Expiatory Rites in Keralite Tantra

by T. S. Syamkumar | 2017 | 59,416 words

This page relates ‘Introduction (Expiatory Rites in Agamic Literature)’ of the study on Expiatory Rites in Sanskrit literature and ancient Indian religion and society, with special reference to Keralite Tantra. Further references to texts include those found in Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism as well as Dharmashastra literature. This study also investigates temple records and inscriptions of Kerala in order to demonstrate the connection between social life and expiatory rites and its evolution.

Introduction (Expiatory Rites in Āgamic Literature)

Besides the Vedic literature, the Āgamic or Tantric literature is one of the most inevitable parts of religious writings in Sanskrit. Like the Vedas the Āgamas also claim divinity in their origin. So these are also considered as revealed texts. Kullūkabhaṭṭa states in his commentary on Manusmṛti that revelation is of two-fold: Vedic and Tantric.[1] The Vedic tradition upholds fire rituals like Yāga and various Yajñas and Tantras enumerate philosophy, image worship and also Mantra and Yantra worships. In addition to the deep and vast philosophical discussions, the Tantric manuals described various methods of worshiping the deities in and out of the temple premises. Various activities and rites connected with the construction of temples, installation of idols, daily and occasional ceremonies, etc. are dealt within these treatises. Tantric scriptures are very large and many branches are formulated in this area. Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, Śākta, Saura, Gāṇapatya and Kaumāra are the well-known branches in Tantra. In a large sense, the Tantric manual of the Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava and Śākta cults are known as Āgama, Saṃhitā and Tantra respectively.[2] Even though the term Āgama refer to Śaiva texts, in a broad sense, it is found to be used to denote the basic texts of Vaiṣṇava and Śākta sects.[3] The terms Āgama and Tantra are often seen used as synonyms. According to Āgamakośa, Tantric texts deal with various subjects like construction, termination, discussion of Mantras, installation of deities, description of Tīrthas, description of Varṇāśrama system, appointment of priests, position of gods, Bhūtas, planets, description of Vratas, description of Yantras, recitation of Purāṇic legends etc.[4] In the present days the most popular sense in which the term Tantra is used is to denote a class of literature dealing with mystical and magical worship of various deities.[5] The chronological determination of Āgamas is very difficult.

Tradition believes that it has a divine origin. About the origin of Āgamas the alleged concept is that the Āgaṃs originated from the mouth of Śiva and it is received by Pārvatī and well recognized by Viṣṇu.6 According to Ernest Furlinger, the Śaiva scriptures fall in three groups, they are Śiva Āgamas, Rudra Āgamas and Bhairava Āgamas. It is observed that there are 10 dualistic Śiva Āgamas, 18 non-dualistic Rudra Āgamas and 64 non-dualistic Bhairavāgamas. The first twenty eight Āgamas are also considered as the corpus of Śaiva Sidhhānta, a branch of Śaivism which flourished mainly in South India.[6] Inscriptional references point out that Siddhānta Tantras and related Śaivāgamas flourished in the period from the seventh century. The Pallava inscription of the king Narasiṃhavarman II seen at Kailāsanātha temple in Kāñcī referred the word śaivasiddhāntamārge, it announce the popularity of Siddhānta Śaivism in the period of seventh century CE. Like this the Cambodian inscription of king Rājendravarman (944-968 CE) refers the two Śaiva scriptures viz., Niśvāsa and Sarvajñānottara.[7] It shows evidence of the vide popularity of Śaivism. Thus, it is obviously seen that Śaivism had spread all over India and some parts of abroad. Inscriptional evidences have shown that Śaivism was also prevailing in Sumātra and Jāva.[8] Vīraśaiva sects of Karnataka and Trika Śaivism of Kashmir attest the geographical wide spreading of Śaivism all over India. Some scholars observed that originally the Śaivāgamas were the parts of Dravidian culture.[9] They thought that most of them were lost in a large flood and the Sanskrit versions of these scriptures were preserved later.[10] Tradition says that the Siddhānta Āgamas are twenty eight in number; these are the authoritative works of Śaivite sects.[11] They are Kāmikāgāma, Yogā-gama, Cintyāgama, Karmāgama, Ajitāgama, Dīptāgama, Sūkṣmā-gama, Sahasrāgama, Aṃśumadbhedāgama, Vīrāgama, Vijayāgama, Suprabhedāgama, Niśvāsāgama, Svayambhūvāgama, Rauravāgama, Anilāgama, Lalitāgama, Bimbāgama, Mauktāgama, Vimalāgama, Candrajñānāgma, Prodgītāgama, Siddhāgama, Santānāgama, Sarvoktā-gama, Pārameśvarāgama, Kiraṇāgama and Vātulāgama. Generally, each Siddhānta Āgama contains a fourfold classification; they are Jñānapāda or Vidyāpāda (Philosophy), Kriyāpāda (Rituals), Yogapāda, and Caryāpāda (Daily Routines). The Vidyāpāda section describes various philosophical aspects of world, rituals and salvation etc. The Kriyāpāda contains temple rituals, daily observances, architecture etc. The Caryāpāda elucidates initiatory rites (Dīkṣāvidhi) and daily rites of an Upāsaka, incidental and optional rituals etc. Yogapāda of an Āgama explains an eight limbed Yoga and it also aims at Tantric salvation.

The foremost academic researches show that some Āgamas were written in North India. Some of them are preserved and composed in South India. In his study Dominc Goodall evidently points out that the Āgamas and Upāgamas viz., Pārameśa, Niśvāsa, Svāyambhuvasūtra-saṅgraha, Rauravasūtrasaṅgraha, Sārdhatriśatikālottara, Kiraṇa, Parākhya (Saurabheya), Dviśatikālottara, Saptaśatikakālottara, Jñāna-pañcāśikā, Śatikakālottara, Bṛhatkālottara, Sarvajñānottara, Mṛgendra, Mohacūḍottara and Mayasaṅgraha were composed and preserved in the period of pre-twelfth century.[12]

About the date of Śaiva Tantric canons, Sanderson observes thus:

“[…] There survive inscriptions recording the Saiddhāntika Śaiva initiation of three major kings during the second half of that century, and during its first half the Buddhist philosopher Dharmakīrti (c. 600-660) goes to trouble of attacking the Tantric practice of initiation as the means of liberation. These facts reveal that Tantric Śaivism of this relatively public and strongly sotereological variety was not merely present in the seventh century but well established. And this implies the existence of Tantric Śaiva scriptures.”

[13] Thus the studies indicate that the wide popularity of Śaivism and the existence of its scriptures can be seen in seventh century onwards.

The Influence of Āgamas, particularly of the Śaivāgamas, is clearly visible in Kerala Tantric expiations. The study of expiatory rites in Śaivāgmas, Pāñcarātrāgamas and some Śākta Tantras is very useful to understand the range of concept and its features as well as the development of Keralite Tantric tradition.

Footnotes and references:


śrutiśca dvividhā tāntrikī vaidikī ca | Manusmṛti, 2.1.


For further readings vide Sanderson, Alexis, “The Śaiva Literature”, Journal of Indological Studies, Kyoto, Nos. 24&25, 2012-213, pp. 1-113. Sanderson, Alexis., “The Śaiva Age-The Rise and Dominance of Śaivism during the Early Medieval Period”, Genesis and Development of Tantrism, ed. Shingo Einoo, Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo, 2009, pp. 41-348.


Ramachandara Rao, S.K., The Āgama Encyclopedia, Vol. I, Srisatguru Publications, Delhi, 2005, p.1-2.


See Ramachandara Rao, S.K., ed. Āgamakośa Vol. I, Kalpataru Reseach Academy, Bangalore, 1989, pp. 58-55.


Chinthan Chakravarthy, Tantras studies on their Religion and Literature, Punthi Pusthak, Calcutta, 1999, p.1.


Ernst Furlinger, The Touch of Śakti, D. K. Print world, Delhi, 1992, p. 2-3. The classifications and divisions of Śaivism are very complex and diverse in nature. For details vide Sanderson, “The Śaiva Literature.” Dominic Goodall clearly stated thus: “Long before the twelfth century the Śaiva Siddhānta was the name of a theological school that has only in recent centuries come to be associated exclusively with the Tamil-speaking South. Its corpus of literature was entirely in Sanskrit: a body of scriptural texts (āgama/tantra/siddhānta) as well as a body of exegetical literature, ritual manuals (paddhati) etc. It is striking that this literature is today found transmitted almost exclusively in manuscripts from the far South of India and in the far North, in Kashmir and Nepal.” Dominic Goodall, The Parākyatantra A Scripture of the Śaiva Siddhānta, Institute Francais de Pondichery, Ecole Francaise D Extreme Orient, Pondicherry, 2004, pp. xviii-xix.


Ibid., pp. xix-xxi.


Bhattacharya, N.N., History of the Tantric Religion, Manohar Publishers, Delhi, 1999, pp.1-6.


Gavin Flood Observes: “While the Śaiva Siddhānta is the most important, normative form of Śaivism in South India, using Tamil scriptures, it originally developed in north, particularly in Kashmir. In Tamil Nadu the tradition comes to incorporate an emotional devotion (Bhakti) expressed in the hymns of the Tamil saints, as did the parallel sri Vaiṣṇava tradition.” An Introduction to Hinduism, Manas Saikia for Foundation books, New Delhi, 1998, p. 162.


Ibid., pp. 7-8.


The names of Āgamas seen in different texts do not match with the given list. For details of this discussion vide Dominic Goodall, Bhaṭṭarāmakaṇṭhas Commentary on the Kiraṇatantra, Vol. I, Chapters, 1-6, Critical edition and annotated translation, Institute Francais De Pondichery, Ecole Francaise D Extreme Orient, Pondicherry, 1998, pp. 402-417. And also see Ajithan, P. I., The Ritualistic Tradition of Tantra in Kerala: A Study on its Characteristic Features and Transmission, Un-Published PhD dissertation, Dept. of Sanskrit Sahitya, Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, January 2014, pp. 7-11. More details on the classification of Śaiva scriptures see, Alexis Sanderson, “Śaivism and the Tantric Traditions,” The World Religions/ Religions of Asia, ed. Friedhelm Hardy, London, Routledge, 1988, Reprint, 1990.


Dominic Goodall, op.cit., pp. xxii-xxv.


Sanderson, Alexis., “History Through Textual Criticism in the Study of Śaivism, The Pāñcarātra and Budhist Yogini Tantras”, Les Sources et le temps, Sources and Time: A Colloquium, Pondicherry, 11-13 January 1997, ed. Francois Grimal, Publication du department d’ Indologie 91, Institute Francise De Pondicherry/Ecole Francise D’ Extreme Orient, Pondicherry, 2001, pp. 2-11.

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