Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma?

Hinduism is the Western name for traditional Indian religion. The Indian name is Sanatana Dharma, or “Universal Religion.” The word Hindu is probably a Persian mispronunciation of “Sindhu,” another name for the Indus River. This name was first used for traditional Indian religion in the early 1800s. Since then, it has become the accepted English term.

Think about other instances where ideas from one culture are given a different name by another culture. How would you react if an idea that is important to you were referred to by a different name? Do you think it is appropriate to use our own words for ideas from other cultures, or should we use the original culture’s terms?


The concept of dharma is important in Hinduism. Dharma has several different meanings. Following our dharma involves conducting ourselves righteously and according to our role in life. When we are young, our role in life is to be a good son or daughter. As we grow older, we should be good students, good friends, and good citizens. When we have decisions to make, we should do what is right, even if it goes against our best interests.

On an individual level, many people, consciously or unconsciously – do act in this way. But on a global level, people often put their own interests first. Think of a situation (either from history or from current events) where a person or a country acted based on self-interest rather than on what is right. Describe the situation. Then say what the person or the country should have done. How would that have affected history or current events?

Shiva Nataraj

Shiva is one of the primary figures in Hinduism. He is often shown as Shiva Nataraj, or “Shiva, King of Dancers.” Everything in this image has a meaning. Shiva is shown with four arms, one for each of the cardinal directions. He dances with his left foot raised. His right food rests on a figure that represents illusion and ignorance. In his upper right hand he holds a drum that stands for the male-female principle. His lower right hand makes a gesture that means, “Be without fear.” Snakes, which stand for the ego, are seen uncoiling from his arms, legs, and hair. The skull on his head stands for his conquest over death. He is placed within an arch of flames; these stand for the endless cycle of birth and death.

Shiva’s right food is on illusion and ignorance. What is the symbolism of this pose?

Paths to Spirituality

One of the goals of Hinduism is to help people achieve their full spiritual potential. Since all people are different, Hinduism does not teach just one way to reach this goal. Instead it identifies four basic spiritual personality types and a path for each. These paths are known as yoga, which comes from the same root as the word yoke. It means, “to place under training.”

The first type includes people who seek spirituality through reflection. Their yoga is jnana, or knowledge.

The second type includes people who seek to understand things emotionally. Their yoga is bhakti, devotion and love.

The third type includes people who take an active approach to their goals. Their yoga is karma, or work.

The fourth spiritual type includes people who like a methodical approach to understanding spirituality. Their path is raja yoga, or royal yoga. This is the yoga that uses physical postures to achieve spiritual illumination.

Think about yourself and your approach to things. Which of these approaches to spirituality would be best for you: jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga, or raja yoga?


In Hinduism, those who wish to develop spiritually will listen to teachings. They may find a mentor called a guru. The word guru comes from two Sanskrit words, gu and ru. Gu means “darkness” or “ignorance.” Ru means “remover” or “dispeller.”

Based on the original meanings of he words gu and ru, write your own definition of the word guru.

The Yogi and the Scorpion

Many religions use teaching stories. This story is sometimes used to teach about Hinduism.

A yogi was sitting by a river when he saw a scorpion fall into the water. The yogi scooped the scorpion up in his hand. The scorpion promptly stung him.

A minute later, the scorpion fell into the river again. Again, the yogi rescued it. And again, the scorpion stung the yogi.

For a third time, the scorpion fell into the river. And for a third time the yogi moved to rescue it. But another man had watched the whole thing, and stopped him. “Why do you keep rescuing the scorpion?” he asked. “The ungrateful creature keeps stinging you. Why don’t you just let it drown?”

The yogi answered, “It is the nature of a scorpion to sting. It is the nature of a yogi to show compassion.” And he scooped the scorpion out of the water again.

What idea do you think the story is trying to present?

The Sage and the Snake

Many religions use stories in order to convey a particular moral belief. The following story is sometimes used to teach about Hinduism.

A wandering sage arrived in a village. As he entered, he saw a huge, menacing snake. The villagers told the sage that the snake terrorized them and made their life difficult. The sage spoke to the snake and taught him about nonviolence, or ahimsa. The snake heard the sage’s words and took them to heart.

The next year, the sage again came to the village. The once-magnificent snake was now thin and bruised. The sage said, “My friend, what has happened to you?” The snake replied, “Your words showed me the error of my ways, so I not longer acted with violence toward the village. Now they mock me. The children throw stones at me when I try to get food.”

The sage looked at the snake, shaking his head. “My foolish friend,” he said, “I told you not to bite the people. I never told you not to hiss.”

Explain what you think is the message of the story.