Parama Samhita (English translation)

by Krishnaswami Aiyangar | 1940 | 69,979 words

This page describes introduction to the parama-samhita of the English translation of the Parama Samhita, representing a manual of the Pancaratra school of Vaishnavism philosophy. These pages summarize ritualistic worship, initiation and other topics, as contained in the various Agamas belonging to the Pancaratra school

Introduction to the Parama-saṃhitā

Coming to the Parama Saṃhitā itself, we stated already that, unlike the other treatises on the subject, it is a general handbook on the principles of the Pāñcarātra, and so far as the text of it goes, it does not seem to have reference particularly to any one temple. The context as well as the import of the quotations made by Rāmānuja seem to imply that this is really a general Work on the Pāñcarātra principles. We may therefore have to refer it to comparatively early times. Viṣṇu-worship of the Pāñcarātra kind, and Vaiṣṇava temples Were known in the 2nd and perhaps 3rd century B. C. Although we have not come upon any direct reference of an indubitable character for temple worship in earlier times, there is nothing whatsoever of a definite character against such an assumption. The Work therefore seems to be referable to about the same early time, if not earlier. This may find support in the fact that the Dharma Śāstra of Manu it may be the original Dharma Śāstra–is a handbook of the Pāñcarātra type, as being more or less a handbook which lays down the way of life of an individual going through life with a view to the achievement of the ultimate end of human existence, niḥśrāyas, by freeing oneself from the cycle of births and attaining to the position of similarity and proximity to God Himself. The close similarity between the Paramasaṃhitā as a Pāñcarātra handbook and the Bhagavad Gītā as it has come down to us as a manual of the Pāñcarātra Vaiṣṇavism would only go to confirm this in a general way notwithstanding the detailed modern criticism, which would ascribe the Gītā to various dates. Of course, the determination of this question with precision would involve a discussion of the position of the Śānti Parva in the Mahābhārata and of the chronology of the Mahābhārata itself. That question is too large for discussion here. We leave that subject there therefore till the larger question of the Mahābhārata could take definite shape. A reference to the tattvas as detailed in the Parama Saṃhitā will show that the Parama Saṃhitā makes a total of only 25 of these, while in the Śānti Parva of the Mahābhārata this is the actual number of the tattvas recounted till we come to Yājñavalkya’s enunciation of these in the Śānti Parva, chapters XXIII-XXIV, (See S. N. Das Gupta’s History of Indiān Philosophy, Vol. II pp. 471ff). It will be found that Yājñavalkya is led on, in the course of a discussion, to postulate a 26th tattva, making the Puruṣa into two, the Kevala Puruṣa or the Supreme Puruṣa, and the Puruṣa contaminated by association with the Kṣetra or Prakṛti. We do not find anything analogous to it in the Parama Saṃhitā of the Pāñcarātra. Reference may here be made to Pāṇini (IV.3.105) regarding the later character of Yājñavalkya as compared with others whose names have come down to us as originators or writers of the Brāhmaṇas. Whether we would be warranted in actually regarding the Parama Saṃhitā older on this ground alone may well be left over for further investigation. The antiquity of the Pāñcarātra nevertheless is dear from this. Throughout the discussions regarding these, the terms Bhāgavata and Pāñcarātra are used as synonyms, the one of the other.

In many of the references made above to earlier literature, the Bhāgavatas appear as one group of people. It seems likely that, under that general name, a number of groups of people of kindred thought and practice in religion was included. Bühler held the Ajīvikas as a sect of the Bhāgavatas. But in South India the Ajīvikas are grouped along with the Nirgranthas, Who are regarded as a section of the Jainas. The Ajīvikas seem to have constituted a sufficiently important and respected group, as we come upon references in inscriptions to a special levy called Āśuvikaḷ kāśu, revenue raised in cash for the benefit of the Ājivikas. The association of the name in inscriptions would perhaps indicate some kind of Jain affiliation, though there is absolutely nothing to debar their having been other than Jain in point of religion. But we have a clear statement in the Harshacarita of Bāṇa, who certainly must be given credit for knowing what he actually states in the work, that among the large group of forest livers—not all of them necessarily ascetical—we find the Bhāgavatas and the Pāñcarātrins mentioned separately. Not only that; but the groups are divided by a certain number of other names coming in between. The commentator Śāṅkarārya renders the Bhāgavatas as Viṣṇu-Bhaktas, and explains the Pāñcarātraka as Vaiṣṇava Bheda. Perhaps therefore the Bhāgavata sects referred to in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu authorities have reference to a number of groups of Bhaktas or devotees of Viṣṇu, and, if they were so, whether the Ājīvikas could be brought under this grouping as a sect of the Bhāgavatas becomes possible. Whatever that be, early in the 7th century, Bāṇa had knowledge of a large number of sects of forest livers. Among them two important groups clearly distinguishable, namely, the Bhāgavatas and the Pāñcarātrikas, both worshippers of Viṣṇu were among the innumerable groups of forest-livers in the glades of the Vindhyan forests, each following its own teaching and adopting, all of them, a comparatively similar mode of life. In his days therefore, we would be warranted in inferring that the Bhāgavata cult prevailed in more than one form with the usual division of teachers and followers. Naturally therefore it would not be difficult to imagine that this was a comparatively elarge sect in civil society, apart from forest livers, and therfore that the doctrine or teaching of the Pāñcarātra exercised considerable influence and had a large following. Such an inference would be in keeping with the importance attached to this group of people and their opinions from the days of Śaṅkara onwards. What is really to our purpose is that about this time their teaching should have received a certain amount of formulation and codification; and there must therefore, have been text books to make the teaching popular among the large number of followers of the creed. Very many of the Pāñcarātra handbooks, or Saṃhitās, that we know of, may have come into existence, and might have had considerable vogue at this time, though some of the larger treatises may have been written later. But the essential point for us is the possibility of an early text book like that of the Paramasaṃhitā, and that seems warranted by the general light that these details throw upon the position of the Bhāgavatas and Pāñcarātrins as Viṣṇu worshippers. While therefore we are not in a position definitely to ascribe a precise date to the Paramasaṃhitā, it is fairly clear that it is a very early handbook of a general character, and therefore of high authority to be quoted in discussions on the general character of the teaching of Pāñcarātra.

It will be seen from the above discussion that the Bhakti school of the Vaiṣṇavas goes back to great antiquity, and is a school of thought which exercised very considerable influence over other sects which had attained to historical fame, among them prominently Jainism and Buddhism. This position is certainly in keeping with what obtained in the Tamil country where, in the earliest extant Tamil literature, we find clear references not only to the worship of Kṛṣṇa and Baladeva, but more or less to the general tenets of the āgamāic teaching, as in the Paripāḍal. A detailed analysis of the poems bearing on Viṣṇu would indicate considerable affiliation to the Paramasaṃhitā in respect of details, although it is possible, as we have stated already, that the detailed knowledge of the Pāñcarātra possessed by the Tamils may have been got from the Śánti-Parva of the Mahābhārata which had, in all probability been done into Tamil pretty early. The Alvārs whose time ranges from the 3rd to the 8th century have clear, and unmistakable and detailed references to the teaching of the Pāñcarātra as such, culminating in the specific statement of the Pāñcarātra having been taught through “Nara and Nāraṇa”, and be of the character of a general way of life, Dharmaśāstra, as it is called in Sanskrit. It must have had a continuous history in the Tamil land already, enabling Rāmānuja to quote authoritative text books and among them Paramasaṃhitā for one, for refuting a contrary opinion. It is the teaching of these āgamas generally that contributed largely to widening the sphere of the Vedic religion, giving it a popular form, and making it much less technical than the ritualistic Vaidik teaching of the Brāhmaṇa literature. No extraneous influences or copying from outside is needed to explain this popular character, and there is hardly justification for regarding the Pāñcarātra in particular as non-Brahmanical teaching, sometimes even described as anti-Brahmanical. It is this particular way of popularising that has given to modern Vaiṣṇavism the wide scope and continuity of practice. This teaching that had received already form and shape got to be popularised by the writings of the Alvārs and more regularly formulated and incorporated in the Vaiṣṇava teaching by the work of Rāmānuja and carried to the north and spread out into the various regions of Northern

India, modifying itself to have effective appeal as in the introductory statement in the Padma Purāṇa and the general statement in the Śri Bhāgavata. It has thus become a living fountain from which all kinds of people could draw to quench their thirst for the consolations of religion, and prevails in one form or another across the whole width of the continent from the frontier hills to the Bay of Bengal, and from the Himalayas southwards throughout the whole country. In certain regions of this south, its popularity is shared by almost the kindred cult of the Śaiva āgamas, which certainly is no less a Bhakti cult than the Pāñcarātra.