Vishnu Sahasranama Personified
by Sampatkumara Ramanuja Dasan (Adv. Ashwin.S)
Located about 5 km from the Sirkali Temple is the exquisite temple of Lord Vishnu as Purshothama – Sri Vana Purushothama Temple.
The temple has everything to do with the chanting of the Vishnu Sahasranama, as Lord Vishnu as Vana Purushotaman is Vishnu Sahasranama personified.
It would take a devotional journey to understand the circumstances under which Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram came into existence. Yudhishtira, the eldest of the five Pandavas, was mentally disturbed because of the war with the Kauravas. The misery of death and suffering that was created by the war in which he had been a major player was the biggest concern of Yudhishtira. The grandfather of the Pandavas and Kauravas, Sri Bhishma Pitamaha, was on his arrow bed awaiting the journey to the supreme abode. With his passing away, his irreplaceable wisdom, based on the experiences of a long life of virtue, righteousness and devotion, was about to be lost to the world. Sage Vyasa and Lord Sri Krishna advised Yudhishtira, who himself was an epitome of dharma, to seek the advice and blessings of Bhishma on any and all aspects of life. Yudhishtira did as advised, and a series of conversations took place between them, witnessed by Lord Krishna and great sages.
In one of these sessions, Yudhishtira sought Bhishma’s advice on the easiest and best means by which mankind can attain peace of mind and relief from all bondage and sorrows. Bhishma started advising Yudhishtira with the welfare of all future generations in his mind.
And behold! Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram was born!
The following shloka in the introduction of Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram explains some important aspects of the nature and mode of the composition.
vishnor nama sahasrasya vedavyaso mahamunih |
chandonustup tatha devo bhagavan devaki sutah ||
“Sri Vedavyasa is the author of Sri Vishnu’s one thousand names, i.e., the sage who strung together the thousand names as they were revealed by Bhishma to Yudhishtira. Anushtup (eight syllables per quarter) is its meter. Lord Krishna, the son of Devaki, is the Lord being worshiped.”
Six reasons are generally identified for the greatness of the Stotram. These are:
- It is the essence of the Mahabharata.
- Sages such as Narada, the Alwars, and composers including Sri Thyagaraja have made repeated references to the Thousand Names of Vishnu in their devotional works.
- Sri Vishnu Sahasranama says vyasaya vishnu rupaya vyasa rupaya vishnave, which means that Vyasadeva is none other than an incarnation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead Sri Narayana. And as such Vishnu Sahasranama is the work of Lord Vishnu Himself.
- Bhishma says that it is the best and easiest of all dharmas, or the means to attain relief from all bondage is to chant Vishnu Sahasranama.
- It is widely accepted that the chanting of this Stotram gives relief from all sorrows and leads to happiness and peace of mind.
- It is in conformity with the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita and other Upanishads and Puranas.
Unlike other compositions on the Supreme Lord, Vishnu Sahasranama is very unique in many aspects. It was no ordinary person’s advice that was sought. Bhishma was the son of Mother Ganga and a person sanctified by his unswerving devotion to Lord Krishna, one who had controlled and conquered all his senses. No ordinary person was seeking the advice – Yudhishtira was the son of Yamaraja or Dharmaraja, and himself a practitioner of justice, righteousness, truth, honesty and integrity. And at no ordinary person’s urging was the advice being sought. Sri Vedavyasa was the knower of all Vedas. Lord Krishna was the witness and it was the Supreme Lord Himself who advised Yudhishtira, thereby opening the way for the easiest and best means to achieve happiness and peace of mind. As we know, the advice is in the form of Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram.
The Vishnu Sahasranama is in three divisions. First is the introduction along with the invocatory prayers. Second are the one thousand names of the Supreme Lord and the last is the benefits of chanting the Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram.
In the introductory part of the Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram, Yudhishtira asks Bhishma six questions. These are contained in two stanzas starting with kim ekam daivatam loke in the Stotram. These questions are:
- Who is the One Supreme Deity?
- What is the highest goal of life?
- By praising which Deity’s auspicious qualities will human beings attain prosperity in this world as well as transcendental happiness in the next?
- By meditating on which Deity will human beings attain prosperity in this world as well as bliss in the next?
- By reciting which mantra will man be released from the bondage of the cycle of birth and death?
- Of the three means referred to above, which is the best means for attaining the grace of the Supreme Deity based on your vast experience and knowledge?
Bhishma thus starts explaining to Yudhistira.
dhyayan, stuvana, namasyamsca,
yajamanas tameva ca
A person tides over all the sorrows in this world by reciting with undiluted devotion, the Thousand Names of the Eternal Person, worshiping Him always with devotion, meditating upon Him, glorifying Him, saluting Him by prostrating before Him, and adoring Him.
Bhishma adds that of all dharmas, the dharma or practice involving service done to the lotus-eyed Lord Krishna, without any desire for benefit, through worship, is the best dharma.
It is interesting to note that chanting of the holy names of the Lord requires no expense. If one is capable of speaking, he can very well chant the holy names of the Lord. Other methods of attaining the Supreme Lord like yagas, Deity worship, etc., require elaborate objects of worship, which are difficult to get in Kali Yuga.
For the purpose of chanting the names of God, there is also no constraint on the ashrama (i.e., brahmacharya, grihastha, etc.) to which a person belongs, unlike, for example, the constraints that the Vedas place on performing the ceremonial rites with sacrificial fire. Certain mantras could be chanted by only life celibate brahmacharis. Certain mantras can be chanted only by grihasthas. But Vishnu Sahasranama can be chanted by anyone and at any time.
The key element of the act of chanting as a means to attain the Lord’s grace is the sincerity and purity of mind, and there is no other constraint or consideration.
In summary, Yudhishtira asks Bhishma, “I am in a perplexed situation. I want relief from my despair by the least effort but want to get the most benefit out of it. Please tell me the means for this.”
And Bhishma’s response was:
“Chant the Thousand Names of Lord Vishnu with devotion. This does not require any effort other than the willingness to chant. This is the best way to get relief from all miseries, sorrows, and sins.”
The Real Text of Vishnu Sahasranama
The word sahasra means “one thousand.” The main body of Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram consists of 108 stanzas which contain the thousand names of Sri Mahavishnu. Every one of the thousand names in Vishnu Sahasranama is full of significance in that it refers to one particular quality, guna, characteristic or attribute of Paramatma.
Knowing the infinite nature of the Paramatma who is not governed or constrained by any of the physical laws, the choice of a Thousand Names of Vishnu by Bhishma should be recognized as a representation of some of the better-known qualities of Sriman Narayana that are repeatedly described in our great epics, Vedas, Puranas, etc., and sung by the devout sages repeatedly.
As was indicated earlier, the thousand names are strung together in a poetic form by Sri Vedavyasa, while identifying the thousand names of Narayana from this poetic composition describing the qualities of the infinite Super Soul.
As was pointed out earlier, traditionally our prayers end with an aspect called as phala shruthi – a section on the benefits of reciting the prayer. The Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram also ends with a magnificent phala shruthi.
The necessity of cleansing our body regularly to maintain our physical hygiene and good health is recognized by everyone. The necessity of keeping our minds clean is not as clearly recognized. However, those who do not “cleanse” their mind on a regular basis become “mentally” sick over a period of time, just as they become physically sick if they do not cleanse their body on a regular basis. Prayers are a means to mental cleansing when they are chanted with sincerity and devotion. This aspect of the usefulness of prayers in everyone’s life is common to all prayers.
The importance of Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram is that the Deity being worshiped is none other than Vasudeva, who is described in various shlokas in the invocatory and conclusion prayers.
sri maha vishnuh paramatma sriman narayano devata; saktir devaki nandanah; itidam kirtaniyasya kesavasya mahatmanah namnam sahasram divyanam aseshena prakirtitam; sahasram vasudevasya namnam etat prakirtayet
Another shloka says:
sa chandrarka nakshatra kham diso bhur mahodadhih vasudevasya viryena vidhrtani mahatmanah
Sri Vyasa points out that it is by the power and command of Vasudeva that the sun, the moon, the stars, the world, and the oceans are controlled.
The whole universe of the demigods, asuras, Gandharvas, etc., is under the sway of Lord Krishna as explained:
sasurasura gandharvam sayakshoraga rakshasam
jagat vase varttha thedham krishnasya sacharacharam
In Bhishma’s expert judgment, chanting Vasudeva’s name with devotion and sincerity will ensure relief from sorrows and bondage.
This, in a nutshell, is the phala shruthi or the benefit of chanting Sri Vishnu Sahasranama.
Some have held the view that the phala shruthi need not be, or even should not be chanted, because they somehow feel that it is for some benefits and a devotee must not expect any benefits.
This is not consistent with the age-old practices of our ancestors. It is true that the phala shruthi says that anything that is desired can be obtained if the prayer is sincere and offered with devotion. But a real devotee must desire to serve the Supreme Lord over and over again in the eternal world Sri Vaikunta.
The phala shruthi in Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram is not an aspect which has been added to get some popularity to the Stotram, but is an integral part of the Mahabharata text.
Sri Parashara Bhatta, one of the greatest acharyas in the Sri sampradaya has written commentaries to the phala shruthi shlokas. It is very important for a devotee to understand the phala shruthi to know about the magnanimity of the Supreme Lord and His holy names which are non-different from Him.
Perhaps the most important of the benefits attained by one who chants the Stotram with devotion and sincerity is the cleansing of one’s mind from all evil thoughts, and this is very important, since this is the first step towards achieving pure happiness and absolute bliss. Firmness of mind, good memory, happiness of the self (inner happiness), and freedom from anger, jealousy, and greed, are some of the benefits that accrue to one who recites the Stotram with devotion and eagerness. The key is sincerity.
The person who chants or recites is not the only one who benefits. Those who, for whatever reason are unable to chant, benefit by just hearing the chanting:
ya edam shrunuyat nityam yaschhapi parikeertayet
Nashubham-prapnuyat-kinchit so mutreha-cha-manavah
Many devotees in the modern age are not well- versed in Sanskrit and are not in a position to derive any meaning out of the 1008 Sanskrit names of the Supreme Lord. They may feel that chanting of the holy names without knowing the meaning is not a worthwhile exercise. However, this is completely false and not in concordance with the scriptures. We could compare it with a treasure box without a key. As long as you have a treasure box, it is yours and you just need to get the key to benefit from possessing it. The treasure box is the Vishnu Sahasranama and the key is the knowledge of the meaning of the words. The key is received whenever one takes shelter at the lotus feet of any acharya in a bona fide sampradaya.
One does not even need to know how to pronounce the words, as Sanskrit pronunciation is not so easy for non-Indians. It would be compared like a mother to whom a child goes and asks for an orange. The child does not know how to pronounce the word “orange”, and so asks for “ange.” The mother does not turn away the child and does not refuse to give the child the orange just because the child does not know how to pronounce the word.
So the Supreme Lord does not consider the mispronunciation, and only looks at the sincerity, just like a genuine cry by the child for mother. So as long as one chants the name of the Supreme Lord with sincerity, considerations such as not knowing the meaning, not knowing the pronunciation, etc., do not matter, and the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Hari, who is the Master of the entire creation will confer His blessings on us even if we spell the request in mistake.
Sage Vedavyasa concludes the Stotra with the assertion:
na te yanti parabhavam – ne te yanti parabhavam
om nama iti
Emphasizing by repetition twice, Vedavyasa says that there is no way a devotee of Vishnu can meet with any dishonour or disgrace of any kind.
In the conclusion Lord Shiva advises Parvati Devi:-.
sri rama rama rameti rame rame manorame
sahasra nama tat tulyam rama nama varanane
If you just chant the name “Rama” it is equivalent to chanting the 1000 names of Sri Maha Vishnu.
So an inquisitive devotee may analyze, “Why would one chant 1008 names of the Lord if it can be equal to one name of the Supreme Lord?”
Sri Parashara Bhattar very nicely gives the explanation on why it is desirable to delve into an analysis of the meanings behind the names: “Names pronounced merely and without knowledge of their meanings are beneficial, but revelation through the transcendental meaning quickly affords the highest pleasure to the mind and body.”
In his Bhagavad Guna Darpana which is a commentary on Vishnu Sahasranama by Sri Parashara Bhattar, the great acharya proceeds to explain the names of Maha Vishnu in accordance with rules of grammar and interpretation by the great sages, with special reference to their significance, context, and propriety.
In his commentary on Sri Vishnu Sahasranama, Sri Bhattar has beautifully traced a thread of connectivity in the sequence of the 1000 names as they occur in the Stotram. The great acharya was instructed to write a commentary on the Vishnu Sahasranama by the great acharya Sri Ramanuja himself.
Sri Pancharatra Agama, which is a treatise on Deity worship classifies the Supreme Lord’s incarnations in five manifestations based on characteristics.
Sri Parashara Bhattar has identified an organization and structure in the composition that refers to the gunas of the Lord in the five manifestations in which He has revealed Himself to us in the Pancharatra Agama.
These manifestations are:
It would not be out of context to understand the meaning of these five forms:
shadgunya vigraham devam bhasvajjvalana tejasam
sarvatah pani padam tat iti upakramya
param etat samakhyatam ekam sarvasrayam vibhum
“In the para form, the Lord has the body endowed with all six qualities. He shines with intense brilliance and luminosity, and has hands and feet all around. This form is unique, is the support of all, and is all-pervasive.” – Satvata Samhita of Parasara Bhattar
The Vyuha Form
In the vyuha manifestation, the Lord assumes different forms which are rich in some of the six qualities, with different functions which emphasize these qualities. The vyuha forms can be viewed as the different forms of the Supreme Lord which arise from the para form.
Pradyumna – aishvarya and virya – function of creation Aniruddha – shakti and thejas – function of protection and preservation. Sankarshana – jnana and bala – function of destruction
etat purvam trayam ca anyat
jnanadyaih bheditam gunai: |
viddhi etat vyuha samgjnam
vai nissreyasa phala pradam ||
“From this para form emerge three other forms (Sankarshana, Pradyumna, Aniruddha), which are distinguished by the possession of knowledge and other qualities allotted to each one of them, and which bestow these benefits to the devotees.”- Satvata Samhita of Parasara
The Vibhava Form
The vibhava is that group of manifestations which are taken by Bhagavan in the form of god, man, animal, etc. (sura, nara, thiryagadi).
Vibhava occurs in one of four forms:
- Some like Matsya and Kurma are direct manifestations.
- In some incarnations, the Lord enters into the bodies of distinguished sages such as Sri Vyasa.
- In others, He invests His shakti for some period of time in others.
- There are others in which He manifests Himself in the Deity as for instance in the archa incarnation.
Sri Parasara Bhattar, in his commentary, has grouped the archa form as a subgroup of the vibhava form which again proves beyond doubt that the Deity of the Lord is non- different from Him. Sri Bhattar distinguishes the vibhava form from the Lord’s creations such as the four-faced Brahma, who are not manifestations of Bhagavan, but are the creations of Bhagavan. Sri Bhattar refers to the following to give us an understanding of the difference:
jnanopadeshta bhagavan kapilakshastu adhokshaja: |
vidyamurti: caturvaktro brahma vai loka pujita: ||
tadamsa bhuto vai yasya visva vyanjana lakshana: ||
“The lotus-eyed Bhagavan, Adhokshaja, is the teacher of all knowledge. The four-faced Brahma who is the embodiment of learning and who is worshiped by all worlds is but a tiny amsha (part) of Bhagavan. He is the subordinate of Bhagavan, and he only propounds the knowledge he got from Bhagavan to all in the world.” -Paushkara Samhita of Parasara
Thus Vishnu Sahasranama is a complete explanation of the Vedanta philosophy. The Lord Vana Purushothama is the manifestation of Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram.
There is yet another interesting pastime of the supreme mother’s affection in this temple. Maharshi Vyakrapatha came to the garden in the temple with his child Upamanyu. He went into the garden to pick flowers, leaving the child at the entrance. The child cried for the father and for milk, as it was hungry. Hearing the child crying, the Lord created a milk ocean. Mother Purushothama Nayaki fed the child with the milk.
The temple is a simple and elegant structure. There is a pond, Thiruparkadal, in the temple where the rituals of the Lord taking a holy dip to commemorate the conclusion of a festival is held. The rajagopuram is a simple three tiered structure. The main sanctum is under Sanjeevivigraha Vimanam.
The presiding Deity faces the east in a standing position along with His consorts Sridevi and Bhoodevi. Goddess Mother Purushothama Nayaki is in the southwest corner of the temple in a sitting pose. Andal, Rama, Sita Lakshmana, Anjaneya, Nammalwar, Ramanuja and Vishwaksena are in the inner prakara of the temple.
The ten-day Brahmotsava in the month of Panguni (March-April), Pavithra Utsava in Avani (September-October) and Garuda Seva on the day after the new moon day in Thai (January-February) are festival days in the temple. Thirumangai Alwar visits this temple every year during the month of Thai and sings songs in praise of the Lord.
Thirumangai Alwar has sung a beautiful ten-stanza on this Supreme Lord.
Sri Rama built a bridge across the rough ocean, entered Lanka and destroyed the ten heads of Ravana with His terrible arrow, gave the big kingdom to Vibeeshana. He resides in Vana Purushothama Temple which has plenty of jackfruit trees, mango trees, banana trees, champaka trees, madhavi creeper, areca nut trees, making the city beautiful and aromatic.
The Supreme Lord Sri Krishna climbed on to the kadamba tree full of young shoots and flowers on the banks of the lake where Kaliya the wicked serpent lived. He jumped on to the hoods of the serpent making it His dancing dais and danced beautifully. This deva deva lives in Vana Purushothama temple—where Vaidika brahmanas perform the three agni sacrifices daily, chant four Vedas and teach six Vedangas.
Every year the cowherd men used to offer a vast variety of foods to Indra as a token of gratitude. But Krishna asked them to offer these to Govardhana. When they did so, He Himself ate all of them in the form of the mountain. He protected the cattle and grazed them. He resides in Thiru Vana Purushothama temple— where there are cool forests due to dark rain clouds making thunderous noise. The peacocks dance and the bees sing for them.
The Supreme Lord Sri Krishna went to Mathura and entered Kamsa’s palace. Before He could enter the court, Kuvalayapeeda, a wild mad elephant, came charging at Him. Krishna pulled out a tusk of this long-trunked elephant and killed both the mahout and the animal. Next He killed the wrestlers.
Finally He kicked Kamsa from the throne, pulling him by the hair. He resides in Thiru Vana Purushothama temple where there are sugarcane fields with paddy crops growing between them. The streets are lined with beautiful trees.
The Supreme Personality of Godhead Sri Krishna kicked Shakatasura when He was a mere child. It was He who killed Banasura and made Shiva, his army and retinue run away from the battlefield. Shiva could not keep his promise of helping his friend Banasura, for he is not a rakshaka. He resides in Vana Purushothama temple—where there are tall buildings on the top of which flags fly spreading their cloth in the vast sky, making a canopy that hides the heat and light from the sun.
When Mahabali poured water into the hands of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, handing Him his kingdom, the Lord stretched His lotus foot and covered the sky. At that time, His lotus foot pierced through Brahmaloka where Lord Brahma washed His lotus feet. This water that Brahma washed His feet with flowed as Ganga. The Supreme Personality of Godhead Sri Krishna resides in Thiru Vana Purushothama temple—where there are beautiful women whose lips are like the kumuda flowers, breasts are like the kongu buds and faces are like lotuses.
The Supreme Personality of Godhead resides happily in the divya desam called Vana Purushothama temple. It is He who took the Narasimha incarnation and split open the chest of Hiranya and dipped His hands in the blood. It is He who killed the asura called Keshi who came as a horse. The divya desam where He resides is very beautiful with beautiful girls dancing and playing with balls. The sound of their anklets when they dance and the sound of their bangles when they hit the ball mix together giving a pleasant sound to the ears.
Our Muhil Vannan once helped Shiva to get rid of a curse by pouring blood into his kapala. He resides in Vana Purushothama temple where coconut trees and areca nut trees grow side by side. The heavy coconuts fall into the river where fish live. The fish fear these huge balls as predators and leave the place to live elsewhere.
The Supreme Personality of Godhead first created Brahma from His stomach. Brahma then created Rudra who has matted lock and a crescent moon. Thus He reveals His paratva and sarveswaratva. He resides in Vana Purushothama temple where female monkeys hug their babies, eat bananas, leave the place and sit on the branches of mango trees to eat mangoes.
Thirumangai Alwar, the chief of Thiruvalinadu, who has sought the lotus feet of Bhagavan residing in Vana Purushothama temple and considers himself very fortunate, has sung these ten pasurams on Him. Those who read these pasurams will rule over this earth enjoying all the pleasures and finally reach Paramapada to become one of the eternal residents of Vaikunta. •
Photo courtesy: Santhanakrishnan, Srirangam