Sri Adi Shankaracharya has ordered all mortals to benefit by reciting the divine names of Sri Narayana – geyaM gItA nAmasahasram [Moha Mudgara]. Kalau keshava kIrtanAt - reciting the thousand names of the Lord is the easiest way to escape from the brutality of Kali. Sri Bhagavad Gita teaches the Tattva of Paramatman whereas Sri Vishnu Sahasranama describes the Swarupa of Paramatman. In other words, gIta is vAchya and Sahasranama is vAchaka. By considering the pramANa – vAchya vAchakayorabhedaH – we can conclude that both Sri Bhagavad Gita and Sri Vishnu Sahasranama are the same i.e. refer to the glories of the same non-dual atman. By reciting a single name of the Lord, one is relieved from pains and sins. Vishnu Sahasranama is a mAla or garland of thousand potent names of the Lord, recitation and anusandhAna of which is the sure most cure for saMsAra. Each name is like an atom bomb, packed with infinite energy. The way to utilize this energy is constant repetition of the names with devotion and contemplation. It is very important to understand the meaning of each of the names. However, anubhUti (experience) is greater than artha (mere meaning). One has to thus experience the names to know their actual purport and thus the Supreme.
Srimadacharya describes the characteristics of a Stotra as follows:
namaskArastathAshishcha siddhaantoktiH parAkramaH |
vibhUtiH prArthanA cheti ShaDvidhaM stotralakShaNam ||
1. Offering namaskAra to the Lord by means of words.
2. Describing the boons or blessings granted by the Lord.
3. Describing the Siddhanta or philosophy of a particular school of thought associated with the deity.
4. Describing the valor and heroics of the deity.
5. Describing the vibhUti or mahimA of the deity.
6. Praying the Lord [which involves describing the place of prayer, need and the cause for the prayer and also the expected boon].
The name `viShNu' is explained as below in Agni Purana:
jyotIMShi viShNurbhuvanAni viShNur
vanAni viShNurgirayo dishashcha |
nadyassamudrANi sa eva sarvam ||
Who is Vishnu? He is that Parama Purusha who is the sun, moon, stars, mountains, rivers, oceans, directions and everything seen and unseen. Thus, the word Vishnu does not merely refer to the Vishnu, the husband of Lakshmi and one of the trinity, but to the formless Parabrahman, non-different from the Self, who is all-pervading. It is this Virat Purusha who is described in Purusha as having thousands of heads and eyes – sahasrashIrShA puruShaH sahasrAkShaH sahasrapAt. A similar description of the Virat Purusha is also seen in the Vishwarupa Darshana Yoga of Bhagavad Gita - anekabAhUdara vaktranetram. How did the Virat Purusha, one above names and forms, get thousand names? This is explained by Bhagavan Veda Vyasa in the Shloka – yAni nAmAni gauNani etc. The word `gauNa' has to be observed carefully here. Gauna is a derivative of guNa and hence the names are guNa vAchakas of the Lord. The Lord, though without attributes, appears with attributes for the sake of devotes and the sages praise his auspicious attributes with these sacred names. Every name speaks of an auspicious attribute of the Lord. The Shastras declare – darshanAt R^iShiH – the seer is the Rishi. What does the Rishi see – the Para Tattva. When we say the Rishi is DraShTA – it does not mean merely that the Rishi had a vision of a Saguna form of the Lord with four hands. It means the sage experienced the Paratattva fully, the only way for which is to experience the identity of the Self and the Supreme in all its glory. Vocal expressions of their divine experience of Paramatman are these thousand names. As these names are revealed by the sages, they become sacred like the Sruti and possess infinite auspicious energy.
Sri Vishnu Sahasranama has 108 shlokas. Each verse is like a valuable gem and the entire Sahasranama becomes a sacred rosary or Japa Mala of 108 beads. Thus, this is a sacred Mantra and not merely a stotra. The number 108 is very significant. 1 is Brahma Vachaka and denotes the principle of ekamevAdwitiyaM brahma. 0 denotes the phenomenal world – mithyA jagat. The number 8 signifies the prakR^iti [aShTa prakR^iti]. Thus, when Brahma in conjugation with prakR^iti results in the phenomenal world. To get rid of the dual word and reach the pure Brahman, this Sahasranama of 108 verses is a powerful tool. Also, 1+0+8 = 9. Any multiple of 9 results similarly in a nine when the digits are added. Thus, the number 9 signifies avyaya Paramatman. The goal thus of reciting this Sahasranama is to realize that Paramatman, who is one's own self.
The importance of Japa and Nama Samkirtana has been highlighted in Vishnu Purana and Manu Smrti. But Bhagavan Vyasa does not assume that the reader has read other scriptures and understands the significance of Nama Japa. So the question by Yudhishthira – kiM japan muchyate jantuH janmasaMsArabandhanAt? Bhishma, the old wise man replies – stuvannAmasahasreNa. This is further supported in Mahabharata – japastu sarvadharmebhyaH paramo dharma uchyate. The Lord confirms the same in Gita – yajnAnAM japayajno.asmi.
We can attain Shuddhi using air, water, earth and fire. However, there is always a chance of the first three getting polluted themselves when in contact with the unclean. However, fire is different. It not only remains pure in spite of anything offered into it, but also transforms the offered object into itself i.e. heat and light. Thus, the transforming ritual of Japa is compared to a Yajna by which the Jiva burns the veil of Avidya to realize itself as non-different from Chidagni. Like the animals of the jungle run at the sight of the lion, reciting the Lord's name destroys all sins [Vishnu Purana]. The same is further elaborated in Brihannaradiya –
harirharati pApAni duShTachittairapi smR^itaH |
anicChayo.api samspR^iShTo dahatyeva hi pAvakaH ||
When one touches fire, whether willingly or unwillingly, he is burnt. That is the Guna Dharma of fire – to burn. Similarly, the names of the Lord, when recited even by a rogue, even if unwillingly, do their work of destroying his sins. Further, the fruit of reciting these divine names is described thus – pApabhayApaham – some interpret this verse thus – destroys the fear of sins. I think the correct interpretation would be – the recitation of the thousand names destroys sin and fear. Because of one's actions which are prohibited by the Sruti, sins are accrued, which leads to bhaya or fear. The Upanishad says – dwitIyAdvai bhayaM bhavati – the fear results from the second. Fear is always because of duality – fear of mortality, fear of disease, fear of pain, fear of loss, fear of limitations – all these are fruits of Dwaita. When the self is realized as the sole entity – the Brahman – there is no other entity to fear! Thus, pApa which hinders Chitta Shuddi required to perceive the infinite Brahman, is the cause and bhaya is the effect. The powerful Sahasranama of the Lord destroys both the cause and the effect.
How does the recitation of these divine names lead us to the Lord? The moment we recite a name, say Srinivasa, the auspicious form of the Lord begins to form in our mind. This is followed by a flash of his auspicious attributes, powers and Mahatmyam. We then ponder deep into the Tattva of the Lord and further contemplation on him leads us to Bhavad Tattva. Thus, Nama Japa leads to Rupa Abhivyakti, Tattva Anusadnadhana and further to Anubhuti and Aikya, in gradual steps.
The Mahabharata reveals Sri Vishnu Sahasranama in the Anushasanika Parva. When Bhishma was lying on the bed of arrows, Yudhishthira, along with Sri Krishna, approached him with some questions in order to understand Paramatma Tattva. Now it was the Lord who inspired Dharmaja to raise these questions, it was he who empowered Bhishma to answer questions and it was he who stood there silently and heard the discussion. Thus, he was the kathaka, pR^icChaka and the shrota!
If we further examine the power of the Lord's name:
nArAyaNeti vAgvallI chaturakSharapallavA |
dharmArthakAmamokShANAM phaladA nAtra saMshayaH ||
The word nArAyaNa has four letters and these four letters are capable of granting the four Purusharthas to the devoted. What is the fruit of reciting this Sahasranama? shUdro sukhamavApnuyAt – one who is a shUdra i.e. a person reciting the Sahasranama as a kAmya karma expecting materialistic benefits, gets his desire granted. Any person, even if Brahmana by birth, is a shUdra in essence if his pursuit is for sukha and not Jnana is the clear indication of Bhagavan Vyasa here.
As said before, it is the Virat Purusha called Narayana who is praised with these thousand names. It is not just the Saguna Murti Vishnu or Krishna who is the subject of this hymn. To prove that the hymn is Brahma Vachaka, one can see names which uphold Shiva – Keshava abheda – stANuH, shivaH, sarvajnaH, rudraH, sharabhaH, mahAbhUtaH, bhUtAvAsaH, maheshwaraH, bhimaH, parameshwaraH, IshwaraH, IshAnaH etc. one needs to carefully observe that the names covered here also address the principles of other philosophies like Buddhism, Jainism etc. The names – siddhArthaH, sarvajnaH, shAstA, mahAbuddhiH, bhagavAn, niravANam etc., are epithets of Buddha. shuddhaH, vIraH, vardhamAnaH, shamanaH etc. are epithets of Jina. Thus, it is the divine Paramatman who is the essence of all philosophises and it is that Brahman who is the chief subject of this hymn.
There are several names which are repeated in the Sahasranama, like – anandaH, nandanaH, nanadaH, shrIvAsaH, shrIpatiH, shrIdaH, shrInidhiH, shrIvibhAvanaH, shrIkaraH, shrImAn, shatAnanaH etc. As these names have different meanings in different contexts, the Stotra has been declared to be free from Punarukti Dosha by the scriptures.
There are several Sahasranamas of Lord Mahavishnu. Why do we hold this particular version from Mahabharata as the most sacred of these? Here are the reasons.
1. mahAbhAratasArattvAt – Mahabharata being the essence of all the scriptures is known as the fifth Veda. It embeds in itself both the Karma Kanda and Jnana Kanda. That being the case, Sri Vishnu Sahasranama is very sacred as it is considered to be the essence of Mahabharata itself! Yudhishtira, a mumukShu, had a doubt – ko dharmaH sarva dharmANAM bhavataH paramo mataH – what is the best path? Karma, Jnana, Bhakti, Sharanagati – and Bhishma said – Sri Vishnu Sahasranama, the Samanvaya of all of the above is the best way to liberation. shAstreShu bhArataM sAraM tatra nAma sahasrakam.
2. R^iShibhiH pariganataH – As explained earlier, the names in the Sahasranama were `seen' and `experienced' by the Rishis. Hence these names are divine revelations of the Parama Tatva.
3. vedAchArya samAhArAt – If we observe the R^iShi of this Sahasranama, the traditional usage is to utter the name of Bhagavan Veda Vyasa. Just now we said that the names were experienced by various Rishis. Then how is it that we claim Veda Vyasa alone to be the Rishi of this hymn? It is Bhagvan Vyasa who collected the thousand gems and made a garland – mAlA and hence he is the Rishi of this Mala Mantra. The names were individually experienced by the different sages (vyaShTi) but it was Sri Vyasa who experienced the mAlA mantra (samaShTi) and hence the Purna Brahma Tattva of the Lord. We say vyAsAya viShNurUpaya and keshavaM bAdarAyaNam – Vyasa is none but Narayana himself! As the set of names were put together by Narayana himself, the Sahasranama is sacred.
4. bhIShmotkR^iShTamatattvataH – Sri Bhishma, the realized soul, has declared this Sahasranama as the best way to attain salvation – eSha me sarvadharmANAM dharmo.adhikatamo mataH.
5. parigrahAtishayato – Sri Vishnu Sahasranama has been prescribed as cure for incurable dieases in Ayurveda. Scriptires prescribe Homa with the Sahasranama for some diseases. bANa bhaTTa describes the practice of recitation of Sahasranama outside the labor room (sUtikA grha) to guard the mother and child to ensure safe delivery. As indicated by the Phala Sruti, every being, irrespective of varNa and Ashrama can recite the Sahasranama and benefit from it. This parigrahAtishayatvam, which is not present even for the Vedas, makes the Sahasranama very special.
6. gItadyaikArthataH – As explained before, the Sahasranama advocates the same Tattva as Gita and Brahmasutra. The fact that Sri Adi Shankara chose to comment upon this Sahasranama along with Brahma Sutra, Vedanta and Gita, speaks of its significance.
Because of the above six reasons, the Sahasranama is considered as the essence of all scriptures.
One should learn the Rishyadi Nyasa, Shapoddhara Vidhi (explained in Agastya Samhita) etc from Sadguru, understand the correct procedure and then recite the Sahasranama correctly, clearly and with devotion. By performing Purusha Sukta Nyasa before the Sahasranama, one gets the fruit of reciting the Sahasranama thousand times.
Though different Dhyana Shlokas have been prescribed for the Sahasranama, the Sahasranama itself indicates the form which is to be meditated upon during the recital. If one observes the names carefully, the very first name referring to a mUrta rUpa of Bhagavan is narasimhavapuH followed by shrImAn – which translates to Sri Lakshmi Nrsimha. Sri Narasimha is that Advaita Sthiti free from Dwandwa of Dwaita. Now, when the Lord first appeared, he was described thus by Vyasa – na mRigo na manuShaH – neither a beast nor human! Why did not Vyasa Bhagavan say – mrigashcha mAnuShaH – a being who is both Mriga and MAnuSha? This is in line with the Tattva of the Vedantin who describes the unqualified Brahmin as `nEti neti' – not this or that! The world is full of dualities – like the day and night. At Sandhya however, the dualities end and tranquility is attained. It is this state of Turiyatva beyond Dvaita that the Lord represents by bearing Narasimha Rupa and to signify the same, the Avirbhava of the Lord happened during Sandhya. The Lord is Trimurtyatmaka – trinity in one. The Tattva of Sri Narayana or Virat Brahman is most explicit in Nrisimha Swarupa. Hence, the best of the Bhagavatas – Prahlada – who among the various kinds of Bhaktas, was a Jnani - was blessed with the vision of the most special form of the Lord. At the state of Samadhi or Sandhya, the Samatvam of Dhi occurs and tranquility occurs. In such a state, the consciousness or Prajna is called RitambharA PrajnA. Rtam means the great truth and bharA means to bear it. That state of consciousness which can perceive the great truth (of the Atman) is the RitambharA PrajnA and this state is possible by the Anugraha of Sri Nrisimha. Nrisimhopasana through the recitation and anusandhana of the sacred Sahasranama is the best way to attain oneness with Sri Narayana.