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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Vishnu Sahasranamam

                       The Bhishma – Yudhishthira Discussion

The circumstances under which knowledge of the 1000 names of Vishnu was imparted by Bhishma to Yudhishthira, and those surrounding him, were : Bhishma, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Kaurava army during the first 10 days of the 18-day Bhāratha War, was grievously felled by Arjuna, thanks to the appearance of Sikhandin on the scene. The great warrior had vowed, among other things, not to take up arms against a woman. He considered Sikhandin a woman. Drupada’s offspring, Sikhandin, was born a female, but had changed her sex, due to a sex-exchange arrangement with a Yaksha. Bhishma still considered Sikhandin a woman. It was the Pandava strategy to disarm Bhishma during the battle by presenting Sikhandin before him. The strategy worked and Bhishma laid down his arms, presenting Arjuna with an easy target.

As a youth Bhishma had made a great sacrifice by renouncing his claim to the Kaurava throne and vowing never to marry. This was to meet the demand of Satyavati’s father as a condition for giving her hand to Bhishma’s father, King Sāntanu. The grateful king blessed Bhishma with the power to choose his time of death.

Now Bhishma lay in the battlefield on a bed of arrows waiting for the holy time of Uttarāyana or the sun’s solstice, which was nearly two months away, his chosen time of death. In just eight days after Bhishma’s fall, the Kurukshetra War was over and the entire Kaurava force had been destroyed. Yudhishthira was crowned King at Hastinapura.

Yudhishthira was conscious of the impending departure of Bhishma from the world and he turned to the venerable grandsire to clear a host of doubts in his mind – on questions concerning a variety of subjects, from personal conduct to governance.

Yudhishthira’s Six Questions

Bhishma’s discourse to Yudhishthira was lengthy, spread across three of Mahābhāratha’s eighteen chapters. Half way through the discourse, Yudhishthira posed six questions to Bhishma. This was the starting point of the instruction on the 1000 names of Vishnu.

Vaisampāyana uvācha
Srutva dharmānaseshena pāvanāni cha sarvashaha
Yudhishthira shānthanavam punarevābyabāshata

Vysampāyana, the narrator of the Bhārata, said,
After hearing all the forms of dharma and the means of purification,
Yudhishthira, still not satisfied, questioned Santanu’s son, Bhishma, further.

Yudhishthira’s doubts as expressed in the form of six questions were :

1. Kim ekam deivatam loké?
Who is the only greatest god on earth?

2. Kim vāpyekam parāyanam?
Whose prayer is the only refuge for all?

3. Stuvantam kam prāpnuyah mānavāh shubham?
By paying obeisance to which god can man reach peace and prosperity?

4. Kam archantah mānavāh subham?
In uttering whose praise can man attain happiness?

5. Ko dharmah sarva dharmānām bhavata paramomataha?
Which, according to you, is the greatest dharma or rightful conduct?

6. Kim japan muchyaté jantuh janma samsāra bhandhanāt?
To whom should prayer be addressed for all creatures to be freed from the coils of birth and death?

Bhishma’s answers to these questions can be summarized as follows.

Jagatprabhum devadevam anantam purushottamam
Stuvan nāma sahasrena purusha satatotitahaha

Vishnu is the lord of the world, the god of all gods, infinite and most perfect,
The recitation of whose thousand names will lead to salvation.

Tameva cha archayan nityam bhaktyā purusham avyayem
Dyāyan stuvan namasyamscha yajamanasthameva cha

He who constantly worships and meditates upon that God who never faces destruction,
He who prostrates before that Lord of all things, will attain bliss.

AnādhinidhanamVishnum Sarvalokamaheswaram
Lokaadyaksham stuvan nityamsarva dukhaatigo bhavet

Vishnu, who has neither beginning nor end, is the supreme Lord of the universe,
He is the knower of the entire universe, He is beyond all sorrows.
Chanting His name regularly, one can be released from all bonds.

Paramam yo mahat tejah  paramam yo mahat tapaha
Paramam yo mahat brahma  paramam yah parāyanam

God Vishnu, who is the most radiant, is the great controller,
He is the supreme truth, He is the highest goal.

Pavitrānām pavitram yo mangalānām ca mangalam
Deivatam devatānam ca bhutānam yo avyayah pitā

He who is the purest of the pure, holiest of the holy,
He who is the god of all gods, who is the Father of all creatures,
He is the Supreme God Vishnu.

Thasya loka pradānasya jagannathasya bhupathé
Vishnor namasahasram mé srunu pāpa bayāpaham

Bhishma’s recipe to Yudhishthira to attain bliss is : Vishnu is the supreme god, and recitation of the His thousand names would banish fear and atone for sins.


Our recitation of the Sahasranāmam is in three parts. First is the introduction, the second consists of the 1000 names, and the third enumerates the benefits of reciting the names.

Bhishma introduces Vyāsa as the Rishi who has endowed us the prayer. The prayer is directed to Mahāvishnu.

Asya sri vishnor divya stotra mahāmantrasya
Sri Vedavyāso Bhagavanrishi
Anushtup chandah

Of the great prayer offered to Vishnu, the divine author is Vedavyāsa.
The composition has anushtup as its metre.
Sri Mahāvishnu paramātma sriman Nārāyano devata

The Supreme Lord and Lakshmi’s consort, Mahāvishnu, who is the god Nārāyana, is the recipient of the prayer.

The recitation of Vishnu Sahasranāmam entails strict devotion, discipline and concentration. The initial prayer is to get into the right frame of mind to recite the thousand names.

Amritāmsūdbhavo bhānurithi  bheejam
Devakinandhana srashtéthi shakthih
Udhbhava shobhano deva ithi paramo manthraha
Shankhabrin nandhaki chakreetakelakam
Sarangdhanva gadhādhara ithysathram
Rathāngapani rakshobya ithi nethram
Thrisāma samaga saméthi kavacham
Ănandam parabrahmethi yonih
Ruthuh sudarshana kāla ithi digbandhaha
Sri viswaroopa ithi dhyānam
Sri mahāvishnu prithyarthé sahasranāma japé viniyogaha

May the essence of Amrita flow into my vitals like the sun’s rays,
May the son of Devaki create strength in me,
May the divine Mantra spring in me with grace,
May the Conch (representing speech), the Holy Sword (representing action) and the Discus (representing thought), be nailed into my being,
May the holy weapons, Sāranga the bow, and the Lord’s Mace, protect me,
May my vision be as focused as that of the charioteer, Krishna,
May the three Vedas be my protective armour,
May the seat of my life receive Divine Bliss,
May my prayer be bound by Truth and the reality of Time,
May my prayer be rooted to the total reality of the universe.
I offer this prayer of His thousand names to please Mahāvishnu.

(Geeta’s comments :  The primary requisite for the seeker of truth is to discipline his mind – that is the groundwork before the spiritual quest. It is beyond the scope of a raw mind, a novice, to take to abstract meditation. The mind has to be channelized in stages, from the known to the unknown, from the gross to the subtle, from the objective to the subjective. When the mind has progressed thus far, the individual accepts the Lord both as the cause and the effect. In the final phase, the controlled mind, in its journey towards spiritual enlightenment, understands that the Lord is the means as well as the end.
These lines guide in the right path The verse says : The radiant sun, the manifest portion of the infinite, is the seed. The seed from which creation springs has the son of Devaki as the mobilizing force. Realizing this is to move from the material to the spiritual. The creation is the Lord Vishnu himself. The guiding mantra is to visualize Lord Vishnu as the vibrating power in the act of creation. Know the wielder of the conch and discus as the stabilizer, just as the nail in the axle guards the rolling of the wheel. When a person realizes that the Lord is the underlying force of everything, this knowledge has to be protected within, for which, again, the Lord, with the mace and bow, acts as the protective weapon. He is to be treasured in the heart as one’s eyes. To avoid distraction, study of the Vedas and the holy scripture serves as the armour. The generating womb lies within the Paramātman. The Lord effects the conception at the appropriate time within the boundaries of all the directions. Meditate on the infinite form of the Lord. For the distinguished union with Him, chant the thousand names, pleasing to Mahāvishnu.)

This prayer is followed by a brief meditation during which the great qualities of the Lord are contemplated. The meditation commences with the verse startingKsheerodhanva  and ends with Rukmini Satyabhāmābyām Sahitam Krishnamāsrayé. Most important among these verses is

Shāntākāram bhujagasayanam padmanābham surésam
Viswādhāram gaganasadrusam mégavarnam subhāngam
Lakshmikāntham kamalanayanam yogihrithdhyāanagamyam
Vandévishnum bhavabhayaharamsarvalokaikanātham

He who is the personification of peace, who reclines on the serpent bed,
From whose bellybutton emanates a lotus, and who is the God of all gods,
He whose colour is that of the dark cloud, and who has beautiful limbs,
He who is the consort of Lakshmi, He whose eyes are like lotus,
He who occupies the minds of yogins in meditation, and who destroys all worries and fears engulfing the universe,
To that Vishnu, who is the only lord of all the worlds, I offer my prayer.

The Thousand Names

The thousand names start with Viswam, meaning He who is the manifestation of the entire universe, and ends with Sarva praharanāyudha, meaning He who has the weapons to combat any and everything. The word Vishnu means that which pervades everywhere (veveshti vyāpnoti iti vishnu).

Each of the thousand names mentioned by Bhishma is subject to interpretation and commentary by scholars. Following is an example.

Adhokshajah : Swami Chinmayānandā comments, “Mahābhāratha says,'at no time My vitality flows downwards, and hence, I am called Adhokshajah.' The term can also mean,  One who is not available for the powers of the sense organs to perceive. Or it can also mean, he who remains under both the atmosphere and the earth as the Supporter of the entire universe.”

Several scholars have written commentaries and interpretations on the thousand names, treating each name separately. Among ancient savants, Sankara has written a commentary of which, in turn, there are other commentaries. Parasara Bhatta, a disciple of Ramanuja, has rendered a commentary. Madhavacharya has treated the subject elaborately. He has, in fact, given a hundred interpretations for each of the thousand names. Among modern scholars, Chinmayānandā and Bhaktivédānta Prabhupada have published their translations. It is quite conceivable that upanyāsakās can dwell on the thousand names for thousand days, at one name per day, and still have the audience asking for more.

Listening to and reciting the thousand names is a tradition, not only among Vaishnavites, but among Saivaites as well. The names are pleasing to be uttered and the verses are highly musical. Mahālakshmi is given pride of place as the names Madhava (He who supports Mahālakshmi on His breast), Sridhara, Srinivasa, Shreesha, Srinidhi, Srimān may all indicate. Even Siva and Rudhra figure among the names.

Benefits from reciting the Thousand Names

Most prayers end with listing the benefits that flow out of their recitation. Vishnu Sahsranāmam benefits all classes of people.

Vedantago brāhmanah syāt kshatriyo vijayee bhavét
Vysyo dhansamrudhraha  syāt sudraha sukhamavāpniyāt

To the Brahmin will accrue knowledge, to the Kshatriya valour will accrue,
To the Vysya (trading community) wealth will flow, to the Sudra will flow pleasure.

Rogārtho muchyaté rogāth baddo muchyéta bandhanāth
Bhayān muchyaté bheetastu muchyét āpanna āpathah

He who is afflicted by illness will be cured,
He who is shackled will be freed,
He who is possessed of fear will become fearless,
He who is faced with danger will overcome the same.

Yogagnānam tadā sānkhyam vidyā silpādhikarma cha
Vedāh sāstrāni vignānamétat sarvam janārdhanāt

Knowledge of Yoga and Sānkhya, of Erudtion,
Knowledge of Sculpture,
Of  the Vedās and Sāstras and of the Sciences, all flow from Vishnu.

God’s Assurance

Arjuna uvācha
Padmapatravisālāksha padmanābha surothamam
Bhaktānāmanurukthānām thrāthā bhava janārdhana

Arjuna’s prayer
O Janārdhana, Thou noblest among gods, possessing wide eyes like lotus leaves,
Having a lotus sprouting from the naval,
Be thou the protector of devotees, Thou art indeed our Father.

Sribhagavān uvācha
Yo mām nāmashasrena stotumichchathi pāndava
So-aham-ékéna slokena sthutha éva na samchayé

The Lord said,
Know you, Pāndavā prince,
He who desires to recite my thousand names,
Will satisfy me by reciting even a single verse.
Let there be no doubt about it.

Pārvati uvācha
Kénopayéna lagunā Vishnornamasaharakam
Patyaté pandithérnithyam srotumichāmyaham prabho

Pārvati addressed (Siva)
My lord, I am desirous to hear how scholars would recite this prayer through a short method.

Mahābhāratha describes that it was not only the terrestrials who assembled around Bhishma as he discoursed to Yudhishthira, but gods were also keenly listening to him. After hearing Bhishma's recitation of the thousand names, Pārvati feels, while it is possible for the gods to remember the thousand names and recite them in a wink, humans may not be similarly endowed. For those who do not remember the entire recitation or do not have the time to recite all the thousand names, is there a shortcut? She also expresses her desire to hear daily the thousand names being recited by scholars. While her wish is granted, Siva tells Pārvati that there does exist a shortcut. One need only to repeat the name Rāmā, it will be equivalent to reciting all the thousand names.

Eeswara Uvācha
Sri Rāma Rāma Rāméthi Ramé Rāmé Manoramé
Sahasranāma Thaththulyam Rāma Nāma Varānané

Siva replied,
To you who are beautiful I say, chanting the charming name of Sri Rāmā repeatedly is equivalent to reciting the thousand names of Vishnu.
(Geeta’s comment : I read the following story in Tulsidas’ Rāmāyana. Siva was waiting for Pārvati to join him for food. He asked her what was keeping her late. Pārvati replied that she was in the midst of her prayer to Vishnu. Siva advised her, “Chanting the name Rāmā once is equivalent to all the prayers directed to him.”)

Ananyaas chintha yantho mām ye-janah paryu-pāsaté
Tesham nityābhi yuktā-nām yogakshemam vahām-yaham

Those devotees, however, who worship Me alone, thinking of none else and are steadfast, I myself attend to their needs and provide them with security of what they possess.
(Geeta’s comment : One cannot reach spiritual heights until his basic worldly needs are met. Hence the Lord says, if you surrender to me, I shall take care of both your material and spiritual needs.)

In the end, God gives the assurance that His protection and blessing will always be available for the true believer, and that He would appear yuga after yuga to establish truth on earth.

Paritrānāya sadhunām vinasāya ca dushkritām
Dharma samsthāpana-arthāya sambhavāmi yugé yugé

In order to deliver the pious and annihilate the miscreants, as well as to re-establish the principles of religion, I advent myself millennium after millennium.

Kayéna vachā manaséndriyair vā,
Buddhyātmana vā prakriteh svabhāvāth,
Karomi yadyad sakalam parasmai,
Narāyanāyeti samarpayami.

This verse, signifying total surrender to the god, is recited after completing the recital of the Sahasranāmam. By my body, by my speech, by my thought, through my senses and my intellect, through my inner self and through all my action, I surrender to Narāyanā in full.

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