Note: Information presented here is to the best of our knowledge about Sanatana Dharma a.k.a. Hinduism.
1. Why are there so many deities in the Hindu faith?
In Hinduism there is only one single Creator/ God – or Brahman. God is beyond any description or attributes – not a man or a woman. God is cosmic energy that is manifest in every atom of creation. In a physical world, in order to make it easier for human beings to touch and feel and worship, the cosmic energy is captured in the form of several idols in masculine and feminine forms – they are referred to as gods and goddesses or deities. But they all are different manifestations of the same singular cosmic energy called God. Hindus worship one Supreme being, though by different names. This is because the people of India with different languages and cultures understand God in their own distinct way.
2. When do you have the service?
As per the Hindu tradition, services are offered per the lunar calendar, and vary for each deity. We call our “services” poojas or pujas. Poojas may be conducted in the home or in a Temple, and they may be conducted every day. Most Hindus who worship God, whether or not through a form, will conduct at least some poojas daily. The Temple pooja schedule varies from day to day. For example, the primary pooja for Lord Vishnu is on Saturday, whereas the primary poojas for Lord Shiva are on Sunday and Monday. Special poojas are conducted according to a schedule based upon the lunar calendar.
Poojas are performed as an expression of worship but also to invoke the deity to become present in a conscious, focused way in the shrine and in ourselves so that we can experience each other (“Darshan”).
3. Why do you ring a bell?
The ringing of the bell produces what is regarded as an auspicious sound – “Aum” – the primordial sound from which all creation happened. The sound of the bell is considered auspicious which welcomes divinity and dispels evil – any negative energy. Bell ringing during prayer is also meant to help in controlling the ever wandering mind and focusing on the deity. Some devotees ring the bell to announce their visit to the temple.
4. Why is there Deepam (Flame or Lamp) at every shine?
Lighting a Deepam signifies removal of darkness from the mind and heart. It symbolizes illuminating our ignorance of the true nature of reality, converting it to knowledge and wisdom, and the burning away of our egos. It also symbolizes the offering of one (fire) of the five elements at the time of praying to the Lord. Whether in a temple or at home, lighting an oil lamp provides a protective sheath against negative vibrations.
5. Why is the incense used?
Incense is burned not only as an organic air freshener, but also for its various physical and psychological benefits – such as enhancing concentration and focus, increasing motivation and positive energy, stimulating creativity, boosting confidence, preventing infections, relieving headaches, and reducing depression, anxiety, insomnia etc. through stimulation of the limbic system.
6. What is Namaskar/Namaste?
These are words in Sanskrit language meaning “I bow to you.” Hindus greet each other with folded hands and palms pressed together and a bow to the head. It signifies that the divine force (positive energy) that is in me is also in you; and the positive energy in me welcomes the positive energy in you. In other words, “I bow to the divinity in you!” It springs from the recognition that every living carries within itself the cosmic energy – the divine force.
7. What is the water that is given to devotees?
It is called “Teertham” (holy water). Teertham has become holy since it has touched the body of the god while holy mantras are being chanted. It is a medium to receive divine positive energy. The power of the teertham is to free the devotee from untimely death, all forms of disease and from all sins. Because of its holiness, the devotees typically take it with one hand folded enough to make a well into which teertham can be poured and with the other hand supporting from below to prevent spilling.
8. What is that that is put on the heads?
It is called Satari*. It is a crown that is taken from the feet of the Lord Venkateswara (Vishnu) and placed by the priest on the devotee’s head signifying the Lord’s blessings. The devotee surrenders his/her ego and entire self at the Lord’s feet and receives the Lord’s blessings.
*Satari in Sanskrit comes from Sata (ignorance) + Ari (enemy): The blessing is meant to remove one’s ignorance.
9. Why do women wear Tilak (Bindi)?
Human body has several energy centers (chakras). The most important energy center is located just above the junction of the two eyebrows. As a symbol of recognizing and protecting that energy center (chakra), Hindu women wear a red dot – the Tilak or Bindi – on their forehead; and men wear the sacred ash.
10. Why do priests/devotees wear marks on their foreheads?
Human body has several energy centers (chakras). The most important energy center (“Agya Chakra”) is located just above the junction of the two eyebrows. As a symbol of recognizing and protecting that energy center (chakra), priests wear marks (tilak) on their foreheads. It forms the boundary between human and divine consciousness. Followers of Lord Vishnu typically wear one or three vertical lines connected at the bottom. Followers of Lord Shiva typically wear one or three horizontal lines of sacred ash.
11. What is Sacred Ash?
Sacred ash, known most commonly as vibhuti, is usually created from burning wood in the West. It is applied to foreheads in tilaks, discussed elsewhere in this compilation. It is considered a great medium to receive energy, and applying it to your forehead, for example, can facilitate experiencing the divine, particularly through the third eye (the chakra through which one can experience God and the true nature of reality). It also is a constant reminder of the mortal nature of life. Ash symbolizes breaking of all bonds and is a favorite adornment of Shiva. Monks who renounce all the material attachments typically sprinkle the holy ash all over their body.
12. What is the significance of the Aarti ceremony?
The Aarti ceremony encompasses the five basic elements of Nature. They are invoked together to welcome the Divine into our lives and to awaken and strengthen the human devotion to the Divine. It comprises:
- Lighting the lamp – to remove darkness/ignorance;
- Burning the incense – to promote positive feelings/energy;
- Offering flowers – to awaken the five senses to Divinity;
- Ringing the bell – to dispel bad energy and invoke positive energy; and
- Singing – to focus on the Divine and express one’s devotion
In the Aarti ceremony, we symbolically reach out and pull the flame to our heads in order to symbolize and manifest illuminating our ignorance of the true nature of reality, converting it into knowledge and wisdom, and the burning away of our egos, thus illuminating and manifesting the path to liberation.
13. Why do people go around the shrines?
Devotees typically walk around the shrines in clockwise direction (in harmony with Earth’s rotation around the Sun) – as a symbol of reverence, prayer, surrender and receive the Lord’s blessings.
14. Why are coconuts offered?
Coconuts are frequently offered in poojas. Hindus believe we do not need to await standing at a pearly gate to experience our souls, but rather that the more we live from our soul level the better off we will be, as our souls are wiser, more experienced and more aware of our oneness with God than are our egos. Breaking the coconut symbolizes breaking the hold our egos have on us and humbling ourselves before God. Reaching the white flesh and pure liquid inside symbolizes recognizing and reaching our souls.
15. What is the purpose offering food to the Lord before it is consumed?
Food items are offered to and blessed by the deity. This is known most commonly as “prasadam”. This is a process of giving and receiving between the devotee and the deity. For Hindus, God is always present in the idol irrespective of the shape or form. Just as human beings need food, water, air, clothing etc., the devotee makes an offering of food to the deity, the deity then “enjoys” and blesses it, and it is then returned to the devotees to be consumed. This may also be viewed as subordinating ourselves to the deity as we symbolically feed the deity before ourselves.
16. What is the significance of the Swastika?
Swastika is a word in Sanskrit language meaning “conducive to wellbeing.” It stands for auspiciousness. It is an important Hindu symbol used to denote health, luck, prosperity and success. The swastika symbol is commonly used at the entrances or on doorways of homes or temples, to mark the starting page of financial statements, and on any special construction or rostrum created for rituals such as weddings or welcoming a new-born.
17. What is the significance of the Sankha, Chakra, Gada and Padma?
Hindu iconography is a vast and complex subject.
The Conch (śaṅkha)
The conch represents the first manifestation of articulate language “AUM” – nada brahman. It is the seed from which speech developed — the nutshell containing the whole of wisdom. All the forms of the universe are effects of the primeval sonic vibration. Thus, the conch is the symbol of the origin of existence. Its shape is a spiral, starting at one point and evolving into ever increasing spheres. It comes from water, the first compact element. When blown it produces sounds representing “AUM”.
The Discus (chakra)
The Discus is called sudarshana which means “pleasing to the eye”. It is usually shown in iconography as a wheel with a hexagon in the center. The six points of the two triangles represent the six seasons in a yearly time cycle, in the center nave is the seed sound (bija) ‘hrim’, which represents the changeless, motionless center, the Supreme Cause. The Wheel has eight spokes and 8 wings, which represent the eight syllables of the sacred Ashtakshari mantra, while the outer circle of the wheel represents ‘māyā’, the divine power of manifestation.
The Mace (gadā)
The mace is a symbol of the intellect (buddhi) or the power of knowledge. The power of knowledge is the essence of life (prāṇa tattva) from which all physical and mental powers come. Nothing else can conquer time and itself become the power of time.
The Lotus (Padma)
The lotus represents the manifested universe, the flower that unfolds in all its glory from the formless and infinite waters of causality. The Lotus is symbolic of the enlightened mind. It rises in the mud of material existence gradually growing through the waters until it reaches the surface and then opens to the sun in all its glory. Water splashed upon a lotus leaf never remains but immediately slips off. In the same way the dirt of worldliness never stains the enlightened being.
18. Why is “SRI” written in front of every deity’s name?
It is a form of salutation intended to praise each deity.
19. Why are some idols (vigrahas) made of marble and others in black stone or metal?
A vigraha (also called murti) is a physical manifestation (idol) of the Brahman or cosmic energy or God. Hindu scriptures recommend design rules for producing the idols – their materials, measurements, proportion, decoration and symbolism of the vigraha or murti. Marble, black stone or metal have their own chemical and physical properties that allow the sound energy produced by the chanting of prayers to penetrate the idol and infuse it with life energy. Thus, the idol is not merely a statue, but a live force infused with the divine energy.
20. Why are there animals with Gods?
The interdependence of humanity, the plant and the animal kingdom along with worship of the gods is glorified in the spiritual ideals of Hinduism. Hindu gods and goddesses alike are depicted as the protectors of animals, whom they are often shown riding. Lord Shiva rides Nandi the bull, Lord Vishnu rides Garuda the eagle, Lord Ganesh rides the rat, Lord Murugan rides the peacock, and Goddess Durga rides the lion, to name a few. Thus, the devotee is reminded that he/she is part of an ecosystem that he/she needs to respect and preserve.
21. Why there is snake behind Lord Shiva?
The five-headed snake behind Lord Shiva is symbolic of the soul’s awakening.
22. What are Navagrahas?
They refer to the Sun, Moon, five of the planets and two celestial bodies. All the planets in our Solar System have an impact on life on this planet Earth. Hence, they are worshipped. Devotees typically walk around the planets in clockwise direction (in harmony with Earth’s rotation around the Sun) once, thrice or nine times and offer prayers depending on their own praying practice. It is a fascinating fact that the Hindu scriptures from several thousands of years ago (before the time of recorded history) identified all the planets, recognized that Planet Earth was round, and that Planet Earth went around the Sun.
23. Why is a car being worshipped?
The car (just as any material possession of a human being) is offered to the Lord as a recognition of God’s blessing and the devotee’s gratitude. It is believed that by such an offering and performing a prayer (puja) for the car, the devotee will be blessed with safety and comfort while operating or traveling by the vehicle.
24. What is the significance of ‘Dhwajasthambha’?
Temples are built as palaces of God. A Dhwajasthamba is a flagpole that is erected in front of the royal tower (raja gopuram) or in front of the main deity. It represents the spinal cord; and symbolizes the enormous/ immeasurable power of the Lord. One can look at the dhwajasthambha and know the presiding deity of the temple. Temples are not only divine abodes but a reflection of the human body for the presiding deity. Dhwajasthambha also symbolizes all the deities installed in the temple. Devotees traditionally prostrate and pay their obeisance at the base of the post, satisfied having prostrated before all the deities in the temple at once.
25. Why do they remove their shoes/footwear before entering the temple?
Hindus leave their footwear outside not only while entering temples, but also their own homes. The predominant reason is hygiene. As the footwear gets dirty, it is unworthy of entering a house, let alone a temple. The act of removing one’s footwear is also symbolic of losing one’s ego and any negative energy at the doorstep before entering the temple, just so the devotee becomes a receptive receptacle of cosmic energy while inside the temple.
26. How does one convert to become a Hindu?
There is no concept or process of conversion in Hinduism. Anyone who is not born as a Hindu but wishes to follow the precepts and practices of Hindu faith may choose to do so just by practicing the faith. Hinduism accepts and celebrates all systems of faith.
27. What are Hindu views on abortions and LGBT?
Hinduism emphasizes the concept of ahimsa or non-violence. The general value system of Hinduism teaches that the correct course of action in any given situation is the one that causes the least harm to those involved. Thus, in the case where the mother’s life is at risk, abortion is considered acceptable.
Hindu views of homosexuality and, in general, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) issues, are diverse and different Hindu groups have distinct views. Hinduism has maintained the sanctity of marriage being between a man and a woman and considers it to be one of the main duties of a Hindu householder. Yet, various Hindu mythic stories have portrayed homosexual experience as natural and joyful. There are several Hindu temples which have carvings that depict both men and women engaging in homosexual acts. Same-sex relations and gender variance have been represented within Hinduism from the Vedic times in rituals, religious and other narratives, commentaries, paintings and sculptures.
28. How long does it take for next birth?
In Hinduism, the time taken by a soul to reincarnate depends on one’s karma in past life. There is no fixed or predictable time period.
29. How does one know he/she attained Moksha?
Moksha (liberation) requires advancing one’s own individuated consciousness to become so like God’s ultimate consciousness that there is no longer any difference. When this state of being becomes complete, constant and permanent, one attains Moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth. One is reborn repeatedly until this is attained.
One hopes to have experiences of this state of consciousness before it becomes constant and permanent. This type of experience is described as a Samadhi experience. Some people mistakenly believe that if they have such an experience, they are enlightened. This is incorrect. In the enlightened, liberated state one experiences Samadhi continually and permanently, while also maintaining the ability to continue functioning in the physical plane. Also, in the enlightened state one’s behavior is constantly and permanently consistent with this level of consciousness. Therefore, an enlightened, liberated being will always be equanimous and kind and will always treat every being and every object as part of God.
Some people may say, “You’ll know when you’ve attained Moksha.” This is inaccurate. Some feel they’ve attained it when they haven’t. It can be very helpful, and many Hindus would say it actually is essential to have a highly attained guru help you judge where you are in your spiritual evolution.
30. Do you believe in Heaven and Hell?
Yes, but not in the way Christians do. We believe our goal in life is not to get to Heaven or stay out of Hell, although we do believe in both. Our goal is to advance our consciousness so that it becomes so like God’s ultimate consciousness that there is no longer any difference and we merge into God for all eternity. We also believe we get as many lifetimes as it takes to attain this. Our path through our reincarnations is largely determined by the system of Karma, which provides that we reap what we sow, but it’s not a punishing system. Rather, it’s an educational system which brings to us our Karmic consequences so that we can learn from them and perfect ourselves. We may be reborn in heavenly or hellish realms, but they will only be temporary. It operates like this: If you’ve been cruel, you may need to experience cruelty in order to learn not to be cruel. If you’ve been horribly cruel, you may be reborn in a realm so hellish it couldn’t be on this planet. If you’ve not been that bad, you may be reborn in less challenging but still uncomfortable circumstances. If you’ve been wonderful, you deserve the benefit of being so. Really wonderful, you might be reborn in a realm so heavenly that it couldn’t be on this planet. Less wonderful, you might be reborn in the life you currently have, which is better than most people now or ever have had. Either way, a heavenly realm, a hellish realm, or any other realm, your time there will be temporary, and you’ll be released to have other lifetimes until you attain Moksha.
31. Why do Hindus respect the cow?
Cows are considered sacred, or at least deeply respected. This has to do with cows’ agricultural uses, gentle nature, and strength. Indians rely heavily on cows for dairy products, for tilling the fields, and for dung as a source of fuel and fertilizer. Therefore, cows are nurturing, supportive and maternal beings. Not all Hindus are vegetarian, but virtually all Hindus will not eat beef.
32. Are all Hindus Vegetarian?
No. Hinduism does not require a vegetarian diet, but many Hindus avoid eating meat because they believe that it minimizes hurting other life forms. Vegetarianism is considered satvic, that purifies the body and the mind, and in sync with nature, compassionate and respectful of other life forms.
33. Why do Hindus cremate the dead?
Hindus traditionally cremate their dead because a fiery dissolution of the body brings swifter, more complete release of the soul than burial, which extends the soul’s connection to its earthly life. After death, the soul hovers close by, emotionally attached to and able to see the body and its old surroundings. The burning of the body helps the soul understand that death has occurred.