Vishnu Sahasranaama – Introduction

The Infinite is one. It can only be one. Its manifestation is the world of plurality with its endless varieties of names and forms. Just as all forms that have been created from gold are also gold, so too the world of forms can only be His own manifestations. In fact, the effects have no existence apart from the cause.

The finite alone can readily be comprehended, by the sense-organs, the mind and the intellect of man, at his present ?state” of Consciousness. The attempt of the spiritual student is to transcend his present instruments of perception and awake to the Higher in Him, from where he can experience the one “objectless-Awareness”. This great Reality behind the universe, though intimately experienced by the great Rishis, they were helpless in directly defining, explaining or demonstrating it to their students. All such indications, pointing out the Infinite, through the world of manifested finite objects are His Glory only. Each one of them is a “Glory” of the Lord, which is considered in religion as a “sacred name” of the Lord.

In short, these “Thousand Names of Vishnu” provide us with thousand clear arrow-marks rising from the known, indicating the unknown. Contemplation upon these can deepen our faith in, broaden our devotion to and steel our understanding of the All-Pervading Reality (Vishnu).

The Infinite is approached by the devotees (Bhaktas) through love (Bhakti) and by philosophers (Aachaaryas) through contemplation (Vichaara). The differences in their techniques of approach, are the essential differences ordered by the types of vehicle employed by them. The devotees approach the Temple of their love through the heart, while the philosophers storm the citadel of Truth with reason and logic; they explore the Reality with the head. Whatever be the means employed, and the instruments pressed into service, till they reach the last lap of their pilgrimage, all seekers need, in one form or other, props (Aasraya) to maintain a continuous and efficient play of their instruments of Saadhana. The Sahasranaama gives to them both, a thousand props: each phrase here has its appeal to the devotee, and each one of them has also a suggestion to rocket the contemplative intellect to sublime heights of understanding.

Since the devotees have different forms to contemplate upon according to the Lord of their heart, we have different Sahasranaamas available to us: Siva Sahasranaama, Lalitaa Sahasranaama, Sri Rama Sahasranaama etc. to mention but a few. Of all of them, no doubt, Vishnu Sahasranaama is the most popular one today among the Hindus.

Acharya Sankara reached the feet of his Guru, Sri Govindapaadaachaarya, and on the banks of Narmada, the Nambootiri-boy from Kaaladi got initiated into the secrets of the Mahaavaakyas. At the end of his short but intense study, Sankara, the inspired missionary, wanting to fulfil his glorious work, craved for the blessings of his teacher. Govindapaada Acharya tested Sankara by ordering him to write an exhaustive commentary (Bhaashya) upon the Vishnu Sahasranaama. He accomplished this great task and the very first work of the Upanishadic commentator, Sankara, the greatest Hindu missionary of the 7th century, thus came to see the light of the day.

Govindaachaarya, satisfied with the proficiency of the student blessed him and set him on the road of service and action. Earning the grace of the teacher and the blessings of Lord Vishnu, Sri Sankara inaugurated an incomparable revival movement of the decadent culture of the 7th century Hinduism. We shall here follow closely Sankara’s commentary and also draw our material from the Puranic literature that has an endless store of appeal to the hearts of all devotees.

There are, no doubt, slight differences here and there between the texts now popular in the north and the south. I These differences are of no consequence at all. Similarly, we find very slight differences in the ritualism generally adopted before starting the chanting of or “Archanaa” with the Vishnu Sahasranaama.

The Vishnu Sahasranaama was composed by Sri Veda Vyaasa, the author of the Puraanas, and we meet this great chant in his classical work, the Mahaabhaarata. Prince Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Paandavas, at the end of the war approached Bheeshma Pitaamaha, when the mighty grandsire of the Kuru family was lying on the bed of arrows, unconquered and unconquerable, awaiting the sacred hour of his departure to the feet of the Lord. Yudhishthira, the righteous, asked six questions, and Bheeshma, the constant devotee of Krishna, the gigantic Man of Action, calmly answered them all. This is how we find the “Thousand Names of Lord Vishnu” introduced in the immortal classic of the Hindus, the Mahabharata.

Yudhishthira, as a righteous man of spiritual inclination, with the moral integrity of a careful mortal, asks quite an interesting set of questions which are typical queries which the heart of a seeker will always ask.

Question 1: Who is the greatest Lord in the world?

Answer 1:

He who is the very sanctity which sanctifies all sacred things; He who is the most auspicious; He who is the God of gods; He who is the Eternal Father of all creatures is the one God?Vishnu.

Question 2: Who is the one refuge for all?

Answer 2:
He who is the Great Effulgence; He who is the Ores Controller; He who is the Supreme All-Pervading Truth; H who is the Highest (Param) Goal (Ayanam)?the Lord Vishnu

Question 3: By glorifying whom can man reach the Auspiciousness (peace and prosperity)?

Answer 3:

The Supreme Purusha, who is ever up and doing for the welfare of all, the Lord of the world, the Endless?Sri Maha Vishnu.

Question 4:

By worshipping whom can man reach Auspiciousness (peace and prosperity)?

Answer 4:
By meditating upon, by worshipping and by prostrating at the same Purusha, man can reach true Auspiciousness.

Question 5: What is, in thy opinion, the Greatest Dharma?

Question 6: By doing japa of what can “creatures” (jantu) go beyond the bonds of samsar?

Answers 5 & 6:

Both questions are answered here: The Greatest Dharma is the one Vishnu, who has neither a beginning (Aadi) nor an end (Nidhanam), the Supreme Lord of the world. All creatures can go beyond the bonds of Samsar, “and he goes beyond all sorrows” who daily chants the Sahasranaama and within glorifies “the Knower of the world” (Lokaadhyaksha).

The Supreme is described as that from which the whole world of names and forms had risen in the beginning of creation, that in which the world continues to exist, that into which alone the world can merge back during the ?Dissolution? (Pralaya); this Supreme is Vishnu.

After thus answering all questions, ?His thousand Names”, said Bheeshma, “I shall now advise you. Please listen to them with all attention)) This is how the Sacred Hymn, called as ‘The thousand names of Lord Vishnu”, is introduced in the Mahaabhaarata.

The Supreme cannot be defined and since He is the very substratum of all qualities, He cannot be denominated by any name, or indicated by any term, or defined in any language, or ever expressed, even vaguely, in any literary form. He is beyond both the “Known” and the “Unknown”. He is the very illumining Principle of Consciousness that illuminates all experiences.

And yet He has many manifestations and, therefore. He can have infinite names in terms of His manifestations. Definitions should directly describe the thing defined, and here we have a thousand indirect definitions with which the Real, the Infinite is being indicated in terms of the unreal and the finite. These “Thousand names of the Lord” have been coined and given out by the Rishis. They were collected and strung together into a joyous Hymn to Vishnu, a garland of devotion and reverence, by the poet-seer Vyaasa.

Since each of them is thus an indicative definition of the unknown in terms of the known, each term here can rocket us up into the realms of the divine experience, only when we have lifted our minds towards It through contemplation. Thus the Vishnu Sahasranaama is employed not only by the devotees, in the sweet attitude of ‘sporting with the Lord?, but these are also employed by the contemplative students of philosophy, as gliders to roam in the realms of inspired Higher Consciousness.

In the Kali-Santarana Upanishad, which is one of the minor Upanishads, we find the great devotee Naarada approaching Brahmaaji to enquire what is the way out for man to evolve in these hard days of extroverted ness, which is quite natural and unavoidable in the Iron-age (Kaliyuga). “Repetition of the names of Naaraayana is sufficient enough”, was the reply given.

It is to be carefully noted here that in the sixth question the enquiry was how can ‘creatures’ realize the Highest. Jantu means ‘that which is born’ (Janana’dharman). So all living creatures arefit for this easy path. ‘Creatures’ could even include the animal kingdom as it is described in the Puraanas in their own poetic language. In the Trikutaachala lake, the elephant that was caught by the crocodile is described as having been saved by the Lord (Gajendra Moksha). The story of Jadabharata is yet another example.

Sankara in his commentary describes here Japa as comprehensive of all the three types. (A) That which can be heard by others; (B) That which is heard by ourselves; (C) That which is mental.

Vishnu Sahasranaama can be employed in performing Japa of all these three kinds.

In the following “Thousand Names”, we meet with, though rarely, some repetitions. Exactly 90 names have been repeated in this Great Hymn; and of them, 74 are repeated twice, 14 are repeated thrice, and again 2 of them are found to have been repeated four times. Sometimes, the terms are repeated as such Vishnu-Vishnu, Siva-Siva etc. and sometimes different words with the same meaning are also employed (Sreepati-Maadhava;Pushkaraaksha-Kamalaaksha). These need not be considered as a defect, since this Hymn is a chant of His Glory. In a chant of glory (stuti) repetitions are acceptable?it is but a style of the emotional heart to repeat its declarations of love.

There are exactly 1,031 single “Names” of the Lord in the 1000-Name-Chant (Sahasranaama). The extra 31 Names are to be considered each as an adjective qualifying (Viseshana) the immediately following noun. When one makes Archanaa to the Lord the correct dative case is to ~e used. There are 20 double-names ‘m the first 500 Names and 10 double-names in the second half of the chant. There is one indeclinable (Avyaya) word used, and it (896th) should be used in the dative for Archanaa as Sanaat Namah so too the 929th Name in the chant, being a plural noun, should be used in Archanaa as Sadbhyo Namah.

It will also be found, as we study the significances of these Divine names, that Vyaasa has employed sometimes masculine gender, on other occasions feminine gender and some other times even neuter gender. Wherever it is masculine, it denotes Vishnu, the Lord of Lakshmi, and when it is feminine it is indicative of His Might, glory or power (devataa) that is manifest everywhere, and when the term is in neuter gender, it means Pure Brahman, the Infinite Reality.

This Archanaa is generally performed by devotees daily; if this is not convenient they perform this worship at least on their own birth-days, on eclipse days and on the day on which the Sun moves from one zodiacto another (the Samkraanti-day). This performance has been prescribed by the Sastra for warding off troubles arising from the position of planets, anger of the rulers, incurable diseases and ruthless enemies. The highest effect is for purifying the mind and thus gaining more and more inner-poise for the Saadhaka in meditation.

Installation Of The Lord

All rituals start in Hinduism with a beautiful function ?the installation of the Lord in the devotee’s own physical form. This is technically called as Anga-Nyaasa and Kara-Nyaasa. The “Installation in the Limbs”, and the “Installation in the Palm”. This is a method by which the seeker with willful thoughts and deliberate physical signs sanctifies himself to be a Divine Temple and installs various sacred deities in himself.

This helps the student to realize that though he is worshipping the Lord as a Goal (or an Ideal) other than himself (bheda or anya), in fact, he is to seek his identity with no traces of differentiation (Abheda or Ananya), between himself and the Lord. The final realization is a perfect identity indicated in the Mahaavaakya. “I am Brahman” (Aham Brahmaasmi).

Neither in the Northern texts nor in the original Mahabharata do we find this ‘subjective installation ceremony’ (Anga-Nyaasa) prescribed. However, pundits of ritualism in the South employ the Anga-Nyaasa; and it being such a beautiful act, so very helpful to the seekers, we give here below the most popular one practiced widely in the South.

This “Installation Ceremony” declares to the devotees that the enchanting form of Vishnu is to be ultimately realized as One Infinite Reality without names or forms?in which the recognition of even the distinction of the meditator-meditated-meditation is to cease. Beside this deep significance, even though it be only for the time being, the student is also given a temporary sense of purity and sanctity in himself. Just as a devotee feels highly inspired in the divine atmosphere of a sacred temple, so too, after the Anga-Nyaasa, however shattered we might have been, before we entered the Pooja-room, we can artificially work ourselves up into a divine mood of peace and purity.

The body itself is rendered as the temple of the Lord, wherein the various limbs become the altars upon which, with a heart of love and faith, the devotee invokes and installs various deities. In this process, in order to bring the full blast of the sacred suggestions to him, the repetition of each of these mantras is emphasized by a corresponding physical sign. The idea is only, as we have already explained, to establish the correct mood for devoted contemplation.

A. Asya Vishnu-sahasranaama-stotrasya veda-vyaasa Rishih

For this sacred chant, the “Thousand Names of Lord Vishnu”, Sri Veda Vyaasa is the Rishi.

Great mantras of deep spiritual significance and sublime Vedic dignity ;h·e not mere poetic compositions by mortal fallible intellects. When a master mind through meditation transcends the lower levels of his personality and soars into the higher mental attitudes, through his contemplation, there he ‘receives’ certain ‘revelations’ which are faithfully repeated by him to the world. Such ‘heard’ statements (Srutam) alone have the power to stand against the onslaught of the intellect, the ravages of time, the forces of criticism etc.

Such statements when contemplated upon by lesser seekers, they too, in the spiritual cadence of these mantras, get unconsciously uplifted into realms unknown, and there they come to live a world of experiences unfrequented by the ordinary multitudes. The ‘author of the mantra’ is thus termed in our Vedas as the ‘Seer’ (Mantra-Drashtaa). Such Rishis themselves admit that they didn?t manufacture, compose or create the mantra, but they had a revelation or vision (Darsanam) of the mantra.

The Mantra-Drashtaa, the Rishi, is the guru of the seeker, who is seeking his path with the help of that particular mantra. The Rishi of a mantra is installed at the roof of the head and the seeker, in his seat of Vishnu-Sahasranaama-chanting, first of all chants this mantra in his mind, and, with his right-hand thumb, middle-finger and ring-finger touches the top of his head.

B. Anushtup Chandah

The metre in which the revealed mantra comes to the teacher is also mentioned because it orders the discipline that should be followed while chanting the mantra. Anushtup is the name of the particular metre in which this thousand-namechant on Vishnu is sung. The chant is to come out through the mouth, and therefore, the ‘altar of the metre’ can be only the mouth. The fingers that were touching the roof of the head now come down to touch significantly the lips, when the mantra ‘B’ is repeated in the mind by the seeker.

C. Sri Vishvaroopo Mahaavishnur-Devataa

Lord Vishnu of the form of the entire universe of variegated names and forms (Vishva-roopah) is the deity of the mantra. Vishnu is the theme of the chant. The Lord of Vaikuntha is the altar at which the devotee is preparing to offer himself in humble dedication and utter surrender. Since Lord Vishnu is, to the devotee, the Lord of his heart, the very centre of his personality, while chanting mentally the mantra ‘C’ the student, will all sincerity and devotion, installs the Lord in his heart, bringing the fingers from the lips down to touch the centre of his bosom.

D. Devakee-nandanah srashteti Saktih

Every deity is a manifestation of the mighty Omnipotence of the Supreme. The creator and sustainer (Srashtaa) of Dharma, the son of Devaki (Devakeenandana), is the manifested power of the Almighty. This creative power of righteousness and peace is installed at the navel (naabhi) point, and, therefore, the fingers come down from the heart region to the navel.

E. Sankha-bhrit nandakee chakree iti Keelakarn

The mighty Creative Power invoked and established on the navel region cannot be as such conceived by the mind. Therefore, to ‘nail* it down (Keelakarn) and establish it in our comprehension, this mantra conceives the Power as the Lord, who bears the Conch, the Sword, named Nandaka, and the Discus. This is only to show how the total cosmic Power, expressed in terms of our present understanding as creation, sustenance, and destruction, is but a manifestation of the Lord. The conch (Sankha) represents the ‘call’ of the Reality, the Lord’s own declarations stated in the scriptures. Nandaka, the sword that punishes to bring joy (Nandana) into the community and the destruction, without which evolution is impossible, is represented by the concept of the Discus (Chakra).

Here it is also to be noted that the blowing of the conch represents speech; wielding the sword represents action and the discus that takes off from Him at His will, represents his thoughts. Thus this great Power installed at the navel expresses itself in the world through speech, action and thought.

To conceive fully this form is to hold firmly the Lord’s own feet, and, therefore, when this mantra is mentally chanted, the fingers move away from the navel, and with both hands the seeker touches his own feet.

Here it is to be carefully noted how the Guru is kept at the roof of the head, the Veda in the mouth, the Lord in the heart, the Power in the navel and, thereby, the seeker himself becomes so sacred that he prostrates unto himself by holding his own feet. Can there be a better method of preparing the devotee to realize ultimately his identity with the Lord?

F. Saamga-dhanvaa-gadaa-dhara iti Astram

Whenever there is large wealth in a box it becomes a treasure and it is locked and safely protected; when this divine installation has taken place, the body has become the Temple of the Almighty, and therefore, it has become a sacred treasure house to be protected. But the seeker in himself has no power to protect, and so, he invokes the very weapon (Astra) of Vishnu, the Protector of the world, to stand by for the defense of the sanctified bosom. Saarnga is the name of the Bow (Dhanush) of Vishnu and the Mace (Gadaa) is another of his weapons. These two form the artillery of defense; which are manned by the Lord Himself. At this moment when this mantra is mentally chanted, it is significant that the student lifts the palm away from the feet, and with stretched out index and middle fingers of the right palm snaps them on the open left palm.

G. Rathaangapaanir-akshobhya iti Netram

Lord Vishnu as Lord Krishna played the part of the charioteer and gained the name “Rein-handed” (Rathaangapaani). A charioteer has to guide every step of every horse in order that the chariot be safe, and the travel be pleasant. Of the sense-organs eyes are the most powerful and once they are well guided, all others also follow their heels. When Lord Vishnu, the charioteer. Himself is installed in the eyes, the individual is safe in his spiritual pilgrimage. Therefore, invoking the Divine Driver, with reins in his hand (Rathaangapaani), He is installed in the pair of eyes, and at the moment of mentally chanting this, both the eyes are touched by the tip of the fingers.

H. Trisaarnaa saamagah saameti Kavacham

He (Tri-Saamaa) who is glorified by all the three types of Saama songs (Deva-Vrata-Prokta), He who is the very theme that is glorified by the Saama songs (Saamagah), He whose glory itself is the manifested Sama Veda (Saama), He is none other than the Supreme. This great Lord is installed as an armour to wear for self-protection. While chanting this in the mind the seeker first touches with the tip of his fingers of each arm, the same shoulders, and afterwards crosses the arms in front of him making fingers of each palm touch the other shoulder?as if he is actually wrapping himself and wearing the divine armour.

I. Anandam brahmeti Yonih

The Supreme Brahman, the Infinite Bliss is the very womb (Yonih) from which the universe has emerged out. The procreated world of endless variety has only one Eternal Father, and this source is immaculate Bliss. When this is chanted the seeker installs the Bliss Infinite at the very place of procreation in himself. It is a spot in this great divine temple of the body, wherein is the one source, from which the world has emerged out, manifesting Itself as the power of procreation (Taittireeya).

J. Visvaroopa iti Dhyaanam

The entire band of experience gained through the instruments of the body, mind and intellect in terms of perceptions, emotions and thoughts together is indicated by the term Visva. He, who has manifested to be the total world of experiences (Visva), must therefore be Visvaroopah. The cosmic form of the Lord (Visvaroopa) is the total universe. Thus to meditate (Dhyaanam) upon Him as the whole universe, is a method of installing Him in our intellect. At this moment the student locks his fingers and sits in meditation.

K. Ritam sudarsanah kaala iti Dikbandhah

Truth (Ritam), the Lord, and His weapon, the Discus, called Sudarsana, and His annihilating power. Time (Kaala) ?these three are the mighty forces that guard this sacred Temple of Life in the seeker at the outer frontiers of his world of influence (Dik-Bandhah). To be truthful and ever to seek the great Reality (Ritam), to discriminate and see the play of the Lord in all situations (Su-Darsanam), and to control the very instrument of time (Kaala), which is the intellect in the seeker, is to guard the frontiers of one’s spiritual world, against the hoards of inimical forces. At this moment the student snaps his middle finger with the help of his thumb and runs his palm around his head. After all, the universe dwells in our own concept.

L. Sree mahaa-vishnu-preetyarthe jape Viniyogah

Having thus installed through Sankalpa the Lord in himself and having surrendered himself, and thus having come under the protecting wings of the mighty Lord, here is a declaration how he is going to employ himself in it. He is going to engage himself (Viniyoga) in Japa (Jape) of the “Thousand Names of the Lord”. Now the question is: with what motive should he undertake this chanting? The answer is in the very statement that it is only for the grace (Preetyarthe) of Sree Maha Vishnu. After chanting this dedication in the mind, the Saadhaka, takes a spoon of water (Teertham) in his right palm and pours it on the floor in front of him.

A true seeker is not desire-ridden for material satisfaction, and, therefore, he can have only one intention?the grace of. the Lord, which will manifest in him as contemplative power.

These twelve ‘slogans’ are chanted for invoking and installing these refreshing and spiritually benign ideas on the limbs of the devotee himself. At this juncture this makes him inspired sufficiently for higher meditation upon the Truth as indicated and directed by the thousand terms in the Sahasranaama,

This beautiful subjective ritual is known as Installation in the limbs’ {Anganyaasa). Not only that the student temporarily discovers a new surge of inspiration, but even beginners feel highly relieved, at least temporarily, from the load of his sense of ‘sins’. When this is properly performed with a right attitude and devotion, to an extent the student gains identification (Saaroopya) with the Lord of his heart, at least at the outer levels of his personality.

The Meditation Stanza

  • saantaakaaram bhujaga-sayanam
  • padmanaabham suresam
  • visvaadhaaram gagana-sadrisam
  • megha-varnam subha-angam
  • lakshmee-kaantam kamala-nayanam
  • yogibhir-dhyaana-gamyam
  • vande vishnum bhava-bhaya-haram
  • sarva-lokaika-naatham.

“We meditate upon the Master of the Universe, Lord Vishnu, who is ever Peaceful, who lies on the great serpent-bed, from whose navel springs the Lotus of the Creative Power, who is the Controller of the gods, whose Form is the entire universe, who is All-Pervading as the sky, of the hue of the cloud, of fascinating beauty, the Lord of Lakshmi, the Lotus-eyed. He who dwells in the hearts of the yogis and who can be approached and perceived through meditation. He who is the destroyer of the fear of Samsar.”

This is the meditation upon the Form of the Lord. Visualizing Him thus in His, All-Comprehensive nature, and meditating upon Him, the seeker starts the Vishnu-sahasranaama chanting.

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