Glossary of Sanskrit Terms

The nondualistic school of Vedanta philosophy that affirms the oneness of the individual soul, God, and the universe.
That section of the Vedas which gives a spiritual interpretation to the ritualistic portion of the Vedas. It is also called the “forest treatises” because it was originally intended for ascetics who lived in the forests.
Ashrama or Ashram
A center of spiritual study or meditation. A retreat, hermitage, or monastery.
The sage who authored the Ashtavakra Samhita.
Ashtavakra Samhita
A classic text on Advaita Vedanta.
The divine Spirit in man, the Self which is one with Brahman, the all-pervading divine existence, the Ground of the universe.
Avadhuta Gita
A classic text on Advaita Vedanta.
An incarnation of God.
Ignorance, individual or cosmic, which hides the nature of the supreme Reality from our view.
Author of the Brahma Sutras. Little is known of him, though tradition identifies him with Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata, who lived in India somewhere between 500 and 200 B.C.
Bhagavad Gita
Literally the “Song of God,” the Gita is one of the most revered scriptures of Hinduism, and consists of 700 verses.
Love of God.
Bhakti yoga
Union with God through the path of loving devotion.
A commentary.
The absolute Reality, the Unity of all that exists, the formless, attributeless Godhead.
Brahma Sutras
Also known as the Vedanta Sutras. A treatise by Badarayana on Vedanta philosophy which interprets the Upanishads, and discusses the knowledge of Brahman.
Intelligence or discriminating faculty which classifies sense impressions.
One of the six centers of consciousness located along the spinal column.
Also known as the Devi Mahatmyam. The Chandi is a sacred Hindu scripture which praises the Divine Mother of the universe, identifying her as the ultimate Reality.
Lit., “goddess.” The word can refer to any female deity in Hinduism.
Righteousness, truth, or religious duty.
Dhruva (or Dhruba) smriti
The state of constant recollectedness of God.
Meditation or prolonged concentration.
An aspect of the Divine Mother of the universe, the consort of Shiva. Durga is generally represented with ten arms, seated on a lion. She is the protectress of the universe, destroying the demons of ignorance and giving the blessings of divine love and knowledge.
Lit., “quality.” In Hindu philosophy there are three gunas which constitute prakriti, or nature: sattva, rajas, and tamas. Tamas is characterized by dullness, stupidity, inertia; rajas by activity, restlessness, and passion; sattva by calmness, purity, and wisdom. These three qualities are found in varying proportions in the external world and in all created beings.
Spiritual teacher.
The spiritual aspirant’s chosen ideal of God.
The personal aspect of God; God with attributes.
A famous king who was both a knower of Brahman as well as the ruler of his kingdom, Videha.
Repetition of the Lord’s name, usually one’s own mantra.
Knowledge of the ultimate Reality, attained through the process of reason and discrimination between the real and the unreal.
Jnana yoga
Path of union with the ultimate Reality through spiritual knowledge and discrimination between the real and the unreal.
One who follows the path of knowledge by discriminating between the eternal and the transitory.
One of the aspects of the Divine Mother of the universe. Kali was Ramakrishna’s Chosen Ideal, and he worshiped her image at the Dakshineswar temple for many years. Kali is usually shown standing on the chest of her consort, Shiva. Around her waist she wears a garland of human arms, and around her neck a garland of human heads. She has four arms: the lower left hand holds a human head, her upper hand grips a saber. With one right hand she offers boons to her children, and with the other she makes the sign that dispels fear. She deals out death as she creates and preserves. Kali destroys ignorance, preserves world order, and gives blessings and liberation to those who earnestly seek it. While Shiva represents the Absolute, Kali represents the dynamic, or relative aspect of the Supreme Reality.
Action, both physical and mental, and the effects of action.
Karma yoga
Path of union with God through selfless activity.
The feeling of helplessness; self-surrender.
Lokacharya, Pillai
Twelfth-century Vaishnava philosopher and writer who held that God’s grace is spontaneous; it was to be sought not only through bhakti, devotion, but also through total self-surrender.
The twelfth-century exponent of dualistic Vedanta. He wrote commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita.
The Mother of the universe, the divine will. Mahamaya veils our vision of Brahman, the absolute Reality. Yet through her grace, she rends this veil, allowing us to realize the identity of the Atman with Brahman.
Literally, “great saying.” A Vedantic formula that declares the oneness of the individual soul with Brahman.
The process of reasoning in which one reflects on the spiritual teacher’s words and meditates upon their meaning.
The sacred name of God given by the guru to the disciple. Repetition of the mantra is japa.
Path; jnana marga, for example, is the path of spiritual knowledge, and bhakti marga is the path of devotion.
Maya is the power of Brahman, the creative aspect of God. It is also the cosmic illusion that creates ignorance and veils the vision of Brahman. Due to the power of maya, Brahman, the one Reality, is perceived as the manifold universe.
Deep meditation on the truth of Brahman.
Nirvikalpa samadhi
Lit., “changeless samadhi.” The highest state of realization in which the spiritual aspirant attains oneness with the Absolute.
The most sacred syllable of Hinduism; the sound-symbol of Brahman.
Primordial nature; the material principle of the world which, in association with Purusha, creates the universe. Prakriti is one of the two ultimate realities of Sankhya philosophy.
In the physical body, prana is the vital breath that sustains life and manifests as thought, bodily function, and physical action. In the cosmos, prana is the sum total of all primal energy that manifests as motion, gravitation, magnetism, etc.
Withdrawal of the mind from the objects of the senses.
Title of women who have taken final vows of renunciation, or sannyas. (The corresponding word for men is swami.) The term generally means a woman ascetic.
Ritualistic worship.
One of the two ultimate realities of Sankhya philosophy. The divine Self, the absolute Reality, pure Consciousness.
Raja yoga
Literally the “royal yoga,” raja yoga is the path of meditation. It is the spiritual path by which one attains union with the Absolute through control of internal and external forces.
The guna which expresses itself as restlessness, activity, and passion.
Ramakrishna, Sri
(1836-1886) A God-man of India who is considered by many to be an incarnation of God. His message stressed the essential unity of all religions, the innate divinity of humanity, and the realization of God as the goal of life.
The eleventh-century saint-philosopher who propagated the school of qualified nondualism, Vishishtadvaita. Ramanuja wrote commentaries on the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, along with other original treatises which advocated his philosophy of devotion to God as the highest ideal of human life.
Eighteenth-century Bengali mystic and poet. He composed devotional songs to Kali which Ramakrishna loved to sing.
A seer of spiritual truth. Usually the term refers to the ancient Hindu seers to whom the Vedas were revealed.
Spiritual discipline.
The superconscious state in which one experiences one’s identity with the ultimate Reality.
Tendencies inherited from previous births which form a person’s propensities in this life.
Final monastic vows in which the spiritual aspirant completely renounces everything for the sake of realization of the ultimate Reality.
Sarada Devi, Sri
(1853-1920) Sri Ramakrishna’s wife, also known as Holy Mother. Both Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi lived completely celibate lives; both were ideal monastics and ideal householders. Sarada Devi was the embodiment of spiritual motherhood; her life was devoted to loving service and self-sacrifice. She is seen by many as an incarnation of the Divine Mother.
Existence (sat), Knowledge (chit), and Bliss (ananda) absolute; Brahman, the absolute Reality.
The guna which expresses itself as calmness, purity, and wisdom.
God as the Mother of the universe. Shakti is the power of Brahman, the personification of primal energy.
Shankara or Shankaracharya
The great Vedanta philosopher who lived in the eighth century A.D., and revived Advaita Vedanta in India after a thousand years of Buddhist influence. Though he lived only thirty-two years, he organized a monastic system that is still in existence today. His enormous literary contribution includes commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, the principal Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. He also wrote his own philosophical works such as the Vivekacudamani ( the Crest-Jewel of Discrimination) and the Upadeshasahasri. In addition, Shankara composed hymns, prayers, and various minor works on Vedanta philosophy.
God in his aspect of destroyer of the universe. He is the third person in the Hindu trinity, the other two being Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu, the preserver. In his personal aspect, Shiva is the ideal yogi, the embodiment of renunciation, absorbed in eternal meditation in the Himalayas. He is known for his compassion: those who find refuge nowhere else—even snakes and demons—find shelter in Shiva. To save the world Shiva drank the poison which surfaced during the creation of the world. Since it stayed in his throat, he is called the “blue-throated one.” Shiva is also the Absolute, the Supreme Reality. He is the transcendent aspect of God, while Kali, or Shakti represents the relative, dynamic aspect.
Firm faith guided by reason.
Hearing or listening to the highest spiritual truth.
An honorific prefix used before the name of a deity, holy person, or book. It is also the Hindu equivalent of “Mr.”
A philosopher-sage of India who was a direct disciple of Shankara. He wrote treatises on Advaita Vedanta in such books as Naishkarmya Siddhi, Manosollasa, and Varttika.
Lit., “Lord.” Title of monks who have taken final vows of renunciation, sannyas.
In the tradition of the Ramakrishna Order, Swamiji refers to Swami Vivekananda. It is also a respectful way of addressing any swami.
The guna which expresses itself as dullness, stupidity, and inertia.
The religious philosophy in which the Divine Mother of the universe, or Shakti, is worshiped as the ultimate Reality.
The scriptures which are identified with the worship of the Divine Mother.
Pertaining to Tantra; a follower of Tantra.
Lit., “the fourth.” The superconscious state which is beyond the three ordinary states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. It is the state of unitary consciousness, pure bliss. According to Shankara, this is not a state; it is the Atman.
Meditation; literally “sitting near.” Meditation is “sitting near” God.
The sacred scriptures which appear at the end of the Vedas and constitute their philosophical portion. The Upanishads form the philosophical basis of Vedanta.
Lit., a follower of Vishnu. An adherent of Vaishnavism—a dualistic branch of Hinduism. Vaishnavas follow the path of devotion to Vishnu, for the most part in his avatars such as Rama, Krishna, and Chaitanya.
A philosopher-saint of sixteenth-century India who wrote commentaries on the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavatam.
A verse-commentary.
Vedanta Desika
A thirteenth-century philosopher and writer; one of Ramanuja’s greatest successors. Vedanta Desika, or Desika, was a voluminous writer, both in Sanskrit and Tamil. Desika stressed, in contrast to Pillai Lokacharya, that both grace and self-effort are necessary in spiritual life. The self-effort is necessary to achieve the Lord’s grace.
Lit., “Veda” means knowledge or wisdom. The Vedas are the sacred and most ancient scriptures of the Hindus. Orthodox Hindus believe that the Vedas are the result of direct divine revelation; they are considered the final authority in all spiritual matters. There are four Vedas: the Rik, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva. Each Veda consists of a ritual or “work” portion, and the philosophical or “knowledge” portion, known as the Upanishads. The ritual portion consists of the Brahmanas—texts which discuss the significance of different sacrificial rites—and the Samhitas—a collection of mantras or hymns, addressed to specific deities such as Indra or Varuna. Also included in the ritual portion are the aranyakas which give a spiritual interpretation to the rituals.
Knowledge leading to the ultimate Reality.
The philosophy of qualified nondualism, founded by Ramanuja. Vishishtadvaita states that the individual soul and insentient matter are distinct from Brahman, but Brahman is the basis of their existence and reality.
The second aspect of the Hindu trinity, God in his aspect as the preserver of the universe. Vishnu is frequently shown with four arms, and he holds the discus, mace, conchshell, and lotus. According to the doctrine of the avatar, Vishnu incarnates as a human being in every age for the good of the world.
Vivekananda, Swami
(1863-1902) The most prominent disciple of Ramakrishna, also known as Swamiji. Swami Vivekananda came to America in 1893 as the Hindu representative at the Parliament of Religions. After his triumphal success at the Parliament, he held classes and lectures throughout the United States and Europe, thus initiating the Vedanta movement in the West. In India, Swamiji organized the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission.
Sacrifice, sacrificial ceremony; in Vedic times it meant “sacrificing things for the sake of the Deity.”
A saint mentioned in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad.
Lit., “yoke”—the act of yoking or joining together. Yoga is union of the individual soul with the ultimate Reality. It is also the method by which this union is achieved. There are four yogas: bhakti yoga, the path of devotion; jnana yoga, the path of knowledge and discrimination; karma yoga, the path of detached work, and raja yoga, the path of meditation.