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(2,136 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
Śālagrāma or sālagrāma refers to the Shaligram village in Nepal and to the smooth stones or ammonite fossils found in the Gaṇḍakī River near Shaligram. While generally believed to be a natural, complete, and full manifestation of Viṣṇu, and also perceived to be his aniconic form, śālagrāmas are sometimes associated with Śiva as well, and more recently also with Devī. Śālagrāmas are worshipped in temples and in homes, usually by Brahmans.  A śālagrāma is an ammonite fossil said to be of the marine cephalopod genus, dating back to a geologic time when the Himalayas rose from water. The Śālagrā…


(5,952 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
Lakṣmī, also known as Śrī in many Sanskrit texts, is one of the most popular deities of the Hindu and Jain traditions. Hindus hold Lakṣmī to be the embodiment of auspiciousness ( maṅgala) and good fortune. In prayers, she is hailed as the giver of material wealth ( artha ) and enjoyment ( bhukti) in this life and liberation after death ( mukti). She is worshipped both as an independent goddess and as the wife of Viṣṇu. South Indian temples have separate shrines for Lakṣmī; in many temples in northern India, she is in the same shrine as Viṣṇu-Nārāya…


(5,368 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
Sectarian, philosophical, architectural, and performing dimensions of what we call the Hindu traditions today have been in Southeast Asia for about two millennia. “Cambodia” is the Western name given to the country known in Khmer as Kampuchea, which comes from the Sanskrit kambuja (born of [the sage] Kambu). The people of this country and the language they speak are both known as Khmer. The larger Khmer Empire, which included the modern countries of Cambodia, parts of Laos, and Thailand, as well as other territories, was home to hundred…


(2,647 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
The lotus (bot. Nelumbo nucifera) is known by dozens of words in Sanskrit and the many languages of India, and it is probably the most popular object in traditional Indian art and architecture. The words denoting a lotus flower are ubiquitous in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain literature, and the lotus flower is prevalent in some form in most major Hindu temples and shrines. Although connected with many deities, it also has powerful appeal in secular literature and, nowadays, is the national flower of…

Gods, Goddesses, and Divine Powers (overview article)

(7,889 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
Hindu texts and communities conceptualize and experience the divine as one, as many, and as being beyond numerical count; as male, female, androgynous, and transcending gender; as having form and being formless; as transcendent and immanent; as fully present in the local temple and in a heavenly abode; as unmanifest and as manifesting itself through trees, plants, animals, birds, and snakes; as being present in or appearing as human beings and as being trans-human; and as ineffable. The same per…


(3,392 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
Veṅkaṭeśvara or Veṅkaṭeśa (“Lord of the Veṅkaṭa Hills”) is a local manifestation of Viṣṇu in iconic form, present in a large temple at Tirumala-Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. Tirumala-Tirupati (“Sacred Hill–Sacred Place”) is the official name of the area known originally as Tiruvēṅkaṭam in Tamil literature from around the 2nd to 3rd centuries CE. The temple complex in Tirumala-Tirupati, located at an elevation of about 1,000 m, is said to be the richest religious institution in India. The d…


(7,848 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
Bhakti, or devotion, has probably been the most visible, palpable part of the Hindu traditions in the last two millennia. Men and women worship with devotion in homes, temples, and public spaces, and they sing and dance their devotion to deities, teachers, and also other devotees. Although some Hindu traditions privilege meditation, the way of knowledge, or the way of action as principal ways to achieve liberation, they still pay considerable attention to devotional songs ( kīrtan and bhajan ) and worship ( pūjā ). Bhakti has been the inspiration for expressive and visual arts, …

Ritual Food

(7,301 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
Perceptions of and activities dealing with ritual food in the Hindu traditions can only understood in the larger context of ideas of food in everyday life, body, health, purity, auspiciousness, and one’s relationship with deities, ancestors, and fellow human beings. Food is central to the practice of the Hindu tradition; next to a wedding, it is this topic that commands the most space and energy of the writers of the texts on dharma . This entry discusses rules and regulations connected with food in ritual contexts in domestic and temple spaces. Although treated at length in texts on dharma

Auspiciousness and Inauspiciousness

(5,789 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
The category translated by the English word “auspiciousness” is central to understanding the good life in the Hindu traditions. Hindus consider certain classes of people, animals, rituals, symbols, qualities, foods, smells and sounds, places, dwellings, and above all times of the day, week, or year as “auspicious.” Hindus arrange their lives with an eye on auspicious times, start new writing enterprises with symbols of auspiciousness, and use the word śrī or śrīmatī, which have the dominant meanings of good fortune and auspiciousness, as a prefix for names of peopl…


(1,649 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
Considered to be the most sacred and important of all sounds and mantras in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions, oṃ is recited at the beginning and end of almost all prayers and meditational exercises. The word is understood to have three sounds, a, u, and m, with the diphthong au producing an o sound. The sound oṃ, which begins deep in the body and ends at the lips, is thought to be auspicious, and articulating it is said to exercise the whole vocal apparatus. The sound itself is variously considered to be a full manifestation of:       1. brahman ; 2. the universe (it is, in fact, …

United States

(7,000 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
The study of the Hindu traditions in the United States should include not only the history of the Hindus in the United States but also the ideas and practices of Hindu origin that are now distanced from it. While ideas and concepts of Hindu origin have been around in the United States since the early 19th century, the numbers of Hindus increased drastically only after 1965. This was the result of a change in immigration laws, making it easy for technically qualified workers to enter the country.…


(2,718 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
The cakra, significant in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions, may refer to a weapon, a chariot wheel, the wheel of dharma , the wheel of time, or occasionally, the orb of the sun. In devotional Hindu traditions, the cakra is primarily a discus, a weapon of Viṣṇu, and in this capacity, is eventually personified as Sudarśana (“Beautiful to Behold”). Sometimes the goddesses Durgā and Vaiṣṇavī are also depicted with a cakra in hand. Sudarśana, initially portrayed as a devotee, eventually becomes a deity in his own right, and is venerated at homes and worshipped i…

Tilaka and Other Forehead Marks

(5,857 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
The most commonplace yet ambiguous manifestation of Hindu religion and culture is the forehead mark worn by many adherents. Women traditionally wear the mark most often; however, in many parts of India, male ascetics, temple priests, and devotees also put on the marks in a prominent manner, though in general, most men wear it only for religious rituals. Like many symbols, practices, and rituals in the Hindu traditions, these marks have multiple meanings. Factors such as the gender and marital st…

Melmaruvathur Movement

(2,161 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
Ātiparācakti (Skt. Ādiparāśakti; “The Primordial, Supreme Energy/Power”) of Melmaruvathur is a local deity whose popularity has increased dramatically in the last two decades, but who is still mainly known in South India. Like many other deities, she, too, has become a transnational goddess when devotees moved to other parts of the world, taking their devotion and their deities with them. Women pilgrims, particularly of the lower economic classes, make pilgrimages to Melmaruvathur through the year but especially on the taipūcamfestival in the month of tai (Jan-Feb) and on āṭipūram


(12,730 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
Śrīvaiṣṇavism refers to the literature, rituals, beliefs, philosophies, practices, and social organization connected with a dominant Vaiṣṇava tradition. Vaiṣṇava means “follower of Viṣṇu,” śrī may be translated as “sacred” or as referring to the goddess Śrī-Lakṣmī, and “Śrīvaiṣṇava” is the name given to the people as well as the faith and practices of those Hindus who hold Viṣṇu (“The All-Pervasive One”) and the goddess Lakṣmī as supreme deities, who hold specific texts in Tamil and Sanskrit to be author…


(3,843 words)

Author(s): Vasudha Narayanan
The term “ vāstuśāstra” as used today refers to the knowledge and practice of the choosing an appropriate piece of land; planning towns, gardens, and parks, as well as constructing religious, domestic, healing, royal, defense, business, and recreational structures; the placement of various built units in towns and in the natural landscape; orientation of various units in the natural environment to face the most auspicious direction; designing the correct ratio and proportion among various units of …