Note: Unless otherwise noted, the non-English terms are Sanskrit. Sanskrit words that have entered the English language (such as mantra) and Sanskrit proper names are not shown in italics.
agama Popular scriptures dealing with the worship of an aspect of God, including prescribed courses of discipline for the worshiper.
ascetic One who leads a life of contemplation involving self-denial and physical and mental austerities.
avatara (literally, “descent”; English: avatar) Manifestation of a deity on earth, (that is, the ten forms of Vishnu: Krishna, Rama, and so on). Each avatara has a unique task in fulfilling the divine intention in the world; each leads toward the unfolding of ever-higher potencies.
Bhagavad Gita (The Song of the Lord) Popular text within the Mahabharata (see below) that describes a conversation between Krishna and the warrior Arjuna on the eve of battle concerning duty and the nature of the cosmos.
Brahma God as creator, evolver, emanator; considered the author of the Vedas (see below).
brahman One of the four major castes of Hindu society; priests, scholars, and administrators are derived from this caste.
bodhisattva (bodhi = wisdom + sattva = essence) A spiritual being who has compassionately vowed to achieve buddhahood but has deferred this aspiration in order to liberate all creatures in the universe from suffering.
chakra (literally, “wheel”) A symbol of Buddhist dharma (see below); in yoga, chakras are nerve centers or areas of spiritual consciousness in the body.
darshan (literally, “vision,” “sight”) The beholding of a divine image through direct eye contact.
deva A higher being, a god, a being of light.
dharma (literally, “sustain,” “carry,” “hold”) Righteousness, divine law, the way, truth: also the fulfillment of a proper destiny. The term is used in both Buddhist and Hindu context.
karma (kri = to act, do, or make) The law of action and reaction, or the consequence of action; an impersonal law of the universe whose results can be interpreted as either positive or negative in the future of the present birth or in births to come. An individual is the sum-total of the results of previous thoughts and acts, and at every moment is the builder of his future.
lakshana Characteristic symbol or sign; in Buddhism, the identifying marks of the Buddha, believed to be 32 in number (see urna, ushnisha).
linga A phallic emblem of the god Shiva. Shiva’s association with the phallus derives from his asceticism. In the Indian cultural sphere, ascetics were thought capable of attaining extraordinary powers—sometimes rivaling those of the gods—through meditation, austerities, and strict self denial Shiva, the foremost of ascetics, possesses powers vast enough to generate creation. The linga refers both to this ability and to asceticism’s potential rewards, which include escaping rebirth.
the Mahabharata (Great Chronicle of the Bharata Dynasty) The epic story of the struggle of the five Pandava brothers to regain their kingdom from their cruel Kaurava cousins.
Mahayana (literally, “great vehicle”) A branch of Buddhism, stressing universal enlightenment; emphasizing role of Bodhisattva and a more cosmic Buddhology; found in Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan.
mantra A word, sound or phrase endowed with spiritual power, used to invoke the deity being worshiped, such as a prayer or song of praise to the Gods or God; Vedic hymns are considered mantras, as words of power for attaining one’s desires.
Mara A personification of evil and inner temptations that attempt to disrupt the attainment of enlightenment; sometimes applied to the whole of worldly existence as opposed to nirvana.
Meru The mythical mountain at the center of the Hindu universe, the primordial epicenter of the world.
moksha (literally, “liberation) The ultimate goal in Hinduism; release from samsara, the bonds of material existence; the realization of the individual soul’s union with the cosmos/Absolute.
mudra A symbolic hand gesture used in both Hindu and Buddhist art.
nirvana (nir = out + va = to blow) self-extinction; blowing out (as in a candle); cessation of earthly existence as characterized by samsara; a state of bliss; the major goal of Buddhism.
Pali Language of Theravada Buddhist canon, believed to be the spoken language of the Buddha; closely related to Sanskrit.
puja (literally, “worship) Performed in the temple, home or shrine; purpose is purification, invoking the divine and making offerings which are then blessed.
Puranas (pur = to go before, proceed) Ancient tales of creation, cycles of history, involving Shiva and Vishnu; the Goddess and their interactions in the world.
the Ramayana (Life of Rama): The epic story of Prince Rama’s struggle to regain his wife, Sita (Sinta), from the demon king Ravana (Rawana).
samsara The cycle of the phenomenal world, marked by the continual progression of birth, death and rebirth; transmigration.
Sanskrit The classical language of India, the language of much of the sacred scriptures, philosophy and religion; an Indo-European language.
Shakti (literally, “power” or “energy”) The active female principle/creative power; can be used to refer to the Divine Mother, the Goddess, or as a way to describe the male God in his female form.
stupa (literally, “mound, crest") A round burial mound. In Buddhism, a stupa is a structure meant to contain holy relics or relics of the Buddha; a symbol for the Buddha.
sutra (literally, “thread) Religious saying, aphorism, or literary verse on philosophy, arts and sciences, often accompanied by commentaries; basic text for a philosophical system. Sutras are short and concise in order to be easily memorized, and are cryptic rather than expository in nature.
Tantra/Tantrism Rule, ritual, scripture; religious treatise; texts and related practices that are esoteric, usually in the form of a dialogue between Shiva and Shakti, concerning five subjects: creation, destruction, worship of gods and goddesses, attainment of the six powers, and the four modes of union with the Divine in meditation; terms can apply to both Hinduism and Buddhism.
Theravada (literally, “doctrine of the elders”) A school of Buddhism, with an emphasis on the exemplary life of the historical Buddha, the Pali canon and the monastic order; found mainly in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
urna One of the symbols (lakshana; see above) of the Buddha, a circle or curl of hair between the eyes.
ushnisha A symbol of Buddha’s wisdom, a knot of hair on the head, a reminder of the Buddha’s asceticism in the form of uncut, matted, knotted hair.
vahana (literally, “vehicle”) An animal mount that transports Hindu deities (e.g. Shiva’s vahana is Nandi the bull).
Vajrayana (literally, “vehicle of the thunderbolt”) A branch of Buddhism, related to Mahayana, involving esoteric ritual practices associated most strongly with Tibetan Buddhism (see tantrism).
Veda (literally, “knowledge,” “wisdom”) Sacred scriptures of Hinduism, possibly composed before 2000 BCE, consisting of thousands of verses and prose. The four Vedas (asarranged by Vyasa) are: Rg, Yajur, Sama, Atharva Veda. Each contains hymns, priestly manuals, ‘forest treatises’ and enlightened discourses.
yaksha, yakshi Ancient male and female nature spirits, auspicious guardian figures often seen near entrances and gateways of temples and stupas.