What’s in a Thousand Names?

December 17, 2012

The Vishnu Sahasranamam –

Shyamala Shankar – Rockland County, NY


The scriptures of the world repeatedly tell us human birth is in vain if we cannot raise our consciousness above the mundane experiences of life and feel, even for a moment, “that which cannot be experienced by human senses”. How is this to be done? Our yearning for that special connection takes us on this search. Our spiritual side longs to reach out to that one special deity who can ignite a flame in our heart. Many, many staunch Hindu devotees have placed their faith in the prayer called Vishnu Sahasranamam, which is contained in a section of the great epic, Mahabharata. They claim that the constant reading of this prayer points the way to an exclusive domain but one that is available to all.

In the Hindu pantheon of Gods, Vishnu stands supreme, being the designated preserver. But he is the one who is supposed to have initiated creation as well. Behold Brahma, the creator, who emerged on a full-bloomed lotus from the navel of Lord Vishnu, designing creation in all its glory and variety. As for destruction, so many verses of this prayer talk about that “pralaya” or deluge which will sweep the entire creation to His bosom, at Vishnu’s behest. The Mahabharata asks the question of supremacy and gives its own answer. Yudhisthira asks Bhishma, as he lays on a bed of arrows, awaiting death at that auspicious hour which would lead him straight to Lord Vishnu, “what, in your opinion, is the greatest dharma? And by doing which japa (chant) can all creatures go beyond the bonds of this birth?” Promptly comes the answer from Bhishma: “Vishnu is the Purushottaman, the supreme being and lord of the world. The one without a beginning or end.” Rama and Krishna are depicted in the epics as two of the main avatars of Lord Vishnu and by the beauty of their human form and exemplary lives, endeared themselves to all who heard about them.

The Lord in the Sahasranamam or thousand names, is praised by a hymn in 108 verses composed by the rishi Veda Vyasa, who is attributed to be a form of Vishnu himself. When it details or describes one thousand names or qualities of the Lord, these also include the blessings that the Lord wishes to confer upon his sincere devotees. When read by us, it is to be offered with the very pure motive of praising the lord and obtaining his grace so that our lives may be lived as ordained by him, in a spirit of complete surrender.

Where can one start to describe the gems of this wondrous prayer? To select a few verses is almost impossible as each one is so full of superior qualities of the Lord. What’s more, according to the sage Madhavacharya, each name could have up to 100 meanings and interpretations and he proceeded to show the same. To be sure, reading about Vishnu’s attributes can raise Him on a pedestal in our hearts. There are three parts to this book. First the preamble, then the actual 108 verses (a very auspicious number for Hindus) giving the thousand names and finally the “phalastruti” part, the fruits or rewards of reading this prayer regularly.

The preamble sets the tone and as Swami Chinmayananda observes in his commentary, the lord is established or installed in the body of the worshipper, which then becomes a temple. It also speaks of the meter in which it is set – anushtup chanda and is to be chanted accordingly. It urges one to conjure up the Vishvaroopa vision of the lord, or the sight granted to Arjuna on the battlefield in which the lord is in his huge, majestic size encompassing the whole gamut of shapes and forms and carries within himself, all of creation. And to remind us that he is akin to the human form, it says that the lord took birth as Devaki’s nandana or dear baby Krishna, to fulfill his duties upon the earth. Picture him also, says the preamble, “on the milky ocean, resting on a snake bed, resplendent in finery and gems with a gentle rain of pearls falling around him”. He is of fascinating beauty relaxed and blissful, sanctifying us. He is none other than the blue raincloud-hued lord of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. He is the goal of the yogis who seek nothing else in life. By always adoring this changeless entity, one can transcend all grief. He is paramam yo mahattejah – supreme and of great luster. The preamble pays homage to his weapons – the sudarshana chakra, disc, which can find its mark without fail, his bow, the sharnga, his sword, nandaki and his mace kaumodaki.

The meaning of the very first verse is enough to blow our minds away! It starts with the words Om vishwam vishnur vashatkaaro, bhoota bhavya bhavat prabhu…. He who pervades the entire creation by entering into it, who deserves to be invoked and is the recipient of offerings, is Vishnu. He who knows well, the past, the future and the present of every being and object. Not only is He the creator and destroyer, but the nurturer and the nourisher of his creations which are nothing but Himself.

In the next few verses, it is explained that creation may be maya or illusion, but he is so pure and immaculate, the pootatma, who is not touched by any of the worldly happenings. He is the direct witness and knower, the undecaying one. He is swayambooh – one who is self created. He is immovable, being present everywhere, the source, the immeasurable, the unchanging and of limitless strength. He is also the medhaavee, which, to those familiar with the Sanskrit or Tamil language will know to be the one who can comprehend, through his intellect, every single thing that is happening everywhere with the highest capabilities that never diminish. One would think that these few verses have said it all, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, after all it is Vishnu who is being described!

Swami Chinmayananda says it beautifully when he interprets the meaning of two pertinent words. The first one is suresah. Derived from two words, easa and sura, it adds up to mean the Lord of Lords who is capable of blessing auspiciously and helping us “to get liberation from the thraldom of matter”. From Krishna’s viewpoint, the ultimate desire of us jivas or earthly souls should be moksha or liberation as other desires are of small consequence. The other word is saranam or refuge. For those who have understood the futility of the struggle here on earth and long to become one with Him, all they need is surrender. Yet he is not so stone-hearted that he ignores the woes of his creation.

The Sahasranamam says in another verse, he fulfills every desire of the sincere devotee when He is worshipped, praised or remembered as he is also suchisravaah, having ears that hear even the smallest of pleas. He is achyutah, one who has never fallen and is one with no attachments or vested interests. He is like the sun, shining equally on the saint or the sinner. He is vedavit – the knower of the Vedas and spreading its luminisence and is also janardhana, the one who brings joy and peace. He is also sadayogi – ever awake and aware and in his yogic state.

As the Brahman who resides inside every living entity, He is the enjoyer of food and the other sense pleasures of his devotees, which is why food is always offered to Him before it is partaken by a devout Hindu and eaten as prasad. He is chaturbhuja, four armed, holding the chakra, the conch, the mace and the lotus. He has been alluded to as the mahotsaah, the great enthusiast, the one who is ever dynamic and the accomplisher. He is also mahadyuthih, one of splenderous light and self effulgent. Even the sun, moon and other luminous entities that shine borrow their light from him. He is the abode of sree, and hence sreenivasah and of course he is the satam gathih – the final goal of all spiritual seekers.

Many of the beautiful Indian names that are currently very popular for newborns are to be found in the Vishnu Sahasranamam. These include Ananth, Aniruddh, Aneesh or Aneesha and Tejas. Then there are the older but ever-popular names always associated with Vishnu and Krishna – Vasudeva, Hari, Govinda, Narasimha, Suresha, Shreedhara, Mukunda, Achutah, Narayana, Keshava, Madhusudhanah and Padmanabha.

Let us look at a few more descriptions before concluding. Scholars have observed that there are qualities that describe Him as formless as well as one resplendent with form. Saint Ramakrishna has rightly concluded that the lord with or without form is one and the same like ice and melted ice, which is water – merely different states of the same product.

The poem calls him trivikrama or the conqueror of the three worlds, shokanashana, the one who can put an end to all sorrow, gabheerah or unfathomable and gahano, impenetrable. He brings about change, yet is the changeless substratum that does not identify with matter. He is dharanee, one who upholds the earth. He is of supreme grace and delightful nature, ever merciful. He is ojastejodyudidhara – the possessor of virility, brilliancy and beauty. He is the aushadam or medicine that brings relief to the diseases of this worldly life including physical ailments. He is ‘ time’ and its efficient administrator, swiftly bringing auspicious events in the life of those who live an exemplary life. He is the supreme secret of the Upanishads and can be found in the cave of the heart. He is akroorah, never cruel, because he is ever fulfilled and even enables his devotees to perform the right actions and through right knowledge destroys their bad dreams and fears. He is the material and efficient cause of the universe.

Only a close and intimate study of this fabulous piece of work can reveal more meanings that can elevate the heart in admiration and prayer. The length of the prayer and its difficult pronunciations may at first put off a beginner, but the best way to familiarize oneself is to listen to a CD of its rendition and follow along with a booklet that has the verses along with the meanings. These are available in many Indian languages and also in English. Soon it can become a pleasant habit and a meditation in itself. Shravana or the hearing of this prayer is also full of merits, it is said. As Adi Sankara himself says in the Bhaja Govindam “gheyam gita, nama sahasram, gheyam sripati roopa majasram ….” Which paraphrased within the context of the poem means, “Oh fool, if you do nothing else, study the Gita, repeat the thousand names of Lord Vishnu and immerse yourself in the beautiful form of the lord, do not waste time in worldly matters.”

The rishis have taken their time to outline the benefits of this prayer as was the practice in the vedic times. That person who recites or hears this hymn daily, “shall never be subjected to inauspicious things in this life or in the hereafter.” A brahmana, one from a priestly class or a learned and noble one, will excel in his vedantic studies, a kshatriya or warrior or of a regal nature, will be victorious, a vaisya or, businessman will be prosperous in his enterprises and a sudra or one from a lower working class or of a dull disposition a will be blessed with happiness. This also offers the hint of the broadmindedness of the prayer that can be read by all.

Furthermore, the devotee’s wishes will be fulfilled, may it be for happiness, wealth or offspring. Not only this but the lord wishes to bestow upon his totally devoted bhakta, or devotee, fame, spiritual glory, good health, accomplishments and radiant features. Who could ask for more? The followers of Vasudeva need never fear birth, old age, disease or death. They will also be blessed with the felicity of good nature without any trace of anger, jealousy or evil thoughts. All this is the phalastruti or the reward of reciting this prayer, says this section.

In conclusion, the hymn and its adjuncts state that the sky, stars, sun, moon, earth and the oceans are supported and sustained by Narayana, the universal consciousness. The universe consisting of all movable and immovable things are under His control. Remember Him always, as He is the goal. In His benevolence, He says that even by a single name sincerely uttered, He can be praised in the same way as by this, his thousand names.

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