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A Comparative Look at the Issue of Authority  

In this article Prof. Thomas J. Hopkins presents a broad historical view of issues of scriptural and institutional authority. He compares these issues as they appear in the main Abrahamic religions with their counterparts in Hinduism, and specifically how they affect ISKCON. We are taken on a tour of the development of Christianity, Islam and Judaism and shown how these developments are informed and moulded by debate over where authority lies. These developments are then compared to developments in Hinduism. These are issues that will confront ISKCON, and history may contain some useful lessons for our own development.

The issue of authority is as old as human culture. Every human institution poses the question of how order will be maintained, and no institution or social group - including ISKCON - can survive over time without resolving this question in some way. Who should be in charge? What directions or standards should be followed? How are these issues to be decided? To what extent should the present community and its institutions be influenced by people, ideas, or arrangements from the past? How can the community decide when change is needed and when it should be resisted? How can the transition from past to future be negotiated in the constantly moving present, and what should guide this process? How can order and freedom be balanced within the chosen system of authority, and what values influence this balance?

Origins

The need for authority can be traced back to the central reality of human life, the relationship of parents and children. We all enter the world as helpless infants, dependent on our parents for life itself. Our first experience of authority is thus very personal and largely informal; authority is implicit in family relationships and defined by habit, tradition, and the dynamics of daily interactions. This pattern continues through years of childcare, during which we are socialised and acculturated first to the family unit and then to the surrounding society. In the course of this process, however, the innate authority of the family is gradually superseded by that of larger social units with more formal and explicit claims to authority. Authority then becomes an issue, because the new forms of authority are no longer based on the natural relationships within a family but on a variety of external social conditions. Biology, we might say, gives way at this point to cultural history.

In the early stages of human culture the largest social units were usually clans or tribes, which still preserved a 'family' sense of biological connection. As societies became more complex, more diverse, and more stratified, however, social order and cohesion required new forms of authority that transcended biological ties. Whatever form such 'higher' authority took, it was necessarily less innate than family structures of authority and had to depend on different criteria to legitimise it. This stage of development was reached at different times in different places; both the forms of authority and the asserted grounds for their ­legitimisation therefore became as diverse as the purposes they served and the cultures in which they appeared. Political, social, economic, and religious authority took different forms to suit these various spheres of activity, and the legitimisation for each was suitably different. Thus, over time, we see the emergence of culturally different political systems, laws, social and economic rules, and religious teachings that define authority within each sphere.

This stage of development has typically been reached at different times for different spheres of activity even within the same cultural tradition, and different cultural traditions differ even more from each other in how and when they define the various forms of authority. Moreover, even when authority has been defined within each sphere, this is not the end of the process. Political authority even within a well-defined system is always subject to competing forces; laws must be constantly changed or supplemented; social and economic rules must be revised to fit new circumstances; and religious teachings must always be interpreted anew to meet the needs of each new time and place. Having clearly defined sources and statements of authority helps in each of these spheres, but does not guarantee finality. However legitimate authority may be, each new community and each new generation must re-examine its claims and accept its terms in its own unique way.

Conflicts of authority within religious traditions

The need for communities and new generations to re-examine their claims of authority is certainly no less true of religious authority than of any other, despite the typical claims of legitimisation at the highest level. Even setting aside the conflicting claims between religious traditions, no historical tradition has lasted for long without internal conflicts over its own sources of authority. What are the legitimate sources of authority, and what legitimises them? What priority should each have? How - and by whom - should disputes over priority be resolved? How should the sources of authority be understood, and who has the right to interpret them? How should the accepted authority be applied within the religious community, on what grounds, and by whom? Can earlier decisions on these issues be changed, and if so, how and by whom?

ISKCON has had to face many of these issues in the years since Prabhupada's passing away in 1977. Prabhupada may have had to deal with similar questions when he was starting ISKCON, but during his lifetime he himself was seen as the source of authority for his followers. Very few of the movement's early members knew about the tradition of Bengal Vaisnavism that formed the background for Prabhupada's devotional life and teachings, and even fewer knew about the work of Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati that led Prabhupada's mission to the West. All of this background was channelled into ISKCON through Prabhupada, and he was the one who had to select and present the received authorities to Westerners through English translations of Bengali and Sanskrit sources and through commentaries and teachings that made these sources meaningful to those who had no prior knowledge of their origins or contents. It was thus only after Prabhupada passed away that his disciples had to face the problems of authority directly for themselves and sort out the tangled web of texts, organisations, and teachers on which Prabhupada had drawn for his own authoritative leadership.

These questions about authority are familiar not just because they are relevant to ISKCON but because they are almost universal in the major world religions and are central in religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, that claim divine revelation as their foundation. Judaism, for example, considers the Hebrew Scriptures to have been revealed by God, but these scriptures also reflect the historic tension within the Jewish community between the authoritative roles of priests, prophets, and rabbis. Priests emphasised the ritual texts that governed their sphere of activity, while the texts produced by prophets often criticised priests for putting ritual ahead of morality and justice. This tension was only resolved after the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE (which made the temple priests irrelevant) and the rise of the Christian Roman Empire (which made the role of prophets irrelevant among a largely Diaspora Jewish community). By that time, however, religious authority had shifted to the rabbis who interpreted Jewish Law on a local basis.

The ultimate authority for the rabbis remained the Hebrew Scriptures - especially the first five books known as Torah - but application of their laws to changing social conditions required new interpretations of Scripture. Eventually, these interpretations were brought together in what became known as the Talmud, a massive collection of rabbinic commentaries and discussions of religious law that define what we know as Rabbinic Judaism (or simply 'Judaism,' since no other form now exists). The Hebrew Scriptures formed the core of the Talmudic texts, but over time the scriptures themselves became less influential than the Talmudic texts on which later rabbinic authority is largely based. In more recent centuries, rabbinic authority itself has been differently understood in the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed versions of Rabbinic Judaism, especially with regard to how traditional Jewish laws apply to modern culture. The result is conflict not only over which texts have authority but whose interpretations should be followed in applying them.

Islam has gone through a similar struggle with problems of authority. All Muslims believe that Allah conveyed the Koran to Muhammad in a series of revelations, that ­Muhammad transmitted them to his followers in Arabic, and that the Koran is the verbatim record of these revelations. Some or all of the revelations may have been written down at the time (though not by Muhammad), but they were also memorised and organised in their present form during or soon after Muhammad's lifetime. The resulting text consists of individual revelations in Arabic arranged in order of decreasing length to aid memorisation, and it is this Arabic text alone that has final authority as the Word of Allah.

Muhammad, however, was not just the one to whom Allah's words were revealed; he was also the political and legal authority for the new Muslim community. He directed the campaigns by which his followers gained control of Arabia and the surrounding areas, and he adjudicated disputes within the Islamic community at every level from personal and family concerns to affairs of state. It was thus not only the revealed words of Allah that had authority for his followers but also the example of Muhammad's own actions and judgements during the years of his leadership. Like the revelations he received, what he did and said on specific occasions was remembered by those directly involved and became part of his permanent legacy.

When Muhammad died, the immediate problem for his successors was to collect both his revelations and the reports of his deeds and sayings in the most accurate form possible. The latter had seldom been written down, so a system had to be set up to assess the circumstances under which they occurred and the reliability of those who claimed to have received and remembered them. These remembered examples were in time codified as what was called Hadith, reports of Muhammad's teaching and conduct as certified by the authority of their transmitters. Within a few centuries of Muhammad's death, there were six authoritative collections of Hadith recognised by the Sunni ('mainstream') Muslim community and another adopted by the rival Shiite community that gave special authority to the Shiite imams, their distinctive spiritual leaders. Different schools of law developed around these collections, each attempting in its own way to determine the relevant authority of the Koran, the Hadith collections, and local practices to create normative community standards.

It was not only Muhammad's moral and legal guidance that had to be maintained when he died, however, but also his political leadership. From the moment of his death onward, there were questions about who should be his Caliph or 'Successor' and what standards should be used to select him. Should he be chosen on the basis of his relationship to ­Muhammad, his spiritual character, his political/military skills, or his membership in a particular family or community? Should there be one Caliph to rule over all Muslims, or should leadership be more decentralised and based on more regional or cultural factors? These issues surfaced in various forms in almost every generation, and a major conflict over succession eventually split the Muslim community into the rival Sunni and Shiite branches. This split did not resolve other problems, however, and disputes about the authority of different Hadith collections, legal schools, and leadership principles continue to generate factional conflicts within each branch.

Authority in Christianity

It is fair to say from this brief overview that issues of authority have had significant influences on both Judaism and Islam from their origins to the present. By contrast, however, the problems of authority in these two traditions are minimal compared to the struggles over authority within Christianity. Both the letters of Paul the Apostle (the earliest Christian writings) and the four Gospels (the next oldest) indicate that issues of authority began during the ministry of Jesus and became critical during the first few generations after his death. The first and most basic question was whether Jesus was the predicted Messiah (in Greek, the Christ or 'Anointed One'). If he was the Messiah/Christ, he had great authority; if he was not, then it was not clear what authority he might have as a simple itinerant teacher. This question was not resolved for his followers until after his death, when his resurrection and appearance to his disciples proved to them that he was in fact the one anointed by God to bring a new message of salvation.

But what was this message, this 'Good News' (Gospel) of salvation brought by Jesus? Jesus' teachings over a period of several years were remembered by his disciples, but the authority of the teachings depended on the authority of Jesus as the Risen Christ. How was this authority to be understood, and how did the message of this Jewish teacher relate to earlier Jewish scriptures whose authority he accepted? Even more critically, to whom did the Gospel apply? Was it intended only for Jews, who made up his initial following, or did it apply also to Gentiles, non-Jews, who were the main population of the Roman Empire and whose political rule covered even the Jewish homeland in Judea and its capital Jerusalem?

From the beginning, there was tension within the new Christian community between those who wanted to maintain Jewish identity and practices (the so-called 'Judaisers') and those, like Paul, who wanted to include Gentiles within the Christian community and make Jewish practices optional. This issue was effectively resolved in 70 CE, a few years after Paul's death, when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem - an event that ended the authoritative role of temple priests in Jewish life and greatly diminished the importance of Jerusalem for both Jews and Christians. Rabbinic Judaism and its synagogues remained alive and well in other parts of the Roman Empire, but the appeal of the early 'Judaisers' rapidly declined, and Christianity soon became a predominantly Gentile religion co-existing with Diaspora Judaism and Roman paganism. Christians still relied on the Hebrew Scriptures as their only authoritative scriptures, however, and did not agree on the contents of their own distinctive scriptural authority (the New Testament) until after Constantine had adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century CE.

Struggles over several different kinds of authority characterised these early Christian centuries. How authoritative should Jewish practices be for Christians? What was the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures, and how did their authority relate to that of the new specifically Christian scriptures? How should Christians relate to the classical Greek culture that characterised the eastern regions of the Roman Empire? Which of the existing Christian writings (all in Greek) should be given canonical authority, and whose authority should decide this? What authority should Christians grant to the Roman Empire, and what authority must they reserve for themselves in order to be true to their faith? What essential beliefs and practices defined who was a Christian, and on whose authority was this to be decided?

Debates over these issues turned into power struggles between Christian churches and communities in different parts of the Mediterranean world. Official recognition of the Church in the fourth century CE led imperial authorities to intervene in these disputes with a series of Church councils that brought charges of heresy against several Christian communities and their churches, blurring the lines between political and religious authority and creating tensions between the Western (Latin) and Eastern (Greek) churches. These tensions were further increased by a series of conflicts over a period of several centuries between the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) and the patriarchs of the Greek-language churches in the eastern ­Mediterranean - conflicts which came to a head in 1054 CE when the Patriarch of Constantinople was commanded to acknowledge the papacy in Rome as the supreme church authority. When the patriarch refused and negotiations failed, the eastern churches were excommunicated by Rome and in turn declared themselves and their Eastern Orthodox tradition independent of the Roman papacy.

By this point in Christian history, at the start of the second millennium CE, many different forms of Christianity had evolved from the early community of Jewish disciples who followed Jesus. An originally Jewish movement had moved outward into the Gentile world of the Roman Empire, created its own scriptural canon in Greek, and spread from the eastern Mediterranean region westward into Latin Europe, southward into Egypt and North Africa, eastward into Asia as far as India and China, and northward into Eastern Europe. Each development had brought changes, some creating conflicts with other branches, and each set of new conditions created a need for new policies, theologies, and institutions. Issues of authority figured in every stage of this process: the authority of Jesus as a teacher, the continuing authority of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish law, the authority of the Risen Christ as a Saviour, the authority of Apostles such as Peter and Paul, the individual and collective authority of the New Testament scriptures, the authority of the early Greek and Latin Church Fathers, the authority of church leaders such as the patriarchs and the Pope, the relative authority of Church and Empire, etc.

What Christianity meant to any given individual at this point thus depended on how all of these authorities were understood and accepted or rejected by his or her branch of the Christian tradition, by the relevant local church leaders, and by himself or herself. Some of the possible meanings were unacceptable to those who relied on different authorities, so Christianity as a whole contained mutually incompatible parts. The Nestorian, Coptic, and Syrian Orthodox churches were declared heretical by fifth century imperial church councils and remained as 'Separated' churches outside the authority of both Eastern Orthodox patriarchs and the Roman Pope. The latter two authorities were then themselves made mutually exclusive by the events of 1054 and remained separate from that point on. A thousand years from its origins, Christianity clearly was a different thing for members of each of these churches even though they accepted many of the same authorities. As in many basic conflicts, it was the relatively few things that they did not agree on that split them apart and led them to argue over the meaning of even those authorities they held in common, most notably Jesus Christ and the New Testament scriptures.

The Protestant Reformation

Christianity was not yet finished with its splits by the early second millennium, however. Most of the divisions so far had taken place within the eastern regions of the Church, culminating in the split between the papal authority in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Papal authority and Roman Christianity were at that point still supreme in the western ­Mediterranean regions and had expanded to include all of Western Europe, inspiring and in turn benefiting from the great European intellectual and cultural Renaissance in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By the sixteenth century, however, large-scale political and economic changes and new religious ideas were sparking challenges to papal authority and prompting calls for church reform. These trends finally reached fruition during the first half of the century in what is called the Protestant Reformation, a series of regional religious movements in Western Europe that had in common mainly their concern to free Christian faith and practice from the control of papal and priestly authority.

Like the earlier conflicts and splits within Christianity, the Protestant Reformation had deep-seated roots and far-reaching consequences that cannot be explored here in any detail. All of the numerous protest and reform movements that made up the Reformation, however, had grievances against both papal authority and many of the institutions and practices of the Church that rested on that authority. Luther and Calvin, the most influential Reformers, challenged papal authority with the authority of the Scriptures, the 'word of God,' and argued that a faithful Church should not teach, legislate, or institutionalise anything not contained in the Scriptures and thereby sanctioned as God's will. Salvation in their view could never be conveyed by human institutions or rituals but only by God's grace administered by the Holy Spirit, and it is granted not on the basis of human works but to those who have faith. Neither the Pope nor priests therefore have the power either to grant salvation or to withhold it, because salvation is a gift of God given directly to all who have faith in Him.

Luther, Calvin, and other Reformation leaders did not initially seek separation from the Roman (or, as it came to call itself, the Roman Catholic) Church. Their challenges and protests, however, involved issues that could not be resolved without an agreement on papal authority - and this in the long run proved impossible. The result was the gradual emergence of a variety of so-called Protestant churches out from under the jurisdiction of the Pope and the Church of Rome - churches that often did not agree among themselves on many matters beyond their rejection of papal authority. The Reformation thus gave rise not to a unified Protestant Church but to many separate forms of Protestant Christianity that were often in conflict with each other as well as with Roman Catholicism and that have, over the past few centuries, continued both to divide into new denominations and recombine into new Protestant churches.

One need not follow the tangled web of Protestant history in detail to recognise the effects of rejecting papal authority in favour of Scripture and personal faith. The Roman Catholic Church by the sixteenth century was a highly centralised religious institution in which authority radiated outward from the Pope through the ordained celibate priesthood and monastic orders (collectively called 'the religious') to ordinary laypersons by means of rituals, preaching, and the teachings of the Church. The version of the Bible used in the Roman Church was the Latin Vulgate, a fourth-century translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New ­Testament that was inaccessible to most laypersons both because of its language and because it existed only in the form of hand-copied manuscripts in Church libraries. What laypersons knew of the Scriptures was thus necessarily second-hand, mediated to them by the priests in rituals and sermons or interpreted for them by Church teachings.

All of this was turned on its head by the Protestant Reformation, beginning with the work of Martin Luther in Germany. For Luther, Scripture as the revelation of God's Word was the sole authority for the Church and for the individual Christian. There was no exclusive papal right to interpret the Scriptures as claimed by the Roman Church, and no need for priests to mediate Scripture to laypersons. Every Christian believer was in fact a priest by virtue of baptism, and this 'priesthood of all believers' made it possible for each believer to appropriate the Scriptures directly without the intervention of papal authority - a task that Luther made simpler by translating the New Testament from Greek into idiomatic German and publishing it for a mass readership by means of the recently invented printing press. Furthermore, if laypersons were priests, then there was no reason for a celibate clergy (an argument that Luther manifested in his own life by marrying a former nun) and the life and work of laypersons should be given the same respect as that of clergy, monks, and nuns whom the Church had formerly labelled 'the religious' in contrast to laypersons. Since salv­ation is by faith, and faith is an individual matter, there is no privileged class with special authority to mediate God's grace and grant salvation to others.

While various Reformers disagreed with some of Luther's positions on other matters, all of them basically accepted these fundamental principles. All gave primary authority to the Scriptures, all rejected required celibacy for the clergy, all insisted on the importance of marriage and the dignity of lay life and lay occupations, and all believed in salvation of the individual believer by faith. Access to the Scriptures and study of the Scriptures thus became essential concerns of the Protestant churches, married clergy became the norm, and there was substantial lay involvement in activities such as preaching, teaching, and church management that the Roman Church reserved for the celibate clergy. Protestant churches continued to ordain clergy, but ordination was seen not as entry into a priestly role dependent on papal authority but as a commission to perform special duties prescribed by Scripture on behalf of the ordaining church. Across the many differences that separated Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists - to name only the three largest early Protestant divisions - these features as well as the common rejection of papal authority came to define ­Protestantism as a distinctive branch of the Christian tradition alongside the older Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

How could such a variety of churches come forth from the simple early Christian community in Judea? Or, to put it another way, how could accepting Jesus as the Messiah/Christ and Saviour have so many different results? If we look only at the beginning and the end points, it is hard to see how all of the latter can connect to the single starting point. If we start at the beginning and go forward step by step, however, we can see that the gradual branching out into different churches was the product of a series of decisions made at critical junctures, most of them involving conflicts over authority. In most cases, moreover, those who made these decisions - on both sides of the conflict - believed that they were preserving the original or true tradition against threats to important Christian principles.

This was certainly the case in the early Church Councils, where the churches that were soon to be 'Separated' defended the authority of their patriarchs and their theological principles against the victorious parties and continued to defend them even after being excluded from the mainstream Church - a Church that was 'mainstream' because it was victorious in the councils and received both imperial and papal backing. The same was also true when the Eastern Orthodox churches rejected what they considered an illegitimate claim to supreme authority by the Pope and the Roman Church and were excommunicated because the Pope believed that they were refusing an authority sanctioned by Christ through the Apostle Peter. Finally, some four and a half centuries later, that same papal authority was challenged by the Protestant reformers in a conflict that led to the last major split in the Christian Church, leaving in place a series of conflicts over authority within the Church as a whole that have still not been resolved even today.

It should be noted that not all of these conflicts and splits have been of the same kind. Before the Reformation, the major conflicts were between established churches whose patriarchs or bishops claimed authority for their current institutional doctrines and practices. The Protestant churches, however, introduced a new element - appeal to the authority of ­Scripture alone - that gave the scriptural canon of the early Church greater authority than the institutions and leadership of the later Church. This authority, moreover, was not reserved for the hierarchy of the church or even for the clergy at large; it was in principle in the hands of all of the members, clergy and lay alike, through their direct access to the Scriptures. Unlike the earlier Orthodox and Roman churches, the Protestant churches were therefore inherently decentralised in terms of institutional authority. They were also inherently unstable, because every church's authority at any time could be challenged by appeals to Scripture and the standards of the early Church. Later Protestant history shows this in the numerous divisions and transformations of the original Reformation churches, a process that might be considered - and by Protestants, with pride - as a continual Reformation that remains true to the authority of Scripture over against that of institutions.

It is clear that the Protestant type of authority does not give precedence to institutional order or church hierarchies, but tries to return to the authority of revelation as mediated through Scripture and embodied in the diverse forms of the early Church. Diversity is the key factor here, because the Scriptures and the forms and institutions of the early Church are quite diverse and allow for multiple interpretations. Order and hierarchy depend on reducing diversity and ambiguity in favour of narrower 'official' interpretations and clear priorities. The Protestant churches' strategy, if we may call it that, is to seek authority in a time before the Church developed its centralised order and locate that authority in texts and churches diverse enough to allow for new interpretations and new priorities. Later institutions filtered out much of the rich content of these sources when they tried to systematise them, but removing the filters - so Protestants believe - will help recover the full meaning of the divine revelation and the initial human responses to it. Given these assumptions, it is not surprising that Protestants have led the way in historical studies of the early Church and in Biblical criticism - i.e., in careful evaluations of the earliest sources of authority to give their faith the most accurate foundation possible.

Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions

Authority, as we can see from these examples, has many forms and has played many different roles in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It is evident, moreover, that authority does not appear in the abstract; it always appears in a particular context with a specific identity and form. Jews find it in Torah and rabbinic teachings, and at times grant it to specific individuals, but what is authority for some Jews may not be authority for others. Muslims in general locate authority in the Koran and in the teachings and sayings of Muhammad, but only some Muslims grant authority to specific schools of law and only specific branches of Shiite Islam acknowledge the authority of certain imams such as the Iranian ayatollahs or the Agha Khan. There is even more variation within Christianity, because the process of division began earlier and the many branches have remained parts of the larger tradition - still separated, for the most part, by the same conflicts over authority that gave rise to the initial divisions.

All of these religions, we must note, worship a single God who is in principle the same God for Jews, Muslims, and Christians; they all trace their origins back to the patriarch ­Abraham; they acknowledge many of the same prophets; and there is much similarity or overlap in their scriptures. If there is so much variation in the forms and sources of authority within these closely related monotheistic religions of Middle Eastern and Semitic origin, then how much similarity can there be between them and a religious tradition such as ­Hinduism in terms of what authority means and how it functions? Surprisingly, quite a lot, with some very important implications for ISKCON.

There is no denying the great differences between Hinduism and the Middle Eastern or Abrahamic religions, beginning with their concepts of divinity. Judaism, Islam, and ­Christianity all believe that there is only one God who has created the world and all its beings, and they believe that this God alone should be worshiped. They thus reject any form of polytheism, and deny that any deity other than the one God exists. The one true God, moreover, in their common view, cannot be represented by any material form, and thus the worship of any image of a divine being (a practice which all three call 'idolatry') is necessarily worship of a false god. All of these positions were first stated in the Hebrew Scriptures, were adopted from there by Christianity, and were restated even more forcibly in the Koran, making them among the most basic beliefs of the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions and among the most deeply rooted in their respective authoritative scriptures. They also, of course, represent basic conflicts between these religions and the polytheism and image worship that characterise much of Hinduism, making any commonality seem unlikely.

Similar contrasts emerge if we compare religious institutions, although here there are also major differences between the three Abrahamic religions. Christianity was organised into centralised regional churches ruled by patriarchs or bishops from early in its history, and this pattern continued in most branches of the Church even after the Reformation churches introduced new institutional patterns in the sixteenth century. Judaism and Islam, however, never had centralised institutions or hierarchical authorities with the same kind of formalised power. Neither temple priests nor rabbis had more than local authority in early Judaism, and both were subject to the authority of Torah. Islam recognised no religious organisation other than the community of the faithful, and authority for the community was vested in the Koran and Hadith. The Ulema, the Muslim scholars of scripture and the law, played a role similar to that of Jewish rabbis as non-priestly teachers of the scriptures and tradition whose authority depended on personal knowledge rather than hierarchical status. Neither rabbis nor Ulema have close equivalents in Christianity, and the role of both is quite different from the ritual role of Christian priests and ministers.

Hinduism, from these comparisons, stands in a rather odd relationship to the monotheistic religions of Abraham. Its tolerance of polytheism and image worship - or, more aptly, its celebration of them - is in sharp contrast to the absolute prohibition of both in Judaism and Islam and the strong antipathies to both seen in much of Christianity - although some see the veneration of Mary and the images and icons of Jesus in certain churches as exceptions to the general Christian rule. At the level of religious institutions, however, the non-centralised Muslim and Jewish traditions have more in common with Hinduism than they do with Christianity - even with most of the denominations of Protestant Christianity. Jewish rabbis and Muslim Koranic scholars in the Ulema share many characteristics and roles with Hindu Brahmins in their scholarly and teaching roles, although they differ from them in their priestly roles, and all three differ from mainstream Christianity in the absence of anything like a Church to ordain them to the ministry or priesthood. The essential religious institutions for all three non-Christian traditions are decentralised in local communities, and there is no reliance on a centralised institutional authority to maintain the religious life of these communities. Perhaps most strikingly, Islam and Hinduism - which are in the sharpest conflict over polytheism and images - are the closest in agreement on this latter point.

As these examples indicate, it is hard to compare these traditions meaningfully in terms of either their beliefs or their institutional forms. They agree on certain specifics and disagree on others, and it is difficult to see which of these instances is most important. The only useful way to compare different traditions such as these is to ask what is at stake for each tradition on any given issue: i.e., how essential is this particular belief or practice or institution to each tradition, and why? The real issue in any comparison is not so much the specifics as the authority on which they are based. If certain features rest on weak or uncertain authority, they are clearly less essential to that tradition than other features - and less essential than the same features may be to another tradition that gives them greater authority. But who in a given tradition decides whether certain features have strong authoritative backing or whether they are less authoritative - i.e., whether or not they can be minimised or dispensed with without losing something essential?

In Christianity, this last question could be answered by reference to the central authority: the patriarch or Pope, for example, or a hierarchical ruling body designated to decide such issues. In Judaism or Islam, which have no centralised authority, decisions about beliefs and practices would typically be answered by rabbis or the Ulema with reference to the defining scriptures of the tradition and to past decisions by scholars on relevant issues. In Hinduism, however, the question is much harder to answer because there is neither a centralised authority nor a single authoritative scripture on which all Hindus agree. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all know exactly what is meant by 'the Scriptures' in their tradition: the Hebrew Scriptures for Jews; the Hebrew Scriptures ('Old Testament') and New Testament for Christians, with some variation between branches over whether certain inter-testamental texts called the Apocrypha should also be included; and the Koran for Muslims. Scriptural authority for each tradition derives solely from its respective canonical texts, with the use and importance of that scriptural authority dependent on the tradition's overall structure of authority: for Jews, Muslims, and Protestants, extensive use and great importance of the authority of their scriptures; for Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, relatively less use and importance compared to the authority of the institutional hierarchies.

If we turn to Hinduism, we find a very different situation. There is indeed a set of scriptures, the Vedas, whose authority is accepted by all Hindus. This acceptance, however, has little to do with actual use or even knowledge by most Hindus apart from the chanting of a few Vedic mantras in rituals and a general awareness of the teachings of the Upanisads. The Vedas from the beginning were primarily ritual texts known in depth only by a small minority even of Brahmins and largely unknown by most others - and of course prohibited to the majority of the population who were not in the 'twice-born' classes. The only non-ritual portions of the Vedas, the Upanisads, were likewise little known as Vedic texts per se, but were known mainly through their appropriation by philosophical schools (darsanas) such as Vedanta and Sankhya-Yoga. There is no doubt that the Vedic texts, both ritual and philosophical, have had enormous influence on the religious language and concepts of Hinduism. In that sense the Vedas are authoritative and deserve their traditional status as revealed truth captured in sound by the ancient rsis. Nevertheless, they have not played a role in Hindu religious life equivalent to that of the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That role has been taken by texts such as the Epics and Puranas, whose authoritative status both individually and collectively is one of the major issues in understanding authority within Hinduism.

Authority in Hinduism

All Hindus would agree that the Vedas are authoritative, and in fact this agreement is one of the major characteristics defining what we mean by 'Hinduism.' Not all Hindus, however, agree on the authoritative status of other texts that are central to the religious tradition of some Hindus and marginal at best for some others. The most significant texts in this category are the two great epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, which have great importance especially for worshipers of Krsna and Rama. Krsna appears often in the Mahabharata, usually as a princely advisor to the Pandavas and the special friend of the Pandava prince Arjuna, but he also appears in the section known as the Bhagavad-gita as the Supreme Lord who has created the universe, controls the destiny of its beings, and teaches Arjuna the path to salvation through devotion to Him. Rama is of course the hero of the Ramayana. There is no doubt that these two epics lay the foundation for the worship of Krsna and Rama, and they are accordingly designated as authoritative scriptures by Vaisnava devotional traditions.

Yet not all Hindus would agree on this designation in the same way or to the same degree as they would to the claim of authority for the Vedas. For some Hindus, for example, the Mahabharata is considered 'The Fifth Veda,' while other Hindus consider this claim an insult to the original Four Vedas (Rg, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva), whose authority is unquestioned. Some would grant the Bhagavad-gita special authority - as does the Vedanta school, which puts it on a par with the Upanisads - but would deny the same authority to other portions of the epic. The same general pattern applies to the Ramayana, which is a highly authoritative text for some but not for others, although it does not have a special section like the Bhagavad-gita that has been granted independent authority. As would be expected, those who worship Krsna and Rama give greater authority to these two texts than do non-Vaisnavas, although even they disagree on the relative degree of authority that should be given to each.

Even greater variation appears when we move to the next stage of Hindu texts, the Puranas. While everyone would agree that there are only two great epics regardless of what authority one grants them, there is no such agreement even on the number of Puranas. Some eighteen 'Great Puranas' have traditionally been recognised by name, but there is some dis­agreement over which of several lists of names is most accurate and which existing texts correspond to the names listed. Some of the Puranas are quite eclectic and advocate worship of many different deities, while others are more sectarian. Of the sectarian Puranas, some are primarily concerned with the worship of Siva and/or various forms of the goddess Sakti, others with Visnu and His incarnations. Given this uncertainty of status and variety of content, it is not surprising that there are also great differences in the degree of authority given to these texts by various Hindu groups.

But who decides these matters? Once we move beyond the Vedas, there is no unanimity within Hinduism on authoritative scriptures. Every Hindu religious community nonetheless has its own recognised authoritative scriptures in addition to the Vedas, and some grant them authority equal to or even greater than the Vedas - or, as is sometimes the case, consider them also Vedic and claim Vedic authority for them. Where does this authority come from? It is not inherent in the texts themselves, for then everyone would consider them authoritative. But neither is it purely arbitrary, for then there could be no collective agreement on the claimed authority over time. There must instead be a resonance of some sort between the religious message of the text and the religious needs of a particular Hindu community. Typically, this happens when new religious leaders or new religious movements stimulate religious activity that does not find adequate expression or legitimisation in existing authoritative texts. The solution is new texts that fit the new circumstances better than existing texts and that can serve as a better foundation for the community's religious life.

Where do these new texts come from? Are they absolutely new in the sense that they never existed before in any form, or are they only newly revealed? The texts themselves say the latter, and typically give a line of transmission from the authoritative - usually divine - source to the final recipient, the one who makes the text available to others in the present time and place. The authority of the text thus depends on whether the source is considered authoritative and whether the line of transmission is accepted as authoritative. A text that meets both standards in the view of a given community is authoritative for that community even though others may differ with its judgment. The issue is ultimately a theological matter, or a matter of faith: outsiders see only the moment when a given scripture appears historically, while the community of faith sees its prior existence in a source outside history. ISKCON, for example, accepts the Bhagavad-gita, the Srimad-Bhagavatam, and the Caitanya-caritamrta as revealed scriptures because their authority has been affirmed by a succession of teachers who themselves are considered authoritative by the tradition in which ISKCON stands - i.e., the Caitanya branch of the Vaisnava devotional tradition. This branch as a whole begins of course with Caitanya, but there are a number of subsequent parallel lineages or guru-paramparas tracing back to different early disciples of Caitanya. ISKCON grants primary authority to one of these lineages: the one that culminates in ­Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, and A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Since these teachers are accepted as authoritative, their acceptance of certain scriptures as authoritative puts these texts in a special category for their followers.

Not all authoritative texts within the tradition have the same importance at any given time, however. The fact that this process has been going on since Caitanya's time means that a great many authoritative texts have accumulated within the lineage that may or may not fit the needs of any given authoritative leader in his particular circumstances. Bhaktivinoda Thakura, for example, spent much of his effort in the nineteenth century sorting through the received tradition to determine which texts had the most authority and the most value for ­Caitanya devotees faced with the impact of modern Western culture, and he used modern Western scholarly methods to date these texts and identify their historical place in the tradition. He and his son Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati translated and published many of the authoritative texts that had been selected out by this process, establishing what was in effect a modern collection of authoritative texts available as far as possible in English translations as well as in Sanskrit and Bengali.

Authority in ISKCON

Prabhupada, as ISKCON devotees know, continued this process with his many English translations of authoritative texts, most notably Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Caitanya-caritamrta. It should be noted, however, that there were many authoritative texts within his tradition that he did not translate or teach, either because he had no time to do so or because he thought that his young Western followers were not yet ready to understand them. In this he followed the pattern of earlier teachers, all of whom had to be selective in what they taught their followers. What this meant in practice is that Prabhupada could hand on only part of the rich tradition of texts known to Bhaktivinoda and Bhaktisiddhanta, just as they could transmit only a portion of what was available to them. Any living tradition always has an unexplored reserve of authoritative teachings and scriptures from the past to be rediscovered, and ISKCON is fortunate to have such a resource in abundance. It is ­certainly no criticism of Prabhupada to look at the tradition that came before him for renewed insights, because such discoveries only confirm the importance of his own authoritative teachings that derived from that tradition.

It should be noted that the pattern we find in ISKCON is similar in many ways to what we find in other religions whose ultimate authority comes from revelation. Judaism accepts the Torah as revelation because it accepts the revelation of the Law to Moses at Sinai, a divine act that confers authority on Moses and thus on the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures - the Torah or Pentateuch - that are credited to him as author. The New Testament has authority for Christians because of the authority of Jesus as the Christ or Messiah, the related authority of his chosen disciples, and the authority of Paul as an Apostle converted to Christianity by a divine revelation after Jesus' death. The Koran has authority for Muslims because it is a verbatim record of the revelations to Muhammad that marked the beginning of Islam as a community of faith, and the Hadith has authority because of Muhammad's authority as the Prophet of Allah.

In all of these cases, the revelations are understood as divine truths that enter history at particular times and places but are themselves beyond history - i.e., their essential authority is in the divine truths that they reveal, not in how or when they are received. Their entry into history, however, means that they are received by particular people in a historical time and place and have historical significance - whatever their essential truth - only if they are considered authoritative by those who receive them and by those to whom they are further revealed. This process of accepting revelations as valid and confirming their authority for a larger community necessarily takes time, because accepting a revelation as authoritative has serious implications.

In the case of Islam, the time before acceptance was only the few years during which Muhammad - guided by the revelations that would become the Koran - went from his initial obscure status in Mecca to being the leader of an expanding community in Medina. The Hebrew Scriptures, by contrast, evolved slowly and in stages over more than a millennium between the time of Moses and the acceptance of late additions to what would become the Jewish canon. In the third century BCE, these Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek as the Septuagint for use by Hellenised Jews, and it was this version that was also used later by the early Christians as their authoritative scriptures. The Hebrew Scriptures themselves remained the authoritative texts for Jewish rabbis, however, and by the end of the first century CE - perhaps as a response to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE - they had established a canonical text that remained authoritative from that point on.

Christians had no authoritative scriptures except the Septuagint for several generations after the death of Jesus. It was not until the middle of the first century CE that the apostle Paul laid the foundation for a specifically Christian set of scriptures with the first of his many letters, and it was not until early in the second century that most of the eventual contents of the New Testament had been produced. These later materials included a variety of texts that had found acceptance in Christian churches, among them four separate accounts of Jesus' ministry and death (the Four Gospels) and an account of the ministry of the early apostles (the Acts of the Apostles). These were not the only Christian writings from this period, however, and for some time there was no agreed procedure to distinguish them from other texts - some of them also popular in the early churches - that represented different theological views. It took until late in the fourth century CE before there was general agreement on which of the circulating texts had true 'apostolic authority' - i.e., represented the truth revealed to the apostles by Christ and the Holy Spirit - and which should be excluded from the canon because they lacked that authority.

It is clear from these examples that accepting certain texts as authoritative depends on more than the quality of the texts or the claims they may make for their own authority. It depends also - and for practical purposes, critically - on the recognition of the texts as authoritative by some authoritative religious body. It is here that Hinduism differs most from the three Abrahamic religions just described, because it has no dominant institutional authority to confer such recognition. Muhammad's immediate followers recognised the Koran as authoritative even during his lifetime as they saw Allah's guidance leading them to victory after victory and as Muhammad's teachings - later collected as Hadith - transformed the moral and religious life of Arabia. The Hebrew Scriptures took shape slowly over many centuries, but their authority had been recognised by Temple priests and rabbis, the two most authoritative Jewish religious groups, long before the rabbis gave them canonical status in their final form. Christianity conferred canonical status on its chosen scriptures with a series of Church decrees in the fourth century that established an official New Testament. There are no corresponding authoritative bodies in Hinduism, however, and thus no process acknowledged by all Hindus to grant any given scriptures canonical status.

The Vedas represent something of an exception to the general rule for Hinduism, but their recognised authority comes from a far distant past when the central importance of Vedic fire sacrifices led the performing priests to agree on a common body of mantras, ritual procedures, and metaphysical concepts to support their activities. Once Vedic fire sacrifices declined in importance and the great royal sacrifices ceased with the rise of ­Buddhism and the Mauryan Empire, there was no longer a dominant ritual institution to unify and support priestly activity. The Vedic canon was effectively closed by the second century BCE, and priests spent their creative intellectual energies after that on new types of texts such as the Dharma Sutras and Dharma Sastras (The Laws of Manu, etc.), the sutras of the emerging philosophical schools, and texts supporting the new theistic movements centred on Visnu and his incarnations. Priests also took over the role of editors of the early bardic Mahabharata at about the same time, and contributed new teachings to both this epic and the Ramayana. Priests continued to learn the Vedas for their continuing ritual performances, although most of their activity was now concerned with family samskara rituals, and they brought much of their Vedic knowledge over into their other intellectual pursuits, but they no longer constituted a coherent authoritative body focused on a single common religious purpose.

Since the Vedic canon was closed, there has thus been no central Hindu body with the authority to confer general canonical status on newly revealed scriptures. But this also means that there is no central body that can deny canonical authority to any given text. The recognition of texts as true and authoritative has therefore depended for the past two thousand years on more specific groups or traditions such as Bhagavatas, Saivites, Saktas, worshipers of Krsna or Rama, etc. There are as a result many Hindu texts that are authoritative for some religious communities and not for others, or are considered revelation by some faith traditions and have no value to others. This is true, moreover, not only of scriptures that are considered divinely revealed but also of the teachings - including poetry and songs - of various saints and religious leaders expressing their own personal experiences: the poetry of the Tamil saints known as the slvars, for example, the writings of Ramanuja, the Marathi songs of Namdev and Tukaram, the Braj poetry of Surdas and Mira Bai, or the writings of the Six Goswamis in Vrndavana. To these and many other personal religious expressions too numerous to mention might be added the many accounts of the lives of saints and religious leaders such as the biographies of Ramanuja and Sankara or the Caitanya-caritamrta, Krsnadasa Kaviraja's monumental account of Caitanya's life and teachings.

Given this situation, what does it mean for a Hindu text or scripture to be authoritative? Unless we are talking about the Vedas, we have to say that a given text is authoritative when a particular tradition or a group within a tradition considers it to be authoritative - and then, of course, it is authoritative only for them unless some other group agrees to accept its authority. Vaisnavas in general may accept the Bhagavad-gita and the Bhagavata Purana (the Srimad-Bhagavatam) as divine revelation, but only some Vaisnavas would accept the slvars' poetry of devotion to Krsna or the theology of the Goswamis - and Saivites would likely reject them all. This pattern has given rise to the concept of sampradayas, specific traditions within the larger Hindu framework that accept the authority of particular scriptures, worship particular deities, have particular religious practices, and follow a particular line of teachers. It is even possible - in fact, based on historical experience, likely - that divisions will emerge within sampradayas over matters such as variations in ritual practice, differing interpretations of scriptures, organisational disputes, or a choice of one teacher and his lineage over another. Such divisions are in fact apparent in contemporary Vaisnava institutions such as the Gaudiya Mathas, and are potential problems even within ISKCON.

Hinduism is of course not the only religion to face such problems of conflicting authority. We can especially see certain similarities between Hinduism and Protestant Christianity in the absence of a central institutional authority and the division over time into separate branches representing different positions on basic religious issues. Although Protestants claim the right of each believer and each church to interpret scripture independently of central institutional authority, they nonetheless recognise only the canonical Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament as having scriptural authority. Protestants must therefore express their religious differences through different interpretations of the same scriptures, not by embracing scriptures outside the received canon. Hindus have historically recognised no such limitation, and have accepted numerous scriptures into the tradition since the Vedic canon was closed. The only general Hindu requirement has been that these new (or newly received) scriptures should not directly reject the authority of the Vedas - although, as many examples from the Bhagavad-gita and other literatures illustrate, they may criticise Vedic teachings on certain issues. Certainly many scriptures have been more religiously important and influential to most Hindus than have the Vedas, although these scriptures are often represented as being extensions of the Vedas or as being revelations from the same source, and thus respect for the Vedas is preserved.

But finally, who decides these issues of authority within the Hindu tradition? In the absence of a central institutional authority or a single recognised scriptural authority, each branch of Hinduism - often, but not always, expressed in terms of sampradayas - must settle its own issues of authority in its own terms. This means among other things deciding which scriptures it accepts as authoritative, how those scriptures are to be interpreted, what interpretation is to be given precedence, what its religious practices will be and which are most important, how its leadership will be organised, and what teacher or lineage of teachers will have final authority. This is more than a matter of deciding on a scripture or set of scriptures or identifying with a particular sampradaya; it ultimately involves choosing a teacher and thus a lineage of teachers, because personal authority is always expressed in terms of the line of teachers - the guru-parampara - on which that authority is based.

This may require that the question of authority be constantly revisited or renegotiated within Hinduism in general or within a particular group or branch of Hinduism. There is no overall authority to decide such issues, and the range of options is so great that problems of authority almost inevitably arise. It is normal to feel the tension between competing authorities and to wish that the tensions would go away, but new problems of authority will certainly arise. What has to be remembered is that all religious traditions have struggled with problems of authority, and all of them still alive are still dealing with them. For traditions as for organisms, the absence of change is a sure sign of death. Change is the normal and essential condition of living, and to change means to confront new challenges - and each new challenge involves more often than not a change in the existing balance of authority within the tradition.

The issue of authority for any tradition is thus never finally settled. If the scriptural authority is not in question, the interpretation of scripture may be. Leadership will inevitably change and new issues of authority will emerge. Since the world around it changes, the interaction with it also will change and raise new questions about existing patterns of authority. The question is not whether such issues and problems can be avoided, which they cannot, but how they will be handled. This of course also raises issues of authority, because dealing with new issues may require drawing on sources of authority that are not now being used.

Any tradition that has been around for centuries has many latent resources, and an important part of the response to new challenges is to seek sources of authority that may have been forgotten. No tradition can use all of its potential resources at one time, and no leader or teacher can pass on all that he knows or all that his teachers and their teachers have known. It is the job of each generation to recognise this and keep the full range of resources alive - i.e., to recognise the richness of its inheritance from the past and make use of the authority available there to solve current problems. The best way to show respect for past leaders and past authority is to respect the authority and the past that those authorities respected and to draw on them all for the future. This is certainly the task facing ISKCON at this moment, and its future depends on how well it musters its resources for the continual process of rediscovery and renewal.

Back to ICJ Vol 8, No 2 March 2001

     
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