Pāñcarātra and Vedānta: a long and complicated relation

Why do we find Pāñcarātra first refuted by Vedānta scholars and then defended by other Vedāntins? What happened between the two groups? And what was at stake with Pāñcarātra?

Pāñcarātra ideas or rituals have been around for a long time before the first extant Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās. One finds Pāñcarātra mentioned in the Nārāyaṇīya section of the Mahābhārata and the Brahmasūtra seems to refute Pāñcarātra in the utpattyasambhavādhikaraṇa (2.2.41–42). It is difficult to understand how Pāñcarātra grew and developed, seemingly moving from texts and practices regarding private rituals to texts and practices regarding temple rituals. The first stage took place in Northern India, perhaps in Kaśmīr (given the analogies with Kaśmīri Śaiva rituals, but early Pāñcarātra texts have been found also in Nepali manuscripts), whereas at a certain point Pāñcarātra moved to South India, where it survived until now, living symbiotically with Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and Śrī Vaiṣṇavism.

What made this symbiosis possible? As already hinted at, the Brahamsūtra refutes Pāñcarātra, and so do Bhāskara and Śaṅkara, although the latter’s refusal might be less negative (so Neevel 1977: 171–182). By contrast, Yāmuna is an engaged supporter of Pāñcarātra Sacred Texts (to their validity he dedicated his Āgamaprāmāṇya) and Vedānta Deśika also wrote a Pāñcarātrarakṣā. Do readers note an absence?

Rāmānuja does in fact hardly at all deal with Pāñcarātra. He mentions the vyūhas, but only in his devotional works and not at all in his Śrī Bhāṣya. Neevel explains this absence by saying that Rāmānuja was more “cautious” and separated theology (which needed to be Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedāntin) from rituals (for which Pāñcarātra texts and practices were responsible), perhaps in order to avoid “the ire and opposition of many more conservative Brāhmans” (Neevel 1977: 193).

However, this reconstruction partly clashes with Vedānta Deśika’s role and with the fact that he did not enforce this division (as already mentioned, he wrote a Pāñcarātrarakṣā and mentions Pāñcarātra repeatedly even in the Seśvaramīmāṃsā): Pāñcarātra is part of his philosophical (and not only devotional) scenario.

Are Yāmuna’s and Vedānta Deśika’s motivations the same? Is Rāmānuja an exception?

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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22 thoughts on “Pāñcarātra and Vedānta: a long and complicated relation

  1. Elisa, these are interesting questions! (to which I do not have answers…) A couple of points I would add: while it may be right to say that “at a certain point Pāñcarātra moved to South India” this probably occurred considerably earlier than their own texts indicate. The earliest extant Pañcarātra texts (i.e. those which borrow ritualistic elements from North Indian Śaiva sources) are almost certainly not among the earliest texts produced by the Pañcarātra – for instance Śaṅkara, whom many locate in South India in the 8th century, himself paraphrases a passage from an unnamed Pañcarātra text. Further, while Śaṅkara clearly rejects Pañcarātra doctrines he considers ‘contrary to the Veda’, it is not at all clear that he rejects the Pañcarātra in toto (as he does the Pāśupatas for instance), his opinion apparently being that it is ‘partly’ in conformity with the Veda (BSBh 2.2.42). Also relevant here (possibly) is an interesting article by G. Oberhammer “an Unknown Source in Śaṅkara’s Refutation of the Pāñcarātra” (1978) where the author suggests that the anonymous commentator on the Brahmasūtra quoted by Sudarśanasūri is the very same as the bhāṣyakāra cited by Śaṅkara. The commentator is quoted by the former as saying that those parts of the Pañcarātra (as well as Sāṃkhya, Yoga & Pāśupata) which do not contradict the Veda can be accepted as authoritative. Rāmānuja, meanwhile, in his Śrībhāsya (also 2.2.42) defends the validity of the Pañcarātra and attributes authorship of the Pañcarātra Tantra to Nārāyaṇa ‘the supreme brahman’. So, to cut a long story short, while it is right, I think, that the Pañcarātra became increasingly acceptable to Vedāntin thinkers (a fact probably attributable, in my view, to their increasing power within South Indian temples) I think it is not quite right to say that they were first ‘refuted’ and then ‘defended’ by Vedāntins. I would characterise Śaṅkara as offering them his qualified support, and suspect that Bhāskara may have been rather an exception to the norm (since the Brahmasūtra itself is not forthcoming on the issue). A final point: it is interesting also in this regard that Rāmakaṇṭha, who lived after Śaṅkara and before Yāmuna, in his Nareśvaraparīkṣāprakāśa explicitly groups the Pāñcarātras (specifically the Saṃhitāpāñcarātras) together with the “knowers of Vedānta”, characterising their doctrines as virtually identical but for the fact that the latter’s ‘brahman’ is the former’s ‘Nārāyaṇa’.

    • Thanks a lot, Robert, really interesting!
      I did not get your point re. the coming to South India of the Pāñcarātras. Do you mean to say that some Pāñcarātra texts remained in the North, while others moved to the South even BEFORE the contact with Śaiva rites? This seems hard to claim, isn’t it?

      • No, I wouldn’t claim that a pre-Tantric Pañcarātra existed in South India and produced texts there, as far as I’m aware there’s no evidence to support this (though it is not impossible). My point here is primarily that there may well have been Pañcarātra texts in circulation in South India already by Śaṅkara’s day, in other words well before the composition of the earliest extant (North Indian) Saṃhitās – the content of such texts, if they existed, is anybody’s guess, but they would have most likely been concerned with ‘private’ ritual.

        • Robert, thanks a lot (and sorry for the late answer, I lost your comment among the many spam ones).
          What puzzles me is: the extant Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās seem to have come to South India through Kaśmīr (or am I wrong about it? I am relying on the reuse of Śaiva rituals adapted to a Vaiṣṇava context). If there was already a Pāñcarātra tradition in the South, it would make sense that the “Northern” texts had been easily accepted (since they harmonised well with a pre-existing tradition). Is this what we suggest? And did the “first” Pāñcarātra leave no textual trace at all?

          • Elisa, thanks for this. No, I think you are right that surviving South Indian Pāñcarātra texts bear the influence of earlier North Indian texts, including Śaiva ones. Of the “first” Pañcarātra we know very little. There is the Nārāyaṇīya, as you know, and probably some of the later parts of the Viṣṇudharmāḥ were authored by a Pāñcarātra. Also the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa, but that is later still. There are, though, before this time, quite a few references to the Pañcarātra, especially in Kashmirian sources (but also from e.g. Cambodia), and Alexis Sanderson has shown that Pāñcarātras appear to have had a prominent role during the Karkota dynasty (7th-9th centuries). Elsewhere, there are several lists of Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās, 2 of which are especially interesting, not least because they appear to be earlier than others. One is found in the Śaiva Śrīkaṇṭhī or Śrīkaṇṭhīyasaṃhitā (a fragment of which survives and is transcribed by Hanneder in his book ‘Abhinavagupta’s Philosophy of Revelation’). Here, already (this text is probably 10th century at the latest) 116 Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās are named, a great many of which are absent from later canonical lists found in South Indian Pāñcarātra works. The other list (of 25 texts) is found in a (probably also North Indian) work called the Hayaśīrṣapañcarātra (and seemingly copied from here into the Agnipurāṇa) – this also contains several titles absent from later South Indian lists. As well as showing that there are likely many relatively early Pañcarātra texts which were not known, or not considered important, to later South Indian Pāñcarātra authors, these two lists are also valuable in that they contain titles of Saṃhitās the extant versions of which are considerably younger than the Śrīkaṇṭhī etc., and very probably South Indian. This points to the possibility that Pañcarātra texts were being reworked centuries after their original composition while retaining their old names. There is, as far as I can see, nothing to preclude the possibility that the extant versions of early works such as the Jayākhyasaṃhitā are also the products of reworkings of still older texts, so that ‘textual traces’ of the older Pañcarātra may well be present, albeit difficult to identify, in the early surviving literature.

  2. Robert, thanks again (I stopped replying to your replies in order to make the comments still readable). Still, I am not sure I completely get your point. I agree that Pāñcarātra was important and that there were other texts which are now lost (or of which only traces are found) but I did not understand your argument in favour of a specifically *South* Indian location of (some of) these early texts. Why should they be “very probably South Indian”?

      • Thank you and sorry for the misunderstanding. To sum up (please correct me): we have a Pāñcarātra tradition extending perhaps in many parts of India (as attested in non-specifically Kaśmīri texts such as the Nārāyaṇīya and the Purāṇas you mention as well as by Bhāskara’s and Śaṅkara’s discussions of Pāñcarātra). Besides, we have a *tantric* Pāñcarātra which probably developed in Kaśmīr (by “tantric” I just mean that it adopted Śaiva tantric domestic rituals) and then moved to South India. We do not know whether these two layers interacted in South India (e.g., with earlier titles being re-written by adding much ritual material to some pre-existing base), but it is possible that the Kaśmīri texts were easily accepted (or even requested from Kaśmīr) because they fitted nicely with pre-existing ideas while at the same time adding to them a powerful ritual tool.

  3. Namaste,

    I am a retired scientist, having interest in Indian philosophy. I am presently staying in San Jose, California, USA. Last May my book “The Original Bhagavad Gita of 745 verses, including all the rare verses “, was published from Delhi. I am looking for a paper by late Prof. Kamaleshwar Bhattacharya. As he had passed away I guess his son may be able o help me get a copy of that paper, but I do not have his Paris address. Through google-search I came to know that you were in touch with him for sometime.

    In case you have the address of Prof. K. Bhattacharya’s son, , may I request you kindly to send me the same.

    Looking forward to hearing from you and with regards,

  4. One reason for Ramanuja not making much use of Pancharatra in his philosophical works, especially Sribhashya,
    is that he scrupulously wanted his arguments to fit into already accepted pramanas of Poorvapaksha, especially,
    Advaitha Schools. To the large extent, he restricts himself to quoting from the same sources as Advaithins. Apart from Upanishads quoted by Sri Shankara, Ramanuja adds only Subala and Kaushithaki, which are crucial for his argument. Similarly in Puranas he quotes from Vishnu Purana (which is also quoted by Shankara else where). Never uses Alwars and restricts him self to expaining Bhakthi in Gita bhashya instead of Prapatti. The idea seems to be to convince opponents within the scope of their accepted authority. This approach is quite different from that of Shri MAdhvacharya, where he introduces and quotes from many other sources.

    • First of all, I apology for the delay in answering (I was abroad, with no internet access and had planned the post to go online before I left).

      Thanks you very much for this very interesting comment. I agree that Śrī Rāmānuja wanted to engage in the philosophical arena and in this sense needed to use shared siddhāntas. Still, this means that Śrī Rāmānuja wanted to establish the basic elements of his system in a school-independent way and that he did not see the prāmāṇya of the teachings of the Āḻvārs or of the Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās as a basic constituent of his system. What do you think?

    • The idea that Sri Ramanuja quotes the Kaushitaki upanishad which Shankara did not quote seems to be incorrect since Shankara has quoted extensively, at least in some ten places in the Brahma sutra bhashya, one instance is: BSB 1.1.28:

      अस्ति कौषीतकिब्राह्मणोपनिषदीन्द्रप्रतर्दनाख्यायिका — ‘प्रतर्दनो ह वै दैवोदासिरिन्द्रस्य प्रियं धामोपजगाम युद्धेन च पौरुषेण च’ (कौ. उ. ३-१) इत्यारभ्याम्नाता ।