The Vishnu Sahasranaamam is found in the Mahabharatha. Literally translated this means thousand names of Vishnu. This is found in the Anushasanika Parvam (chapter relating to orders or rules to the kings) of Mahabharatha. Bheeshma Pitamaha was defeated and grievously wounded by Arjuna. But since he could choose the time of his death as per the boons received by him, he chose to die in Uttarayana and was waiting for the auspicious time. Meanwhile the war was over leading to death of all those male members in his family except the Pancha Pandavas and the unborn child of Abhimanyu. Yudishtira the eldest of the Pandavas became the King of Hasthinapura and went to Bheeshma the great for the advice and asked the following questions:
“Kimekam Daivatham Loke kim vapyegam parayanam Sthuvantha Kam Kamarchanda Prapnuyur Manava Shubham. Ko Dharma Sarva Dharmanam Paramo Matha Kim Japan Muchyathe Jandur Janma Samsara Bhandana”
~ 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 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 (i.e., recitation, praise or archana, and meditation), which is the best means for attaining the grace of the Supreme Deity based on your vast experience and knowledge?
Bhishma’s response to the above questions follows in the next ten stanzas. In his considered opinion, 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 (dhyayan, stuvan, namasyamsca, yajamanas tameva ca).
Bhishma adds that of all the dharmas, the dharma or practice involving service done to the Lotus-eyed Lord Krishna, without any desire for benefit, through worship (archana) and hymnal praise (stava), is the best dharma. Note that praising is easy, involving only speech, and does not involve any material sacrifice or bodily exertion. It is open to all, and does not need help from, or dependence on, others. Other kinds of worship might require money or other resources to perform the worship, or the need to impose on other people for their involvement (e.g., a priest to give instructions on the method of worship etc.).
For the purpose of chanting the name of God, there is also no constraint on the asrama (i.e., brahmacharya, grihasta, etc.) to which a person belongs, unlike, for example, the constraints that the vedas place in performing the ceremonial rites with sacrificial fire. There is also no requirement regarding time, place, status of purity, etc., for the chanting of the stotram. 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, Yudhishthira asks Bhishma: “Given my despair and sorrowful state of mind, I want to expend the least effort and get the most benefit out of it, viz. relief from my despair. Please tell me the means for this.” And Bhishma’s response is “Chant the thousand names of Lord Krishna 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 Thousand Names
The word sahasra in the title of the Stotram means “one thousand”. The main body of Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram consists of 107 stanzas which contain the thousand names of Sri Maha Vishnu. Every one of the Thousand Names in Vishnu Sahasranamam is full of significance in that it refers to one particular quality, guna, characteristic or attribute of Paramatma. (yani namani gaunani, where the emphasis is that each name is indicative of a guna of Vishnu).
One could legitimately ask the question: Why were these 1000 names chosen? Does the Parama Purusha get absolutely defined by these thousand names? The obvious answer is that God is Infinite and Indescribable, and can only be experienced, but cannot be translated into words and communicated from one to another. The vedas conclude that God is neither accessible to words nor to mind (yato vacho nivartante aprapya manasa saha – Taittiriya Upanishad).
In Isavasya Upanishad, it is said that you cannot reach (understand) the Paramatma with the human mind (reasoning) alone even if you spend all your life. This holds true even though mind can travel (think) faster than anything known to us, including the speed of light (anejadekam manaso javiyo..). Given this Infinite nature of the Paramatma who is not governed or constrained by any of the physical laws as we know them, 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 Paramatma, the different revered acharyas have come up with slightly differing sets of thousand names. This is partly because of the ability of these great acharyas to be able to enjoy the indescribable Parama Purusha in their own ways, based on the unique philosophies which they have propounded.
Of the thousand names, some are repeated for example, in Sri Parasara Bhattar’s choice of the thousand names, two names occur four times, 12 names occur three times, and 82 names occur twice. When a name occurs more than once, the revered commentators have interpreted the meaning of the name differently in each instance depending on the context in which the name occurs. They have also quoted extensive evidence from ancient scriptures in support of their interpretation. The commentators have emphasized that the recurrence is not the result of a dosha (deficiency of being repetitive) in the composition.
Importance of Chanting
Some might say that they do not understand the meaning of the Sanskrit words in the stotram and therefore do not feel comfortable chanting it. Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Swamigal has given us his guidance on this issue in one of his discourses. He advises us that learning the chanting of prayers even without knowing the meaning is a worthwhile act, and can be compared to finding a box of treasure without the key. As long as we have the box, we can open it whenever we get the key of knowledge later, but the treasure will be already there.
As was pointed out earlier, traditionally our prayers end with a phala sruti – a section on the benefits of reciting the prayer. The Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram is no exception. The necessity of cleansing our body regularly to maintain our physical hygiene and good health is recognized by every one. But perhaps because we do not “see” our mind the same way as we see our body (i.e., as an externally visible entity), 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 (Sri Maha vishnuh paramatma sriman narayano devata; saktir devaki nandanah; itidam kirtaniyasya kesavasya mahatmanah namnam sahasram divyanam aseshena prakirtitam; sahasram vasudevasya namnam etat prakirtayet, etc.). 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 (sa chandrarka nakshatra kham diso bhur mahodadhih vasudevasya viryena vidhrtani mahatmanah). The whole universe of the Gods, Asuras, Gandharvas, etc., is under the sway of Lord Krishna (sasurasura gandharvam ….). 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 sruti or the benefit of chanting Sri Vishnu Sahasranaamam.
Courtesy: Brahmana Sampradaaya (facebook)