Vaiṣṇavism: Pāñcarātras

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A movement or sect called Pāñcarātra figures significantly in some of the earliest textual evidence used by scholars to trace the historical emergence of Hindu, specifically Vaiava, devotional (bhakti ) cults. Pāñcarātra is known to have influenced the development of Vaiava sectarian thought in several parts of India, and it remains a vigorous presence in South India today as an essential constituent of Śrī Vaiava religion and one of two Vaiava āgama s (traditions) that inform South India's Hindu temple culture.

The beginnings of the historical Pāñcarātraand even the original sense of the word pañcarātra remain matters of uncertainty and considerable scholarly dispute. Initially, the movement may not have been associated with any single doctrinal position. And when it first became associated with one, that position seems only secondarily to have been Vaiava. "The origin of Pañcarātra is obscure," J. A. B. van Buitenen observed, "because it has no[t] one origin" (van Buitenen, 1971, p. 6).

The problems begin with the word itself. Deprived of context, the compound pañca-rātra yields no clue beyond its literal sense: as a noun, it means "five nights" or "night of (the) five"; as an adjective, "five-night (ed)." Explanations given in the Pāñcarātra Sahitās (classical school manuals, none of which may be earlier than the sixth century ce) seem clearly ex post facto rationalizations embedded in apologetic and polemic. However faithfully such explanations record what certain Pāñcarātrikas (members of the Pāñcarātra tradition) came to mean by the word, they offer no secure insight into what it meant originally.

Śatapatha Brāhmaa asserts that the primordial Purua Nārāyaa, "wishing to become all things," performed Puruamedha ("human sacrifice"), a pañcarātra sattra ("five-day sacrifice"). In light of this occurrence (apparently the earliest) of the word in Vedic-Brahmanic literature, some scholars have found irresistible the temptation to seek the original meaning of the name Pāñcarātra in the Vedic sacrificial milieu. Thus, as F. Otto Schrader concluded, "it appears that the sect took its name from its central dogma which was the Pāñcarātra Sattra of Nārāyaa interpreted philosophically as the fivefold self-manifestation of God by means of his Para, Vyuha, Vibhava, Antaryāmin, and Arcā forms" (Schrader, 1916, p. 25). Quite possibly this passage from the Śatapatha Brāhmaa evidences Nārāyaa's integration and legitimization into the Vedic ritual and intellectual world; but it may as well be an accommodation of certain Pañcarātric associations as the source of them. In any case, except for Nārāyaa's centrality, the details of the Śatapatha Brāhmaa ritual neither confirm nor reinforce the preoccupations and central features of historical Pāñcarātra literature and practice.

Moreover, van Buitenen has argued persuasively that particular literary, doctrinal, and ritual associations such as those mentioned above are only secondary or subsequent specifications of an older, more wide-ranging acceptation of the word. In his view, pañcarātra initially referred to a characteristic of the way of life of itinerant recluses: their living apart from "towns" (that is, major settlements) except during the two-month rainy season. A pāñcarātrika in such early texts as the Bhatkathāślokasagraha, then, "is not distinguished by any particular faith or creed, but by a more or less ascetic life-rule," one prescribing five nights in the forest for every night spent in a town (van Buitenen, 1971, pp. 1415). If van Buitenen is correct, it would not be the first time in India that practice has crucially preceded systematic theory. And his thesis would support a plausible solution to the longstanding puzzle concerning the relationship between Pāñcarātrikas and Bhāgavatas: the former may simply have been Bhāgavatas who led generally reclusive and ascetic lives.

Epic PĀÑcarĀtra

While certain texts (e.g., nandagiri's Śakaravijaya ) distinguish between Pāñcarātras and Bhāgavatasand, indeed, consider Vaiavas distinct from bothit is not clear that the two necessarily were discrete in any sectlike way. The essence of "epic" Pāñcarātra is bhakti: unconditional devotion to the Lord (Bhagavat). The earliest unambiguous evidence of this "historical" Pāñcarātra seems to be that found in Mahābhārata 12.321ff, the Nārāyaīya, or Nāradīya, section, which introduces a religious attitude and a cosmology that agree in essential details with the teachings of the later Sahitās. Responding to a query concerning what god to worship, this "secret" teaching tells of a "hidden" god, invisible to all but his ekānta-bhaktas ("exclusive devotees"), to whom he graciously reveals himself. Such an ekāntin ("exclusivist") was King Uparicara, who worshiped Nārāyaa according to Sātvata rites and, believing kingdom, wives, and wealth to be his by Nārāyaa's boon, offered all these possessions to the Lord (Mahābhārata 12.322.17ff). Other ekāntin s inhabited Śvetadvīpa ("white, or pure, island"), located to the north in the Milk Ocean. Knowing Pāñcarātra teachings, they saw Brahman-Nārāyaa while others were blinded by his radiance (Mahābhārata 2.323.26ff).

Sātvata is another name for the Vi, who are part of a larger population of Yādavas, commonly thought to have been the society in which Ka-Vāsudeva bhakti rose. Epic Sātvatas are Nārāyaa bhakta s ("devotees"); but the Nārāyaīya explains that Nārāyaa, "formerly single-imaged," caused himself to be born as the "fourfold" son of Dharma: Nara, Nārāyaa, Ka, and Hari (Mahābhārata 12.321.1516).

The unitary god's multiple births or manifestations are familiar in Vaiava religious thought in general; and the historical Pāñcarātra seems to have contributed significantly to developing and enriching this notion. Doubtless, the epic Nārāyaa's four vyūha s ("appearances, modes of being") elaborate upon longstanding habits of identifying (or confusing) one divinity with another (or a divinity with a devotee), habits reinforced by factors such as the multiplication of divine epithets and the intensifying interaction between socioreligious groups, their ideologies and practices. Practically, this scheme facilitated the organization and "rationalization" of historically discrete devotional cults under a single, overarching principle, here Nārāyaa-Vāsudeva. In the Nārāyaīya, in fact, is found not one but two sets of multiple births that possibly developed independently. In addition to the more or less abstract Nara-Nārāyaa-Ka-Hari tetrad, there is the genealogical series Ka-Sakaraa (=Balaka)-Pradyumna-Aniruddha; that is, Ka, his brother, his elder son, and his grandson. Which set is the prior cannot be determined, although the latter is ultimately the more significant.

But something even more important is at work here: Pāñcarātrikas wanted to show how their supreme god could pervade the world and yet not be limited by it. To account for this, they drew upon several explanatory aids. And vyūha s were not the least important among them; for, as Jan Gonda observes, "already in Vedic ritualism the idea of vyūha implied an effective arrangement of the parts of a coherent whole" (Gonda, 1970, p. 50).

Epic pāñcarātrikas, then, are first and foremost bhāgavata s and ekāntabhakta s; and it is reasonable to conclude that the roots of their devotionalism are extra-Vedic. The Pāñcarātrikas are distinguished from similar groups of devotees by their particular efforts to show that their Lord is the underlying reality of all gods and that he is everywhere in the world without being subject to its manifest limitations. Crucial in this enterprise is their thoroughgoing exploitation of a theistic Sākhya to explain the relation between this world and the supreme reality, as will be elaborated upon in the next section. Further, there is an equally insistent attempt to link the Nārāyaa-Vāsudeva-Ka of religious experience to prestigious Vedic explanations, which, by allusion, include even the fourfold Purua of the Puruasūkta (gveda 10.90).

PĀÑcarĀtra Thought in the SahitĀs

The principal texts of historical Pāñcarātra are the Sahitās ("collections"), of which there are 108 works according to tradition, and more than double that number reckoning all titles cited in lists. Far fewer texts are readily available for study, and among them the most significant seem to be Paukara, Jayākhya, Sāttvata (constituting the "three gems" and presumably among the oldest), Ahirbudhnya, Pārameśvara, Sanātkumāra (quoted more than once by Yāmuna), Parama, Padma, Īsvara, and Lakmī. It is uncertain exactly when any of these was composed. Some may be as early as the sixth or seventh century ce although confirming citations date no earlier than the tenth century, and several are referred to only in the thirteenth or fourteenth century and later.

Formally, these texts closely resemble the Śaivāgamas (indeed, in this context, the terms sahitā, āgama, tantra, and śāstra are essentially interchangeable). Traditionally, they purported to deal with four topics: jñāna ("knowledge"), yoga ("disciplined concentration"), kriyā ("action"), and caryā ("conduct"). In fact, only one or two actually approximate this paradigm. The majority concentrate almost exclusively on kriyā and caryā: prescriptions for constructing and consecrating temples and "images" (of various materials) in which Bhagavān Nārāyaa is pleased to dwell, and for conducting the appropriate daily and festival services. Essentially, this is the literature of temple priests, and the bulk of it deals with practical details. The explicit jñāna sections (pāda s) are usually brief and bound up with stories about the creation of the world.

The Pāñcarātra's cosmogony is complex and many-tiered; and it incorporates influences and otherwise distinct ideas from many sources, Vedic and extra-vedic. But, while they differ on certain details and in the elaborateness of their presentations, the extant Sahitās share an understanding about the principal features of the three-stage "order of creation" (sikrāma ); and this core account may be sketched here in simplified outline. At the beginning (of every world age), the śakti ("energy, force, power") of parabrahman Nārāyaa-Viu awakens, opening her eyes as "action" (kriyā ) and "becoming" (bhūti ). She is Lakmī, distinct from Viu yet at the same time as inseparable from him as sunlight from sun. Although she acts independently, each act merely implements a wish of Nārāyaa-Viu's. As kriyāśakti, Lakmī is the "instrumental cause of the universe" and identical with Viu's great discus, Sudarśana. As bhūtiśakti, she is the "material cause," governed by kriyāśakti "as the thread governs pearls in a necklace."

In this śuddhasi ("pure creation"), the first gua s (qualities) appear. Non-prakritic (because they are "pre-prakritic"), these qualities of the supreme Lord number six: knowledge (jñāna ), lordship (aiśvarya ), power (śakti ), strength (bala ), virility (vīrya ), and splendor (tejas ). The gua s then pair together as knowledge/strength, lordship/virility, and power/splendor; and these three pairs respectively constitute the vyūha s Sakaraa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha. The Lord is entirely present (with all his six qualities) in every vyūha, but only one pair of qualities is openly manifest in each.

These vyūha s appear successively, then act togetheragain sequentiallyin the second, intermediate or "mixed" (śuddhāśuddha ) creation. There, "impure" creation initially is carried embryo-like as an undifferentiated potentiality in Sakaraa's body. Pradyumna differentiates it as purua and prakti ("spirit" and "material potential") and transfers it to Aniruddha, who in turn organizes it by means of his śakti. He is the brahman and māyā (apparent reality) of the material world, presiding over the cosmic eggs whence life as humans know itthe "prakritic" gua s (sattva, rajas, tamas ), karman, and timedevolves in the third, impure (aśuddha ) creation, itself consisting first of a subtle and then a gross stage. Here the account links to familiar Sākhya categories: Vāsudeva appears as the supreme purua. Through his contact with the (material) body arises the jīva, otherwise called Sakaraa, who in turn produces manas, that is, Pradyumna. And from Pradyumna issues the creative agent, the ahakāra who is Aniruddha.

In addition to their cosmogonic roles and cosmological significance, the vyūha s have important moral, theological, and pedagogical functions: Sakaraa teaches the true monotheism; Pradyumna translates that teaching into practice; and Aniruddha instructs about Pāñcarātra doctrine and the attainment of release.

Vibhava s ("manifestations") or avatāra s ("descents") of the Lord are subordinate to and dependent upon the vyūha s. They are of two kinds: those belonging to śuddhasi are mukhya ("primary"), and the major Sahitās agree that they number thirty-nine. "Secondary" (gaua ) avatāra s usually are said to descend from Aniruddha. Primary and secondary avatāra s differ importantly in their natures and in the benefits to be derived by devotedly concentrating on them. Those who seek moka should worship primary avatāra s, which spring directly from the Lord's body "like flame from flame." Secondary avatāra s are "ordinary" beings pervaded by a fraction of the Lord's śakti to accomplish particular purpose for world maintenance. Worshiping them yields worldly rewards such as wealth or sovereignty.

With this theory of secondary avatāra s one reaches the central preoccupations of the compilers of the Sahitās. It is not only "ordinary beings" who are fit receptacles for the Lord's descent: properly consecrated through Pāñcarātra ritual, a representation in stone, metal, wood, or clay also can become an avatāra. Descending into the material form with a part of his inexhaustible śakti when the appropriate consecration rituals are performed, the Lord thereby becomes fully present in the object, which is then known as arcā avatāra, or "worthy of worship."

PĀÑcarĀtra in Practice

At the heart of epic and later Pāñcarātra is the driving insistence that salvation comes only through knowledge of ultimate truth, a knowledge that is the grace of the Lord revealed by single-minded devotion. This knowledge, open to members of all four vara s (classes), depends on an understanding of the Pāñcarātra teachings. Such understanding requires the assistance of a qualified teacher (guru ), who guides the aspirant until he determines that the student is fit to be initiated. Initiation (dīkā ) consists of five rituals (pañcasaskāra ): branding the initiate's shoulders with the discus and conch emblems (Tāpa), instruction in the application of the cosmetic sectarian mark on the forehead (Pura), assigning a new name to the initiate (Nāman), confiding a secret mantra and explaining its sense (Mantra), and teaching the details of external ritual (Yāga). In addition, the adept learns a yoga for internal worship, that performed in the heart.

Services to the Lord combine with a life of purity and harmlessness (ahisā ) to the end of realizing "devotional union" with the Lord. The Pāñcarātrika is assured that there will be moments when "absolute union" with the Lord will be experienced. But this is not a realization of primordial unity in any metaphysical sense. Rather, it is an active experience of rapt devotion to the Lord, whereby individuals never lose their individuality. Indeed, as "parts" of Lakmī or Śrī, they too are eternally distinct from the Lord. Even during the intervals between world ages, they remain separate from if latent in him.

Pāñcarātrikas have made a considerable point of stressing that they are vaidika s, hence that Pāñcarātra not merely ranks alongside the Veda but is in fact part of it. Nārāyaa-Vāsudeva, according to them, is the god of the Upaniads, author of the Veda and the world. They assert, in effect, that the known world is incomprehensible in terms of karman alone. Underlying it, grounding everything, must be the supreme person.

The mildest rejoinders to such Pāñcarātra apologetics suggested that, at the very least, there was no way to prove their Vedic claims. Most responses were more severe. Manusmti 10.23 declares, for example, that Sātvatas and ācārya s are offspring of despised unions. And commentators identified both as temple functionaries. Denying the propriety of the lifestyles of temple priests, Smārta brahmans consider all their claims suspect. Association with a presumably extra-Vedic (i.e., tribal or nomadic) societythe Sātvata-Yādavascombined with the importance assigned to the dynamic, creative, female principle, Lakmī, doubtless contributed strongly to the (negative) assessment that Pāñcarātrikas were tantrika s (practitioners of Tantra). In an important sense, the assessment is correct; indeed, even the Pāñcarātrikas themselves called their system a tantra.

PĀÑcarĀtra in History

It is generally accepted that the historical Pāñcarātra first emerged in northern, probably northwestern, Indiait being clear, however, that Pāñcarātra itself was more an increasingly detailed set of cosmological speculations and devotional attitudes and procedures than it was a sect proper. This Pāñcarātra "system of thought" became the rationale of increasing numbers of Vaiava Bhāgavatas who were involved in temple and domestic devotional ritual. Its influence seems especially strong among the Mahānubhāvas of Maharashtra (from the mid-thirteenth century) and among the Narasihas.

Even more apparent than its northern heritage is the fact that Pāñcarātra has prospered more obviously in South India than in the north for at least the past millennium. Pāñcarātra's destiny in the south is closely related to the rise of the Śrī Vaiava tradition, in which Pāñcarātra cosmological and ritual theory and practice combine with the unique vernacular devotional poetry of the vārs. The early Śrī Vaiava "doctors" Nāthamuni, Yāmuna, and Rāmānuja become the most noteworthy personalities associated with the propagation and defense of Pāñcarātra ideas. Later developments in Śrī Vaiava theology and the emergence of two distinct traditionsVaakalai and Tekalairealize and expand upon more of what was present in Pāñcarātra thinking from the start than is often recognized. Through the Śrī Vaiavas, Pāñcarātra thought informed Rāmānanda (fl. mid-fifteenth century?) and his following of Rāma bhakta s, thus reentering North India. Again through Śrī Vaiavism, Pāñcarātra teachings strongly influenced the non-brahman Sātānis in Karnataka.

The circumstances of Pāñcarātra's introduction into South Indian temples are not entirely clear. Perhaps temple procedures had earlier been only customary and generally informal. In that case, the Pāñcarātra systematically introduced order and regularity. It is also possible, however, that (at least some of) the earlier Viu temple ritual was conducted according to Vaikhānasa prescriptions. More self-consciously linked to Vedic ceremonial, Vaikhānasas tended to a certain conservatism, resisting the incorporation of devotional material from the vārs (to which the Pāñcarātra were quite receptive). At the same time, Vaikhānasas are closer to earlier Pāñcarātra than to its later form in their conception of such deities as Rudra-Śiva as manifestations of Viu, and thus both groups appropriately included ritual proceedings that the evolving Śrī Vaiavas often found offensive. On the other hand, however, modern-day Vaikhānasas have argued that both Pāñcarātra "tāntrika s" and the Śrī Vaiavas offend the Lord precisely because they allow "saints" and teachers of Śrī Vaiava tradition to intrude into temple devotional ritual in ways that improperly detract from the worship of Lord Viu.

See Also

vārs; Avatara; Bhakti; Hindu Tantric Literature; Kaism; Marathi Religions; Śrī Vaiavas.


Jan Gonda's Medieval Religious Literature in Sanskrit (Wiesbaden, 1977) is the most helpful comprehensive account of Pāñcarātra (and other major Agamic) literature and ideas. His two-volume Die Religionen Indiens (Stuttgart, 19601963) contains the best overview of the Pāñcarātra in the context of India's religious history, and chapter 3 of his Viuism and Śivaism (London, 1970) significantly augments discussions of early Vaiava "theology." Of assistance in sorting out tantra and āgama is Hindu Tantrism by Teun Goudriaan, Dirk Jan Hoens, and Sanjukta Gupta (Leiden, 1979), especially Goudriaan's survey (pp. 367). J. A. B. van Buitenen's crucial thesis concerning the original sense of the term pañcarātra is included in the introduction to his translation of Yāmuna's gamaprāmānyam (Madras, 1971), itself a primary source of great importance, and his "On the Archaism of the Bhāgavata Purāa," in Krishna: Myths, Rites, and Attitudes, edited by Milton Singer (Honolulu, 1966), pp. 2340, remains important. Walter Neevel's Yāmuna's Vedānta and Pāñcarātra, "Harvard Dissertations in Religion," no. 10 (Missoula, Mont., 1977), gives valuable information especially on Yāmuna's "Vedantic gentrification" of Pāñcarātra. Suvira Jaiswal's The Origin and Development of Vaiavism (Delhi, 1967) is useful so long as its historical reconstructions are read with caution.

Of course, one wants to encounter Pāñcarātra through primary sources. For this, F. Otto Schrader's classic Introduction to the Pāñcarātra and the Ahirbudhnya Sahitā (Madras, 1916) remains the best point of departure. H. Daniel Smith's A Descriptive Bibliography of the Printed Texts of the Pāñcarātrāgama, vol. 1 (Baroda, 1975), and vol. 2, An Annotated Index to Selected Topics (Baroda, 1980) are indispensable guides. Sanjukta Gupta's translation of the Lakmī Tantra (Leiden, 1972) is excellent, and S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar's reading of the Paramasahitā (Baroda, 1940) is adequate. Finally, a precious record of actual practices is Kadambi Rangachariyar's The Sri Vaishnava Brahmans (Madras, 1931).

G. R. Welbon (1987 and 2005)