encyclopedia of hinduism

Tara Devi
consort of Avalokitesvara

She is worshipped in Vajrayana Buddhism. The name Tara derives from the root word tar, which means “to cross” It is believed that Tara helps humanity cross the ocean of existence. Many legends have grown around this concept, and the most popular one is that a tear from the eye of Avalokitesvara fell in the valley beneath to form a lake; from the waters of the lake arose a lotus flower, out of which emerged Tara.

Other scholars hold that Tara’s name originates from the Persian wort sitara, meaning a luminous body in the sky.

Introduction of the Mother Goddess in the form of Tara is generally traced to the influence of Tantra. It is generally agreed that the devotion to Tara became firmly established during the sixth and seventh centuries C.E.

There are two principle varieties of Tara : white and blue/green. The former is shown with the full blown white lotus as her symbol, and the latter with the utpala (blue lotus). These forms respectively symbolize day and night, and her benign qualities of compassion and protection.

Besides the two types, a variety of other forms of the Goddess Tara are recognized in Tantric Buddhism, each having a distinctive color.

 - The Encyclopedia of Hinduism

Upasana
intense meditation.

Upasana is formed of the word ‘asana’ (sit) with the preposition 'upa’ (near). The word, as a whole, signifies a spiritual act performed in prayerful proximity to God. It serves as a vehicle for an aspirant to climb up the spiritual ladder. In a way, it represents a mental attitude (bhava) which takes the aspirant towards self-realization.

Upasana is meant for obtaining freedom from ignorance and delusion, and is regarded as one of the means of purging oneself of the papa-s which might have been committed, independently or otherwise. The more one thinks of God, the more God-like one can hope to become. Very similarly, the more one thinks of worldly objects, the more worldly one would become. Upasana is the union of the spiritual aspirant (upasaka) with the one meditated upon.

In the main, upasana is of five kinds, and these are Vaisnava, Sakta, Saiva, Saura, and Ganapatya. They are of either a divya (divine), vira (courageous), or pasu (lower) nature. It is further classified as sattvika (pious), rajasika (active), and tamasika (ignorant), depending upon the aspirant’s inclination towards renunciation, towards personal enjoyment and happiness, or towards hurting others. 

- The Encyclopedia of Hinduism

Vaikuntha, spiritual heaven. 
(an artistic depiction of Vaikuntha)

Vaikuntha is said to be inhabited by selves that have transcended all births and is constituted of satvam (pure goodness). It is self-luminous. It is variously described as “of golden hue and beyond the darkness of ignorance”, “the supreme abode of Vishnu”, and “of the eternal, in the upper world”. In this celestial temple, Vishnu as Narayana dwells with his consort.

Legend has it that there exists a magnificent, golden temple twelve stories high, resplendent as a thousand suns. Its halls and pillars are ornamented with precious stones. It is decorated with a hundred thousand golden lotuses, through which flow the nectar-filled waters of a hundred thousand rivers. The temple is inhabited by the eternal gods, seers, and by common people.

Once the liberated self has traveled through the path of light and has attained residence in Vaikuntha, there is no return to the mortal world, which means that there would be no more transmigratory existence. This is explained by a Brahmasutra aphorism: “There is no return, there is no return”.

The concept of a heaven called Vaikuntha is not accepted by all Indian philosophical systems. It is looked upon as purely imaginary by some. 

- The Encyclopedia of Hinduism

Guru Purnima | Acharya | Ashadh Purnima 

This Saturday is Guru Purnima, a festival dedicated to spiritual and academic teachers. Throughout India, disciples will spend the day honoring the Guru. Today is the perfect day to reflect on your teachers and how they have helped you. 

“Gurur Brahma, Gurur Vishnu, Gurur Devo Maheshwara, Guru Sakshat Parabrahmah Tasmai Shree Guru Veh Namah.”

“Guru, a Sanskrit word, stands for a saintly, venerable person who is a preceptor. Literally, the term ‘guru’ means 'big’, 'weighty’. The guru, therefore, is one who is great. According to another etymology, guru is one who removes the darkness of ignorance ('gu’ means darkness and 'ru’ means anything that banishes)….The guru tradition is an outstanding characteristic of Indian spiritual life and religious history….The first born enlightened knowers of the Self were the mind-born sons of Brahma, the creator God….Then came the first group of Vedic sages, the first patriarchs of the human race, seven in number. These seven great sages, known as saptarsi, were born out of Brahmadeva’s mind.”
- The Encyclopedia of Hinduism

Janmastami 

Janmastami is one of the most auspicious Hindu festivals observed all over the country. It commemorates the birth of Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, as the son of Vasudeva and Devaki. 

The most important items in the worship of Krishna on his day of incarnation are fasting, worship, keeping awake in the night, and listening to chanting hymns of praise and legends relating to the pastimes of Krishna. 

Krishna is invoked in an image. The ceremonies of the birth rites are performed symbolically. After offering prayer, night-long vigil is kept; the devotees listen to hymns glorifying Vishnu and Krishna. The next day, after the morning ablutions, the image of Krishna is worshiped and a feast is held.

- The Encyclopedia of Hinduism

Makara Sankranti
a festival celebrated with great religious fervor. 
Makara Sankranti falls on the seventh waxing day of the lunar month of January. On this day starts the month of Makara, popularly called Tai in Tamil, during which all auspicious functions like marriage, thread ceremony, and other rituals prescribed for Hindus are performed. According to Hindu mythology, this marks the beginning of daytime for the gods. 

The day prior to Sankranti is observed as the Bhogi festival. On this day, all old waste and unwanted items in one’s house are scrapped and burnt. This is done before sunrise between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.

The second day, the Sankranti day, is observed with an oil bath and wearing of new clothes. 

The third day of Sankranti is observed as Mattu Pongal. Cows are colorfully decorated and driven over a burning flame in a field. Their horns are painted and capped, their bodies are covered with new clothes, and bells are tied to their tails. In some places, ox-fights and buffalo-fights are organized.

On this day, also known as Kanu Pongal, colored rice balls are offered to the Sun God.

- The Encyclopedia of Hinduism

Navaratri
Nine nights, a festival of the Goddess Durga. 

Navaratri denotes nine nights, and the Navaratri festival is celebrated from the first day of the bright half of Asvina (September-October) in commemoration of the victory of Goddess Durga over the asura Mahisa and his commanders Canda, Munda, Sumbha, and Nisumbha.

In this battle, the Goddess appeared from the accumulated luster of Vishnu, Sankara, Agni, andmany other gods, was given several celestial weapons, and slew the demon and his minions.

Durga is conceived as the Universal Mother. The first three days are devoted to the worship of Durga, the next three days to Lakshmi, and the last three days are devoted to Saraswati. All three are the manifestations of the Supreme Goddess. It is shakti, the Goddess in her aspect as power, that is worshiped during Navaratri.

On the last day of the festival, processions of Durga’s image are taken out and cast into water.

- The Encyclopedia of Hinduism
(Image Left: Painting of Durga in battle. Image Right: Durga icons cast into water for Navaratri.)

#Diwali (#Dipavali) the festival of lights

Diwali is a festival that symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. It is celebrated…in all parts of the country and throughout the world by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists. and some Muslims, with gaiety unmatched by any other festival.

It is observed for one, three, or five days in different parts of India and in a variety of ways. For some North Indian business communities Diwali marks the beginning of the new year, when fresh accounting ledgers are opened and prayers are offered to Goddess Lakshmi for bringing prosperity.

The avali (row) of dipa (lights) gives a festive look in the North as a symbol to lead one from darkness to light. Lamps are lit in the south during the month of Kartika.

The fall of Bali, the demon king, is one of the stories associated with Diwali. In certain parts of India, Diwali is celebrated in the form of Kali Puja, as the day of the destruction of Mahisasura. It is also associated with the triumphant return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya from Lanka after defeating the demon king Ravana and rescuing Sita. One of the most popular stories associated with Diwali is Narakasura vadha, narrated both in Bhagavata and Harivamsa Purana. This refers to the killing of Naraka, the demon king, by Lord Krishna, with the help of his consort Satyabhama. 

Diwali is an occasion to wear new clothes, set off dazzling fireworks, and exchange sweets and gifts. In North India, Bhai Duja is observed as away of affirming the bond of affection of brothers and sisters.

- The Encyclopedia of Hinduism

“A mass of devotional literature has grown in Sanskrit, Maithili, Braj bhasa, and Gujarati, and Krishna is remembered through Radha as if Radha is the essence of Krishna. Most of this literature relates a story of consummate love, a love of simple and pure hearts, and the love of perfect absorption. Radha and Krishna are separated forever, but Radha resides in Krishna and Krishna resides in Radha. This sort of love is the highest state of devotion, called mahabhava.” -The Encyclopedia of Hinduism

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Ganesh Chaturthi

Ganesha is worshiped at the commencement of all undertakings in faith as the remover of all obstacles to one’s success, the provider of protection and wisdom, and he is often seated at the entrance of temples and shrines. Great preceptors, holy shrines, and sacred texts all hail Ganesha as the God of dharma, the symbol of wisdom, and the protector of all religious rituals. As with many of the Hindu gods and goddesses, Ganesa is known by many names, and any list is bound to be incomplete. Regardless of one’s philosophical viewpoint, all Hindus venerate Ganesha.

The most popular belief about the birth of Ganesha states that Parvati required a guard at the door to her chamber as Shiva was away from home. She created a young boy and stationed him at the entrance to her chamber, and instructed him to prevent anyone from entering into her chamber. 

Shortly thereafter, Shiva returned and demanded access to Parvati. The boy, minding his mother’s injunction, declined to give him entry. Outraged, Shiva ordered his attendants to decapitate the child (in some versions it is Shiva himself who undertakes the act). When Parvati realizes that her husband beheaded her child, she demands that Shiva rectify the situation by finding her child a new head. Shiva put the head of an elephant on the child’s headless body; this is Ganesha.
- The Encyclopedia of Hinduism

Virupaksha Temple: A Shiva temple in South India

The Virupaksha temple was built at Vijayanagara and is referred to as the temple of Pampapati, the protecting deity of the Vijayanagara kings. 

This temple was built in the Dravidian style, under the guidance of the well-known architect Gunda and his associates. It has a square plan from the base to the apex, conforming to the Nagara order. The vast temple has a sanctum, circumambulatory passage, and a few mandapas (ornamental halls). 

The whole structure is enclosed by a prakara wall with gopura entrances in front and behind on the east and west, which are the earliest in the Calukyan series.

The fine sculptures of the Virupaksha temple add beauty to the architecture. The image of the Sun riding on a chariot drawn by seven horses is especially noteworthy. There are many sculptures depicting Shiva in various forms.

- The Encyclopedia of Hinduism

Nagapancami / Nag Panchami

A festival dedicated to serpents, considered sacred in Hinduism.

According to a legend in the Bhavisya Purana, Kadru, the mother of serpents, had a wager with her sister Vinata about the color of the tail of Uccasrava, the horse of Indra, Lord of Heaven. Kadru asserted that though the horse was white, the tail was black. Vinata claimed that the body and tail were both white. When the serpents refused Kadru’s orders to make the tail appear black so she would win the bet, Kadru cursed them and decreed that they would be offered in fire in the serpent-yajna to be performed by King Janamejaya. However, the serpents were saved by the sage Astika. To commemorate this event and out of compassion for the innocent serpents, the Nag Panchami festival is observed by Hindus.

Golden, silver, or clay images of serpents are made and worshiped with flowers and incense. The images are bathed in milk. It is believed that in return, the serpents will ensure that the worshipers are immune from death due to snake bites. In Kerala, serpent worship is common. The temple at Mannarsala in the Kottayam district is particularly noted for the special worship of snakes.