The Pancaratra Agamas- A Brief Study
By Swami Harshananda, January 2003
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.
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 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.
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
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
Samhita: A fairly exhaustive work in 144
chapters and distributed among 4 kandas, or
‘Lingakanda’ and ‘Saurakanda’- it deals
primarily with rituals concerning the
installation of images of various minor deities
as also the methods of their preparation.
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).
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.
Samhita: This is a comparatively small
work in 12 chapters. It deals mainly with
poisons and methods of remedy by suitable
mantras, or incantations.
Samhita: This is a voluminous work of
10,000 verses spread over 40 sections in 4
chapters. It deals entirely with rituals of
Samhita: Dealing mainly with rituals and
chanting of mantras, this work is in 31
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.
Samhita: A short work of 15 chapters, it
deals with meditation on mantras, sacrifices and
methods of rituals as also prayascittas, or
Samhita: A concise work in 8 chapters, it
deals with the methods of japa, or the muttering
of the name of God.
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
Samhita: A treatise comprising 41
chapters, it deals mainly with meditation on
mantras expiations of sins.
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.
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.
Samhita: Comprising 39 chapters, it deals
with image worship, ablutions and the wearing of
Vaisnava marks, and some purificatory rites.
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
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
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
Brahmasarga is the projection of the four-faced
Brahma from Visnu and the creation of the world
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.