The Agamas, Vedic literature and sciences, Upavedas and Sutra literature form an important part of the corpus of Hindu shastras. The Agamas are a class of Hindu religious literature which practically form the basis of almost all Hindu religious practices of the post Vedic era. The name Agama means “that which teaches the Truth from all aspects”, and so its followers hold the Agamas in equal importance to the Vedas or any sacred book. In practice, they deal with deities like Shiva, Shakti and Vishnu, and also their respective mandirs and worship rituals. The three groups of Agamas are Shaiva Agamas, Shakta Agamas and Vaishnava Agamas. They deal mainly with philosophical subjects, yogic practices, mandir architecture, science of murti consecration, rituals and code of conduct. The Agamas are treated by their respective followers as equal in importance to the Vedas.
The Vedic literature and sciences include the Vedangas or “limbs of the Veda”, Upavedas (Tesser’ or ‘complementary’ Vedas) and Surra literature (short formulaic statements). The Vedangas are texts of the subsidiary sciences of phonetics, prosody, grammar, etymology, astronomy, geometry and sacrificial rituals that help one understand and study the Vedas in their proper context. The four Upavedas include Ayurveda (science of medicine), Gandharvaveda (science of music and dance), Dhanurveda (science of archery and warfare) and Srhapatyaveda (science of architecture). Some scholars also include Arthaveda or Arthashastra within the Upavedas. The Sutra literature consists of short formulaic statements or aphorisms, expressing a general truth. They had to be memorized by students and commented upon and explained by teachers. It includes the Kalpasurras, Bhaktisutras, Brahrnasurras, Sankhyasutras. We will examine in detail each of these types of literary forms, beginning with the Agamas.
The Agamas, like the Vedas (also called Nigamas), are another class of very sacred Hindu texts. The Agamas deal with beliefs and practices related to Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti. It is difficult to fix their time of origin, however it can be stated that some of the Agamas of the early Vishnu sects were in existence by the time of the Mahabharata. The development of the Agamas of the other schools might have continued till 800 CEo The Agamas are considered to be revealed (shruti) like the Vedas and are thus held in equal importance and authority by their devout followers. I They deal with God, sacred living, mode of worship, building of mandirs, consecration of images, yoga, creation and philosophy. The three main groups of Hindu Agamas are: Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta. There are also the Buddhist and Jain Agamas. Of the Hindu Agamas, there are 108 main Vaishnava Agamas, 92 main Shaiva Agamas and 77 main Shakta Agamas. Though each of the three groups has different doctrines and regards itself as superior, they share common elements in prescribed spiritual practice (sadhana) and ritual practice. The Agamas consist of four parts called padas, each having many Sanskrit verses in metrical form: (1) the contents of the charya pada deal with observance of religious injunctions, right conduct, the guru-shishya relationship, community life and town planning – with focus on the mandir as its centre, (2) the kriya pada describes and defines worship rituals and mandir – from site selection for construction of mandir, architectural design, construction methods, iconography (murti sculpture), rules for pujaris, festivals and home-shrine rituals; (3) the yoga pada reveals meditation and yogic discipline to purify body and mind and awaken the kundalini shakti and (4) the jnana pada elaborates on philosophical topics like the doctrine and nature of Bhagwan, jivas, maya and the means to attain moksha.
A brief description of the three groups of Agamas follows:
1. Vishnava Agama
The Vaishnava Agamas, also called Samhitas, consist of the Pancharatra Agamas and the Vaikhanasa Agamas. Both teach that Vishnu is the “Supreme Truth” and the highest deity, and emphasize the various types of worship in mandirs. This worship involves murtis of several deities and devotees known as nitya muktas. The Pancharatra Agamas were revealed by Bhagwan Narayana to five disciples in five nights. They consider Bhagwan Vishnu and Lakshmiji as the principal deities or divine couple (divya dampati) and deal extensively with rituals of murti-puja, rules of mandir architecture, and the path of bhakti. The Pancharatra Agamas also prescribe a devotional way of life for followers that include five fundamental practices: (1) going to the mandir and concentrating on God with mind, body and speech (abhigama); (2) collecting materials for the worship of God (upadana); (3) actual worshipping God (ijya); (4) studying shastras (swadhyaya) and (5) meditating on the murti of God (yoga). The Vaikhanasa Agamas claims to have their roots in the Vedas. They deal with daily rituals of making Vedic offerings into fire and the daily worship of Bhagwan Vishnu’s murti in the inner sanctum of a mandir. The daily worship rituals include welcoming Bhagwan Vishnu as a royal guest and offering him food with the chanting of Vedic mantras. The votaries of Vaikhanasa came to function as chief pujaris in many south Indian mandirs. Even today this is true, particularly at the Tirupati Venkateshwara (Balaji) Mandir, the most famous Vaishnava pilgrimage centre in Andhra Pradesh, South India. The Vaikhanasa sect clearly insists upon its purely orthodox or Vedic status.The Catalogue of Pancbardtra,’ with about 460 Vaishnava Agamas, was recently researched and compiled by two BAPS Swaminarayan saint-scholars.
2. Shaiva Agamas
The Shaiva Agamas are the sacred texts of the Shaiva Sarnpradaya in which Bhagwan Shiva is the presiding deity. They contain information on the Shaiva philosophical doctrine, rituals, worship, religious practices, architecture of Shiva mandirs, sculpture of the murtis and art in general. The Shaiva Agamas say that souls are in bondage, and moksha is attained through an understanding of the nature of six principles: (1) Lord (Pati); (2) knowledge (vidya); (3) false knowledge (avidya),- (4) individual soul (pashu); (5) noose of imputities (pasha) and (6) worship of Shiva (moksha-karana). They emphasize on the worship of Shiva (Pat i) for removing the noose of impurities (pasha) from the individual soul (pashu). Only through Shiva’s grace do the souls (pasbus) attain liberation. The Shaiva Agamas principally prescribe murti-puja and rituals, and propagate the realization of Shiva as the ultimate goal.
3. Shakta Agamas
In the Shaiva Agamas one finds dialogues between Bhagwan Shiva and Parvati, in which the former is the master and the latter his disciple. However in the Shakta Agamas, also known as Tantras, the opposite can be seen, where Parvati (also known as Sari, Devi, Uma and Kali) is the guru and Bhagwan Shiva is her disciple. So it is Shiva who asks questions to her and Parvati answers.
There are two main groups of Shakta Agamas or Tantras:
The Dakshinachara Tantras or the “right-hand path” and the Vamachara Tantras or the “left-hand path”. The Dakshinachara teaches the worship of the deity Dakshina Kalika according to Vedic modes of worship and sadhana for ultimate realization. And the Vamachara promotes the ritual use of “five Ms” (panchamakaras), namely, wine (madya), fish (matsya), meat (maansa), parched grains and gestures (mudra) and extra-marital sexual union (maithuna) for spiritual realization. The Shakra Agamas teach about the worship of Shakri or the Universal Mother – the female principle of Shiva – namely, Parvati and her other forms, such as, Durga, Amba, Kali and others. The objective is to attain material power, prosperity and finally liberation.
Vedic Literature and Sciences
There are other shastras which have their ongm 10 the Vedas and were later developed by different rishis. They are known as Vedic literature and sciences and are classified as Smruti shastras. These texts are, (i) Vedangas (limbs of Vedas), (ii) Upavedas (Tesser’ or ‘complementary’ Vedas), (iii) Sutras (short formulaic statements or aphorisms) which include the Brahmasutras. A brief description of each is as follows:
To make the spiritual and ritual concepts of the Vedas easily understandable, the rishis developed the Vedangas – “limbs of the Vedas”. These are subsidiary works of Vedic knowledge that help one to study, understand and practice the teachings of the Vedas. The six Vedangas are Shiksha (phonetics), Chandas (prosody), Vyakarana (grammar), Nirukta (etymology), Jyotisha (Astronomy, Astrology, Mathematics, and Geometry) and Kalpa (Science of sacrificial rites and rituals). Shiksha and Chandas are aids for pronouncing and reciting Vedic mantras correctly, Vyakarana and Nirukta are for understanding their meaning, and Jyotisha and Kalpa provide appropriate times and methods for performing the Vedic sacrificial rites and rituals. The origins of these six auxiliary ‘sciences’ are found in the Vedas. A brief description of each of them follows.
This branch teaches the science of phonetics or pronunciation and recitation of the Vedic mantras. Any deviation in the pronunciation can change the meaning and thus mar the desired effect or purpose for which the mantras are chanted and applied in sacrifices. Some outstanding examples of Shiksha texts include the Paniniya Shiksha by the great grammarian Sage Panini and the Chandas Chandas is the science of prosody. It deals with versification, or the rules for the metres in which Vedic mantras and poems were composed. There are eleven major and minor metres like, Gayatri, Anushrup, Ushnik, Trishtup, Jagati, etc. Pingala is the earliest known author of the Chanda shastra written in sutra form, which became popularly known as Pingala shastra. According to tradition, before reciting any Vedic mantra the reciter has to pay respect to the respective rishi, devata and chandas of the mantra
Vyakarana is the science of grammar, which helps to make language clearer. It is called the ‘mouth’ of the Vedas. Without it, the Vedas and all other Shruti works would be impossible to understand correctly. The earliest available text on Sanskrit grammar today is the Ashtadhyayi of Panini (e. 500 BeE). Panini wrote his work for the understanding of the Vedic and mainly the classical Sanskrit language, and especially for the style of Sanskrit spoken in his day. Though the Vedas were revealed and chanted many millennia before him, a systematic grammar for both Vedic and classical Sanskrit was first given by Panini. The Ashtadhyayi is considered to be the most basic and standard work in Sanskrit grammar today. It has been recognized as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time. Panini, however, mentions several scholars who were grammarians and lexicographers before him. It is worth noting that some ancient grammarians like Patanjali (200 BCE) and Bhartruhari (between 450 and 500 CE) developed a spiritual philosophy out of grammar. They identified the eternal aspect of sound with Brahman (shabda Brahman) of Vedanta by writing the Mahabhashya and Vakyapadiya respectively. Vyakarana also includes dictionaries like Amarakosha, Halayudhakosha and others.
There was a Sanskrit work called Nighantu, now extinct, which was a dictionary of difficult Vedic words. The work is attributed to Yaska by some scholars, but it is not certain who the real author was. According to Yaska, the difficult words were collected and classified by the descendants of ancient sages. The Nirukta is the oldest Indian treatise on etymology, philology and semantics, also ascribed to Yaska. The work is available today, and it is a commentary on the Nighantu. It thus enables one to understand the Vedas. Sage Yaska was the last of the commentators on Nighantu. His work on Nirukta is the best known work available. It is considered to be the earliest Vedabhashya or commentary on the Vedas. It consists of three partS: (1) a list of synonyms called Naighantuka Kanda, (2) a list of words used only in the Vedas called Naigama Kanda, and (3) a list of words relating to deities and rituals known as Daivata Kanda. In the Daivata Kanda, Yaska gives the etymological explanation of the names of the deities. Finally, Nirukta ends with instructions, teachings and eulogies of the Vedic devas.
Jyotisha is the Vedic science of astrology that includes astronomy, geometry and mathematics. Movements of the sun, moon, planets and constellations are observed and recorded in order to fix suitable days and auspicious times for the commencement and conclusion of sacred rites and yajnas for various purposes. The influence of the movement of celestial bodies on human life was also studied (astrology). References to eclipses are found in the Rig Veda. Two Jyotisha books available from the early Vedic period are Archajyotisha of the Rig Veda with 36 verses and Yajusjyotisha of the Yajur Veda with 43 verses, and from the later period we have the Atharvajyotisha with 162 verses. Later, the astronomy section ofjyotisha science was gradually advanced by the works of Aryabhatta I (476 CE), Varahamihira (580 CE), Brahmagupta (628 CE), Bhaskaracharya I (700 CE), Aryabhatta II (c. 950 CE) and Bhaskaracharya II (1114 CE). These rishi-scientists helped in the development of Hindu astronomy and astrology.
Kalpa is one of the Vedangas which lays down the rules for the correct performance of rituals, ceremonial and sacrificial acts. Kalpa means prayoga or practical method to conduct Vedic sacrifices correctly. We will deal with Kalpa in detail in the Sutra literature section, following the section on Upavedas.