SrI vedAnta desika in his tatva-mukta-kalApa points out that the pAncarAtra system originated from the ekAyana Sakha portion of the veda-s. The chAndogya upanishad refers to the ekAyana Sakha as the veda of veda-s, the treasure of the gods, and the sacred utterance among all utterances. ekAyana means "the only means".
".....pancamam vedAnAm vedam pitryam rASim daivam nidhim vAkovAkyam ekAyanam ....iti" (chAndogya XIII.6.1.1).
The mahAbhArata states that this ekAnti dharma was promulgated by Lord nArAyaNa during the first stage of the cosmic evolution, or the First Birth of brahma (mAnasa). The terms "bhAgavata" doctrine and "sAttvata" doctrine, are also used synonymously with the term "pAncarAtra". While elucidating the nature of the ekAnti dharma, the Santi parva of the mahAbhArata (332-16-8,336-1-76, 337-61-7) refers to the sAtvata, bhAgavata, and pAncarAtra systems. This goes to show that all these are closely connected systems which believe in the worship of one God. The mahAbhArata states that the sAttvata arose in the Fourth Birth of brahma (SravaNaja), and finally the pAncarAtra evolved at the end of the Seventh Birth (padmaja - out of the lotus?). Thus, this proclaims that the pAncarAtra represents the latest stage of the evolution of the bhAgavata theism. Special mention is also made of the divine authorship of the pAncarAtra, as against the human authorship of the sAnkhya and yoga systems.
According to mahA-bhArata it was sankarshaNa, vAsudeva's elder brother, who taught the doctrine of the sAttvata- s (sAttvata-vidhi) when the dvApara age was drawing to a close and the kali age was just dawning. From several inscriptions and literature, it can be said that the sAttvata doctrine centered around the worship of five members of the vr*shNi race. Of these, vAsudeva was considered the more important, even though he was the younger brother of samkarshaNa. The term bhaga, representing the concrete manifestation of six divine attributes (shAd-guNya) was the basis behind the term bhagavat being used to describe vAsudeva in the vAmana samhita.
There were several (close to two hundred and twenty five) samhitA-s describing the pAncarAtra doctrine, even though many of these are extinct now. This can be inferred from cross- reference in the samhita-s that are currently available. Some of these are referred in the mahA-bhArata (e.g., the sAttvata samhitA) and the brahma-sutra-s. Thus, some of these are even more ancient than the mahA-bhArata. BhIshma parva (62-37-39) refers to the sAtvata precepts.
In addition to the written literature, there is reason to believe that the Agama-s have been in existence and passed on from generation to generation orally just as the veda-s have been transmitted, and thus may be as old as the veda-s. In a book on pAdma samhita published by the pAncarAtra pariSodhana parishad in the 1980's, it is pointed out that the Ghosundi and BesnAgar inscriptions show that in 2nd century B.C. the bhAgavata religion had overflowed the mathurA region and had even reached non- India people some of whom converted to this faith.
There are two types of literature on pAncarAtra - those inspired or divine origin, and those derived from these and of human origin. The former are in the category of samhita-s or Laws, and the latter are in the category of vidhi and prayoga.
The earliest source of information on the pAncarAtra seems to be the nAradIya or nArAyaNIya section of the Santi parva of mahAbhArata. There is a reference to sAttvata vidhi in bhIshma parva at the end of the 66th adhyAya, which could be a reference to the sAttvata samhita. In other words, the existence of pAncarAtra samhita-s prior to the nAradIya is possible.
SrI yAmunacAryA, the teacher of the teacher of SrI rAmAnuja, who lived in the first half of the 11th century, claimed the authority of the fifth veda for the Agama-s. In the north of India, the oldest work quoting the pAncarAtra is the spandapradIpikA of utpalavaishNava, who lived in the 10th century A.D. Based on these, the age of the samhita-s could be the 8th century A.D. Based on detailed analysis, Otto Schrader concludes that the oldest of the pAncarAtra samhita-s are paushkara, sAttavata, and jaya.