Answers to questions about Hinduism


Are Hindus frowned upon if they do not meditate often, or does the concept of “puja” compensate for this?
Meditation is only one form of puja, by no means mandatory. Many Hindus never meditate. You meditate because you feel it is beneficial to you, not because it is required. People who didn’t live with you would have no way of knowing whether you meditate or not, so it’s not a matter of social pressure.

Why are gods and goddesses in artwork depicted as “scary” but not thought of?
If you needed a bodyguard to fight off bullies for you, you’d pick somebody scary-looking, right? That’s what Kali/Durga is like. Note that the Christian God can also be “scary”–the book of Revelation portrays him in some pretty frightening ways. People often prefer to worship gods who have a great deal of power, even if that power is viewed as dangerous.

Taj Mahal Temple, how was it built, when, why, etc.?
Technically the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum, or elaborate tomb, rather than a temple, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628-58) in the memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, in the 17th century, after the period covered by our course (which is why I didn’t show you a picture of it). Although we think of it as typically Indian, it is typically Mughal architecture, influenced strongly by Islamic Persian architecture and bears little resemblance to indigenous Indian Hindu temples. You can learn more about it on the “My India” site.

What is the point of building waist-high temples?
It’s an act of devotion on the part of someone who can’t afford a full-scale building, or for a very minor god who doesn’t qualify for one. You don’t have to be able to enter a temple to worship at it.

Are Indians then strict vegetarians? How do they feel about eating other animals if cows are so respected?
About 20 percent of Indians are vegetarians, including all Jains. It is common enough in India so that on menus the meat selections are often labelled “non-veg.” I have known vegetarian women married to meat-eating husbands. I have no idea how common this pattern is.

Are these the people that have the stones in their forehead? If so did they do it way back when?
If you’re thinking of Hindu gods with stones in their foreheads, that’s a Western stereotype perpetuated by hundreds of adventure stories. Many Indians mark their foreheads with a dot of paint either for religious or caste reasons or just because they find it attractive. Sculptures reflect the same fashion. Rarely a jewel might be substituted for the paint dot, but I’ve never seen one.

Who was the most significant religious leader in the history of India? Who brought religion to India?
Religion in India to too ancient and diverse in its origins to be said to have had a “founder.” There’s no one like Moses or Jesus or Muhammed identifiable in relationship to Hinduism. India gave birth to religions which were exported elsewhere. I suppose the Buddha is the most significant religious leader in terms of his world influence, but in the long run Buddhism dwindled to a minor faith in India.

Why do only reincarnated gods have strange skin colors?
Vishnu and his avatars, particularly Krishna, are often shown with blue skin to suggest their identity. But Kali is also often shown with dark skin. And demons come in all sorts of colors, but they aren’t gods, strictly speaking.

Are there any female gods in Hinduism?
Each major god has a female consort. I showed you images of Vishnu with Lakshmi and Shiva with Parvati. There are a number of powerful demon-fighting goddesses often overlapping with each other called “Kali,” “Durga,” and other names. Saraswati is also a popular goddess who is regarded as the spouse of Brahma. Click here for more information.

Are women and men treated as equals?
From a Western point of view Hinduism discriminates strongly in favor of men and against women. Gender roles are strictly defined. However, it’s worth noting that India has had a female head of state (Indira Gandhi) and that the head of the Congress Party right now is her daughter-in-law. There are many female professionals in India, but generally the average woman in India has far fewer opportunities and protections than the average woman in the U.S. or Europe.

Is the Indian culture known to like the female form?
If this refers to the female body, voluptuous female figures are common in Hindu religious sculpture, often featured on the facades of temples. Unlike the Greeks, ancient Indian sculpture revealed male and female figures equally. However, modern Indians are relatively modest, and until recently films were extremely prudish in what they could show, with lots of “wet sari” scenes being as revealing as they got.

Why are the women represented with either poverty or sex? What are they trying to say with that?
In all cultures heterosexual men have tended to identify women with sexuality, but I showed you pictures of several of the consorts of the gods who are certainly not associated with poverty, nor are they particularly sexy. Sita, Rama’s consort, is a classic example. She is the stereotype of the faithful wife.

What are the major roles of the wife?
This is a huge subject. India has a reputation in the West of being rather hard on women, with wives being strictly subordinate; but within the large extended traditional family, older wives exercise a great deal of power and authority over other family members, particularly younger wives. For a detailed portrait of this sort of family relationship, see the documentary film Dadi and Her Family (you can get extra credit for watching it). This power lapses, however, with the death of their husbands. Few cultures treat widows more poorly than does the Indian one, which helps to explain why many women were willing to commit sati on their husbands’ funeral pyres in the past (the practice has been outlawed for over a century and a half). Modern Indian women are often highly assertive, with Indira Gandhi being the outstanding example of a powerful woman in modern times. She derived her fame from being the daughter of India’s first premier rather than from her marriage. Modern upper class Indian families often feel it is important for their daughters to be well educated to attract a good husband. It is not uncommon for an MA degree to feature in matrimonial ads. On the other hand, thousands of women are killed annually in India by greedy families of grooms who are disappointed by the amount of dowry they have received from the bride’s family. This practice is strictly a crime, has no religious basis, and is not connected with sati. For a site dealing with many issues relating to Indian women, see Women of India.

Why are Hindus allowed to sacrifice animals? I’m not sure I understand it because in their culture they have souls just like people.
In fact, Hindus rarely sacrifice animals. Most sacrifices involve colored powders, incense sticks, flowers, fruit, etc. But occasional animal sacrifices are justifiable just as war is: this life is both illusory and impermanent. The goat sacrificed at the temple of Durga in Calcutta while I was there was supposed to have fulfilled his dharma by this death and go on to a better existence in the next life. Can Hindus first be born as Brahmins or do they have to start at the bottom?
It’s difficult to know where “the start” is. Human beings can’t think back that far. All beings alive today have been continuously reborn for many millennia. I don’t know whether there were “original Brahmins” at the origin of the world or not.

Can untouchables be reborn?
Yes indeed. The whole system of untouchability rests on the belief in reincarnation. Untouchables were assured that their lowly status had been earned through bad karma from previous lives but that if they followed their untouchable dharma in this life they would be able to escape it in the next.

If everyone spends their lives trying to become a Brahmin, eventually wouldn’t there begin to be large number of Brahmins?
Remember that pious Brahmins who achieve Moksha are continually being removed from the system, and former grasshoppers and such are being reborn as Vaishyas.

How come there is so many rich and so many poor and not so many in the middle class?
You might be surprised to learn how polarized American society is in this regard; but it’s true that the vast bulk of Indians are and always have been poor. This was also true of almost all ancient cultures. In recent times a combination of overpopulation, land-shortage, and mismanagement of the economy by anti-development governments have contributed to this poverty. However, India is developing strikingly at present–not as furiously as China, but still quite impressively. There is a very sizable middle class.

If people are reborn over and over again then are new people (new souls/spirits) crated? If not, then how is it that the world population is growing?
Only in recent times has the world population grown at a fast enough rate to be noticeable. For long periods it has hardly grown at all, so this sort of question just didn’t come up. Remember that all living beings, including insects, are involved in the cycle of rebirth, so the total number of human beings alive isn’t the only relevant statistic. Ultimately all atman is one. Individual souls are a temporary illusion created out of a single unity–the brahman. It is infinite and inexhaustible.

Are the kings and rulers worshiped and close to Moksha?
Occasionally a ruler has been regarded as a god, but less so than in many other cultures. Hinduism is unique is granting a higher status to the priesthood (the Brahmins) than to the warrior-kings (Kshatriyas). It is the duty of kings to defend and protect Brahmins, but they are seldom Brahmins themselves.

Why do you sometimes see Hari Krishna followers in the airport and why do they give you flowers and try to give you books? Maybe just like any other religion looking for converts?
These are followers of the modern International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Yes, this is their missionary activity, similar to the way that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses go door-to-door seeking converts. Airports are sheltered public spaces where they can encounter a wide variety of people. They have been banned from many of them, however; and a while back decided for a while to abandon this approach since they were alienating more people than they attracted, but I’ve noticed them back at it recently.

If Indians are Aryans, why are some of them so dark?
Indians use the term “Aryan” to label certain lighter-skinned Indians whose ancestors are now often thought to have been barbarians who emigrated into India millennia ago from Central Asia and conquered the darker Indians, often called “Dravidians” in contrast. Dravidians are supposed to have been the original inhabitants of the subcontinent (and probably the inventors for the Indus culture). All this is very controversial in modern India, with many groups seeking to deny the whole theory of the Aryan invasion. The two groups have obviously intermarried over time and all sorts of shades occur, with the darker skins prevailing more as you move south. Hitler’s use of “Aryan” to mean blonde Nordic types was a twisted variation on this Indian nomenclature.

Was there any form of racism or discrimination in the Indian culture since some were darker than others? Was darker skin seen as being less or inferior?
The concept of caste generally overrides any concept of “race” as such, but there is a traditional discrimination in favor of the light-skinned Aryans over the dark-skinned Dravidians. But this is complicated by geography: Southern Indians tend on average to be much darker than northern ones. In matrimonial ads women are often described as having a “wheatish” complexion–light brown–and there is still a lot of prejudice against dark skin. Movie stars and models almost invariably have light skin. But India is not neatly divided into “black” and “white.” There is a host of fine distinctions, only some of them related skin color; but color is definitely one basis for discrimination.

Why do some Indians wear turbans?
Most turban-wearing Indians are Sikhs, followers of a traditional religion which developed in the fifth century BCE. They are an important minority in modern India. The men are not supposed to cut their hair, so they bind it up in a turban. They are also not supposed to trim their beards, and many of them wear a sort of net “beard bra” as well to keep it out of the way.

What is the difference between Hindus and Indians?
Some Hindus would argue that there is no difference; but in fact people whose origin is India as defined geographically by the Indus River and the Himalayas in the north and by the seas in the other directions can be called Indians (even after they emigrate), but only those who adhere to Hindu religious practices are Hindus. Many Indians are Muslims, Sikhs, Parsees, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and followers of other faiths. There are even Indian Jews.

What was the main form of entertainment in India?
I would say story-telling, mostly based on Hindu tales like the Ramayana. But song and dance have always been very popular too. In modern India the overwhelmingly most popular form of entertainment are the splashy musical films churned out in huge quantity by the Bombay film industry (“Bollywood”).

Did the Greek theater ever influence Indians’ entertainment?
The origins or Indian theater are much more obscure than those of Greek theater. Some Indians claim their theatrical tradition to be the oldest in the world, but the earliest evidence we have dates from almost a thousand years after its Greek origins. It probably evolved separately, since Greek drama had been long forgotten at that time and had to be reinvented even in Europe in the Middle Ages.

How long has India been a democracy?
Since 1947.

The deities in the Hindu religion are very different than Western deities. Is there any reason that they had such fantastic forms?
They’re not so much more fantastic than–say–the Egyptian gods; but their attributes are widely understood as expressing various spiritual truths. Almost everything about their appearance is symbolic. You can tell a lot about a god’s function and powers by looking at its image.

Why are cows so sacred?
Nobody knows when or how cow veneration began, but it is as ancient as the earliest accounts we have of India. It may have derived from the the heavy dependency of poor people on cattle to work their fields, provide milk products for a protein-poor diet, and provide cow dung for cooking fuel (still an important source of fuel today). Killing the family cow to eat it would be an act of desperation which would ultimately doom a family worse starvation from the loss of its services and products, so perhaps this sort of marginal cattle-keeping inspired veneration for the cow. There are laws against killing cows in modern India, but there have been recent reports of widespread butchery to supply the leather export market. If you killed one with your car you would probably be in big trouble–but more from a mob forming than from the police. It is Hindus rather than Buddhists who especially venerate cows, though most Indian Buddhists would certainly do so, and are often vegetarians. Cow-veneration did not travel to other countries with Buddhism, however.

What do they cook with cow dung, and how do they use it?
The dung is patted by hand into disks and sun-dried. Then the dried product is crumbled and lit with straw. It is used to cook just about everything a poor family eats: rice, flat breads, lentil dishes, etc. Richer people can afford better fuel, but at dinner time, the air in many parts of India is thick with burning dung.

Did they sacrifice the cows along with the other animals?
No. As far as we can trace it back, Hindus have venerated cows and regarded killing them as like murder. The eating of beef is viewed with horror by most Hindus, though Muslims often eat it.

Is there an overproduction of cattle because they never kill them?
Many modern Indians feel there are too many cows. There have actually been attempts to use birth control on them. These cows are not wild, and their reproduction is largely controlled by the farmers who raise them.

Did they have a problem with alligators in the Ganges River eating people while they bathe?
Alligators are a Western Hemisphere species, but I don’t believe crocodiles inhabit Indian rivers. However, turtles thrive on imperfectly created remains thrown into the river at Varanasi. I don’t know whether they ever bite living people. Most animals would be frightened away by the vigorous splashing of the bathers at the ghats.

The temples carved in the side of mountains or caves. Who occupied and cared for them? Could regular travelers stop by and stay there?
Most monasteries like these were in remote locations where travelers seldom came before modern times. I believe that the occasional traveler could probably find shelter there.

In what ways did ancient India shape a man like Gandhi?
Gandhi derived most of his philosophy from traditional Hindu and Buddhists concepts, and was especially interested in the pacifism of Ashoka. But he was a radical in choosing to reject caste, urging the remarriage of widows, and preaching nonviolence. For more on his philosophy, read his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. In it he talks about the religious influences on his life.

How do people in the Hindu religion know when they reach moksha?
It is very difficult to know when you are ready to enter moksha. Prolonged meditation and ascetic practices are involved, as well as consulting with spiritual advisors. But if you were actually to enter moksha you would simultaneously cease to exist as a separate entity. You would become one with the brahman.

Does the religion of India affect their government?
Heavily. The founders of modern India tried to get all religions to cooperate in forming a secular state, with the Hindu liberation leader Gandhi drawing on Buddhist traditions and trying to get Hindus and Muslims to get along, and even occasionally quoting from Christian scriptures. However, Muslim leaders insisted on forming their own nation, Pakistan; and ever since Indian politics have been marked by recurrent animosity between Muslims and Hindus, with Sikhs also becoming combative at times. Currently, fanatical Hindu nationalism is at a peak in India; and liberal Indians worry about the resultant religious conflicts holding back the country’s development.

How long was the Arthasastra used?
To be truthful, we don’t know whether it was ever used. It is more important as a reflection of the values of a certain era than as an effective body of law. It may have been largely theoretical.

I saw some images of Gods in Indian paintings. These gods have blue skin color; is this color a symbol of the sky, heaven?
“Krishna” literally means “black” and he is usually depicted as being a very dark blue or black. He is often called “the dark lord.” It is true that some modern portraits show him in a brighter shade of blue and some modern interpreters have tried to connect this with the sky; but that is not traditional. “Blue-black” is much more traditional. A story tells how a vile demon tried to poison him with her breast, but he sucked her dry–to death–without damaging himself in anyway except that her poisoned milk turned him permanently blue. It is dubious that this is the original source of his blueness, however, since Vishnu and Rama are also blue.

I was unclear on what exactly Maya was. I know that it is what we fight against, but I don’t understand the meaning, purpose, etc.
Maya is simply the physical world we know it, with all its distractions, desires, and pains. The Hindu tries to see beyond the physical world to the spiritual which lies behind it and is ultimately considered more “real.” “Maya” is literally “illusion.” The world you ordinarily move in is considered an illusion. But Maya is also the illusion that your atman constitutes a separate “self.” When you overcome the illusion of Maya you will realize your oneness with the Brahman.

What is dharma?
Duiker refers to dharma as a set of laws regulating all individuals and classes in society, and calls it “the law.” Another way to view dharma is as “duty.” Each caste, gender, and stage in life has its own specific dharma, its own list of rules to obey and ideals to strive for. What is good for a Brahmin to do is not always what is good for a Kshatriya to do, and what is good for a young man to do is not always what is good for an old man to do. “Duty” is good enough for the purposes of this class, provided you understand that what your duty is depends on your caste; it is not universal.

I felt you should have talked some more on dharma and karma.
It’s really pretty simple: how well you perform your dharma (duty) determines your karma (fate). If you fulfill your dharma well, your karma will give you a good reincarnation in the next life; if you fail to perform your dharma, you will earn a bad karma and have a bad reincarnation in your next life. Hindus often blame their sufferings on bad karma earned in earlier incarnations.

Could you clarify about karma: I thought it was a good thing, but you said they have to avoid it so I’m a little confused now.
It’s reincarnation one should seek to avoid, not karma. Karma is just the inevitable result of living. You can’t avoid it. But if your karma is good enough, you may achieve moksha and be able to avoid reincarnation.

How do Hindus know their dharma; is it written down, like laws or something?
There are over 5,000 books in Sanskrit which embody various versions of the law of dharma, the most famous of which is the Laws of Manu. But you don’t have to study the law to learn your caste dharma, because you will have the same dharma as your parents and relatives, and they will tell you about it. The rules are conveyed by oral means; but sometimes you have to consult a Brahmin priest for the finer details. You can read more on this subject at

I am having trouble being confused by dharma and karma because they rhyme.
Here’s one way to remember the distinction. “Dharma” and “duty” both start with “D.” Your karma determines where you will go in the next life, and your car will take your to your next destination. Does that help?

What is “Brahman”?
This is actually a fairly simple concept, but one that Westerners often have difficulty grasping because it seems so alien to them. “Brahma” is the god who personifies “Brahman,” but he is not “Brahman.” Duiker calls Brahman the “world-soul,” which is a way of saying that there is one huge field of spirituality into which all individuals–even gods–eventually merge. It is the spiritual reality beyond all the illusions of “Maya.” It has something in common with the Western Heaven, but in Hinduism you don’t “go to Brahman,” you become one with Brahaman, blend with it, unite with it. Your atman is ultimately Brahman.

If you have bad karma, does that affect what you would come back as in the next life?
Yes indeed. You earn good karma by performing your dharma well, and can be reincarnated as a higher being, or acquire bad karma through bad behavior and come back as a lower being, even an animal.

Please go back over the concepts of samsara, moksha, and puja.
Samsara is simply the great wheel of reincarnation, the constant cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, from which Hindus seek to escape. Moksha is the only form of escape: merging with the brahman and ceasing to be reborn. It might loosely be called the Hindu form of “salvation.” See the next question for puja.

What is puja, exactly?
You can think of it as roughly equivalent to “worship,” but puja can take many forms: going on pilgrimages to sacred sites, meditating, praying, visiting temples, performing various rituals, etc. It is a broad term enveloping almost all the ceremonial practices of Hinduism.

I’m confused about what moksha is exactly besides stepping off the wheel of samsara. What is it supposed to achieve exactly?
“Moksha” means “release,” and signifies the release from all suffering and unity with the divine spirit which underlies all creation. It is naturally a very difficult concept for ordinary humans to grasp, and there are many different ways it is explained. Look for further references to “moksha” below to see other contexts in which it is important.

The one thing I don’t understand is the series of animals that you can be reincarnated as according to your karma.
Hindus believe all living beings are ultimately one. Not only humans have atman. If you earn bad karma, you may be reborn as a lower animal and have to work your way back up through one or more reincarnations to become human again. Some Hindus (especially many Brahmins) are vegetarians partly because of this veneration for all life as one.

I don’t understand how a spider can obtain bad karma or what the dharma would be for a spider or any other animal.
I couldn’t say specifically in the case of a spider, but a good water buffalo would be, for instance, one that obeys its master and plows well, and a bad one would be one that gored its master. But you’d have to be one to really know.

If reincarnation isn’t really that good of a thing because you haven’t done good enough and the true goal is to have moksha, but only brahmin men can do it, then why are people trying to have good karma to reincarnate themselves?
In Hinduism no one tries to be reincarnated: it just happens, to everyone–to all living beings. The immediate goal is to be reincarnated with a better karma and improve your spiritual status in your next life; the ultimate goal is to reach the highest status from which you can achieve moksha and cease being reborn. Even if Brahmin status is a long way off for your personally, it only makes sense to strive toward it in each life. Some Hindus also believe that one can achieve Brahmin status within a single life, and for them you do not need to be born a Brahmin to do so. Hindus believe that ultimately everyone will make it; but they have to try to succeed.

How does one know whether they have more “good” karma than “bad” karma? Is there any specific signs besides caste?
People tend to blame any misfortunes or sufferings on bad karma. It is generally considered a bad idea to congratulate yourself on any evidence of good karma, but obviously many wealthy, powerful people felt justified in their status by the feeling that they had earned it in a previous life.

How is reincarnation so important, not only to Hinduism, but to other world-wide religions?
Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism are the only big world-wide religions I know of that stress reincarnation. I was contrasting Hindu ideas on rebirth with Judeo-Christian-Islamic ideas of being saved in heaven. Christians use the metaphor of rebirth as a symbol for salvation (“born-again” Christians, etc.), but they don’t mean the same thing by the expression “to be reborn” as Hindus do.

Are children resurrected since they’re reincarnated people?
Resurrection is a Jewish/Christian/Muslim belief, not a Hindu one. But a child who dies is certainly believed to be reborn in the future.

What is the purpose of burning incense in Hindu culture?
Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians all burn incense to symbolize their love for the Divine. The sweet smoke going up is a sort of prayer. Some argue the smell pleases the gods.

How is love connected to death?
What I said was that sex is connected to death. When you have sex with someone, you may beget a life. When that new life (the baby) begins, it is destined some day to die. So, to be born is to die. This much is also very traditionally Western. But in Hindusim, when you die, you are on your way to being reborn as a result of your new parents’ having sex. Hence, to die is to be reborn. This is why the images of Kali and Durga I showed you often connected sexuality with death. These images incorporate this cyclical understanding of the processes of life called samsara: the great wheel of death and rebirth:sex leads to life which leads to death which leads back around to sex and more life.

What was the name of the most sacred city (by the water where people go to live out their last days?
The city is called Varanasi by its inhabitants. The British contorted this into “Benares” or “Banaras.” The most ancient and sacred precinct within the city is called “Kashi.” The temples and ghats (steps) on the shore of the Ganges River are the site of the cremations of the dead and the worship of those who come to bathe in this most sacred of all Indian rivers. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is the ideal of every devout Hindu to visit Varanasi at least once before death, though this is not considered mandatory in the way a visit to Mecca is mandatory for devout Muslims.

I am confused about the different gods, especially Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva.
That’s not surprising. The Hindus themselves have many different stories about their gods, and often the attributes of one god will be transferred to another. I will not expect you to have them all sorted out for this class, but here are some basics.

Brahma is the creator god who brings into being the original “stuff” on which Shiva operates. Four or five thousand years ago he was widely worshiped, and was incorporated eventually into a supreme trinity of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu; but from the 7th century onward, his worship declined. It is characteristic of many religions, such as the ancient Greek form, that the creator of the physical universe is not considered immediately relevant to the concerns of human beings, and is widely ignored in worship. However, Brahma’s image must be present in all temples devoted to Shiva or Vishnu. His female consorts are Savitri and Sarasvati (associated with a river of that name), the latter a goddess today associated with learning and the arts. Her image is often placed in schools.In some views, Brahma is the form taken by the ultimate spiritual reality of the universe. When spelled with all lower-case letters “brahma” or “brahman” refers to this spiritual reality. In Hinduism gods are derivative, subordinate to an impersonal greater spiritual realm or state. In comparison to brahma in this sense, even the gods are less “real.”

Vishnu is known as the preserver of the world, the protector, the restorer of the moral order in the world known as dharma. He is known mainly through his avatars (incarnations) who intervene from time to time in history to combat particular threats,especially Rama and Krishna. Rama is the hero of the popular epic The Ramanaya, and Krishna is the colorful (literally–he’s often portrayed as having bright blue skin!) god who is the object of the love of the gopis (cowherds’ wives) in many erotic devotional hymns. He is the god who in the Baghavad Gita explains to Arjuna why he must not let his conscience hold him back from fighting in the vast war which is the main subject of the Mahabharata. Krishna is also a flute player and dancer, and Vishnu shares these characteristics. Vishnu and most of his incarnations are dark-skinned. His consort is Lakshmi, and she is reborn as his consort to each of his avatars.

Shiva (or “Siva”) is the most popular of all the gods. Image of Shiva Nataraja. He is both a destroyer and creator of the universe, a process that takes place in enormously long cycles of time (we’ve been for the past four thousand years in just the latter part of one of these cycles). His followers are known as “Shaivites.” Hindus often combine opposite qualities in a single deity, and Shiva’s fearsome and loving sides are carefully balanced in his portayals. He has a female consort, but she takes on different names and forms. Durga and Kali are fearsome demon-slaying women, adored because they protect their worshippers against such evil forces. Parvati is usually portrayed as beautiful and loving. They had two sons, Skanda (with six heads) and Ganesh (or Ganesha), whose head was struck off by Shiva in a moment of reckless rage and replaced with an elephant’s tusk. Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and is extremely popular, with his image often being placed at the entrance to businesses.

For a great many more details and pictures of gods, see

Is Vishnu the only god that’s reborn?
No, but Vishnu has the most famous avatars, usually counted as ten altogether. One of them, Krishna, is often seen as having his own avatars as well.

OK, so Indiana Jones talks about Shiva & Kali one movie. How are those stories/myths related to actual Hindu tradition?
The 19th century “Thugs” were a type of highway robber who thought of themselves as worshipers of Kali. They’ve been gone a long time, suppressed by the British in the first half of the 19th century. Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom resurrected this antique stereotype, offending many modern Indians.

Do Hindus know what they were in their past lives? Do they know where they came from?
Some claim to, but it is not generally considered important to know what your past lives were. It is the future you should focus on. The Western obsession with reconnecting with your previous incarnations is alien to Hinduism.

Under Samsara, if the cycle is complete and the world as a physical whole and spiritual whole is destroyed does this entail the destruction of the atman? If this is true than what about the atman? If the Brahman is destroyed via samsara then how is the world created?
Neither the atman nor the brahman is destroyed. Only the physical world and its manifestations are destroyed and recreated.

Who cremates the bodies? The family? Or is there someone who has this job?
The relatives prepare the body for burning, but the ritual is carried out by the eldest son of the dead person under the guidance of a trained Brahmin priest. Traditional Hindus believe that it is important to have as many sons as possible, partly to ensure that one will survive to carry out this essential task.

I want to learn more about the effects of religion on commerce in India.
The Hindu religion makes a place for a “householder” stage in life in which it is the duty of a man to support his family. Trade and commerce can be a good way of fulfilling one’s dharma if one belongs to the correct caste. Indians have been involved with the spice and silk trades for millennia.

I would like to know more about Sanskrit.
This language goes back at least 3800 years. The oldest preserved Hindu text, the Rig Veda, is written in Sanskrit. A classical form of the language was used for literary purposes from about 500 BCE to about 1000 CE, by authors such as Kalidasa. In his time (6th century CE?) it was a learned, courtly language. (The commoners in his plays speak in prakrit–a common tongue–rather than Sanskrit.) It is a very complex language with an enormous vocabulary. It is related to Latin and Greek–and through them–to most of the languages of Europe. The study of Sanskrit has given linguistic historians powerful tools for tracing the evolution of language.

What is their way of meditation?
There is a good list of meditation techniques on this site.

What is Hinduism’s belief about suicide?
Hinduism does not generally endorse suicide for men except in the extreme case of elderly brahmins who starve themselves to death in order to achieve moksha (liberation). For centuries, widows were also encouraged to allow themselves to be burned alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands (sati); but this has been outlawed for almost two centuries and is now extremely rare. The “Hinduism Today” site is generally a great source of information about the religion, and has a useful search engine.

If a husband was killed in battle, would the wife still be burned/killed?
Yes. Theoretically they were supposed to volunteer, but there is evidence that they were often forced to commit sati.

Why did the wives feel the need to burn themselves after their husbands’ deaths?
The short answer is “tradition.” But the tradition served several purposes: it made women very eager to keep their husbands alive and spare them from any life-threatening danger; it kept women strictly subordinate–no powerful rich widows; it reinforced the view that a married woman should be totally devoted to her husband and that life without him should be worthless.

Could you explain more about yoga?
There are many systems of yoga, all aimed at helping the practitioner be freed from entanglement in the illusory world of matter and achieve spiritual release. The process includes both mental and physical exercises. Click here for an overview of yoga.

A person can die on the way to Varanasi and still be saved in the river?
“Salvation” is a very Judeo-Christian/Islamic term which strictly speaking doesn’t apply to Hinduism; but the belief I described in class is that having one’s ashes washed into the Ganges at Varanasi gains one a good deal of karma and leads to a better rebirth. The ashes of some people who die before they can reach the city are shipped there to be molded into balls, blessed, and dissolved in the river. I had never heard of this particular practice before we encountered it on the ghats in Varanasi, so I don’t know how traditional it is or how many people believe in it.

The hardest concept to grasp would be how multiple gods merge into one god. How do Hindus believe in multiple gods and yet it is one god?
I compare this to the way Catholics pray to Saints, but do not worship them as ends in themselves, but only as symbols of their worship for God. Even quite simple, uneducated Hindus usually understand that the local popular god is not the ultimate reality. Brahman is behind and beyond all specific goes. One traditional custom is interesting. In many religious festivals an image is elaborately formed of mud and straw and then carefully painted. The final ceremony is the painting in of the eyeballs, at which point the image receives many acts of puja and is treated with great respect. But at the end of the festival, the image is dumped into the river to dissolve back into its component elements, to remind the worshipers that the image is not the god. Since Gods can have many avatars, one god can be just an aspect of another god. And since all gods are ultimately created, non-eternal beings ultimately derived from the same spiritual reality (brahman) which produces human beings and animals, all can be said ultimately to be one. If you still find this confusing, consider that Christians believe God is three and one at the same time.

Do Hindus have a main superior god that they all worship?
As in the case of questions about so many Hindu beliefs, the answer is yes and no. No because as a Hindu you may devote yourself to one god or many. They are all manifestations of the divine, and none is more “real” than another. But Hindus also recognize that there is a unified spiritual reality behind all the gods, and often speak quite comfortably of “God” in the singular to describe that spiritual reality, just as some ancient Greek philosophers did.

More about the marriage process.
Like marriages around the world (including Europe before about 1800) marriages were usually arranged by the parents. A marriage is not the coming together of two individuals, but the merger of two families, with the newlyweds expected to become part of the groom’s household. Therefore the elders of the two parental households expect to have a good deal to say about the choice of partner. A brief description of Hindu marriage customs is at Illustrated details from the ceremony are at One essay on contemporary Hindu marriage can be found here. By the way, whether “most Indian marriages” are now arranged or not seems to depend very much on who you ask. In general more traditional village people prefer arranged marriages, but so do many sophisticated Indians living abroad.

Are Hindus ever considered dead? They are constantly re-incarnated.
Hindus believe that one’s atman dwells in a spiritual plane in between rebirths, but this is not the same as being “dead.” When one achieves moksha, one is at one with the brahma and ceases to be reborn. Eventually all atmans will achieve this state. Hinduism lacks the sense of urgency of the Judeo-Christian/Islamic tradition in which there is only one chance at salvation and an end of the world which looms in the near future in which one’s choice is to spend the ensuing eternity in Heaven or Hell.

Is there a distinct difference between Buddhism & Hinduism or are they more alike than different?
A full exploration of this question would fill volumes. From a Western perspective they look pretty similar: both seek to explain suffering, regard the physical world as illusory, embrace the idea of reincarnation and preach seeking to avoid rebirth. The practitioners of both often practice meditation. But Buddhists use the term “Nirvana” to describe the merging of the individual spirit in the afterlife, whereas “Moksha” is the Hindu term for merging with the brahman. Buddhists don’t believe you need to be of high caste to achieve enlightenment–the caste system is not nearly so important for them.

I would like to know more about the differences between the Hindus and Muslims, like, how Hindus do not eat cows, but Muslims do. Are both religions totally against each other?
We will deal briefly with this topic in lecture 25, but for now it suffices to say that it is hard to imagine two religions more different from each other than Hinduism and Islam in some ways. It is no wonder that the two have been in conflict to varying degrees ever since the Arab traders arrived in India. Hindus worship many gods while Muslims are even more insistent on monotheism than Christians (though Hindus believe there is a single, unified god behind the multiplicity of gods). Hindus believe that the gods can take on many forms, both human and animal while Muslims deny that God ever takes on any physical form at all. Hindus accept the caste system as a part of the divine plan whereas Muslims argue for universal brotherhood (though in fact many Indian Muslims observe their own parallel caste system). In a single life, only a few people achieve moksha, but any Muslim may be saved. Hindus believe in reincarnation; Muslims do not. Many important Hindu rituals must be performed by a Brahmin priest, but Muslims have no priesthood: any believer can do all that is necessary to be saved. Hindus have a rich tradition of pictorial religious art; strict Muslims prohibit the pictorial depiction not only of God but of any living being. Hindus seldom aggressively try to convert unbelievers and some believe conversion to Hinduism is impossible; it is the duty of Muslims to attempt to convert unbelievers. Hindus believe that all religions provide a path toward universal truths; Islam claims to be the only true religion (though it recognizes a special status for Jews, Christians, and Parsees as “people of the book” who are monotheists). Hinduism has many sacred texts; Islam has one. Hinduism has many varied rituals, most of them optional; Islam has a few strictly defined, mandatory rituals. Hinduism has no single “founder” whose role can be compared to that of Muhammad in Islam (he did not “found” Islam as such, but was given the revelation which modern Muslims follow). There are certain patterns that they have in common: taboo foods (pork for Muslims, beef for Hindus), bathing before prayers, pilgrimages, and the importance of charity toward the poor. Neither has an ultimate final authority like the Catholic Pope who can decide definitively on issues of belief; scholars debate religious issues and are followed according to how they impress believers with their learning and piety. During long periods of time Muslims and Hindus lived relatively peacefully side by side in India, but they were bitterly divided during the struggle for independence from Great Britain (many Indians blame the English for having deliberately fostered enmity between the two groups to keep them disunited and weak), and in the last dozen years or so conflicts have exacerbated the tensions between them. India now has an officially pro-Hindu government which tends to encourage hostility to Muslims.

Are there any different religions that can be called Hindu, like Lutherans and Baptists are called Protestants?
First of all, Lutherans, Baptists, and other Protestants (and Catholics) all belong to the same religion: Christianity. Individual churches within Christianity are often called “denominations.” But yes, there is a huge number of different faiths within Hinduism. In fact, some would go so far as to say that Hinduism is less a religion than a loose label for a group of related religions. Certainly many different faiths have flowed together to contribute to its rich history. They are often defined by the particular god toward which worship is directed: Shiva or Vishnu, for instance. For a detailed discussion of some of the main groupings see “Popular Systems of Hindu Religious Thought.” It is worth noting that while a Lutheran is not also a Baptist, there is no contradiction between being simultaneously a Saivite and a Vishnavite. It is a hallmark of Hinduism that all faiths are ultimately one, no matter how devoutly you may follow your favorite variety.

Do Hindus not eat any specific animal besides cows?
Some Hindus are vegetarians (twenty to thirty percent in modern India, more in ancient times). Upper caste Hindus are more likely to be vegetarians, and southern Indians more than northern ones. Those who do eat beef are not prohibited from eating other meats. The most commonly eaten animals are chickens, goats, and sheep–and of course fish are widely eaten where they are available. Keep in mind that before the modern era most people all over the world rarely ate meat simply because they could not afford it.

Isn’t there McDonalds’ in India?
Yes, they serve veggie and goat burgers.

What is it when Buddha statues sip milk from teaspoons?
I haven’t heard of this. There were reports a while back about images of Hindu gods exuding milk, much as statues of the Virgin Mary are seen to “weep blood” in the west. Cow’s milk is of course a sacred fluid to Hindus.

What did they (the ancient Indian people) eat if they didn’t eat beef?
India has one of the world’s great cuisines, but the common diet of poor Indians has consisted for centuries mostly of rice, various flat breads made of wheat flour, and lentils of various kinds for protein, plus “curds” made from cow’s milk.

Do they name their cows? Bathe them?
I don’t know whether the cows are given personal names, but they are sometimes ritually washed and decorated.

What happened to the children if a wife threw herself on the fire?
Remember that sati is now illegal in India and has been very rare for over a century. However, since the traditional extended Indian family shared child-rearing duties widely; orphans would almost always be cared for by someone else in the family if the mother had died, for whatever reason.

What do Hindus believe happens to non-Hindus when they die?
They will be reborn repeatedly until as Hindus they are able to step off the wheel of samsara. Thus there is no particular urgency in gaining converts in Hinduism as there is in religions which believe in only one chance to be “saved.”

What is behind the war over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, especially since both have nukes?
This gets us into the modern era covered by Gen Ed 111, but the short answer is that the majority of the population of in the part of Kashmir now in the state of India is Muslim, and they would rather join Pakistan, whereas India rejects the idea of ceding any further territory. Some Kashmiris would like to have an independent state of their own. This is one of many conflicts that followed upon the partition of India into the modern states of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Why do we have religion in the first place?
This is of course not a question that could be answered short of a very long book or series of books; but it is good to remember that “religion” is just a concept that we use to label certain patterns of thought and behavior. When Muslims or Hindus or Jews say that their religion is a way of life, they mean it literally. Religion traditionally expressed the values and customs of cultures. Only with the rise of secularism in the European Enlightenment is religion fully separated out into a distinct sphere. In the more common sense of the word, religion offers explanations for mysteries, lends authority to moral and legal codes, consolation for suffering, and hope for life after death. One way to define “religion” would be simply to lump together all the ways in which a traditional culture deals with these issues and call that its religion. However, those who try to dissolve all human beliefs and behavior into religion are overreaching: religion as traditionally understood requires belief in a transcendent level of experience which goes beyond the physical world as science describes it. The passionate dedication of a communist or a free-trader to his or her ideals may be intense, but it is a misnomer to call either of these ideologies a “religion.”

What is the government of India? Do they have a king, a president, or even a queen?
When India was not colonized by either Muslim or British conquerors, it rarely possessed any political unity. There were dynasties like the Guptas (kings), but they generally did not last long or unite the majority of Indians under a single rule. Since 1947, India has been the world’s largest parliamentary democracy. The president is elected to a five-year term by an electoral college, but is mainly a ceremonial figure. The true executive is the prime minister, chosen by the majority party or coalition in Parliament. The only queen to rule over all of India was England’s Queen Victoria during the colonial period; but Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) succeeded her father Jawaharlal Nehru (after a brief period when India was governed by Lal Bahadur Shastri), who was the first prime minister after independence.

How come a lot of the Hindu words end with an “a”? Did it have to do with their language or religion? Or is it just coincidence?
Answer from Fritz Blackwell, History: in essence it is in the script (Devanagari) which Sanskrit uses: a short “a” is inherent in every letter (symbol), although it can be modified to indicate a long “a” (as in “father”) or any other vowel. This inherent “a” is lost in such languages as Marathi, Hindi, Nepali, even though they use the Devanagari script.

I was confused on the story of Mirabai. Why would anyone want to have their ash smeared on someone else?
This is mostly symbolic. Mirabai wants the essence of her body to mingle with the essence of the god Krishna as a symbol of their spiritual union. She is also drawing on the symbolism of the tradition of sati, in which a widow burns herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre to be united with him in death. She is combining these two ideas: she will burn herself on a pyre before the death of her beloved as a way of uniting with him. She may also be thinking about love symbolically “burning her up.”

Is love-making a pleasureful experience or does it more signify birth of a child?
In traditional Hindu texts such as the Mahabharata, sexual pleasure is given a very high rank, so long as it is experienced within legitimate marital relationships. Hindu writers on sex emphasize women’s pleasure for more than do those of any other religion. However, there is also an anti-sexual, ascetic side to Hinduism which is associated with a later time of life, when sexual life is to be abandoned. But Hinduism lacks the attitude common in some Christian traditions of considering sex good only for the production of children. Sexual pleasure is definitely considered good for its own sake, and is a divine blessing. To a certain extent this is true in Islam as well.

What’s the meaning of “Karma Sutra?”
That’s Kama Sutra. Kama is the ancient Hindu god of love, and bears some striking similarities to Cupid: among other things he causes people to fall in love by shooting arrows at them. The Kama Sutra is a detailed treatise on different ways of making love which was written by Vatsyayna during the Gupta period. It has fascinated Westerners far more than Indians, for whom it has no particular authority. At least for the past several centuries, India has been a rather prudish culture which does not openly celebrate sexuality in the way its heritage of erotic literature and mythology might suggest. Indian film maker Mira Nair created a huge controversy when in 1997 she made a film called “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love” which featured R-rated lovemaking in an imaginary Indian past. Nair had to go to court in an effort to get her film shown in India (in censored form), though it was shown abroad without incident. Many Indians are sensitive about their reputation as a “sexy” culture since they view Europeans and Americans as far more prone to erotic experimentation and public expression than they. Westerners have a strong tendency to eroticize all foreign cultures in a way that the people in those cultures often find demeaning. All that said, you can read excerpts from the Kama Sutra; but if you object to explicit sexual depictions in either words or pictures you should avoid this site.

If I was to be a Hindu, could I dedicate my life to Kama Sutra and gain “Good Karma,” and rebirth my way to a priest and reach enlightenment?
The Kama Sutra is not really a religious text: it’s just a lovemaking manual. But there are varieties of Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism in which sexual exercises of various sorts are said to lead to enlightenment, and they have their followers in a few scattered places in India, but they are very unusual. Most Indians are rather prudish and shocked by the notion of sexual yoga. Tantrism, by the way, is not exclusively sexual. For more information on Tantrism from a scholarly perspective, see Shiva Shakti Mandalam: The Inner Wisdom of the Hindu Trantrik Tradition.

Does India still practice the same religious aspects today? Do they believe the same things in Hinduism as you are describing here?
India is a vast and populous country with many varied beliefs. Many Indians are not particularly religious. But millions of Hindus still worship the traditional gods in the traditional ways. Caste has been greatly deemphasized in India today (though it is still influential in some rural areas), but pilgrimages, fasting, meditation, puja, etc. are all still very common.

Why did the Beatles get so interested in Hindu religion?
Like many young people in the sixties, they were attracted to Eastern traditions of meditation, etc., seeing them as less confining than Western spiritual traditions. Their immediate contact was with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the international Transcendental Meditation movement. They studied with him in 1968 at his ashram in Rishikesh, India. The tendency of Western hippies to identify meditation with psychedelic drugs was not, however, approved of by people like the Maharishi.

Is Hinduism a growing religion or is it in decline?
Although Hinduism spread to certain parts of Southeast Asia and Krishna Consciousness is prospering all over the world, it would be difficult to say that Hinduism in growing much internationally at present. However, India is undergoing a huge Hindu revival at present, with many people embracing the ancient faith with a fervor that is partly directed against the Muslim citizens of India.

Is it true that Shangri-La may have been found?
Shangri-la was a mythical Himalayan kingdom invented by James Hilton in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, and reflects very Western ideas of paradise: an isolated land where people live in pleasure, never age, and live forever. Nothing could be further removed from the Hindu idea of Brahman. Since Hilton just made the place up, it is difficult to imagine how it could have been “found”; but people are fond of describing various spots on earth they think are idyllic as Shangri-La.

On what basis do the Hindus believe that the world is older than the scientific community believes it is? How old do they think it is?
Abstract calculations involving various religious ideas provide the figures they use, which vary wildly. I can’t remember the specific figures I’ve seen; but they’re all pretty arbitrary by Western standards.

Many more questions about Hinduism are answered in an essay called “ How to Become a Hindu.” See also “Hinduism through Questions and Answers” and “Hindu Dharma.” A good discussion of the sacred literature of Hinduism is “Introduction to Hinduism.” Keep in mind that there is no “orthodox” Hinduism, and that what one Hindu believes another may reject. The most you can hope for is to find out what some, or many, Hindus believe. Also, most of these sources reflect contemporary Hindu thought and do not necessarily represent in every detail the common beliefs of Hindus hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Is there indifference between those who believe in Hinduism and Buddhism? Even though the religions are very similar do people get along with each other from the two religions?
Now there are so few Buddhists in India that the question seldome arises. However, in earlier times there were sometimes bitter arguments back and forth between Buddhists and Hindus. Hinduism eventually absorbed parts of Buddhism and largely replaced it in India.

Why did Buddhism grow in China compared to India now? Was their social structure more accepting of the philosophy?
In China there was no native religion of personal consolation and hope that competed with Buddhism. The Chinese people are not particularly religious, but Buddhism did flourish in times of trouble when people were not satisfied with Taoism or Confucianism, as we shall see later in the course.

What do the temples in India represent?
Most of them are just places for worship, like churches in the West. But a few are considered to mark the birthplace of a god or holy man.

What kind of housing/architecture did they have in the past?
Most Indians have lived in simple one-room mud-brick buildings like the ones I showed you in class in the photograph of a typical village. But richer people have lived in a wide variety of lavish buildings which you can find pictures of in many books on India.

What kind of weather do they get? Do they have to irrigate a lot?
India is a huge subcontinent with lots of variety, from snow-capped mountains, to steamy rain forests, to deserts, and a lot besides. But it has a generally tropical climate, with plenty of heat in most parts most of the year. A rainy monsoon season is a common feature of much of India, but in many places irrigation is also carried out.

I want to know what “Buddha” means.
The enlightened or awakened one.

Can anyone achieve Nirvana, even somebody that doesn’t believe in Buddhism?
Buddhism doesn’t have a creed that must be believed in like Christianity or Islam. It is more an attitude and a set of practices (like meditation) than prescribed beliefs. If you develop the right attitudes and behave well by Buddhist standards, you might be able to achive Nirvana. Buddhists refer to their “practice” rather than to their “faith.”

Why would Buddhists want to reach Nirvana if their souls just blow out like a candle afterwards?
Although the image of a candle blowing out is the standard one of achieving Nirvana, few Buddhists think of this state as mere annihilation. Most insist that Nirvana is not describable in human terms, but it is associated with spiritual union, a sense of boundless belonging embracing the entire universe and all living things.

Why are there so many varieties of Buddhism? There was only one Buddha, right?
Of course one could ask the same question about Christianity, but in fact the variety in Buddhisms does seem extreme. For one thing, the Buddha left no writings behind, so there are various accounts of his teachings. Buddhism evolved in the context of Hinduism, which encourages a multiplicity of beliefs. It also spread to many different cultures, embraced by people with different needs. Its generally tolerant outlook meant that there was no Buddhist Inquisition, Index, or College of Cardinals to restrict or direct belief. The fact that you can believe in millions of Buddhas (billions, actually, since some say that all humans are in some sense the Buddha) or in none and still be a Buddhist illustrates this fact.

If everyone became Buddhist and they depend on begging for a living, wouldn’t that destroy social-economic production? Or is it just Buddhist monks that must beg?
Just the monks. The farmers who feed them are supposed to benefit spiritually by supporting the monks.

How did the statue of Buddha evolve to what it is now: the “little bald fat guy”?
The Japanese paunchy figure often called a “Buddha” is actually Hotei (Chinese Pu-tai), and is a deity of good fortune. According to some beliefs, Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, will be incarnated in the form of Hotei, so that Hotei is often regarded as a Bodhisattva.

In Buddhism are there any women that are worshiped?
In many forms of Buddhism not even the Buddha himself is worshiped, but in most he and his various incarnations (Bodhisattvas) are. Some of them are female, one of the most famous being the Tara. For more information see “Female Buddha.” There is also Kuan Yin (Japanese Guanyin), the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, which became female in China. Such bodhisattvas are also sometimes depicted as male, or even as half-and-half (literally–one side of their bodies will be male, the other, female). Kuan Yin is especially associated with mercy, and is often compared with the Virgin Mary in Catholic tradition.

Where can I find more information about Buddhism, the religion?
There are many books in the library on the subject. Ask a librarian to help you. But here are a couple of good sites on the Web:

Buddhism 101 (for beginners)
Buddhist Studies WWW Virtual Library (for more advanced students)

Why did the sky-clad Jains put ash on their bodies when they are trying to be pure.
The ash symbolizes their unworldliness, unattachment to the body: as if they were pre-cremated. Certain Hindus do this as well (men only, by the way).

I would like to know their views on Christianity.
Many upper-class Indians prefer to send their children to missionary schools because they feel they get a superior education, but few of them become Christian. In recent years there have been some sensational cases of persecution and even murder of Christians in India, but generally there are too few Christians in the country to create an issue.