Glossary of Religious Terms


 This Glossary of Religious Terms is from P. Hughes and S. Bond Australia's Religious Communities Second Edition, Christian Research Association, Melbourne. Reprinted with permission.

{tab Bahai}

Abdu'l-Bahá - Eldest surviving son of Bahá'u'lláh. He was the designated successor of Bahá'u'lláh and the authorised interpreter of his writings from 1892 until his passing in 1921.

Ayyám-i-Ha' - Intercalary Days. The four days (five in a leap year) before the last month of the Bahá'í year, which is the month of fasting. They usually fall from 26 February to 1 March. This is a time of gift-giving and charity for Bahá'ís.

Bahá'í - A follower of Bahá'u'lláh; of, or pertaining to, Bahá'u'lláh's revelation.

Bahá'í calendar - The Bahá'í calendar begins in 1844. Based on the solar year of 365 days, each year is divided into nineteen months of nineteen days with four intercalary days (five in a leap year) called Ayyá'm-i-Ha. New Year's Day falls on the spring equinox (usually 21 March).

Bahá'í House of Worship - Every Bahá'í House of Worship (Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, lit. "dawning-place for the praises or mention of God") has nine sides. The display of pictures or statues and the use of musical instruments within its walls is forbidden: only the human voice may be used to sing, chant, or read the Word of God as recorded in the scriptures of the world's religions.

Bahá'í Studies - Study of the history, teachings and philosophy of the Bahá'í Faith, and their application to current social issues.

Baha"u'lla'h - Prophet-founder of the Bahá'í Faith, who is considered by Bahá'ís to be the Manifestation of God and His messenger for this day.

Centre of Learning - A regional board which provides educational programs for the development of knowledge, spiritual insights and skills for service in participants while allowing them to become active agents of their own learning. All courses include the following three components: the Creative Word of God, participatory methods, and a spiritual and disciplined atmosphere.

Covenant - The Covenant is an instrument provided by Bahá'u'lláh to protect the unity of the Bahá'í community after his passing. In his Will and Testament, Bahá'u'lláh appointed his son 'Abdu'l-Bahá as his successor. In turn, 'Abdu'l-Bahá made a Covenant with the Bahá'ís that they should accept his appointed successor after his own passing.

Hand of the Cause - A Hand of the Cause is an individual charged by Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá or Shoghi Effendi with specific duties of protecting and propagating the Bahá'í Faith. Following the passing of Shoghi Effendi, the Universal House of Justice found that it did not possess the authority to appoint new Hands of the Cause. Instead their functions were extended into the future by the institution of the Counsellors.

Holy Days - Days commemorating significant Bahá'í anniversaries. Work is to be suspended on nine Bahá'í Holy Days during the year. There are no prescribed ceremonies for their commemoration, but many Bahá'í communities combine a devotional program with fellowship and social activities.

Local Spiritual Assembly - The local administrative body of the Bahá'í community. The nine members are elected from among the Bahá'ís in a local community and serve for a period of one year. The Assembly oversees the activities of the community and provides advice, guidance and assistance to those in difficulty.

Manifestation of God - The great prophets of God, His chosen messengers, who appear in each age. Manifestations of God are not God descended to earth, but rather are perfect reflections of His attributes. Manifestations of God in the past include Abraham, Noah, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, Moses, Muhammad, the Báb, and Bahá'u'lláh. There have been other Manifestations as well.

National Spiritual Assembly - The national administrative body of the Bahá'í Faith. Its nine members are elected by delegates representative of local Bahá'í communities at an annual convention.

Naw Ruz - The Bahá'í new year. Marking the end of the month of fasting, it occurs on the spring equinox, which generally falls on 21 March. Naw Ruz is a joyous time of celebration.

Nineteen Day Feast - The principal gathering of Bahá'ís of a particular form. The Nineteen Day Feast is normally held on the first day of every Bahá'í month, and brings together the members of the Bahá'í community for worship, consultation and fellowship.

Universal House of Justice - The supreme administrative body of the Bahá'í Faith. The Universal House of Justice is elected every five years by the members of the national spiritual assemblies at an international convention. Its membership is confined to men. Bahá'ís believe the Universal House of Justice to be infallible.


{tab Buddhism}

Anatta - The teaching of no-self, non-ego.

Anicca - Impermanence; existence is a changing condition of being, an ever-becoming flux.

Arahant - One who has travelled the Eightfold Path and attained Nirvana. The ideal of the Theravadin School.

Bhikkhu - An ordained monk who has taken more than 200 training vows of renunciation and simplicity. A member of the Buddhist Sangha.

Bhikkhuni - A fully ordained nun; a member of the Sangha.

Bodh Gaya - The place of enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama in India.

Bodhi - Enlightenment.

Bodhisattva - A Buddha-to-be who delays his own liberation to work tirelessly for others. The ideal of the Mahayana School.

Buddha - Literally 'awake'. The 'Enlightened One'.

Dharma Teaching - The universal law or truth; the Buddha's teaching about this law.

Dukkha - Suffering, unsatisfactoriness. According to the first Noble Truth, this is the essential nature of existence.

Eightfold Path - The Buddhist path to purification and insight through right view, right understanding, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Four Noble Truths - The most basic teaching of the Buddha:

(i) the truth of suffering

(ii) the cause of suffering - clinging, desire and ignorance

(iii) the end of suffering

(iv) the path to end suffering - the Eightfold Path

Karma - Action; the law of cause and effect with regard to moral conduct.

Lama - A senior member of the Tibetan Order. The Dalai Lama is the most senior lama.

Mahayana - The 'Great Vehicle' school of Buddhism, developed later than Theravada and followed in China, Japan, Korea and Tibet.

Mandala - A ritual or magic circle; a colourful diagram used in Tibet in invocations, meditation and temple services. A symbolic representation of the spiritual journey.

Mantra - A magic formula or sound used in Tantric Buddhism. The most famous mantra is the Tibetan 'Om Mani Padme Hum', or 'Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus'.

Middle Way - Taught by the Buddha in his first sermon. The Buddhist avoidance of extremes by way of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Nirvana - Literally the 'blowing out' of the flame (of desire). The supreme goal of Buddhism, being the highest peace, happiness and truth. The end of samsara.

Pali Canon - The first sacred writings of Buddhism, scriptures of the Theravada School of Buddhism.

Precepts - Buddhist training rules or principles for developing virtue. Lay people keep five Precepts (refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxicants). Nuns and novices keep ten Precepts and monks more than 200.

Sangha - Community of Buddhist monks and nuns founded by the Buddha to carry on the Teaching of the Dharma.

Siddhartha Gautama - The man who, upon enlightenment, became the Buddha.

Sutra/Sutta - The dialogues or discourses of the Buddha.

Tantra - A ritual text used in Vajrayana Buddhism for acquiring sacramental power, usually through the teaching of a guru.

Theravada - The School of Elders. The most conservative form of Buddhism found in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma.

Three Gems (Jewels or Refuges) - The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These are the core of Buddhism.

Vesak - An annual festival on the Full Moon day of May celebrating the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.

Zen - A Chinese and Japanese form of Buddhism relying less on the intellectual approach of Indian Buddhism and more on self-discovery within everyday life. Ritualised meditation is its basic practice.


{tab Hinduism}

ashram - retreat for meditation, yoga; hermitage

avatara - divine embodiment, deity or higher power in human form

Bhagavad Gita - the most popularly known Hindu scripture and philosophical texts, part of the Mahabharata

bhakti - devotion; Bhakti is the movement based on devotional worship

Brahman - Hindu conception of the Ultimate in its formless absolute nature, described as One Being, Consciousness and Joy.

Brahma - One of the major gods in the Hindu pantheon, nowadays not much in vogue.

Brahmans or Brahmin - top of the twice-born caste or a member thereof.

dalit - so-called untouchable group, outside of brahmanical castes

dharma - righteousness, order, law or custom

dhyana - meditation

diwali - festivity of light marking Lord Rama's return to Ayodhya

duhkha - suffering, dissatisfactoriness of existence

Ganesa (Ganesh) - god with the elephant head who is Siva's first son; alos known as Vinaya

Ganga - sacred river of the Hindus in north India

guru (Guru) - teacher, preceptor, title of founder of an order

jnana - knowledge

kama - pleasure, desire

karma - action, doings, work

Mahabharata - longest poem in existence, epic-narrative based around warring clans and the ethical interventions of Krishna

mandap - central altar for performing sacrifices and rites of more social significance

mantra - sacred syllables having mystic potency, used in rituals

masjid - mosque

nirvana - extinction of desire, Buddhist state of enlightenment

OM - primeval sound, sacred Hindu syllable, mystical potency

pranayama - control of breathing

prasad - food offered to the gods and distributed

puja - devotional worship

purusartha - goal of human strivings or ordained life-cycles

Rig Veda - first of the Vedas

rita - norm, universal order; cf dharma

sadhu - holy man

sat - existence

Siva (Shiva) - one of three major male deities

shastra - sacred texts or teachings, scriptural source

satya - truth

satyagraha - truth-force, used by Gandhi against oppressors

Shakti - feminine divinity, usually in form of Goddess, Mother-God, such as Laxmi, Durga, Saraswati, Devi, Parvati, Kali

shakti - power, potency

shauca - purity

shanti - peace

siddha - perfected, one who has attained yogic powers through yoga

svadharma - one's own religious and life pursuits

tantra - esoteric teachings that involve unorthodox practices and licences; alternatives to Brahmanical spirituality in Buddhism.

Upanishads - philosophical and speculative treatises of Vedas, following forest teachings

varna - caste ordering system

Veda (Vedas) - authorless 'revealed' texts of the Hindus, the guiding source of scriptural injunctions and teachings

Vedanta - school of philosophy that grew out of the teachings of the Upanishads, or any system claiming origins in the Vedas.

Vishnu - second of the major Hindu male gods, preserver

vivaha - marriage

yajna (or yaga) - sacrifice, ritual offering

yoga - process of becoming one or detached, system of physical, mental and psychic development


{tab Islam}

ahl al-kitab - People of the Book; Jews and Christians

Allah - God

dhikr - Remembrance of God through chanting and movement, in Sufi practice

eid al-adhah - The feast of sacrifice

eid ul-fitr - The feast at the end of Ramadan

hadith - The sayings of the Prophet Mohammed.

hajj - The pilgrimage to Mecca, required of all who can afford it

halal - That which is permitted

haram - That which is forbidden; food and practices

hijra - The migration of the first Muslims to Medina, the beginning of the Muslim calendar

Imam - The person who leads prayers in the mosque

Islam - Literally, submission to the will of God

jumma prayer - The Friday communal prayer

Ka'aba - The shrine at Mecca, towards which Muslims face when praying

Muslim - One who submits to the will of God, follower of Islam

Qur'aan - The holy book of Islam

Ramadan - The month of fasting, one of the pillars of Islam

salaat - Prayer, one of the pillars of Islam

salah ul-janazah - Funeral prayer

shahada - The declaration of faith, the first pillar of Islam

sharia - Islamic law and jurisprudence

Shi'a - The Partisans of Ali, stream of Islam

Sufism - Islamic mysticism

sunna - The actions and practices of the Prophet

Sunni - Mainstream of Islam

Ummah - The world wide community of Muslims

zakaat - Charity, one of the pillars of Islam

{tab Judaism}

aliyah - Hebrew word meaning 'ascent'; used to refer to the act of immigration to Israel

Ashkenazim - Ashkenaz is the Medieval Hebrew name for Germany; the Ashkenazim are the Jews of Europe who, in the main, used Yiddish as their primary language

bar mitzvah - religious ceremony celebrating a boy's 13th birthday, marking his entrance into the adult Jewish community

bat mitzvah - more recently evolved religious ceremony conducted by some sections of the Jewish community at which girls of 12 to 13 years are recognised as adults

brit milah - ceremony of circumcision carried when the male child is eight days old

Halakhah - the Jewish legal code; the cumulative body of rabbinical literature that constitutes Jewish religious law

Hanukah - festival lasting eight days; celebrates the victory of the Macabbees over the Syrian Selucuids and the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E.

Holocaust - the mass murder of Jews in Europe by the Nazis during the Second World War

Ivrit - modern Hebrew; vernacular language spoken in Israel today

kashrut - the body of Jewish dietary law

kosher - food that meets the requirements set out under Jewish dietary laws

Magen David - the six-pointed Star of David

matzah - unleavened bread eaten throughout the eight day festival of Pesach (Passover) commemorating the tribulations of the Jewish people in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt in the time of Moses

menorah - seven-branched candelabra used in the Temple in biblical times; also, the eight-branched candelabra used in the home to celebrate the annual festival of Hanukah

mezuzah - small cylindrical container holding a tiny parchment scroll on which are written prescribed verses from the Torah; traditionally attached to the front door post of a Jewish home

mitzvot - the 613 commandments, statutes and precepts of Jewish religious law

Orthodox Judaism - term applied to the traditional movement within modern Judaism based upon the strict adherance to the letter of Jewish Law

Pesach - eight day Passover festival commemorating the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt in the time of Moses

Purim - festival celebrating the story of the deliverance of the Jews of Persia, in biblical times, from an attempted massacre sought by the Persian King's minister, Haman, through the intervention of the the King's Jewish wife, Queen Esther.

rabbi - Jewish religious teacher; leader of a Jewish synagogue

Reform Judaism- current of Judaism that emerged in Germany in the nineteenth century; has sought to modify some traditional orthodox religious practice and adapt it to contemporary life and thought

Rosh Hashanah- Jewish New Year

seder - ritual meal that begins the eight-day festival of Pesach (Passover) at which the Hagadah is read - a book that tells the story of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt in the time of Moses

Sephardim - the term derives from the Hebrew word for Spain, and, broadly speaking, the Sephardim are descendants of Spanish or Portuguese Jews; the description has been extended to apply to the Jews of the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern countries, as distinct from the Ashkenazi Jews of eastern and central Europe

Shavuot - festival commemorating the acceptance of the Jewish law (the Torah) by Moses on Mt Sinai, during the period immediately following the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt

Simchat Torah - holiday marking the completion of the annual cycle of the reading of the Pentateuch in the synagogue

Sukhot - the Festival of Tabernacles; originally a harvest festival but also now commemorates the experience of the Jewish people's forty years of wandering in the desert following the Exodus from Egypt in the time of Moses

synagogue - Jewish place of worship, prayer, study and public assembly

Talmud - the accumulated body of Jewish Law, interpretation and teachings compiled between about 200- 500 C.E.

Tanakh - the books of the Old Testament, excepting the first five books (the Pentateuch) known in Hebrew as the Torah

Torah - the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch)

treyfe - foods not permitted according to Jewish dietary laws

Yiddish - a dialect of German written in Hebrew script; evolved since the Middle Ages and, until the mid-twentieth century, the language predominantly spoken by Ashkenazi Jews

Yom Ha'atzmaut- Israel's Independance Day (14th May)

Yom Kippur - Day of Atonement; a day of fasting and prayers

Yom Hashoah - day of remembrance of the Holocaust (27th April)

Zionism - political movement that emerged among European Jews towards the end of the nineteenth century seeking the establishment of a Jewish national state

{tab Sikh}

Akal Takhat - It was built by the Sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind. It is the preeminent seat of authority of the five that exist within Sikhism. It is the primary center where issues facing the Sikhs are discussed.

Akhand Paath - A continuous, uninterrupted and complete reading of Guru Granth Sahib by relays of readers. It usually takes 48 hours to complete.

Amrit - Literally, nectar of immortality; the sanctified water used in an initiation ceremony of the Khalsa.

Amritdhari - A Sikh who has taken amrit; an initiated member of the Khalsa

Ardas - The Sikh prayer

Baisakhi or Vaisakhi - It is the first day of the month of Vaisakh. It is a time of harvest season and a time of celebration in Punjab. It now generally refers to the Sikh Festival celebrating the first initiation of the order of Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699.

Chakra - Circle signifying eternity. Also refers to a circular piece of steel used as a weapon.

Dasam Granth - Includes the writings of Guru Gobind Singh They are not part of Guru Granth Sahib. Scholars suggest that some of the poetry in the collection may be the composition of other poets.

Granthi - A reader of the Guru Granth Sahib; the functionary in charge of a Gurdwara.

Gurbani - Compositions of the Gurus

Gurdwara - The Sikh place of worship

Gurmukh - A God centred person

Guru - Enlightener. Sikhs exclusively use the title of Guru for the ten Sikh Gurus and Guru Granth Sahib.

Guru Granth Sahib - The scripture of the Sikhs. Guru Arjan compiled the main body of the text in 1604. It contains writings of the Sikh Gurus as well as of Muslim and Hindu saints. Guru Gobind Singh added the writings of Guru Tegh Bahadur and installed this sacred scripture as the perpetual Guru in 1708.

Harmandir - Temple of God. The Sikh holy shrine often referred to as Golden Temple is Harmandir Sahib.

Hukam Cosmic or Divine order. Dictates of God.

Hukamnama - The random reading of a passage from Guru Granth Sahib.

Kachhera - Specially designed shorts worn by initiated Sikhs.

Kanga - A small wooden comb tucked in the knot of hair

Kara - A steel bangle worn on the right wrist.

Kaur - Princess. A name used for Sikh females.

Kes - Unshorn hair

Khalsa - A Sikh who has taken amrit and therefore has been initiated by Panj Pyares (Five Beloveds).

Khanda - A double- edged sword. Also refers to the Sikh emblem .

Kirpan - A sword carried by initiated Sikhs at all times. It can vary in length from a few inches to three feet.

Kirtan - Singing of the liturgy in Sikh religious service

Langgar - A vegetarian meal prepared by volunteers and served to all irrespective of their religious beliefs after a religious service. Many gurdwaras serve langgar twice a day. Others have continuous langgar available at any time of day. Men and women vie for the opportunity to help in the preparation, serving, washing and cleaning after the meal. People are seated randomly without regard to gender, economic status and caste.

Manmukh - A self-centred person as opposed to a God-centred person.

Naam - The Divine Name. God’s name. To a Sikh it is essence of God.

Pangat - A row of people sitting together for langgar

Panj Payare - The five beloved ones, or the five who have been initiated and have been complying with the Sikh religious code of conduct and have come together to now perform an initiation ceremony or other religious ceremony.

Parshad - Traditional sacrament at a Sikh service. Prepared from flour, ghee, sugar and water. It is distributed to the congregation at the end of every Sikh service. Any one whether Sikh or not can receive the parshad.

Purdah - A veil

Sangat - A congregation united in holy purpose or prayer.

Sewa - Selfless service to the community out of love and devotion.

Shabad - Holy Word or a hymn

Simran - Continuous remembrance of God’s name.

Singh - Lion. A name used by Sikh males.

Waheguru - “Wonderful Lord”; the Sikh name for God