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Hinduism, a religious tradition of Indian origin, is considered to be the world’s oldest religion and followers number nearly 900 million today, including about 20 million who live outside India, making them the third largest religious community in the world, after Christians and Muslims (MSN Encarta). Hinduism, however, is not a structured religion but is characterized by a mixture of diverse belief systems, practices, symbols and scriptures. There is no single scripture, deity, or religious teacher common to all that can be designated as its core (Shattuck, 1994).

Its universal world-view and its receptiveness to accept and celebrate these diversities make the understanding of the religion complex hence, difficult. Nevertheless, this very quality is considered its defining feature (MSN Encarta). Despite its diversity, there are common doctrines to the value systems of all Hindus. These are the beliefs in Dharma (individual ethics, duties and obligations), Samsara (reincarnation/rebirth), Karma (“actions” leading to a cause-and-effect relationship) and Moksha (salvation for every soul through a variety of paths).

The paths to salvation may be through Bhakti (devotional service), Karma (selfless action), Jnana (enlightenment, knowledge), Raja (meditation) and Ishvara (belief in God). Reincarnation, or the soul’s transmigration through a cycle of birth and death until it attains Mok? ha, is governed by Karma (Wikipedia). Among the many important themes and symbolisms in the Hindu tradition, the most revered symbols are the Aum (Om), Swastika and Sri Chakra Yantra. These have become deeply ingrained parts of its culture and most represent Hinduism’s general philosophy (Wikipedia).

The symbol of Aum (Om) consists of three curves, one semicircle and a dot. The curves represent the three states of an individual’s consciousness – waking state or state of consciousness (jagrat), state of deep sleep or the unconscious state (sushupti) and dream state (swapna) which lies between deep sleep and the waking state. The dot signifies the fourth state of consciousness, turiya, where the consciousness looks neither outwards nor inwards, nor the two together. This peaceful and blissful state is the ultimate aim of all spiritual activity.

Finally, the semi circle symbolizes maya and separates the dot from the other three curves giving the illusion that maya prevents an individual from the realization of this highest state of bliss. The swastika (Sanskrit svastika) is an ancient symbol of a cross with four arms of equal length, with the ends of each arm bent at a right angle, sometimes dots are added between each arm. Its Indian name comes from the Sanskrit word svasti, meaning good fortune, luck and well-being. This also symbolizes peace and harmony.

In Hinduism, the right-hand (clockwise) swastika is a solar symbol and the left-hand (counterclockwise) swastika represents Kali and magic. Sri Chakra Yantra or Yantra of Tripura Sundari (commonly referred to as Sri Yantra) is a mandala (Sanskrit ma?? ala “circle”, “completion”) primarily formed by nine interlocking triangles. Four of these triangles are orientated upright representing Shiva – the masculine. Five of these triangles are inverted triangles represent Shakti – the feminine. Together the nine triangles form a web symbolic of the entire cosmos, a womb symbolic of creation and together express non-duality.

All other yantras are derivatives of this supreme yantra. Virtually all rituals in Hinduism possess multiple meanings, including symbolic interpretations. Even the way Hindus greet each other may be regarded as symbolically bowing to the divine. The greeting involves pressing the palms of the hands together, which symbolizes the meeting of two people, placing the hands over the heart where Brahman dwells indicates that one meets the self in the other, bowing the head in recognition of this meeting and saying namaste – a Sanskrit word that means “I bow to you” and signifies “I bow to the divine in you.

” One other symbol is the tilaka. The tilaka is the symbol on the forehead or between the eyebrows, the shape of which often represents a devotion to a certain deity. The tilaka (or tilak) is a mark worn on the forehead and other parts of the body for spiritual reasons. Hindus traditionally wear tilaka, in one form or another, as a mark of faith in a particular tradition. Two of the basic tenets of Hinduism are Ahimsa and Karma. Ahimsa is the concept that advocates non-violence and respect for all forms of life – human as well as animal.

Ahimsa was introduced to the West by Mahatma Gandhi. Inspired by his actions, Western civil rights movements, led by such people as Martin Luther King Jr. , engaged in non-violent protests. The more recent popularity of yoga and meditation in the West has also served to introduce many westerners to ahimsa and other Hindu concepts. Karma is a concept that explains causality through a system where beneficial events are derived from past beneficial actions and harmful events from past harmful actions, creating a system of actions and reactions throughout a person’s reincarnated lives.

Hindu religious activities are divided into three types: 1. Actions that are performed daily, called nitya 2. Actions performed on specific occasions, called naimittika 3. Actions performed voluntarily according to personal desire, called kamya. Hindus fulfill all three religious activities—nitya, naimittika, and kamya—through three types of ritual which are the yajna, (involving a sacrificial fire), puja (devotional offerings, usually flowers) and dhyana (meditation). Yajnas are performed on major occasions while Puja may be performed publicly or privately.

Most ceremonies have clearly marked opportunities for dhyana, or meditation. A yajna is typically performed by a hotar, with a number of additional priests playing a supporting role. There is often a fire in the centre of the stage and items are offered into it. A yajna can go on for several hours, typically with a large number of people in attendance. This is usually performed during Hindu marriage in the belief that the fire deity Agni is supposed to be the witness of all pious marriages.

The Puja, on the other hand, is a religious ritual that most Hindus perform every morning after bathing and dressing but prior to taking any food or drink. Puja is seen as a way of relating humans to the domain and actions of the divine, and can be performed for anything considered divine. Hindu religious activities also can be divided into those that take place at home and those that take place in public. Many rituals are performed at home, either by individual family members or by the head of the household.

Some of these household rituals involve a deity or a sacred fire; other rituals commemorate important passages in life. Far from being just a religion, it is evident from its various symbolisms and practices that Hinduism is a way of life. Despite and through its diverse forms of worship, Hinduism sets forth a path of life leading its followers to a life of spirituality, health, self-gratification and success. The Hindu religion, as characterized by its openness to its various beliefs, allows religious freedom and does not impose or dictates on anyone.

Hinduism has sought to recognize principles and practices that would lead any individual to become a better human being, understand, and live in harmony with dharma.

References

Religion Facts. Accessed 05 August 2006. http://www. religionfacts. com/hinduism/ MSN Encarta Online. Accessed 05 August 2006. http://encarta. msn. com/encyclopedia_761555715/Hinduism. html Shattuck, C. (1999). Hinduism. Routledge, London. 14. Westport, CT: Praeger. Retrieved August 2, 2006, from Questia database: http://www. questia. com/ Wikipedia. Accessed 05 August 2006. www. wikipedia. org

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