Pāñcarātra are Vaishnava Sanskrit Agamic texts. Literally meaning five nights (pañca: five, rātra: nights), the term Pancharatra has been variously interpreted. The term has also been attributed to the Shatapatha Brahmana 12.6 wherein Narayana performed a sacrifice for five nights and became a transcendent and immanent being. The Pancharatra Agamas constitute some of the most important texts of many Vaishnava philosophies including the Dvaita Vedanta of Madhvacharya and the Srivaishnava Sampradaya of Ramanuja. The Pancharatra Agamas are composed of more than 200 texts; with various suggested time periods of composition; including the 3rd century BC, and a period between 600 AD to 850 AD.
Vishnu worshipers of today, represented in a wide spectrum of traditions, generally follow the system of Pancharatra worship. The concept of Naḍa and Naḍa-Brahman appear already in Sāttvata Samhita or Sāttvata Tantra and in Jayākhya Samhita, two texts considered most canonical of Pancharatra texts.
Ānanda Tīrtha the founder of Madhva line has written in his commentary on Mundaka Upanishad:  "In Dvāpara-yuga, Vishnu is exclusively worshiped according to the principles of the Pancharatra Scripture, but in this age of Kali-yuga, the Supreme Lord Hari is worshiped only by the chanting of his Holy Name."
Jiva Gosvami had stated in his Paramātma Sandārbha, forming part of six principal Sandārbhas, or philosophical treateses of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, that, "Seeing that the imperfect scriptures in the modes of passion and ignorance bring only a host of troubles, and also seeing that the original Vedas are very difficult to follow properly, and thus being very dissatisfied with both of these, the all-knowing scripture authors affirm the superiority of the Pancharatras, which describe the pure absolute truth, Narayana, and the worship of the Lord, which is very easy to perform." In the same Sandārbha Jiva Gosvami states that god himself, Svayam Bhagavan, had spoken the Narada Pancharatra, which is accepted as a pramāṇa [critical evidence] by Gaudiya scholars.
During the 11th century AD Ramanuja, a founder of Sri Vaishnava traditions of Vaisnavism had established the Pancharatra system of Vaisnavism for his followers. His philosophy of worship of Narayana was based on the pancaratric teachings.
Ramanuja taught that the deity absolute, Parabrahman, manifests in five possible aspects: Para, Vyuha, Vibhava, Antaryamin, and Archa. Living beings can interact with the divine through one or another of these five.
The Para form is sometimes described as the first immanent manifestation of the Supreme Being.
Vasudeva, characterized by the six gunas, is sometimes called the first Vyuha. From Vasudeva emanates Sankarshana in whom jnana and bala alone get manifested. From Sankarshana comes Pradyumna to whom belong aishvarya and virya. From Pradyumna emanates Aniruddha to whom shakti and tejas appertain.
As we have seen, the Pancharatra thinkers were very much particular in safeguarding and preserving the purity and unchanged nature of the transcendent Supreme Being. From that point of view, the chief merit, and hence its primary significance, is that it is such a process of emanation in which the Supreme Being remains unaffected and unchanged in all the five-fold manifestations.
Closely connected with the doctrine of vyuhas, is the next manifestation of God, named as vibhava (manifestation) or avatar (descent). The only supreme being the Pancharatra philosophers knew about was the Transcendent One, who was not in any way directly related to the world. Therefore, the Samhitas explicitly describe the avataras as either all springing from Aniruddha, or some from Vasudeva and the rest from the other three vyuhas. One should not be mistaken here in assuming that the Supreme Being himself takes avatara. This is a puranic conception. The Pancharatra Samhitas nowhere maintain that the Supreme Being, laying aside its transcendent, unmoving nature assumes these finite forms. This is impermissible by the premises of the system. The Supreme Being is merely a spectator with an attitude of passivity and indifference. It cherishes no attachment to the mundane world, and it is beyond its nature to do so.
The fourth manifestation is the Antaryamin avatara, which is Aniruddha as the ‘Inner Ruler’ of all souls. It is a mysterious power seated in the ‘lotus of the heart’. Here again it should be noted that this is not a manifestation of the Supreme Being, but only of Aniruddha, one of the vyuhas.
The Pancharatra Samhitas, unlike Narayaniya, finally recognize the archa manifestation of God. An inanimate object (i.e. image of Vishnu), if duly consecrated according to the Pancharatra rites, acquires a miraculous power, and the Shakti of Vishnu descends into it. It is meant for the purpose of daily worship.
This archa worship is different from the pratima worship. In the latter the symbol is the locus, on which the devotee concentrates his thought. But no sooner the thought is centralized, than the locus soon gets out of his vision and no necessity thereof is felt. But in the archa worship, on the other hand, the devotee feels the very presence of God in it. And as such the inanimate image soon acquires a new meaning, becomes the object of love, of heart’s hankering and of the eye’s rest. This we find in the religion of the alvars as well, who are the Tamil Vaishnava saints.
The Samhitas propound an elaborate and complicated process of creation with characteristic doctrines of three stages and six koshas (coverings or levels) of creation.
Six aspects of surrender in the Pancharatra
Surrender to god is one of the core teachings of Pancharatra. The six aspects are explained below in brief:
i) Atma-nikshepa or nyAsa - placing oneself completely and directly under God's care. This involves giving up independent ownership in matters of actions or fruits thereof. This in fact is the real SaraNAgati. The subsequent five are to be regarding as assisting this. The obstacle to nyAsa is phalepsA or the desire for mundane benefits,which should therefore be avoided.
ii) kArpaNya - This refers to absolute humility bordering on lowliness and honest awareness of one's own natural ignorance, impurity etc., partly because of stains acquired through countless births. We all know the enormous feeling of kArpaNya that our AzhvArs have expressed through their compositions. This leads to ridding the arrogance that one may have because of parentage, learning, wealth, etc., and to get the sense that without the aid of Godhead, whatever we undertake on our own is bound to fail. The enemy for kArpaNya is the feeling that one is free, independent,and competent to do whatever he likes (sva-svAtantryAvabodha).
iii) mahA-viSvAsa - irrepressible and great faith in Godhead. Involves the understanding that God is the benefactor of all beings, and His compassion is always and readily available. The firm conviction that He will not fail to protect us is 'viSvAsa'. This by itself is capable of eradicating all sins.
iv) goptR - The deliberate choice of bhagavAn SrIman nArAyaNa as the sole Protector. Even when it is granted that anyway He is the sole protector, lakshmI-tantra points out that what is involved in this a'nga is the conscious and mindful selection of Him, the acknowledgment that we need protection, and that He and only He can protect us.
v) prAtikUlya-vivarjana - giving up whatever is antagonistic to any of His creations or to Him. A devotee must realize that all beings are like himself.
vi) AnukUlya-niScaya - The resolve to do good to all beings. The realization that all beings are in actuality the body of God, and the resolve to live in accordance with the will of God. Ahirbudhnya samhitA gives a beautiful illustration of SaraNAgati using a passenger who wants to cross a river in a boat. It is the passenger's responsibility to go and sit in the boat, and that is the end of his responsibility; the job or rowing the boat is not his, but that of the boatman (in this case God Himself).
Six aspects of surrender are described in many PancarAtra samhitas such as Ahirbudhnya Samhita, Lakshmi Tantra etc., thought the order of importance may vary. Lakshmi Tantra give the following:
"AnukUlyasya samkalpah prAtikUlyasya varjanam |
rakshishyatIti viSvAso goptRtva varaNam tathA ||
AtmA nikshepa kArpaNye shadvidhA SaraNagatih || (Lakshmi Tantra 17, 59-61)
Thus the order of the limbs given in Lakshmi Tantra is: Anukūlya Samkalpam, Prātikūlya Varjanam, Mahā Viṣvāsam, Goptṛtva VaraNam, Atma Nikshepam, and kArpaNyam. In Ahribudhnya Samhitā, the order given is: Atma Nikshepam or Nyāsam, KārpaNyam, Mahā Viṣvāsam, Goptṛtvam, Prātikūlya Varjanam, and Anukūlya Sampakpam. Svāmi Deṣikan has addressed these confusions in his Nyāsa VimSati (Slokam 12), and concludes that those who know Prapatti Sāstra well agree that there are five anga-s to Prapatti, and the different positions taken in respect of the number and sequence of importance etc. of the aspects of Prapatti really say the same thing in the end (sarva vākya eka kaNThyam).
Atma Nikshepam or nyāsam is considered the main ingredient of Prapatti - the conviction that one's own effort in attaining Him will not bear fruit, and placing oneself directly under His care and giving up ownership of one's own protection or the benefits from any actions to Him. The other five are then the limbs for Nyāsa, that are of equal importance as conveyed to us by Svāmi Deṣikan. Thus, for performing surrender or Atma Nikshepa or Nyāsam, one needs absolute humility (KārpaNyam), Anukūlya Samkaplam, Prātikūlya Varjanam, etc.
The attainment of the glorious and supreme feet of Vishnu (tad viṣṇoh paramam padam). Pancharatra texts were written before the philosophies of Advaita and visishtadvaita were established and vary in regards to the nature of the soul after liberation. In general, the soul is seen as a portion of Laksmi (goddess) and remains forever next to Narayana (god), liberation is therefore returning to the One.
Based on the Purusha Sukta (Rigveda 10.90) the Pancharatra Agamas teach that God (Narayana or Vasudeva) manifests the whole world from one fourth of himself. Therefore, three parts of the supreme are immortal nectar that can be attained by liberated beings. Modern Vaisnavism evolved from the Pancharatra and its theories.
Refutation in Brahma-sutra
The Pancharatra texts are, however, refuted in the Brahma Sutras in the Utpatyasambhavaadhikaranam of the second chapter. Vyasa (Badarayana) explains how the pancharatra texts are non-Vedic in four aphorisms. These sutras have been explained in greater detail by Adi Shankara and has been established beyond doubt that they are contradictory to the Vedas.
- उत्पत्यसम्भवात् (utpatyasambhavAt): The vedas and the Upanishads hold that Jeeva is eternal and they don't have origin or destruction. However the Pancharatra texts describes extensively about the origin of Jeeva, and their destruction, which is contradictory to Vedas.
- न च कर्तुः कारणम् (na ca kartuH karaNaM) : Pancharatra also has non-vedantic message by saying that the agent (Sankarshana, equivalent to Jeeva) creates his own instrument, Pradyumna and Pradyumna creates Aniruddha. These contradict both Pratyaksha and Shruti, and thus there is no Pramana for this doctrine.
- विज्ञानादि भावे वा तदप्रतिषेध (vigyanAdi bhAve vA tadapratiSedhaH) : Here Brahmasutra firmly establishes, even if you consider the four forms mentioned in Pancharatra, viz. Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha to be Paramatma, as opposed to successively "inferior" instruments generated by the agent, it is not convincing. Because if all four are mutually different, but are Paramatma, then it contradicts the vedic teachings of one supreme Paramatma. Also, if it can be argued that emerging from God gives a godly status, then why stop at just four? One can regress this to the last speck of matter in the Universe, and each of them can be individual Paramatma. Thus Reductio ad absurdum of the contents in Pancharatra.
- विप्रतिषेधाच्च (vipratiSedhAcca) : Also, the text is claimed to have multiple such contradictions to Vedas and also passages that are not respectful of Vedas, such as "Not having found the highest bliss in Vedas, Sandilya studied this Sastra". Such a text cannot be accepted by a Vedantin.
Refutation in Shaiva Sampradaya
The tamil text Parapakkam (பரபக்கம்) written by Sivagnana Siddhiyar also rejects the philosophy in Pancharatra, (verses 271 to 301), by various means of logic and by Puranic references. The author here shows other examples of how the text is a mis-fit with Vedas in poetic Tamil. Some of the references are given below.
ஆதிதான் ஆகில் ஆதிக்கு அந்தம்உண் டாகும் அந்தக்
கோதிலான் இறைவன் என்று கூறிடும் வேதம் ஞானச்
சோதியாய் நின்றான் ஆகில் தோய்ந்திடான் மாய ஞானத்
தீதிலா உருவம் என்னில் சேர்ந்திடான் தாதுச் சென்றே (பரபக்கம் - 271)
In the above text, the author, talks about various claims in Pancharatra. The author argues, "Pancharatra refers to Narayana as the "Aadi or beginning multiple times through the text. But by the vedas, anything with a beginning must have an end, which implies that Narayana has end, and hence he cannot be the supreme God. But Pancharatra claiming Narayana as the supreme God is a contradiction. Also, Pancharatra claims that God himself, in his complete Jnana form, came down in his Avataras. Those Avataras also went through all the sufferings and enjoyments like any other human being, as said in Ramayana, Mahabharata etc. This means, at least one of the following is true
- Narayana did not come down to Earth in his full Jnana form, but only as an inferior, temporary form. But Pancharatra claims that the avataras are equal to supreme Narayana in status.
- Narayana came in his full Jnana form, but still had to undergo the sufferings like a human being (like going to forest, separating from wife Sita), birth, death etc. This means Narayana is subject to all miseries like other Jivas and he is not supreme.
- Narayana came to earth in his Jnana form, but the birth and death and suffering he underwent are only to show bhaktas the way of life, in which case Narayana gets an asatyatva dosha, due to portraying an asatya suffering.
In either of these cases, there is a contradiction with the text.
The Pancharatra texts are samhitas and tantras which both classify as Agama due to subject matter. The Agamas are predominantly divided into Saiva, Sakta and Vaishnava Agamas. The Vaishnava Agamas identify Brahman as Vasudeva. The Mahabharata subscribes to the Pancharatra philosophy in its Narayaniya section. The Vaishnava Agamas are: Pancharatra Agama and Vaikhanasa Agama. Some of the Samhita's are:
- Ahirbudhnya Samhita
- Brahma Samhita
- Garga Samhita
- Laksmi Tantra
- Visnu Tantra
This list is mainly based on the list of the Sanskrit texts from the H. Daniel Smith Agama Collection, Cleveland, Ohio.
Of these Samhitas in Srirangam Sri Ranganatha Swamy temple "Sri Paramesvara Samhita", a variant of paushkara samhita is followed and in practice.
In Sri Melukote Cheluva Narayana Swamy temple "Sri Ishwara samhita" is followed and in practice.
In Tiruvellarai Sri Pundarikaksha Swamy Temple "Sri Paadma Samhita" is followed and in practice.
In Tirukkudantai (kumbakONam) Aravamudhan Sarngapani is worshipped with "Sriprasna samhita". Rest of the places use Padma samhita or its variants.
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