A glossary of Hindu terms
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The origins of Hinduism are lost in the mists of time. Many of the terms in Hinduism are also found in Buddhism and Sikhism though they may have different meanings. Proper names and place names are only included in this list if variant forms are commonly used.
Note: The main references are from Sanskrit terminology, though the main variants are also given, though one form is used for Lakshmi, Vishnu because of the frequency of occurrence.


Acharya Acarya One who teaches by example. Usually refers to a prominent or exemplary spiritual leader.
Advaita Adwaita Non-dual. Refers to the impersonalistic philosophy which unqualifyingly equates God, the soul and matter.
Ahimsa Ahinsa Not killing. Non-violence; respect for life.
Arjuna   One of the central characteristics of the Mahabarata. He is the leader for whom Krishna is charioteer in the Bhagavad Gita.
Artha   Economic development. The second aim of life.
Arti Arati Welcoming ceremony in which auspicious articles such as incense and lamps are offered to the deity or to saintly people.
Aryan   Noble. Refers to those who know the spiritual values of life. Scholars say it refers to the original inhabitants of the Sindu region in India.
Ashram Asram A place set up for spiritual development.
Ashrama Asrama A stage of life (of which there are four) adopted according to material considerations, but ultimately as a means to spiritual realisation.
Atharva Veda   The fourth of the Vedas.
Atman Atma Self. Can refer to body, mind or soul, depending on context. Ultimately, it refers to the real self, the soul.
Aum Om The sacred symbol and sound representing the ultimate; the most scared of Hindu words.
Avatar Avatara, Avtara One who descends. Refers to the descent of a deity, most commonly Vishnu. Sometimes it is translated as incarnation which, although inaccurate, may be the best English word available.
Ayodhya   Birthplace of Rama
Bhagavad Gita   The Song of the Lord. Spoken by Krishna, this is the most important scripture for most Hindus. Tradition dates it back to 3000 BCE, though most scholars attribute it to the first millennium BCE. Considered an Upanishad.
Bhajan Bhajana Devotional hymn or song.
Bhakti   Devotion; love. Devotional form of Hinduism.
Bhakti-yoga   The path of loving devotion, aimed at developing pure love of God.
Brahma   A Hindu deity, considered one of the Trimurti, and in charge of creative power; not be to be confused with Brahman or Brahmin.
Brahmachari Brahmacari, Brahmacharin One in the first stage of life, a celibate student of Vedic knowledge. 
Brahmacharya Brahmacarya Brahma ch(c)ari The first ashrama or stage of life.
Brahman   The ultimate reality, or the all pervading reality; that from which everything comes, in which it rests and into which it will eventually go.
Brahmin Brahman, Brahmana The first of the four varnas, the principal social groupings from which priests are drawn. Some writers, rather confusingly, use the spelling Brahman and the meaning only become clear in context. See also Brahman and Brahma
Chamar   Member of a 'scheduled class' untouchable or outcaste whose occupation has to do with tanning leather.
Chandala Candala General term for an untouchable or outcaste.
Chela   Disciple of a guru.
Chuhra   An untouchable or outcaste whose occupation is a sweeper.
Darshan Shastras   Six systems of Hindu Philosophy - Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Vedanta and Meemansa.
Dassehra Dussehra, Dassera, Dashara (and others) Ten days. Also called Vijay Dashami. Celebrates the victory of Rama on the tenth day of the bright half of the lunar month of Jyeshtha. As is often the case with Hindu festivals, followers may interpret the festival differently, e.g. in connection with Durga (see Navaratri).
Dharma   Religion or religious duty is the usual translation into English, but literally it means the intrinsic quality of the self or that which sustains one's existence.
Dhoti   A garment made of natural fibre (usually cotton or silk), worn by males, which covers the lower body and legs.
Dhyana   Meditation.
Diva  Dipa Light; usually a small lamp using ghee.
Divali Diwali, Dipavali, Deepavali (and others) The festival of lights at the end of one year and the beginning of the new year, according to one Hindu calendar.
Durga   Female deity. A form of the goddess Parvarti; wife of Shiva.
Dvaita Dwaita Dual. Refers to the personalistic philosophy that differentiates between God, the soul and matter.
Dwarka Dvarka, Dvaraka, Dwaraka Pilgrimage site on the west coast of India.
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Gandhi   20th century spiritual and political leader.
Ganesha  Ganesh, Ganupati, Ganapati  A Hindu deity portrayed with an elephant's head - a sign of strength. The deity who removes obstacles. 
Ganga   The Ganges. Most famous of all sacred rivers of India.
Gangotri   Source of the river Ganges.
Gotra   A group with Jati (caste) who force their members to marry outside the group.
Grihastha Gristhi, Grhastha The second stage of Hindu life; one who belongs to that stage; i.e. the householder (grihasti)
Guna   Rope; quality. Specifically refers to the three qualities of sattva (goodness), rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance), which permeates and control matter.
Guru   Spiritual teacher, preceptor or enlightener.
Hanuman   The monkey warrior who faithfully served Rama and Sita. Also called Pavansuta (son of the wind God).
Havan   Also known as Agnihotra. The basis of many Hindu rituals used at weddings and on other ceremonial occasions; the ceremony or act of worship in which offerings of ghee and grains are made into fire.
Havan kund   The container, usually square or pyramid-shaped, in which the havan fire is burned.
Hitopadesh   Stories with a moral
Holi   The festival of colours, celebrated in Spring.
Homa   Term often used interchangeably with havan.
ISKCON   The International Society for Krishna Consciousness
Janeu Jenoi Sacred thread worn by Hindus who study under a guru.
Janmashtami Janmashtmi The birthday of Krishna, celebrated on the eight day of the waning moon in the month of Badra.
Japa Jap The quiet or silent repetition of a mantra as a meditative process.
Jati   Caste is the usual translation meaning occupational kinship group.
Jnana Gyan Knowledge
Jnana-yoga Gyan-yoga The path of knowledge, that aims at liberation.
Kali Kaali Name given to that power of God which delivers justice - often represented by the Goddess Kali (a from of Durga).
Kali yuga   The fourth of the ages; the iron age or the age of quarreling and hypocrisy.
Kama   The third of the four aims of life - regulated sense of enjoyment.
Karma   Action. Used of work to refer to the law of cause and effect.
Karma-yoga   The path of self-realisation through dedicating the fruits of one's work to God.
Kirtan   Songs of praise; corporate devotional singing, usually accompanied by musical instruments.
Krishna   Usually considered an avatar of Vishnu. One of the most popular of all Hindu deities in contemporary Britain. His teachings are found in the Bhagavad Gita.
Kshatriya Khatri Second of the four varnas of traditional Hindu society, the ruling or warrior class.
Lakshmi   The goddess of fortune.
Mahabharata   The Hindu epic that relates the story of the five Pandava princes. It includes the Bhagavad Gita.
Mala Maala Circle of stringed beads of wood or wool used in meditation.
Mandala Mandal A circle, area or community / group.
Mandir   Temple
Mantra   That which delivers the mind. Refers to a short sacred text or prayer, often recited repetitiously.
Manusmriti   The laws of Manu. An ancient and important text on Dharma, including personal and social laws.
Marg   Path. (see Jnana yoga, Karma yoga and Bhakti yoga)
Mata   Mother. Often associated with Hindu goddesses who represent shakti power.
Mathura   Holy place associated with Krishna.
Maya   Not this. Usually, it refers to illusion, partially where the permanent soul identifies itself with temporary matter. e.g. the body, etc. It can also mean power.
Moksha Moksa Ultimate liberation from the process of transmigration, the continuous cycle of birth and death.
Mundan   The head shaving ceremony. Performed in the first or third year of life.
Murti Moorti form. The image or deity used as a focus of worship. 'Idol' is the wrong word and 'statue' may cause offense.
Navarati Navarata The Nine Nights Festival preceding Dassehra, and held in honour of the goddess Durga.
Nirvana   The cessation of material existence.
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Panchatantra   Part of the supplementary Vedic scriptures, composed of animal stories with a moral.
Parvati   The consort of Shiva, also known by other names such as Durga, Devi, etc..
Prahlada Prahalada A great devotee of Vishnu, connected with the festival of Holi.
Pranayam Pranayama Regulation of breath as a means of controlling the mind.
Prashad Prasad, Prasada, Prashada Sacred or sanctified food.
Pravachan   A lecture or talk, usually based on the scriptures.
Puja Pooja Worship. General term referring to a variety of practices in the home or Mandir.
Purana   Ancient. Part of the Smriti scriptures. Contains many of the well-known Hindu stories.
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Raja Yoga Raj Yoga Path of self-control and meditation to realise God.
Rajas   Passion or creative potency, one of the three gunas (qualities of material nature).
Rakhi Raakhi A bracelet, usually made out of silk or cotton, tied to give protection and to strengthen the bond of mutual love.
Raksha Bandhan   The festival when woman tie a decorative bracelet on their brothers' wrists.
Rama   The incarnation of the Lord, and hero of the Ramayama. (Avoid using the variant 'Ram' for obvious reasons.
Ramayana Ramayan The Hindu epic that relates the story of Rama and Sita. composed by the sage Valmiki thousands of years ago.
Ramnavami Ramnavmi The birthday festival of Rama.
Rig Veda Rg or Rc Veda The first scripture of Hinduism, containing spiritual and scientific knowledge.
Rishi Rsi, risi A spiritually wise person. More specifically, one of the seven seers who received the divine wisdom.
Sadhana Sadhan One's regulated spiritual practices or discipline.
Sadhu Saddhu Holy man, ascetic.
Sama Veda   The Veda of chanting; material mainly from the Rig Veda, arranged for ritual chanting in worship.
Samsara Sansara The world - the place where transmigration (the soul's passage through a series of lives in different species) occurs.
Samskar Sanskar, Samskara Sacraments designed to initiate a new stage of life. There is usually a total of sixteen such rites of passage (though many schools of thought do not practice them all).
Sanatan Dharma   The eternal or imperishable religion; also known as Vedi Dharma. Adherents often prefer this term to Hinduism since it characterises their belief in the revealed and universal nature of religion.
Sannyasa   The state of renunciation, the forth stage of life.
Sannyasin Samyasin, Samnyasin A renuciate who, having given up worldly affairs and attachments, has entered the forth stage of life, often as a mendicant.
Sanskrit   Sacred language of the Hindu scriptures.
Saraswati   The power of knowledge, often represented by the goddess Saraswati, the goddess of learning.
Sattva Sattwa Goodness, or the potency to sustain and nourish; one of the three gunas.
Seva Sewa Service, either to the divine or to humanity.
Shaivism Saivism The religion of Hindus who are devotees of Shiva.
Shakti Sakti Energy or power, especially of a Hindu feminine deity.
Shiva Siva (many variants) A Hindu god. The name means kindly or auspicious.
Shivarati Sivaratri  The annual festival celebrated in February / March in honour of Shiva. Also called Manashivaratri.
Shraddha Sraddha Ceremony in which Sanctified food is offered to the poor and needy in memory of departed ancestors.
Shri Sri Illustrious. Used as a title of respect, e.g. Shri Krishna. Also a respectable title for men. The feminine form is Shrimati (Mrs).
Shruti Srti That which is remembered. Applicable to Hindu scripture other than the Vedas.
Sita Seeta The divine consort of Rama.
Smriti Srti, Shruti That which is heard. A term specifically applied to the four Vedas, including the Upanishads. Some Hindus believe that Smriti is subservient to Shruti but others consider it to have equal importance.
Sutra Sutta Short sayings or verses relating to various rituals, or encapsulating profound philosophical meanings.
Swami Svami Controller. Sometimes, more specifically, Goswami (one who can control his/her senses). An honourific title applied to a religious teacher or holy person, particularly a sannyasin.
Swastika Svastika From the Sanskrit for well-being; a mark of good fortune. The four arms signify the four directions (space), the four Vedas (knowledge) and the four stages (time) in the life cycle. Not to be confused with the Nazi symbol.
Tamas   Ignorance or destructive potency; the lowest of the three gunas.
Trimurti   The three deities. Refers to Brahma, Vishu and Shiva, who personify and control the three gunas. They represent and control the three functions of creation, preservation and destruction. This is not the same as the idea of Trinity, which should not be used.
Upaayana   Ceremony when the sacred thread is tied - to mark the start of learning with a guru.
Upanishad Upanisad To sit down near. A sacred text based on the teaching of a guru to a disciple. The Upanishads explain the teachings of the Vedas.
Vaishnavism Vaisnavism The religion of Hindus who are devotees of the god Vishnu.
Vaishya Vaisya The third of the four varna of Hindu society, composed of merchants and farmers.
Vanaprastha   The third stage of life, typified by retirement and asceticism.
Vanaprasthi Vanaprastha Forest dweller. One who is in the third stage of life.
Varanasi Banares, Benares, Kashi, Kasi City of the river Ganges, sacred to Shiva. It is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites and also an ancient center of learning.
Varna   Colour. The four principal divisions of Hindu society. It is important to note that the word 'caste' refers strictly to sub-divisond within each varna, and not to varnas themselves.
Varnashrama Varnasrama Dharma The system whereby society is divided into four varnas (divisions), and life into four ashramas (stages).
Varsha Pratipada   The day of Creation, celebrated as New Year's Day by many Hindus.
Veda   Knowledge. Specifically refers to the four Vedas, through any teaching which is consistent with the conclusions of these scriptures is also accepted as Vedic.
Vijay Dashmi Vijaya Dashami Another name for Dassehra.
Vishnu Visnu A Hindu god. With Brahma and Shiva forms the Trimurti.
Vrat Vratam Vow. Often included abstention from certain foods.
Vrindavan Brindavan, Vrindavana, Brindaban The sacred village connected with Krishna's pastimes as a youth.
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Yajur Veda   One of the four Vedas, dealing with the knowledge of karma.
Yamuna Jamuna, Jumna Tributary of the river Ganga (Ganges), considered by many Hindus to be the most sacred of all holy rivers.
Yatra Jatra Pilgrimage. Usually to the most important sacred place in India.
Yoga   Communion; union of the soul with the Supreme, or a process which promotes that relationship. The English word 'yoke' is derived from yoga.
Yuga   Age, or extended period of time, of which there are four.