Nigama and Āgama

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Two Classes of Vedic Texts

Vedic texts are broadly classified into Nigama and Āgama. They respectively pertain to theory and practice. The practice is accepted due to Nigama and the theory is confirmed due to Āgama. In this article, we will discuss the differences and relationships between Nigama and Āgama, how a complex Nigama is simplified by an easier Āgama, whose grasp is simplified by an easier Nigama, and so on. Through progressive simplification, we arrive at multiple types of Nigama and Āgama, which constitute the varied theories and practices in the Vedic system.

But progressive simplicity is not unlimited due to free will. If we don’t want to do something, we will not do it, even if it is simple. The simplification is for those who want it enough, to make it sufficiently easy that they can achieve it if they try. Thus, as time passes and human capacity declines, simplification in theory and practice is ushered in to compensate for declining abilities. But it is never oversimplified to accommodate those who don’t want it, will not try enough, or will use the hardship as an excuse for not making an attempt.

Arrival and Departure

In Sanskrit, the root gama means a road that you can walk on. If you do walk, then the process is called gamana or going. Loving exchanges between two people which deepen the bond between them are called gamana because by those exchanges you are walking on the road toward that person. Similarly, you can also depart from a place or go away from a person, and that is also called gamana.

Since the word gamana can apply both to arrival and departure, therefore, the distinction between these two is made through the words Āgama and Nigama. Āgama means that which is coming toward you; for example, when a guest arrives home, the arrival is called āgamana. Similarly, Nigama means departure; for example, when you arrive at a conclusion starting from a premise, then the process is called nigamana. Thus, gama means a road, gamana means walking on the road, āgamana means arrival and nigamana means departure. Āgama means the truth coming to you, and Nigama means you going to the truth. Roots are essential to understanding Sanskrit words.

Nigama—The Road Less Travelled

Nigama is dissected as ni-gama where ‘ni’ means downward. You can imagine a city center from which many roads go the city periphery. As they move out from the center, they also go downward. Therefore, the path from the periphery to the center is upward.

The term Nigama is sometimes translated as an “establishment”. Many municipal corporations in India are called Nagar Nigam meaning the establishment that manages the working of the city. The Supreme Lord is the Nigama for His creations. He is the controller and supervisor who controls Godhead, the city expanded from His person. The study of Nigama is the study of the Supreme Lord.

The term Nigama is used to describe some Vedic texts that are derivations from the Absolute Truth. They can be used to understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead or the Absolute Truth. But the journey is steep and uphill. We can call these “the road less traveled”.

From the perspective of the Absolute Truth, Nigama is that which is inferred from it. However, from our perspective, Nigama is that road that is hard to follow to reach the Absolute Truth. Even if we read the Nigama, it is very difficult (if not almost impossible) to understand them. Walking on that road toward the Absolute Truth is like climbing a mountain. Most people will never reach the top.

The Ripened Fruit of the Tree

Śrīmad Bhagavatam 1.1.3 describes itself as nigama-kalpa-taru. Kalpa means imagination or thought, and taru means a tree. Thereby, the Nigama includes all imaginable truths, which are derived from a root of the Absolute Truth as its trunks, branches, leaves, and fruits. Then, Śrīmad Bhagavatam is described as the galitam-phalam or the “soft and ripened fruit” of the Nigama tree that contains all truths.

Thus, many visual examples are used to illustrate the idea. The Supreme Lord is the root of a tree expanded downward from Him (making the tree inverted; the root is upward and the leaves are downward). The same thing is described as a city center with roads going outward and downward. Sometimes, the situation is described as streams coming out of a lake; the lake is higher and the streams are falling out.

The tree of all the derivations from the Absolute Truth produces many trunks, branches, and leaves, but it ultimately produces a fruit, and if we taste it, then we don’t need to know about the trunks, branches, twigs, and leaves. Just eat the fruit and don’t worry about the tree.

The import of calling Śrīmad Bhagavatam the galitam-phalam is that Śrīmad Bhagavatam is highly relishable. We can chew on fruit, but we cannot chew on leaves, twigs, branches, and trunks. The tree exists for the purpose of creating fruit, so if we understand the fruit, then we know why the Nigama exists because it is the most important part of Nigama. Everything else is comparatively less important.

That doesn’t mean the tree is only the fruit. There are leaves, twigs, branches, and trunks as well. While the fruit is the reason why the entire tree exists, the leaves, twigs, branches, and trunks exist as supportive agents assisting the production of the ripened fruit.

Intellectualizing the Ripened Fruit

If you just want to relish the ripened fruit of the tree, then Śrīmad Bhagavatam is enough. There is no need to worry about the leaves, twigs, branches, and trunks. However, not everyone is so inclined. They might be interested in technical questions such as (a) How was this fruit produced by the rest of the tree? (b) Why does the fruit contain some specific ingredients as opposed to others which could be present? and (c) Why are the ingredients of the fruit only present in the fruit but absent in the leaves, twigs, branches, and trunks?

To answer these questions, one has to study the whole tree. This study is not important if we can just accept the Śrīmad Bhagavatam as the ripened fruit of Nigama. Since everyone is not going to do that, therefore, the study of Nigama is also possible to understand the fruit.

Now, when we try to understand the rest of Nigama, then we return to the problem of climbing uphill. This problem arises only if we try to intellectualize the fruit, rather than relishing it. We could just taste the ripened fruit, which is done by the rasikā-bhuvi-bhāvukah, those who are only interested in the sweet taste imbued with feelings of happiness. But mere tasting is not enough for the intellectuals.

Āgama—Supporting Practices

The solution to the hardship of understanding Nigama is Āgama, which is the Absolute Truth arriving to you, rather than you going to the Absolute Truth. We can also say that Āgama is the practice that makes the upward journey easier. These include the performances of yajñá, following Varṇāśrama, and social dharma as best as you can. We can compare these to the ropes, pickaxes, and hooks used by mountain climbers to reach the top.

Just like almost nobody can climb the mountain without the ropes, pickaxes, and hooks, similarly, Nigama cannot be understood on its own (although its fruits can still be relished by those keen on simply tasting the fruit, rather than intellectualizing it). To understand the whole of Nigama, one has to follow the practices of the Āgama. Therefore, the combination of Āgama and Nigama says: Perform certain practices and then try to grasp Nigama. If the prescriptions of Āgama are followed, then the understanding of Nigama would become easier.

The Simplification of Āgama

SB 1.2.17 states as follows: Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the Personality of Godhead, who is the Paramātmā [Supersoul] in everyone’s heart and the benefactor of the truthful devotee, cleanses desire for material enjoyment from the heart of the devotee who has developed the urge to hear His messages, which are in themselves virtuous when properly heard and chanted. This is the further simplification of Āgama.

The emphasis on hearing and chanting involves two senses—ears and tongue. The mind and intellect are not involved in this. That means—even if you don’t understand Śrīmad Bhagavatam, simply hearing and chanting its verses will purify the heart of all impurities.

A similar type of distinction is made between śravaṇa, kīrtana, and smaraṇa. The first two pertain to hearing and chanting, and once someone has perfected these, then the mind can be involved. This means that we cannot understand the philosophy unless we have perfected hearing and chanting. So, we can just relish hearing and chanting, and when the heart is fully purified, then we understand philosophy.

This is even simpler than Āgama because we don’t have to perform complicated yajñá, we may not be able to perfectly follow Varṇāśrama, and we may sometimes be involved in some undesirable activities. Those mistakes, flaws, and difficulties make the classical Āgama futile, and Nigama unreachable. But if we follow the process of hearing and chanting as the Āgama, then both Āgama and Nigama are attained.

Multiple Distinct Processes

Note the differences between the paths mentioned above: (a) We can try to understand Nigama, but it is extremely hard, (b) We can practice Āgama as the support system of ropes, pickaxes, and hooks to understand Nigama, (c) We can stop trying to understand Nigama, but just listen and chant intently, and the sounds will purify all the contamination in the heart, and (d) After the heart has been completely purified, we will understand the Absolute Truth and Nigama, such that the initial process is śravaṇa, then it is kīrtana, finally it is smaraṇa.

The process of studying Nigama is called philosophy. It is possible but extremely hard; it is a mountain climb unassisted by ropes, pickaxes, and hooks. Then the process of Āgama is those practices that will make your Nigama study easier. It is supplementary practices that make the philosophy easier to understand. But if we cannot follow Āgama, then we can just chant and hear, and get everything else.

At the present time, these distinctions between Nigama, Āgama, and the simpler solution of chanting and hearing without mental and intellectual involvement, are not understood. People want to intellectually understand things before they invest substantial time and energy in practicing Āgama, or even chanting and hearing the Śrīmad Bhagavatam. They cannot imagine how hard Nigama is, why Āgama tries to simplify this path by some practices, and how hearing and chanting try to further simplify the Āgama. That simplification relies on acceptance of a process in lieu of our mental and intellectual capacities to understand Nigama and bodily strength to practice Āgama.

The Science of Hearing and Chanting

The acceptance of the process of chanting and hearing requires faith. This is because even as we are trying to taste the ripened fruit, our tongue is jaundiced. So, we don’t like the taste. Continually tasting the fruit however cures the illness, and we begin relishing the ripened fruit. To persist in this process, we need faith. But it is not blind faith because there is continuous progress. Blind faith means that you have no evidence but you believe in something. Faith, as opposed to blind faith, is putting trust in a process to see progress and confirm the faith.

But people may still desire an understanding of how the hearing and chanting process works. How can sound change our hearts? How can all impurities in the mind and the heart be destroyed by sound? Isn’t this chanting and hearing simply some mumbo-jumbo?

Most people think that sounds are arbitrary signifiers of things in the world and their pictures in our minds. The sound has no meaning; it gets meaning when we interpret it through a recollection, culture, convention, etc., acquired through prior encounters with the world. For example, if you see a bird, and someone points a finger at that thing and says “bird”, then you memorize that sound and the picture and associate them together. The next time someone says “bird”, you recall the bird picture and you know what they are talking about.

However, this approach to meaning fails when we call a species that we have never seen a “bird”. If birds are just sounds used to denote prior encounters, then how can that sound denote something that we have never encountered? The meaning-naming mapping fails quickly.

The correct approach is that sounds themselves have meaning within the sound. For example, people have seen yellow and green, but nobody has seen color. If you point to a specific shade and call it color, then it is harder to explain why other shades are also called colors. The same problem exists with birds—why do you call many avian species birds? If bird-ness was not in those things, then you could not call them birds. But if bird-ness was a physical thing, then it would be confined to a single bird, and never in the other birds.

The problem of meaning is pervasive in the sense that we see concepts like color and bird, which transcend individual things (and can be applied to many things), and yet they are immanent in them. It is logically impossible to conceive of something that is both transcendent and immanent in any physical conception of reality. Either that thing is inside or outside; it cannot be both inside and outside. And yet, all concepts are both inside and outside. In so far as everyone uses words denoting concepts, everyone is logically contradictory.

This logically contradictory reality is realized when knowledge begins to dawn as a result of chanting and hearing. The sound already contains deeper realities, quite like yellow contains color, and sparrow contains bird. That color and bird are not confined to yellow and sparrow. But they are inside. The faith we put in a logically contradictory process is confirmed by practice and experience.

Immanence and Transcendence

Once we have that practical confirmation, then we will not suspect the practice. In fact, we will then have a type of experience that we cannot fit into our current rationality or physical conceptions of reality. Our inquiries based on this alternative kind of experience will also be more constructive. Hence, we can now understand the philosophy of meaning to explain what we already know to be true by experience.

That explanation says: Everything is meaning; they are organized hierarchically such that the lower meaning is inside the higher meaning and the higher meaning is inside the lower meaning. For example, color is transcendent to yellow, and color is immanent in yellow. If color was not transcendent, then green could not be a color—color would be exclusively present only in yellow. However, if color was not immanent, then even yellow would not be a color—because we would not call yellow a color. Both properties are necessary to use concepts.

Immanence and transcendence are logically implied if reality is meaning. Everyone uses concepts, but nobody thinks of reality as meaning. This is because we use names for those things that we have seen, which perpetuates the falsity that names are themselves meaningless.

But if use names for things that we have never seen, and we start seeing them through the name, then the name is not meaningless. This is a new kind of experience, which leads us to a new understanding of reality. If we don’t have novel types of experiences, and we try to explain the philosophy of meaning, the whole thing seems unnecessary and superfluous to most people. This is why the simplification of Āgama is hearing and chanting. Don’t try to intellectualize. Don’t try to understand, because even if it is explained, it will not be accepted.

The Problem of Reposing Trust

In today’s world, people have a hard time trusting each other. They can trust something better if they can understand it. That, however, puts the cart before the horse. To understand the philosophy we must be pure and have an alternative kind of experience, to get purified with alternative experience, we must follow a process, but we will not follow the process that purifies us unless we have understood it.

This is where a new kind of Nigama was conceived by Śrila Prabhupāda. It is the path of scientific discussions. It is a hard path. After all, it is Nigama. In this path, we analyze the problems of physics, mathematics, logic, computing, biology, psychology, cosmology, economics, and social organization—as we know them from our present experience—and try to solve them in a purely scientific manner. All these discussions, if carried out without prejudice and bias toward the answer, will lead us to a view in which meaning is both immanent and transcendent. Unprejudiced and unbiased approaches will also reject modern theories. Hence, I call it a semantic viewpoint of nature.

If we establish this view through analysis of modern science, then people can accept that sound has inherent meaning. That will prompt us to chant and hear. Conviction via a scientific analysis of reality will also make the older Nigama much easier because many of the ideas have been clarified by the new Nigama. Even if we understand some of these problems and their solutions, we will have greater trust in Āgama and Nigama. After all, we trust something more if we understand it better. With that trust, we can pursue Āgama and Nigama better.

Thereby, the older Nigama is sometimes rejected as being too hard, and replaced by Āgama. Then Āgama is sometimes rejected as being too hard, and replaced by chanting and hearing. But if people want to understand how chanting and hearing purify the heart, then a new kind of Nigama is possible. It may be easier than the older Nigama. Or it could be that we are just more attuned toward it than the older Nigama.

Three Types of Āgama-Nigama

The reality, however, is that most people are not even sufficiently educated and competent to analyze scientific problems. Mainstream education, and the necessities of industrialization to create workers who just know enough to do their jobs without asking questions, have dumbed down the population to an unimaginable level of ignorance and complacency. The ignorance is that there are hardly any fundamental problems. The complacency is that whatever those problems are will be solved in the future by current methods.

Thus, when we talk about the problem of meaning in science, people demand to see yet another kind of Āgama, which is akin to simple laboratory experiments that demonstrate the existence of alternate realities, to convince them to question the modern ideologies before they pursue the modern version of Nigama so that they can practice the easier Āgama of chanting and hearing so that they can understand the easier Nigama of Śrīmad Bhagavatam so that they can transform society into the older version of Āgama (e.g., Varṇāśrama) so that they can study the complete Nigama (the full tree of Vedic knowledge) and find a complete replacement of all the current false doctrines.

We can visualize this progressively declining situation with passing time in the following manner:

  • Older Nigama: The full tree of Vedic knowledge. Very hard to understand.
  • Older Āgama: The system of yajña, Varṇāśrama, and mantra recitations.
  • Newer Nigama: Śrīmad Bhagavatam the ripened fruit of Vedic knowledge.
  • Newer Āgama: Chanting and hearing, purifying our minds and hearts.
  • Modern Nigama: Analysis of scientific problems to arrive at semantic reality.
  • Modern Āgama: Demonstration of semantic reality through experiments.

The Advent of New Kinds of Āgama

Sometimes you have to go two steps backward to go one step forward. The new Āgama is the prevalent research on topics thus far neglected by modern science: (a) out-of-body experiences, (b) reincarnation and past-life memories, (c) telepathy, (d) biofeedback, (e) measuring brainwaves of meditators, (f) UFOs, (g) mind-body medicine, (h) hypnosis and regression, (i) showing people images to understand the role of the unconscious mind in various illnesses, and (j) neuroscience experiments in synesthesia, blindsight, and phantom limbs.

I don’t wish to imply that everything being said or done in all these areas is perfect and true. After all, this is experimental research. I also don’t want to debunk all these attempts as a hoax. After all, there is so much evidence coming out of this experimental research.

However, this research is not compelling a change in scientific materialistic dogmas because we run into the same typical problems in interpreting and understanding the results coming out of all this analysis and research that we encounter in everyday experiences.

For example, Benjamin Libet’s experiments on the brain show neural activity before a choice is reported. This is interpreted to entail the absence of free will, rather than as the brain presenting us with an idea to be accepted or rejected by choice. This is because, in the West, free will has been defined as the soul controlling matter rather than responding to material changes by associating or dissociating with them.

Likewise, experimental results in neuroscience are often explained on the basis of evolutionary hypotheses. For instance, something in the human brain is explained based on the fact that it also exists in lizard brains, assuming that we have evolved from lizards. There is no attempt to seek other kinds of explanations. For example, sight and sound senses are both inside and outside of each other but the inside is generally unmanifest; synesthesia occurs because what was inside becomes manifest. Likewise, phantom limbs and blindsight occur because senses are different from the bodily organs and they can feel pain or perceive forms even when the organs are absent or dysfunctional.

Until recently, UFOs were believed to be crazy conspiracy theories, because they contradict modern scientific laws. Any foretelling of the future, cure of body by mind, reincarnation and past-life memories, telepathy, etc. is generally rejected as voodoo magic. Anything that doesn’t fit into the existing theories or models is lampooned as pseudo-science regardless of how strong the evidence for it may be. When the evidence becomes irrefutable, an explanation for it within the current theoretical framework is sought and mainstreamed.

By fixing the theories and dogmas used to interpret data, novel data doesn’t imply novel conclusions. It always implies the same types of conclusions with variations being limited to greater or lesser complexity. Evidence never disproves or uproots deeply entrenched ideas.

The Problem of Interpretive Bias

We cannot accept a new view of reality (i.e., Nigama) without a method of confirmation (i.e., Āgama). We reinterpret the experimental results (i.e., Āgama) in terms of the established understanding of reality (i.e., Nigama). This is a chicken-and-egg problem. Until an alternative science—i.e., Nigama—exists, there is a strong preference for those experiments that confirm existing theories and a forceful denunciation of those that disprove these theories. If push comes to shove, existing Nigama is used to explain the results of new Āgama.

The proponents and opponents of conventional and alternative explanations use double standards in interpreting data supporting and contradicting current theories. When data contradicts a theory, the opponent of the alternative asks: Must I believe the data? He finds a reason to doubt it. The proponent instead asks: Can I believe the data? He finds a reason to believe in it. When data supports a theory, the opponent of the current theory asks: Must I believe the data? He finds a reason to doubt it. The proponent instead asks: Can I believe the data? He finds a reason to believe in it. Thus, the same evidence is accepted or rejected and interpreted as implying one thing or another.

We are always predisposed to some view. If data contradicts our view, we marginalize its importance or reinterpret it. If data supports our view, we exaggerate its importance and universalize it. We are never sufficiently unbiased to objectively analyze any kind of evidence.

Free Will in the Scientific Method

This is why continuous devolution from Nigama to Āgama is pointless. Ideas and practices are simplified so that the person who asks—Can I believe in this? —can say yes. But they can never be simplified enough for the person who asks—Must I believe in this? —to always say yes.

This is due to free will. No amount of evidence can contravene it. Truth cannot be forced upon anyone. No amount of data can compel us to change our views if we don’t want them changed. We have to want a change before evidence can even make a difference.

That shift in wanting an alternative occurs when we modify our question to: Can I believe in this? If the belief is true, and we have reposed our faith in it to follow through with the process of confirmation, then can I? will never go back to must I? If that belief is false, then can I? will always go back to must I? even if we have fully reposed our faith in it to follow through with the process of confirmation.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Nigama and Āgama," in Shabda Journal, July 10, 2022,