Freedom from History and Institutional Authority
In Hindu traditions, the state of consciousness of Jesus is achievable by each one of us and is not dependent on belief in a specific deity or historical event or institution. Nor do we have to die in order to achieve this state of consciousness; we can do so while living in this world, just as Christ presumably did. ‘Dhyana’, ‘jnana’, ‘tantra’ and ‘bhakti’ are some of the do-it-yourself methods and techniques that do not rely on external authority. There is no church, pontiff or central authority. Rather, numerous incarnations, prophets, saints and spiritual methods over several millennia have kept the traditions alive with fresh interpretations. As Sri Aurobindo puts it:
Here is the first baffling difficulty over which the European mind stumbles; for it finds itself unable to make out what Indian Religion is. Where, it asks, is its soul? Where is its mind and fixed thoughts? Where is the form of its body? How can there be a religion which has no rigid dogmas to demand belief on pain of eternal damnation, no theological postulates, even no fixed theology, no credo, distinguishing it from antagonistic or rival religions? How can there be a religion that has no papal head, no governing ecclesiastic body, no church, chapel or congregational system, no binding religious form of any kind obligatory on all its adherents, no one administration and discipline? For the Hindu priests are mere ceremonial officials without any ecclesiastical authority or disciplinary powers and the pundits are mere interpreters of the Shastra, not the lawgivers of the religion or its rulers. How again can Hinduism be called a religion when it admits all beliefs, allowing even a high-reaching atheism and agnosticism and permits all possible spiritual experiences, all kinds of religious adventures?
Hinduism has no standard or official (i.e., normative) theology, because there was never an ecclesiology in ancient India: no formalization of church-like institutions, no official clerical body with universal authority to canonize, normalize and make critical editions of dogma, and especially no structures to be forced on society. Even where such authoritative claims existed, they had limited jurisdiction and were vigorously challenged and hence never succeeded in retaining much control over time.
No authority pronounces someone a Hindu. There is no mandatory equivalent to baptism as a point of entry, nothing which is performed by a church-certified priest or minister and makes one a member of the Christian community. Since Hinduism does not require membership in an organization, club or institution, and since it glorifies sadhus, who pursue their own independent journey, the problem of excessive institutional control has never arisen. No authority has the power to excommunicate a person from Hinduism.
There are many forms of devotional practice in the dharma traditions - performed individually or as a group, directed to a formless God or a particular deity, performed at home or in a temple. The average dharma practitioner is largely free from institutional authority, or at least there is no theological requirement for the equivalent of a church or umma.
There is a commonly held view that westerners, by and large, are individualistic whereas Asians are not, and yet, on examination, the exact opposite would appear to be the case. Westerners who practice Judaism or Christianity tend to be formal members of well-defined religious organizations which engender conformity. Many Western families have been affiliated with such institutions for centuries. Change is slow and based on consensus which forms over long periods. Individual dissent and attempts at personalizing religious practice are frowned upon. In contrast, dharma traditions are marked by individualism at the base.
No dharmic group would consider enforcing its particular tradition or set of practices on all of humanity or even on another community. No religious group in the history of dharmic civilizations has ever tried to do so - at least not for any significant length of time and not over a large territory. None of the dharma spiritual traditions is compelled by God or any other authority to convert others. The individual’s spiritual journey toward enlightened living is not based on any collective action, feat or performance by one’s group over any other groups. There are no infidels - only a lack of knowledge. Local governors (‘jati-panchayats’) have had the authority to impose fines for breach of rules and expel errant members in extreme cases, but their jurisdiction is always local and limited.
There is no privileged tribe, culture, place or time relative to God, because God is a prolific communicator, always accessible, and does not grant anyone the exclusive franchise to represent him. No community’s narrative is absolute, nor is it sanctioned to undermine the narratives of others. This is how diverse worldviews, practices, paths, images and subcultures can coexist.
Nor is it necessary that there be ideological agreement in order to be worthy of respect. Shankara, for example, did not exclude people who dissented from his view from entering his circle; rather, he engaged them in dialogue. Intellectual debate and reason were never severed from religious life, faith and worship.
(Being Different, pp 133-136)