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Pronounced “VA-sock-ee.” The most important Sikh holiday, celebrated annually in mid-April. Originally a harvest festival celebrating the first wheat crop in the growing season and still celebrated as such in North India, Sikhs commemorate the Vaisakhi of 1699, when Guru Gobind Singh established the amrit sanchar ceremony and the Khalsa. See amrit sanchar and Khalsa.

Filed in Sikhism


Pronounced “vuh-jruh-YAA-nah.” Considered the third major tradition or “vehicle” of Buddhism, after Mahayana and Theravada. It is also called Tibetan Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism or Tantric Buddhism (its scriptures are called tantras). Vajrayana literally means “diamond vehicle.” It developed from Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia. Vajrayana Buddhists emphasize the use of ritual, meditative practices, mantras, mudras (symbolic gestures) and mandalas (symbolic diagrams in the form of a circle). Schools of Tibetan Buddhism include Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelugpa, the order to which the dalai lamas belong. See Buddhism.

Filed in Buddhism


Pronounced “VARN-ah.” Varna refers to the four broad groups that make up the caste system in traditional Indian society. They consisted of the Brahman (scholars, teachers, doctors and priests), Kshatriya (warriors, rulers and lawmakers), Vaishya (business people, traders, farmers, and artisans), and Shudra (servants, menial laborers). Later, a fifth varna was created, into which people who performed tasks considered “polluting” in a physical or spiritual sense were placed. Members of this new group were called “untouchables” in English. See caste system.

Filed in Hinduism

Vatican bank

Do not capitalize bank. The formal name is actually the Institute for Religious Works, or IOR, for Istituto per le Opere di Religione.

Filed in Catholicism

Vatican II

The common name for the Second Vatican Council, a council of all the world’s bishops opened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965. Vatican II ushered in major reforms in the Roman Catholic Church, such as changes in biblical studies, and encouraged bishops and clergy to deal with the challenges of the modern world. It also recognized the importance of the laity in the church and signaled a greater openness to other Christians and non-Christians, including a reconsideration of the church’s attitude toward Judaism. Popularly, Vatican II is perhaps best-known for leading to the saying of Mass in the vernacular, rather than exclusively in Latin. Councils are infrequent — the previous council was Vatican I (1869-70) — and are convened in times of crisis or to resolve especially difficult questions. There is some debate as to whether a council wields greater authority than the pope.

Filed in Catholicism

Vatican, Vatican City

The pope and his administrative clergy live in this 108-acre city-state that is the temporal headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican City is an independent state in the center of Rome. The cathedral of the pope — the bishop of Rome — is the Basilica of St. John Lateran on the other side of Rome. In recent centuries popes have resided more often at the Vatican, which is built around St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter’s Basilica sits above the tomb where the remains of St. Peter, who Catholic tradition regards as the first pope and bishop of Rome, are believed to rest.

The popes were for centuries temporal rulers of a large swath of central Italy. But when Italy was united as a single nation in 1860, the Papal States became part of the new secular government, and the pope’s kingdom was reduced to the city of Rome. In 1870 Italian troops defeated the last papal forces and took Rome as the nation’s capital. The pope refused to recognize the new situation and became a self-declared “prisoner of the Vatican” until 1929, when the Vatican and the government of Benito Mussolini resolved the impasse in a concordat. The Vatican was given a sum of money as compensation for the confiscation of its holdings, and Vatican City was recognized as a legal governing entity. Popes were also allowed to travel outside the Vatican’s confines.

The Vatican has its own flag, coins, postage stamps, media, train station and police, as well as the ceremonial troops known as the Swiss Guard. Vatican City includes St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo, the Vatican Museums and other priceless works of art. Vatican City stands alone in datelines.

Filed in Catholicism


Pronounced “VEH-daas.” Hinduism’s most ancient scriptures. There are four: Rig Veda, Atharva Veda, Sama Veda and Yajur Veda. The Vedas include more than 100,000 verses and additional prose. The term Veda stems from a Sanskrit word meaning knowledge. Many Hindus believe that the Vedas were revealed by God and/or realized by ancient sages.

Filed in Hinduism


Ordained monks and nuns in Theravada Buddhism are given the honorific Venerable before their names. In Roman Catholicism, the term is applied posthumously when a pope has approved the first stage in a person’s official cause for canonization, as in Venerable Fulton Sheen.  Also, in the Episcopal Church, archdeacons are addressed with the honorific the Venerable, as in the Venerable Jill Smith. See religious titles.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Buddhism, Catholicism


An evening prayer or worship service in some Christian churches. According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the term is often capitalized. In some churches, the service is also known as Evensong.

Filed in Christianity


Pronounced “vih-PAHS-suh-nah.” In Theravada Buddhism, a profound, nonjudgmental self-awareness practiced in meditation. Often called insight meditation.

Filed in Buddhism

Virgin Birth

The Christian belief that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. It should not be confused with the Immaculate Conception, which is a Catholic dogma that the Virgin Mary was conceived free from original sin.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy

Virgin Mary

The mother of Jesus Christ. See Mary, Mother of Jesus.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Orthodoxy


Pronounced “VISH-noo.” In Hinduism, the name used when God’s role as preserver is emphasized. Shiva is the name used when the emphasis is on God’s role as lord of time and change. Brahma is the name used for God when God’s role as creator of the universe is described. The divine is always understood to be one. For most Hindus, Vishnu is either equated with or a manifestation of Brahman. Vishnu has many avatars or incarnations, the best-known of which are Ram, Krishna and the Buddha. His consort is Lakshmi.

Filed in Buddhism, Hinduism


A religious tradition born in West Africa that is derived from animism, ancestor worship and polytheism. Slaves brought from West Africa transplanted Vodou to the New World. As practiced in the Caribbean and areas along the U.S. Gulf Coast, Vodou merged West African traditions with Roman Catholic beliefs, adding saints to rituals. The term Vodou, which should always be capitalized, is the acceptable spelling in academic circles and the Haitian community. Other common spellings include Vodun, Voodoo and voodoo, but generic uses of “voodoo” can be offensive to those who practice the religion. Avoid using phrases such as “voodoo economics,” except in direct quotes. The Associated Press Stylebook continues to use Voodoo.

Filed in Other faiths, Vodun

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