Vishnu sahasranama

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Vishnu

The Vishnu sahasranama (literally: thousand names of Vishnu) is a list of 1,000 names for Vishnu, one of the main forms of God in Hinduism and the only Ultimate Reality for Vaishnavites. More particularly, the Vishnu sahasranama is one of the most sacred and chanted stotras in Hinduism. It is recited, often with a preface, as a prayer by many Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu).

As described in the 149th chapter of Anushasanaparva in the epic Mahabharata, the names were handed down to Yudhisthira by grand sire Bheeshma, who was on his death bed at the battle of Kurukshetra. Yudhisthira asks Bhishma the following questions:

  1. In this universe who is the one Lord of all? (i.e., at whose command all beings function or God of all?)
  2. What is that one supreme status which one should seek to attain?
  3. Who is the one Divinity by praising and by worshiping whom a man attains good?
  4. Which according to you is that highest form of Dharma (capable of bestowing salvation and prosperity on man)?
  5. What is that by uttering or reciting which any living being can attain freedom from cycle of births and deaths?

Bhisma answers by stating that mankind will be free from all sorrows by chanting the Vishnu Sahasranama which are the thousand names of the one All-Pervading Supreme Being who is master of all the worlds, supreme over the Devas and who is Brahman. The reference from which this citation is taken and adapted is shown below.

There are Sahasranama for major forms of God (Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, and others), but Vishnu Sahasranama is most popular among common people, especially householders. The others are recited mostly in temples or by renunciants who pray to Vishnu as the Supreme God with personal attributes. However, the term, sahasranama, by itself, generally refers to Vishnu sahasranama. Vishnu sahasranama has been the subject of numerous commentaries. The most popular ones are those of Adi Shankaracharya who wrote a definitive commentary on the Sahasranama in the 8th century and Parasara Bhattar, a follower of Ramanuja.

According to the foreword of P. Sankaranarayan's translation of Vishnu sahasranama, Bhavan's Book University, Rig Veda V.I.15b.3, states, "O ye who wish to gain realization of the supreme truth, utter the name of Vishnu at least once in the steadfast faith that it will lead you to such realization."

Contents

Etymology

In Sanskrit, sahasra means "a thousand" and nama means "name". The compound is of the Bahuvrihi type and may be translated as "having a thousand names". In modern Hindi pronunciation, nama is pronounced 'naam', with an implied vowel in the end.

Interpretation

Although all Hindus respect the Sahasranama, this is a major part of prayer for devout Vaishnavites, or followers of Vishnu. This does not mean that they do not believe in the other forms of God, rather they believe the whole universe, including the other forms of God such as Shiva or Devi, to be manifestations of their chosen one, Vishnu. Similarly Saivites give prominence to Shiva, but also respect Vishnu.

Smarta interpretations

In fact, the Shri Rudram, one of the most sacred prayers for Hindus and Shaivites in particular, describe Vishnu as an aspect of Shiva. Likewise, two of the names in Vishnu sahasranama that refer to Shiva are Shiva (names #27 and #600) itself, and Rudra (name #114). Adi Sankara has interpreted this to mean that Vishnu and Shiva are the same and it is Vishnu that is praised by worship of Shiva. Using these two interpretations, and ignoring the occasional and rare tensions between Vaishnvaites and Shaivites, these two names, from one point of view, an Advaitan point of view, indicate that Vishnu and Shiva are one and the same God but are His different aspects as preserver and destroyer respectively.

Vaishnavite interpretations

However, the Vaishnavite commentator, Parasara Bhattar, a follower of Ramanuja has interpreted the name "Shiva" and "Rudra" in Vishnu sahasranama to mean a quality or attribute of Vishnu and not to indicate that Vishnu and Shiva are one and the same God.

General Thoughts

Sections from Swami Tapasyananda's translation of the concluding verses of Vishnu sahasranama, state the following: "Nothing evil or inauspicious will befall a man here or hereafter who daily hears or repeats these names." That comment is noteworthy. King Nahusha, a once righetous king, ancestor of Yudhisthira, according to reference, C. Rajagopalachari's translation of Mahabharata, [1] (http://home.att.net/~gitaprasad/mahabharata.htm), story #53, become an Indra, king of devas, but was later expelled from Swarga or heaven due to a curse by the great sage Agastya for his eventual gain in pride and arrogrance and become a python for thousands of years. Thus, chanting of Vishnu sahasranama will help lead to success in this life and hereafter.

Interestingly, the first few names, in particular, do not describe features of Vishnu in detail and hence are not anthropomorphic in nature and instead focus on His inherent nature or characteristics such as pervading the universe and as destroyer of sin. While Vishnu is commonly portrayed with human features, Swami Tapasyananda, in his book, Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, reminds readers that Vishnu pervades everything and is not anthropomorphic. He has no particular material form but can manifest in any form, and is a center of all force, power, will, auspiciousness, goodness, beauty, grace, responsiveness, etc.

As Swami Tapasyananda said, "Vishnu is the Indwelling Spirit in all beings and the whole cosmos constitute His body." As Vishnu is the all-pervading Spirit and the Supreme Personality, anthromorphism is deemphasized in Vishnu sahasranama.

Pronunciation and Merits of Recitation

In the linked preface prayer (But not in the succeeding Sahasranama) non-formal pronunciation is used, since correct representation of pronunciation requires extensive use of diacritic marks. An example: Sanskrit/Hindi has three letters representing S, which are represented here as 's' (as in save), 'sh' (as in shave), the third 'sh', as used in the Sanskrit word shatkona (Hexagon), Vishnu, Krishna and others is actually a retroflex phoneme and has no equivalent in English. Retroflex phonemes are those where the tongue is slightly coiled back in the palate and released along with the phoneme's sound. An analogous example is the hard 't' in 'tyre'. Do the same thing with a 'sh' sound to get the correct pronunciation of the 'sh' as used in Vishnu. Also, the 'n' in Vishnu and Krishna is retroflex. In formal transliteration of Sanskrit alphabet to English, this setup is denoted by placing dots above or below the letter 's', which would be too cumbersome to do here. More details can be found at Sanskrit_language#Consonants.

Although devotion is considered the most important thing while reciting any prayer or mantra (Unless used for tantric purposes, where the sound's vibration plays the major role), use of the correct pronunciation is believed by devotees to enhance the satisfaction derived from the recital, in the case of both vocal and mental chants.

One difference between transliteration is in the hard & soft 't'. Persons from northern India usually use 't' for both, while southern Indians prefer 't' for hard t (As in truck), and 'th' for soft t (Like any t in French, or the Sanskrit maruti (Son of the wind, a name of Lord Hanuman)). Northeners use 'th' to denote the aspirated t, as in 'throw'. As this article is an amalgam from at least two sources, the exact pronunciation may not be clearly apparent.

Believers in the recitation of the Sahasranama claim that it brings unwavering calm of mind, complete freedom from stress and eternal knowledge. Sections from Swami Tapasyananda's translation of the concluding verses of Vishnu sahasranama, state the following: "Nothing evil or inauspicious will befall a man here or hereafter who daily hears or repeats these names.. Whichever devoted man, getting up early in the morning and purifying himself, repeats this hymn devoted to Vasudeva, with a mind that is concentrated on Him, that man attains to great fame, leadership among his peers, wealth that is secure and the supreme good unsurpassed by anything. He will be free from all fears and be endowed with great courage and energy and he will be free from diseases. Beauty of form, strength of body and mind, and virtous character will be natural to him.... One who reads this hymn every day with devotion and attention attains to peace of mind, patience, prosperity, mental stability, memory and reputation.... Whoever desires advancement and happiness should repeat this devotional hymn on Vishnu composed by Vyasa....Never will defeat attend on a man who adores the Lotus-Eyed One [KamalNayani], who is the Master of all the worlds, who is birthless, and out of whom the worlds have originated and into whom they dissolve."

Swami Tapasyananda stated that in orthodox Hindu tradition, a devotee should daily chant the Upanishads, Gita, Rudram, Purusha Sukta and Vishnu sahasranama. If one cannot do all this on any day, it is believed that chanting Visnu sahasranama alone is sufficient. Vishnu sahasranama can be chanted at any time, irrespective of gender.

Prayer

It is customary to commence the Vishnu sahasranama with a devotional prayer to Vishnu.

See also: full text of the Vishnu sahasranama.

Shlokas

Recitation and aggregation

An alternative approach is to say the starting prayer, and then say the names collected in stanzas (As they were originally said by Bhishma.) Such stanzas are called Shlokas in Sanskrit. The Sahasranama (apart from the initial and concluding prayers) has a total of 108 shlokas.

For example, the first shloka is:

Om Vishvam Vishnurvashatkaaro Bhootbhavyabhavatprabhuh
Bhootkrid Bhootbhridbhaavo Bhootaatma Bhootbhavanah

Notice the aggregation of several words and the omission of their intervening spaces. For example, the last word of the first line of this Shloka:

Bhootbhavyabhavatprabhuh

corresponds to:

OM Bhoota Bhavya Bhavat Prabhave Namaha

of the expanded version.

This joining-together of words is a common feature of Sanskrit and is called Sandhi. It makes the shlokas compact and easier to remember, which was necessary in ancient India since the religious scriptures were seldom written down and were memorised by Brahmins, or the priest class. This collection of memorised knowledge was passed by word-of-mouth from Guru to disciple.

Tradition of recitation

From ancient times, until as recently as the 19th century, many Hindus in learned families daily recited the Sahasranama, or a similar set of prayer Shlokas of their chosen deity. (Such a collection of Shlokas which are used for recital purposes is generally called a Stotra (Both 't's have soft pronunciation.))

With increasing Westernization, the practice of the Sahasranama rituals are reducing in commonality, and have been criticized for becoming more mechanical and devoid of feeling. Though a very significant number of Hindu households still have daily prayer/worship sessions (Called a Puja. In ancient Vedic times, it was also called a Sandhya).

Inclusion of other deities

One notable thing about the Sahasranama is that it includes names of other Hindu deities such as Shiva, Brahma, etc. within it. This is an example of Vishnu considered in His universal aspect, as an aggregation, and basis of all other deities which emanate from Him. In this cosmic aspect, Vishnu is also called Mahavishnu (Great Vishnu.) By an Advaitan interpretation, this notation is not suprising as followers of Advaita philosophy, in particular, Smartas believe that Vishnu and Shiva are the same and are hence different aspects of the one Supreme Being.

References

  • Full text in Sanskrit with Devanagari (http://wikisource.org/wiki/%E0%A4%B6%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%B0%E0%A5%80%E0%A4%B5%E0%A4%BF%E0%A4%B7%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%A3%E0%A5%81%E0%A4%B8%E0%A4%B9%E0%A4%B8%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%B0%E0%A4%A8%E0%A4%BE%E0%A4%AE%E0%A4%B8%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%A4%E0%A5%8B%E0%A4%A4%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%B0%E0%A4%AE%E0%A5%8D%E2%80%8C) (श्रीविष्णुसहस्रनामस्तोत्रम्) (Wikisource)
  • Cited from Sri Vishnu Sahasranama, commentary by Sri Sankaracharya, translated by Swami Tapasyananda, available at Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai. available at India web site: http://www.sriramakrishnamath.org and US site: http://www.vedanta.com.

Quotes about Vishnu Sahasranama and Its Greatness

  • Sri N. Krishnamachari, a Srivaishnavite scholar, at Steven Knapp's web site, quoting Vaishnavite scholars, states that there are six reasons for the greatness of Vishnu sahasranama:

"1. Vishnu sahasranama is the essence of the Mahabharata; 2. Great sages such as Narada, the Alvars, and composers including Saint Tyagaraja have made repeated references to the "Thousand Names of Vishnu" in their devotional works; 3. The person who strung together the thousand names as part of the Mahabharata and preserved it for the world was none other than Sage Veda Vyasa, the foremost knower of the Vedas, who is considered an avatar of Vishnu; 4. Bhishma considered chanting of the Vishnu sahasranama the best and easiest of all dharmas, or the means to attain relief from all bondage; 5. It is widely accepted that the chanting of this Stotram gives relief from all sorrows and leads to happiness and peace of mind; 6. Vishnu sahasranama is in conformity with the teachings of the Gita."

  • Adi Sankara, the Advaita philosopher, in his hymn, Bhaja Govindam, translation available at [2] (http://www.kamakoti.org/shlokas/kshlok19.htm), said that the Gita and Vishnu sahasranama should be chanted and the form of the Lord of Lakshmi, Vishnu should always be meditated on.
  • The great saint, Shirdi Sai Baba, according to reference, [3] (http://www.saibaba.org/newsletter5-29.html#carticle), on commentating about the merits of Vishnu sahasranama, said: "Oh Shama, this book is very valuable and efficacious, so I present it to you, you read it. Once I suffered intensely and My heart began to palpitate and My life was in danger. At that critical time, I hugged this book to My heart and then, Shama, what a relief it gave me! I thought that Allah Himself came down and saved Me. So I give this to you, read it slowly, little by little, read daily one name at least and it will do you good."
  • Swami Sivananda, in his 20 important spiritual instructions, available at reference, [4] (http://www.sivanandadlshq.org/teachings/20instr.htm), stated that the Vishnu sahasranama, along with other religious texts, should be studied systematically.

Benefits of chanting Vishnu Sahasranama

Bhisma said, "Even thus have I recited to thee, without any exception, the thousand excellent names of the high-souled Kesava whose glory should always be sung. That man who hears the names every day or who recites them every day, never meets with any evil either here or hereafter. If a Brahmana does this he succeeds in mastering the Vedanta; if a Kshatriya does it, he becomes always successful in battle. A Vaisya, by doing it, becomes possessed of affluence, while a Sudra earns great happiness. If one becomes desirous of earning the merit of righteousness, one succeeds in earning it (by hearing or reciting these names). If it is wealth that one desires, one succeeds in earning wealth (by acting in this way). So also the man who wishes for enjoyments of the senses succeeds in enjoying all kinds of pleasures, and the man desirous of offspring acquires offspring (by pursuing this course of conduct). That man who with devotion and perseverance and heart wholly turned towards him, recites these thousand names of Vasudeva every day, after having purified himself, succeeds in acquiring great fame, a position of eminence among his kinsmen, enduring prosperity, and lastly, that which is of the highest benefit to him (viz., emancipation itself). Such a man never meets with fear at any time, and acquires great prowess and energy. Disease never afflicts him; splendour of complexion, strength, beauty, and accomplishments become his. The sick become hale, the afflicted become freed from their afflictions; the affrighted become freed from fear, and he that is plunged in calamity becomes freed from calamity. The man who hymns the praises of that foremost of Beings by reciting His thousand names with devotion succeeds in quickly crossing all difficulties. That mortal who takes refuge in Vasudeva and who becomes devoted to Him, becomes freed of all sins and attains to eternal Brahman. They who are devoted to Vasudeva have never to encounter any evil. They become freed from the fear of birth, death, decrepitude, and disease. That man who with devotion and faith recites this hymn (consisting of the thousand names of Vasudeva) succeeds in acquiring felicity of soul, forgiveness of disposition, Prosperity, intelligence, memory, and fame. Neither wrath, nor jealousy, nor cupidity, nor evil understanding ever appears in those men of righteousness who are devoted to that foremost of beings. The firmament with the sun, moon and stars, the welkin, the points of the compass, the earth and the ocean, are all held and supported by the prowess of the high-souled Vasudeva. The whole mobile and immobile universe with the deities, Asuras, and Gandharvas, Yakshas, Uragas and Rakshasas, is under the sway of Krishna. The senses, mind, understanding, life, energy,strength and memory, it has been said, have Vasudeva for their soul. Indeed, this body that is called Kshetra, and the intelligent soul within, that is called the knower of Kshetra, also have Vasudeva for their soul. Conduct (consisting of practices) is said to be the foremost of all topics treated of in the scriptures. Righteousness has conduct for its basis. The unfading Vasudeva is said to be the Lord of righteousness. The Rishis, the Pitris, the deities, the great (primal) elements, the metals, indeed, the entire mobile and immobile universe, has sprung from Narayana. Yoga, the Sankhya Philosophy, knowledge, all mechanical arts, the Vedas, the diverse scriptures, and all learning, have sprung from Janardana. Vishnu is the one great element or substance which has spread itself out into multifarious forms. Covering the three worlds, He the soul of all things, enjoys them all. His glory knows no diminution, and He it is that is the Enjoyer of the universe (as its Supreme Lord). This hymn in praise of the illustrious Vishnu composed by Vyasa, should be recited by that person who wishes to acquire happiness and that which is the highest benefit (viz., emancipation). Those persons that worship and adore the Lord of the universe, that deity who is inborn and possessed of blazing effulgence, who is the origin or cause of the universe, who knows on deterioration, and who is endued with eyes that are as large and beautiful as the petals of the lotus, have never to meet with any discomfiture.'" Bhisma's quote cited from Ganguli translation of Vishnu Sahasranama (public domain)

Books

There are few books in English, or those with English transliteration and translation. The books given below contain Swami Shankaracharya's commentary on the Sahasranama:

  • Sanskrit & English: Sri Vishnu Sahasranama; translated by Swami Tapasyananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 16, Ramakrishna Math Road, Chennai 600004, India

web site: http://www.sriramakrishnamath.org; US site: http://www.vedanta.com (Both sites sell a copy of Vishnu sahasranama, the book with the commentary of Adi Sankara.)

(Math is pronounced 'Madh', the dh is the voiceless hard palatal aspirate, somewhat like the intermediate sound in road-hog. Math is the Hindu equivalent of a monastery. Chennai was earlier called Madras.)

  • Sanskrit & English: Sri Vishnu Sahasranama, translated by P. Sankaranarayan, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Kulapat Munshi Marg, Mumbai, India 400007
  • Sanskrit & Hindi: Sri Vishnu Sahasranama, Gitapress, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh 273005, India

External links

(Audio link; click on Vishnu sahasranama, rendition sung by the late M.S. Subbulaksmi.

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