Pancharatra (IAST: Pāñcarātra) was a religious movement in Hinduism that originated in late 3rd-century BCE around the ideas of Narayana and the various avatars of Vishnu as their central deities.[1][2] The movement later merged with the ancient Bhagavata tradition and contributed to the development of Vaishnavism.[2][3] The Pancharatra movement created numerous literary treatises in Sanskrit called the Pancharatra Samhitas, and these have been influential Agamic texts within the theistic Vaishnava movements.[3][4]

Literally meaning five nights (pañca: five, rātra: nights),[5] the term Pancharatra has been variously interpreted.[6][7] The term has been attributed to a sage Narayana who performed a sacrifice for five nights and became a transcendent being and one with all beings.[2][5][8] The Pancharatra Agamas constitute some of the most important texts of many Vaishnava philosophies including the Madhva Sampradaya or Brahma Sampradaya of Madhvacharya and the Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya of Ramanuja.[8] The Pancharatra Agamas are composed of more than 200 texts;[6] likely composed between 600 CE to 850 CE.[6]

The Shandilya Sutras (~100 CE)[9] is the earliest known text that systematized the devotional Bhakti pancharatra doctrine and 2nd-century CE inscriptions in South India suggest Pancharatra doctrines were known there by then.[2] The 8th-century Adi Shankara criticized elements of the Pancharatra doctrine along with other theistic approaches stating Pancaratra doctrine was against monistic spiritual pursuits and non-Vedic.[2][10] The 11th-century Ramanuja, the influential Vaishnavism scholar, developed a qualified monism doctrine which bridged ideas of Pancharatra movement and those of monistic ideas in the Vedas.[11] The Pancharatra theology is a source of the primary and secondary avatar-related doctrines in traditions of Hinduism.[12]


Pancharatra has likely roots in 3rd-century BCE, as a religious movement around the ideas of a sage Narayana, who much later becomes identified as an avatar of Vishnu.[2][1]

The earliest use of the word Pancharatra is found in section 7.1.10 of the Taittiriya Samhita, a Vedic text.[13] The section describes a person going through a Pancharatra ritual to become a master of rhetorics.[13] The section 13.6 of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa mentions Nārāyaṇa as the primordial divinity who performs this offering.[1] The Narayaniya section of the Mahabharata (XII, 335–351) refers to seven rishis who say the Pancharatra ritual was made consistent with the Vedas.[14] Though the five day ritual is mentioned along with many other sacrifices in the Vedic text, the origins of Pancaratra devotees and their tradition is unclear.[12] The movement merged with the ancient Bhagavata tradition also around Krishna-Vāsudeva, and contributed to the development of Vaishnavism.[2][3]

According to J. A. B. van Buitenen, the word "Pancharatra" is explained in Naradiya Samhita as referring to a tradition of "five knowledges".[7] Similarly, Jan Gonda states that the term "nights" in "five nights" in the Pancharatra tradition may be a metaphor for inner darkness, and "came to mean – how, we do not know", though indeed there have been many interpretations such as "five systems", "five studies" and "five rituals".[15]

The 1st-century works by Shandilya are the earliest known systematization of the Pancharatra doctrine.[1][2] This doctrine was known and influential around then, as is attested by the 2nd-century CE inscriptions in South India.[2] Evidence suggests that they co-existed with the Bhagavata tradition in ancient times.[12]

The Advaita Vedanta scholars, such as Adi Shankara, criticized elements of the Pancharatra doctrine along with other theistic approaches stating it was against monistic spiritual pursuits and non-Vedic.[2][10][16] According to Suthren Hirst, Shankara supported the use of icons and temple worship if it focussed as a means to comprehend Brahman as the sole metaphysical reality. However, he opposed devotional theism as an end in itself and the goal of spiritual pursuits.[10] The Pancharatra tradition has historically disagreed with claims of it being non-Vedic, states Gonda, and Pancharatra texts explicitly state that, "Pancharatra is Vedic, it originates in the Sruti" and that the "Pancharatra precepts and practices should be observed by anyone who has allegiance to the Vedas".[17]

The 11th-century Ramanuja, the influential Sri Vaishnavism scholar, was born in Pancharatra tradition, disagreed with Shankara, and developed a qualified monism doctrine which integrated ideas of Pancharatra movement and those of monistic ideas in the Vedas.[11][18] Ramanuja stated that the Vishnu of Pancharatra is identical to Vedanta's Brahman, where Purusha reflects the eternal soul that is Vishnu, and Prakriti the impermanent ever changing body of Vishnu.[11]

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.[citation needed]

Ānanda Tīrtha the founder of Madhva line has written in his commentary on Mundaka Upanishad: [19] "In Dvapara 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."[citation needed]

Jiva Gosvami had stated in his Paramātma Sandārbha, forming part of six principal Sandārbhas, or philosophical treatises 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."

Divine Manifestation

The nature of Atman (soul)

In the Pancharatra system, the soul is one with the Supreme,
but is also an individual.
Even in a state of salvation it retains the individuality,
to realize the bliss of union with the Supreme.

Nanditha Krishna[20]

The Pancharatra theology developed over time. It presents a dualistic theory on how creation manifested from a godhead, as the Purusha-Prakriti and as the masculine-feminine manifestations of the divine.[1][12][21] It states that the creation emerged through vyuhas (arrangements).[1] In the beginning, states Pancharatra doctrine, there was only Narayana as the highest changeless god and as explained by their concept of Caturvyuha, this supreme god-head transformed into four earthly emanations, the first of which was Vāsudeva-Krishna (Vāsudeva literally means "indwelling deity")[22] Further arrangements or emanations followed, secondly into Saṅkarṣaṇa (Balarama)[13] as the lord over all life, thirdly into Pradyumna creating mind, and lastly into Aniruddha as ego (ahamkara). Thereafter, Brahma emerged from Aniruddha who created the empirical universe. Thus, the divinity was and is everywhere in Pancaratra, but in different aspects, one form or phase emerging from the previous.[1][12]

During the 11th century CE 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:[23][20][24]

To worship Lord in temples- The ancient civilization systematically developed cities, towns and villages according to the scriptures written with Vedic knowledge and build temples to consecrate the Idol of lord and prescribed the rules to worship, offering, to do festivals by bring people together from all walks of life with all civic sense. Interestingly, while doing festivals the scriptures insist clean environment and maintaining of medical, stay and food facilities for pilgrimage visit the festival


The Vyuha-related Pancharatra theology is a source of the primary and secondary avatar-related doctrines in traditions of Hinduism, particularly Sri Vaishnavism.[12] According to Barbara Holdrege, a professor and comparative historian of religions, the Pancharatra doctrines influenced both Sri Vaishnavism and Gaudiya Vaishnavism, albeit a bit different.[25] In Sri Vaishnavism, Vishnu-Narayana is supreme, while Vāsudeva, Samkarsana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha are the four Vyuhas. In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, the Vyuha theory is more complex, Krishna (Vāsudeva) is "Svayam Bhagavan" (the ultimate or Para Brahman) who manifests as Vyuhas, and he along with Samkarsana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha are the Vyuhas and the Purusha-avataras of the material realm.[25]


11th-century Vaikuntha Chaturmurti. It is one of the iconic representation of the Pancharatra Vyuhas theory found in some medieval Hindu temples.[26][27][28]

The Pancharatra tradition taught the Panchakala or five observances practiced every day:[13][29][30]

  1. Abhigamna or ablutions and morning prayers to god.
  2. Upadana or collecting worship materials.
  3. Ijya or worship with offerings.
  4. Svadhyaya or daily study.
  5. Yoga and meditation.

The significance of divine manifestation theology in Pancaratra tradition is it believes that an understanding of the process by which Vishnu-Narayana emerged into empirical reality and human beings, can lead one to reverse the process. Through practicing the reversal and moving from the empirical to ever more abstract, according to Pancaratra, human beings can access immanent Vāsudeva-Krishna and thereby achieve salvific liberation (moksha).[12][31]


The Vaishnava temples and arts since the Gupta Empire, states Doris Srinivasan, attempted to present the Pancaratra ideas. In this system, states Srinivasan, "Vāsudeva, literally, "the indwelling deity," is the first emanation and the fountainhead of the successive emanations, which may be represented either anthropomorphically or theriomorphically in Hindu art". As one circumambulates the ancient and medieval Vaishnava cave temples, the devotee walks past from the icon representing Vāsudeva (most abstract) and then the successive Vyuhas (literally, "orderly arrangement").[22]

Pancharatra Texts

The Bhaktisūtras of Shandilya were one of the earliest systematic treatises on the Pancaratra doctrine.[1][2] The Pancaratra literature constitutes the Āgama texts of Vaishnavism.[1] Like the Shaivism counterpart, it not only presents the theology, but describes the details, symbolism and procedures of Vaishnava temples building and rituals. According to the Pancharatra tradition, there are 108 samhitas, but its texts list over 200 samhitas.[13] Many Pancaratra texts have been lost. Some surviving Pancaratra texts, with their general focus, are:[1][13]

List of agamas

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 are Pancharatra Agama and Vaikhanasa Agama and they conclude Brahman as Narayana or Vishnu. The Mahabharata subscribes to the Pancharatra philosophy in its Narayaniya section. Author Vishnulok Bihari Srivastava says, "Pancharatra has been discussed in the Narayanopakhyana section of Mahabharata. It has been mentioned that Narada had imbibed the essence of this tantra from Sage Narayana. It has been accepted as part of Veda named Ekayana. As many as 215 Pancharatra Samhitas have been mentioned in Kapinjala Samhita".[36] Given is a list of Saṃhitās based on the list of published and unpublished, complete and incomplete Saṃhitās from the catalogue prepared by Sadhu Parampurushdas and Sadhu Shrutiprakashdas:[37]

Many more Samhitas, of which only the name is known and are non-extant, are listed in the work as well.[37]

In the Ranganathaswamy Temple of Srirangam, the Paramesvara Samhita, a variant of the Paushkara Samhita, is in adherence.

In the Varadaraja Perumal Temple of Kanchipuram, the Jayakhya Samhita is followed.

In the Cheluvanarayana Swamy Temple of Melukote, the Ishvara Samhita is followed.

In the Pundarikaksha Swamy Temple of Tiruvellarai, the Padma Samhita is followed.

In Tirukkudantai of Kumbakonam, Aravamudhan Sarangapani, a form of Vishnu, is worshipped with the Sriprasna Samhita.

Gaudiya Vaishnavas follow the Brahma Samhita and the Naradiya Samhita.

The Sreevallabha Temple of Kerala follows the Durvasa Samhita and the Ahirbudhnya Samhita.

Vyūhas Image Attributes Symbol[67][68] Direction Face Concept
Vāsudeva Chakra Wheel
Gadā Mace
Shankha Conch
Garuda Eagle East Saumya
(Placid/ benevolent)
Jṅāna Knowledge
Samkarsana Lāṅgala Plough
Musala Pestle
Wine glass
Tala Fan palm South Simha Lion Bala Strength
Pradyumna Cāpa Bow
Bāṇa Arrow
Makara Crocodile West Raudra Kapila Aiśvaryā Sovereignty
Aniruddha Carma Shield
Khaḍga Sword
Ṛṣya (ऋष्य) White-footed antelope North Varaha Boar Śakti Power


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Further reading