The Bhakti schools
The Bhakti (Devotional) school is takes its name from the Hindu term that signifies a blissful, selfless and overwhelming love of God as the beloved Father, Mother, Child, or whatever relationship finds appeal in the devotee's heart. The philosophy of Bhakti seeks to tap into the universal divinity through personal form, which explains the proliferation of so many Gods and Goddesses in India, often reflecting the singular inclinations of small regions or groups of people. Seen as a form of Yoga, or union, it seeks to dissolve the ego in God, since consciousness of the body and limited mind as self is seen to be a divisive factor in spiritual realization. Essentially, it is God who effects all change, who is the source of all works, who acts through the devotee as love and light. 'Sins' and evil-doings of the devotee are said to fall away of their own accord, the devotee shriven, limitedness even transcended, through the love of God. The Bhakti movements rejuvenated Hinduism through their intense expression of faith and their responsiveness to the emotional and philosophical needs of India. They can rightly be said to have affected the greatest wave of change in Hindu prayer and ritual since ancient times.
The most popular means of expressing love for God in the Hindu tradition has been through puja, or ritual devotion, frequently using the aid of a murti (statue) in conjunction with the singing or chanting of meditational prayer in the form of mantras. Devotional songs called bhajans (written primarily from the 14th-17th centuries), kirtan (praise), and arti (a filtered down form of Vedic fire ritual) are sometimes sung in conjunction with performance of puja. This rather organic system of devotion attempts to aid the individual in connecting with God through symbolic medium. It is said, however, that the bhakta, through a growing connection with God, is eventually able to eschew all external form and is immersed entirely in the bliss of undifferentiated Love in Truth.
Altogether, bhakti resulted in a mass of devotional literature, music and art that has enriched the world and gave India renewed spiritual impetus, one eschewing unnecessary ritual and artificial social boundaries. See bhakti yoga for more.
According to the most famous Western Tantrik scholar, Sir John Woodroffe (pseudonym Arthur Avalon): "The Indian Tantras, which are numerous, constitute the Scripture (Shastra) of the Kaliyuga, and as such are the voluminous source of present and practical orthodox 'Hinduism'. The Tantra Shastra is, in fact, and whatever be its historical origin, a development of the Vaidika Karmakanda, promulgated to meet the needs of that age. Shiva says: 'For the benefit of men of the Kali age, men bereft of energy and dependent for existence on the food they eat, the Kaula doctrine, O auspicious one! Is given' (Chap. IX., verse 12). To the Tantra we must therefore look if we would understand aright both ritual, yoga, and sadhana of all kinds, as also the general principles of which these practices are but the objective expression." (Introduction to Sir John Woodroffe's translation of "Mahanirvana Tantra.")
The word "tantra" means "treatise" or "continuum", and is applied to a variety of mystical, occult, medical and scientific works as well as to those which we would now regard as "tantric". Most tantras were written in the late middle ages and sprang from Hindu cosmology and Yoga. See Tantra for more.
Important symbolism and themes in Hinduism
Ahimsa and the cow
A note of the element of ahimsa in Hinduism is vital to understanding the society that has arisen around some of its principles. While Jainism as it was practiced was certainly a major influence on Indian society, what with its exhortation of strict veganism and non-violence as ahimsa, the term first appeared in the Upanishads. Thus, an ingrained and externally motivated influence led to the development of a large section of Hindus who grew to embrace vegetarianism in a bid to respect higher forms of life, restricting their diet to plants and vegetables. About 30% of today's Hindu population, especially in orthodox communities in the South of India, in certain northerly states like Gujurat, and in many Brahmin enclaves around the subcontinent, is vegetarian. Thus, while vegetarianism is not dogma, it is recommended as a sattwic (purifying) lifestyle.
Those Hindus who do eat meat predominantly abstain from beef, some even going so far as to avoid leather products. This is most likely because the largely pastoral Vedic people and subsequent generations of Hindus throughout the centuries relied so heavily on the cow for all sorts of dairy products, tilling of fields and fuel for fertiliser that its status as a willing 'caretaker' of humanity grew to identifying it as an almost maternal figure. Thus, while most Hindus do not worship the cow, and scriptural injunctions against eating beef arose long after the Vedas had been written, it still holds an honored place in Hindu society. It is said that Krishna is both Govinda (herder of cows) and Gopala (protector of cows), and Shiva's attendant is Nandi, the bull. With the stress on vegetarianism (which is usually followed even by meat-eating Hindus on religious days or special occasions) and the sacred nature of the cow, it is no wonder that most holy cities and areas in India have a ban on selling meat-products and there is a movement among Hindus to ban cow-slaughter not only in specific regions, but in all of India.
Among the most revered symbols in Hinduism, two are quintessentially a part of its culture and representative of its general ethos:
Aum (?) is the standard sign of Hinduism, and is prefixed and sometimes suffixed to all Hindu mantras and prayers. It contains an enormous and diverse amount of symbolism; Hindus consider its sound and vibration to be the divine representation of existence, encompassing all of manifold nature into the One eternal truth. ; see Aum for more detail.
The swastika (?) is an Arya, or noble symbol. It stands for stability within the power of Brahma or, alternatively, of Surya, the sun. Its rotation in four directions has been used to represent many ideas, but primarily describes the four directions and their harmonious whole. It has been used in Hinduism since the early Vedic culture and is still widespread in the Indian subcontinent. Many Eastern cultures still hold it to be sacred, especially in India, in spite of its recent association Nazism that perverted the original meaning of this universal good-luck symbol. See Swastika.
Forms of worship: murtis and mantras
Contrary to popular belief, practiced Hinduism is neither polytheistic nor strictly monotheistic. The various gods and avatars that are worshipped by Hindus are understood as different forms of One truth, sometimes seen as beyond a mere God and as a formless Divine Ground (Brahman) or as one monotheistic principle like Vishnu or Shiva.
Whether believing in the One source as formless (nirguna brahman, without attributes) or as a personal God (saguna Brahman, with attributes), Hindus understand that the one truth may be seen as different to different people. Hinduism encourages devotees to describe and develop a personal relationship with their chosen deity (ishta devata) in the form of a God or Goddess.
While some censuses hold worshippers of one form or another of Vishnu (known as Vaishnavs) to be at 80% and those of Shiva (called Shaivaites) and Shakti at the remaining 20%, such figures are perhaps misleading. The vast majority of Hindus worship many gods as varicolored forms of the same prism of Truth. Among the most popular are Vishnu (as Krishna or Rama), Shiva, Devi (the Mother as many female deities, such as Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali and Durga), Ganesha, Skanda and Hanuman.
Worship of the said deities is often done through the aid of pictures or icons (murti) which are said not to be God themselves but conduits for the devotee's consciousness, markers for the human soul that signify the ineffable and illimitable nature of the love and grandeur of God. They are symbols of the greater principle, representing and are never presumed to be the concept or entity itself. For more details on this form of worship, see murti.
Reciting mantras is a fundamental practice that both originated and now continues in Hinduism. Much of mantra yoga, as it is called, is done through japa (repitition). Mantras are said, through their meaning, sound, and chanting style, to help meditational focus for the sadhaka (practitioner). They can also be used to aid in expression of love for the deity, another facet of Bhakti yoga akin to the understanding of the murti. They often give courage in exigent times and serve to help 'invoke' one's inner spiritual strength. Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi's dying words were a two-word mantra to the Lord Rama: "Hey Ram!"
The most representative of all the Hindu mantras is the famed Gayatri Mantra:
A good explanation of this mantra can be found here: . It is considered one of the most universal of all Hindu mantras, and invokes the universal Brahman as the principle of knowledge and the illumination of the primordial Sun, only in its feminine aspect. Many Hindus till today, in a tradition that has continued unbroken for at least 5,000 years, perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river (especially the Ganga/Ganges). Known as a universal mantra, it is revered as being the most condensed form of Divine Knowledge (Veda). Its presiding principle, Ma (Mother) Gayatri, is also known as Veda Mata (Mother of the Vedas) and is strongly associated with the Goddess of Learning and Illumination, Saraswati.
The chief aim of the Vedic religion is to achieve moksha, or liberation, through constant dedication to Satya (Truth) and eventual realization of the Atman (Universal Soul). Whether this is achieved through meditation or pure love, this universal goal is achievable by all. But it should be noted that Hinduism is a very practical faith. It believes equally in the temporal as in the infinite, only it encourages perspective. The great rishis (Hindu sages) have termed the samsaric (one who lives in samsara, I.e. the temporal or earthly plane) who succeeds in living an honest, loving and dharmic life a jivanmukta (living free soul). Hinduism's fundamental truth is best expressed in the Upanishadic dictum, Tat Twam Asi (Thou Art That), and the ultimate aspiration as follows:
Aum Asato ma sad gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrityor ma aamritaam gamaya
"Aum Lead me from ignorance to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality."
For more details, see Mantra.
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