A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 3

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1940 | 232,512 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of antiquity of the pancaratra: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the first part in the series called the “the pancaratra”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 1 - Antiquity of the Pañcarātra

The Pañcarātra doctrines are indeed very old and are associated with the puruṣa-sūkta of the Ṛg-Veda, which is, as it were, the foundation stone of all future Vaiṣṇava philosophy. It is said in the Śata-patha Brāhnaṇa that Nārāyaṇa, the great being, wishing to transcend all other beings and becoming one with them all, saw the form of sacrifice known as pañcarātra, and by performing that sacrifice attained his purpose[1]. It is probable that the epithets “puruṣo ha nārāyaṇaḥ became transformed in later times into the two rṣis Nara and Nārāyaṇa. The passage also implies that Nārāyaṇa was probably a human being who became a transcending divinity by performing the Pañcarātra sacrifice. In the later literature Nārāyaṇa became the highest divinity. Thus Veṅkata Sudhī wrote a Siddhānta-ratnāvalī in about 19,000 lines to prove by a reference to scriptural texts that Nārāyaṇa is the highest god and that all other gods, Śiva, Brahmā, Viṣṇu, etc., are subordinate to him[2].

The word Brahman in the Upaniṣads is also supposed in the fourth or the last chapter of the Siddhānta-ratnāvalī to refer to Nārāyaṇa. In the Mahābhārata (Sānti-parvan, 334th chapter) we hear of Nara and Nārāyaṇa themselves worshipping the unchanging Brahman which is the self in all beings; and yet Nārāyaṇa is there spoken of as being the greatest of all. In the succeeding chapter it is said that there was a king who was entirely devoted to Nārāyaṇa, and who worshipped him according to the sātvata rites[3]. He was so devoted to Nārāyaṇa that he considered all that belonged to him, riches, kingdom, etc., as belonging to Nārāyaṇa. He harboured in his house great saints versed in the Pañcarātra system. When under the patronage of this king great saints performed sacrifices, they were unable to have a vision of the great Lord Nārāyaṇa, and Bṛhaspati became angry.

Other sages then related the story that, though after long penance they could not perceive God, there was a message from Heaven that the great Nārāyaṇa was visible only to the inhabitants of Śveta-dvīpa, who were devoid of sense-organs, did not require any food, and were infused with a monotheistic devotion. The saints were dazzled by the radiant beauty of these beings, and could not see them. They then began to practise asceticism and, as a result, these holy beings became perceivable to them. These beings adored the ultimate deity by mental japa (muttering God’s name in mind) and made offerings to God. Then there was again a message from Heaven that, since the saints had perceived the beings of Śveta-dvīpa, they should feel satisfied with that and return home because the great God could not be perceived except through all-absorbing devotion. Nārada also is said to have seen from a great distance Śveta-dvīpa and its extraordinary inhabitants. Nārada then went to Śveta-dvīpa and had a vision of Nārāyaṇa, whom he adored. Nārāyaṇa said to him that Vāsudeva was the highest changeless God, from whom came out Saṅkarṣaṇa, the lord of all life; from him came Pradyumna/ called manas, and from Pradyumna came Aniruddha, the Ego. From Aniruddha came Brahmā, who created the universe. After the pralaya, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna and Aniruddha are successively created from Vāsudeva.

There are some Upaniṣads which are generally known as Vaiṣṇava Upaniṣads, and of much later origin than the older Pañcarātra texts.

To this group of Upaniṣads belong the

  • Avyakto-paniṣad or Avyakta-nṛsiṃhopaniṣad,
    with a commentary of Upaniṣad-brahmayogin, the pupil of Vāsudevendra,
  • Kali-santaraṇopaniṣad,
  • Kṛṣṇopaniṣad,
  • Garuḍopaniṣad,
  • Gopālatāpainī Upaniṣad,
  • Gopālottara-tāpani Upaniṣad,
  • Tārāsāropaniṣad,
  • Tripād-vibhūti-mahānārāyaṇa Upaniṣad,
  • Dattātreyopaniṣad,
  • Nārāyaṇopaniṣad,
  • Nṛsiṃha-tāpinī Upaniṣad,
  • Nṛsiṃhottara-tāpihi Upaniṣad,
  • Rāmatāpinī Upaniṣad,
  • Rāmottarottara-tāpinī Upaniṣad,
  • Rāma-rahasya Upaniṣad,
  • Vāsudevo-panisad,
    with the commentaries of Upaniṣad-brahmayogin.

But these Upaniṣads are mostly full of inessential descriptions, ritualistic practices and the muttering of particular mantras. They have very little connection with the Pañcarātra texts and their contents. Some of them—like the Nṛsiṃha-tāpinī, Gopālatāpanī, etc.—have been utilized in the Gaudīya school of Vaiṣṇavism.

Footnotes and references:


Sata-patha Brāhmaṇa xm. 6. i.


The Siddhānta-ratnāvalī exists only as a MS. which has not yet been published.


We have an old Pañcarātra-saṃhitā called the Sātvata-saṃhitā, the contents of which will presently be described.

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