold

    Daniel Gold is a professor of South Asian religions at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He specializes in North Indian devotional traditions.

  • Peter Gottschalk

    Peter Gottschalk is a professor of religion at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. He studies the dynamic of the cultural interplay between Hinduism, Islam, and the West.

  • Lindsey B. Harlan

    Lindsey B. Harlan is a professor of religious studies at Connecticut College in New London. She is an expert on Hindu marriage.

  • Dr. John Stratton Hawley

    Dr. John Stratton Hawley is a professor of religion at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York City. He is a specialist in the traditions of Northern India and has written about issues facing American Sikhs.

  • Khyati Y. Joshi

    Khyati Joshi is an associate professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., and a scholar on cultural and religious pluralism in the United States. Her books include New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground: Religion, Race and Ethnicity in Indian America. She served as an adviser for the Pew survey and wrote a column for The Huffington Post about the findings.

  • Eliza Kent

    Eliza Kent is an assistant professor of religion at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. She specializes in Hinduism and the environment in South India.

  • Rachel Fell McDermott

    Rachel Fell McDermott is an associate professor in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures at Columbia University in New York, N.Y. She is an expert in the Hindu female deity worship traditions.

  • Mary McGee

    Mary McGee is the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Albright College in Reading, Penn. She is a former professor of religion and dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y. She has written about Hinduism and the environment and Hindu architecture.

  • Karen Pechilis

    Karen Pechilis is chair and a professor of comparative religions at Drew University in Madison, N.J. She edited The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in the United States, which covers the American movements behind Ammachi, Anandamayi Ma, Gauri Ma, Gurumayi, Jayashri Ma, Karunamayi Ma, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, Mother Meera, Shree Maa and Sita Devi.

  • Stephen Prothero

    Stephen Prothero is professor in the religion department at Boston University. He is author of Purified By Fire: A History of Cremation in America and American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, which looks at popular images of Jesus in film, television and print. He has also written about American Hindus.

  • Robin Rinehart

    Robin Rinehart is an associate professor in religious studies at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. She is an expert in Hinduism and Hindu saints.

  • K. R. Sundararajan

    K.R. Sundararajan is a professor of theology at St. Bonaventure University in St. Bonaventure, N.Y. He is the co-editor of Hindu Spirituality II: Post-Classical and Modern.

  • Joanne Punzo Waghorne

    Joanne Punzo Waghorne is a professor of religion at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. She has written a book about the construction of Hindu temples and their internal organizations in urban areas, including Washington, D.C.

In the South

  • Guy L. Beck

    Guy L. Beck is an adjunct professor at Tulane University in the Asian studies and religion studies departments. He is the author of Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound.

  • Kathleen M. Erndl

    Kathleen M. Erndl is an associate professor of religion at Florida State University in Tallahassee. She has written about gender issues and the worship of female deities.

  • Pankaj Jain

    Pankaj Jain is a scholar of Indic Traditions and Ecology and is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies and the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Texas. He has also taught at North Carolina State University, Rutgers, Kean, and New Jersey City University. He holds an MA from Columbia and PhD from University of Iowa.

  • Jeffrey J. Kripal

    Jeffrey J. Kripal is a professor of religious studies at Rice University in Houston. His specialty is Asian religions in America, and he focuses on European and American translations or adoptions of Hindu ideas and practices. He wrote a chapter on Adi Da for Gurus in America and has published five books concerning religious mysticism.

  • Timothy Lubin

    Timothy Lubin is an associate professor of religion at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. He teaches a course on Hindu temples.

  • June McDaniel

    June McDaniel is a professor of religious studies at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C. She focuses on Hindu women’s religious rituals and mysticism and contributed a chapter about Jayashri Ma to The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States.

  • Sushil Mittal

    Sushil Mittal is an associate professor of religion and philosophy and the director of the Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. He is an expert on Gandhian thought and a specialist in Indian studies. He is the author of several books on Hinduism.

  • Vasudha Narayanan

    Vasudha Narayanan is Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and she helped found the university’s Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions, of which she is director. She is a noted scholar of Hinduism and the environment.

  • Laurie L. Patton

    Laurie L. Patton is the dean of arts & sciences and a professor of religion at Duke University. She is an expert in Hindu mythology.

  • Brian K. Pennington

    Brian K. Pennington is an associate professor of religion at Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn. He has written about Hindu-Christian relations and religious violence.

  • Whitney Sanford

    Whitney Sanford is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville. She is an expert on Hindu narratives of agriculture and religion and nature in South Asia.

  • B. V. K. Sastry

    B.V. VenkataKrishna Sastry is a professor at Hindu University of America in Orlando, Fla., where he teaches courses in Hindu practices and principles and Sanskrit.

  • Gene Thursby

    Gene Thursby is an associate professor of religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He co-edited The Hindu World.

  • Subhas R. Tiwari

    Subhas R. Tiwari is a professor of yoga and meditation at the Hindu University of America in Orlando, Fla.

In the Midwest

  • Carol S. Anderson

    Carol S. Anderson is an associate professor in the departments of religion and women’s studies at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Mich. She wrote a chapter about Gauri Ma in The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States.

  • Wendy Doniger

    Wendy Doniger is a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago. She is an expert on the mythology of Hinduism and has written about the origins of evil in Hindu mythology.

  • Nancy Auer Falk

    Nancy Auer Falk is a professor emeritus of the department of comparative religion at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. She is the author of Living Hinduisms: An Explorer’s Guide.

  • Brian A. Hatcher

    Brian Hatcher is a scholar of the Hindu tradition in colonial and contemporary India at Tufts University. His research interests include the transformation of intellectual and social life in colonial Bengal, the interrogation of modernity under the conditions of colonialism, and the expression of religious change among emergent Hindu movements.

  • Meena Rani Khandelwal

    Meena Rani Khandelwal is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. She has received funding from the American Institute of Indian Studies to conduct a comparative study of Hindu ashrams in India and in the United States that investigates issues of social change.

  • John Llewellyn

    John Llewellyn is professor of religious studies at Missouri State University in Springfield. He is the editor of Defining Hinduism: A Reader, a volume of essays.

  • James F. Lewis

    James F. Lewis is a professor of religious studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. He wrote the chapter “The Jain Religion in Modern India” in Religion in Modern India.

  • Rebecca J. Manring

    Rebecca J. Manring is an associate professor of India studies and religious studies at Indiana University. She contributed a chapter on Sita Devi to The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States.

  • Tracy Pintchman

    Tracy Pintchman is a professor of theology at Loyola University in Chicago. She specializes in women in Hinduism and is an expert on Shaktism, Hindu goddess worship.

  • Anantanand Rambachan

    Anantanand Rambachan is a professor of religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. His areas of expertise include classical Hinduism, especially Vedanta.  Prof. Rambachan has been involved in the field of interreligious relations and dialogue for over twenty-five years, as a Hindu participant and analyst. He is currently an advisor to the Pluralism Project (Harvard University), a member of the International Advisory Council for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, a member of the Theological Education Committee of the American Academy of Religion and a Trustee of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.

  • Paula Richman

    Paula Richman is a professor of religion at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. She is an expert on the Hindu epics, especially the Ramayana.

  • Hugh B. Urban

    Hugh B. Urban is a professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University in Columbus. He contributed a chapter about Osho to Gurus in America.

In the West

  • Loriliai Biernacki

    Loriliai Biernacki is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her research interests include Hinduism in the diaspora, and the interface between religion, science, and gender.

  • Christopher Key Chapple

    Christopher Key Chapple is a professor of Indic and Comparative Theology in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. His research has focused on the renouncer religious traditions of India including Yoga, Jainism, and Buddhism. He has written about nonviolence toward animals in the Asian traditions.

  • Anne Feldhaus

    Anne Feldhaus is a professor of religious studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. She specializes in folk Hinduism, medieval Hinduism and religious geography. Her publications include Connected Places: Region, Pilgrimage, and Geographical Imagination in Maharashtra (2003), and Water and Womanhood: Religious Meanings of Rivers in Maharashtra (1995).

  • Linda B. Hess

    Linda B. Hess is a lecturer in religious studies at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. She is an expert in the poetry of 15th- and 16th-century Hindu saints and can discuss their continued influence.

  • Cynthia Ann Humes

    Cynthia Ann Humes is an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. She is the co-editor of Gurus in America, to which she contributed a chapter on Transcendental Meditation and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

  • Norris W. Palmer

    Norris W. Palmer is an associate professor of religious studies at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga, Calif. He wrote a chapter on Sai Baba for Gurus in America and contributed an article in 2006 to Nova Religio on how Hindus use their temples to negotiate their identity in America.

  • Bruce M. Sullivan

    Bruce M. Sullivan is a professor of religious studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He is a specialist in Hinduism, Buddhism, and India’s classical Sanskrit literary and theatrical traditions. He teaches a course on the Hindu epics.

  • Polly Trout

    Polly Trout is the author of Eastern Seeds, Western Soil: Three Gurus in America. She lives in Seattle.

Related source guides

Style guide

aarti
Pronounced “AARa-tee.” In Hinduism, the most common ritual that is performed in front of the image of a deity, whether in a temple or in a home shrine. It typically consists of waving, in a clockwise motion, various items in front of the deity. It is done in conjunction with mantras or prayers.
ahimsa
Pronounced “ah-HIM-saa.” The Sanskrit word meaning non-injury in any form, including action, thought or speech. This is an important principle of Hinduism and a core principle of Jainism. For this reason, many Hindus and most Jains are vegetarians, as are significant numbers of Sikhs and Buddhists.
Atman
The essential, eternal self or soul in Hinduism.
avatar
Pronounced “AV-uh-taar.” Avatars are incarnations of God, who Hindus believe come to Earth at various times to promote dharma and righteousness and to alleviate suffering.
Bhagavad Gita
Pronounced “BAH-gah-vahd GEE-tah.” One of the most popular Hindu scriptures, it literally means “Song of the Lord.” It is in the form of a conversation between Lord Krishna (an avatar of Lord Vishnu) and Arjuna on the great battlefield at Kurukshetra just before the famous war in the Mahabharata. In the conversation, Lord Krishna illuminates Arjuna on righteous action that is conducive to the well-being of the world and spiritual liberation (moksha), and instructs him on karma yoga (the path of self-transcending action), samkhya yoga (the path of discerning the principles of existence correctly), jnana yoga (the path of wisdom), raja yoga (the path of knowledge) and bhakti yoga (the path of devotion).
bhakti
Pronounced “BUK-tee.” A Sanskrit term meaning “loving devotion to God,” bhakti inspired major Indian religious movements, including Sikhism, by focusing on the individual’s relationship to the divine.
bindi
Pronounced “BIN-dhee.” The decoration worn on the forehead by many Hindu women. There are various explanations for the bindi: It can be a blessed symbol that signifies female energy and is believed to protect women and their husbands; a traditional symbol of marriage; a third eye, the eye of inner vision or spiritual wisdom; or simply a decoration like jewelry. It is worn by Indians of all religions.
Brahma
Pronounced “BRAH-maa.” In Hinduism, the name used for God when functioning as creator of the universe. God is referred to as Vishnu when God’s role as preserver is emphasized and as Shiva when the emphasis is on God’s role as lord of time and change. While God has different roles in Hinduism, the divine is always understood to be one. See Shiva and Vishnu.
Brahman
Pronounced “BRAH-mun.” The name of God or the supreme deity in the Vedas. Brahman is described as being beyond all dualities, such as gender or form; the transcendent and immanent absolute reality; the all-pervading energy; and the Supreme Being or primal soul. It also refers to a member of a Hindu varna (caste) whose traditional family occupation was priestly or scholarly. Traditionally considered by some to be the “highest” caste in India’s caste system, it is also spelled Brahmin.
caste system
The traditional social, economic and religious structure of Indian society, which divided people into four broad groups, or castes (“varna” in Sanskrit), and multiple smaller groups, or subcastes (“jati”). While it is believed that the system was once simply a division of labor and guild system, determined by skills and aptitude, it became a rigid hereditary hierarchy in which restrictions were placed on one’s social mobility, job opportunities, marriage prospects and even whom one could eat with. Although caste discrimination is illegal in India and most Hindu leaders stress that it is not sanctioned in Hinduism, it is still practiced among followers of all religions throughout South Asia. An additional group, the untouchables, was created from the lowest caste for people who performed tasks considered “polluting” in a physical or spiritual sense. Since the early 20th century, the Indian government has called this group the “Scheduled Castes.” See also Dalit, Harijan, jati, untouchable and varna.
cow
In Hinduism, the cow represents values of selfless service, strength, dignity and ahimsa (nonviolence). Hindus respect and honor the cow but do not worship it in the same sense they worship a deity. Also, the avatar Lord Krishna was a cowherd and protected cows. For these reasons, Hindus traditionally respect and honor the cow and abstain from eating beef. Since Hindus understand God to exist in all, animals are deserving of respect and compassion.
Dalit
Pronounced “DAH-lit.” A term used primarily as a label of self-identity by those from the Scheduled Castes, or lowest subcastes, who no longer identify themselves as Hindus, be they converts to another religion or no longer of any religious affiliation. The term was coined in the 1800s but did not come into popular usage until the 1970s, when it was adopted by Scheduled Caste members who wanted to separate themselves from both the caste system and from Hinduism altogether. Dalit should not be used to refer to all Scheduled Caste members – only non-Hindus who self-identify that way.
Devi
Pronounced “DEE-vee.” In Hinduism, the female aspect of the divine. For some, she is the power of Brahman, the unqualified absolute. Typically translated as “goddess.”
dharma
Pronounced “DAHR-muh.” The mode of conduct for an individual that is most conducive to spiritual advancement. It includes universal human values as well as values that are specific to persons in various stages of life. In Hinduism it also refers to individual obligations in terms of law and social law. In Buddhism it is the teachings of Buddha from which an adherent molds his conduct on the path toward enlightenment.
Diwali
Pronounced “dee-VAH-lee.” The Hindu “festival of lights” is one of the most celebrated in the Hindu diaspora. It symbolizes the victory of dharma, and good over evil. The word is a variation of the Sanskrit word “Deepavali” and refers to the rows of earthen lamps celebrants place around their homes. Hindus believe that the light from these lamps symbolizes the illumination within the individual that overwhelms ignorance, represented by darkness. Diwali commemorates the return of the avatar Lord Ram (the incarnation of Lord Vishnu), his wife Sita and brother Lakshman to their capital, Ayodhya, after 14 years of exile. The residents of Ayodhya, overjoyed at the return of their beloved king, lit lamps in his honor. Thus, the entire city looked like a row of lights. Diwali is also observed by Sikhs, who celebrate the release of the Sixth Guru, Hargobind, from captivity by the Mughal Emperor Jehangir, and Jains, who commemorate the day Lord Mahavira attained nirvana, or liberation, after his death in 527 B.C.
dowry
The social practice of a woman bringing money or valuables to her marriage is still prevalent in South Asia and other parts of the world. It is not a part of Hinduism.
Durga
Pronounced “DOOR-gaa.” In Hinduism, one of the principal feminine forms of the divine and associated, in particular, with the power to overcome evil. She is the consort of Lord Shiva. See Shiva.
enlightenment
The goal of life in both Buddhism and Hinduism. For Hindus, it is union with God and self-realization. For Buddhists, it is realization of the truth about reality, achieved by following a system of practices (which may especially include meditation), in accordance with the particular school to which an adherent belongs. See Four Noble Truths.
Ganesh
Pronounced “guh-NAYSH.” The beloved elephant-faced representation of God honored by Hindus and followers of other Indian religions, Ganesh is the remover of obstacles. He is revered for his great wisdom and is invoked before any undertaking. He is the son of Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvati. Also spelled Ganesha.
guru
Pronounced “GOO-roo.” Broadly used to refer to a teacher of any subject, but especially of spiritual matters. In Hinduism, one’s spiritual guru is seen to be a representative of the divine, through whom one is given the teachings and practices necessary for enlightenment.
Hanuman
Pronounced “HUN-oo-maan.” In Hinduism, an incarnation of Lord Shiva and the embodiment of devotion. Hanuman is generally depicted in a monkey form but can assume any form. He is most popular among devotees of the avatar Lord Ram and others following a devotional path. There are more temples and roadside shrines to Hanuman than any other deity in all of North India. For Hindus, Hanuman is one of the finest exemplars of a life of love and service of God.
Hare Krishna
Pronounced “HA-rey KRISH-na.” This Hindu term can refer to a worshipper of Krishna or a mantra to him. It also can refer to a member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), which was founded in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and is a sect that focuses on the worship and understanding of God as Krishna.
Harijan
Pronounced “HA-ree-jun.” The term literally means “people of God” and was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi to refer to those in the untouchable subcastes. Today, Hindu members of these jatis identify themselves by their sectarian affiliation or with the terms Harijan or Anasuchit Jati (“Scheduled Caste” in Hindi). See caste system.
Hinduism
India’s most popular religious and cultural system and the world’s third-largest religion (after Christianity and Islam). Most followers live in India, but there are large populations in many other countries. Its oldest scriptures are the Vedas. Hinduism, also known as Sanatana Dharma (“the eternal natural law”), is one of the world’s most ancient religious and spiritual systems and encompasses a broad spectrum of philosophies, ranging from pluralistic theism to absolute monism. Followers believe that God (Brahman), the ultimate reality or truth, can be understood in various ways and often use the two terms interchangeably. This not only reflects the diversity of practice and perspective in Hinduism, but also the belief that this infinite reality is beyond the comprehension of undisciplined minds. Therefore, Hindus celebrate God’s various attributes through different representations. Most Hindus believe in one God, who is all-pervasive, though he or she may be worshipped in different forms, in different ways and by different names. As such, Hinduism can be described as monotheistic and henotheistic: monotheistic in its belief in one God and henotheistic in that any one God can be worshipped without denying the existence of other forms or manifestations of God. A basic belief in Hinduism is that the soul does not die but is reborn into another life form when the body dies. Under Hinduism’s rule of karma, every act and thought affects how the soul will be reborn. This cycle of birth and rebirth continues until the soul achieves spiritual perfection and is united with the Supreme Being. Hindus believe that all living beings have souls, and some are revered as manifestations of God. These beliefs have evolved over several thousand years and are embedded in ritual, mystical and ascetic practices. There are many regional variations in Hindu practice. Hindus have no formal clergy but do have spiritual teachers, or gurus. Capitalize guru before a name on first reference, and use only the last name on second reference. Swami is a title of respect and reverence conferred on a religious teacher and, in particular, one who has taken vows of celibacy and renunciation; it, too, should be capitalized before a name. See Vedas.
idol
Be cautious in using this word because it can imply that something is a false god. For example, do not use idol to refer to the representations Hindus use in worshipping. The correct term to use is murti. For similar reasons, idol worship is also inaccurate.
Jainism
Pronounced “JI-niz-um.” A sect established in India in the sixth century B.C. as a revolt against Hinduism. It teaches that the way to bliss and liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth is to live a life of harmlessness and renunciation. Jains do not believe in a creator god; God is any soul who has been liberated from the cycle of birth and rebirth. The supreme principle is nonviolence; Jains believe plants and animals have souls, just as people do, and should be treated with respect and compassion.
jati
Pronounced “JAAH-tee.” A subcategory of varna, or caste. Typically, these subcastes are classified by specific occupations. Initially, jati was not birth-based, but eventually it came to be.
Kali
Pronounced “KAH-lee.” In Hinduism, a form of the goddess, one of the many feminine forms of the divine as mother of the universe. She is the source of protection and liberation.
karma
In Buddhism and Hinduism, the universal law of cause and effect; the effect (or fruits) of a person’s actions in one’s next lifetime. Lowercase in all references.
Krishna
Pronounced “KRISH-na.” One of the most popular representations of God in Hinduism. He is worshipped as the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu and is best-known as the teacher in the Bhagavad Gita. For most Krishna devotees, his name refers to the unqualified absolute, or Brahman.
Lakshmi
Pronounced “LUK-shmee.” In Hinduism, the female counterpart of Lord Vishnu, or God’s role as preserver. She represents light, beauty and prosperity. See Vishnu.
Mahabharata
Pronounced “Ma-haa-BHAA-ra-ta.” The world’s longest epic poem is longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. The Bhagavad Gita is one section of it. Known as the “Great Epic of India,” the Mahabharata was written by the sage Ved Vyas and revolves around the conflict between two kingdoms and their great battle more than 3,000 years ago.
mantra
Pronounced “MUN-tra.” A syllable, word or phrase with spiritual power, it is chanted or held in the mind in connection with meditation or ritual. Mantras are commonly used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains and are traditionally drawn from Sanskrit scriptures, such as the Vedas. The adherents of some vernacular texts, such as the Hindi Ramcharitmanas, believe their verses have the power of mantra as well. Some of the more powerful mantras consist of a single syllable, the most popular of which is “om.” See om.
murti
Pronounced “MOOR-tee.” In Hinduism, an image or icon of God used during worship. A manifestation, embodiment or personification of the divine. Do not use the word idol as a synonym.
nirvana
Pronounced “nir-VAA-nah.” In Buddhism and Hinduism, a state of ultimate peace that is the goal of all beings, which includes freedom from suffering, desire and the cycle of rebirth. The Buddha’s entrance into nirvana at his death is referred to as his parinirvana (pronounced “PAH-rih-nir-VAA-nah”).
om
In Hinduism, the mantra of the divine. The ancient Sanskrit name for the absolute. All mantras begin with om.
Parvati
Pronounced “PAR-va-tee.” In Hinduism, one of many names for the Universal Mother. A representation of the goddess to whom prayers are offered for strength, health and eradication of impurities. Hindus believe that she is Lord Shiva’s consort.
priest
The term used for ordained clergy of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Episcopal faith. Priest also is used by Wiccans and for some clergy in Buddhism and Hinduism. It is not a formal title and is not capitalized. Avoid the term minister when referring to Catholic priests. Also, while every priest has pastoral duties toward the baptized, the term pastor refers to the priest (and in rare cases, laymen or laywomen) charged by the bishop with overseeing a parish. A pastor may have one or more assistant pastors. Most Catholic priests in the United States are diocesan clergy, ordained by and for a particular diocese. They make promises of celibacy and obedience, but although they are expected to adhere to a modest lifestyle, they do not take vows of poverty and can own a home, for example, or a car. The term religious priests refers to priests who belong to a religious order, such as the Jesuits, and hold possessions in common.
puja
Pronounced “POO-ja.” In Hinduism, a generic term for any ritual practice. This can be as simple as an individual saying a prayer or can encompass a complex, multiday ritual involving any number of individuals and priests. Puja generally incorporates a series of hospitality offerings to God.
Ram
Pronounced “Raam.” In Hinduism, one of the two most popular incarnations of Lord Vishnu and venerated hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana. For most Ram devotees, his name refers to the unqualified absolute, or Brahman. Ram’s exemplary life helps to set high standards of dignity and nobility as an integral part of the Hindu way of life. Sita is his wife.
Ramayana
Pronounced “Raa-MAY-yah-nah.” One of the two Hindu epics; the other is the Mahabharata. Originally written in Sanskrit, it is the story of God taking a human form to destroy evil and teach the path of righteous behavior. The most popular telling of the story was written by Tulsidas in Hindi and is called the Ramcharitmanas. It is the predominant scripture in North India and in the Hindu diaspora.
reincarnation
The belief that a person’s soul is reborn in another body after physical death. It is common in many Asian traditions — including Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism — as well as some Native American traditions. According to Hinduism and Buddhism, incarnation in the next life is determined by one’s previous actions. See karma.
Rig Veda
Of the Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda is the earliest and among the most revered. See Vedas.
sadhana
Pronounced “SAAD-han-aa.” In Hinduism, religious practice that is undertaken on a regular basis for the purpose of purifying oneself to gain wisdom, devotion or enlightenment.
sadhu
Pronounced “SAA-dhu.” A Hindu ascetic who has renounced advancement in the material world and has dedicated his or her life to the search for wisdom, devotion, God, truth or enlightenment. There are many different types in India, grouped into orders according to their beliefs and practices. They may live in monasteries (ashrams) or as hermits and wanderers. They often live on alms, or provisions and gifts they are given. Sadhvi (pronounced “SAA-dhvee”) is the female form.
Sanskrit
An ancient classical language of India in which most of the texts of Hinduism were written.
sattva
Pronounced “SAHT-vah.” In Hinduism, the quality of light and goodness.
shakti
Pronounced “SHAK-tee.” In Hinduism, the active power or manifest energy that pervades all of existence and is represented in feminine names and forms.
Shiva
Pronounced “SHEE-vah.” A popular representation of God in Hinduism. He is worshipped as the lord of time and change. Brahma is the name used for God when God’s role as creator of the universe is described. God is referred to as Vishnu when God’s role as preserver is emphasized. The divine is always understood to be one. Shiva’s consort has the names of Parvati, Kali and Durga. Also spelled Siva (pronounced “SEE-vah”).
Sita
Pronounced “SEE-taa.” In Hinduism, the wife of the avatar Lord Ram, as depicted in the Hindu epic Ramayana. For millions of Hindus, Sita represents the perfect mother and expression of womanly virtue.
swami
Pronounced “SVA-mee.” In Hinduism, a title of respect and reverence conferred on a religious teacher and, in particular, one who has taken vows of celibacy and renunciation. It literally means one who has self-control. Capitalize before a name.
swastika
Pronounced “SVA-stik-a.” It is one of the most popular symbols for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. The word swastika is derived from Sanskrit words that mean “auspicious,” “luck” and “well-being.” It is also a sign of the Sun-God Surya and his generosity. The swastika is one of the 108 symbols of Lord Vishnu and represents the sun’s rays, without which there would be no life. The swastika is used in religious and civil ceremonies in India, both public and private. The swastika used by the Nazis was a perverted version of the ancient Hindu swastika.
temple
A building used for worship or religious purposes. Uppercase when part of a formal name or when referring to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The word temple is used differently in different religious traditions. It is the place of worship for Hindus, Buddhists and Jews, although Orthodox Jews and many Conservative Jews believe the only temple is the one destroyed in Jerusalem and so they call their congregational buildings synagogues. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, temples are sacred buildings with restricted access; they differ in purpose from meetinghouses, where weekly worship takes place.
Transcendental Meditation
A form of meditation made popular by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who introduced it in 1955. TM is acceptable on second reference.
untouchable
The traditional English term for members of the lowest rung of the caste ladder in India. The term is increasingly being replaced in common usage by other terms, and some now regard it as offensive. In the early part of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi began referring to members of the lowest caste as Harijan (“children of God”), while the Indian government adopted the term Scheduled Castes. Since Indian independence, the government has gradually increased the benefits it provides to members of the Scheduled Castes, as well as the Shudra caste of servants and menial laborers, known collectively as the “Other Backward Classes.” See caste system.
Upanishads
Pronounced “oo-PAAN-ish-ud.” The Upanishads are the final sections of each of the four Vedas, or Hindu scriptures. These texts are spiritual dialogues in which teachers and students discuss ultimate questions of human existence.
varna
Pronounced “VARN-ah.” Varna refers to the four broad groups that make up the caste system in traditional Indian society. They consisted of the Brahman (scholars, teachers, doctors and priests), Kshatriya (warriors, rulers and lawmakers), Vaishya (business people, traders, farmers, and artisans), and Shudra (servants, menial laborers). Later, a fifth varna was created, into which people who performed tasks considered “polluting” in a physical or spiritual sense were placed. Members of this new group were called “untouchables” in English. See caste system.
Vedas
Pronounced “VEH-daas.” Hinduism’s most ancient scriptures. There are four: Rig Veda, Atharva Veda, Sama Veda and Yajur Veda. The Vedas include more than 100,000 verses and additional prose. The term Veda stems from a Sanskrit word meaning knowledge. Many Hindus believe that the Vedas were revealed by God and/or realized by ancient sages.
Vishnu
Pronounced “VISH-noo.” In Hinduism, the name used when God’s role as preserver is emphasized. Shiva is the name used when the emphasis is on God’s role as lord of time and change. Brahma is the name used for God when God’s role as creator of the universe is described. The divine is always understood to be one. For most Hindus, Vishnu is either equated with or a manifestation of Brahman. Vishnu has many avatars or incarnations, the best-known of which are Ram, Krishna and the Buddha. His consort is Lakshmi.
yoga
Most often associated with body poses, stretching exercises and breathing techniques developed in India. It is a Sanskrit term that means union; yoga is a discipline found in Hinduism. It is the philosophy, process, disciplines, and practices whose purpose is the unification of individual consciousness with transcendent or divine consciousness. One of its eight “limbs” is referred to as asana (also known as “hatha yoga”) and involves various body postures meant to keep the body physically relaxed and healthy as an important prerequisite for meditation.