The Vaisnava Samhitas are a genre of scriptures that revolve around the god Visnu. Historians are unable to determine the exact age of the Samhitas because not all of the texts have been published (Matsubara 16). It is said that these texts emerged after the popularity of the Puranas grew, and devotional Hinduism became more attractive to the masses (Matsubara viii). Those who worship Visnu and have read the Vaisnava Samhitas are referred to as Bhagavatas, or vaisnavas (Matsubara 20). The Vaisnava Samhitas are known for being the canonical scriptures for the Bhagavatas (Matsubara 15). Followers of Visnu have a specific sect mark they wear to express to others that they are a Vaisnava. In Ritual Art of India by Mookerjee (1998), the sect mark is described as “perpendicular, and includes a center line with a stroke on either side, sometimes a dot in the middle, denoting the footprint of Visnu” (p 108). Vaisnavas are very close to their god Visnu, and this could be another reason why they carry this sect mark.
Another name for the Vaisnava Samhitas is Pancaratra Samhitas. The origin of the word ‘Pancaratra’ is unknown. No one has been able to provide a convincing explanation for the original meaning of the word (Matsubara 4). The only conclusion historians are able to agree on is that the word ‘Pancaratra’ is a compound. This means that the word ‘Pancaratra’ alone does not represent a group of people who worship the Pancaratra Samhitas. Visnu, who is referred to as the Supreme God in the Vaisnava Samhitas (Matsubara 86), also carries more than one name. In fact, there are multiple divine and cosmic forms the god takes in his transcendent spiritual realms (Vapey 16). Within the Vaisnava Samihitas, Visnu is also referred to as Hari, Narayana, and Vasudeva (Matsubara 80). Other names such as Adhoksaja and Janardana are found in the Samhitas, but are usually the names given to Krsna (Matsubara 80). Krsna is the human incarnation of the god Visnu. It is said in the Vaisnava Samhitas that Visnu performs Sattra, which is a five successive day sacrificial ritual (Matsubara 2). Before Visnu performed this ritual he appears in the Satapatha Brahmana as a student of Prajapati (Matsubara 117) Performing this ritual meant that Visnu had surpassed all beings (atyatisthat sarvani bhutani) and becomes the entire universe (idam sarvam abhavat) (Matsubara 2). Those who devote themselves to the worship of Visnu agree that he is the universe, but as a being who has surpassed all, he simultaneously exists far beyond it.
Visnu is the main god in the Samhitas, but he is not the only important figure. The Vaisnava Samhitas have a very unique cosmology that describes the opening stage of the creation of this world (Matsubara 119). Theologians base this creation of the world, known as the Vyuha Theory, on the self-sacrifice of Purusa. In the early Vaisnava Samhitas there is a text named Ahirbudhnya. In this text, the Purusa self-sacrifice is viewed as the creation of this world (Matsubara 119). The hymn in the Ahirbudhnya that describes Purusa’s self-sacrifice has sixteen stanzas, and describes not only the greatness of Purusa, but how one fourth of him was able to manifest the entire universe (Matsubara 118). This is the earliest expression of the idea of self-immolation. This idea of self-immolation is believed to be the influence for the Pancaratrikas creating the Vyuha theory (Matsubara 119).
The Pancaratrikas, who teach the Pancaratra Samhitas, hold Brahman as their supreme reality, but this differs from the actual Samhitas (Matsubara 67). In Matsubara’s (1994) book, he says that “Brahman seems rather to represent the transcendent or nonpersonal aspect of the supreme God and reveals its borrowed metaphysical character in the Pancaratra theology” (67-68). Detailed explanations are scarce in the texts of the Vaisnava Samhitas, as well as Brahman does not appear on the list of God’s epithets in the Samhitas (Matsubara 68). In addition to this, transcendent and personal features are thought of as interchangeable. In the text Jayakhya, the characterizations of Brahman and God are interlaced (Matsubara 68). Matsubara (1994) concludes this to mean that Brahman cannot be viewed as a nonpersonal principle separate from God (pg 68). In the Vaisnava Samhitas, Brahman is stated to be man’s pure intellect (Matsubara 75). This contributes to the contrast Brahman has with God because a man’s intellect is limited, but God is not.
The earliest texts in the Vaisnava Samhitas are known as the extant Pancaratra Samhitas. The Sasvatasamhita, Ahirbudhnya Samhita, and the Isvara Samhita are the texts that make up the extant Pancaratra Samhitas (Quinn 322). These beginning texts primarily deal with the worshipping rituals. Matsubara (1994) adds Pauskara to the list of texts in the extant Pancaratra Samhitas. The printed Pauskara begins abruptly, which has lead theologians to believe that a part of the theology is missing from the text (Matsubara 38). It is also said that Srivaisnava theology was supposed to be the primary influence for the theology of the Vaisnava Samhitas, but it was eventually deemed inessential. This Srivaisnava influence was consequently lost as the Pancaratra Samhitas were established (Matsubara 40).
The extant Pancaratra Samhitas are divided into two kandas. The two kandas are jnana and kriya. Within the first kanda, the summary of its contents uses fourteen slokas. In the second kanda though, there are only four slokas (Matsubara 37). An important characteristic of the earliest Vaisnava Samhitas is the lengthy explanation of the mantras (Matsubara 36). These earlier Samhitas put an emphasis on the disciplined practice of mantra meditation and recitation (Valpey 47-48). The later texts did not put as much focus on the mantras though. Later texts had the tendency to focus on rituals, and the addition of extra rituals and ceremonies. These texts may have been referred to for instruction on the practice of rituals, especially for the more recent vaisnavas (Matsubara 36).
In the book Pancaratra Samhitas: Early Vaisnava Theology, Matsubara (1994) says that when it comes to the theology of the Pancaratra, there are eight critical subjects according to Paramesvara: 1) Essential Nature (sva-rupa) of God; 2) His six supreme qualities (sadgunya); 3) The first Vyuha, Vasudeva, and the other three, which are Sankarsana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha; 4) Creation, the preservation and destruction of the worlds; 5) Sub-Vyuhas; 6) The Vibhavas and secondary manifestations; 7) Essential form of Laksmi and Pusti; 8) Essential form of jivatman, divided into mukta, amukta, and ubhaya, and the goal (gati) of each state. You can find traces of these subjects in the earlier Vaisnava Samhitas, though a more detailed written description of these subjects can be found in the Ahirbudhnya (Matsubara 39).
When other names are used to refer to Visnu, it is usually because he is the object of worship. In the Vaisnava Samhitas, Visnu is known for being the best recipient of offerings. Visnu is also frequently compared to parents, and is known as a welcome guest (Matsubara 80). This comparison to parents and being welcomed into worshipper’s home suggests a personal aspect to Visnu. This personal relatability is also referenced in the worship of him. Those who worship Visnu seek to attain a closeness to him, a type of union (Valpey 47). Worshippers achieve this closeness with repeated disciplined practice of mantra meditation. Matsubara (1994) calls the Pancaratra Samhitas a “devotional lingurical school”, and discusses the numerous times worship and meditation are mentioned in them (p 81). One of the most important rituals in the Vaisnava Samhitas is puja (Matsubara 81). The reason puja is one of the most important is because it is a foundation for all other ceremonies. From the daily routine worship that vaisnavas do, to the occasional initiation ceremonies, as well as abhiseka, puja is a part of it all (Matsubara 81). Puja is described as beginning with invocation (avahana), concludes with dismissal (visarjana), and normally includes sixteen services which are known as upacara (Matsubara 81). In puja, God is seen as a physical being who presents himself before the worshipper. This form of worship and meditation, therefore, provides access to God when done correctly. In the Vaisnava Samhitas, God in this form is accessible to all people, including lay people (Matsubara 82). It seems that one of the main purposes of the Vaisnava Samhitas is to provide an easier access to a personal God (Matsubara 88) through meditation and recitation.
The Vaisnava Samhitas hold a high importance to all vaisnavas who continually seek a personal connection and union with their god, Visnu. The Samhitas are accessible by people of all classes, and God presents Himself to those who worship him. This genre of scriptures is used to form a connection with Visnu, achieve Brahman, and eventually reach Moksa using meditation and the recitation mantras. The mantras within the Samhitas are expected to be followed precisely and practiced with discipline in order to reach these goals. Those who become vaisnavas, follow the teaching of Pancaratrikas, and recite and meditate following the Vaisnava Samhitas, will achieve everything they wish to achieve.
Matsubara, Mitssunori (1994) Pancaratra Samhitas And Early Vaisnava Theology. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.
Mookerjee, Ajit (1998) Ritual Art Of India. Vermont: Inner Traditions Inc.
Quinn, Edward (2014) Critical Companion to George Orwell: A Literary Reference To His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, Inc.
Valpey, Kenneth (2013) The Hare Krishna Movement: The Post Charismatic Fate Of A Religious Transplant. New York: Columbia University Press.
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Article written by: Ronai Schafer (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.