What is involved in a religious identity? On the Introduction of Leach 2012

What are the Pāñcarātras? Is there anything like a uniform Pāñcarātra Canon and/or Theology? Or are these texts only part of a constellation which has been made consistent by its later interpreters?

The standards required for PhD theses vary a lot from country to country and from system (e.g., in Italy you cannot exceed a given number of years to finish your thesis) to system.
Nonetheless, Robert Leach’s Textual Traditions and Religious Identities in the Pāñcarātra (Edinburgh 2012) is a surprisingly mature work. It deals with the Pāñcarātra “Canon” and with the definition of a Pāñcarātra identity, also in relation to the Vedas.

The work starts as, I have argued elsewhere, all good works should, i.e., with a critical and intelligent review of the existing literature on the topic. Already in these first pages Leach detects several open problems, namely

  • 1. the anachronism involved in our definition of the Pāñcarātra texts and their followers as “Vaiṣṇavas”. In fact, several texts are dedicated to Nārāyaṇa, Vāsudeva etc., which have been only later reinterpreted as avatāras of Viṣṇu (to the topic of the various gods hidden beyond Viṣṇu has been dedicated a workshop in Vienna, april 2012, whose proceedings are currently being edited by Marcus Schmücker—of particular relevance in this connection was Katherine Young’s distinction between Viṣṇu and Nārāyaṇa).
  • 2. the multifoldness of the “Pāñcarātra tradition”, whose first witnesses are present in the Mahābhārata, in Śa’nkara and in a 7th c inscription, but whose texts have been composed in Kashmir and (later?) in South India possibly between the 9th and the 14th c.
  • 3. connected with the above, the problem of the textuality of religious traditions. Leach discusses the anthropological turn in religious studies, focussing on practices rather than on texts, but also G. Flood’s emphasis on the textual nature of Indian religions. In this connection, one is reminded of the textual reference of several Sanskrit terms used to define “religious traditions”, such as tantra and śāstra. On the other hand, exactly the case of the Pāñcarātra seems to hint at the case of a religion which pre-existed its main texts. Would Flood think that also in this case there were texts, although they are no longer extant?

The problem of the existence of a textual tradition of Pāñcarātra leads us to the problem of the existence of a Pāñcarātra identity. Leach collects interesting hints at the idea of a darśana in the earliest Saṃhitās, as well as mentions of a mahākula ‘big/great lineage’ which might be the homeland of all Bhāgavatas. Its boundaries are some ritual practices (typically, the pañcakāla one? —Rastelli showed however how this identification was at first used by non-Pāñcarātrins and not by Pāñcarātrins while talking about themselves). Leach also discusses the many references to a textual corpus (śāstrapīṭha) since the earliest Saṃhitās, something which again brings us back to the relation with the Vedic corpus.

In fact, the relation to the Veda presents several interesting peculiarities:

  1. Like the śaiva tantras, the Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās present themselves as describing a higher revelation, one which requires a specific initiation to be accessed on top of the upanayana ceremony.
  2. However, the Pāñcarātra should also be based on the Ekāyana Veda, a unitary Veda from which the four Vedic Saṃhitās later originated.
  3. Last, its interpreters (notably, Vedānta Deśika) have used different strategies to show that the Pāñcarātra were also Vedic (e.g., insofar as they were based on the Vedic Saṃhitas, like the ritual sūtras).

What do you think about the textual basis of Indian religious identities?

On Pāñcarātra, see this post. On the problematic definition of “religion”, please re-read this great post by Amod.

(cross-posted on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

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