Spiritual Glossary: Hinduism

Hinduism is the main religion in India and is the oldest major religion in the world, ranking third in popularity behind Christianity and Islam. The word Hindu comes from the Sanskrit Sindhu, the historical name for the Indus River in what is now Pakistan, and was first mentioned in the Rigveda.

486px-Krishna_holding_fluteHinduism is seen as a way of life incorporating ethical principles, philosophical and spiritual ideas, and practices based on an understanding of dharma and karma, all rooted in social norms and structures.

In some ways, Hinduism is incredibly flexible, involving as it does, so many different perspectives and gods. It is diverse and inclusive, ultimately built on the perception of the unity underlying all of manifest reality. But it can also be used to reinforce rigid social structures like the caste system. The only way to move up to the next level is to gain favour or build good karma so you can seek a better rebirth next time round. Although this may not be literally true in real life, if you believe it is true, it can make it seem so.

Hinduism is a rich and varied religion, with a riot of different rituals, festivals and practices to choose between. The idea of God in Hinduism covers pretty much every conceivable angle, including atheism, and with its beautiful art and ancient scriptures, probably contains a little something for everyone. Indeed, the whole point of Hinduism seems to be about tolerance. The pluralism of the religion is celebrated and it’s accepted that the truth cannot be encapsulated in one system of thought. As the Hindu prayer states:

“May good thoughts come to us from all sides.”

The main scriptures include the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita.


Rigveda manuscript from the early 19th century
Rigveda manuscript from the early 19th century

Veda is Sanskrit and means knowledge. The Vedas are the oldest scriptural texts of Hinduism and originated in ancient India. They are said to have been revealed by Brahma, and were passed on through an oral tradition before being written down around 1500 BCE. The Vedas consist of hymns which form part of the soma ritual and sacrifice, and praise the pantheon of Hindu gods.

There are four Vedas:

  • The Rigveda – “Knowledge of the Verses”
  • The Yajurveda – “Knowledge of the Sacrifice”
  • The Samaveda – “Knowledge of the Chants”
  • The Atharvaveda – “Knowledge of the Fire Priest”

There are also other texts connected to the Vedas, such as the Brahmanas and the Aranyakas, which contain discussions on the Vedas and other rituals.

The mantras, or sacred formulas, are recited by the priests, with different sets of priests being responsible for different sacrifices and rituals. The oldest verses are still recited today using rhythms and intonations handed down using mnemonic techniques. There has been some speculation as to the nature of these mantras and chants: some suggest the mantras are a kind of pre-language based on birdsong. An interesting idea, especially considering the language of the angels is often referred to as the language of the birds.


The Sanskrit word Upanishad means connection or equivalence, and relates to the idea of a connection between the self and the cosmos. This is similar to the hermetic philosophy of ‘as above, so below.’

There are over 200 different Upanishads of varying ages. They are philosophical texts which discuss the nature of ultimate reality and how we are to awaken to that truth in moksha.

Ultimate reality is Brahman – the source and fabric of all reality, and we relate to that reality through our Atman – the individual self. But in the end we are to see that Brahman and Atman are one.

While the Vedas are all about rituals and hymns, the Upanishads attack the use of ritual and sacrifice, subordinating the many gods of the Vedas to the supreme reality of Brahman.

“The sound of Brahman is OM. At the end of OM there is silence. It is a silence of joy. It is the end of the journey where fear and sorrow are no more: steady, motionless, never-falling, everlasting, immortal. It is called the omnipresent Vishnu.

In order to reach the Highest, consider in adoration the sound and the silence of Brahman. For it had been said:

God is sound and silence. His name is OM. Attain therefore contemplation – contemplation in silence on him.” – the Maitri Upanishad

Bhagavad Gita


The Bhagavad Gita is a Sanskrit poem found in the Mahabharata. Its name means Song of the Lord and it consists of a dialogue between Prince Arjuna and Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu.

The story is a debate about the morals of war. Arjuna is about to go into battle but feels bad about having to kill so many people, so he chats with his charioteer, who happens to be Krishna. The god persuades Arjuna to fight, since he is a warrior and that’s what warriors do. He will only be killing the body. The soul is immortal and so will reincarnate into another body or be released into nirvana.

In this view, war is seen as justified because it’s unreal. If reality is illusory, what does it matter if millions are slaughtered? They’ll all die someday anyway, why not today?

I guess that depends on which end of the sword you happen to be.

Ultimately, the Bhagavad Gita is about the battle of the human soul for liberation from suffering. If we remember that Brahman is the world, then it’s Brahman who suffers in us. Realisation of this truth will release us from samsara into moksha.

“And he who with never-failing love adores me and works for me, he passes beyond the three powers and can be one with Brahman, the ONE.

For I am the abode of Brahman, the never-failing fountain of everlasting life. The law of righteousness is my law; and my joy is infinite joy.”


Vedanta means end of the Vedas, which means you study these texts after you’ve mastered the Vedas. The texts are:

  • The Upanishads
  • The Brahma Sutras
  • The Bhagavad Gita

Vedanta covers a range of philosophical traditions which offer interpretations of the three main texts of Hinduism. There are various schools, such as Advaita Vedanta, Vishishtadvaita, and Dvaita. The philosophy covered by Vedanta seeks to answer questions about the nature of reality, Atman and Brahman. The three main schools each see the relationship between these ideas in a different way.

  • Advaita is non-dual, seeing no difference between Atman and Brahman.
  • Vishishtadvaita is more theistic – a ‘qualified non-dualism.’
  • Dvaita is dualistic.

The different schools agree on the nature of samsara and the need to seek release from the cycle of death and rebirth, and see the Vedas as essential in that task. Brahman is seen as being both the world and the cause of the world, immanent and transcendent; and Atman is subject to karma which arises due to its own actions.


Advaita is a sub-division of the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy. Advaita means not-two – in other words, non-duality or unity.

The teaching texts include the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma Sutras. The essence of the teaching is that the Atman, or self, is one with Brahman, the ultimate reality or pure consciousness. Through spiritual study and training with a guru, the disciple seeks liberation from maya. This is done by gaining knowledge, or vidya of the true identity of Atman and Brahman.

This is very similar to the Mahayana Buddhist idea of shunyata, or emptiness: that there is ‘no thing’, no becoming, and ultimately no individual self or soul. The Atman, or universal soul, is like a temporary marking place in space and time through which Brahman may manifest.

One of the best known philosophers of Advaita was Shankara who said that the Upanishads teach that Brahman is real and the world is illusory, and the Self is Brahman. If you can gain insight into this truth you will attain moksha, or spiritual release.

“Thou art that.”

Images: Krishna; Rigveda; Bhagavad Gita

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5 thoughts on “Spiritual Glossary: Hinduism

    1. I have the same problem! I’ve always wanted to find out more about it, but was put off by the complexity. This was an attempt to explain it to myself – glad you liked it!


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