I recently posted about the Vaikhanasa agamas, so I thought it would be nice to post on the Pancharatra agamas.
The Pancaratra Agamas prescribe icon worship in the place of rituals like Yajnas, mentioned in the Vedas. The Agamas accept the authority of Vedas, Samkhya, and Aranyakas. Agamas generally talk about construction of temples; the rules for installation and consecration of the deities in the temples; the methods of performing pujas in the temples; philosophy; linguistic occultism (mantra -sastra); theory of magical-meditative figures (yantra -sastra), yoga/ bhakti yoga, domestic observances (samskara, ahnika), social rules (varnasrama-dharma) and public festivals.
Pāñcarātra are Vaishnavite devotional texts dedicated to a single deity, Sriman Narayana, who manifests in different forms.The central teaching of the Pāñcharātra religion is that the deity manifests Himself in five-fold forms: Para, Vyūha, Vibhava, Antaryamin, and Archa. These five aspects are how the absolute, formless Transcendent One (Parabrahman) is brought into living and loving touch with the mundane world so that living beings can interact with the divine.
The Para form is sometimes described as the first immanent manifestation of the Supreme Being. But sometimes it is said to have sprung from a still higher, the very first form of god. This first form is referred to as ‘the best of the Purushas’ and ‘the Highest Light’, seen by the Brahmanas in meditation. This form is immanent and should not be confused with the supreme transcendent one. This is clear when it is said that this form has originated from ‘that which has all forms and no form’, ‘Brahman without beginning, middle and end’.
God as para is sometimes identified with and sometimes distinguished from the Vyuha Vasudeva. When the two are distinguished the Vyuha Vasudeva is said to have sprung from the para Vasudeva. The Padma Tantra describes para Vasudeva as diving himself ‘for some reason’ and becoming with one half the Vyuha Vasudeva and with the other Narayana, the creator of the primeval waters. The para is adorned with nine chief ornaments and weapons, which symbolically represent the principles of the Universe.
The appearance of gunas in Lakshmi and Narayana denotes the beginning of the process of Vyuha or emanation. Vasudeva, characterized by the six gunas, is sometimes called the first Vyuha. From Vasudeva emanates Samkarshana in whom jnana and bala alone get manifested. From Samkarshana comes Pradyumna to whom belong aishvarya and virya. From Pradyumna emanates Aniruddha to whom shakti and tejas appertain. This, however, does not mean that each Vyuha has only two gunas, but each Vyuha is Vasudeva himself with his six gunas, of which, however, only two in each case become manifest. In the Lakshmi Tantra all these vyuhas are said to proceed from Lakshmi. The Vihagendra Samhita, however, maintains that they come from Vasudeva.
The Pancharatra thinkers were very much particular in safeguarding and preserving the purity and unchanged nature of the transcendent Supreme Being. From that point of view, the chief merit, and hence its primary significance, is that it is such a process of emanation in which the Supreme Being remains unaffected and unchanged in all the five-fold manifestations.
Closely connected with the doctrine of vyuhas, is the next manifestation of God, named as vibhava (manifestation) or avatara (descent). The only supreme being the pancharatra philosophers knew about was the Transcendent One, who was not in any way directly related to the world. Therefore, the Samhitas explicitly describe the avataras as either all springing from Aniruddha, or some from Vasudeva and the rest from the other three vyuhas. One should not be mistaken here in assuming that the Supreme Being himself takes avatara. This is a puranic conception. The Pancharatra Samhitas nowhere maintain that the Supreme Being, laying aside its transcendent, unmoving nature assumes these finite forms. This is impermissible by the premises of the system. The Supreme Being is merely a spectator with an attitude of passivity and indifference. It cherishes no attachment to the mundane world, and it is beyond its nature to do so.
The fourth manifestation is the Antaryamin avatara, which is Aniruddha as the ‘Inner Ruler’ of all souls. It is a mysterious power seated in the ‘lotus of the heart’. Here again it should be noted that this is not a manifestation of the Supreme Being, but only of Aniruddha, one of the vyuhas.
The Pancharatra Samhitas, unlike Narayaniya, finally recognize the archa manifestation of God. An inanimate object (i.e. image of Vishnu), if duly consecrated according to the Pancharatra rites, acquires a miraculous power, and the Shakti of Vishnu descends into it. It is meant for the purpose of daily worship.
This archa worship is different from the pratima worship. In the latter the symbol is the locus, on which the devotee concentrates his thought. But no sooner the thought is centralized, than the locus soon gets out of his vision and no necessity thereof is felt. But in the archa worship, on the other hand, the devotee feels the very presence of God in it. And as such the inanimate image soon acquires a new meaning, becomes the object of love, of heart’s hankering and of the eye’s rest. This we find in the religion of the Alvars as well, who are the Tamil Vaishnava saints…
Excerpted and adapted from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pa%C3%B1caratra