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 I now understand why many people find Hinduism controversial or outdated in practice.”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

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