Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Are there religious hierarchical structures in any branch of Hinduism?

None of Hinduism’s various denominations has ever developed a formal institutional hierarchy parallel to those of, for example, Roman Catholicism or Shi’a Islam. But there have been de facto social rankings in which some representatives of the tradition have very definite priority. In Vedic times, there were at least seven (and perhaps as many as sixteen) different types of priests, distinguished according to specific function in the Vedic sacrifice. Among them were the Brahmins, the one category of priests that has retained its influence over the centuries. Hindu religious hierarchy has generally ranked its specialists according to learning, with teachers and guardians of tradition (such as gurus, acharyas, and pandits) ranking high on the list. Historically, figures called purohita served as high priests at the courts of Hindu monarchs. That individual’s role was to protect his royal patron through ritual and teaching, as well as by his spiritually potent presence. In modern times the purohita has become the family priest charged with keeping caste and ritual practices intact. Temple priesthood staffs typically have chief priests who supervise the overall running of the temple rituals.


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