Index A

Glossary and Pronunciation Guide


When referring to religious images, abstract means that an object is not a realistic representation of a deity, but rather a symbol such as a tree, a rock, a pot, a cone, or a stake.


In humanlike form. Sometimes gods are represented with a figure that looks like a person, although it may have additional superhuman characteristics.


A divine symbol that, when held by Vishnu, signifies the god's absolute might in destroying evil.

conch shell

The conch shell is blown in India like a trumpet during many sacred rituals. It is considered to make the purest sound, from which creation springs. In Vishnu's hand the conch symbolizes purity and auspiciousness.

darshan (dar-shahn)

Hindus believe that even a glimpse of an image filled with the spirit of a god or saint facilitates a direct visual communication (darshan) with the deity, which will bring blessings to the worshiper.

Devi (Day-vee)

A widely used name for the multiple forms of the Hindu Goddess.


The discus is a symbolic weapon. In Vishnu's hands it signifies his absolute might in destroying evil.

drum rattle

A symbol frequently held by Shiva. The sound of the drum rattle creates life as it reverberates through the cosmos.

Durga (DOOR-gah)

Durga, the great Warrior Goddess, is one of many manifestations of Parvati and represents the lethal energy of divine anger when turned against evil.

Ganesha (Geh-nay-sha)

Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati, is one of the most popular gods in India. Worshipers pray to Ganesha to ensure success before beginning any new endeavor.

Lakshmi (Lahk-shmee)

Vishnu's wife, Lakshmi, is the Goddess of Abundance and Prosperity.

linga (LING-gah)

The linga is a symbolic image of the god Shiva that signifies the union of opposites (male and female, good and evil, light and dark). Some people believe it derives its shape from sexual symbolism, but most Hindus view it as simply a representation of the god's potency in every area of existence.


The lotus, frequently associated with the goddess Lakshmi, represents fertility and regeneration.

Mahabharata (Mahah-bahrahtah)

This great epic poem tells of the struggle for power between two noble and related families. It has the distinction of being the longest epic poem in the world, having grown over a period of centuries (perhaps 1000 to 500 b.c.) to a length of 100,000 couplets.

Naga (Nah-gah)

The Naga, or cobra, is a symbol of fertility and strength. The god Shiva is often depicted with a Naga draped around his neck.

Nandi (Nahn-dee)

Nandi, the sacred bull, is the mount of the god Shiva. He represents strength, faith, and constancy in belief.

pinda (pin-dah)

A small cone of sculpted clay that represents the goddess Kali-Ma in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

puja (poo-jah; first syllable rhymes with "zoo")

Puja is the act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs, and rituals. An essential part of puja for the Hindu devotee is making a spiritual connection with the divine. Most often that contact is facilitated through an object: an element of nature, a sculpture, a vessel, a painting, or a print.

Ramayana (Rahmah-yehneh)

The Ramayana, or the "goings" of Rama, may be likened to the Odyssey of Greek mythology in that it describes the adventures of a great warrior king, elevated in time to the status of a god. Rama, hero of the Ramayana, is the seventh incarnation of Vishnu.


Reciprocity, the process of giving and receiving, is an essential aspect of Hinduism. Hindus are taught that by giving, they receive, and that when they receive, they should respond with gifts. When a Hindu prays for a specific favor from a deity, he or she may vow to present a special gift to the god or goddess or to perform an arduous duty if the wish is granted.

Sanskrit (SAN-skrit)

An ancient Indic language that is the classical language of India and of Hinduism.

Shiva (SHIV-ah)

The god Shiva, the Creator and Destroyer, is often shown with a cobra, the Naga, symbol of fertility and strength, wrapped around his neck. The god often has four arms, signifying his superhuman power.

Sita (SEE-tah)

Rama's beloved Sita, one of Lakshmi's many forms, is the traditional ideal Hindu woman: feminine, faithful, resilient, and pure.


A symbol is an object or a design that represents, or stands for, something else: a crown is a symbol of a king; a trident is a symbol of Shiva; a lotus is a symbol of Lakshmi.

three horizontal lines

The three horizontal lines often seen on Shiva's forehead represent three aspects of the divine: the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer. During puja, many devotees of Shiva mark their own foreheads with these three lines in sacred ash or sandalwood paste.

trishula (trish-OO-lah), or trident

A symbolic weapon used by deities to destroy demon foes. The trishula is an important symbol of Shiva and of the goddess Kali-Ma.

Vedas (Vay-dahs)

The earliest Hindu sacred literature, consisting of hymns, prayers, and liturgical formulas written in Sanskrit by Aryan people.

Vishnu (VISH-noo)

Vishnu, the Preserver, represents stability and order. Vishnu is recognized by the four symbols he carries: discus, conch, club, and lotus. In paintings and prints, Vishnu is often shown with blue skin, a device to accentuate his otherworldliness.

Vishnu's footprints

A V-shaped symbol is often shown on Vishnu's forehead, a stylized representation of his footprints. This same mark is applied in sandalwood paste to the foreheads of worshipers of Vishnu during puja.

yoni (YO-nee)

The yoni represents the feminine complement to Shiva's masculine divinity. Some people believe that the yoni, like the linga, derives its shape from sexual imagery, but to most Hindus it is simply an abstract symbol.

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