Hinduism Vaiṣṇava Pāñcarātra
by
Marion Rastelli
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0221

Introduction

The Pāñcarātra is a Hindu tradition that worships Viṣṇu as the supreme god. Its origins date back to the pre-Christian era, and certain features of it can still be found in the related Hindu-tradition of the Śrīvaiṣṇavas. Its earliest textual source, having been composed around the 3rd to the 5th century CE, is the so-called Nārāyaṇīya, which is a part of the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata. In this text the Pāñcarātra does not yet bear the tantric features that become characteristic for the tradition as known from the Saṃhitās, which may have been composed from around the 9th century onward. The Saṃhitās are the most important texts of the tradition and are traditionally considered to have been revealed by god Viṣṇu himself. They deal with the theology and philosophy of the tradition, but most prominently with rituals. Rituals are the main means for a Pāñcarātra follower to achieve the tradition’s religious goals. As in other tantric traditions, these goals are worldly pleasures (bhukti) and liberation (mukti) from transmigration. In early Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās, rituals are to be performed by individual persons for their own benefit. In later Saṃhitās, probably due to political influences, public temple worship for the benefit of the king and the state becomes the main focus. The early extant Saṃhitās probably originate from North India, and there is evidence that Pāñcarātra was widely practiced in Kashmir. However, from perhaps the 11th century, Pāñcarātra mainly flourished in South India. The social background of Pāñcarātra followers over the centuries has not yet been investigated in depth, but we do know that the tradition’s historical development was shaped by various social groups and subtraditions, as well as their interactions, sometimes involving rivalry.

General Overviews

For a first overview on the tradition of Pāñcarātra, Colas 2003, Colas 2010, and Rastelli 2011 are recommended. Gonda 1977 is a widely used survey of the literature of the tradition, but is a bit outdated. For a more detailed description of many aspects of the tradition, see Varadachari 1982.

  • Colas, Gérard. “History of Vaiṣṇava Traditions: An Esquisse.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Edited by Gavin Flood, 229–270. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470998694.ch12E-mail Citation »

    General overview of the history of the various Vaiṣṇava traditions. With regard to the Pāñcarātra tradition, especially important are the survey on early Indian and Cambodian epigraphical evidence and an examination of the denomination of bhāgavata, which refers to diverse groups of people in different contexts and times. Available online by subscription.

  • Colas, Gérard. “Vaiṣṇava Saṃhitās.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 2. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, and Vasudha Narayanan, 153–167. Handbook of Oriental Studies 22.2. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2010.

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    Short overview of the literature of the Pāñcarātra and Vaikhānasa traditions. Available online by subscription.

  • Gonda, Jan. Medieval Religious Literature in Sanskrit. History of Indian Literature 2.1. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1977.

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    Chapters 4–8 (pp. 39–139) of this work deal with the Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās, the main texts of the tradition. Although outdated in certain aspects, such as the texts’ (relative) chronology or where they were composed, this volume is still useful for gaining an overall impression of the tradition’s literature and its contents.

  • Rastelli, Marion. “Pāñcarātra.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 3. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, and Vasudha Narayanan, 444–457. Handbook of Oriental Studies 22.3. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2011.

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    Short overview of the most important aspects of the tradition. Available online by subscription.

  • Varadachari, V. Agamas and South Indian Vaisnavism. Madras, India: Prof. M. Rangacharya Memorial Trust, 1982.

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    Comprehensive work by a scholar with a vast knowledge of the Pāñcarātra and Vaikhānasa traditions. Many chapters contain information that is difficult to find anywhere else. For example, the survey of Vaiṣṇava literature in chapter 8 also includes works available only as manuscripts.

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