Agamas and Tantras are a vast collection of knowledge and form a major portion of spiritual literature and practices. Like the Veda, they have come down through Guru-Sishya parampara, in oral traditions. Agamas form the base for many of the popular as well as specialist aspects of Hinduism.
The word Agama means 'that which has come to (us)'. Tantra means 'that which protects with detail'. Sruti, the eternal word, is said to be of two forms – Nigama (Veda) and Agama. Two kinds of texts, Agama and Tantra are in general grouped under the same class of literature.
There are three main classes of Agamic/Tantric texts Vaishnava Agamas, Saiva Agamas and Sakta Tantras, though not limited to these. The Vaishnava and Saiva texts are generally called Agamas, while the word Tantra in general applies to Sakta texts. However, technically Tantra is a part of Agama and owing to the centrality of Tantra the two words are used often interchangeably.
Agamas expound a variety of subjects and could be called the guides to a huge range of Hindu practices. They contain
- Manuals for worship
- Methods for salvation, Yoga
- Devata, Yantra
- Prayogas using various mantras
- Temple Building, Town planning
- Domestic practices and civil codes
- Social/Public festivals
- Holy Places
- Principles of Universe, Creation and Dissolution
- Spiritual Philosophy
And many other interrelated subjects.
Aspects of Agama
Yantra is basically a contrivance, charged with the power of a mantra. It could be a geometric shape as in case of devata yantra or just any instrument as in case of an astra. It is the tool. The nature of Yantra depends on its purpose sought to be served.
Each devata is said to have a Yantra, a specific geometric shape that represents the nature of devata and a world model. For temporary purposes and worshipping, it could be drawn on clean floor with turmeric or some other powder, or for installations it could be carved on metal plates. The Yantra is worshipped and charged with corresponding mantra. It is treated like the devata, and is worshipped as the devata. The worship of yantra includes the worship of presiding Devata along with the consort, associate and subordinate Devatas and is an elaborate ritual consisting of propitiation of each of those.
Mantra, Yantra and Tantra are closely knit. Mantra is the energy. Yantras are geometric shapes that define the workings of various kinds of energies. Tantra deals with the philosophy and methods for redirecting and channelizing the energies to guide the spiritual evolution of the sadhaka.
Thus Tantra is the primary subject in Agamic literature. The word Tantra is in general used to refer to practices, and the subject dealing with those practices is called Tantra Sastra. To bring the spiritual knowledge of scriptures into the practitioner’s experience through well defined and time tested practices, is the essence of Tantra Sastra. For this reason, Tantra Sastra is variedly called Pratyaksha Sastra (the science of real experience), Sadhana Sastra (the science of spiritual practice) and Upasana Sastra. It has four parts or padas, jnana, yoga, kriya and carya.
The Four Padas
Jnana pada deals with worldview and spiritual philosophy. It explains the nature of universe, cause of phenomenal world, creation and dissolution, eternal and transient principles of nature, the nature of self, the philosophy of binding and liberation.
Yoga Pada specifies methods for getting into experience the knowledge that Jnana Pada expounds. It contains the procedures to be followed, through which the individual consciousness can be united with the eternal consciousness whose nature is infinite bliss. Yogic sadhana is of two forms, Antaranga (inner) and Bahiranga (external). Their purpose is to purify one’s mind, words and deeds. One can bring about the evolution of the entire being through these two kinds of practices, through which the divine principle that pervades existence is realized. The purpose of Tantra Sastra is not to simply realize the divine, but to make life an instrument of the divine, to make every action follow the divine will. That is affected when the individual consciousness is united in the eternal consciousness. Yoga Pada expounds the methods for achieving that, based on Yoga Sastra and the science of consciousness.
Yoga is of different kinds, Laya, Kundalini and Mantra. The primary emphasis of Tantra Sastra is Kundalini Yoga, and the secondary emphasis is on Mantra Marga that forms basis for invoking the energy required for pursuing Kundalini Yoga. Faith and Devotion give the necessary support for the practitioner, to remain perseverant in the path.
Carya Pada contains the austerity, code of conduct, regulations to be followed during Diksha.
Classification of Agamas
The Vaishnava Agamas regard Vishnu as the supreme Godhead. They are said to have come from the mouth of Vishnu Himself. There are hundreds of Vaishnava Agamas. Boradly they could be classified as Panacratra and Vaikhanasa. Pancaratra, as the name suggests, involve a five-fold ritual schedule. There are about 200-225 Pancaratra texts. Vaikhanasa agamas are taught by Vikhana to his disciples like Marichi and Bhrigu.
Saiva Agamas hold Siva as the supreme Godhead. There are 28 Saiva Agamas and they could be classified into two classes: 10 Siva bheda and 18 Rudra bheda Agamas. Further, the 28 are classified into four classes: Kapala, Kalamukha, Pasupata, Saiva. The last kind (Saiva) is further classified into two subclasses – Kasmira Saiva and Siddhanta Saiva. Kasmira Saiva is in vogue in the North and Siddhanta Saiva in South India. Each Saiva Agama has supplements/additional fragments called Upa-Agamas.
A few Saiva Agamas to mention: Kamika, Vira, Kirana, Parameswara, Swayambhuva.
Sakta Agamas hold Sakti as the supreme Godhead. These Tantras are of two kinds, Vama and Dakshina. There are said to be 64 Sakta Agamas, but the number could be much more. Many of these are in the form of Siva-Sakti conversations.
Veda and Agama
Agamic literature has many parallels to the Vedic texts; however the major difference is that in the Vedic discipline the different texts are classified based on the subjects they deal with. The various subjects like grammar, etymology, meter, phonetics, poetry, analysis, astronomy-astrology, ritual codes, moral codes, social organization, and consciousness studies are organized into different texts and arranged in a hierarchy as the ancillary texts of the Vedic discipline. Agamic texts in contrast, though they deal with various disciplines of knowledge, are primarily meant to be guides for practitioners. Many of the above subjects are referred to directly and indirectly, without expounding them but taking them for granted (for example grammar and etymology, chandas, varna-ashrama dharma etc) clearly making them part of the indigenous knowledge system rather than a parallel or equivalent knowledge system.
To draw a parallel between the subjects commonly dealt in the Vedic and Agamic texts,
- The Jnana Pada of Agamic texts can be considered equivalent to the Upanishad portion of Veda and the Vedic Darsanas. However, the summary of spiritual philosophy of Veda is seen at the end of the Veda and in the worldviews based on the Veda, which shows evolution from Karma to Jnana. In Agamic texts it is the other way, the philosophy forms the basis for practice.
- Kriya-Carya can be considered equivalent to the Srauta-Smarta portions of Kalpa, in that they prescribe the ritual code and general codes respectively. The temple and individual worship prescribed in Agama are equivalent to Srauta and Grihya rituals respectively. The temple itself is regarded as a replica of Yaga Sala.