The Pancaratra Agamas- A Brief Study

  • By Swami Harshananda
  • January 2003

Courtesy Copyright Prabuddha Bharata

Agamas are a special class of Hindu religio-philosophical literature handed down through a succession of teachers from the most ancient days. Whether they represented a system parallel to and separate from the Vedic traditions or a continuation of the same and rooted in them, has been a subject of discussion among scholars. However, Yamunacarya (918-1038 AD) in his scholarly work Agamapramanya has conclusively established their affinity with the Vedas. Of the three kinds of Agamas, the Saiva, the Sakta (or the Tantra) and the Vaisnava, the Pancaratra Agamas belong to the last group. The other branch of the Vaisnava Agamas is the Vaikhanasa Agama, or the Vaikhanasa Sutras.

Derivation of the Name
The literal meaning of the word Pancaratra is ‘that which is connected with five nights’. Lord Kesava (Visnu or Narayana) is said to have taught this esoteric science to Ananta, Garuda, Visvaksena, Brahma and Rudra over five nights (panca = five; ratra = night). The word ratra also means jnana, wisdom or knowledge. Since it teaches five kinds of knowledge it is called Pancaratra. These are tattva (cosmology), muktiprada (that which gives mukti, or liberation), bhaktiprada (that which gives mukti, or liberation), bhaktiprada (that which confers devotion), yaugika (yoga) and vaisayika (objects of desire). Or alternatively, since it teaches about the five aspects of God (called Purusottama) – para (highest), vyuha (emanation), vibhava (incarnation), antaryamin (indweller) and arca (form of worship) – it is called Pancaratra.

Pancaratra Literature
Pancaratra literature is very vast. The total number of works-generally called samhita or tantra-exceeds 200, according to lists given in various works, though only a few have been printed. Quite a few are in the form of manuscripts preserved in oriental libraries. Many others are not available in any form though their names are mentioned in other works. The following is a brief descriptive list of the works presently available.

1. Ahirbudhnya Samhita: This is a fairly voluminous work with 3880 verses in 60 chapters. The specialty of this work is that it deals with the four vyuhas, or emanations of the lord, descriptions of several mantras (sacred syllables) and yantras (magic diagrams) as also rituals for curing diseases.

2. Aniruddha Samhita: Also called Aniruddhasamhita-mahopanisad, it has 34 chapters dealing entirely with descriptions of various rituals, methods of initiation, prayascittas, or expiations for sins, rules for making and installing the images of gods, and other similar topics.

3. Hayasirsa Samhita: A fairly exhaustive work in 144 chapters and distributed among 4 kandas, or sections-‘Pratisthakanda’, ‘Sankarsanakanda’, ‘Lingakanda’ and ‘Saurakanda’- it deals primarily with rituals concerning the installation of images of various minor deities as also the methods of their preparation.

4. Isvara Samhita: It is a work of 24 chapters of which 16 deal with ritualistic worship. Other subjects treated in this work are descriptions of images, methods of diksa, or spiritual initiation, practice of meditation, details regarding mantras, methods of self-control and the greatness of the Yadav Hill (now known as Melkote, a Vaisnava pilgrim centre on a hillock near Mysore, Karnataka).

5. Jayakhya Samhita: This work is one of the cardinal texts of Pancaratra literature. It has 33 patalas, or chapters, and deals with the following topics: a detailed account of creation; yogabhyasa (practice of yoga) and mantropasana (spiritual practice through the repetition of mantras, or sacred formulas); various Vaisnava mantras; puja (ritualistic worship) and homa (fire ritual); diksa (initiation); temples and worship there; acaras (codes of conduct) for Vaisnavas; and prayascittas, or expiations of sins.

6. Kasyapa Samhita: This is a comparatively small work in 12 chapters. It deals mainly with poisons and methods of remedy by suitable mantras, or incantations.

7. Maha-sanatkumara Samhita: This is a voluminous work of 10,000 verses spread over 40 sections in 4 chapters. It deals entirely with rituals of worship.

8. Padma Samhita: Dealing mainly with rituals and chanting of mantras, this work is in 31 chapters.

9. Parama Samhita: A work in 31 chapters, it deals with the process of creation; rituals of initiation and worship; and yoga classified as jnana yoga and karma yoga. It declares that jnana yoga, which includes pranayama and samadhi, is superior to karma yoga, which seems to mean ritualistic worship of Visnu.

10. Paramesvara Samhita: A short work of 15 chapters, it deals with meditation on mantras, sacrifices and methods of rituals as also prayascittas, or expiations.

11. Parasara Samhita: A concise work in 8 chapters, it deals with the methods of japa, or the muttering of the name of God.

12. Pauskara Samhita: Considered one of the earliest works of the Pancaratra system, this consists of 43 chapters. Apart from dealing with various kinds of image worship, it also contains certain philosophical views. It is interesting to note that some funeral sacrifices also find a place here.

13. Sudarsana Samhita: A treatise comprising 41 chapters, it deals mainly with meditation on mantras expiations of sins.

14. Vihagendra Samhita: It is in 24 chapters. Apart from meditation on mantras, it deals with sacrificial oblations. In the twelfth chapter, the topic of pranayama as a part of the process of worship is also described extensively.

15. Vishnu Samhita: A work in 30 chapters, it also deals mainly with ritualistic worship Its philosophy is akin to that of Sankhya with some variations like the purusa (the individual soul) being all-pervading and his activating prakrti to evolve into world.

16. Visnu-tattva Samhita: Comprising 39 chapters, it deals with image worship, ablutions and the wearing of Vaisnava marks, and some purificatory rites.

Philosophy of the Pancaratra Agamas
The philosophy of this system has been expounded in detail in the Jayakhya Samhita. A brief summary follows.

Though yajna (Vedic sacrifices), dana (making gifts), svadhyaya (study of the Vedas) and other similar religious disciplines are useful in spiritual life, it is only jnana (knowledge) of the paratattva, or the highest Reality, that can give moksa.

This paratattva (God) is the same as the Brahman of the Vedas and the Upanisads. He is of the nature of pure Consciousness (cit) and Bliss (ananda). He is anadi and ananta (without beginning or end). He is the substratum and support of the whole universe. Though He is beyond all gunas, He is also the bhoktr (experiencer, enjoyer) of all that is born out of the gunas. He is sarvajna (omniscient) and sarva-sakta (omnipotent). He is both transcendent and immanent with regard to this created universe. Hence He is too subtle to be perceived by the senses or the mind. However, He can be realized through the pure mind. This is called manasika-pratyaksa.

When they realize this Brahman or God, the jivas appear to have become one with Him, but do maintain a subtle distinction also. Hence this philosophy can be called Bheda beda or Dvaitadvaita.

As regards srsti, or creation, three kinds are recognized: brahmasarga, prakrtisarga and suddhasarga.

Brahmasarga is the projection of the four-faced Brahma from Visnu and the creation of the world by Brahma.

Prakrtisarga is similar to the creation described in the Sankhya philosophy. Prakrti or pradhana comprises the three well-known gunas-sattva, rajas and tamas. The first product of the evolution of pradhana, when sattva is predominant, is buddhi (cosmic intellect). The second product, when rajas has gained the upper hand, is ahankara (egoism). This is of three types: prakasatma or taijasatma, vikrtatma and bhutatma. The first gives rise to the five jnanendriyas (organs of knowledge) and the mind. The second produces the five karmendriyas (organs of action). From the last evolve the suksmabhutas or tanmatras (the five subtle elements). These then create the five gross elements. The whole creation comes out of a combination of these basic products. The purusas or jivas (souls) get associated with bodies in accordance with their karma, due to the will of God. Their association with the inert bodies make the latter appear as conscious even as an iron piece acts like a magnet in the vicinity of a powerful magnet.
Suddhasarga is the third creation. Here God, called Purusottama Vasudeva, evolves from out of Himself three subsidiary agents or forms: Acyuta, Satya and Purusa. These forms in reality are non-different from Him. The third form, Puruse, acts as the antaryamin, or the Inner Controller. It is He who inspires all the gods to work. It is He who binds the jivas with vasanas (residual impressions) and again, it is He who inspires them to undergo sadhanas (spiritual disciplines) to get out of the bondage of vasanas.

The maya (delusion) power of God makes the jivas (through vasanas, or past impressions) get identified with the body-mind complex. This association of vasanas is anadi, or beginningless. However, by the grace of God the antaryamin, or the Indwelling Power and Spirit, the Jiva awakens to true knowledge and gets liberated from all shackles.

The path to this moksa, or liberation, starts with the inspiration of the jiva by God to seek a great guru, or spiritual preceptor. This guru gives the disciple mantradiksa (initiation with a holy name or syllable). Regular and steady practice of the mantrajapa (repetition of the divine name) results in samadhi, or total absorption in God.

Upasana, or meditation on God, has two stages. The first is called kriyakhya. Is it in the form of practice of various virtues like sauca (cleanliness), yajna (sacrifices), tapas (austerity), ashyayana (study of the scriptures), ahimsa (not harming others), satya (truth), karuna (compassion), dana (giving gifts), and so on? The second is called sattakhya or jnanakhya. It is practically the same as jnana yoga. Purified by the practice of kriyakhya, the mind is now able to meditate on the Atman within, which results in the experience of unitive consciousness that jnatr (knower), jneya (object of knowledge) and jnana (knowledge) are all one and the same.

The Pancaratra Agamas, especially the jayakhya Samhita, describe two types of yogas: mantradhyana and yogabhyasa. The former consists of meditation on God with form along with the repetition of appropriate mantras. The latter is almost the same Yoga of Patanjali (200 BC).

A special contribution of the Pancaratra Agamas to the religio-philosophical literature of Hinduism is the concept of the vyuhas, which are four. (Hence the name caturuyuhas, catur meaning ‘four’.) Vyuha means a projection or emanation.

In this system, Paramatman, Narayana, Visnu, Bhagavan and Vasudeva are the various names by which God the Supreme is known. Bhaga means sadgunas, or the group of six blessed qualities. They are jnana (knowledge), aisvarya (lordship), sakti (ability, potency), bala (strength), virya (virility, unaffectedness) and tejas (splendour). Since God, more commonly known as Vasudeva in this system, has all these gunas, or attributes, in the fullest measure, he is called Bhagavan. By the will of Bhagavan Vasudeva (the first or the original vyuha) the second vyuha, Sankarsana (or Balarama), emerges. From Sankarsana emanates Pradyumna and from him Aniruddha.

Though the latter three vyuhas are also in essence equal to Vasudeva, they manifest only two of the six gunas prominently, the other four being in a latent condition. If in Sankarsana jnana and bala are predominant, in Pradyumna aisvarya and virya are more prominent. Aniruddha, on the other hand, exhibits sakti and tejas to a much greater degree.

Each of the vyuhas is created with two activities, a creative and a moral one.

Each of the vyuhas, again, gives rise to three more sub-vyuhas, making a total of twelve emanations. They are Kesava, Narayana, Madhava, Govinda, Visnu, Madhusudana, Trivikrama, Vamana, Sridhara, Hrsikesa, Padmanabha and Damodara. These twelve are considered the masadhipas or adhi-devatas (tutelary deities) of the twelve lunar months. They are also offered arghya (ceremonial water) in ritualistic worship. Iconographically, all of them are identical except for the arrangement of the four emblems of Visnu sankha (conch), cakra (discus), gada (mace) and padma (lotus)-in the four hands.

The Pancaratra Agamas are a continuation of the Vedic tradition. They also expand and expound concepts about God and devotion. Apart from srsti (creation), sthiti (sustenance) and pralaya (dissolution) of the world, God discharges two more functions: nigraha (controlling and punishing evil-doers) and anugraha (showering His blessings on those who lead a good life and are devoted to Him). If the doctrines of bhakti, or devotion, and prapatti, or self-surrender, find an important place in this system, no less in the attention paid to rituals, worship, images of deities, and temples as also several mantras, the repetition of which will confer many a blessing on the votaries. Thus the Pancaratra Agamas have contributed considerably towards practical Hinduism. Even today, most of the Vaisnava temples, especially in South India, follow their dictates, thus keeping its traditions alive.

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