The Bhagavata Purana

by G. V. Tagare | 1950 | 780,972 words | ISBN-10: 8120838203 | ISBN-13: 9788120838208

This page describes The Bhagavata Purana and Pancaratra which is part 3 of the English translation of the Bhagavata Purana, one of the eighteen major puranas containing roughly 18,000 metrical verses. Topics include ancient Indian history, religion, philosophy, geography, mythology, etc. The text has been interpreted by various schools of philosophy. This is the third part of the Introduction of the Bhagavatapurana.

Part 3 - The Bhāgavata Purāṇa and Pāñcarātra

The Pāñcarātra is the name of an ancient Vaiṣṇavite system which deals with the knowledge (rātra) of:

  1. Ontology or Cosmology (tattva),
  2. Liberation (Muktki),
  3. devotion (bhakti),
  4. Yoga,
  5. the objects of senses (vaiśeṣika).

The earliest reference to Pāñcarātra is in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (13.6.1) and the sect is designated after ‘the five-days continuous sacrifice’ (Pañcarātra Sattra) of Nārāyaṇā, the traditional author of the Pūruṣa Sūkta. The philosophical connotation of this Sattra implies ‘five-fold self-manifestation of God by means of His Para, Vyūha, Vibhava, Antaryāmin and Arcā forms.

Normally the following ten topics are treated in the Pāñcarātra:

  1. Philosophy,
  2. Linguistic occultism (Mantra-Śāstra),
  3. Theory of magical figures (Yantra-Śāstra),
  4. Practical Magic (Māyā-Yoga),
  5. Yoga,
  6. Temple-building (Mandira-nirmāṇa),
  7. Image-making (Pratiṣṭhā vidhi),
  8. Domestic observances (Saṃskāra, āhnika),
  9. Social rules (varṇāśrama- dharma),
  10. Public festivals (utsava)[1].

Vedic tradition did not look upon with favour many activities of this non-Veḍic sect, and prohibited their followers from even speaking with these ‘sinners’ as will be found in Parāśara Purāṇa, Kūrma Purāṇa, Bṛhannāradīya Purāṇa, Agni Purāṇa the Viṣṇu, Hārīta, Bodhāyana and Yama Saṃhitās and smṛti-commentators and writers on dharma-śāstra like Medhātithi (A.D. 825- 900) and Hemādri (13th cent. A.D.)[2]. Śaṅkara on Brahma Sūtra 2.2.42 has refuted the Vyūhavāda (Doctrine of Emanations of Vāsudeva) of the Bhāgavatas i.e. Pañcarātrins. All these texts testify to the strong opposition to the Pāñcarātra- sect. The Pañcarātrins, however, patiently and tactfully infiltrated through orthodox Purāṇas and assimilated many Vedāntic concepts. Thus the avatāra-vāda was blended with Vyūha-vāda by the Pañcarātrins[3]. Viṣṇu Purāṇa is ‘a work which was written by a pro-Vedic Pāñcarātra scholar of a comparatively late age with the deliberate intention of writing a religious book for the propagation of his sectarian views under the garb of a Purāṇa[4]. Yāmuna and Rāmānuja brilliantly advocated the Pāñcarātra philosophy as against Śaṅkara, and quoted the authority of Viṣṇu Purāṇa in rehabilitating Pāñcarātra and blended it with the Vedānta. ‘Viṣṇu of Vedic Brahmanism, Nārāyaṇa of the Pāñcarātras, Kṛṣṇa-Vāsudeva of Sātvatas, Gopāla of a pastoral people (probably Ābhīras) all had been put in the melting pot from which originated the Bhāgavatism of the Gupta period, though originally Vyūhavāda, the central idea in the Pāñcarātra is absent from the Bhāgavatism of the Guptas[5].

In evaluating the opinions of these scholars, one must not lose sight of the historical perspective. Various views on Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa cult or Bhāgavatism and Pāñcarātra system ultimately lead to the following conclusions:

(1) Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa cult, the origin of Bhāgavatism, represents the Vedic tradition and was different from the Pāñcarātra system which, despite its professed connection with the Pañcarātra Sattra of Nārāyaṇa mentioned in the Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇa was non-Vedic and was condemned as such along with Pāśupatas and other āgamic sects.

(2) Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavad-Gītā mentions only Sāṃkhya and Toga and is silent about Pāñcarātra. Its philosophy and even avatāra-vāda is different from that of the Pāñcarātra system and its Vyūhavāda.

As Schrader points out, the first mention of the Pañcarātra is found in the Spanda-pradīpikā of Utpala Vaiṣṇava of Kashmir (10th cent.A.D.) and this fixes the 8th century A.D. as the terminus ad quem of the original Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās[6].

(3) Though Vyūhavāda was absent from Bhāgavatism of the Gupta era, the process of amalgamation between the two sects began in that period.

As the final form of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa took place by the Gupta Period, it is interesting to see how the Bhāgavatism in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and the Pāñcarātra systems were in the process of merging.

The Bhāgavata Purāṇa has assimilated the following from the Pāñcarātra system:

(1) The doctrine of Emanation (Vyūha) is absorbed in the doctrine of Incarnation (Avatāra).

(2) The tantric method and procedure of the worship of the Lord is prescribed in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa[7] The details of the procedure of such worship are given in Bhāgavata Purāṇa XII.Ch. 11. It is, however, worth noting that a votary who limits himself to idol-worship is regarded as the lowest type of votary[8].

(3) The Bhāgavata Purāṇa adopted many stories from the Viṣṇu Purāṇa.—a Pāñcarātra work.

They, however, differ mutually on the following points:

1. The Bhāgavata system, founded by Vāsuḍeva-Kṛṣṇa is unquestionably based on Vedic tradition. The Pāñcarātra system is based on non-Vedic—āgamic—tradition.

2. The Bhāgavata system (as seen from the Bhagavad Gītā) moves within the frame-work of Varṇāśrama-dharma but the portals of the Pāñcarātra were open even to foreigners.

3. The Bhāgavata system naturally attaches importance to the Vedic tradition as found in dharma-sūtras, but the Pāñcarātrins composed their own Saṃhitās (manuals).

4. The Bhāgavata mantra is: Oṃ namo bhagavate Vāsudevāya while the Pāñcarātrins adhere to their traditional mantra: Oṃ namo Nārāyaṇāya.

5. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa gives prominence to avatāra-vāda (doctrine of incarnations) but the Pāñcarātrins stick to their Vyūha-vāda (doctrine of Emanations)[9].

The Fusion of Vāsudeva Kṛṣṇa, Viṣṇu and Nārāyaṇa ultimately gave a respectable status to Pāñcarātrins and today the form of worship, use of magical figures (Yantra-śāstra), temple-building, infusion of the Spirit in images, public festivals of the Pāñcarātrins have become as it were an integral part of Bhāgavatism due to the popular appeal of these externalities. The fusion of the two sects was practically complete before the composition of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa

Footnotes and references:


F. Otto Schrader—Introduction to the Pāñcarātra and the Ahirbudhnya Saṃhitā (Aḍyar, 1916) pp. 24-26. Both the spellings Pañcarātra and Pāñca­rātra are used by scholars to designate this sect.

I have retained Schrader’s translation of technical terms in spite of the inadequacy of some of them.


Vide A.K. Majumdar—Caitanya, His life and Doctrine, pp. 26-27 and Kane’s History of Dharma Śāstra, II, 673 etc.


History and Culture of Indian People, Vol. Ill, pp. 423-24.


R.C. Hazra—Intro, to Viṣṇu p. translated by H.H. Wilson 3, Calcutta, 1961.


P.C. Bagchi i n History of Bengal, Vol. I. 402-03.


Schrader—Op. Cit. p. 19.


Vidhino'pacared devaṃ tantro'ktena ca Keśavam/—Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 11.3.47.


arcāyām eva haraye pūjāṃ yaḥ Śraddhayehate /
na tad-bhakteṣu cānyeṣu sa bhaktaḥ prākṛtaḥ smṛtaḥ //
. 11.2.47.


Schrader—Introduction to Pāñcarātra, pp. 35-42.

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