Among the early Vaisnava schools is the Pancaratra sect. Its name is possibly derived from the Satapatha Brahmana, where a panca ratra (five night) sacrifice is mentioned (Rodrigues 178). As the story goes, the great being Narayana wished to transcend and become one with all other beings. He accomplished this by performing the pancaratra sacrifice. It is implied that Narayana was once human, then became divine, and in later texts he is seen as the highest divinity. Because of this, there is a Siddhanta-ratnavali written by Venkata Sudhi which sets out to prove through scriptural texts that Narayana is the highest god, supreme to all other gods. This however can be disputed, for in the Mahabharata it is mentioned that Narayana himself worships an unchanging Brahman found in all beings (Dasgupta 12).
It is generally accepted that Pancaratra emerged in Northern India as a set of universal speculations, procedures, and devotional attitudes. It did not originate as religious sect. The Pancaratrin system eventually became central for many Vaisnava Bhagvatas involved in ritual in both temples and the home. Once it entered Southern India, it became even more prosperous due to the Sri Vaisnava’s rise. Its entrance into temples was perhaps so well received since it offered formal, systematic ritual where, previously, procedures were just customary. To this day, Pancaratra continues to be a vital component in Southern India as an essential factor of the Sri Vaisnava religion and as one of two Vaisnava traditions that teach temple culture (Welbon).
In a sense, Pancaratra philosophy is monotheist. Although with different features and manifestations, there is one supreme Deity above all (Sutton 210). This Deity is manifested in five features (vibhutis) according to classical Pancaratra, which include (Sutton 241):
1. Omnipresent and inconceivable
2. Emanations (vyuhas)
3. The avataras
4. The self within (antaryamin)
5. The images worshipped in temples (arca)
Of the vyuhas, four are most important when seeking liberation. These four are all immediate relatives of Krsna and reflect the six qualities (guna) of the Supreme Being (Rodrigues 178):
– omniscience, jnana
– power, sakti
– majesty, aisvarya
– strength, bala
– vigor, virya
– splendor, tejas
The four vyuhas which reflect these qualities compose the pure realm, whereas further, intermediary emanations make up the impure, material world. Once liberation is reached, the individual’s soul, jiva, enters into an existence shared with God in Vaikuntha. Although it is “entering into God,” the individual remains independent from the Lord (Rodrigues 178-179).
In the seventh century many significant Pancaratra texts began to emerge. These are called the Pancaratra Samhitas. Writings continued to be produced into the seventeenth century. Alongside the early literature, Pancaratra doctrines entered South-east Asia (Rodrigues 178). There is some dispute among non Pancaratra groups as to the nature of the texts. However, the stance that The Pancaratras take in regard to their own writings is that God alone is capable of revealing literature heavy with rituals and special commands, and no ordinary person’s instructions could be valid. Given this, the texts of the Pancaratras are clearly considered authentic by its followers. Another question arises over whether the authors of the Pancaratra works truly based them off the Vedas, or simply wrote their own views and masked them as being from the Vedas. The argument against Pancaratra doctrines indeed originating in the Vedas is that the smrti texts founded on the Vedas contradict the Pancaratra (Dasgupta 14). Ultimately, to the Pancaratrins, the same God who created the Vedas to lead people to happiness also created the Pancaratra literature to lead people to the ultimate happiness and realization of His nature (Dasgupta 16).
The collection of literature is quite large, with few printed works. The Satvata-samhita is one of the most important samhitas and the Satvata is mentioned in the Mahabharata, and other samhitas. It is in the Satvata-samhita where the Lord declares the Pancaratra-Sastra. In addition, the various ways of worshipping Narayana and his vyuha forms are described in twenty-five chapters, as well as other kinds worship and practices (Dasgupta 21). Despite the vastness of the Pancaratra literature, the majority is filled with ritualistic detail instead of philosophy. The most important texts, philosophically, are the Jayakhya-samhita and the Ahirbudhnya-samhita (Dasgupta 24).
Eternal heaven or liberation cannot be achieved simply through studying the Vedas, performing sacrifice, offering gifts, or doing penance. Salvation can only be achieved once we know para-tattva, or ultimate reality. This ultimate reality is eternal, everywhere, and self-realized. It is nameless and lacks any qualities, but is hidden by the qualities (Dasgupta 24-25).
There are three types of creation described in the Jayakhya:
– Brahma-sarga: In the beginning, Visnu created Brahma. Brahma then, through his own conceit, polluted the creation. Out of two drops of sweat, two demons were made and they stole the Vedas causing great confusion. Visnu unsuccessfully fought them physically, but destroyed them through his “mantra” energy (Dasgupta 25).
– The evolution of the Samkhya categories: the three gunas existed together, inseparable, in pradhana. These however get separated into sattva, rajas, and tamas. From further evolutions and separations such things as the cognitive senses, conative senses, gross elements, and other things of nature are created (Dasgupta 25).
– Suddha-sarga: Pure creation where God created three agents from himself. The agents are Acyuta, Satya, and Purusa. These are considered one with God and share his same existence (Dasgupta 27).
Knowledge is seen as two-fold in the Jayakhya-samhita. There is static knowledge, sattakhya, and dynamic knowledge, kriyakhya. Dynamic knowledge requires consistent practice of the moral disciplines of yama and niyama in order for wisdom to reach its fullness (Dasgupta 29).
The Ahribudhnya-samhita claims that the ultimate reality is eternal, empty of any name or form, beyond any words or thinking. It is an unchanging, all-powerful whole. Desire spontaneously arises from this reality. This desire or idea is not in any way limited, much like the nature of Brahman: intuitive and pure. When an individual destroys the sins that have collected o
ver many lifetimes and uses true knowledge, he can recognize the nature of Brahman (Dasgupta 34).
Much of the Ahirbudhnya is concerned with the nature of God. It goes into much more detail about his various qualities and how they are reflected. The power of God is embodied in two ways: static and active. The active is spontaneous and the will that leads to action (Dasgupta 36). One of the methods by which the Lord is active is through the vyuhas, which are responsible for three main functions (Dasgupta 38):
1. Creation, support, and destruction of the world
2. Protection of beings
3. Assisting those who are devoted to seeking liberation
The Ahirbudhnya provides more detail on the vyuhas and their further appearances.
Although numerous questions arise over the validity of the Pancaratra philosophical system, an interesting monotheistic approach to a polytheistic religion nonetheless.
Dasgupta, Surendranath (1961) A History of Indian Philosophy Vol.III. London: Cambridge University Press.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.
Sutton, Nicholas (2000) Religious Doctrines in the Mahabharata. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Welbon, G.R. (2005) “Vaisnavism: Pancaratras” Encyclopedia of Religion. Detroit: Macmillan Reference.
Written by Angela Tavernini (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.
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