Scripture and Guru: Sources of Authority

Shastra (scripture)

Vyasa is said to have compiled the most important Vedic texts some 5000 years ago.

Hindu scripture is sometimes called shastra. Since the Vedic wisdom was first transmitted orally it is also called shabda­brahman, spiritual sound. According to tradition, it was written down only when human memory began to deteriorate at the start of Kali-yuga (some 5,000 years ago).

Shabda-brahman is considered the most reliable form of authority for spiritual and related matters. However, Hinduism is not simply an authoritarian system of belief, and tends to synthesise religious commitment with open philosophical inquiry. It acknowledges the need for exploration and realisation of knowledge. Without appropriate conduct and values, informational and experiential knowledge will be inevitably misconstrued.

Many Hindu schools claim orthodoxy based on their adherence to shastra. Thus it remains a powerful source of authority and cohesion for the tradition.

Key Points

  • Shastra is the principle source of authority for most Hindus.
  • Vedic knowledge was passed down orally until about 3,000 BCE, when Kali-yuga began and the written form became necessary.
  • Personal and spiritual discipline is required to understand and realise scriptural knowledge.

Scriptural Passages

“One should know what is duty and what is not duty by the regulations of the scriptures.”

Bhagavad-gita 16.24

A Useful Analogy

The mother

  • As young children, we have no alternative but to depend on our mother to educate us: “this is a spoon,” “this is a knife” and so on.
  • If we wish to know the identity of our father, then the natural authority is our mother. In the same way the Vedas are considered our mother, who can reveal the identity of our father, God.
  • In Hindu theology the love between mother and child is considered most pure. A mother will not let us down or intentionally mislead us.

Related Practices

Pravachan (lectures on scripture).

Traditional practices of discussion, and debate, and submission to more learned teachers.

Common Misunderstandings

Hinduism lets you do whatever you want and has no strict rules

It is not quite so simple! Although flexibility in thought is encouraged, Hinduism puts great emphasis on orthopraxy, or adherence to certain practices. Even within the realm of philosophy, Hinduism has refuted certain doctrines, such as Buddhism and Jainism. This is not so much for their philosophical position but because they reject the Hindu scriptures. They are therefore called nastika. (see Doctrine)


The guru plays a central role in Hinduism, often acting as the intermediary between the soul and the Supreme. Many schools claim that God-realisation without spiritual mentorship is impossible, for one will inevitably be waylaid by maya (illusion). The guru is required in order to properly understand scripture. Many schools also claim that the blessings of God come through the genuine spiritual teacher, and that the teacher speaks and acts on behalf of God. The guru may also accept veneration on behalf of the Lord. Many Hindus accept diksha, initiation from a spiritual teacher, thus becoming a formal disciple. The principle of disciplic succession (sampradaya) is central to the transmission of spiritual knowledge.

Some traditions, such as the advaita schools equate guru with God. Others, such as most bhakti schools, insist that the spiritual teacher is God’s representative and can never become God himself.

A Useful Analogy

The child of a wealthy man

  • Winning the favour of a wealthy man – say, through offerring gifts – is difficult, but easy if we shower sincere affection on his child. By offering genuine respect to the guru and other saintly people, one pleases God.
  • One cannot demand to see an important person, such as the Queen. However, if she becomes pleased with our service, then she will ask to see us.

Personal Reflection

  • How important is a teacher? Can one learn from books alone?
  • How does the concept of an intermediary compare with other religions?
  • What is the stereotype of a guru? How can this be misleading?
  • What problems might a Western teacher have with the concept of guru and the veneration shown him?

Related Values/Issues

  • Respect for teachers/elders.
  • Qualities of a teacher/authority figure.

Common Misunderstandings

The guru is accepted and followed blindly
The Bhagavad-gita (4.34) recommends faith based on rational inquiry.

See also “The Vet’s Apprentice” (STO-117)

Key Points

  • Most Hindus consider a guru essential for spiritual life.
  • The guru speaks on the basis of scripture and helps the disciple understand scriptural knowledge.
  • Spiritual knowledge is often preserved and transmitted by sampradaya (disciplic succession).
  • The guru is often seen as equal to God, either (a) quite literally, or (b) as God’s representative.

Scriptural Passages

“Only unto to those great souls who have unflinching faith in both the Lord and the spiritual teacher are all the imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed”

Svetashvatara Upanishad 6.38

“This knowledge was thus passed down by disciplic succession, and the saintly kings understood it in this way”

Bhagavad-gita 4.2

For More Information

See Focuses of Worship and Founders and Theologians