Agama – History
21.1. Agamas are a set of ancient texts and are the guardians of tradition. They are of uncertain antiquity. And , there are many legends associated with their origins. Dr. Surendranath Gupta says “The date of the Agamas cannot be definitely fixed. It maybe suggested that the earliest of them were written sometime in the second or third century A.D. and these must have been continued till the thirteenth or fourteenth century”.
21.2. The Agamas have come down to us, over the centuries, in oral traditions, from master to disciple. They are of practical applications in day-to-day worship practices associated, mainly, with temple-worship. It is likely that, over the centuries, some changes or modifications might have crept into the pristine lore to suit the changing needs of times according to the local contexts.
It is, therefore, quite possible the original texts became elastic and new ideas entered into its procedural aspects. We may not be sure that the present versions of the agama are exactly those which existed at that ancient past.
22.1. What we now know as Agama shastra had its roots in the Kalpa-sutras, the supplementary texts appended to the main division of each Veda. Each of the four Vedas has its own special Kalpa sutra. They are meant to guide the daily life and conduct of those affiliated to its division. Generally, the set of Kalpa sutra texts include: Grihya-sutra (relating to domestic rituals); Srauta-sutra (relating to formal yajnas); Dharma-sutra (relating to code of conduct and ethics); and Sulba-sutra (relating to mathematical calculations involved in construction of Yajna altars (vedi, chiti) and platforms); and specification of the implements used in Yajna (yajna-ayudha).
22.2. The initial set of ritual- texts dated around third century, based, mainly, in Grihya-sutra and Srauta-sutra did not call themselves Agamas. But, at a later period, they came into prominence as Agama Shastra following the emergence of temple culture. They were rendered into written form as palm –leaf-texts rather quite late. Even these texts were not easily accessible outside the priestly class. According to one version, by around 6-7th centuries, as the Temple-culture gathered strength, several Agamas were compiled into written texts as manuals for temple construction and vaastu; as also for deity worship (sakala-aradhana).
22.2. The Agama tradition began to flourish by about the 10th or the 11th century with the advent of the Bhakthi School having strong faith in worship of icons installed in homes and temples.
22.3. But, the history of the Agamas between the period of early texts (3rd or 4th century) and the period when they began to come into prominence (say 10th or 11th century) is rather hazy. No significant development seems to have taken place during the intervening period.
Agama is of post Darshana period
23.1. Most of the ritual-worship sequences that are followed during the present-day seem to have developed after the establishment of the six orthodox schools of Indian philosophy (darshanas). The changes in religious rituals from the Vedic to the Aagamic find an echo in the themes elaborated in the six orthodox systems.
23.2. A very significant change is the integration of Samkhya ideologies and Yoga practices into worship-rituals which somehow are juxtaposed with Vedic mantras. The very act of worshiping an idol is based in the Samkhya concept of duality, while at the same time, perceiving their essential unity.
The worshiper initially regards the idol, the most revered object, as separate from him/her, whatever is the non-dual philosophical doctrines to which he/she might be intellectually attracted to. But, the Sadhaka is also aware that the aim and the culmination of his/her worship practises is to attain the ‘ upasaka-upasya-abhedha-bhava’, the sublime state where the upasaka comes to identify her/himself with her/his upasya-devata.
The summit of the Sadhana is when the worshiper and the worshipped are united as One. The worship of the murti is in the manner of the visible leading to invisible.
23.3. As regards the elements of Yoga, four of its eight stages are an integral part of worship sequences, viz. posture, (aasana), breath (life force)-control, (praanayaama), placing or invoking the divine aspects in self (nyaasa or dhaaranaa or atma-nikshepa ), and deep concentration and contemplation (dhyaana).
There is also the process of transferring ones prana into the worship-image (dhruva-bera); and identifying the self with the archa image. The object is the union (yoga) of the individual with the absolute.
Agama – Classification
24.1. The worship of the deities may have been the immediate cause for the emergence of Agama literature. The worship of god in a particular form that is dearer to ones heart became the prime concern. The Agama thereafter branched into sects; each sect affiliated to its chosen god (ishta-devata). Each branch, each sect and sub sect of Agamas created its own set of texts and commentaries describing the virtues and powers symbolized by its deity; the aspects of its manifestations; and the particular ways to worship its chosen god.
24.2. It is said; the Agamas, in truth, are countless. But, generally, eleven branches of the Agamas are mentioned; each branch having several texts associated with it. The eleven are : (i) Vaishnava;(ii) Shaiva; (iii) Shaktha ; (iv) Saura; (v) Ganapathya; (vi) Svyambhuva (Brahma); (vii) Chandra ; (viii) Pashupatha ; (ix) Kalamukha; (x) Jina; and (xi) Cina.
The first five branches follow the panchayatana tradition of the Smartas . Of these, Saura and Ganapathya are now not in common use. And the practices of Pashupathas and Kalamukha sects are not in the open. The Agama texts relating to Brahma and Chandra are deemed lost. The China Agama is presumed to be in China, Tibet or Nepal. And, Jina Agama has a very long history; and, is still in practice among the Jains.
Thus, the three prominent branches of Agama shastra in practice during the present times are: the Shaiva, the Shaktha and Vaishnava. And, each of these in turn has numerous sects within it.
24.3. Shabda-kalpa-druma integrates the three branches of the tradition and explains: ‘It has come from Him who has five mouths; and, it is in the mouth of Her who is born from the mountains. And, what else, it is recognized by Vasudeva himself; and, that is why it is Agama’
-Agatam panchavaktrat tu gatam cha Girijanane; matam cha Vasudevasya tasmad agamam utchyate.
25.1. The term Agama is more often used for the Shaiva and Vasishnava traditions; and the Shaktha cult is termed as Tantric. But, there is an element of Tantra in Agama worship too.
25.2. The Shaiva branch of the Agama deals with the worship of the deity in the form of Shiva. The Shaivas recognize twenty-eight Agama texts, of which the Kamica-agama is better known. And, each Agama has subsidiary texts (Upa-agama).
Shaiva–agama has given rise to Shaiva Siddantha and Veerashaiva of the South; and the Prathyabijnana School of Kashmir Shaivisim which leans towards Advaita. The Shaiva-agamas, in general, regard Shiva as the Supreme Conscious Principle of the Universe, while Shakthi is the Prakrti or the natural principle who is the cause of bondage as also of liberation. The union of Shakthi with Siva leads to the freedom of the pasu (inner Self) from the Pasa or the attachment.
25.3. The Shaktha Agama texts (also called Tantras) prescribe the rules and tantric rituals for worship of Shakthi, Devi the divine Mother of all Universes, the Supreme Self, in her various forms. She is both the cause of delusion (maya) and the liberation. It is said; there are as many as seventy-seven Shaktha-agama texts.
Most of these texts are in the form of dialogues between Shiva and Parvathi. In some of these, Shiva answers the questions put by Parvathi, and in others, Parvathi explains to Shiva.
Among the Shaktha-agama texts, the better known are: Mahanirvana, Kularnava, Kulasara, Prapanchasara, Tantraraja, Rudra-Yamala, Brahma-Yamala, Vishnu-Yamala and Todala Tantra.
25.4. The third one, the Vaishanava Agama adores God as Vishnu the protector, the Supreme Lord of the Universe. It emphasizes that worship, service (archa) and complete surrender (prapatti) to Vishnu with devotion is the only sure path to liberation.
Vaishanava Agama has four major divisions Vaikhanasa, Pancharatra, Pratishthasara, and Vijnanalalita. Pancharatra in turn is said to have seven branches: Brahma, Saiva, Kaumara, Vasishtha, Kapila, Gautamiya and the Naradiya.
An offshoot of Pancharatra called Tantra Sara is followed mainly by the Dvaita sect (Madhwas).
The Vaishnava–agama has the largest number of texts, say , about two hundred and fifteen . Among these , Isvara, Ahirbudhnya, Paushkara, Parama, Sattvata, Brihad-Brahma and Jnanamritasara Samhitas are the important ones.
The Naradiya section of the Shanti-Parva of the Mahabharata is one of the earlier references to Pancharatra.
Of the Vaishnava Agamas, the Vaikhanasa and Pancharatra are most important. According to one opinion, the Vaikhanasa Agama is the most important and the most ancient Agama; and all other Agamas follow it.
25.5. All Agamas or Tantras of whatever group, share certain common ideas, outlook and practice. They also differ on certain issues depending on the Ishta-devata they worshipped.
Agama – Content
26.1. Agamas are a set of ancient texts; and are the guardians of tradition. However, they are not treatises on Philosophy, although they follow and expound a particular theory of life and its goal. They are essentially Sadhana Shastras (practical Scriptures) primarily addressed to ardent aspirants. They, among other things, prescribe the means to attain ones ideal of God through worship, devotion and submission, aided by set of prescribed disciplines. The Agama manuals serve as important guidebooks for deity worship by the devotees of all affiliations: Saiva, Vaishnavas and Shaktas. And each of those has its own set of Agamas.
26.2. According to Varahi Tantra (quoted in Shabda-kalpadruma) : Agama is characterized by seven ‘marks’ (sapthabhir lakshana-yuktam tva-agamam):
- creation (shrusti),
- dissolution (laya),
- worship of gods (deva-archanam),
- spiritual practices (sadhana),
- repetition and visualization of mantras (purascarana),
- set of six magical practices (shad-karma-sadhana), and
- contemplative techniques (dhyana yoga).
26.3. The six goals (shad-karma-sadhana) that Agama strive to achieve are said to be:
- (i) utchatana – vertical integration of natural energies, maintaining the balance in nature;
- (ii) sthambhana – increase energy and holding capabilities of a particular place;
- (iii) maarana- destroy the negative energy influences over a particular area;
- (iv) bhedana – split different energies within a given area to maintain balance of nature;
- (v) shanthi – maintaining the balance of nature with social progress; and,
- (vi) pushti – nourishing the nature and species so that evolution progresses.
27.1. Agamas which also mean ‘acquisition of knowledge’, ‘traditional doctrine’, ‘science’ etc draw their theory and practices from many sources, including Tantra. Agamas also draw upon Vedic knowledge, Yogic disciplines, Tantra techniques as also mantras, Yantras and other modes of worship employed in the temples.
27.2. Each Agama consists of four parts (paada). These broadly deal with :
- jnana or vidya-paada (knowledge),
- Yoga-paada (meditation),
- Kriya (rituals) and
- Charyapaada (ways of worship).
[The Buddhist and the Jaina traditions too follow this four-fold classification; and with similar details]
It is said; each paada has external (bahir-yajnam) and internal (antar-yajnam) interpretations. The former is about the way of doing things; while the latter explains the esoteric or spiritual significance of the rituals performed.
(i) The first part (jnana paada) includes the philosophical principles, theoretical framework for explaining the ultimate reality, its manifestations; the nature of the universe, creation and dissolution; and the nature of self, bondage and liberation.
(ii) The second part (Yoga-paada) covers the six-limbed yoga (sadanga: asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana, dharana and samadhi) as also the aspects of the physical (bahiranga) and mental (antaranga) disciplines and the essential purity in living and thinking (shuddhi). The aspect of dhyana receives detailed treatment in many of the Agama texts.
(iii) The third segment Kriya – paada (rituals) articulates with precision, the principles and practices of deity worship – the mantras, mandalas, mudras etc; the mental disciplines required for the worship; the initiation (diksha) process, the role of the preceptor (acharya) ,the rules for constructing temples and sculpting the images. They also specify the conduct of other worship services, rites, rituals and festivals.
(iv) The fourth one, Charya-paada, deals with priestly conduct and other related aspects; as also the austerity, purity in conduct; and devotion to one’s own Agama in outlook and in practice.
27.3. It is usually the last two segments of the Agama texts – Kriya and Charya paadas – which deal directly with temple or worship. These receive greater emphasis because of their application in the day-to-day worship practices. These are the segments that are in greater use by the priestly class following the Vaishnava-agama-tradition (paddathi) in their day-to-day observances. This seems quite natural, considering that the Agamas in the present-day are mainly related to the temple and its worship practices.
[The Shaiva Agamas, in contrast, seem to attach greater importance to the first paada (jnana) than to the other three paadas].
27.4. The four paadas complement each other; and they all contribute towards the same objective. They all aim at the twin rewards (viniyoga or phala) of liberation from bonds of samsara (mukthi); and prosperity and wellbeing in worldly life (bhukthi).The Agama texts point out that the two aspects are equally important. They decry a person seeking salvation for self without discharging his duties and responsibilities towards his family and fellowmen.
And, they therefore praise the virtuous life of a householder as the foundation which supports the other three stages of life; and as the best among the four stages.
28.1. The Agama prescriptions form the basis for worship practices at home or at Temples, as it exists today. They, in fact, cover the entire gamut of activities associated with temples, its functions and its purpose. These include , among other things, the training manuals meant for the performing priests, their initiation into worship-service; the worship attitudes and procedures specially designed for each type of deity; the details of daily rituals, occasional celebrations, festivals etc.
28.2. The Agama texts also give elaborate details about the theories of creation, ontology, cosmology, nature of the universe, the relations that exists between god-world- man, observances of religious rites, rituals, and festivals as also the rules (grihya-sutra) of domestic rites , household life, community living , and celebration of public festivals (uthsava).
29.1. Agamas and Tantras are a vast collection of knowledge and form a major portion of religious literature and practices. The two are of similar nature; and share common ideology. Both are dualistic in their outlook and approach. It is the sort of duality that aims at unity. Agamas and Tantra are based in the faith that every experience in this world bears subject-object relation; this world is a passage towards perfection; and the visible is the way to the invisible.
Both address the fundamental question: how to gain the direct experience (sakshatkara) of the highest. And, both are primarily concerned with devising practical means of dedicated- action to attain the goal.
Both idealize the faith of a person seeking unity with ones ideal of God or the Supreme whose grace alone can save her/him from samasara the misery of worldly involvements.
Devotion and implicit surrender is the key to their Sadhana. Without surrender there is no possibility of success.
29.2. Agama and Tantra texts deal with same subjects; adopt the same principles; and quote same set of authorities.
It is said; Agama is essentially a tradition and Tantra is technique.
But, Agama is wider in its scope; and contains aspects of theory, discussion and speculation about a range of issues. Agamas cover various other subjects with particular reference to worship of the deity installed in the temple. In that context, Agamas discus the minute details of appropriate worship services to be conducted at the temple during each part of the day; yogic disciplines and mental attitudes required of the worshipper. They also indirectly cover various other fields of knowledge such as grammar, etymology, chandas, astrological significances, conduct of a devotee, ethical values in life, observances of religious rites, rituals, and festivals etc.
The other important aspect addressed by the Agamas is the Devalaya – vastu- shilpa, temple architecture.
30.1. The Agama texts state that if an image has to be worshipped it has to be worship – worthy. The rituals and sequences of worship are relevant only in the context of an adorable icon installed in the heart of the shrine. And the icon is meaningful when its shrine aptly reflects its glory. The temple should be in harmony with the essential character of its presiding deity; and the temple complex should also truly reflect the attributes of its associate gods and goddesses. The worship services are, therefore, structured by Agama texts having in view the nature of the deity and of the shrine in which it resides.
30.2. It is in this context that Agama texts forge a special relationship with Shilpa shastra which is basic to iconography; and, in particular, with devalaya-vastu-shilpa the temple architecture and design. The involvement of the Agamas with temple architecture is based in the faith that the temple, in truth, is the expansion or outgrowth of its presiding deity installed in the innermost sanctum of the shrine.
And, it believes that the temple must be built for the idol, and not an idol got ready for a temple already built, for the temple verily is the expanded reflection of the icon.
30.3. The Agamas thus get related to icons and temple structures, rather circuitously. And, this is how the Agama literature makes its presence felt in the Shilpa-Sastra.
31.1. The Shilpa aspects of the Agamas cover in elaborate detail the principal elements of devalaya-vastu-shilpa, temple architecture such as: the suitable requirements of the temple site (sthala), temple tank (teertha) and the idol (murthy); dimensions, directions and orientations of the temple structures; the suitable building materials; the specifications, the sculpting and carving details of the image of the deity to be installed; as also the placement and orientation of supplementary deities within the temple complex etc.
Thus, the icon and its form; the temple and its structure; and the rituals and their details, are all meaningfully interrelated.
31.2. In due course, each branch of Agama tended to create set of its own texts. That gave rise to a new class of texts and rituals. And that coincided with the emergence of the large temples. It is not therefore surprising that town-planning, civil constructions and the arts occupy the interest of early Agamas.
Agama – approach
32.1. The Agama Shastras are based in the belief that the divinity can be approached in two ways. It can be viewed as nishkala, formless – absolute; or as sakala having specific aspects.
Nishkala is all-pervasive and is neither explicit nor is it visible. It is analogues, as the Agama texts explain, to the oil in the sesame-seed, fire in the fuel, butter in milk, and scent in flower. It is in human as antaryamin, the inner guide. It has no form and is not apprehended by sense organs, which includes mind.
Sakala, on the other hand, is explicit energy like the fire that has emerged out of the fuel, oil extracted out of the seed, butter that floated to the surface after churning milk or like the fragrance that spreads and delights all. That energy can manifest itself in different forms and humans can approach those forms through appropriate means. The Agamas recognize that means as the archa, the worship methods unique to each form of energy-manifestation or divinity.
32.2. The Upanishads idealize the Godhead as formless, attribute-less absolute. The God here is the most sublime concept. Yet; one has to concede that concrete representation of such a God is theoretically impossible.
The human mind with its limitations cannot easily comprehend God in absolute. It tries to grasp the divine spirit; bestow a form to the formless (Na cha rupam vina devo dyatum kenapi sakyate: Vishnu Samhita 29. 51).
The worship through image helps the devotee : to visualize the incomprehensible divinity in chosen form and attributes; to give substance to one’s notion of God so that he devotee may dwell on it and engage himself in a certain service ; and, realize her/his aspirations .
Else, the mind of an ordinary person might lapse into drowsiness or his/her attention may wither away.
32.3. The worshipper following Agama tradition fully appreciates the Vedic monism and its ideal of formless Brahman that pervades all existence. Yet, he finds comfort in the duality of Tantra and Agama rituals. The worshipper is aware, all the while, that the forms (murti), sounds (mantras) and diagrams (mandalas) employed in worship are just human approximations and are inadequate representations of God (prathima svalpa buddhinaam). Yet, he tries to find through them an approach to the Supreme.
32.4. He would argue: It is not very important whether the medium of worship you choose is either Agni or something else; but it is the archa with devotion and sincerity of purpose that truly matters. Here, faith is more significant than precepts; procedures more significant than concepts and symbolism more relevant than procedures.
33.1. The most widespread rituals of worship today are of the Agamic variety which includes elements of Tantra. The Agama methods are worship of images of God through rituals (Tantra), symbolic charts (Yantra) and verbal symbols (Mantra). The symbolism behind this method of worship is that God pervades the universe and that the entire creation is his manifestation in myriad ways. All the forms of his manifestation are but aspects (vibhuthi) of the Divine .There can exist no object, no form of any sort which is not divine in its nature. Any name, any form that appeals to the heart of the worshipper is gracefully accepted as a representation or manifestation of the Divine.
33.2. Following that, one’s chosen form of the divine (ishta-devata) is regarded as a concrete and a specific expression of the formless. Vishnu Purana (2.14.32) offers a beautiful analogy to explain the concept of the idol that one loves to worship.
It compares the worship-images fashioned according to one’s heart-desire (mano-kamana) to the notes of the flute. It says; the air that fills the player, the air that flows through the column of the flute, and the air that flies out of the holes of the flute, are but different aspects of the same air that fills the whole emptiness of existence. But, it is the specific vibrations, the modalities and the patterns of relations of the air that flows in and out of the flute that creates the sweetness of the melodious musical notes.
From an absolute point of view, all the air that flows in and around the world is but one.
But, the same air in its relative form and with its delicate differences creates cognizable sounds and melodies that are enjoyable.
Similarly, the all-pervading divine essence can be better grasped when given specific forms through human ingenuity, imagination and love.
34.1. Agama regards devotion and complete submission to the deity as fundamental to pursuit of its aim; and hopes that wisdom, enlightenment (jnana) would follow, eventually, by the grace of the worshipped deity. The Agama is basically dualistic, seeking grace, mercy and love of the Supreme God, represented by the personal deity, for liberation from earthly attachments (moksha).
34.2. The Agama texts hold the view that japa (recitation of mantra as initiated by the Guru), homa (oblations offered in Agni accompanied by appropriate hymns), dhyana (meditation on the aspects of divinity) and archa are the four methods of approaching the divine.
And, of these, the archa (worship of the icon) is the most comprehensive method.
It is explained; the first approach (japa) is through a pattern of sounds (nada/shabda), while the second (homa) is through the medium of Agni. Meditation (dhyana) is, of course, independent of concrete representations. All these three are individual approaches.
It is archa, the worship of a deity individually and in communion with the gathering of devotees that is easiest. Further, the archa includes in itself the essentials of the other three approaches as well. Archana in temples is an integrated mosaic of individual and congregational worship; and is the most accepted approach.
This is the faith on which the Agama shastra is based. The Agama shastra is basically concerned with the attitudes, procedure and rituals of deity worship in the temples
Prof. S K R Rao (The Encyclopedia of Indian Iconography) writes :
35.1. It is said; Agama is distinct from Nigama, just as Tantra is distinct from Veda. Agama is closely linked to Tantra; while Nigama is synonym for Veda. If Veda is taken to mean knowledge, Nigama is that by which one learns, one knows
–nigamyate jnayate anena iti nigamah: Sabda – kalpa -druma.
Therefore, Nigama, since Panini (22.214.171.124), has come to mean Vedas. And, even during the later times the two terms were used interchangeably. For instance; Sri Vedantadeshika is also addressed, at times, as Nigamanta-deshika.
35.2. Agama, generally, stands for Tantra. The Agama-Tantra tradition is as important and as authentic as the Vedic tradition. Vedas and Agamas are intimately related. The Agama claims that it provides the practical application and the means of action for realizing the teaching of the Vedas and Vedanta.
36.1. The two traditions, however, hold divergent views on matters such as God; relationship between man and God; the ways of worship; and path to salvation etc .The Vedic concept of God is omniscient, omnipotent, a formless absolute entity manifesting itself in phenomenal world of names and forms. The Agama which is allied to Tantra regards God as a personal deity with recognizable forms and attributes.
36.2. The Vedas do not discuss about venerating the icons; though the icons (prathima or prathika) were known to be in use. Their preoccupation was more with the nature, abstract divinities and not so much with their physical representations. The Vedas did however employ a number of symbols, such as the wheel, umbrella, spear, noose, foot-prints, lotus, goad and vehicles etc. These symbols, in the later ages, became a part of the vocabulary of the iconography.
36.3. The idea of multiple forms of divinity was in the Vedas .They spoke about thirty-three divinities classified into those of the earth, heaven and intermediate regions. Those comprised twelve Adityas, aspects of energy and life; eleven Rudras, aspects ferocious nature; eight Vasus, the directional forces; in addition to the earth and the space.
36.4. The aspects of the thirty-three divinities were later condensed to three viz. Agni, the aspect of fire, energy and life on earth; Vayu, the aspect of space, movement and air in the mid-region; and Surya the universal energy and life that sustains and governs all existence, in the heavenly region, the space. This provided the basis for the evolution of the classic Indian trinity, the Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.
37.1. Rig Veda at many places talks in terms of saguna, the supreme divinity with attributes. The Vedanta ideals of the absolute, attribute- less and limit-less universal consciousness were evolved during later times as refinements of those Vedic concepts. The Upanishads are the pinnacles of idealism that oversee all horizons. But, in practice, common people worship variety of gods in variety of ways for variety of reasons. The worship rendered are relevant in the context of each ones idea of god; needs and aspirations; fears and hopes; safety and prosperity; and, the pleasures and pains of life.
37.2. Vedic worship is centred on the fire (the Yajna) the visible representation of the divine, certain religious and domestic rituals, (shrauta sutraas and griyha sutraas), and the sacraments, (samskaara). In this tradition, the gods and their descriptions are, mostly, symbolic; and not presented as icons for worship.
The hymns of the Rig Veda are the inspired outpourings of joy and revelations through sublime poetry. The Yajur and Sama Vedas do refer to conduct of Yajnas; but ,they also suggest certain esoteric symbolic meaning. And, very few of Vedic rituals are in common practice today.
Vedic approach to divinity is collective in character involving a number of priests specialized in their branch of learning and having specific roles to play in the conduct of the Yajna.. The Yajnas always take place in public places and are of congregational nature. The Yajnas are celebrations, performed with exuberance in presence and view of large number of persons participating with gaiety and enthusiasm.
37.3. As compared to Yajnas, the tantric rites are conducted in quiet privacy within secret enclosures or in secluded spots. The Tantra or Agamic worship is individualistic in its orientation; and, calls for quiet contemplation, intensity and self-discipline as demanded by its texts. Tantra – Agama regards its rituals as a sort of direct communication between the worshipper (upasaka) and his or her personal deity (upasana-devata).Its ultimate aspiration is the unity of the worshipper and worshipped.
The aim of Agamika, the ardent aspirant, following the Agamas is, therefore, to gain, on his own, a direct experience (sakshatkara)of his highest ideal. The Agamas provide well defined and time tested practices leading towards that ideal. It is for this reason the Agamas are called pratyaksha Shastra (the science of real experience), Sadhana Shastra (the science of spiritual practice) and Upasana Shastra.
38.1. While the Vedic rituals lay a great emphasis on fire rituals and the sacrifices, the Agamas recommend worship of images of gods as the efficient means to salvation. Its way is through rituals (tantra) employing word symbols (mantra) and charts (yantra). These symbolic activities strengthen the individual’s conviction and help her/him to bind a harmonious relation with the object of worship. The approach of Agama is dualistic: that of a man seeking God the Supreme whose grace alone can save him from samasara the misery of worldly involvements.
38.2. The Upasaka worships the divine through the medium of bera, murthi, archana whose shape is symbolic. Agamas believe that the worshipper must identify himself with the object of his worship: na devo devam archayet ( one cannot worship a deity unless one becomes that deity) .Hence the various ritual practices – mental and physical- meditation , visualization, invoking the presence of the deity in one’s body (nyasa), mantras and mudras are employed; all aiming to achieve this identification.
39.1. In the Nigama tradition greater attention is paid to the knowledge of the gods, though such knowledge is not systematized. The Agama texts no doubt extol knowledge; but they also emphasize that without ritualistic action mere knowing is ineffective and rather pointless. Agama texts, however, clarify that worship-action (karma) and liberating wisdom are secondary to deep devotion.
39.2. The most distinctive feature of Agamas is immense devotion (Bhakthi) and submission to the will of god (prapatthi).The two virtues are regarded the primary requisites for attaining wisdom or enlightenment (jnana) leading to the path of salvation. It is this element of devotion that has given rise to temple-worship and the ritual-culture associated with it.
39.3. To put it in another way,the Agama texts no doubt extol knowledge; but they also emphasize that without ritualistic action rendered with devotion, any sort of knowledge is ineffective and is rather pointless. In the Agama context, devotion is understood as intense involvement in worship of the deity (pujadi sva anugraha bhaktih).
Agama – Nigama rapprochement
40.1. Although Agama and Nigama traditions started on divergent approach, in course of time there was reproachment between the two. Tantra-Agama barrowed many details from Vedic tradition and adopted many more. And, In due course the Agama came to be accepted as a subsidiary culture (Vedanga) within the Vedic framework.
40.2. The temple worship, per se, is guided by its related Agama texts which invariably borrow the mantras from the Vedic traditions and the ritualistic details from Tantric traditions. This has the advantage of claiming impressive validity from Nigama, the Vedas; and at the same time, carrying out popular methods of worship.
40.3. Even in performance of rituals, the Agama harmonized within itself the elements of Veda and Tantra. For instance, the Bodhayana shesha sutra and Vishhnu-pratishtha kalpa outline certain rite for the installation of an image of Vishnu and for conducting other services. The Agama texts combined the rules of the Grihya sutras with the Tantric practices and formed their own set of rules.
Further, while installing the image of the deity, the Grihya Sutras do not envisage Prana-prathistapana ritual (transferring life into the idol by breathing life into it); but the Agamas borrowed this practice from the Tantra school and combined it with the Vedic ceremony of “opening the eyes of the deity with a needle”.
While rendering worship-services to the deity, in open, the Agamas reduced the use of Tantric mantras; and instead adopted Vedic mantras for services such as offering ceremonial bath, waving lights etc. though such practices were not a part of the Vedic mode of worship.
40.4. The Agamas, largely, adopted the Vedic style homas and Yajnas. But, they did not reject the Tantric rituals and Tantric mantras altogether.
Agama – Temple worship
41.1. The worship of deities in public or at home might be the immediate cause for emergence of Agama traditions.
The Agamas in the present day find their full expression in temple- worship. They form the basis for worship practices at temples, as it exists today. They prescribe the structure and architecture of various kinds of temples, the customs to be followed, the rituals to be performed and the festivals to be celebrated. They in fact cover the entire gamut of activities associated with temples, its activities and its purpose.
41.2. The Agamas deal with all types of worship practices followed either in temples or at home; either in communities or in private; either through image or formless fire or otherwise. The worship in a temple has to satisfy the needs of individuals as also of the community.
Agamas accommodate collective worship along with individual worship that is characteristically private when performed at home. The worships that take place in the sanctum and within the temple premises are important; so are the festivals and occasional processions that involve direct participation of the entire community. They complement each other.
While the worship of the deity in the sanctum might be an individual’s spiritual or religious need ; the festival s are the expression of a community’s joy , exuberance , devotion , pride and are also an idiom of a community’s cohesiveness .
41.3. The temple worship ritual has two other distinct aspects; the symbolic and the actual which is secondary. The former is the inner worship (manasa puja or antar yajna) of the antaryamin (the inner being) residing in ones heart; and the latter is external worship characterized by splendour, spectacle and an overflow of religious fervour.
The inner worship involving Tantric rituals that takes place in the privacy of the sanctum is more significant than the external worship . These are in a sequence such as :
- shudhi (purification of elements),
- mudras (assumption of appropriate and effective gestures),
- pranayama (regulation of breath to enable contemplation of the divinity),
- dhyana (contemplation),
- soham_bhava (identity of the worshipper with the worshipped),
- mantra (words to help realize the deity in worshipper’s heart) and
- mandala (diagrams representing aspects of divinity).
In manasa puja, God is the worshipper’s innermost spirit. The worshipper visualizes and contemplates on the resplendent form of the deity as abiding in his own heart.
As regards the external worship it involves several kinds of service sequences (Shodasha Upachara) submitted, in full view of the worshipping devotees, to the personified god who is revered as the most venerated guest and as the Lord of Lords who presides over the universe (lokadyaksha).
The services are rendered with gratitude, love and devotion to the accompaniment of chanting of passages and mantras taken from Vedas. The worship routine is rendered more colourful and attractive by presentations of music, dance, drama and other performing arts. These also ensure larger participation of the enthusiastic devotees.
Thus, at the temple, both the Agama worship-sequences and the symbolic Tantric rituals take place; but each in its sphere.
41.4. The worship practices that are followed in the temples are truly an amalgam of dissimilar streams of ideologies and practices. The rituals here are a combination of concepts, procedures and symbolism. Each of these finds its relevance in its own context, without conflict or contradiction. The temple and iconic worship may appear like tantric.
However, in practice the worship at temples involves both homa and archa rituals. The Agama mode of worship invariably borrows the mantras from the Vedic traditions along with ritualistic details from Tantric traditions. Vedic mantras are chanted in traditional manner while performing services such as ceremonial bath, adoring the deity with flowers, or waving lights.
Apart from that, the Agama practices combine in themselves the elements from yoga, purana and Janapada the popular celebrations where all segments of the community joyously participate with great enthusiasm and devotion.
The Janapada includes periodic Utsavas, processions, singing, dancing, playacting, colourful lighting, spectacular fireworks , offerings of various kinds etc.; as also various forms of physical austerities accompanied by sincere prayers.
41.5. You find that temple worship is judicious mix (misra) of: the Vedic mantras and its vision of the divine; the tantric rituals with their elaborate symbolisms; the Agamic worship practices, attitudes and devotion; the discipline of Yoga and its symbolic purification gestures; and, the exuberance and gaiety of folk festivals, processions and celebrations in which the entire community participates with great enthusiasm.
All these elements combine harmoniously in the service of the deity and create an integrated Temple –culture.
42.1. That is so far as Agama in general is concerned. In the subsequent parts let’s talk about specific branches of the Agama. In next lets touch upon Vaikhanasa Agama a major branch of the Vaishnava Agama.
Continued in Part Three
– Vaikhanasa Agama
References and Sources
1. A Companion to Tantra by S C Banerji ; Abhinav Publications (2007)
2. Tantra: its mystic and scientific basis by Lalan Prasad Singh ;Concept Publishing Company (1976)
3. Tribal roots of Hinduism by SK Tiwari ; Sarup & Sons (2002)
4. The Tantric way by Ajit Mukherjee and Madhu Khanna ; Thames & Hudson (1977)
5. Agama Kosha by Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao ; Kalpataru Research Academy (1994)
6. The Perspective of the Tantras By K. Guru Dutt
7. Tantra Shastra and Veda by Sir John Woodroffe
8. The Tantras: An Overview by Swami Samarpanananda
9. Evolution of Tantra by Nitin Sridhar