There is an important Sanskrit term that will help us better understand Hinduism, or any other religion. It is adhikara, which means “authority” and “ownership.” A 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. That person 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 receives will therefore be different from the information and experiments 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 the 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 the devotee 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 that person will loose everything in this world and go to hellish situation. I am simplifying things somewhat, but that is the gist of the story. I recently performed this puja 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. In fact this young girl was not the intended audience for the Satya Narayana puja and so she was reacting to the story from a different level of adhikara. Therefore, knowing the adhikara of your audience is an essence piece of information.