Sources of authority within the Hindu tradition, and their impact on wider society
There is no one central authority that can speak to or for all Hindus, either within the tradition or on behalf of the tradition to the wider world. However, various kinds and levels of authority are possessed by sacred texts – for details see Sacred texts.
There are also a number of categories of people who have authority within the tradition. The rishis (seers/sages) who ‘saw’ the Vedas are an ancient example. Brahmins (priests) traditionally situated at the apex of the varna (class) hierarchy, held religious authority from ancient times, and remain those who have expertise in both rituals and the relevant sacred texts. They also historically had a major responsibility for upholding dharma (duty, righteousness), including social relationships such as the proper conduct of the classes and the proper relationship between the priests as religious specialists and the warriors as rulers. This association with dharma still remains though centuries of social and political change have affected their status and role. Pandits (scholars), usually also a role of the Brahmin class, have the authority of expertise in sacred texts and traditional learning. The role of the guru, or teacher, was in Vedic times the person who passed on orally the sacred knowledge to young men of the top three classes. Now gurus are important in sampradayas (strands or ‘sects’ of Hinduism) where authority is passed through lineages of teachers starting with the person who founded the particular group. Gurus are often also swamis, someone who is considered to have reached direct experience of the divine, and therefore have authority to teach others, examples being Swami Vivekananda or Swami Narayan. Gurus are likely to be – but are not always – samnyasis or renouncers, and there are female as well as male gurus in some groups. Some renouncers live in monastic communities or ashrams, others live alone.
Shankaracharyas, leaders of the four orders of monastics founded by Shankara, are today often thought of as able to speak on behalf of orthodoxy, in so far as anyone can, and may speak out on controversial social and political issues. One example is the Roop Kanwar case in 1987 on which the Shankaracarya of Puri commented. Roop Kanwar became sati (technically an act of self-immolation illegal since 1829) and her death provoked a storm of protest from women’s groups alleging murder and equally forthright defences of a loving wife’s final act of faithfulness. The Shankaracharya was among those religious leaders who insisted that the act was sanctioned by sacred texts and was thus accused by his critics of glorifying sati which had become a criminal offence in the wake of Roop Kanwar’s death.
Acharya is another word meaning teacher, and it is often synonymous with ‘guru’, but tends to emphasise the subject expertise of the teacher rather than the relationship between student and teacher. Other religious specialists who are consulted regularly on various matters are jyotishis (astrologers) who are asked to prepare horoscopes for new-born children or people considering marriage and advise on the most propitious occasions for launching a new business or important initiative.