Glossary of Important Terms in World Religions
A - G
H - P | Q - Z
Words in boldfaced type within the text of a given definition refer to terms that have their own respective entries in this glossary.
Always under revision;
if you see any inaccuracies, misspellings, or
if you don't see terms that should be included, please let me know.
Absolute: any belief, doctrine, concept or idea that is regarded as complete unto itself and therefore subject to no exterior circumstance or condition.
Advaita Vedanta: in Hinduism, a major school of Vedanta founded by Sankara in the 8th century CE, which is based in the teaching of non-duality, i.e., the ultimate unity of Brahman and Atman (Advaita means "non-duality;" Vedanta means "end of the Vedas," i.e., the Upanishads). Advaita Vedanta differs from the traditional Upanishadic teachings in its position that not only is Brahman "ultimate reality," but that Brahman is the only reality that there is.
Aetiology (Etiology): a doctrine and/or narrative account of first causes, particularly in the case of creation myths/stories that provide narrative accounts of the raison d'etre of all that is. See also Teleology.
Agni: in the Vedic tradition/period of
Hinduism, the god of fire. Fire is central in sacrificial ritual praxis as
an element of transformation. From "Agni," the English language gets
fire-related words like "ignite," "igneous," etc.
Ahimsa: in the Jain tradition, the practice of "non-harm" to any and all living things.
Ajiva: in the Jain tradition, all material, non-living things. See also Jiva.
Allah: the Muslim name for God, understood as the one and only; i.e., "There is no god but God (Allah) and Muhammed is his prophet."
Amaterasu: in the Japanese Shinto tradition, the sun goddess. She appeared from a tear shed from the left eye of Izanagi, one of the original kami who created the islands of Japan. According to Japanese mythology, all Japanese emperors have descended from her. See also Izanagi/Izanami, Shinto, Kami, Kojiki.
Amiddha Buddha (also known as Amitaba): in the Mahayana sect of Pure Land Buddhism, the Buddha of compassion; when the mantra invoking his name is chanted, one will be saved through his grace and transported to the "Pure Land in the West," prior to entering Nirvana.
Analects: the literary collection of the "sayings" of and about Confucius, compiled by his disciples. One of the four Confucian Classics, the other three being the Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean.
Anatta: the Buddhist doctrine of "no Self" or "no Soul," in contrast to the Hindu belief in the soul an immutable and eternal substance that may be distinguished from the temporal body.
Anicca: the Buddhist doctrine of "impermanence." Life is suffering because all sensory experience and objective reality is impermanent.
Aniconic: the absence or denial of images, in the sense that the essence of a given deity is beyond depiction via a finite, physical form.
Animism: in primal religious consciousness, the belief that natural objects such as mountains, trees, rivers, etc. are spiritual embodiments; i.e., that powerful spiritual beings inhabit and "animate" them. Generally, the natural objects in question are not "any" trees, mountains, rivers, etc., but particular ones that are located within the bounds of a sacred place.
Anthropomorphism: the giving of human attributes to abstract conceptions, especially in reference to divinity; e.g., the imaging of a god in the familiar shape of a human being in visual arts, in the mind, etc.
Arhant: in Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism, the lone and disciplined Buddhist disciple or monk who, through numerous rebirths, has achieved enlightenment, thereby being released from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. In some respects, the Mahayana Buddhist counterpart to this state would be the Bodhisattva.
Artha: in Hinduism, political and economic success, as achieved through wealth, property, power, etc. One of "The Four Aims of Man." See also Purusartha.
Aryan: of or referring to those nomadic tribes or cultures of Central Asia who invaded and conquered the Indian subcontinent in the second millennium BCE, bringing with them some elements of what we know today as the Vedic literature and theology of the Hindu tradition. Aryan literally means "noble." In terms of ethnicity and national identity, Aryan is the root of the name of the Central Asian nation known today as Iran.
Atman: the presence of the eternal Brahman as it resides in one's temporal being as the "soul" or the essential Self. In the Upanishads, Brahman and Atman are identified as one in the same reality.
Atonement: in the Christian tradition, the "at-one-ment," or the restoration of relationship with God, through Jesus Christ.
Avatar: in many religious traditions, the "descent" and presence on earth of a deity in corporeal form (animal or human). See also Incarnation.
Bhagavad Gita: literally, "the song of the Lord / the blessed one;" while not scriptural or "revealed" literature, the "Gita" is one of the fundamental texts of Hindu tradition. It centers upon the moral dilemma faced by Arjuna as he prepares to go into battle against his own relatives. He engages in a philosophical dialogue with Krishna, who teaches him about the nature of Karma Yoga: to execute one's duty responsibly (process) but in a state of detachment, i.e., without focusing on the fruits or results (goals).
Bhakti Yoga: literally "path of devotion" (love); in Hinduism, a spiritual practice in which one worships a deity through chant, prayer and song. In so doing, the deity is regarded as a personal savior rather than an impersonal, transcendent absolute.
Bodhisattva: in Mahayana Buddhism, a figure or personality of profound compassion who, having already attained enlightenment, postpones his/her entrance into Nirvana in order to assist others along the way, or more specifically, until all sentient beings are saved. The Bodhisattava is, for the Mahayana Buddhist, to be emulated in one's own life; in this sense, "rebirth" is not something to escape, but an opportunity for service and compassion
Brahma: the personified creator; usually presented as one personality of the triune godhead of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Brahman: the primary subject matter of the Upanishads, the very essence or principle of ultimate reality; the Absolute; the uncreated creator. Brahman is the neuter, or impersonal, form of Brahma.
Brahmanas: "Brahmin books;" in the Vedic/Hindu tradition, essentially, detailed manuals for sacrifice. They include the instructions for various charms, spells, sacrifices, etc., and are organized to correspond to the Vedas.
Brahmin: in Hindu tradition, the highest of the four primary caste levels, traditionally consisting of priests, teachers, and the like.
Buddha: literally, "the one who has awakened." The enlightened form of Siddhartha Gautama, the original founder/creator of Buddhism as a spiritual practice.
Bushido: literally, "the way of the warrior;" popularly held to refer to the so-called "code of honor" of the medieval Japanese samurai class, involving an intense degree of loyalty to one's lord and a readiness to die for that loyalty at any given moment. However, recent scholarship suggests that its existence (at least by name) as a formal systemic code is doubtful. While loyalty, honor, and the like are characteristics that many samurai would emulate, the term bushido itself does not appear in medieval Japanese texts, as it is a modern early 20th c. term that has been imposed upon past history.
Caste: the systemic delineation of social class in Indian society. It consists fundamentally of four levels: seers (priests, teachers), administrators (military leaders, business owners), producers (skilled craftspersons), and servants (unskilled laborers). Historically, there have and do exist subcasts below even the lowest of these. It is difficult if not impossible to reconcile this social reality with a political system in which all citizens supposedly have basic constitutional rights accorded to them. From a religious standpoint, caste is irrevocably tied to Karma. Recent efforts at social/religious reform are, as yet, minimally effective and have in some cases resulted in violence between castes.
Ch'an ("meditation"): the Chinese name for a sect of Mahayana Buddhism that was profoundly influenced by Daoism. Particularly popular during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), Ch'an entered Japan in the 12th-13th centuries, where it is known by the more familiar name, Zazen or Zen ("seated meditation").
Cheng Ming: see Rectification of Names.
Ch'i (Qi): in Daoist philosophy, the breath or life force that exists within all living things. Much emphasis is given to various means by which its flow can be increased (e.g., acupuncture, relaxation techniques), thereby improving one's overall plane of health. In Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought, Ch'i is the "material" nature of the created universe, ranging from spirit/breath (as above), to the tangible corporeality of the physical world around us.
Christ: from the Greek "christos," meaning "anointed one" or "chosen one." See also Messiah.
Chun Tze: literally, "son of the prince;" in Confucian thought, the noble or graceful human being; the person of fully-evolved character who exhibits human-heartedness or high-mindedness in the act of relation with others.
Circular Time: a consciousness of time as cyclical (circular) in pattern; it is reflected in and enhanced by the change of the seasons, the planting and harvesting of crops, and ultimately in stories of death and resurrection, or death and rebirth.
Confucius: in Chinese, Kung Fu Tze or "Kung the Master" (551-479 BCE); the founder of the ethical/religious system known as Confucianism. It centers primarily upon the concept of the cultivated self as becoming fully developed within the social/ethical context of relation.
Conservative Judaism: a sect of American Judaism, established in the late 19th-early 20th century. It sought to establish a middle ground between the perceived liberality of Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism.
Contagious Magic: any ritual action in which power is transferred or communicated from an entity possessing power to one desiring power, via direct contact between the two. The entity possessing the power can be a person, an object or a location. See also Sympathetic Magic.
Covenant: the theopolitical relationship between YHWH and Israel. It emphasizes the interdependence of two paths of relation: divine chosenness (human beings and God) and ethical responsibility (interpersonal). Covenant differs conceptually from contract in that the former emphasizes "mutuality with" while the latter emphasizes "protection from." See also Ethical Monotheism, Prophet, Prophetic Tradition.
("Deuteronomist"): according to the Documentary
Hypothesis, "D" constitutes the
independently-created source material for the Book of Deuteronomy
in the Torah. It is dated from the reign of
Josiah (640-609 BCE), during a period of intense religious
reform, just prior to the Babylonian conquest of Judah (the
Southern Kingdom of Israel).
Dana: literally, "giving;" one of the fundamental teachings/responsibilities of the laity in relationship to the monastic community. Supporting the monastic community and giving to the temple is a primary means of generating merit, i.e., good karma. Most directly associated with the southern Theravada path of Buddhism.
Dao, Daoism: literally, "way" or "path;" the rhythmic balance and natural, flowing patterns of the universe. The enlightened human being is one who always acts in accordance with the Dao; the teachings of the means or methods of doing so, both philosophically and religiously.
Dao De Zhing: "The Way and Its Power;" with the Chuang Tze, one of the primary scriptural texts of Daoism.
Darsan (Darshan): literally, "seeing;" the Hindu premise that a devotional image is a channel of the transcendent through which the deity may be "seen" by the devotee, who is in turn "seen" by the deity. By extension, this can conceivably apply to all persons, animals and things as channels or repositories of the holy. As such, all persons, animals and things can be channels of grace. For example, when one goes to a temple, he/she does not say "I am going to worship," but rather "I am going to receive darsan."
De: literally, "power;" as both "moral example" and "energy," de is applied in diverse ways in Confucianism and Daoism. In Confucian thought, de can refer to a kind of cultivated moral virtue, while in Daoism, one can speak of de as both efficient (acting in a wise accordance with the dao; see wu wei) and augmented (added to in order to increase the flow and power one one's ch'i.
Dependent Origination: the Buddhist rationale for the suffering and impermanence of life-- all things, experiences, etc. are but links in a circular chain of cause and effect. There is no eternal and absolute origin. See Four Noble Truths, Karma, Samsara.
Dharma: in Hinduism, the moral and ethical aims of human life, i.e., righteousness. One of "The Four Aims of Man." See also Purusartha. In Buddhism, dharma refers to the content of the teachings and wisdom of the Buddha. See also the Three Jewels.
Digambaras: literally, "sky-clad," as in naked; the more conservative ascetic Jain sect that regards even the wearing of clothing as an attachment to the materiality of the world, and therefore a hindrance to liberation. Digambaras hold that women cannot achieve liberation unless they are first reborn as men. See also Svetambaras.
Divination: the practice of foretelling the future, or simply discerning answers to vital questions, through the observation of natural indicators or signs, or through some form of direct contact with natural and/or ancestral spirits. Traditional examples would include the examination of the entrails of a sacrificed animal, or the "reading" of the cracks on a heated tortoise shell. More contemporary examples would include the folk practice of swinging a weighted string over the womb of a pregnant woman (the path of the swing indicates the gender of the baby), or even the well-known "magic eight-ball." See also Necromancy.
Documentary Hypothesis: developed by German Biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), a theory that the Torah is a composite of material that was assembled and edited over a considerable length of time into the form that we know today as the Pentateuch or Torah. According to the hypothesis, the material comes from four independent literary sources (each with a distinctive style) that are identified as J ("Yahwist"), E ("Elohist"), D ("Deuteronomist") and P ("Priestly"). See these individual entries for further details.
Dualism, Duality: the perspective that the universe is essentially an arrangement of binary oppositions, such as spirit and body, good and evil, male and female, creator and created, etc. Ultimately it implies the very presupposition behind subject-object consciousness, i.e., that the objective world is experienced through the subjective perception of it as things, objects and ideas that are separate, "out there" and thus distinguished from the perceiver.
Dukkha: the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, i.e., that all life is suffering (impermanent). See Four Noble Truths.
E ("Elohist"): according to the Documentary Hypothesis, "E" is independently-created material incorporated into the Torah that makes extensive use of the Hebrew term Elohim ("gods") in reference to the God of Israel. It dates from the 9th-8th centuries BCE, sometime after the division of Israel into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms but prior to the Assyrian conquest in 722 BCE. "E" was likely compiled by an author in the Northern Kingdom.
Educational Rescript of 1890: in Meiji era Japan (1868-1912), an Imperial declaration that Shinto and Confucian principles would be taught and respected in the moral education of the Japanese people. This rescript followed on the heels of the 1882 creation of Shrine Shinto as a ritualized expression of nationalist identity and loyalty.
Eightfold Path: the "Fourth Noble Truth" of Buddhism, i.e., the prescription for overcoming desire and thereby overcoming suffering. It consists of: right views; right intent; right speech; right conduct; right livelihood; right effort; right concentration; and right mindfulness.
Eternal: beyond time; atemporal. As such, eternal does not mean "forever." Eternity simply "is." It is the opposite of temporal.
Ethical Monotheism: in Judaism, a synthesis of two essential perceptions: (a) the worship of only one god (YHWH), and (b) the acknowledgement that such a divine-human relationship demands that one respect and maintain the ethical dimensions of inter-human relationships. See also Covenant.
Euangelion: in Koine Greek, "good tidings," "good news," the gospel. See also Gospel, Synoptic Tradition.
Feng Shui (literally "wind" and "water"): the Taoist practice of harmonious and balanced juxtaposition of objects, furniture, buildings, etc., not in the Western sense of visual symmetry or aesthetics, but as a means of attaining a cosmic equilibrium with the movements and paths of natural rhythms and ancestral spirits. Familial stress or personal anxiety, for example, can be indications that one's physical environment is out of balance with the rhythms of the cosmic whole. See Tao.
Fetish: any object, natural or otherwise, that is believed to contain "power." A fetish is usually something that is carried on one's person, such as a small stone from a sacred place, a "medicine pouch" that protects one who is on a journey, or a weapon (usually a sword) that is believed to be uniquely "empowered." Contemporary examples would include "good luck charms," e.g., a rabbit's foot, a four-leaf clover, or a lucky penny. See also Contagious Magic.
Fictionalized History: a form of literary documentation in which particular events and/or persons have been lifted up and embellished with a larger-than-life quality that expresses their centrality or importance as "heroes" of a culture and/or tradition. The literary-critical perspective of biblical scholarship would say, for example, that the Book of Joshua presents an embellished account of the conquest of Canaan in which Joshua is presented as a larger-than-life heroic ideal who led a divine mission that was completed in a matter of days or weeks, when in fact the contention with Canaanite religious practice was an ongoing conflict, even at the height of the Israelite monarchy. The term can also refer to the creation of fictional personalities within the context of documented history. A flesh and blood character (e.g., Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind) creates a kind of relational intimacy between the reader and an actual event of history (e.g., the burning of Atlanta during the American Civil War) that would otherwise be little more than cold facts. In short, the backdrop of fictionalized history is an actual event. See Historicized Fiction and Mythology.
Filial Piety (Chinese, Xiao) : in Confucian thought, the sacred character of the fundamental family relationships which, in turn, are to be emulated in all other relationships, e.g., political, professional, etc. See Five Constant Relationships.
Five Constant Relationships: in Confucian thought, these consist of parent-child; husband-wife; older-younger sibling; older-younger friend; and subject-ruler. By extension, the last of these could also extend to student-teacher and employer-employee.
Five Pillars of Faith: the foundation of Islamic faith and practice; they are: Confession ("There is no god but God and Muhammed is his prophet."); Prayer (five times per day facing the Holy City of Mecca); Charity (2.5% of one's annual assets); Fasting (sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan); and Pilgrimag to the holy city of Mecca (at least once in one's lifetime, if possible).
Four Noble Truths: the foundation of Buddhist doctrine; they are: Dukkha (life is suffering); Tanha (suffering is due to desire); Tanha must be overcome to dispel Dukkha; and The Eightfold Path (the prescription for overcoming Tanha).
Four Passing Sights: in the legends of the life of the Buddha, the pre-enlightened Prince Siddhartha saw four things: an elderly man; a man ravaged by disease; a corpse; and finally a monk living a life of withdrawal (or impoverishment, depending on one's perspective). Thus the realities of this life are marked by impermanence (the "sights" of age, sickness, death and want being metaphors for the larger whole of lived experience). This led to Siddhartha's ascetic withdrawal from worldly life in order to discover a means to overcome these variables.
Functionalism: an approach to religious studies in which one examines and analyzes the manner(s) in which religion is utilized within a social system or group; i.e., what does religion "do" for people in everyday life? In times of crisis? As ritual enactment? As "magic?"
Gnostic, Gnosticism: from the Greek gnosis ("knowledge"); a belief system that flousrished in Hellenistic culture. It had a profound influence on Christianity, particularly in the Johannine tradition (i.e., the gospel of John, the letters of John, the gospel of Thomas). Gnostics held that the physical world of matter was corrupt and evil, and that salvation could be attained only through the embracing of the eternal goodness of the spiritual. In so doing, they wholly denied the human dimensions of Jesus Christ, even to the point of saying that Jesus, as a purely spiritual entity, only "appeared" to suffer on the cross. Gnosticism was therefore declared a heresy in the 4th century CE Christian church. See also Mysterion.
Gospel: from the Old English god spel, or "good news." In the Christian tradition, it refers to the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. It also refers collectively to the New Testament literary genre composed of the four books (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John), or "gospels," that provide narratives of Jesus' birth, ministry, death and resurrection. See also Euangelion, Synoptic Tradition.
Grace: unearned favor, especially from a divine source. In the Christian tradition, the gospel is God's grace as made present to humankind in the person of Jesus Christ.
Great Persecution of 842-45 CE: during the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907 CE), a prolonged persecution of Buddhism, headed primarily by supporters of Confucianism.
Guei: in traditional Chinese religion, ghosts or other malevolent spirits, associated with particular places, or even spirits of people who who were not dealt with properly in funeral rituals. See also shen.
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