There is an important Sanskrit term that will help us better understand
Hinduism, or any other religion. It is adhikara, which literally means "authority and
person in an advanced chemistry class, for example, who has taken
previous chemistry courses has the adhikara to
be in the advanced class. That person is qualified to be in the advanced
class. Someone who has not taken chemistry before has no adhikara to
be in a graduate class. We could translate adhikara as
"qualification," which is implied, but more than qualification,
the term suggests ownership. This means, in the case of chemistry for example,
that the person at the advanced level has the right to interpret,
apply and teach chemistry. He is an "owner" of that body of
knowledge and consequently has a right to that knowledge.
A person in an elementary class of chemistry has no adhikara for
the body of advanced chemical knowledge. Such a person has
no right to teach and apply the knowledge of chemistry. The
kinds of information and experiments a beginner will receive
will therefore be different from the activities of the advanced
graduate. Their adhikaras are different and
therefore their activities and rights are different. This
is what is meant by the word adhikara.
From a Hindu perspective, life is a great evolution taking place over many lifetimes, even through many species of life! We can say the world is a school and each lifetime is a classroom. Some of us are in elementary grades, others are in middle grades, and some are in advanced grades. And like students of chemistry, every person has a particular adhikara over a certain level of spiritual development. Students in elementary grades see the world in a certain way and must be taught in a certain way. Students at an advanced level need to be approached in an appropriate way to suit their positions. The different adhikaras have different perceptions and spiritual rights. The idea of adhikara and spiritual evolution becomes a powerful tool in understanding spirituality, especially for religious teachers and priests. A temple priest in particular must deal with all varieties of adhikara, from the most advanced to the most elementary, and so having an understanding of adhikara will greatly help that priest minister to the needs of the congregation.
Here is a simple example. There is a common puja that temple priests perform called
the Satya Narayana Puja, which includes a story (katha)
that is read after the completion of certain religious rituals.
In essence the story teaches that if one is pious and religious
he will be rewarded with material rewards in this life and then will achieve moksha at the end of life. And if one is not pious he will loose
everything in this world and go to hell. I am simplifying
things somewhat, but that is the gist of the story. I recently
performed this puja and katha and
afterwards was approached by a Western born Hindu girl of
about 16 years of age. She was upset and confused why God
would be so vindictive and cruel. To her the story seemed
juvenile and God seemed out of character. To answer her concerns,
I explained that all religions have stories that teach reward
and punishment for pious or impious actions. I call this carrot and stick philosophy
and I explained how a parent might promise a reward for good
grades at school or threaten punishment for poor grades. "But
this is how parents may treat a 6 or 7 year old child!" she
replied. "Yes, exactly," I
stated. "So the story of Satya Narayana is for children?" I
would not say children, but for people of a certain stage
of spiritual advancement. I explained the concept of adhikara and
how there are different stories and religious approaches for
the various levels of religious adhikaras.
Perhaps this young girl was not the intended audience for the Satya Narayana
Katha and therefore she was reacting to the story from a different
level of adhikara.