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Pāñcarātra Āgamas

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Swami Harshananda

Pāñcarātra Āgamas literally means ‘āgamas belonging to the Pāñcarātra school’.

Āgamas are a special class of 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 the scholars.

However, Yāmunācārya[1] in his scholarly work, the Āgama-prāmānya, has conclusively established their affinity with the Vedas. There are three kinds of āgamas;

  1. The Śaiva
  2. The Śākta or the tantra
  3. The Vaiṣṇava

The Pāñcarātra Āgamas belongs to the last group. The other branch of the Vaiṣṇavāgamas is the Vaikhānasa Āgama or the Vaikhānasa Sutras.

Derivation of the Name[edit]

The literal meaning of the word ‘Pāñcarātra’ means ‘that which is connected with five nights’. Lord Keśava[2] is said to have taught this esoteric science to Ananta, Garuḍa, Viṣvaksena, Brahmā and Rudra, over five nights.[3] The word rātra also means jñāna, knowledge or wisdom. Since it teaches five kinds of knowledge it is called Pāñcarātra. These are:

  1. Tattva - cosmology
  2. Muktiprada - that which gives mukti or liberation
  3. Bhaktiprada - that which confers devotion
  4. Yaugika - yoga
  5. Vaiṣayika - objects of desire

Alternatively, since it teaches about the five aspects of God called as Puruṣottama it is also called as Pāñcarātra. These aspects are:

  1. Para - highest
  2. Vyuha - emanation
  3. Vibhava - an incarnation
  4. Antaryāmin - indweller
  5. Arcā - form for worship

Pāñcarātra Literature[edit]

The Pāñcarātra literature is very vast. The total number of works, generally called ‘samhitā’ or ‘tantra’, exceeds two hundred, as per the lists given in various works, though only a few have been printed. 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 list of the works as available now, along with a very brief summary of each.

Ahirbudhnya Samhitā[edit]

This is a fairly voluminous work with 3880 verses in 60 chapters. It specially deals with the four vyuhas or emanations of the Lord, description of several mantras[4] and yantras[5] and also rituals for curing diseases.

Aniruddha Samhitā[edit]

It is also called Aniruddhasamhitā-mahopaniṣad, it has 34 chapters dealing entirely with the descriptions of various rituals, methods of initiation, prāyaścittas or expiations for sins, rules for making and installing the images of gods and other similar topics.

Hayaśīrṣa Samhitā[edit]

A fairly exhaustive work in 144 chapters, distributed among four Kāṇḍas or sections like Pratisthākānda, Sañkarsana-kānda, Liñgakānda and Saurakānda. It deals primarily with the rituals concerning the installation of images of various minor deities as also the methods of preparing them.

Īśvara Samhitā[edit]

It is a work of 24 chapters of which sixteen deal with ritualistic worship. Other subjects treated in this work are:

  • Description of images
  • Methods of dīkṣā or spiritual initiation
  • Practice of meditation
  • Details regarding mantras
  • Methods of self-control
  • Greatness of the Yādava Hill[6]

Jayākhya Samhitā[edit]

This work is one of the three cardinal texts of the Pāñcarātra literature. It has thirty-three paṭalas or chapters and deals with the following topics:

  • Detailed account of creation
  • Yogābhyāsa[7]
  • Mantropāsanā[8]
  • Various Vaiṣṇava mantras
  • Pujā[9] and homa;[10]
  • Dīkṣā[11]
  • Temples and worship therein
  • Ācāras[12] for the vaiṣṇavas
  • Prāyaścittas or expiations for sins

Kaśyapa Samhitā[edit]

This is a comparatively small work in twelve chapters. It deals mainly with poisons and methods of remedy by suitable mantras or incantations.

Mahā-sanatkumāra Samhitā[edit]

This is a voluminous work of ten thousand verses spread over forty sections in four chapters. It deals entirely with rituals of worship.

Pādma Samhitā[edit]

A work dealing mainly with rituals and chanting of mantras, this work is in thirty-one chapters.

Parama Samhitā[edit]

A work in thirty-one chapters, it deals with the following topics:

  • Process of creation
  • Rituals of initiation and worship
  • Yoga classified as Jñānayoga and Karmayoga

It declares that Jñānayoga includes prāṇāyāma and samādhi is superior to Karmayoga. Karmayoga seems to mean ritualistic worship of Viṣṇu.

Pārameśvara Samhitā[edit]

It is a short work in fifteen chapters which deals with meditation on mantras, sacrifices and methods of rituals and also prāyaścittas or expiations.

Parāśara Samhitā[edit]

A concise work in eight chapters, it deals with the methods of japa or the muttering of the name of God.

Pauṣkara Samhitā[edit]

Considered as one of the earliest works of the Pāñcarātra system, the Pauskara Samhitā consists of forty-three 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.

Sudarśana Samhitā[edit]

A treatise comprising of forty-one chapters, it deals mainly with meditation on mantras and expiations for sins.

Vihagendra Samhitā[edit]

It is in twenty-four chapters which deals with sacrificial oblations apart from meditation. In the twelfth chapter, the topic of prāṇāyāma, as a part of the process of worship, is also described extensively.

Viṣṇu Samhitā[edit]

It is a work in thirty chapters. It also deals mainly with ritualistic worship. Its philosophy is akin to that of Sāṅkhya Darśana with some variations like the puruṣa[13] being all-pervading and that he activates the prakṛti to evolve into the world.

Viṣṇutattva Samhitā[edit]

Comprising thirty-nine chapters, it deals with image-worship, ablutions and wearing of the vaiṣṇava marks and some purification rites.

Philosophy of the Pāñcarātra Āgamas[edit]

Modes of Attaining Mokṣa[edit]

The philosophy of this system has been expounded in the Jayākhya Samhitā in details. A brief summary of the same will be given here. Though yajña[14] dāna,[15] svādhyāya[16] and other similar religious disciplines are useful in spiritual life, it is only jñāna[17] of the paratattva or the Highest Reality that can really give mokṣa.

Nature of Brahman[edit]

This paratattva[18] is the same as the Brahman of the Vedas and the Upaniṣads. He is of the nature of pure consciousness[19] and bliss.[20] He is anādi and ananta.[21] He is the substratum and support of the whole universe. Though he is beyond all guṇas, he is also the bhoktṛ[22] of all that is born out of the guṇas. He is sarvajña[23] and sarvaśakta.[24] 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 ‘mānasika-pratyakṣa’.

Kinds of Sṛṣṭi[edit]

The Jīvas, when they realize this Brahman or God, appear to have become one with him, but do maintain a subtle distinction also from him. Hence this philosophy can be called ‘bhedābheda’ or ‘dvaitādvaita’. As regards sṛṣṭi or creation, three kinds of it are recognized:

  • Brahmasarga
  • Prakṛtisarga
  • Śuddhasarga

Brahmasarga is the projection of the four-faced Brahmā from Viṣṇu and the creation of the world by Brahmā. Prakṛtisarga is similar to the creation as described in the Sāṅkhya philosophy. Prakṛti or pradhāna comprises the three well-known guṇas.[25] The first product of the evolution of pradhāna when sattva is predominant, is buddhi.[26] The second product when rajas has gained the upper hand, is ahaṅkāra.[27]

Types of Ahaṅkāra[edit]

This is of three types:

  1. Prakāśātma or taijasātma - It gives rise to the five jñānendriyas[28] and the mind.
  2. Vikṛtātma - It produces the five karmendriyas.[29]
  3. Bhutātma - It evolve the sukṣmabhutas or tanmātras.[30]

These then create the five gross elements. The whole creation is a combination of these basic products.

Classification of Śuddhasarga[edit]

The puruṣas or jīvas[31] get associated with the bodies in accordance with their karma, due to the will of God. Their association with the inert bodies makes the latter appear as conscious even as an iron piece acts like a magnet in the vicinity of a powerful magnet. The Śuddhasarga is the third creation. Here, God called Puruṣottama Vāsudeva evolves out from himself in three subsidiary agents or forms:

  1. Acyuta
  2. Satya
  3. Puruṣa

Forms of Puruṣa[edit]

These forms in reality are non-different from him. The third form Puruṣa acts as the antaryāmin or the inner controller. He inspires all the gods to work and binds the jīvas with vāsanās.[32] He also inspires them to do sādhanas[33] to get out of the bondage of vāsanās.

The māyā[34] power of God makes the jīvas[35] get identified with the body-mind complex. This association of the vāsanās is anādi or beginningless. However, by the grace of God, the antaryāmi or the indwelling power and spirit, the jīva awakens to true knowledge and gets liberated from all the shackles.

Path to Liberation[edit]

The path to this mokṣa or liberation starts with the inspiration by God for the jīva to search out a great guru or spiritual preceptor. Guru gives the disciple mantradīkṣā[36] in which regular and steady practice of the mantrajapa[37] results in samādhi or total absorption in God.

Stages of Upāsanā[edit]

The upāsanā or meditation on God has two stages. The first is called ‘kriyākhya’. It is in the form of practicing various virtues like:

  1. Śauca - cleanliness
  2. Yajña - sacrifices
  3. Tapas - austerity
  4. Adhyayana - studying the scriptures
  5. Ahiṅsā - not harming others
  6. Satya - truth
  7. Karuṇā - compassion
  8. Dāna - giving gifts
  9. Etc.

The second is called ‘sattākhya’ or ‘jñānākhya’. It is practically the same as Jñānayoga. The mind purified by the practice of kriyākhya is now able to meditate on the ātman inside, which results in the experience of unitive consciousness that jñātṛ,[38] jñeya[39] and jñāna[40] are all one and the same.

Types of Yoga[edit]

The Pāñcarātra Āgamas, especially the Jayākhya Samhitā, describe two types of yogas:

  1. Mantradhyāna - It consists of meditation on God with form along with the repetition of appropriate mantras.
  2. Yogābhyāsa - It is is almost the same as the Yoga of Patañjali.[41]

A special contribution of the Pāñcarātra Āgamas to the religio-philosophical literature of the religion is the concept of the four Vyuhas.[42] ‘Vyuha’ means a projection or an emanation.

Different Names of God[edit]

In this system, the various names by which God the Supreme is known are:

  1. Paramātman
  2. Nārāyaṇa
  3. Viṣṇu
  4. Bhagavān
  5. Vāsudeva

Six Blessed Qualities[edit]

Bhaga’ means ṣaḍguṇas or the group of six blessed qualities. They are:

  1. Jñāna - knowledge
  2. Aiśvarya - lordship
  3. Śakti - ability, potency
  4. Bala - strength
  5. Vīrya - virility, unaffectedness
  6. Tejas - splendor

Different Vyuhas of Vāsudeva[edit]

Since God, more commonly known as Vāsudeva in this system, has all these guṇas or attributes in the fullest measure, he is called ‘Bhagavān’. By the will of Bhagavān Vāsudeva[43] the second Vyuha, Saṅkarṣaṇa or Balarāma, emerges. From Saṅkarṣaṇa emanates Pradyumna and from him, Aniruddha. Though the latter three Vyuhas are also equal to Vāsudeva in essence, they manifest only two of the six guṇas prominently, the other four being in a latent condition. If in Saṅkarṣaṇa, jñāna and bala are predominant, Pradyumna manifests aiśvarya and vīrya more prominently. Aniruddha, on the other hand, exhibits śakti and tejas to a greater degree.

Each of the Vyuhas is credited 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:

  1. Keśava
  2. Nārāyaṇa
  3. Mādhava
  4. Govinda
  5. Viṣṇu
  6. Madhusudana
  7. Trivikrama
  8. Vāmana
  9. Srīdhara
  10. Hṛṣīkeśa
  11. Padmanābha
  12. Dāmodara

These twelve are considered as the māsādhipas or the adhidevatās[44] of the twelve lunar months. They are also offered arghya[45] in ritualistic worship.

Iconographic Representation of Vāsudeva[edit]

Iconographically, all of them are identical except for the arrangement of the four emblems of Viṣṇu means śaṅkha,[46] cakra,[47] gadā[48] and padma[49] in the four hands.


The Pāñcarātra Āgamas are a continuation of the Vedic tradition. They also expand and expound the concepts about God and devotion. Apart from sṛṣṭi,[50] sthiti[51] and pralaya[52] of the world, God discharges two more functions:

  1. Nigraha - controlling and punishing the evil-doers
  2. Anugraha - showering his blessings on those who lead a good life and are devoted to him

If the doctrine of bhakti or devotion and prapatti or self-surrender find an important place in this system, no less is the attention paid to rituals, worship, images of deities and temples and also several mantras, the repetition of which will confer many blessing on the votaries. Thus the Pāñcarātra Āgamas have contributed considerably towards practical religion. Even today, most of the Vaiṣṇava temples, especially in South India, follow their dictates, thus keeping those traditions alive.


  1. He lived in A. D. 918-1038.
  2. It is the other name of lord Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa.
  3. Pañca means five and Rātra means night.
  4. Mantras are sacred syllables.
  5. Yantras are the magical diagrams.
  6. It is now known as ‘Melkoṭe’, a Vaiṣṇava pilgrim center on a hillock near Mysore, Karnataka State.
  7. Yogābhyāsa means practice of yoga.
  8. Mantropāsanā means spiritual practice through the repetition of mantras or sacred formulae.
  9. Pujā means ritualistic worship.
  10. Homa means fire ritual.
  11. Dīkṣā means initiation.
  12. Ācāras literally means the codes of conduct.
  13. Puruṣa means the individual soul.
  14. Yajña means the vedic sacrifices.
  15. Dāna means giving gifts.
  16. Svādhyāya means the study of the Vedas.
  17. Jñāna means the knowledge.
  18. Paratattva means God.
  19. It is called cit.
  20. Bliss means ānanda.
  21. Ananta means without beginning or end.
  22. Bhoktṛ means experiencer, enjoyer.
  23. Sarvajña means the omniscient.
  24. Sarvaśakta means omnipotent.
  25. They are sattva, rajas and tamas.
  26. Buddhi means cosmic intellect.
  27. Ahaṅkāra means egoism.
  28. Jñānendriyas means the organs of knowledge.
  29. Karmendriyas means organs of action.
  30. Tanmātras means the five subtle elements.
  31. Jīvas means the souls.
  32. Vāsanās means the residual impressions.
  33. Sādhanas means the spiritual discipline.
  34. Māyā means delusion.
  35. Jīvas means through vāsanās or past impressions.
  36. Mantradīkṣā means the initiation with a holy name or syllable.
  37. Mantrajapa means repetition of the divine name.
  38. Jñātṛ means the knower.
  39. Jñeya means the object to be known.
  40. Jñāna means knowledge.
  41. He lived in 200 B. C.
  42. Hence the name ‘Caturvyuhas,’ ‘catur’ meaning ‘four’.
  43. Vāsudeva is the first or the original Vyuha.
  44. Adhidevatās means tutelary deities.
  45. Arghya means ceremonial water.
  46. Śaṅkha means conch.
  47. Cakra means discus.
  48. Gadā means mace.
  49. Padma means lotus.
  50. Sṛṣṭi means creation.
  51. Sthiti means sustenance.
  52. Pralaya means dissolution.
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore

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