Scriptures and Texts - Part 'F' Agama Shastras
Continued from Part XXII
In Hinduism, Agamas are another class of scriptures exclusively dealing with the rituals and rites of devotion and worship of gods. They are defined as the theological treatises and practical manuals for the divine worship. The Agamas are inclusive of the Mantras, Yantras and Tantras describing the techniques of the worship of God in idol form at homes, temples, public gatherings etc. They provide elaborate details of ontology, cosmology, devotion, meditation, Moksha, philosophy of Mantras, mystic diagrams, charms and spells, temple-building, image-making, social rules, domestic observances and public festivals etc. In all, there are more than two hundred Agamas.
Though Agamas do not derive their authority from the Vedas but they are not in conflict either with them and have a wide acceptance among Hindus. In Hinduism, although Tantra is widely identified with Shaktism but in certain parlance the agamic practices are also treated synonymous with the Tantrism. Of the over two hundred known Agamas, there are at least 108 Vaishnava Agamas, 77 Shakta Agamas and 28 Shaiva Agamas. Of this Vaishnava Agamas are often called Pancharatra Samhitas and Shakta Agamas are also referred to as Tantras. In addition as in case of the Vedas and Puranas, rhe Agama literature has several Upa-Agamas too.
The Agamas and Tantras are source of ritualistic knowledge and wisdom to the mankind, a significant part of which relate to the spiritual knowledge and practices. The Agamas are broadly divided into three sections namely the Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta based on the three corresponding major sects of Hinduism and their doctrines and dogmas. The Vaishnava Agamas glorify God as Vishnu, the Shaiva Agamas glorify God as Shiva and the Shakta Agamas (or Tantras) glorify God as the Mother Goddess Shakti, Chandi or Devi and many other names. Broadly, the Vaishnava and Shaiva texts are called Agamas, while the Shaktas more often use the term Tantra to identify these texts.
Like the Vedas, Agamas too have followed the oral tradition through the Guru-Sishya parampara (teacher-pupil tradition) and they constitute the basis for several popular beliefs and practices in Hinduism. Like many other ancient literature in Hinduism, the history and chronology of Agamas too is not precise clear. Their origin is generally traced in the earlier parts of the first millennium. Several archaeological inscriptions, architecture of temples as also textual evidences suggest the existence of certain Agamas by 7th century during the Pallava Dynasty. However, some scholars such as Ramanan suggest that the origin of the Agama literature dates back to around the 5th century BCE deriving some clues and evidences from their archaic linguistics and prosody. However, Indologist Richard Davis have suggested that the Agamas available in modern times may not essentially be the ancient versions as these texts have apparently gone through several revisions over a period of time.
The Agamas exist on a variety of religious and cultural subjects and therefore could be referred to as guide on a whole range of the Sanatana practices and procedures. They are referred to as manuals for worship, holy places and temple building; offer methodologies for liberation; define Yoga and Prayogas using Mantras; and explain Devatas (gods), Yantra, Mantra and Tantra. Agamas exist on even on the subjects like town planning, domestic practices and civil codes, social festivals, principles of universe creation and sustenance, Creation and Dissolution, spiritual philosophy, austerities, Iconometry and several other interrelated subjects.
Structure and Composition
Each Agama essentially has three embodied aspects, namely Mantra, Yantra and Tantra.
Ordinarily, a Mantra is a sacred utterance, numinous sound, syllable, word or phonemes, including a group of words in Sanskrit which the faithful practitioners believe to have psychological and spiritual powers that assists in meditation by inducing a state of consciousness. In essence, it is the sound-form of the divine worship often used synonymously to Devata(s). It also forms the basis or means for the Yantra and Tantra. The composition, function, importance and types of Mantras as also its use vary according to the school and philosophy of Hinduism and its derivative religions like Buddhism. Mantras serve a central role in Tantra as sacred formulas and/or a deeply personal ritual. The earliest known Mantras are from the Vedic Sanskrit era, perhaps not less than 3500 years.
The Yantra is basically considered as a stratagem or contrivance which is charged with the power of the Mantra(s). It has variable structure such as a geometric shape in case of devata yantra or even like any instrument as in case of an astra. It serves like a tool and its nature depends on the purpose sought to be served. According to common belief, every devata (god) has a Yantra, which represents the nature and characteristics of that devata. Hindus draw temporary Yantras on clean floor also with turmeric or some other sacred powder for worshipping. However, for installation purposes, they carve out Yantras on the metal plates or stones. The Yantra thus drawn or carved is treated like the designated devata, and worshipped and charged with the corresponding Mantra(s). In common Hindu households, the devotees worship their presiding devata along with his consort including the associated and subordinate devatas in the elaborate rituals employing Yantra and Mantra.
In Hinduism, the term Tantra refers to any systematic and broadly applicable text, theory, system, method, instrument, technique or practice as a primary topic in the agamic literature. In a nutshell, the Tantra refers to the tantric practices and the subject dealt with under these practices is referred to as the Tantra Shastra. The Tantra combines Mantra, yogic methods and philosophy i.e. Tatva-Mantra-Samanvaya, detailing the procedures that a Sadhaka (seeker) shall follow in his (or her) Sadhana (devotion). The essence of any Tantra Shashtra is to transform the spiritual knowledge of the scriptures into the seeker’s experience through well-defined and time tested practices.
The Mantra, Yantra and Tantra are closely knitted procedures. If Mantra is the energy, the Yantra is geometrical representation of the combination and workings of these energies while the Tantra carries the philosophy and methods of redirecting and channelizing the energies for the guidance of the seeker in his spiritual pursuit and evolution. These Shastras are variously called as Pratyaksha Sastra (the science of real experience), Sadhana Sastra (the science of spiritual practice) and Upasana Shastra (the science of devotion). Further, it is divided into four Padas or parts, namely Jnana, Yoga, Kriya and Charya.
The Four Padas:-
The Sanskrit term Pada has several meanings and connotations such as the step, stride, footprint, vestige and mark including a part, section or sub-division of the ancient texts.
Jnana Pada is also known as Vidya Pada and it represents theories and doctrines, the philosophical and spiritual knowledge, knowledge of the Absolute Reality (Brahman) and Moksha (liberation), and so on. Dealing with the worldview of the spirituality, the Jnana Pada attempts to explain the nature of universe, causative factors of the phenomenal world, its Creation and Dissolution including the process of the eternal, bondage and liberation and the transient principles of the Prakriti, Self and Brahman. In a way, this part of the agamic texts could be considered at par with the Upanishads of the Vedas and Vedic philosophies. In agamic texts, the philosophy forms the principal base for the practice by the adherents or seekers.
The Yoga Pada relates to the principles and guidelines on Yoga – largely a physical and mental discipline. In this part, the methods and procedures of utilizing knowledge (Jnan) into experience are systematically explained. By employing these procedures and processes, the individual Self can seek the path of union with the Universal Consciousness that leads to the eternal bliss according to Hindu scriptures. Yogic Sadhana is defined in two parts as Antaranga (inner) and Bahiranga (external) and the objective of both is to purify and shine the person’s body and mind in spirit and deed. Both kinds of Sadhanas have the same ultimate goal. The chief object of the Tantra Shastra is to make the life an instrument of the divine whereby every action complies with the divine will and path that leads to the union of the individual consciousness with the Universal Consciousness.
In essence, this Pada proffers or propounds the methodology for achieving salvation through Sadhana, taking assistance of the Yoga Shastra and the science of the Consciousness. The Yoga offers many variants, Laya, Kundalini and Mantra. The primary emphasis of the Tantra Shastra is on Kundalini Yoga, while the secondary emphasis remains on the Mantra Marga to invoke the required energy for pursuing the Kundalini Yoga. In the process, the main strength and support comes from the immutable faith and devotion of the the practitioner in the deity.
The Kriya Pada deals with the religious aspect such as temple design and construction, sculpting, carving and consecration of idols in a ritual traditionally known as ‘Prana Pratistha’, procedures for other domestic and temple rituals including different forms of initiation or Diksha, pilgrimage, worship and observance of religious rites, rituals, festivals and prayaschittas (atonement), and so on. The scientific concept and procedure behind various religious rituals is elaborated at length in the Kriya Pada part of the various Agama Shastras. The practice of energizing idols through the Prana Prathishta literally means reinforcement of the life energy into the idol; the Christians have similar process of the consecration in their belief. The Agama Shastra serves as a scientific blue print for the temple construction including the sanctum sanctorum and energizing idols.
The Charya Pada contains the austerity, code of conduct, rules and regulations to be followed during the observance of the religious rites and/or Diksha. This part of the Tantra also lays a balanced emphasis on the outer and inner conduct of the practitioner which correspond to the outer ritual actions and ablutions of body and speech and the inner cultivation of the intentionality and mindfulness, respectively.
Prerequisites of Temple Site
The Agamas cite three basic and essential requirements for a religious site or the place of pilgrimage. They are Sthala, Tirtha, and Murti: The Sthala signifies the place of the temple; the Tirtha refers to the temple tank; and the Murti (idol) refers to an idol of the deity duly consecrated or energized. The Agamas of the respective sects and denominations lay out elaborate rules and procedures of the Shilpa (sculpture) highlighting the qualitative requirements of the temple place, images to be installed, materials used for idols including the dimensions, proportions, ventilation and lighting in the temple complex, and so on.
Categories of Agamas
Agamas have been categorized primarily based on the practitioners of the three major sects in Hinduism i.e. Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism.
Of the hundred plus Vaishnava Agamas, they invariably regard Lord Vishnu as the supreme Godhead. Broadly, they are classified into four categories, namely the Vaikhanasa, Pratishthasara, Vijnana-lalita and Pancharatras but the first and last of these categories stay as mainstay Agamas in the Vaishnava tradition. The Pancharatra, as the term suggests, involve a five-fold rituals schedule are the most popular and acceptable among the Vaishnavas. The Vaikhanasa Agamas are believed to have been transmitted from Vikhanasa Rishi to his disciples Bhrigu, Marichi, Atri and Kashyapa. The Pancharatra Agamas fall into three categories i.e. Divya (from Vishnu), Munibhaashita (from Munis) and Aaptamanujaprokta (from sayings of wise men). It is a genre of texts where Vishnu is presented as Narayana and/or Vasudeva as the ultimate and Absolute Reality (Brahman) that pervades the entire universe.
The Pancharatra Samhitas present the Vyuhas theory of Avataras explaining how Brahman manifests into material form (Vishnu) of ever changing reality. The major part of the philosophy of the Pancharatra appears to be derived from the Upanishads, including the Vedic concepts and teachings. Content wise too, they tend to comply with the Vedic Vaishnavas such as the Bhagavata tradition that emphasized on the ancient Vedic texts, ritual grammar and procedures. While the practices vary yet the Pancharatra Samhitas are tantric in emphasis. Among the most followed texts of this genre are Paushkara Samhita, Sattvata Samhita and Jakakhya Samhita. The other important texts include the Lakshmi Tantra, Ahirbudhnya Samhita, Isvara, Narada, Hayasirsha, Paushkara, Jnanamrita sara and Satvata Agamas. These texts also present cosmology, yogic practices, method of worship, Tantra and principles behind the design and building of Vaishnava temples.
Shaiva Agamas treat Lord Shiva as the supreme Godhead. These Agamas are classified into four schools: Kapala, Kalamukha, Pashupata and Shaiva. Of this, the prominent Shaiva is further subdivided into Kashmira and Siddhanta Shaiva; the former is largely followed in the North while the latter in South India. The Kashmira Agamas are also known as the Trika Shastra where Trika represents the triad of Shiva, Shakti and Nara (bonded soul). The Trika philosophy refers to the three-fold philosophy of truth, namely abheda (non-dual), bhedabheda (non-dual-cum-dual) and bheda (dual). This tradition believes that Shiva is Mahayogi, originator of Tantra and its practices. Some of the more popular Shaiva Agamas are Kamika, Parameswara, Swayambhuva, Vira and Kirana.
The Shakta Agamas are more commonly recognized as the Tantras. These texts consider Shiva and Shakti together for the spiritual growth but are more favourably inclined towards the reverence of the Goddess, representing feminine power as equal and essential part of the cosmic existence. Although the concept of the Shakti finds a mention in the vedic literature too, but it further developed and pronounced through the Shakta Agamas. In these Agamas, Shakti or Devi is depicted as the feminine creative aspect of the male divinity, the chief cosmogonic power and all pervasive divine head. In the Hindu sect Shakta, the Tantra texts glorify Shakti, unified with the male divine Shiva, as the Absolute reality.
Although Shakta Agamas hold Shakti as the supreme Godhead but the Shakta and Shaiva Agamas are closely interrelated with their respective focus on Shakti with Shiva, respectively. According to the Shakta scholars, Shiva and Shakti are "two aspects of the same truth – as static and dynamic, transcendent and immanent, male and female", and neither is complete without the other. Shiva's dynamic power is Shakti and she has no existence without him, then she is the highest truth and he the manifested essence. The Shakta Agamas are classified into two categories: Vama and Dakshina. Some of the more popular Tantra Shastras are Kularnava, Rudra Yamala, Brahma Yamala, Vishnu Yamala and Maha Nirvana.
Vedas and Agamas
The vedic scriptures are traced back to the 1st millennium BCE or even earlier, while the Agamas are not that old being mostly of the 1st millennium CE vintage. Then the Vedic literature is primary source of knowledge while Agamas are special treatise on action and practice. In terms of philosophy and spiritual precepts, the Agamas constitute sectarian literature yet without going against the precepts of the Vedas. For illustration, Shaivas while following own Agamas, do not accept any text that goes against the Vedas. Then the Vaishnavas treat the Vedas along with the Bhagavad Gita as the main source of knowledge, and their Agamas (Samhitas) as illustrative and expository exposition of the philosophy and spiritual knowledge. Similarly, the Shaktas recognize the Vedas and regard the Tantras (Agamas) as the fifth Veda.
The spiritual philosophy is summarized in the Vedas showing evolution from the Karma to Jnana while in the agamic texts the philosophy constitutes the basis for the action and practice. The Vedas with Upanishads as their extension are the basic scriptures of Hinduism, while the Agamas are sacred texts of the specific sects of Hinduism. The vedic and agamic texts have many parallels but there is a major difference too in that Vedas are classified based on the subjects they deal with while the Agamas are primarily meant to serve as guide for the practitioners in the relevant discipline. For illustration, among the Vedas the subjects like etymology, meter, phonetics, poetry, grammar, analysis, astronomy-astrology, ritual codes, moral codes, social organization and consciousness studies are organized into different hierarchical texts while Agamas do not lay much emphasis on such systematization and primary focus remains on guiding the practitioner in the given discipline.
It appears that the Agamas and Tantras were written by the later priests and scholars as an easy alternative for the Vedas as one doesn’t find references to the rituals like the occult practices, idolatry, and temple worship in the latter. These practices were probably introduced to Hinduism towards the later part of the second century BCE or early first century CE with the growing influence of the Buddhism. Possibly, the things like idolatry and occult practices were started around this time as the Vedas originally did not talk of such practices. The sects and cults in Hinduism evolved by this time appear to follow flexible social and religious practices. For example, many Vaishnavas were not open to allow Shudras to accommodate within their Agamas while the Shaivas and Shaktas were more flexible as it seems the tantric cults were more popular among the lower classes compared to the upper class people.
Although some people suggest that the Atharva Veda has treatise on the tantric practices. Indeed there are verses that suggest mild practices like controlling the co-wife of the husband, treatment of illnesses and so on through certain rituals but it doesn’t go beyond that compared to the elaborate occult practices of the Tantra in the Shavaism and Shaktism. The Agama Shastras appear to have originated in south with the worship of idols, making of idols and the temples, and various rites and rituals specific to the deities. Gradually it spread over the other parts and different sects in Hinduism developed and wrote their own Agamas, many treating them at par with the Vedas. Similarly, though many people treat Brahamanam (component of Vedas) as the seeds of the Agamas and Tantric cults but again they did not deal with idolatry or occult practices; instead, these treatises justified and explained the vedic yajnas and their procedures prevalent at the time.
As per a classification, the Shruti part of Hindu scriptures is comprised of two categories i.e. the Agama and Nigama. In this scheme, the Nigama refers to the four Vedas only while the Agamas refer to the specialized literature of the Vaishnavas, Shaivas and Shaktas. To summarize it, the Vedas (Nigamas) could be treated as the pure sciences while the Agamas as the applied one. There is another way of explaining it: the Vedas could be treated as the scientific theories while the Agamas as application of the theory. In Hinduism, the Vedas, Upanishads, Agamas, Puranas and Itihasas together constitute an ocean of knowledge and wisdom that offers the seeds of almost everything that the science has so far revealed and also that is not yet revealed or explored.
There are more than two hundred Agamas in Hinduism that represent a diverse range of philosophies on spirituality and salvation ranging from the theistic dualism to absolute monism. For instance, in Shaivism alone there are as many as ten Dvaita (dualistic) Agama texts, eighteen Bhedabheda (monism-cum-dualism) and sixty-four main and upa-Agama Advaita (monism) texts. Such diversity is reportedly cited by the10th century scholar Abhinavagupta in the Tantraloka. Similar diversity is found in Vaishnavism too. Both the Vaishnava and Shaiva Agamas premise on the existence of Atman and Brahman (Vishnu as Brahman in Vaishnavism and Shiva in Shaivism). Some texts assert the Advaita philosophy of the oneness of the individual soul and Ultimate Reality, while others talk about the Atman and Brahman being distinct realities as professed by the different Schools of Darshana (philosophy) in Hinduism.
Unlike vedic culture where yajna required no idols and shrines, the Agamas offer a system of spirituality involving ritual worship, and moral and ethical behavior through a set of principles and practices. The agamic devotion and worship is based on idols, symbols, icons and temples as essential ingredients. The Agamas do not necessarily follow four Vedas but they are not in conflict either with them. While the knowledge (Jnan) is the essence of Moksha (liberation) in the Vedas, the Agamas prescribe action and devotion for the practitioners to achieve the same goal. According to the medieval-era theologians, Tirumular "the Vedas are the path and the Agamas are the horse.”
Continued to Part XXIV