Brahmin boy learning the Vedas
Hindus are also into initiations. Induction into a Hindu sect, marriage and death are all seen as initiations and rites of passage.

The puberty initiation for a boy takes place between the ages of eight and 12. The boy is dressed like a holy man and put under the tutelage of a guru. The study period can last anywhere from a few months to a dozen years. When it is over the initiate takes a ritual bath and is expected to get married. Hindus are not circumcised. Muslim are.

The puberty initiation corresponds with the confirmation of Christians. Marking the matriculation of a child to adulthood, it has traditionally only been performed for boys in upper castes and now is mostly performed only for for boys in conservative Brahmin families.

In the initiation ceremony the boy recites a special verse from the Rig Veda and is given the sacred thread which is hung over left shoulder and under the right arm, and must be worn the rest of his life and not defiled or polluted in any way. In the old days only boys who went through this ritual were allowed to read the Vedas. It also marked the beginning of student stage in the boy’s life.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: heart of Hinduism hinduism.iskcon.com/index ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Hindu Universe hindunet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hinduism Home Page uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/religionet/er/hinduism ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/wih/image-library ; India Divine Pictures of Hinduism indiadivine.org/pictures

Hindu Sacrifices

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Some rituals feature animal sacrifices. Chickens, pigeons, goats and water buffalo may be sacrificed. They are usually beheading or have their throat slashed. The blood is used to consecrate an image of the a god or goddess being worshiped, and a portion of the animal, usually the head, is presented to the god or goddess. Sometimes animals are sacrificed to Shiva but almost never to Vishnu.

Being selected for a sacrifice is regarded as an honor for an animal. Before the sacrifice the sacrificer consults the animal, which is required to “nod” for the sacrifice to take place. If the animal does not respond the right away it is sprinkled with water to make it nod. If that doesn’t work the sacrifice is delayed and other methods are used to get the animal to nod. After the sacrifice the soul of the animal is believed to go straight to heaven

See Kali

Sacrifices are the one time when devout Hindus are allowed to consume meat. Since the animal was killed for an honorable reason it is not a sin to consume its meat. Animals rights activists don’t agree. They sometimes stage protest outside temples, condemning animal sacrifices during the Festival of Lights.

Hinduism and Tantrism

Nepalese Tantric Yogin
Tantrism is a highly ritualistic religion that combines beliefs in magic and esoteric philosophy and emphasizes mystic symbols, sacred chants, and other esoteric devotional techniques. Based on ancient animist religions, it uses shaman to dispel demons and appease the gods, and incorporates a number of mudras (ritual postures), mantras (sacred speech), yantras (sacred art) and secret initiation rites. Tantrism is practiced by both Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists. Among Hindus it is closely associated with Kali.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In the seventh century, Hinduism and Buddhism were influenced by Tantra, a new religious movement that employed esoteric knowledge to speed the believer toward spiritual liberation. The Hindu pantheon of gods expanded to include shaktis, female counterparts to male gods and personified as their consorts. Shakti is female energy, which activates the powers of the male gods and emanates from the goddess Devi. Many other goddesses represent aspects of Devi’s powers, for instance, Parvati, the beautiful, loving, and obedient consort of Shiva, and Durga, Chamunda, and Kali, whose actions and moods indicate anger, ferocity, and the horrific. This range of emotions symbolizes their multiple purposes and the variety of forms female energy and power can assume.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Hindu Tantrism is based in part on a text called the Tantras, written between the A.D. 7th and 11th centuries but believed to be based on ideas that are much older. Much of text is written as conversations between Shiva and his consort. Hindu Tantrism has millions of followers and they include Buddhists and even Muslims as well as Hindus.

Hindu Tantrism involves seeking orthodox dharma , siddhi (spiritual or supernatural power) and bukhti (pleasure in higher worlds). Followers view the body as a microcosm of the universe and worship shakti (female energy), which they believe is especially powerful when united with the male energy force, which itself is powerless without the presence of shakti. Some sects classify their members according to their spiritual capacity. Many Tantric practitioners serve as healers.

Hindu Tantric Rituals

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tantric Devi
Hindu Tantrism aims to combine the forces of the cosmos and the energies of the individual and teaches that god can only be worshiped by other gods and thus worshipers become deified by participating in Tantric rituals. By repeating Tantric scripture cosmic energy is released and focused so the individual can reach an altered state of consciousness. In some cases followers of Tantrism are said to be able to fly or levitate their bodies. To generate the energy to this requires instruction from a guru.

Tantrism has many iconoclastic elements. Some Tantric sects deliberately reverse dietary and sexual taboos. Some groups encourage members to have sex with members of different castes and engage in sexual acts and drink alcohol in places such as cremation grounds where it is usually forbidden for Hindus to be. The idea behind these acts is to acquire power by transcending ordinary life on Earth and turning ordinary customs and views on their ear.

In Tantric ritual performed by the Left-Handed Sect a "hero" partakes in the "Five Ms" in successive stages: madya (wine), matsya (fish), mamsa (meat), mudra ( parched grain) and finally maithuna (sexual intercourse). The idea is for the "hero" to rise above body and the flesh while remaining a part of it.

Mudras can be body positions or hand positions. They are intended to invoke a response in the mind of people who observe them. They can also be used in dances to express feeling and stories. Some hand gestures include: 1) Anjali (divinity with a person expressed by the praying hands position); 2) Pushpaputa (an offering to a divinity expressed with two hands cupped together); and 3) Makula (a lotus blossom in bud expressed by a hand with the palm pointed upwards and the all the fingers together.

Sex, Violence and Tantric Rituals

In the West, some people have turned to Tantrism as a way of prolonging sex.

In 2003, a childless couple in Uttra Pradesh that desperately wanted a son hired a Tantric practitioner who arranged for the abduction of a 6-year-old child that was mutilated and killed while Tantric mantras were chanted. The ritual ended with the childless woman washing herself in the blood of the dead child. Several such killing were reported, prompting the government to force many Tantric practitioners out of business.

The bloodiest ritual are often associated with Kali. The idea behind the child sacrifices is that Kali will reward you with a child if you give one to her.

Some associate Tantrism with witchcraft. Some groups in Varanasi reportedly eat human flesh taken from cremation grounds.

Hindu Symbols

A bowl or pot of water is a symbol of fertility and the Water of Life. A conch shell represents “om,” the first sound heard during creation. A disc represents power and the rotation of the world. It has spokes and is often elaborately decorated. It also sometimes represents reincarnation.

Weapons and tools commonly depicted in images of gods and goddesses include: 1) the mace or club; 2) an elephant goad, a stick with a hook; 3) a fly whisk, a shaft with tufts of hair; 4) rosary beads; 5) a trident, an indestructible weapon often associated with Shiva. The latter is said to have the power to destroy everything that is evil.

Banyan trees and sala trees are symbols of knowledge. Teachers are often shown sitting beneath a tree, notably a banyan tree or sala tree, surrounded by followers.

Rudraksha beads are sacred beads associated with Shiva. They are a symbol of his teaching. Rudraksha was an early name for Shiva.

The lotus is featured in Asian art and is a major symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism. It symbolizes self-development, enlightenment and purity because it it rooted in the mud, grows from through dirty water and without getting dirty and emerges as a thing of beauty. Asian lotus flowers contain a natural thermostat that kept its temperature constant.

Tikas, Hair and Body Marks

Many Hindus have a small tuft of hair on the back of their head that is never supposed to be cut. It symbolizes that the wearer is a Hindu.

The tikka, or tilak is the universal sign of Hinduism. It is a mark placed at the center of the forehead by a priest and is regarded as a sign of devotion and blessing of the gods. It can be a small plastic dot, a smear of ash, vermillion powder or sandalwood paste or a large mark made with yogurt, rice and cinders. It a sign of good luck and is often associated with the all-seeing third eye found in the middle of the forehead of some gods.

Receiving a tikka is part of many rituals. Sometimes a smudge of sandlewood is applied first for purification, followed by a dab of vermillion. Grains of rice are sometimes stuck on a tikkato ward off demons.

Three stripes and a Y- or U-shaped symbol made with sandalwood paste turmeric or holy ash mark sects and castes and worshipers of Shiva and Vishnu.

To Hindus "each color is symbolic of a force of life." Red is a sacred color, sometimes associated with important people. Black is associated with evil. White is linked with purity. Saffron is the sacred color of Hinduism. The colors of the Hindu trinity are red for Brahma, white for Shiva and black for Vishnu.


The swastika is one of the holiest symbols in Hinduism. It represents the seat of God, the sun and is regarded as good luck. Arms bent in a clockwise direction have traditionally meant health and life and the movement of the sun. The Nazis used a swastika with arms bent in a counter-clockwise direction. The word swastika comes from two Sanskrit words su , meaning “good,” and asti , meaning “to exist,” and together they mean “let good prevail.”

The swastika is one of the oldest known symbols, even older than the ancient Egyptian Ankh. It has been found pottery and coins from ancient Troy show that date to 1000 B.C. and found on coins from ancient China and very old blankets made by American Indians. Some say it has been associated with Hinduism for 5,000 years. According to legend Buddha left behind swastikas instead of foot prints. A 10,000-year-old swastika was found painted on the wall of a cave.

A majolica seal bearing a swastika was found at an Indus civilization state, dated to 2000 to 2500 B.C. Erica Wagner wrote in the Washington Post: “After the om, the swastika is still the second most important symbol in Hindu mythology -- and Hindus understandably protested the proposed ban. The word itself is derived from two Sanskrit words, su (good) and asati (to exist); together they are taken to mean "may good prevail." In Hindu thought, the 20-sided polygon can represent the eternal nature of the Brahman, or supreme spirit of the universe, because it points in all directions. Rudyard Kipling, who was strongly influenced by Indian culture, had a swastika on the dust jackets of all his books until the rise of Nazism made this inappropriate; Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, used the symbol, too, until the 1930s. It is found in Native American cultures, particularly among the Navajo and the Hopi. A swastika is laid in the floor of Amiens Cathedral in France. [Source: Erica Wagner, Washington Post, March 13, 2005]

Modern Hindus and Buddhist use swastikas to decorate temples, doorways and jewelry as a way to attract good fortune. Many Hindus wear them as a symbol of their faith like Christians wearing crosses. In 2005, there was a campaign among Hindus to “redeem” the swastika. The efforts was made after officials in Europe suggested the symbol be banned---after Britain’s Prince Harry wore a Nazi uniform to a party---because of the association of the symbol with death and hate and anti-Semitism.

Nazis and Swastika

The arms of the traditional Hindu and Buddhist swastika go in the opposite direction of the Nazi swastika. The original swastika adopted by the Nazi party in 1920 had arms that went in the same direction. It is believed that Allied wartime propaganda was responsible for the false belief that Hitler later reversed the swastika to the left-armed version because of its association with death.

Erica Wagner wrote in the Washington Post: “Hitler adopted it because of its links to Indian Aryan culture; the Nazis considered the early Aryans of India to be a prototypical "master race." The Nazi party formally adopted the swastika -- what they called the Hakenkreuz, or hooked cross -- in 1920. In "Mein Kampf," Adolf Hitler, who well understood the power of the visual over the power of the mere word, reflected in his writing the care put into its redesign: "I myself, meanwhile, after innumerable attempts, had laid down a final form; a flag with a red background, a white disk, and a black swastika in the middle. After long trials I also found a definite proportion between the size of the flag and the size of the white disk, as well as the shape and thickness of the swastika." [Source: Erica Wagner, Washington Post, March 13, 2005]

The atrocities of the Nazi regime and its program of directed genocide have rendered that symbol almost entirely out of bounds. In Germany and Austria, use of the swastika has been banned outside academic and educational contexts since 1949; recently, copies of Philip Roth's new novel, "The Plot Against America," which imagines an alternative America sympathetic to the Nazis during World War II -- were kept out of Germany because the cover features an American postage stamp adorned with a swastika. The publishers produced a separate edition for Germany and Austria (the "Hapsburg edition," it was dubbed), which replaced the swastika with a black X.

It was a royal gaffe -- when Prince Harry went to a fancy dress party clothed as a Nazi officer just days before the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz -- that prompted the call for the swastika to be banned throughout the European Union. "E.U. action is urgent," Franco Fratini, the European commissioner for justice, said, "and has to forbid very clearly the Nazi symbols in the European Union."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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