What Are The Agamas?

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That which has come down

Agama Definition

The Agamas are a collection of scriptures that are closely linked to specific sects in the Hindu religion such as Tantra; their translation of ‘that which has come down’ is referring to knowledge that has been passed down from the divine into humanity’s consciousness.

agama deep dive

The author of the Agamas remains unknown, but we know that they were written and in existence before 1,000 BCE (before common era). Alongside the Vedas, the Agamas are spiritually significant and hold great authority and wisdom within particular groups.

The Agamas and The Vedas

These are both considered revealed scripture. Though the Agamas are separate from the Vedas, they are both integral scriptures of Hinduism and have many parallels, not contradicting one another.

There is certainly more known about the Vedas, and knowledge of the Agamas tends to be confined to a smaller circle, but they have both come down through Guru-Sishya parampara (the guru-disciple lineage).

Whilst the Vedas were thought to be revealed to humanity through a series of sacred sounds that embodied the true nature of reality, the Agamas were considered to be revealed by Paramashiva himself, manifesting in form.

shiva and shakta statues

Contents of The Agamas

There are many Agamas, but each of them consists of four parts. These are named the Four Padas, broken up into:

1. Jnana Pada

This is the philosophical and spiritual section of the scripture. Jnana, meaning knowledge, is the enlightened wisdom that is thought to lead us to the unconditional nature of reality – resulting in liberation.

2. Yoga Pada

The Agamas have a great deal of information about yoga. The purpose of this pada is to give practitioners the information and practices necessary to purify their thoughts, words, and actions.

It’s about giving you the tools to experience the knowledge for yourself that is presented in the Jnana pada.

3. Kriya Pada

Deals with more practical aspects of worship regarding faith and gives the procedures for these, such as temple building, rituals, and offerings.

4. Charya Pada

Contains guidance on a practitioner’s code of conduct, an exploration of morals, values, and how we should live our lives.

shiva worship temple

Practices in The Agamas

The Agamas are known for discussing 3 main practices; Mantra, Yantra, and Tantra.

1. Mantra

Sacred sound forms which are used as a way to worship God. Shiva’s form is thought to be constituted of five perfect mantras:

  • Isana
  • Tatpurusha
  • Aghora
  • Vama
  • Sadyojata

2. Yantra

These are divine tools or diagrams which are charged with the power of a mantra. They are sometimes referred to as ‘mandalas’.

Each deity has their own Yantra and the Yantras are worshipped as if they are the deity themselves (because they are).

3. Tantra

This is essentially the user’s manual, discussing a body of practices that can be used as part of their personal practice or sadhana.

It’s an accumulation of ideas that gives practitioners techniques to follow the traditions laid out in the Agamas.  

Classifying The Agamas

The 3 main branches of Agama texts are Shaiva, Vaishnava, and Shakta.

Agama texts are in the form of dialogues in which Shiva, Vishnu, or Shakti discuss various topics; as you might be able to deduce from the names, they are named after the deity that discusses each of the padas above.

They reflect the three distinct sects of Hindu belief; Shaivism, Shaktism, and Vaishnavism.

dancing shiva statue

1. Saiva Agamas

These are about building a relationship with and ultimately realizing the Supreme Being Shiva. In this classification, Shiva (or Siva) is the supreme figure.

There are 28 Saiva Agamas.

2. Shakta Agamas

These revere Shakti as the supreme Godhead. Shakti is the divine, world Mother. There are thought to be around 64 Shakta Agamas, but some sources say that there are over 70, and the number could be much higher.

A note on terminology:

When the term ‘Tantra’ is used, people are generally referring to the Shakta Agamas, even though Tantra is a core part of the Agamas.

Both the Saiva and Shakta Agamas are mostly based on the conversation between Shiva and Shakti, each one becoming either a student or teacher depending on whose Agama it is and who is revealing the information.

In general, the Saiva Agamas are often referred to as Agama, whilst the Shakta Agamas (when Shakti is the teacher) it is called Tantra or Nigama. Just to confuse matters, sometimes Tantra and Agama are used interchangeably, too!

3. Vaishnava Agamas

Regarding Vishnu as the supreme deity, these Agamas are of four different kinds: the Vaikhanasa, Pancharatra, Pratishthasara, and Vijnanalalita.

There are around 215 of the Vaishnava Agamas, thought to have come directly from the mouth of Vishnu himself.

The agamas in your life

If you’re interested in applying the Agamas to your life, you can start by looking at which of the three paths, if any, resonate with you the most. Each of their practices are largely focused on jnana (knowledge), kriya (rituals), yoga (meditation), and charya (devotion).

Although there is probably one that will speak to you more through further research, it’s important to bare in mind this teaching from the Bhagavad Gita too:

Whatever celestial form a devotee seeks to worship with faith, I steady the faith of such a devotee in that form.

Shree Krishna, Chapter 7 Verse 21

1. Shaivism

Influenced by texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Agamas, Itihaas, and Puranas with Shiva as the Supreme Being.

Kashmiri Shaivism is another non-dual school of belief that was influenced by the Shaivism of the Agamas and other Tantric philosophies, alongside many others.

2. Shaktism

Based on the worship of the Hindu goddess Shakti. Shakti, the divine Mother, is considered to be the kundalini energy lying dormant at the base of the spine. Once activated and raised to higher chakras, one reaches liberation.

3. Vaishnavism

Reveres Vishnu as the supreme manifestation of the divine, also recognizing many different forms and avatars that Vishnu can take and believing these are all one with the divine too.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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