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 Hinduism Topics
  • Hinduism in Brief
  • The Indian Religion
  • The Basics of Hinduism
  • The Four Stages of Life
  • The Four Aims of Life
  • The Six Darshanas
  • The Seven Chakras
  • The Purpose of Life: Karma and Reincarnation
  • The Sacred Scriptures
  • Yoga
  • Sectarian Worship of Vishnu, Shiva, and Shakti
  • Hinduism in the West
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    Hinduism in Brief

    To speak of Hinduism as though it were a single, unified tradition is misleading if not altogether inaccurate. Hindus themselves refer to their religion as sanatana dharma, or "eternal truth," indicating their belief that it transcends temporal origins. What we call Hinduism today is an amalgam of at least two distinct traditions forged over centuries and derived from two dissimilar cultures. And, like most religious traditions, it has continued to evolve and change long after those two spiritual currents had merged.

    The roots of an indigenous religious culture in the Indus Valley of northern India go back at least to 2700 BCE, when the two centers of Indus civilization that have been uncovered so far, at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, are believed to have crystallized. They were probably inhabited by the Dravidian people, an ancient Australoid race, who may well have been in place thousands of years earlier. Whoever inhabited the land appears to have worshipped both a male deity similar to the later god Shiva, associated with the lingam, or phallic stone, and a Hindu, Shakti, somewhat akin to Mother Nature, associated with the yoni, or ring-shaped stone representing the female genitals. Shiva is pictured in ancient engraved seals as a yogi meditating in the presence of animals.

    Somewhere between 4000 and 1200 BCE, the Indus was invaded in successive waves by Aryans ("noble ones"), a group of nomadic warrior clans who probably came from northern Iran or Baluchistan (now part of modern Pakistan), and who may have originated in the grassy steppes north of the Black Sea between the Carpathian and Caucasus mountains. The Aryans, purportedly bigger and fairer than the aboriginal inhabitants of the Indus, invaded with horses and chariots and overran the indigenous cultures.

    The Aryans brought with them a religion based on animal sacrifice and ritual purity through ablution with water, an ancient scripture called the Rig Veda, and the Sanskrit language. A priest class called brahmans maintained the rituals and scriptures and formed the upper tier of a caste system with four major divisions, which the Aryans used to maintain control as they assimilated the natives. But it is also likely that some aspects of the indigenous spiritual culture remained outside the pale of this Brahmanic or Vedic system, specifically the group of people known as shramanas ("strivers"). These were wandering ascetics who may have practiced the earliest forms of yoga, along with meditation and a nonviolent way of life, quite distinct from the ritualistic animal sacrifices that made up much of Brahmanic practice. (The term shramanism is sometimes applied to any non-brahmanical Indian sect or school, including Buddhism and Jainism, and is linguistically connected to the word shaman.)

    The forms of Hindu philosophy and practice that have appealed most to Westerners since it was introduced here over a century ago derive from the yogic rather than the Brahmanic tradition, and are not necessarily the same as those that are followed by the majority of India's population. The many Indian masters who established followings in the West since the change in immigration law in 1965, such as Swami Satchidananda, Swami Muktananda, Mother Meera, and others, have taught various forms of meditation and yoga, with little or no emphasis on the sectarian worship of Shiva, Vishnu, and Shakti that characterizes most Indian practice of Hinduism, especially in the small villages that account for much of India's population.


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    The Indian Religion

    Indian spirituality is so vast, encompasses such a long span of time and so many scriptures, and is practiced in such a wide variety of ways, that it's hard to point to any one manifestation with assurance and call it the definition of Hinduism. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, Sikhism, or Zoroastrianism, Hinduism is not founded on the life and teachings of a single charismatic figure such as Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad. We can't name one or even several key individuals without whom the religion of India would not be recognizable as Hinduism, notwithstanding the fact that Indian history -- and modern India -- is replete with brilliant and saintly teachers, sages, philosophers, and reformers of all kinds.

    Perhaps what defines Hinduism miore than any one individual, however, is the country of India itself, a land in which not only certain towns, rivers, and trees are held sacred, but also cows, snakes, rats, and vultures. Of India's approximately one billion residents, about 830 million, over 80 percent, are Hindus. (The remaining population is predominantly Muslim, about 120 million, with some Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, and others.) Although Buddhism was born in India and flourished there for more than a thousand years, it is no longer a significant force in Indian life. Hinduism also survived the invasion of various Islamic dynasties, who imposed Islam on much of India from the 13th to the 18th centuries. The predominantly Muslim areas of India were separated out into the new nation of Pakistan, divided into East and West Pakistan in 1947. Following a war of independence in 1971, East Pakistan was reborn as Bangladesh.


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    The Basics of Hinduism

    The four Vedas

    The term Veda ("science" or "knowledge") refers to the orthodox, revealed sacred scripture of India as a whole, which is divided into four individual scriptures: the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda, each of which is quite ancient. They are sometimes also called Samhitas ("collections") because they are gatherings of various hymns, prayers, and spiritual lore. The oldest, the Rig Veda, is said to date back to at least 1500 BCE. Each Veda has attached to it a set of more recent scriptures, known as Brahmanas, Aranyikas, and Upanishads. The Vedas are conventionally believed by Western scholars to have been composed and passed on orally between 1500-600 BCE, and put into writing sometime after 1000 BCE. Yet most scholars acknowledge that the origins of the beliefs expressed in the Vedas are shrouded in mystery. Some Indian historians date certain hymns as far back as 4000 BCE or earlier.

    The lengthy Vedas were each the responsibility of various brahman families, who collected and passed them down among themselves. Based on many internal references to sections of the Vedas and Upanishads that no longer exist, scholars have deduced that large amounts of the original scriptures have been lost.

    The four castes

    Also known as varna ("color"), caste traditionally divides Hindus into four major classes of society (with hundreds of sub-castes in between).

    Below these are the outcastes, the so-called "untouchables," who were considered to be outside the caste system and were required to perform the most menial tasks in Indian society. Mahatma Gandhi tried to change the way Indians perceive outcastes by calling them harijan, or "children of God." It is essential to understand that these are societal rather than religious distinctions, and were imposed by the invading Aryans on an indigenous population that was darker-skinned. Each caste carries with it a specific svadharma, or set of responsibilities.


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    The Four Stages of Life

    Although the caste system separate those devoted to priestly duties from warriors, political leaders, merchants, and householders, Hinduism also seeks to integrate spiritual and metaphysical principles with the cycles of human life. It divides life into four distinct stages through which each Hindu male of the three upper castes passes. These are considered ideals, however, not necessarily followed by all or even most Hindus:

    1. brahmacharya (student). After initiation (upanayana), which takes place at age 8 for a brahman boy, 11 for a kshatriya, 12 for a vaisya, each is expected to spend a minimum of 12 years living in the home of his guru. His life during this time is austere and celibate, given to mastering yoga and other spiritual disciplines and reading and studying the Vedas. In modern India, the boy usually stays at home but takes instruction from the family's pandit, or Vedic scholar.
    2. grihasthya (householder). The next phase of life includes marriage, raising a family, and earning a living. This is a time for the enjoyment of earthly pleasures and recognition for success while carrying out one's responsibilities to the community. It ends traditionally with the birth of one's first grandchild.
    3. vanaprasthya (hermit). After fulfilling social duties and insuring the continuation of the family name, the Hindu is free to retire to the forest to meditate and seek spiritual wisdom. Living in a small hermitage with or without his wife, who may join him, he devotes his time to gaining a fuller understanding of his spiritual nature while still performing basic Hindu rituals.
    4. sannyasin (wandering mendicant). In the final stage the seeker leaves behind his hermitage and all possessions except his staff and begging bowl, to pursue the final goal of life: mukti, or liberation from the endless round of rebirths.


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    The Four Aims of Life

    Hindus pursue four goals in life, known as chaturvarga:

    dharma (duty). Dharma can be translated as "truth," "righteousness," and "religion," and all of those meanings coincide in the sense of one's moral and spiritual duty.

    artha (material gain). Contrary to popular opinion, the Hindus do not look askance at success, wealth, or possessions, but merely seek to keep them in their proper place. One of the duties of a householder, for instance, is to begin each day pondering how to improve both dharma and artha.

    kama (physical and sense pleasures). Hindus also embrace the enjoyment of earthly pleasures, including sexuality, food, music, and the arts, during the second stage of life.

    moksha (release or salvation). The fourth goal parallels the fourth stage of life, representing the end to which all Hindu life aspires.


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    The Six Darshanas

    The darshanas are philosophical systems meant to be complement rather than compete with each other. They incorporate philosophy, theology, psychology, philology, physics, meditation and other esoteric spiritual practices. Together they form the six schools of orthodox Hindu thought that had evolved by the end of the 4th century, but only a few of them are still active in modern Hinduism, since they developed out of each other, tending to make previous darshanas somewhat obsolete. They are traditionally arranged in three pairs, each divided into sub-schools.

    Nyaya and Vaisheshika cover logic and physical principles.

    Sankhya and Yoga deal with Hindu metaphysics and psycho-physical exercises.

    Purva-Mimamsa and Vedanta. Purva-Mimamsa explores the theology of Vedic sacrificial ritual. Vedanta (originally called Uttara-Mimamsa) is the complex system of philosophy that rules most of Hindu religious thought today, both within and outside of India.


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    The Seven Chakras

    The traditional Hindu system of belief encompasses energy centers known as chakras, which serve to accumulate, assimilate, and transmit psychological, physical, and spiritual energies. When these areas of interconnection between body and spirit are purified or opened up through the process of yoga (sometimes called raja yoga or kundalini yoga), the adept may experience an enormous infusion of energy, and, in some cases, enlightenment. The chakras are often pictured as lotus blossoms or spinning wheels (in Sanskrit, chakra means "wheel"; the English words "cycle" and "cyclone" are derived from the same root), and each chakra corresponds to a location in the physical body. (A similar system, with different terminologies, is employed by some schools of Buddhism and Taoism.)

    The chakras are aligned along a central subtle energy channel called the sushumna, which is connected to two crisscrossing channels called the ida and pingala in a pattern that is strikingly similar to the double helix of DNA. Together they carry the life force, or prana, to various places in the body. Neither the chakras nor these channels (or nadis) are visible but work in the sheathes of subtle energy that surround and interpenetrate the body. The ida, or left channel, carries the breath from the left nostril to the base of the spine and is associated with lunar, cooling, feminine energy. The pingala, or right channel, carries the breath from the right nostril to the base and is associated with solar, fiery, masculine energy.

    The first, or muladhara, chakra lies at the base of the spine, where the kundalini energy is pictured as a serpent coiled between the anus and the genitals (kundalin is Sanskrit for "she who lies coiled," and kundalini yoga is a process of raising the serpent power). The second, or svadhisthana, chakra corresponds to the genitals; the third (manipura) corresponds to the navel and solar plexus; the fourth (anahata) is located near the heart (although usually placed either in the middle of the chest or closer to the right side); the fifth (vishuddha) corresponds to the throat region; the sixth (ajna) is located slightly behind and above the space between the eyebrows, or cavernous plexus (the so-called "third eye") and corresponds to the pineal gland; and the seventh chakra is located just above the crown of the head, although it corresponds to the pituitary gland. It is called the sahasrara chakra, from the Sanskrit word for "thousand," referring to the "thousand-petaled lotus of enlightenment." In addition, there are six minor chakras which are rarely mentioned.

    Western teachers have developed elaborate theories of the chakras and practices for cleansing them to unblock the flow of vital energy within the body, and some teachers, including Caroline Myss, posit an 8th chakra located an arm's length above the head.


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    The Purpose of Life:
    Karma and Reincarnation

    "There is a light that shines beyond all things on earth, beyond us all, beyond the heavens, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."

    Chandogya Upanishad, 3.13.7

    The six darshanas and four yogas ultimately have the same goal: moksha, or liberation from the endless cycle of death and rebirth known as samsara. This may be accomplished by identification of the individual soul, or Atman, with the AbsolutIe Godhead, called Brahman. Most Hindus accept that liberation must be achieved over a succession of many lifetimes, and that how one is reborn in each subsequent life depends on the quality of one's actions in this and previous lifetimes. Rebirth is controlled by karma, a Sanskrit word meaning "deed" or "action" that refers both to individual deeds and to the accumulation of good and bad effects resulting from one's actions in this or previous lives. Karma can also refer to the overall pattern of cause and effect that is a universal principle, often colloquially stated as "what goes around comes around."

    The Buddha largely accepted the concepts of karma and reincarnation that are essential to the Hindu worldview, but he understood them somewhat differently, and those differences are part of the essence of Buddhism and part of what makes Buddhist belief different from Hinduism.


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    The Sacred Scriptures

    Hindu scripture is traditionally divided into two basic types, shruti and smriti. Shruti ("that which is heard") consists of the four Vedas (known collectively as the Veda, made up of the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda, plus the series of texts appended to each of the Vedas, called Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads.

    Smriti ("that which is remembered") is composed of traditional texts not as directly inspired as shruti, including the Dharma Shastras (legal and ethical texts), the Puranas, and the folk/historical legends known as the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

    Somewhere between shruti and smriti are the sutras, which are composed of terse statements difficult to comprehend without an attached commentary. The Vedanta Sutra of Badarayana, for instance, is much less important than the commentaries on it by Shankara and Ramanuja, which defined the phiosophy of Vedanta.

    The four Vedas were handed down orally for thousands of years, and although the earliest hymns in the Rig Veda go back to at least before 1500 BC and possibly as far as 4000, the oldest written version in existence dates from only the 14th century. The Vedas were not popular texts but were reserved for the brahman caste, and related largely to the various sacrificial rituals around which early Hindu practice revolved. The Rig Veda, for example, collects 1,028 hymns to various gods, to be chanted at sacrifices (mainly animal). It is composed of 10 sections or books called mandalas ("cycles"). Most of the hymns were addressed to Indra, Agni, and Soma, and were transmitted orally by scholars called pandits, who memorized long texts in Sanskrit. The meaning was less important than getting the sound exactly correct, based on the principle that certain sound combinations, or mantras, could effect powerful changes in the sayer.

    The Yajur Veda contains mantras for use in sacrifices, some with explanations of their meaning and proper use in ceremonies. The Sama Veda is largely a revision of hymns and verse from the Rig Veda arranged for singing rather than chanting, and is generally of interest only to scholars. The Atharva Veda is a collection of spells, charms, curses, and incantations not related to the sacrifice, for casting out demons of disease, creating love potions, or seeking success, sometimes using sympathetic magic. Having more of a literary than a religious significance, it was the latest collection to be edited, but its contents are thought to be very ancient.

    Brahmanas are prose addenda to the Vedas. As rituals became more complex, the Brahmanas were needed to explain mysteries and symbolism, often in the form of fanciful allegories. The word "brahman" once referred to the supernatural power inherent in incantations, and by extension came to mean the impersonal Source of the universe. Later, the name Brahma was applied to one of the three chief gods (a role taken over from Prajapati), and "brahmana" indicated a priest (sometimes spelled "brahmin") in charge of the incantations. The Brahmanas were composed beginning around 900 BCE.

    Aranyakas are supplements to Brahmanas, mystical reflections and descriptions of significant rites detailed in the Vedas, which often treat sacrificial details as symbolic of esoteric truths.

    The Upanishads take up where the Aranyakas leave off, forming the most mystical level of teaching in the Veda. There are 108 canonical Upanishads, of which 13 are significant. Generally dated from c. 700-300 BCE, they may actually have been composed during a wider span of time, perhaps from 1200 BCE - 200 CE, in approximately this order: Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Isha, Kena, Aitareya, Taitiriya, Kaushitaki, Katha, Mundaka, Shvetashvatara, Prashna, Maitri, and Mandukya. They sought to move beyond the ritualistic, sacrifice-oriented religion of the Brahmanic period to an emphasis on the kind of realization that could be gained only through intensive self-examination and meditation. These lines from the Mundaka Upanishad make the point:

    Ignorant fools, regarding ritual offerings and humanitarian works as the highest, do not know any higher good. After enjoying their rewards in heaven acquired by good works, they enter into this world again. . . . But those wise men of tranquil minds, . . . contemplating that God who is the source of the universe, depart, freed from impurities, to the place where that immortal Self dwells whose nature is imperishable. (1.2.10)

    Like the Old Testament, the Vedas often aim to appease a vengeful Deity with sacrifices and hymns of praise, whereas the Upanishads are closer in spirit to the New Testament; in both cases a more mystical, love-oriented theology adds to and supplants old ways of thinking and believing. And like the New Testament, the later Hindu writings also contain expositions on personal ethics and conduct in light of the newer teachings, often in the form of short texts called sutras.

    The word sutra means "thread," and the sutras generally consist of short, aphoristic phrases or sentences strung together like beads on a string. Among other things, the sutras set down for the first time ordinances on the four stations of life. For instance, although in the past Hindus practiced polygamy (men were allowed up to four wives) and polyandry (in the Mahabharata, the central female figure, Draupati, is married to five brothers), monogamy became the norm.

    The first and most important smriti is the Manu Smriti (also called Laws of Manu, or Manu Samhita) composed between 200 BCE and 100 CE. Perhaps more important in the daily lives of Hindus both past and present, however, are the Puranas ("ancient narratives"). Collections of legends, myths, and moral precepts bearing on everyday life for the common Indian, they may be less sacred than the Veda but no less essential. Finalized between the 4th and 12th centuries, there are 18 principal or Mahapuranas of ancient lore, and 18 secondary or Upapuranas, divided into those concerning worship of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. The most famous and traditional are the Vishnu and Bhagavata Puranas.

    An enormous role is also played in Indian scripture by two heroic sagas known as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which are more influential on the Hindu mind than any other writings. The Mahabharata, four times as long as the entire Bible, contains material reaching back to 600 BCE, but was updated as late as 500 CE with many revisions and additions. Although it is attributed to Vyasa, also called Krishna Dvaipasebyana, Vyasa means "collector," and was often used by anonymous rishis -- the seers who wrote much of ancient scripture, and who didn't feel that their identity was important. The Mahabharata was added to over centuries by brahmans who wanted to mix religious information with dramatic action. The most significant interpolation is the Bhagavad Gita, or "Song of the Lord," which contains much of the theology of later Hinduism.

    Overall, the Mahabharata is about warring dynasties, but is also people with wise and holy kings, saintly rishis and forest sages, romantic trysts and supernatural interventions. A key figure is Krishna, an avatar or incarnation of the god Vishnu; becuase Krishna had a history of human births, he was, like Jesus, both human and divine.

    The Ramayana is even more popular than the Mahabharata, and only about one-fourth as long. Rama is the seventh avatar of Vishnu, who also appears as a mighty hero and the heir apparent to the kingdom of Ayodhya. To win the hand of the lovely Sita, he has to bend the intractable bow of Rudra, much as Odysseus did in The Odyssey. When Sita is kidnaped by the ten-headed demon king Ravana and taken to Sri Lanka, she is ultimately rescued by Rama with help from an army of intelligent monkeys led by general Hanuman. The monkey king gifted with supernatural powers and a knowledge of healing herbs later became a popular Indian god. Some scholars see the Ramayana as an allegorical account of the Aryan migration into India and the conflicts between agrarian natives and nomadic invaders. The Bhagavad Gita, probably written by the third century BCE or later and set within the Mahabharata, is India's most important religious text, and was the first to be translated into European languages (by Charles Wilkins in 1785). The setting is the field of the impending historic Battle of Kuruksetra, as Arjuna, the warrior son of Indra, is questioning having to kill his own cousins and teachers in battle. His friend Krishna, the avatur of Vishnu who also serves as Arjuna's charioteer, offers his response in 18 chapters of verse that essentially promote the joys of selfless action. The leading argument is that bodies can be killed, but not souls, and because warfare is Arjuna's dharma -- the caste duty of a kshatriya -- he must perfom it. The Gita teaches "motiveless action," the practice of focusing "on action alone . . . never on its fruits." The text defends the caste system, but also introduces several tenets of later Hindu thought: the doctrine of the three gunas, the triangle of forces that make up all objects and beings; the basics of Yoga and Sankhya; and the impersonal God-head called Brahman.

    The Kama Sutra, or Aphorisms of Love, by Vatsyayana (c.300 AD) is best known for its graphic descriptions of sexual techniques, but also includes advice on how to dress and how to be a successful man about town.


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    Yoga in the West is sometimes thought of as a series of postures, perhaps some deep breathing, and a diet of yogurt and tofu. But that's only one small aspect of one particular kind of yoga in India. In a wider sense, yoga (from a Sanskrit word meaning "union") can refer to any spiritual system or path that aims to harness the senses in the search for God, and any dedicated practitioner can be called a yogi. In the Hindu tradition, there are four major types of yoga:

    Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge, leading to God through intellectual analysis and the ability to tell the difference between the limited self of apparent thoughts and feelings and the infinite Self that resides in the background and witnesses the actions of the limited self. This yoga relies on the mystical knowledge contained in the Upanishads.

    Karma yoga is the path of work, of getting to God by doing good -- but without attachment to the fruits of one's work.

    Bhakti yoga is the yoga of love and devotion as embodied in the Bhagavad Gita (devotion to Krishna), and probably has more adherents than all the other yogas. Its key practices include japa, the constant repetition of God's names, and kirtan, or communal singing, chanting or dancing to honor God. The best known example of bhakti yoga in the West is the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas.

    Raja yoga is the "royal" yoga, also called "eight-limbed" (ashtanga) yoga, as codified by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. That book outlines eight sets of techniques governing both external activities and, finally, the inner workings of the mind:

    1. yama: moral restraints against harming, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and greed.
    2. niyama: disciplines of inner and outer purity, contentment, asceticism, study of sacred writings, and submission to God.
    3. asanas: the 84 postures known as hatha yoga that purify and prepare the body for higher states of consciousness.
    4. pranayama: control of vital energy flow through regulation of the breath.
    5. pratyahara: teaching senses to focus on the inner plane rather than external sense objects.
    6. dharana: focusing the mind on one thing -- such as a candle flame or sacred image -- to prepare to enter deep states of meditation.
    7. dhyana: absorption of the mind in the object of concentration, leading to the final stage.
    8. samadhi: total absorption in the object of concentration, which is ultimately God.


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    Sectarian Worship of Vishnu, Shiva, and Shakti

    Although the Indian religion that most Westerners are familiar with revolves around yoga, meditation, and a number of prominent gurus, the practice of religion in india tends to be much more closely linked to sectarian worship three primary deities. Hinduism in the Upanishads focused on Brahman, an abstract Godhead who could be discovered and contacted through a variety of mystical practices. But the increasing dominance of bhaktism -- devotion to a specific personal god or avatar, such as Krishna -- eventually began to swing the pendulum toward the worship of specific personal manifestations of the Godhead. Three such manifestations eventually became dominant: Vishnu, Shiva, and SDhakti.

    By the 7th century, the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu became the stronghold of Shiva worship, or Shaivism. Shaivites, or Shaivas, view Shiva, whose roots go back to the pre-Aryan Indus culture, as the creator, maintainer and destroyer of the universe, and worship him alone. The phallic lingam, usually in the form of a smooth oblong stone, has been a symbol of Shiva from the earliest days of pre-Aryan civilization, possibly derived from a more ancient fertility cult; it is still the main object of Shiva worship today. The Dance of Shiva, portrayed in numerous artworks, represents his maintenance of cosmic order through energy and power. Shiva also apears as a great yoga adept seated in the lotus posture, cradling his trident, symbol of his mastery of the three main channels of the central nervous system.

    In the provinces of Bengal, Assam and Orissa, the worship of Shakti probably derived from the ancient cults of the Mother Goddess. Shakti is the feminine counterpart to male deities, representing their "power" or "energy" embodied in the female form, such Kali or Lakhshmi. Its adherents worship Shakti as the force that maintains the universe and makes all life possible. Shaktas worship various manifestations of Shakti or Devi (the Mother Goddess), who can be beneficent, as in Uma and Parvati, or destructive, as Durga or Kali, the fierce black goddess whose form drips blood and is adorned with snakes, human skulls, and dismembered arms.

    Shaktism is closely identified with Tantra, a fundamental spiritual practice of Hinduism based on a group of texts in which the divine energy represented by the female aspect of a god is personified as a goddess. The Tantric approach is more body-oriented than most orthodox Hindu teachings, and matter is not shunned as an illusion. Tantra is customarily divided into the so-called right-handed and left-handed paths, the latter involving the "Five M's": madya (alcohol), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (parched grain and symbolic hand gestures), and maithuna (sexual intercourse). Over time, the physical use of the 5 M's gave way to psychophysical practices such as Kundalini Yoga, but some Tantric groups still follow the esoteric practices in secret.

    The largest modern Hindu sect, Vaishnavism, is based in the north of India (although members of the three major sects now live side by side). Vaishnavas worship Vishnu (Hari) in his ten incarnations, but primarily as Rama, Sita, and Krishna. The focus of Vaishnavism is generally on image-worship, and devout Vaisnava households keep an image of Vishnu or one of his avatars in the home. Vishnu's divine body is depicted with four arms, resting on Shesha, king of the serpents, or riding on the great bird Garuda. He resides in Vaikuntha, his paradise, located on Mount Meru or in the northern ocean.


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    Hinduism in the West

    Hinduism was introduced to the U.S. by Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), the disciple of the great Bengali saint Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86). In 1893, Vivekananda attended the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago and gave an influential address that contradicted the stereotype of Hindus as superstitious and intolerant. His picture of Hinduism was somewhat idealized and avoided reference to the strongly sectarian nature of most Hindu practice in India. For many years, his vision of Indian religion as an idealistic practice of yoga, meditation, and transcendental philosophy was embraced by Western intellectuals and spritual seekers. With the recent influx of Indian immigrants has come a greater awareness of the wide range of Hindu beliefs and practices that the immigrants have brought with them.

    Vivekananda established the Vedanta Society in the U.S. in 1894, and later in India in 1897 he founded the Ramakrishna Mission, considered by some to be the most important modern organization of reformed Hinduism. It is unique in India in that it is involved in social welfare concerns such as building and running hospitals and orphanages, a result of cross-pollination by Western members. The Order's motto reads, "For one's own liberation and the welfare of the world." There are currently 13 Ramakrishna and Vivekananda Vedanta Centers around the U.S. run by mostly American-born monks of the Ramakrishna Order of India.

    But Vivekananda was not the only Hindu to attract followers outside of India. After the imigration laws were revised in 1965 to allow a greater influx of Asians, a number of other Indian gurus began to make their way here. And Westerners traveled more frequently to India to sit at the feet of the great teachers and mystics to be found there. They include:

    Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950). Sri Aurobindo was a member of the Indian nationalist movement fighting for independence from Great Britain. He claimed that the voice of the departed Swami Vivekananda was instructing him during meditation. Later Aurobindo became an ascetic and founded a yoga ashram in Pondicherry that is still active. His doctrine of the evolution of the soul from lower to higher levels of spiritual consciousness resembles that of the Jesuit archaeologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

    A French woman named Mira Richards (1878-1973) became Aurobindo's spiritual companion and helped to spread his ideas. Known as The Mother, she ran the ashram after Aurobindo began a period of silence and seclusion that lasted until his death. In 1968, The Mother founded a model global village called Auroville, based on principles espoused by Aurobindo, which is still in progress.

    Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). Famous for asking himself continuously, "Who am I?" He also asked visitors the same question until they were reduced to silence.

    Swami Sivananda Saraswati (1887-1963/4). Founder of the Divine Life Society taught the ancient Indian science of ayurvedic medicine and meditation. His disciples included Swami Satchidananda and Swami Vishnu Devananda.

    Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952). Coming to the U.S. in 1922, he became famous as the author of Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), founded a Yoga Institute in Los Angeles in 1925, and established the Self-Realization Fellowship (S.R.F.), to teach his path of Kriya Yoga.

    Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986). Although he was chosen by the leaders of the Theosophical Society as the avatar of the 20th century and had a worldwide following, Krishnamurti rejected attempts to found a church around him. He refused any formal following, speaking and writing for the general public, and settling in Ojai, California.

    Ma Anandamayi (1896-1982). A leading female saint of India who became enlightened without reading scripture or studying with a guru.

    Swami Muktananda (1908-1983). Practitioner of Siddha Yoga, the way of the Siddhas, or semidivine beings mentioned in the Puranas, and emphasized awakening the kundalini. In America, he created the SYDA Foundation, based in South Fallsburg, New York.

    Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (b. 1911) Founded (and copyrighted) Transcendental Meditation, or TM, based on ancient meditation techniques. After the Beatles went to study with him in 1967, he became instantly famous--even after they disowned him less than six months later. He became one of the leading exponents of ayurveda in the West, and his students include Deepak Chopra.

    Swami Satchidananda (1914-2002). Disciple of Swami Sivananda who gave the invocation at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 and later founded Satchidananda Ashram -- Yogaville in Buckingham, Virginia, where he teaches Integral Yoga.