Vedas and Agamas

An Introduction

By Dr. Gururaj Mutalik

The Agamas, like the Vedas and the Upanishads, belong to a class of scriptural texts focusing on devotion to a personal god by worship of an image of the deity concerned. Agamas are elevated in their hierarchy of scriptural authority by some of the acharyas, such as Ramanuja and Madhva, as well as by the followers of Shankara and Shakti. The Vaishnava Agamas, which were the earliest, believed to be prevalent even at the time of the Mahabharata, are principally two: Vaikhanasa and Pancharatra. In the Vaishnava school of thought, the Agamas are accorded equal status with the Shrutis.

From their early origins, the Agamas evolved into a complex system of independent texts establishing well-defined sections of devotees. It is possible that the wider appeal of the Agamas, compared to other Vedic texts termed Nigamas, probably lies in the fact that the Agamas afford the devotee a concrete form of worship which is not easy to visualize through the abstract concepts of Brahman portrayed in other Vedantic texts. This tradition grew and became popular, and eventually resulted in temple worship, especially after second century A.D. in the era of the southern dynasties such as Chola, Pandya, Pallavas, Hoysala, Rashtrakuta, and Chalukyas. With royal patronage, temple worship reached the zenith of its glory, and left behind architectural wonders such as Hoysaleswara, the Chennakeshava temple at Halebeedu-Belur; and the famous nearby monolithic Gomateswara statue of the Jaina holy place. The iconographic excellence that evolved in temple construction reached its zenith in the period of the Vijayanagara Empire.

Apart from many famous temples of the south, multiple temples conceived in the Agama tradition dot the entire subcontinent of India—from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The influence seemed to have spread even beyond India as epitomized in the famous Vishnu temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia (tenth century A.D.).

            The Pancharatra Agama, as well as the Vaikhanasa Agama, two of the principal Agamas of the Vaishnva tradition, teach that Vishnu is the Supreme Truth, and emphasize various types of worship of the supreme deity. The worship involves a series of Vishnu manifestations; Vishnu and Lakshmi constitute the divine couple. Types of worship have evolved around image worship, as well as around the bhakti mode of worship. The principles of such practices include focusing on God with body, mind, and speech (Abhigama); keeping the right materials needed for worship (upadana); the actual ritual of worshipping God (Upaasanaa); studying Shaastras for cultivating right attitude and devotion (Swadhyaya); and focused meditation on the iconic form (Yoga). Pancharatraagama deals with the concept of the creation of the universe, and describes a cycle of evolution of the presiding deity, Narayana, in four distinct forms with evolving creative powers: Vasudeva, Samkarashana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha—all of which are described under the title, “Chaturvyuha Concept”.

Further evolution of the Agamas led to the Shaiva-Agamas Shaktagamas. Shaivagamas worship of God as Shiva, and Rudra. The Shakta Agamas are related to Tantra, which is further divided into the right-, and left-hand path.

Under this theme, “Agamas”, we include three original articles written by scholars:

Twin streams of Hinduism: Agama and Nigama (Dr. Prabhakar Apte)

Caturvyūha Philosophy of Pāñcarātra Agama (Dr. Prabhakar Apte)

Iconography and Philosophy (Dr. G. B. Deglurkar)