Agamas and the way of life
Dr. V. Varadachari, 1982. Agamas and South Indian Vaishnavism. Chapter X pages 407-426.
Every society has codes for ethics helpful to its well being. The standard of good conduct and moral behavior enjoined by them vary from individual to individual and from one stratum of society to another. All such codes and standards among the Hindus derive from the Vedas.
Moral goodness is a question of behavior. 1410. Everlasting happiness is the goal of good conduct. The law books (Smrtis) and the conduct of those steeped in Vedic tradition are also authoritative 1411. Moral behavior is alone held to contribute to individual progress and social welfare. Mere knowledge (even if it be philosophical or theological) can lead to no certain goal. 1412.
The ethical codes are supported and stabilised by religious traditions. Hence the religious coloring given by Hindus even to secular activities. The epics and the pecanas have played a significant role in fashioning moral concepts- particularly the Mahabharata, the Visnudharmottara, the Visnupurana, the Bhagavadgita, and the Bhagavata. With the exception of the Gita, these texts reveal acquaintance with the vyiiha and sadguna aspects of God, which are vital to the Pancarata. The influence of the Sattvata-dharma (which is developed in the Mahabharata) may be traced to the books mentioned above.
Still, the wide and varied aspects of Vaisnavism are so rich and complex as to deny any significant Agama influence on them.
Dependence on God in leading a virtuous life is stressed in all ancient
works. Thus no one had any real freedom. God’s (Visnu’s) will creates and
sustains the world and provides the people with security, 1413. Uttering
his name even light- heartedly makes for happiness here and hereafter;
no need to speak of devotion or dedication of all actions to God bringing
1414. God is the friend after all, high or low, 1415. His devotees never suffer 1416.
Devotion is of various kinds to physical and mental capacities, 1417.
Its quality is determined by the spirit, and not by pomp or show. The greatest
of all activities is worship of God, and adoration of His devotees is still
more worthy, for God is more pleased when his devotees receive worship
than when he does, 1418. Prapatti is declared to be the surest means of
attaining God, 1419.
The Kalpasutras and Smrtis that deal with the social and religious aspects of life, explain how health and purity can be ensured. Bodhayana 1420 and others prescribe general rules for conduct and also give specific direction for the conduct of Vaisnavas and the worship of God. The
Smrtis of Manu, 1421 Sandilya, 1422 Vasistha, 1424 and others are similar.
The Agmas’ impact on Vaisnavism seems to have become significant only from the time of Ramanuja. The earlier attitudes may perhaps be due to the Brahmasutra discussion on the validity of the Pancaratra and the stand of Sankara and Bhaskara that is this Agama is unacceptable in part. Yamuna’s rejoinder eased the position. After Ramanuja incorporated their doctrines in his Gadyatraya, they came to occupy a position of unquestioned authority. But the Agamas have not influenced Vaisnava tradition to such an extent as to make it conform extensively to their ideals and practises.
Ramanuja also wrote the Nitya on the way of worshipping God everyday
at home. It is based on the Pancaratra. Though the Vaikhanasa also has
preseribed a daily routine, it is intended only for the followers of the
Vaikhanasa-sutras, 1425. Hence, following the lines laid down by Ramanuja,
his immediate disciples, (Srivatsankamistra and Sriranganarayana) brought
forth their own manuals. They were followed by Parasarabhatta, Nanjiyar,
Varavara-muni and others. Works on ahnika were written by several writers in later periods.
The fivefold division of the daily routine (panca-kala-prakriya) forms the basis of these works. Till recently there were so many Srivaisnavas who scrupulously carried out this routine. That is not the case now.
The indispensable qualification for being a Vaisnava is wearing the urdhva-pundra. The marks which Hindu men and women wear on their foreheads are known as pundras. They may be vertical (urdhva), horizontal (tiryak) or circular (vartula).
The Vaisnava traditon enjoins the vertical variety, on the authority
of the Vedas.
The urdhva-pundra is claimed to keep away evil spirits, 1426. It must be worn to ensure purity, while offering sandhya prayers, doing homa, worshipping God, studying the Vedas and such other religious activities, 1427. Otherwise, they will be futile, 1428.
The material used for the pundra is white mud; 1429 sandal and some other things, recommended in different contexis, are held apply to only particular persons 1430. The white mud should be taken from only select spots like Sriangam, Venkatadri, Srimusnanm, Tirunarayanapuram, Vrsabhadri (Tirumalirunsolai), banks of rivers, ant hills, the areas where tulasi grows and holy places, 1431.
The urdhva-pundra has to start at the tip of the nose and rise upwards in parallel columns with some space in between them, where a red or yellow vertical line is drawn with the help of a powder made of turmeric and other ingredients 1432 and called “Sricurna”.
Several opinions are recorded about the shape of the urdhva-pundra. It may be of the form of flame, the leaf of the bamboo, a flower bud and Visnu’s foot or feet and so on, 1433 and each form is said to achieve a specific purpose. But the practice among Srivasnavas is to have it in the form of the divine foot or feet, 1434. However, the two sects, Vadakalai and Tenkalai, have chosen to adopt slightly different forms of pundra. As a rule, red-colored Sricurna is worn by both, but some of the former use the yellow color.
Vedantadesika discusses an interesting question about the form of pundra.
On the idols of God in temples, the pundra is in the form of a flame. He
says that the same form should not be used by men, for whom the form is
that of Hari-pada. If they try to imitate the Lord in this, they will seek
to follow His example in other matters as well?
The number must be twelve including on in the forehead, 1435. The others are to be put on specific parts of the body.1436.
There appears to be a somewhat weaker sanction for wearing only four, 1437. The Pancaratra enjoins the uttering of the twelve names of Visnu, when putting them on, while the Vaikhanasa prescribes specific mantras instead. 1438
Putting the urdhva pundra on the idols in the temples is authorised, as well as on wells, mantapas, horses, elephants and vehicles, on the vessels used for worship, flags and other objects belonging to the temple, 1439. At the entrance to houses, the pundra used to be carved on doors or painted on plank figures – of the discuss on the right, the conch on the left, Garuda to the right of the discuss and Hanuman to the left of the conch. In modern days, wearing of the urdhva-pundra has practically disappeared among the younger generations.
The practice of wearing the urdhva-pundra seems to be very ancient. Vedanta-desika in his Saccaritra-raska gives profuse citations from Vedic texts like Katha-sakha and Baudhayana Kalpasiitras like the Matsya, Brahamanda, Markandeya, Varistha and Skanda, and Smrtis like Visnu-smrti and Smrticandrika. The two Agamas also advocate it. Vedanta-desika quotes from the Paramesvara, Paramesthi, and Sanatkumara Samhitas, though many passages cited from the Crahma-ratra section of the last mentioned text are from three chapters which are now lost.
A fivefold inditiation known as the panca-samskara is enjoined on all the Srivaisnavas without distinction of caste or sex. This sacriment is intended to fit one to discharge one’s duties to God and man. It consists of tapa, pundra naman, mantra and ijya, 1440. It is also known as samasrayana or resorting to (the preceptor as refuge).
Tapa (heating) refers to the marking of the left and right shoulder
blades of the initiate with small heated pieces of metal of the form of
the conch and the discus respectively. Vedanta-desika quotes texts from
the Vedas, the Pancaratra and the puranas as authority for tapa. Two Vedic
passages cited by him are given below…
(Those who have realized Brahman declare that the Brahmin must bear the discus on the right arm and the conch on the left.)
(O Visnu, the learned have on the upper part of their arms the sanctifying conch and discus in order to cross over the ocean of worldly existence).
Another Vedic text cited by Vedanta-desika declares :”He who bears on his body the mark of the heated discus of the omnipresent Visnu which gives security to the army of the gods, goes to the place which is devoid of misery, shaking off the sins – the place which the recluses who are without attachment attain.”
The word translated, as ‘on his body’ is ‘vapusa’, the instrumental form of ‘vapus’ meaning ‘body’, There is nothing against taking it to mean “the upper part of the right arm” which will all be in consonance with other texts and hoary traditions. Those who do not have their bodies marked by the heated discuss cannot exhaust the karmas (i.e., effects of their past actions): which condition is a necessary preliminary to salvation, 1441.
Another Vedic passage testifies to ancient sages bearing on their bodies the marks of the divine weapons:
The marks (lingas) mentioned here refer to those of discus, conch, mace,
sword and bow, the five weapons of Visnu. They are believed to have been
worn on the right and left arms, the forehead, the head and the heart respectively.
Now only the first two are worn.
Instead of marking the shoulders by tapa with the marks of discus and conch, mud and sandal paste are used for the purpose by Vaisnavas belonging to schools other than that of Ramanuja, 1442. The scriptural text from the Rgeveda-khila mentioned above states: bibiharti vapuse abhitaptam. This clearly envisages tapa.
Obviously, this sacrament is intended to purify the human body and render it fit for service to God. Fire is regarded as a more effective purifier than water,1443 – particularly, ‘fire’ in the heated symbols of Visnu or His weapons. Such marks on the body render it fit for any religious act that the Vaisnava has to do for pleasing God.
The acarya officiating in this sacrament has been accused of cruelty. He hurts the body of the disciple only for a noble purpose. He must be likened to the surgeons who use sharp instruments to operate on the patients. Parents again punish their children severely to induce them to be good, studious and industrious: this is done out of love, 1444. Again, in certain regions branding is a remedy for evil or means of winning good luck. Certain diseases are treated in Saurastra by branding with a heated iron rod below the affected part of body. In Mithila, the mother in law and others apply the flame of a lamp to the knee of the newly wedded bride to ensure good fortune for her.
The law-books of Vrddha Harita, Sandilya and Vasistha and the Visnudharmottara enjoin this practice. Sandilya says that one’s utensils and cattle are to be given the marks of the conch and the discus. 1447.
Those who oppose the sacrament of tapa rely on a passage in S’rauta-sutra
which frowns on scars from wounds in the body caused in three ways. The
three ways,1448 are taken to be through the bow-string, engaging in battles
or involvement in scuffles in gambling. Such activities must be regarded
as forbidden or allowed only to the extent at which no scars are received
or given. But they are claimed to refer to wearing the emblems of Brahma,
Visnu or Rudra so as to cause scars. Such interpretation is untenable:
it goes against the authority of the Vedas, epics, Agamas and the bulk
of the Smrtis. The few Smrti texts quoted against the sacrament 1449 cannot
avail against this formidable corpus of authority. It should be remembered
that there are references also, as already mentioned, to be practice of
wearing the emblems of all five weapons of Visnu (the conch, discus, mace,
sword and bow) to get freedom from samsara, 1450.
There is no decisive evidence to show how old the rituals of tapa as also the panca-samskara generally is. It might have been originally intended as a protection against evil spirits. The new-born child used to be given a garland containing the emblems. Earrings of the form of the conch and discus used to be worn by devotees of Visnu. In course of time, probably by 700 A.D 1451, it became essential for a Vaisnava to have the samskara. In Nathamuni’s days, it must have been in vogue, though not every Vaisnava of the times observed it. (Wearing urdhva-pundra might have become widespread earlier.) After Nathamuni, tradition records some instances of tapa being administrated. Tirumalai Nambi adminsitrated it to his two son in laws 1452, and Periya Nambi to Ramanuja, 1453. After Ramanuja the sacrament of panca-samskara became obligatory for all Srivaisnavas, irrepective of caste or sex. In a passage from the Mahabharata quoted earlier in this book, 1454, it is declared that Bhramins, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras can engage in (ritualistic) worship of God if they are always devoted to their duties and are krta-laksanas, persons who have obtained marks of identity, that is, have undergone some kind of initiation. Attempts were made to interpret laksana as referring to the wearing of the sacred thread (yajnopavita) by Brahmins and the branding of shoulder blades in the case of Sundras and women 1455. This is untenable as the word ‘laksana’ which qualifies jointly and simultaneously four or five groups of persons, is made to bear one meaning when applied to one to one group and another meaning when applied to other groups. Though the Kalpasturas do not refer to the sacrament of tapa, there is Vedic sanction for Brahmins being marked by heated metal with the forms of the conch and the discus on their arms. 1456
Though the sacrament of panca-samskara makes men and women of all castes qualified to perform formal worship of the icons of God, not every one can do so in the temple. The right is restricted to those who get initiation, 1457. At home also, not all perform the worship: it is usually done by the eldest male member of the family. Though women are eligible, normally they do not do it, in spite of tantrika mautras being avaliable to them in the place of Vedic mantras.
Seventyfour preceptors or acary-purusat, also called simhasanadhipatis or “occupants of the (spiritual) throne”, are said to have been entrusted by Ramanuja with the duty of administrating the sacrament of panca-samskara. The Yatiraja-vaibhava (103) and the Guruparamparas refer to this. But there does not seem to be any written evidence to show that the right to give the fivefold initiation is restricted only to the 74 and their successors. As of today, only a few of the successors exercise this privilege, other having given it up for some reasons or other.
The ritual of initiation is begun by the acarya himself with a homa in the sacred fire. The Purusa-sukta, Sri-sukta and other sacred texts are recited. Metallic representations of the conch and discus are ‘bathed’ ceremonially and then heated in the fire. They are then applied by the acarya to the shoulder blades of the disciple, who also is given the pundra. The teaching of three mantras – the mula mantra (i.e., the astaksara), the dvaya and the caramasloka (i.e., Gita XVIII. 66)- constitutes the samskara of mantra. As for ijya, the disciple is instructed in the ritual of worshipping God at home. He is then given a name by which he can regard himself as a devotee of God and His devotees, 1458. The occasion is utilized also to teach the disciple the significance of the epics, the Gita and some other sacred texts and instruct him on how to lead his life as a Srivaisnava.
The acaryas include some ascetics. This has given rise to a practical difficulty. Sannyasins are prohibited from offering obligations in the fire. Hence the homa required for the sacrament has to be performed by some grhastha attached to the sannyasin who however applies the heated metal pieces to the shoulder blades of the initiates. For some time past, the tendency has been asked to seek initiation at the hands of the sannyasins presiding over mutts, and the disciples of acarya-purusyas who are householders, are dwindling.
One group of Vaisnavas, it may be noted, do not receive panca-samskara. The Vaikanasa claim that they are children of the Lord and that they do not need sacrament or preceptors. Other Vaisnavas are distinguished from non-Vaisnavas mentally, verbally and physically. They engage in the distinctive mental activity of bhutasuddhi and the verbal activity of japa in the cakrabjamandala and are subjected to being marked on the body by the metallic emblems of the conch and discus on the Lord. The Vaikhanasas reject the three mantras taught to other Vaisnavas by their preceptors. Japa in the cakrabjamamdala is meant only for those who follow the Pancaratra exclusively and without reference to the Kalpasutras. As for tapa, the Vaikhanas claim that in their families the fetus in the womb gets the marks of the conch and the discus in the eighth month of the pregnancy of the mother when the ritual of Visnubali is performed. Narayana Himself is said to give the mark to the fetus. Thus the followers of the of the Vaikhanasa-sutras claim to be Garbha-Vaisnavas, that is, Vaisnavas even in the womb of their mothers.
In spite of these differences between the two Agamas, it may be noted that, according to both, the Vaisnava has to bear the marks of the conch and discus. It should also be remembered that this samskara has for long been considered an essential qualification for conducting worship and preparing food both at home and in temples. Even women must be thus qualified before they can handle household vessels, bring water or cook and server food. The pious would not accept even a cup of water from one who had not undergone the samskara though the strict observance of this ritual is no longer common.
The daily routine has been prescribed for the Vaisnava who has undergone panca-samskara. An immediate disciple of Ramanuja- known as Vangi Vamsesvara and Sriranga-narayana-earya – has a written manual, Ahnika-karika, based on pancakala-prakriya, 1460. It should be deemed an authentic account of Ramanuja’s views.
The round of daily religious exercises differs in some essential particulars in the Pancaratra and Vedic tradtions. The latter enjoins the Gayatri-japa, 1461, thrice daily. The Pancaratra prescribed the japa of Visnu-mantras. During japa, Visnu is to be mediated as being present in the sun’s disc, and He is to be worshipped with specific names. The mantra for the japa in the morning is Visnu-Gayatri, the devata being of Visnu; at midday, it is dvadasaksara invoking Maha-visnu; and in the evening, it is astaksara, the Deity being Sada-visnu, 1462.
Vedanta Desika warns against hastily discarding Vedic practices and adopting in their place directions from Pancaratra texts except on very strong grounds. He points out that followers of Ramanuja’s teachings have performed marriages, upanyana and other sacraments and rituals in accordance with the Sutras to which they owe allegiance. Further, all know that Ramanuja’s preceptors like Periya Nambi performed sacrifices and other rituals according to their Sutras. Hence those intent on following the precepts and practices of Ramanuja and his disciples should not adopt for rituals and ceremonies the mantras enjoined in particular Pancaratra samhitas, 1463. The Ahnika-karika enjoins homa and other rituals of the kind mentioned in Kalpa-sutras, 1464. In this context, the question arises as to accepting the Pancaratra injunctions about rituals involving the slaughter of animals. King Uparicara Vasu is said to have offered as victim in a sacrifice the figure of an animal made of the flour of wild grains, 1465. Brhaspati, the preceptor of the gods, accepted this view after initial opposition, 1466. The Pancaratra is held to be Vasu’s authority. The Dvaitins, influenced by the humane considerateness of the Pancaratra, recommended sacrifices of this kind, 1467. The Visistadvaitins, though far more influnced by the Pancaratra, argue that a Vedic ritual, if obligatory or required on specific occasions, must not be given up or modified, 1468.
The offering of arghya to the sun during sandhya prayers is cited as a ritual involving himsa, as it brings about the death of the demons impending the progress of the sun, 1469. One has to turn around oneself in a clockwise direction to get rid of the sin of killing. But the killing of an animal as a victim in a sacrifice is not deemed a sin. Himsa or causing injury is an act which leads to evil.
In this sense, there is no himsa in sacrifices, as the victims attain
to a better state after death.
(Sribhasya III. 1.25)
Therefore the ritual of killing animals is meritorious. It inflicts
beneficial injury like surgery.
(Cf. Adhikaranasaravali, 284-6, of Vedanta Desika on ibid.)
As regards the japa of any mantra, it can be verbal, silent or mental, securing protection from evil spirits, accomplishing desired objectives and helping in the attainment of moska respectively, 1471. The rosary, aksa-sutra, is to be used for counting the number of repetitions, 1472. Interruptions to japa are not generally permissible, but the arrival of a devotee of the Lord requires a break in it, 1473. Devotion to the devotees of God is stressed so much.
Besides, japa, four other rites are enjoined by the Pancaratra – “sacrifice”, liberation, ritual bath and offering food to Brahmins. Collectively, the five are known as purascarana, 1474. They are needed for securing full spiritual power through mantras. Among the prescribed mantras, are Visnu-gayatri, Bhuta-suddhi mantras, S’akti-mantra, Pancopanisan mantra, Vaisnava mantras generally and many others. Of these, only a few are used in japa and for attaining specific objectives. The Savitri is obligatory for everyone qualified to study the Vedas. Among the Vaisnava mantras, the pranava, sadaskara, astaskara, dvadasaksara and Jintante are described as vyapaka. The astaksara is universally enjoined by Vaisnava tradition in addition to the Gayatri, 1475.
Worship of God is obligatory for everyone. It is of two kinds, - in
temple and at home. The former known as parartha-yajana (worship for the
sake of others) is concerned with the consecrated idols in the temple and
intended for the welfare of the community. The Agamas however suggest that
‘paratha’ means ‘concerned with what is superior’ or ‘excellent’. It is
like the sun, while worship at home is like a domestic lamp. It is
also declared that parartha, 1476 worship leads to final liberation.