Āgamas are a certain class of Hindu religious literature which practically form the basis of Hindu religious practices of the post-Vedic era. Literally, the word means ‘that which teaches Truth from all aspects,’ ā samantāt gamayati, and hence can denote the Vedas, or for that matter, any sacred book. But in practice it is used in a more restricted sense to indicate the above-mentioned class of literature.
Though the āgamas are definitely post-Vedic since they deal elaborately with the deities Śiva, Śakti and Viṣṇu, their temples and rituals, it is rather difficult to fix their chronological origin and development. It can be definitely stated that some of the āgamas devoted to the cult of Viṣṇu were already in existence by the time of the Mahābhārata. The development of various āgamas might have continued till the 8th cent. A. D.
A typical āgama is generally divided into four parts known as ‘pādas.’ In the Vidyāpāda or Jñānapāda philosophical and metaphysical subjects are discussed. In the Yogapāda details of yogic practices required to purify the body and mind are given. In the Kriyāpāda, which is usually voluminous, temple architecture and iconography are dealt with. In the Caryāpāda, the details of spiritual sacraments as also the code of conduct expected of a novice are delineated.
According to the deity propitiated, the āgamas are divided into three broad groups: Śaivāgamas, Śāktāgamas and Vaiṣṇavāgamas. The twenty eight Āgamas starting with Kāmikāgama and ending with Vātulāgama comprise the Śaivā-gamas. According to them, Śiva the Supreme God is ‘pati’ (the Lord), the jīvas or individual souls are ‘paśu’ (animal in bondage) and the three kinds of malas or impurities (āṇavamala, kārmikamala and māyāmala) comprise the ‘pāśa’ (rope) by which the jīvas are bound. It is by the grace of Śiva, the Paśupati, that the paśus are able to get rid of their pāśas and get mokṣa or liberation.
The Śāktāgamas, also known as tantras, are legion in number. They follow the Śaivāgamas very closely, the only exception being that Śakti or Devī (Power or consort of Śiva) gets the supreme place. The tāntric discipline has become divided into dakṣiṇācāra (the right-hand path), also known as ‘samaya,’ and vāmācāra (the left-hand path), also called ‘kaula.’ The former conforms to the decent and accepted norms of spiritual practice whereas the latter seems to advocate the theory that even aberrations can be sublimated to the level of the spiritual practice resulting in the experience of the same supreme Truth.
The Vaiṣṇavāgamas, also called Saṁhitās, are divided into the Vaikhānasa and the Pāñcarātra schools. Both teach that Viṣṇu is the highest Truth and stress the importance of worship in temples.
Jainism also has its āgamas written in the Ardhamāgadhi language, and is divided into two: Śrutāṅgas and Upāṅgas.