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Often you hear Hindus saying or asking:

  1. "You are only 10. You don't have the adhikāra to speak on this topic."
  2. "You don't have the adhikāra to participate in this debate."
  3. "Who gave you the adhikāra to chant this mantra?"
  4. "Who gave you the adhikāra to become a sannyāsi?"
  5. "You cannot cut down this tree. Who gave you the adhikāra to cut it down?"

So what does adhikāra mean in the above contexts?

Does Hindu scripture formally define this adhikāra?

I'm assuming this formal definition of 'adhikāra' in scriptures is supposed to tell who is allowed to do what.

Or is the meaning very arbitrary i.e., not written down in scriptures?

EDIT:

Another example:

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  • 1
    Adhikara is a Sanskrit word that means qualification, right, or eligibility. Are you looking for a definition of the Sanskrit word Adhikara in Hindu scripture? The definitions of Sanskrit words are given in Yaska's Nirukta. But are you really looking for a definition of the word, or are you looking for scriptural statements about who has Adhikara to do what? For instance, the Purva Mimamsa Sutras describe who has Adhikara to study the Vedas and perform Yagnas, and the Brahma Sutras describe who has Adhikara to obtain Jnana, as I discuss here: hinduism.stackexchange.com/q/8682/36 – Keshav Srinivasan Nov 29 '16 at 4:47
  • @KeshavSrinivasan Yes, both the meaning from scripture and some examples of it with scriptural references. – sv. Nov 29 '16 at 4:50
  • And do those examples have to explicitly use the word "Adhikara", or is it fine if they express the same concept but with different words? – Keshav Srinivasan Nov 29 '16 at 4:54
  • @KeshavSrinivasan I'm not sure what are the synonyms for adhikāra in Sanskrit or scriptures. But if you think different usages mean the same, it should be ok to quote them. – sv. Nov 29 '16 at 6:40
  • The scriptures decide .... – Rickross Nov 29 '16 at 14:20
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What is the meaning of 'adhikāra' in Hinduism?

The Sanskrit word अधिकारः (adhikārḥ) has a lot of meanings, but within the context of your question, it simply means one's right, privilege or qualification to perform a certain action. There is a reference to the word in the karmaṇyēvādhikārastē śloka of Bhagavad-gītā (2.47).

Swāmī Gambhīrānanda's tr.:

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन ।
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि ৷৷ 2.47 ৷৷

karmaṇyēvādhikārastē mā phalēṣu kadācana.
mā karmaphalahēturbhūrmā tē saṅgō.stvakarmaṇi ৷৷ 2.47 ৷৷

Your right is for action alone, never for the results. Do not become the agent of the results of action. May you not have any inclination for inaction.

Śaṅkarācārya's commentary:

Te, your; adhikarah, right; is karmani eva, for action alone, not for steadfastness in Knowledge. Even there, when you are engaged in action, you have ma kadacana, never, i.e. under no condition whatever; a right phalesu, for the results of action may you not have a hankering for the results of action. Whenever you have a hankering for the fruits of action, you will become the agent of acquiring the results of action. Ma, do not; thus bhuh, become; karma-phalahetuh, the agent of acquiring the results of action. For when one engages in action by being impelled by thirst for the results of action, then he does become the cause for the production of the results of action. Ma, may you not; astu, have; sangah, an inclination; akarmani, for inaction, thinking, 'If the results of work be not desired, what is the need of work which involves pain?'


Who decides if someone has the 'adhikāra' to do or not to do something?

The scriptures. In BG 4.17, Kṛṣṇa mentions karma (action), akarma (inaction) and vikarma (prohibited action):

कर्मणो ह्यपि बोद्धव्यं बोद्धव्यं च विकर्मणः ।
अकर्मणश्च बोद्धव्यं गहना कर्मणो गतिः ৷৷ 4.17 ৷৷

karmaṇō hyapi bōddhavyaṅ bōddhavyaṅ ca vikarmaṇaḥ
akarmaṇaśca bōddhavyaṅ gahanā karmaṇō gatiḥ ৷৷ 4.17 ৷৷

For there is something to be known even about action, and something to be known about prohibited action; and something has to be known about inaction. The true nature of action is inscrutable.

Śaṅkarācārya explains the above as:

Hi, for; there is something boddhavyam, to be known; api, even; karmanah, about action enjoined by the scriptures; and there is certainly something to be known vikarmanah, about prohibited action; so, also, there is something to be known akarmanah, about inaction, about sitting quietly.
...

Also, Manusmṛti 1.58 states the following:

इदं शास्त्रं तु कृत्वाऽसौ मामेव स्वयमादितः ।
विधिवद् ग्राहयामास मरीच्यादींस्त्वहं मुनीन् ॥ ५८ ॥

idaṃ śāstraṃ tu kṛtvā'sau māmeva svayamāditaḥ |
vidhivad grāhayāmāsa marīcyādīṃstvahaṃ munīn || 58 ||

Having propounded this Law, he himself, first of all, taught it to me with due care; I then taught it to Marīci and other Sages. — (58)

Medhātithi's commentary (manubhāṣya) on the same:

In the present context the term 'Law' stands for the whole collection of Injunctions and Prohibitions contained in the Smṛtis, and not for any particular treatise; as this latter was composed by Manu; that is why the Treatise is called ‘Mānava’ (of Manu); otherwise [ i.e., if the Treatise were the ‘Law’ propounded by the Imperishable One], it would have been ‘Hairaṇyagarbha,’ ‘of Hiraṇyagarbha.’


Or is the meaning very arbitrary i.e., not written down in scriptures?

Most actions (rights & duties) are discussed in various smṛtis and dharma śāstras, but not every rule is written down in scriptures as Kṛṣṇa states in the Mahābhārata:

Many persons say, on the one hand, that the scriptures indicate morality. I do not contradict this. The scriptures, however, do not provide for every case.

But, apparently, everything can be deduced from scriptures:

What should be done and what should not cannot be ascertained easily. Everything can be ascertained by the aid of the scriptures.

So when in doubt, it's best to approach one's Guru or elders to determine the proper course of action.

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"What is the meaning of 'adhikāra' in Hinduism?"

Often people, translate AdhikAra(अधिकार) as "right". But IMO, that's not the perfect translation. The closest meaning (also found in online dictionary) is "authorisation" (or "approval" & in some sense "privilege").
Incidentally, if we break the words:

अ + धिकार = अ + धिक्कार = not + disapproval = approval

"who decides if someone has the 'adhikāra' to do or not to do something?"

Not aware if any scripture would be formally defining AdhikAra in such a great detail. Because for everything do-able thing, there has to be an "approval". Scriptures define Dharma & one can derive AdhikAra out of it. One has an AdhikAra to act in Swa-Dharma.
So decision should be left to the social structure. In ancient times we had scriptural guidelines & in today's time we have family/national constitution.

For example, in ancient times it was believed that, Shudra-s should not listen to Veda, as they don't have AdhikAra[1]. For Shudra-s it's not DhArmik to gain knowledge which they can't absorb. However in current times which is believed to be an era of knowledge, it may not be applicable.

When you hear commoners using this term, you may safely translate it to "right".


[1] - Krishna spoke "... Desirous of speedy death, this fool had desired Rukmini. But the fool obtained her not, like a Sudra failing to obtain the audition of the Vedas."

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