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Guidance on Hinduism for Public Authorities in Prisons, Hospitals, Armed Forces and the Home Office

Sacrificer           unknown
Sacrifice code       wfor0367
Sacrifice date       25 march 2009

Guidance on Hinduism for Public Authorities in Prisons, Hospitals, Armed Forces and the Home Office

A. HINDUISM : THEOLOGY Its origin and the name : Hinduism is the name given to a set of religious traditions which originated in India. They are ever growing, over a few millennia. The current name is the one given to their whole pattern of life and culture by outsiders who spotted them on the banks of the river Indus. Hindus do not call their religion by any name. To say what they practice as their mythological as well as spiritual tradition, they use the term "Sanatana Dharma" which means "perennial righteous conduct". At the outset, its emphasis has been threefold - purity of life, devotion to the Almighty and a yearning for the spiritual salvation.

If we take into account all the names and forms worshipped by all the Hindus, they are countless. Details of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses fill in the spectacular pantheon of Hindu mythology. Traceable to no one source, Hinduism has numerous prophets and holy books. This means Hindus are a collection of enormous spiritual and religious things accumulated over a long period. Among their scriptures, Vedas are said to be basic because no other earlier book is known to the mankind. Subsequently numerous scriptures described to various authors have been the tributaries of one major river, namely Hinduism. Variety is the name to caption its doctrines, beliefs as well as practices. Hinduism shares many things in common with predominant religions of India like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It is possible to find various sects within Hindu community being parallel to the specific faiths of the world.

The central belief of Hinduism is that the truth is one but its nature is manifold which explains why there are many religions in the world. Consequent to this belief, Hindu followers have no difficulty, nor find any problem in believing in one God and several Gods at the same time.

However diversified the practices of Hindus may look, one can perceive a unity in their one character - the tendency to change, to adopt and to assimilate.
We also discover many gods/goddesses are but the embodiment of certain virtues e.g. learning or wisdom or arts is Goddess Saraswati, wealth is Lakshmi, power is Parvati. God is both He and She. The same divinity, which is one, when in charge of creation is called Lord Brahma (Creator God); while protecting, He is called Vishnu; and termed as Shiva when He is about to destroy the evil world. Apart from its inexhaustible mythological panorama, Hinduism has also a long and living tradition, - of mystic and spiritual enquiry, practiced to attain Godliness. Hinduism respects all notions of God and even no-God. It does not discriminate between religions.

Let us consider a few of its principal practices as being observed by the majority of Hindus. The technical terms which are numerous are not stated here deliberately.


I. Holy Days

If we count all the festivals of the numerous sections of Hinduism, the festivals are more than 300 in a year. We shall consider eight major festivals among them. Since the Hindu calendar (almanac) is different from the Gregorian calendar, the month of any festival mentioned below is only approximate.
HOLI is the festival of colours. To welcome the spring season, people rejoice by throwing colours at one another. (MARCH).

MAHA SHIVARATRI is celebrated to worship Lord Shiva throughout the night (MARCH).

SRI RAMA NAVANI - The festival to worship Lord Rama (MARCH _ APRIL)

RAKHEE or RAKSHA BANDHAN celebrated to commemorate the sacred relationship between brothers and sisters. (AUGUST).

JANMASHTAMI - Celebration of Lord Krishna's birthday (in midnight) AUGUST.

GANESH POOJA - Worship of Lord Ganesh (Aug - Sept).

NAVARATRI - Festival of nine nights to worship Power in order to destroy the evil (OCTOBER).

DIWALI - the festival of lights and welcoming the new year (NOVEMBER).

II. Worship

Hinduism does not insist upon having faith in God, or of any particular form or name of God. However, a Hindu may be found worshiping a presiding deity (of one's choice) calling it as God or Goddess. The object of meditation may even be the Absolute Reality (Brahman) which has no attribute. The reward of a pooja (worship) could be various, - anything from a material or some abstract thing or even one's liberation from life. Pursuing to realize God 'here and now' is held to be the ultimate ambition of a devotee. To motivate this, Hindu spirituality holds that every soul (spirit) is basically immortal and potentially divine.

Threefold paths are mainly laid down to access Divinity. A devotee can choose any of them according to one's convenience. They are:

the path of action (Karma Yoga in which the seeker endeavours to relinquish the rewards of one's actions by renouncing all desires).

the path of devotion (Bhakti Marga) in which one prays to god and does the religious practices, and the path of knowledge (Jnana Marga) or the intellectual approach to spirituality.

The place of worship could either be a temple or a home. Both communal (congregation) worship and individual worship are popular among Hindus. There are no rigid canons to be adopted for the course of a Pooja. People adopt various patterns of Pooja, use different prayers from various books. They may pray to any God or Goddess, as their favourite deity for the moment, no matter which temple they are in.

The duration of a Pooja could be anything from a few minutes to a large part of a day. The ingredients used in a Pooja (worship) include incense, camphor, offering of flowers, fruits or any type of food (normally vegetarian), water, milk etc. The rituals may involve ringing a bell, singing a song, holding a lamp (Arti), kneeling down or folding hands etc. Hindus have a wide range of choice of what they worship - an idol, or a picture of a deity, holy book, a drawing of OM or a Swastika, etc. They may use red powder or white ash or a garland of beads in the course of a prayer or pooja. After the pooja, the congregation usually receives the left overs of food etc as a blessing of the Almighty.

III. Scriptures or the Sacred Writings

Hinduism has a substantial collection of sacred writings which embody all those respected by them, - their beliefs, legends and religious practices. The earliest of them, the Rig Veda, is the first of the four basic books, known as the "Vedas" which record the revelations and continued in a long oral tradition. The Rig Veda is also a record of the earliest language and religion known to mankind. Vedas have mystical hymns, psalms of praise of gods, and the belief in God as manifest in the powers of the elements or spirits of the universe such as wind, fire, water etc. The other Vedas are Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. These are concerned also with the practical details of the sacrificial rituals, prayers and mantras and details of meditation which are often symbolic. The best known among the later scriptures is the Bhagavadgita (or Gita), meaning the "Song of the Lord". The Gita is a part of the whole text Mahabharata, the Epic of India.

IV. Diet

There are no rigid regulations. However, vegetarian food is preferred especially on festivals and sacred days when killing is not desirable. Hindus may eat meat and fish. They will not eat beef and rarely pork. The decision is of individual choice.

V. Dress

Hindus have no religious code for dress. The traditional dress of an Indian woman is a saree. Normally women cover their entire body when they take part in a religious activity. They may even cover their head with the fringe of their saree etc. In some northern parts of India, it is customary for men also to cover their head with some cloth. Hindus take off their shoes while entering a temple. They keep footwear outside when they participate in a pooja.

VI. Ministry

The caste system applies to the social pattern of Hindus especially the social structure in India. A priest or a Pundit belongs to the Brahmins' caste, but not necessarily. Priests are also appointed according to one's education, knowledge or authority in the religious matters. There is no institution or organized hierarchy of priests in Hindu faith as compared to other religions. A priest, either a man or a woman, may have some other job as well. He or she leads in the temple and the communal worship, assist in explaining the scriptures etc. and officiates the rites.

VII. Aspects of Social Functioning

a. Caste System

Caste system, as already indicated, refers to the social divisions.
The structure of an exclusive and hierarchical caste system developed into a rigid social structure. Hence a person's social and occupational status as well as the potentialities of religious and spiritual career could often be traced to the caste one belonged to. Such a custom is still somewhat rigid in the rural parts of India, but there are signs of rapid change and reformation thanks to the education and the changes natural for the passing time. In Britain, the differences are becoming increasingly blurred. The young Hindus in UK are increasingly looking to a Hindu partner who may or may not belong to the same caste as other social factors set in to evaluate common values.

b. Personal Hygiene

Personal hygiene has many ritual practices observed by both men and women. Cleanliness, purity and health-care in food etc. have always been looked into on priority in the services like a pooja in the Hindu religion. The health-consciousness of Indians also owes to the Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of medicine which has become the indigenous tradition.

c. Tobacco and Alcohol

These are generally avoided.

d. Hindu Names

The name-system of Hindu families has three varieties, -

A. with northern provinces of India (like Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat, Calcutta, Maharashtra) as their origin;

B. with southern parts of India as their origin; and

C. of those whose origin lies outside India.

All the three have basically three parts in their full names.

A. The names prevailing in the northern part of India:

E. g. Jagadeesha Kumar Sharma
i ii iii

i. The first part is the first name used by friends and close relatives. This is the personal name (person's own name). This part indicates the sex of the individual as well. Most of these names have a meaning in a dictionary. E.g. Jagadeesha = Lord of the universe.

ii. The second part is the middle name, which is complementary to the previous (first) part. This cannot be used separately. So it is not the equivalent of a European surname. It also indicates the sex of the person

iii. The third part consists of one's family name or father's name and is equivalent to the European surname.

B. The names prevailing in the southern parts of India:

E. g. M. N. Balakrishna Rao or M. N. B. Rao.
i ii iii i ii iii

i. The first part consists of the initials, which, when expanded contain the birth place and father's name. E.g. M. N. = Mysore Nagendra.

ii. The second part consists of the first name / christened name of the person.

iii. The third part consists of the family name / surname. E.g. Rao or Sharma.


There is no direct equivalent of Mr. / Mrs. / Miss / Ms. among the Indian names' tradition.

The following list helps in understanding some similarity.

Shri for Mr. E.g. Shri Naresh Kumar Patel. Shri H.V. Bharat Trivedi. Shrimati for Mrs. E.g. Shrimati Nina Devi Sharma.
Sushi or Kumari for Miss E.g. Sushi Sunita Rani Singh Kumari Mona Savant.

Note: "Shri" is also used before a revered thing. E.g. Shri Bhagavadgita.

"Ji" used at the end of any name also denotes respect. E.g. Balramji = Rev. Balram.

In Britain, it has become acceptable to use a title and family name (Surname). E.g. Mr. Patel. Mrs. Sharma.

It is also acceptable to use a title plus the full name. E.g. Mr. Naresh Kumar Patel. Mrs. Brinda Devi Sharma.

When entering an Indian name in records, please use the family-name for Surname, but if refused, use both Personal (First name) and Complementary

(Middle name).

For every day Use: Use the personal name (First name).

VIII. Weddings and Funerals

a. Wedding

Wedding is an auspicious, holy as well as a happy occasion for Hindus. It is a sacrament to mark the sacred contract coming into social recognition between two persons. It is a ceremony celebrated variously according to one's tradition. Arranged marriages by way of introductions through parents are popular among Hindu community but such arranged marriages among Hindus should not be confused with forced marriages which are not condoned in Hinduism. Our arranged marriage paves way to two families to blend.

In Britain, a Hindu marriage takes place before a Registrar but will also include a wedding officiated by a priest. The ceremony taking place in a temple or a hall is attended by large number of invitees. The rituals which last for an hour are highly symbolic containing lot of prayers done through offerings to a holy fire in order to get blessings for a happy, long and fruitful married life.

b. Funerals

The majority of adult Hindus are cremated. Young children and infants are buried. Following a death, the whole family mourns for 10 days. Sometimes the family members and close relatives may not eat until after cremation. Several ceremonies take place at and before the cremation. The eldest son of the deceased has major part to play in them. Before the cremation there are a few rituals to be conducted under the directions of a Hindu priest. Soon after the death, prayers follow throughout the mourning duration of 10 days and again at the crematorium. There is no funeral meal as such. After returning from the crematorium, the family gets busy in the ritual washing, purifying the residence etc. Some time after the cremation, the ashes are collected and scattered in some certain places including rivers or a sea and other holy waters.


I. Holy Days

Major Festivals
HOLI is the festival of colours. To welcome the spring season, people rejoice by throwing colours at one another. (MARCH).

MAHA SHIVARATRI is celebrated to worship Lord Shiva throughout the night (MARCH).

SRI RAMA NAVANI - The festival to worship Lord Rama (MARCH _ APRIL)

RAKHEE or RAKSHA BANDHAN celebrated to commemorate the sacred relationship between brothers and sisters. (AUGUST).

JANMASHTAMI - Celebration of Lord Krishna's birthday (in midnight) AUGUST.

GANESH POOJA - Worship of Lord Ganesh (Aug - Sept).

NAVARATRI - Festival of nine nights to worship Power in order to destroy the evil (OCTOBER).

DIWALI - the festival of lights and welcoming the new year (NOVEMBER).
The exact dates of these days in each year have to be known from genuine sources. Hindu inmates can observe these without disturbing the establishment.

II. Worship

i . Private Worship

This is possible for individuals in cells / rooms within the normal establishment routine.

ii. Corporate Worship

This can be on any day but usually on Sundays. A quiet room set aside is acceptable. The inmate or the visiting minister may wish that the priest be consulted to lead the worship. Ablution facilities available in establishments are normally adequate for ritual washing requirements. (See also "Personal Hygiene")

III. Sacred Writings

Copies of the Bhagavadgita are available from the Chaplain for Hindu inmates' use.

IV. Diet

Many Hindus are strict vegetarians and will not eat meat, fish, eggs or food containing egg. Others may eat meat and fish but not beef and rarely pork.

V. Dress

No special requirement for men. Most women wear a saree or a Salwar kammez. Bindi or a coloured spot is worn on the fore-head by most married women. Jewellery worn by men and women usually has religious or cultural significance. Reference to the Prison Service Chaplaincy should be made before items are removed.

VI. Ministry

Request for a visiting Hindu minister should be made to the local Hindu temple or community or consult Prison Service Chaplaincy.

VII. Aspects of Social Functioning

a. Personal Hygiene
Hindus take particular care over personal washing and most establishments have adequate facilities in the provision of showers.

Most Hindus
i. have a bath every day.
ii. wash their hands before and after eating.
iii. normally eat by hands.
iv. wash themselves with running water after using the lavatory.
If running water is not available in the toilet cubicle, then the inmate may need to carry water in a jug where a bidet is not available.

b. Tobacco and Alcohol

These are generally avoided.

c. Hindu names

To call Hindus by name, please see above.

VIII. Funerals and Weddings

a. Death and Funerals
Breaking the news of a death: The death of a person - whether a member of the family or a distant relative, can have great significance and cause much distress to the bereaved. This should be borne in mind when informing the sad news to, say, a cousin or other relative.

A dying inmate - A devout Hindu who is very ill or dying may wish to lie on the floor (close to the Mother Earth). A dying person may welcome someone to read from any of the holy scripture of Hindus, especially from the Bhagavadgita.
The family involved - The family of a dying inmate should be consulted while determining the obsequies. They may wish to call a Hindu priest to officiate the holy rites. To remove anything from the body before cremation, they should be consulted. Consult the Chaplain or an advisor from local Hindu temple for advice.
Last Offices - Before touching the dead body (for removal etc.), the family should inevitably be consulted. They may not like a non-Hindu touch the body. In the absence of guidance, the following could be done: Do not remove any religious object including jewelry from the dead body. The wrapping sheet should not contain any religious mark. Washing the body is a part of the funeral rite and will be done by relatives or as advised by the Hindu minister.
Cremation - The eldest son of the dead person needs to press the ignition button at the cremation. Hence, where an inmate is the eldest son, he will expect to be in the cremation invariably. Upon his return to prison, he will wish to take a full shower which is a must after taking part in obsequies.

b. Weddings

Registry office wedding will be followed by ceremony in local hall. At any reception, the prison officer is likely to be invited to eat with the party.

Dr H V S Shastry
Scriptures Executive
Hindu Council UK

  • www.hinducounciluk.org
  • D. Further Reading

    Hinduism: The eternal tradition - David Frawley. Pub: Voice of India, 2 / 18, Ansari Road, New Delhi 110 002 INDIA

    Explaining Hindu Dharma: A Guide for teachers - Ed. Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Karam House, 79, Lever Street, Manchester M1 1FL. Tel : 0161 236 8621

    Am I a Hindu? : The Hindu Primer - Ed. Viswanathan. Rupa & Co. 7 / 16, Ansari Road., Daryaganj, New Delhi 110 002 INDIA.

    Bhagavadgita - as it is. Pub: ISKCON, Bhaktivedanta Manor, Dharam Marg, Hilfield Lane, Aldenham, Watford WD2 8EZ. U.K. Tel/Fax:01923 856 269.

    Hindu Dharma: The Universal way of life - Rev. Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, Kanchi, INDIA. For copies, Ring: Bhavan's Bookshop, London, 020 7381 3086

    A Primer of Hinduism - D. S. Sarma. Pub: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 400 007 INDIA.

    Hinduism: Doctrine and way of life - C. Rajaji. Pub: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 400 007 INDIA.

    The book of Hindu Festivals and Ceremonies - Om Lata Bahadur. 475, North Circular Road, Neasden, London NW2 7QG. Tel ; 020 8450 8667

    The Complete works of Swami Vivekananda

    Hindu Sacraments and Samskaras - Ram Pandey. For copies, Ring: Bhavan's Bookshop, London, 020 7381 3086


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