The term adhikāra derives from the Sanskrit prefix “adhi-” and the verbal root /kṛ and means “to superintend” or “to be or place over.” The noun adhikāra refers to an authority, qualification, or entitlement with regards to rites of passage and “denotes a range of personal capacities and statuses, especially those conferred by religious or social convention.” In Mīmāṃsā, it is a technical term for the range of application specific to a word or section of a text. For our purposes, in this short essay, we will discuss adhikāra within the context of mystical training and contemplative education, with special reference to the Śaiva-Śākta Darśana

Whether or not someone is prepared to receive a certain teaching, practice, or initiation is determined by whether or not that individual has the adhikāra for it. It thus indicates a capacity of being fit for something on the basis of either innate or cultivated characteristics. Traditionally, in India, adhikāra was determined on the basis of caste, gender, stage of life (āśrama), or goal of life (puruṣārtha). In the non-dual Tantric traditions, strictures regarding caste and gender were transgressively bypassed on the basis of an antinomian worldview that rejected such limitations. How adhikāra was conceived in these traditions dissolved the boundaries imposed by social doctrines of purity and welcomed all who were spiritually inclined. Who was fit for a text or teaching was determined on the basis of being one “whose mind is filled with an inner disposition towards spiritual matters.” One must desire to attain spiritual liberation, to experience one’s own true nature. In the Śaiva-Śākta Darśana – the so-called Tantric traditions – this desire is often initiated by the experience of śaktipāta, an empowerment of grace which inspires and turns the attention of an individual toward spiritual fulfillment. 

In the Tantric traditions, that fulfillment is defined by a complete identification with the non-dual consciousness that is the source and destination of everything. Simply having an interest in that, however, is not enough to qualify as an adhikārin. One must illustrate a kind of dedication, devotion, or commitment to study and practice. In the Netra Tantra, the condition that is given to “realize this all-pervasive, omnipresent, pure essential nature is to be kṛtātman (having a developed or disciplined self).” In Yogarāja’s commentary to verse 2-3 of Abhinavagupta’s Paramārthasāra, he glosses what might be meant by such a “disciplined self.”

[T]he particular individual who has developed within himself the feeling of intense non-attachment and who has received divine grace from the supreme Lord as a result of which true spiritual knowledge has been awakened becomes fit to receive instructions from the teacher.

While we can’t do justice in such a short reflection to the topic of non-attachment and how it might be expressed in the context of householder sādhana (or practice), it is enough to acknowledge that for those whom non-attachment is not a natural disposition – which is most of us –, Abhinavagupta, for example, speaks of a refinement of conceptualization (vikalpa-saṃskāra). This practice helps to relinquish attachments to ideas about reality that are saturated with ignorance about our true nature.

 Adhikāra is not a difficult concept to understand pedagogically when we consider certain domains of modern education. For example, it takes more than simply curiosity to receive a PhD or medical degree. One has to devote their lives to an intense educational process for a long period of time and complete a set of requirements. When an individual has completed these things – motivated, of course, by the movement of their own passion and dedication – then they become qualified to receive their degree; they have the adhikāra now to practice medicine or teach at a university. And within these larger trajectories of education, there are many little adhikāras along the way. Indeed, the very notion of a curriculum that follows a particular sequence is one based on the understanding that certain preliminary matters must be known, practiced or experienced before a deeper or more “advanced” understanding is undertaken by the student. If one jumps into the most advanced biology class on the first day of school, for example, the student will be completely disoriented. 

In the context of a modern postural yoga class, it would be inappropriate for a teacher to introduce an advanced posture before the student had developed the flexibility and strength to assume the pose without danger of injury. In the context of certain forms of meditative practice, it would be similarly inappropriate for a teacher to hand out subtle practices willy nilly without first acknowledging and understanding where the student is at. It is not possible to read some articles on WebMD or take a four-hour course and then go set up a medical practice; and yet people are doing similar things all the time in the name of teaching meditation. Why do we think one is laughable while the other is generally okay? From the perspective of the tradition, this difficulty in understanding the contraindications for subtle practices is due to our own culture’s present lack of adhikāra.

In the Śaiva-Śākta Darśana and other Indian traditions, initiation (dīkṣā) is a fundamental aspect of the educational process. There are two levels of initiation cited in the non-dual Tantric traditions: “the samaya-dīkṣā, or probationary initiation for novices, and the full nirvāṇa-dīkṣā, or initiation that placed one on the irrevocable path to liberation (nirvāṇa).” These initiations are what provide the practitioner with the adhikāra of access to sacred texts and the accompanying obligation to study and embody them. Some initiations were more elaborate and were characterized by a set of rituals, but other more esoteric expressions of the Śaiva-Śākta Darśana – like that of the Kaula school – considered that initiation could be “granted by a fully awakened master with a word, a glance, a touch, or a thought.” Initiations, while somewhat alien to our current cultural circumstance, are important in understanding adhikāra, as they reflect a broader insight regarding the role of ritual action and embodied experiences in creating the conditions for an adhikāra to arise. 

The notion of adhikāra is an important one for teachers of all traditions, as it encourages us to reflect on the unique needs and circumstances of individual students and what might be appropriate for them. In the Śaiva-Śākta Darśana, one of the ways this is expressed is through the teachings of upāya. According to non-dual Tantric philosophers like Abhinavagupta and his student Kṣemarāja, these upāyas are four in number and correspond to the varying dispositions of individuals. Certain Tantric practices are prescribed on the basis of understanding which upāya applies to which student. Even the student that requires no method at all is embraced through the concept of anupāya – “the pathless path, no-means, and the actual domain of the Absolute.” Like mystics from a number of varied contemplative traditions, such a person spontaneously awakens to their true nature through revelation (anugraha) alone and is from then on immersed in a supreme knowledge that transforms their entire life. Such spontaneously-realized individuals are rare. For the rest of us, initiations, curriculums of study, sequences of practice, and a devotional commitment to liberation in this lifetime (jīvanmukta) is required.

1. Timothy Lubin “Adhikāra” in Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Leiden: Brill (2010: 671).
2. Bettina Bäumer. Abhinavagupta’s Hermeneutics of the Absolute. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (2011: 18).
3. Bettina Bäumer. The Yoga of the Netra Tantra. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (2019: 27).
4. Deba Brata SenSharma. Paramārthasāra of Abhinavagupta: The Essence of the Supreme Truth. New Delhi: Muktabodha Indological Research Institute (2007: 8).
5.  See Tantrāloka 4.2: anantarāhnikokte’sminsvabhāve pārameśvare | pravivikṣurvikalpasya kuryātsaṁskāramañjasā || “One who wishes to enter (pravivikṣu) into this (asmin) essential condition (svabhāva) of the Supreme Lord (pārameśvara), which was spoken about (ukta) in the neighboring [that is, previous] (anantara) chapter (āhnika) [of the Tantrāloka] should perform (kuryāt) quickly (añjasā) the refinement (saṁskāra) of conceptualization (vikalpa).” (My translation).
6. Christopher D. Wallis. Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition. Petaluma, CA: Mattamayūra Press (2012: 332).
7.  Ibid.
Those familiar with Indian philosophy will recognize this term from the Buddhist context, where it is often translated as “skillful means.” In both the Buddhist and the Tantric Hindu context, the essential meaning is the same. In both traditions, the means appropriate in a particular circumstance or experience will reflect what is skillful for the disposition of the practitioner or the particularity of a given context. In the tradition we are citing in this essay, these upāyas are numerated in a way that reflects non-dual Śaiva philosophy.
9. Bäumer (2011: 78).