Hinduism Through Its Scriptures – 6: Adhikara and Feminist Narratives

Author: Ananth Sethuraman.


edX is a provider of massive open online courses [Ref 1]. It was founded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One of the courses that edX offers is titled Hinduism Through Its Scriptures [Ref 2]. The course covers some concepts from the angle of Western Indology, rather than the angle of adhyātma.

In this article, we will take up one of these concepts, adhikāra. We will see that the edX course covers adhikāra in a way that is far removed from how adhyātma understands adhikāra.

The Elites


The course contains lines such as these:

“While the ancient texts are considered authoritative and have had enduring cultural influence, they are not read by lay Hindus.”

“The oral narratives for women’s rituals do not have the same prestige or authority as the dharma shastras, but they are more widely engaged with as living texts.”

“Women, to whom the shastras do not give Vedic rites, have long been engaging with religious narratives that give them agency”

And a student wrote in her homework:

“While the Vedas are spiritual, the dharma writings are written by elites and read like a list of rules. I think this type of scripture seeks to control people. I now understand why many people find Hinduism controversial or outdated in practice.”


The excerpts above use the words “authoritative”, “influence”, “lay”, “prestige”, “agency”, “elites” and “control.” From these words, the course teachers must be under the impression that vaidika brāhmaṇ-s are leaders, and other Hindus are followers.

Ādhikāra Comes from Access to Ātman

The fundamental postulate of adhyātma is that there are two kinds of happiness, sukha and ānanda. Indeed, adhyātma is the theory and practice of achieving ānanda [Ref 3, Section “Of Adhyatma”]. The achieving of ānanda is termed as enlightenment, awakening, ātma jñāna, ātma sākṣātkāra, jñānōdaya, etc.

The achieving of ānanda has a connection with the words “I”, “me”, “mine” and “myself”. The usual referents of the words “I”, “me”, “mine” and “myself” [Ref 4] are termed vyāvahārika in Sanskrit and personhood in English. The individual who has achieved ānanda sees that the vyāvahārika referents do not completely capture the meaning of the words “I”, “me”, “mine” and “myself”; therefore another referent must be supplied in order completely to capture the meaning. This other referent, or the paramārthika referent, is variously termed ātman, brahmaṇ, tatva, tēj sthān, emergent property, Consciousness, Awareness, the Self, the Universal Spirit, the ‘I’, etc.

Those who have achieved ānanda are known as jñāni-s, gurus, tatva darṣi-s, r̥ṣi-s, enlightened individuals, etc. When these individuals access ātman, they are in a position to offer leadership to the public, i.e., they have adhikāra. As [Ref 5, p100] puts it, “Core competence is adhyatma-vidya.

The excerpts quoted above contain the phrases “ancient texts”, “oral narratives”, “shastras”, “Vedic rites”, “religious narratives”, and “dharma writings”. All of them are considered to be valid because they came from individuals who were accessing ātman.

One of the excerpts above contains the words “The oral narratives for women’s rituals do not have the same prestige or authority as the dharma shastras …” This cannot be correct. Consider two individuals who were able to access ātman, Meera and Yajnavalkya. Let us also adopt Advaita’s style of discussing ātman. According to Advaita, there is no criterion to individuate the ātman that Meera accessed from the ātman that Yajnavalkya that accessed. (The word advaita means “not two” i.e., “no criterion to individuate.”) There is no criterion to say that Meera had less adhikāra than Yajnavalkya. There is no criterion to say that a narrative or a ritual that Meera gave us is of lesser status than a narrative or ritual that Yajnavalkya gave us. To sum up, it cannot be correct to say, “The oral narratives for women’s rituals do not have the same prestige or authority as the dharma shastras …”

Action Item for Swadeshi Indology

When Swadeshi Indology prepares syllabi on adhyātma, it should observe a precaution. Those who have attained ānanda also operate in a vyāvahārika mode like the rest of us. In the vyāvahārika mode, they say ordinary things, they make category mistakes, they refer to theories that were current in their generation and so on [Ref 6]. Swadeshi Indology should take care to omit what was said in the vyāvahārika mode.

Ananth Sethuraman has degrees from IIT Madras (Chennai) and Iowa State University. He is employed in a number of engineering companies. View More…

References: –

Ref 1: https://www.edx.org

Ref 2: https://www.edx.org/course/hinduism-through-its-scriptures-2

Ref 3: https://www.academia.edu/9462514/What_Do_Indians_Need_a_History_or_the_Past_A_challenge_or_two_to_Indian_historians_Parts_I_and_II

Ref 4: https://www.hipkapi.com/2017/01/10/nirvana-shatakam/

Ref 5: R Malhotra, Being Different, HarperCollins Publishers India, 2011. ISBN 978-93-5116-050-2

Ref 6: https://twitter.com/RajivMessage/status/1044210643333722114

1 thought on “Hinduism Through Its Scriptures – 6: Adhikara and Feminist Narratives”

  1. Namaskaram,

    Sorry for this long comment. I don’t posses any knowledge be it textual or experiential about sanathana dharma. I just wish to put forth my views. Any hurtful or wrong comments are not intentional and I seek apology.

    If Adhikarathvam is tied to Athma Sakshatkaaram, this doesn’t become immediately translatable to practicality. For eg., a brahmana boy is “considered” an adhikari to underego upanayanam and brahmopadhesam. The veda paatam happens to him but not to a girl because she is not “considered” an adhikari by the same people in the sampradhayam. For certain samskarams like upanayanam, chowlam and veda- adhyananam, adhyapakam, bashyam, prayogam, agni karyam, the women are forbidden (though not technically for bashyam) the adhikarathvam to women on these matters are not decided based whether they have athma sakshatkaram or not. Neither a boy is tested if he has attained the athma gyanam before imparting veda paatam. Hence atham dharshanam or atham gyanam or athma sakshatkaaram does not translate to or is pre requisite for performing a samskaram.

    Adhyathma vidhya per se doesn’t carry any adhikarathvam. Every athma is an adhikari, for the athma has to attain moksham for which athma gyanam is the only and all required, and the only possible route. Impediments to experience the brahmanandham and athma shukam are to be transcended after carefully understanding what each one of us face as impediments. Also at vyavaharika/ praakrutha level certain activities “has to” happen without fail. For eg., agriculture- although we will shed our body one day and realise the ‘I’ is athma and not body, still, until the athma resides inside the prakrutham vishyama called body the body needs to be nourished and taken care for which food, production of which is facilitated by a “job” called agriculture. Here the question would be, who is more competent to do this job- here comes adhikaram. Chanting of veda mantram is a necessity since the vibrations brings the necessary good and perpetuate the knowledge base- so if done by whom will this job be effective and optimum- here comes adhikara.

    Where the disucssion on who can do more effectively slowly evolves into a question of who has the right. Or the understanding that so and so prakrutha shareeram are created with so and so capabilities will drive the decision to say these are the set of people who have the ability to do these tasks perfectly and effectively. It also takes into account what effects each job/karma has on the shareeram- that which is least affecting will be most suited. This is more important since it gets connected with one’s swabhavam and vaasana. Hence those karma that are in consonance with one’s swabhavam will be preferable and gives optimum results. For eg., if a person of sathivic/compassionate swabhava is given a karma of being a judge she/he may not impartially give justice. Whereas ones with objective analysis and clear understanding of punishments and reforms that it bears on the society and it’s orderliness, do the karma of a judge will do it with ease and a sense of satisfaction. The sathvic person may do a karma of paropakaaram i.e., service to others. this keeps her/him at ease and gives a satisfaction. These respective karma gives one peace of mind since each believes what they do is as per dharma a sense of offering and responsibility and their chittam becomes more clear and satisfied. Chittha shuddhi is thus facilitated. Chittha Shuddhi, Indirya Nigraham are most essential factors or means that facilitate both mumukshus and jignyasis for knowling about moksham. Also this eliminates the conflicts between one’s nature and one’s actions. Also this ensures one doesn’t end up being effected by the karma too much or resent over it.

    As per the prakrutha svabhavam, vasana, and deha and bhuddhi shakthi, each athma that resides in respective bodies can take up the duty what it can perform, the activities that keep the world going on, and fulfil the responsibilities. At the same time ensuring each do things that we are best at. Valuing each such contribution- kruthangyatha is very important.

    I’m no one to say if women should or should not directly learn vedas and decide does it correspond to their nature or not. Whether they learn or not is not and cannot be my concern. I can only learn further on this and understand the subject better. But I’m of the firm belief that if women get sakshatkaaram it does hitham to lokam and no only to that athma. We may need more and more of women vedanthis and their guidance for our ujjivanam.

    Streeyaha Akila Dharmasya Moolam
    Vandhe JaganMaatharam

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