Among the extant Vaiṣṇava Āgamas of the Pāñcarātra school, the Ahirbudhnya Saṁhitā is an important work. ‘Ahir-budhnya’ is one who, in the form of an ‘ahi’ or serpent, is the ‘budhna’ or foundation of the world. So, literally it refers to Śeṣa or Ananta, the thousand-hooded serpent, on whose head the world is said to be supported, according to the accounts in some of the purāṇas. It is also mentioned as one of the names of Śiva who, according to the Vaiṣṇava scriptures, is a great devotee of Viṣṇu. In this work he is identified with Śiva. ‘Saṁhitā’ is a general name given to any systematically arranged text.
As in the case of many other Hindu religious works, it is rather difficult to assign any date for this work. Otto Schrader feels that it must have been composed later than A. D. 300 (See his Introduction to the Pāñcarātra and the Ahirbudhnya Saṁhitā, Madras: Adyar Library and Research Centre, 1973.)
The Saṁhitā opens with a dialogue between two sages Bharadvāja and Durvāsas. Bharadvāja requests Durvāsas to propound the mystery of Sudarśana, the wondrous discus of Lord Viṣṇu. Durvāsas agrees to narrate faithfully the teachings given by Ahirbudhnya (Śiva) to Nārada on this subject, but only briefly. The original Saṁhitā before condensation is said to have had 240 chapters. However, the present printed text has 3880 verses in the anuṣṭubh metre, spread over 60 chapters.
The teachings of this work can be briefly summed up as follows: Para-brahman, the Absolute, is the highest Truth. He is One, without beginning or end, all-pervading, free from all blemish, full and perfect. He resides in all beings and is called Nārāyaṇa. His real nature can be experienced only in the state of liberation, which again is possible only by His grace and not by one’s own efforts.
He has two śaktis or powers: kriyāśakti and bhūtiśakti. The Sudarśana cakra is actually the kriyāśakti representing the active side or the energetic aspect of the Lord (chs. 3 and 8 to 12). When it activates the bhūtiśakti which is the material cause of the world, creation of the world takes place (ch. 5-7).
The created world which in the beginning is under the influence of sattva, goes on smoothly for some time. As sattva diminishes increasing the influence of rajas and tamas, people start going astray necessitating the proclamation of the original Śāstra (holy book) viz., the Pāñcarātra, by Saṅkarṣaṇa himself (an aspect of Lord Vāsudeva). The book describes the four aspects of manifestation of the Supreme Lord: para, vyūha, vibhava and arca. (See PĀÑCARĀTRA ĀGAMA for details.)
Then follow the descriptions of philosophical systems like Trayī, Sāṅkhya and Yoga ending with the Sātvata (Pāñca-rātra). It is interesting to note that Buddhism and Jainism are dismissed as śāstrābhāsa (fallacious systems) invented by gods and ṛṣis to spread confusion among the wicked!
The summum bonum of life is ‘atyanta hita’ (‘greatest well-being’) which puts a permanent end to all suffering and gives eternal bliss. This can be gained by dharma (religion) and jñāna (knowledge), the former being the stepping stone for the latter. Both these are described in the Pāñcarātra system, by following which mokṣa (liberation) can be gained.
Then there is a detailed description of mantras (sacred syllables), characteris-tics of the ācārya (preceptor), śiṣya (disciple) and dīkṣā (initiation). (vide chapters 18 to 20.)
Rakṣās and yantras (magical diagrams), their worship and meditation as also the fruits accruing from them are described next (chs. 21 to 29). Practice of yoga is also dealt with in detail (chs. 30, 31). Astras or magical weapons are another topic described in detail.
Human beings naturally desire cures from all physical and mental diseases. This subject also has been dealt with. The cures suggested are ritualistic or mystical. There is also a detailed description of the Mahābhiṣeka (‘great baptism’) by the performance of which one can get rid of all diseases (ch. 39).
There are a number of upākhyānas (stories) given to illustrate the effects of divine weapons and of certain amulets and talismans.
The great Sudarśanamantra, the root of all mantras, which enables one to cause the Sudarśana Puruṣa to appear before oneself, is another subject dealt with (chs. 43, 44).
Other mantras described in the work are: tārāmantra (i.e. Om), mantras of Viṣṇu and Nārāyaṇa, meaning of the word namaḥ, Narasiṁha-mantra, Gāyatrī, explanation of some sections of Puruṣa-sūkta, Śrīsūkta and others.
Unlike the Vaikhānasa works, this work of the Pāñcarātra system does not deal with temples and rituals.