General Information on Hinduism
1. Why do we light a lamp?
In almost every Indian home a lamp is lit daily before the altar of the Lord. In some houses it is lit at dawn, in some, twice a day – at dawn and dusk – and in a few it is maintained continuously (Akhanda Deepa). All auspicious functions commence with the lighting of the lamp, which is often maintained right through the occasion.
Light symbolizes knowledge, and darkness, ignorance. The Lord is the "Knowledge Principle" (Chaitanya) who is the source, the enlivener and the illuminator of all knowledge. Hence light is worshiped as the Lord himself.
Knowledge removes ignorance just as light removes darkness. Also knowledge is
a lasting inner wealth by which all outer achievement can be accomplished. Hence we
light the lamp to bow down to knowledge as the greatest of all forms of wealth.
Why not light a bulb or tube light? That too would remove darkness. But the
traditional oil lamp has a further spiritual significance. The oil or ghee in the lamp
symbolizes our vaasanas or negative tendencies and the wick, the ego. When lit by
spiritual knowledge, the vaasanas get slowly exhausted and the ego too finally perishes.
The flame of a lamp always burns upwards. Similarly we should acquire such knowledge
as to take us towards higher ideals.
Whilst lighting the lamp we thus pray:
Deepa sarva tamopahaha
Deepena saadhyate saram
Sandhyaa deepo namostute
I prostrate to the dawn/dusk lamp; whose light is the Knowledge Principle (the
Supreme Lord), which removes the darkness of ignorance and by which all can be
achieved in life.
2. Why do we have a prayer room?
Most Indian homes have a prayer room or altar. A lamp is lit and the Lord
worshipped each day. Other spiritual practices like japa (repetition of the Lord’s name),
meditation, paaraayana (reading of the scriptures), prayers, and devotional singing etc is
also done here. Special worship is done on auspicious occasions like birthdays,
anniversaries, festivals and the like. Each member of the family - young or old -
communes with and worships the Divine here.
The Lord is the entire creation. He is therefore the true owner of the house we live
in too. The prayer room is the Master room of the house. We are the earthly occupants of
His property. This notion rids us of false pride and possessiveness.
The ideal attitude to take is to regard the Lord as the true owner of our homes and
us as caretakers of His home. But if that is rather difficult, we could at least think of Him
as a very welcome guest. Just as we would house an important guest in the best comfort,
so too we felicitate the Lord’s presence in our homes by having a prayer room or altar,
which is, at all times, kept clean and well-decorated.
Also the Lord is all pervading. To remind us that He resides in our homes with us,
we have prayer rooms. Without the grace of the Lord, no task can be successfully or
easily accomplished. We invoke His grace by communing with Him in the prayer room
each day and on special occasions.
Each room in a house is dedicated to a specific function like the bedroom for
resting, the drawing room to receive guests, the kitchen for cooking etc. The furniture,
decor and the atmosphere of each room are made conducive to the purpose it serves. So
too for the purpose of meditation, worship and prayer, we should have a conducive
atmosphere - hence the need for a prayer room.
Sacred thoughts and sound vibrations pervade the place and influence the minds
of those who spend time there. Spiritual thoughts and vibrations accumulated through
regular meditation, worship and chanting done there pervade the prayer room. Even when
we are tired or agitated, by just sitting in the prayer room for a while, we feel calm,
rejuvenated and spiritually uplifted.
3. Why do we do Namaste?
Indians greet each other with namaste. The two palms are placed together in front
of the chest and the head bows whilst saying the word namaste. This greeting is for all -
people younger than us, of our own age, those older than friends, even strangers and us.
There are five forms of formal traditional greeting enjoined in the shaastras of
which namaskaram is one. This is understood as prostration but it actually refers to
paying homage as we do today when we greet each other with a namaste.
Namaste could be just a casual or formal greeting, a cultural convention or an act
of worship. However there is much more to it than meets the eye. In Sanskrit namah + te
= namaste. It means - I bow to you - my greetings, salutations or prostration to you.
Namaha can also be literally interpreted as "na ma" (not mine). It has a spiritual
significance of negating or reducing one’s ego in the presence of another.
The real meeting between people is the meeting of their minds. When we greet
another, we do so with namaste, which means, "may our minds meet," indicated by the
folded palms placed before the chest. The bowing down of the head is a gracious form of
extending friendship in love and humility.
The spiritual meaning is even deeper. The life force, the divinity, the Self or the
Lord in me is the same in all. Recognizing this oneness with the meeting of the palms, we
salute with head bowed the Divinity in the person we meet. That is why sometimes, we
close our eyes as we do namaste to a revered person or the Lord – as if to look within.
The gesture is often accompanied by words like "Ram Ram", "Jai Shri Krishna", "Namo
Narayana", "Jai Siya Ram", "Om Shanti" etc - indicating the recognition of this divinity.
When we know this significance, our greeting does not remain just a superficial
gesture or word but paves the way for a deeper communion with another in an
atmosphere of love and respect.
4. Why do we prostrate before parents and elders?
Indians prostrate before their parents, elders, teachers and noble souls by touching
their feet. The elder in turn blesses us by placing his or her hand on or over our heads.
Prostration is done daily, when we meet elders and particularly on important occasions
like the beginning of a new task, birthdays, festivals etc. In certain traditional circles,
prostration is accompanied by abhivaadana, which serves to introduce one-self,
announce one’s family and social stature.
Man stands on his feet. Touching the feet in prostration is a sign of respect for the
age, maturity, nobility and divinity that our elders personify. It symbolizes our
recognition of their selfless love for us and the sacrifices they have done for our welfare.
It is a way of humbly acknowledging the greatness of another. This tradition reflects the
strong family ties, which has been one of India’s enduring strengths.
The good wishes (Sankalpa) and blessings (aashirvaada) of elders are highly
valued in India. We prostrate to seek them. Good thoughts create positive vibrations.
Good wishes springing from a heart full of love, divinity and nobility have a tremendous
strength. When we prostrate with humility and respect, we invoke the good wishes and
blessings of elders, which flow in the form of positive energy to envelop us. This is why
the posture assumed whether it is in the standing or prone position, enables the entire
body to receive the energy thus received.
The different forms of showing respect are :
Pratuthana - rising to welcome a person.
Namaskaara - paying homage in the form of namaste
Upasangrahan - touching the feet of elders or teachers.
Shaashtaanga - prostrating fully with the feet, knees, stomach, chest, forehead and arms
touching the ground in front of the elder.
Pratyabivaadana - returning a greeting.
Rules are prescribed in our scriptures as to who should prostrate to whom.
Wealth, family name, age, moral strength and spiritual knowledge in ascending order of
importance qualified men to receive respect. This is why a king though the ruler of the
land, would prostrate before a spiritual master. Epics like the Ramayana and
Mahabharata have many stories highlighting this aspect.
5. Why do we wear marks (tilak, pottu and the like) on the forehead?
The tilak or pottu invokes a feeling of sanctity in the wearer and others. It is
recognized as a religious mark. Its form and colour vary according to one’s caste,
religious sect or the form of the Lord worshipped.
In earlier times, the four castes (based on varna or colour) - Brahmana, Kshatriya,
Vaishya and Sudra - applied marks differently. The brahmin applied a white chandan
mark signifying purity, as his profession was of a priestly or academic nature. The
kshatriya applied a red kumkum mark signifying valour as he belonged to warrior races.
The vaishya wore a yellow kesar or turmeric mark signifying prosperity as he was a
businessman or trader devoted to creation of wealth. The sudra applied a black bhasma,
kasturi or charcoal mark signifying service as he supported the work of the other three
Also Vishnu worshippers apply a chandan tilak of the shape of "U", Shiva
worshippers a tripundra of bhasma, Devi worshippers a red dot of kumkum and so on).
The tilak cover the spot between the eyebrows, which is the seat of memory and
thinking. It is known as the Aajna Chakra in the language of Yoga. The tilak is applied
with the prayer - "May I remember the Lord. May this pious feeling pervade all my
activities. May I be righteous in my deeds." Even when we temporarily forget this
prayerful attitude the mark on another reminds us of our resolve. The tilak is thus a
blessing of the Lord and a protection against wrong tendencies and forces.
The entire body emanates energy in the form of electromagnetic waves - the
forehead and the subtle spot between the eyebrows especially so. That is why worry
generates heat and causes a headache. The tilak and pottu cools the forehead, protects us
and prevents energy loss. Sometimes the entire forehead is covered with chandan or
bhasma. Using plastic reusable "stick bindis" is not very beneficial, even though it serves
the purpose of decoration.
6. Why do we not touch papers, books and people with the feet?
To Indians, knowledge is sacred and divine. So it must be given respect at all
times. Nowadays we separate subjects as sacred and secular. But in ancient India every
subject - academic or spiritual - was considered divine and taught by the guru in the
The custom of not stepping on educational tools is a frequent reminder of the high
position accorded to knowledge in Indian culture. From an early age, this wisdom fosters
in us a deep reverence for books and education. This is also the reason why we worship
books, vehicles and instruments once a year on Saraswathi Pooja or Ayudha Pooja day,
dedicated to the Goddess of Learning. In fact, each day before starting our studies, we
Varade kaama roopini
Sidhirbhavatu me sadaa
O Goddess Saraswati, the giver of
Boons and fulfiller of wishes,
I prostrate to You before
starting my studies.
May you always fulfill me?
7. To touch another with the feet is considered an act of misdemeanor. Why is this
Man is regarded as the most beautiful, living breathing temple of the Lord!
Therefore touching another with the feet is akin to disrespecting the divinity within him
or her. This calls for an immediate apology, which is offered with reverence and
8. Why do we apply the holy ash?
The ash of any burnt object is not regarded as holy ash. Bhasma (the holy ash) is
the ash from the homa (sacrificial fire) where special wood along with ghee and other
herbs is offered as worship of the Lord. Or the deity is worshipped by pouring ash as
abhisheka and is then distributed as bhasma.
Bhasma is generally applied on the forehead. Some apply it on certain parts of the
body like the upper arms, chest etc. Some ascetics rub it all over the body. Many
consume a pinch of it each time they receive it.
The word bhasma means, "that by which our sins are destroyed and the Lord is
remembered". Bha implied bhartsanam ("to destroy") and sma implies smaranam ("to
remember"). The application of bhasma therefore signifies destruction of the evil and
remembrance of the divine. Bhasma is called vibhuti (which means "glory") as it gives
glory to one who applies it and raksha (which means a source of protection) as it protects
the wearer from ill health and evil, by purifying him or her.
Homa (offering of oblations into the fire with sacred chants) signifies the offering
or surrender of the ego and egocentric desires into the flame of knowledge or a noble and
selfless cause. The consequent ash signifies the purity of the mind, which results from
Also the fire of knowledge burns the oblation and wood signifying ignorance and
inertia respectively. The ash we apply indicates that we should burn false identification
with the body and become free of the limitations of birth and death. This is not to be
misconstrued as a morose reminder of death but as a powerful pointer towards the fact
that time and tide wait for none.
Bhasma is specially associated with Lord Shiva who applies it all over His body.
Shiva devotes apply bhasma as a tripundra. When applied with a red spot at the center,
the mark symbolizes Shiva-Shakti (the unity of energy and matter that creates the entire
seen and unseen universe).
Bhasma has medicinal value and is used in many ayurvedic medicines. It absorbs
excess moisture from the body and prevents colds and headaches. The Upanishads say
that the famous Mrityunjaya mantra should be chanted whilst applying ash on the
Urvaa rukamiva bhandhanaan
Mrytyor muksheeyamaa amrutaat
"We worship the three-eyed Lord Shiva who nourishes and spread fragrance in
our lives. May He free us from the shackles of sorrow, change and death – effortlessly,
like the fall of a rip brinjal from its stem."
9. Why do offer food to the Lord before eating it?
Indians make an offering of food to the Lord and later partake of it as prasaada -
a holy gift from the Lord. In our daily ritualistic worship (pooja) too we offer naivedyam
(food) to the Lord.
The Lord is omnipotent and omniscient. Man is a part, while the Lord is the
totality. All that we do is by His strength and knowledge alone. Hence what we receive in
life as a result of our actions is really His alone. We acknowledge this through the act of
offering food to Him. This is exemplified by the Hindi words "tera tujko arpan"– I offer
what is Yours to You. Thereafter it is akin to His gift to us, graced by His divine touch.
Knowing this, our entire attitude to food and the act of eating changes. The food
offered will naturally be pure and the best. We share what we get with others before
consuming it. We do not demand, complain or criticise the quality of the food we get. We
eat it with cheerful acceptance (prasaada buddhi).
Before we partake of our daily meals we first sprinkle water around the plate as
an act of purification. Five morsels of food are placed on the side of the plate
acknowledging the debt owed by us to the Divine forces (devta runa) for their benign
grace and protection, our ancestors (pitru runa) for giving us their lineage and a family
culture, the sages (rishi runa) as our religion and culture have been "realised", aintained
and handed down to us by them, our fellow beings (manushya runa) who constitute
society without the support of which we could not live as we do and other living beings
(bhuta runa) for serving us selflessly.
Thereafter the Lord, the life force, who is also within us as the five life-giving
physiological functions, is offered the food. This is done with the chant
After offering the food thus, it is eaten as prasaada - blessed food.
10. Why do we fast?
Most devout Indians fast regularly or on special occasions like festivals. On such
days they do not eat at all, eat once or make do with fruits or a special diet of simple
Fasting in Sanskrit is called upavaasa. Upa means "near" + vaasa means "to
stay". Upavaasa therefore means staying near (the Lord), meaning the attainment of close
mental proximity with the Lord. Then what has upavaasa to do with food?
A lot of our time and energy is spent in procuring food items, preparing, cooking,
eating and digesting food. Certain food types make our minds dull and agitated. Hence on
certain days man decides to save time and conserve his energy by eating either simple,
light food or totally abstaining from eating so that his mind becomes alert and pure. The
mind, otherwise pre-occupied by the thought of food, now entertains noble thoughts and
stays with the Lord. Since it is a self-imposed form of discipline it is usually adhered to
Also every system needs a break and an overhaul to work at its best. Rest and a
change of diet during fasting is very good for the digestive system and the entire body.
The more you indulge the senses, the more they make their demands. Fasting
helps us to cultivate control over our senses, sublimate our desires and guide our minds to
be poised and at peace.
Fasting should not make us weak, irritable or create an urge to indulge later. This
happens when there is no noble goal behind fasting.
The Bhagavad-Gita urges us to eat appropriately - neither too less nor too much -
yukta-aahaara and to eat simple, pure and healthy food (a saatvik diet) even when not
11. Why do we do pradakshina (circumambulate)?
We cannot draw a circle without a center point. The Lord is the center, source and
essence of our lives. Recognizing Him as the focal point in our lives, we go about doing
our daily chores. This is the significance of pradakshina.
Also every point on the circumference of a circle is equidistant from the center.
This means that wherever or whoever we may be, we are equally close to the Lord. His
grace flows towards us without partiality.
12. Why is pradakshina done only in a clockwise manner?
The reason is not, as a person said, to avoid a traffic jam! As we do pradakshina,
the Lord is always on our right. In India the right side symbolizes auspiciousness. So as
we circumambulate the sanctum sanctorum we remind ourselves to lead an auspicious
life of righteousness, with the Lord who is the indispensable source of help and strength,
as our guide - the "right hand".
Indian scriptures enjoin - matrudevo bhava, pitrudevo bhava, acharyadevo
bhava. May you consider your parents and teachers as you would the Lord. With this in
mind we also do pradakshina around our parents and divine personages.
After the completion of traditional worship (pooja), we customarily do
pradakshina around ourselves. In this way we recognize and remember the supreme
divinity within us, which alone is idolized in the form of the Lord that we worship
13. Why do we regard trees and plants as sacred?
The Lord, the life in us, pervades all living beings, be they plants or animals.
Hence, they are all regarded as sacred. Human life on earth depends on plants and trees.
They give us the vital factors that make life possible on earth: food, oxygen, clothing,
shelter, medicines etc.
Hence, in India, we are taught to regard trees and plants as sacred. Indians
scriptures tell us to plant ten trees if, for any reason, we have to cut one. We are advised
to use parts of trees and plants only as much as is needed for food, fuel, shelter etc. we
are also urged to apologies to a plant or tree before cutting it to avoid incurring a specific
sin named soona.
Certain trees and plants like tulasi, peepal etc., which have tremendous beneficial
qualities, are worshipped till today. It is believed that divine beings manifest as trees and
plants, and many people worship them to fulfill their desires or to please the Lord.
14. Why do we ring the bell in a temple?
Is it to wake up the Lord? But the Lord never sleeps. Is it to let the Lord know we
have come? He does not need to be told, as He is all knowing. Is it a form of seeking
permission to enter His precinct? It is a homecoming and therefore entry needs no
permission. The Lord welcomes us at all times. Then why do we ring the bell?
The ringing of the bell produces what is regarded as an auspicious sound. It
produces the sound Om, the universal name of the Lord. There should be auspiciousness
within and without, to gain the vision of the Lord who is all-auspiciousness.
Even while doing the ritualistic aarati, we ring the bell. It is sometimes
accompanied by the auspicious sounds of the conch and other musical instruments. An
added significance of ringing the bell, conch and other instruments is that they help
drowned any inauspicious or irrelevant noises and comments that might disturb or
distract the worshippers in their devotional ardour, concentration and inner peace.
As we start the daily ritualistic worship (pooja) we ring the bell, chanting:
Kurve ghantaaravam tatra
I ring this bell indicating
the invocation of divinity,
So that virtuous and noble forces
enter (my home and heart);
and the demonic and evil forces
from within and without, depart.
Om Tat Sat
(My My humble salutations and thankfulness to Hinduism online dot com Swamijis, and Philosophers com for the collection)
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