Wisdom Library Logo

An Historical Sketch

Part 3

In the following sections I shall endeavour to relate the beginnings of sectarianism. The sects which are now most important are relatively modern and arose in the twelfth century or later, but the sectarian spirit can be traced back several centuries before our era. By sectarians I mean worshippers of Śiva or Vishṇu who were neither in complete sympathy with the ancient Brahmanism nor yet excommunicated by it and who had new texts and rites to replace or at least supplement the Vedas and the Vedic sacrifices.

It is probable that the different types of early Indian religion had originally different geographical spheres. Brahmanism flourished in what we call the United Provinces: Buddhism arose in the regions to the east of this district and both Vishnuism and Śivaism are first heard of in the west.

The earliest sect of which we have any record is that of the Bhâgavatas, who were or became Vishnuite. At a date which it is impossible to fix but considerably before the epoch of Pâṇini, a tribe named the Yâdavas occupied the country between Muttra and the shores of Gujarat. Sects of this tribe were called Vṛishṇi and Sâttvata. The latter name has passed into theology. Kṛishṇa belonged to this sect and it is probable that this name Vâsudeva was not originally a patronymic but the name of a deity worshipped by it. The hero Kṛishṇa was identified with this god and subsequently when the Brahmans wished to bring this powerful sect within the pale of orthodoxy both were identified with Vishṇu.

In the Mahabharata[1] the rule or ritual (vidhi) of the Sâttvatas is treated as equivalent to that of the Bhâgavatas and a work called the Sâttvata Saṃhitâ is still extant. Bhâgavata appears to be the most general name of the sect or sects and means simply of the Lord (Bhâgavat), that is worshippers of the one Lord.[2] Their religion is also called Ekântika dharma, or the religion with one object, that is monotheism.[3]

A considerable literature grew up in this school and the principal treatise is often spoken of as Pâncarâtra because it was revealed by Nârâyaṇa during five nights.[4] The name however appears to be strictly speaking applicable to a system or body of doctrine and the usual term for the books in which this system is expounded is Saṃhitâ. All previous discussions and speculations about these works, of which little was known until recently, are superseded by Schrader's publication of the Ahirbudhnya Saṃhitâ, which appears to be representative of its class.[5] The names of over two hundred are cited and of these more than thirty are known to be extant in MS.[6]

The majority were composed in north-western India but the Pâncarâtra doctrine spread to the Dravidian countries and new Saṃhitâs were produced there, the chief of which, the Îśvara Saṃhitâ, can hardly be later than 800 A.D.[7] Of the older works Schrader thinks that the Ahirbudhnya was written in Kashmir[8] between 300 and 800 A.D. and perhaps as early as the fourth century. It mentions the Śâttvata and Jayâkhya, which must therefore be older.

The most remarkable feature of this literature is its elaborate doctrine of evolution and emanation from the Deity, the world process being conceived in the usual Hindu fashion as an alternation of production and destruction. A distinction is drawn between pure and gross creation. What we commonly call the Universe is bounded by the shell of the cosmic egg and there are innumerable such eggs, each with its own heavens and its own tutelary deities such as Brahmâ and Śiva who are sharply distinguished from Vishṇu. But beyond this multitude of worlds are more mysterious and spiritual spheres, the highest heaven or Vaikuṇṭha wherein dwells God in his highest form (Para) with his Śaktis,[9] certain archangels and liberated souls.

Evolution commences when at the end of the cosmic night the Śakti of Vishṇu[10] is differentiated from her Lord and assumes the two forms of Force and Matter.[11] He as differentiated from her is Vâsudeva a personal deity with six attributes[12] and is the first emanation, or Vyûha, of the ineffable godhead. From him proceeds Sankarshaṇa, from Sankarshaṇa Pradyumna, and from Pradyumna Aniruddha.

These three Vyûhas take part in creation but also correspond to or preside over certain aspects of human personality, namely Sankarshaṇa to the soul that animates all beings, Pradyumna to intelligence and Aniruddha to individuality. Strange to say these seem to be the names of distinguished personages in the Śâttvata or Vṛishṇi clan.[13] Mere deification occurs in many countries but the transformation of heroes into metaphysical or psychological terms could hardly have happened outside India. Next to the Vyûhas come twelve sub-Vyûhas, among whom is Nârâyaṇa,[14] and thirty-nine Avatâras.

All these beings are outside the cosmic eggs and our gross creation. As a prelude to this last there takes place the evolution of the aggregates or sources from which individual souls and matter are drawn, of space and of time, and finally of the elements, the process as described seeming to follow an older form of the Sânkhya philosophy than that known to us. The task of human souls is to attain liberation, but though the language of the Saṃhitâs is not entirely consistent, the older view is that they become like to God, not that they are absorbed in him.[15]

Thus it is not incorrect to say that the Bhâgavata religion is monotheistic and recognizes a creator of souls. Indeed Śankara[16] condemns it on the very ground that it makes individual souls originate from Vâsudeva, in which case since they have an origin they must also have an end. But Râmânuja in replying to this criticism seems to depart from the older view, for he says that the Supreme Being voluntarily abides in four forms which include the soul, mind and the principle of individuality. This, if not Pantheism, is very different from European monotheism.[17]

The history of these Bhâgavatas, Pâncarâtras or worshippers of Vishṇu must have begun several centuries before our era, for there are allusions to them in Pâṇini and the Niddesa.[18] The names of Vâsudeva and Sankarshaṇa occur in old inscriptions[19] and the Greek Heliodoros calls himself a Bhâgavata on the column found at Besnagar and supposed to date from the first part of the second century B.C.

The Pâncarâtra was not Brahmanic in origin[20] and the form of the Sânkhya philosophy from which it borrowed was also un-Brahmanic. It seems to have grown up in north-western India in the centuries when Iranian influence was strong and may owe to Zoroastrianism the doctrine of the Vyûhas which finds a parallel in the relation of Ahura Mazda to Spenta Mainyu, his Holy Spirit, and in the Fravashis. It is also remarkable that God is credited with six attributes comparable with the six Amesha Spentas.

In other ways the Pâncarâtra seems to have some connection with late Buddhism. Though it lays little stress on the worship of goddesses, yet all the Vyûhas and Avatâras are provided with Śaktis, like the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of tantric Buddhism, and in the period of quiescence which follows on the dissolution of the Universe Vishṇu is described under the name of Śûnya or the void.

It attaches great importance to the Cakra, the wheel or discus which denotes Vishṇu's will to be,[21] to evolve and maintain the universe, and it may have contributed some ideas to the very late form of Buddhism called Kâlacakra. This very word is used in the Ahirbudhnya Saṃhitâ as the name of one of the many wheels engaged in the work of evolution.

Though the Pâncarâtra is connected with Kṛishṇa in its origin, it gives no prominence to devotion to him under that name as do modern sects and it knows nothing of the pastoral Kṛishṇa.[22] It recommends the worship of the four Vyûhas[23] presiding over the four quarters in much the same way that late Buddhism adores the four Jinas depicted in somewhat similar forms.

Similarly the Śivaites say that Śiva has five faces, namely

  1. Îśâna or Sadâśiva (the highest, undifferentiated form of the deity) at the top and below
  2. Vâmadeva,
  3. Aghora,
  4. Tatpurusha,
  5. and Sadyojâta, presiding respectively over the north, south, east and west.

It is thus clear that in the early centuries of our era (or perhaps even before it) there was a tendency in Vishnuism, Śivaism and Mahayanist Buddhism alike to represent the ineffable godhead as manifested in four aspects somewhat more intelligible to human minds and producing in their turn many inferior manifestations. Possibly the theory originated among the Vishnuites,[24] but as often happened in India it was adopted by their opponents. None of these theories are of much importance as living beliefs at the present day but their influence can be seen in iconography.

As a sect the Pâncarâtras seem to have been a subdivision of the Bhâgavatas and probably at the present day many Vishnuites would accept the second name but not the first. The Pâncarâtra is studied at only a few places in southern India but its doctrines permeate the popular work called Bhaktamâlâ and in view of the express approbation of Râmânuja and other authorities it can hardly be repudiated by the Śrî-Vaishṇavas. Bhâgavata is sometimes used in the south as a name for Smârtas who practise Vedic rites and worship both Śiva and Vishnu.[25]

first previous index next last

- Footnotes:


Śântipar. cccxxxvii, 12711 ff. In the Bhagavad-gîtâ Kṛishṇa says that he is Vâsudeva of the Vṛishṇis, XI. 37.


Cf. the title Bhâgavata Purâṇa.


Ekâyana is mentioned several times in the Chândogya Up. (VII. 1, 2 and afterwards) as a branch of religious or literary knowledge and in connection with Nârada. But it is not represented as the highest or satisfying knowledge.


Even in the Śatapatha Br. Nârâyaṇa is mentioned in connection with a sacrifice lasting five days, XIII. 6. 1.


The Saṃhitâs hitherto best known to orientalists appear to be late and spurious. The Bṛihadbrahma Saṃhitâ published by the Anandasrama Press mentions Râmânuja. The work printed in the Bibliotheca Indica as Nârada Pâncarâtra (although its proper title apparently is Jñânamritasâra) has been analyzed by Roussel in Mélanges Harlez and is apparently a late liturgical compilation of little originality. Schrader's work was published by the Adyar Library in Madras, 1916. Apparently the two forms Pâncarâtra and Pâncarâtra are both found, but that with the long vowel is the more usual. Govindâcârya's article in J.R.A.S. 1911, p. 951 may also be consulted.


The oldest are apparently the Paushkara, Vârâha, Brahma, Sâttvata, Jaya and Ahirbudhnya Saṃhitâs, all quoted as authoritative by either Râmânuja or Vedânta Deśika.


It is quoted as equal to the Vedas by Yâmunâcârya, so it must then have been in existence some centuries.


The story of Śvetadvîpa or White Island in the Śânti-parvan of the Mahâbhârata states definitely that Nârada received the Pâncarâtra there.


There is much diversity of statement as to whether there are one or many Śaktis.


Vishṇu is the name of God in all his aspects, but especially God as the absolute. Vâsudeva is used both of God as the absolute and also as the first emanation (Vyûha).


Kriyâśakti and Bhûtiśakti.


Jñâna, aiśvarya, śakti, bala, vîrya, tejas. These are called guṇas but are not to be confounded with the three ordinary guṇas.


The words seem to have been originally proper names. See the articles in the Petersburg Lexicon.


Nârâyaṇa like Vishṇu is used to designate more than one aspect of God. Sometimes it denotes the Absolute.


The above brief sketch is based on Schrader's Int. to the Pâncarâtra where the reader can find full details.


Comment on Vedânta sûtras, II. 2. 42.


And, as Schrader observes, the evolutionary system of the Pâncarâtra is practically concerned with only one force, the Śakti, which under the name Bhûti is manifested as the Universe and as Kriyâ vitalizes and governs it (p. 31).


On Sutta-nipâta, 790, 792. The doctrine of the Vyûhas is expounded in the Mahâbhârata Śântip. CCCXL. 36 ff., 70 ff.; CCCXLI. 26 ff.


Lüder's List of Brahmi inscriptions, No. 6, supposed not to be later than 200 B.C. and No. 1112 supposed to be of the first century B.C. Sankarshaṇa is also mentioned in the Kauṭilîya Arthaśâstra, XIII. 3.


Some Saṃhitâs emphasize the distinction between the followers of the Veda and the enlightened ones who worship the Lord. See Schrader, Pâncarâtra, p. 97.


Syâm iti Sankalpa, Ahirbudh. Sam. II. 7. In some late Upanishads (e.g. Nâradaparivrâjaka and Bṛihatsannyâsa) Cakrî is used as a synonym for a Pâncarâtra.


The same is true of Râmânuja, who never quotes the Bhâgavata Purâna.


See the quotations from the Sâttvata Saṃhitâ in Schrader, pp. 150-154. As in the Pâncarâtra there is the Para above the four Vyûhas, so some late forms of Buddhism regard Vairocana as the source of four Jinas.


The Manicheans also had groups of five deities (see Chavannes and Pelliot in J.A. 1913, I. pp. 333-338) but they are just as likely to have borrowed from Buddhism as vice versâ.


See Bhattacharya, Hindu Castes and Sects, p. 565.

first previous index next last

Article published on