Sources of Authority
The authority of the Hindu religion lies with numerous prophets and saints over the ages. These personalities claim first-hand experience of God or the Spirit. The generic title given to these personalities is rishis (derived from the Sankrit word drish which means to see).
God vision or spiritual experience is the key criterion for becoming a prophet of Hinduism. Authority is not achieved through book learning or intellectual acumen, but only through first-hand experience (Swanubhuti) of God. This distinctive feature of Hinduism allows teaching space to evolve. The message of spirituality can be revived and refreshed in all ages through contemporary personalities. Religious prescriptions are therefore open to revision. Initially the wisdom these enlightened souls offered was passed on orally from one generation to another before being written down. This material forms the basis of scriptures of authority called the Vedas (derived from the Sanskrit word Vid which means to know) the books of knowledge. Even though these texts are excellent depositories of spiritual knowledge they are humble in their claims. One of the key verses declares, ‘None of these scriptures are capable of capturing the spirit.’ There are many modern proponents of Hinduism. At the head of each sectarian movement we hope to find an enlightened personality. Some ancient personalities like Rama or Krishna are difficult to date historically but then Hinduism also has a host of contemporary personalities.
Spiritual teachers are known as Swamis or Gurus. Swami literally means one who has mastered himself thereby gaining spiritual knowledge. He is usually a monk. Guru means one who has the power to remove ignorance. Hindus have the freedom to choose a spiritual guide for themselves. The guide may be ancient or modern, someone who may or may not be the head of a sectarian movement.
Contemporary Gurus or Swamis may impart their knowledge through darshan meaning personal meetings, or through discourses. Spiritual aspirants are advised to follow the dictum of: pranam – exhibiting a reverential attitude towards the teacher, prashna, meaning inquiring through questions, and seva – looking after the teacher. Some teachers are said to come with immense power. They are called jagatguru meaning world teacher. They have the power of infusing spirituality not only in a sectarian setting but on a national or an international scale.
Individuals are given the choice of evaluating who they consider to be an authoritative figure and fit to guide them. Hindu religion recognises that spiritual progress takes place in stages. There is room from the crudest to the most sophisticated approach for spiritual growth. To an extent the individual’s own stage of spiritual growth is revealed by the guru or sectarian movement he or she relates to. Any one approach is not seen as better than another because all these approaches cater for different needs in a spiritually diverse society.