Thousand Names of the Supreme

Thousand Names of the Supreme

by Sri N. Krishnamachari for the Sri Vaishnava Home Page.

(The Stotra audio can be found on the Pittsburgh temple's web-site at the bottom of this page)

(The Sri Vaishnava Home Page also has in-depth translations of the names of Vishnu up to the 77th sloka)


It is interesting to contemplate on the circumstances under which Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram came into existence. Yudhishthira, the eldest of the five Pandavas, was mentally depleted because of the war with the Kauravas and the misery of death and suffering that was created by the war in which he had been a major player. Bhishma, his dear grandfather, was lying on his deathbed. With his passing away, his irreplaceable wisdom, based on the experiences of his long life of virtue, righteousness and devotion, was about to be lost to the world. Sage Vyasa and Sri Krishna advised Yudhishthira, who himself was an epitome of righteousness and virtue, to seek the advice of Bhishma on any and all aspects of life on which he had any doubts. Yudhishthira did as advised, and a series of dialogs ensued between the two, witnessed by Lord Krishna Himself, and by other great sages including Vedavyasa.

In one of these sessions, Yudhishthira sought Bhishma's advice on the easiest and best means by which mankind can attain lasting happiness, peace of mind, and relief from all bondage and sorrows. This was the setting in which Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram was imparted, with the welfare of future generations also in mind, by Bhishma to Yudhishthira, as part of the advice given by Bhishma in response to the above question.

The Composition

The following sloka in the prolog to Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram identifies some important aspects pertaining to the composition of the stotram:

vishnor nama sahasrasya vedavyaso mahamunih |
chandonustup tatha devo bhagavan devaki sutah ||

Sri Vedavyasa is the rishi of Sri Vishnu's one thousand names, i.e., the sage who strung together the thousand names as they were revealed by Bhishma to Yudhishthira. Anushtup (eight syllables per quarter) is its meter. Lord Krishna, the son of Devaki, is the Lord being worshiped.

There are over forty commentaries on Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram. Sri Adi Sankara's commentary is the earliest of them. Sri Parasara Bhatta, a disciple of a disciple of Sri Ramanuja, has written a detailed commentary. Sri Satyasandha Yatiswara from the Dvaita school is another prominant commentator. Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram, along with the Bhagavad Gita, is an integral part of the epic Mahabharata composed by Sage Vedavyasa (Vyasa is also the one who organized the vedas into the classifications as we know them today).

Of all the commentaries written by Sri Sankara for our religious scriptures (the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahma Sutras, etc.), that on Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram was the very first one. Sri Sankara emphasizes the importance of reciting the Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram in his Bhaja Govindam (geyam gita nama sahasram...). Six reasons are generally identified for the greatness of the Stotram. These are:

1. It is the essence of the Mahabharata.
2. Sages such as Narada, the Alwars, 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 Vedavyasa, the foremost knower of the vedas, and considered an incarnation of Vishnu (vyasaya vishnu rupaya vyasa rupaya vishnave namo...).
4. It is the considered opinion of Bhishma that it is 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. It is in conformity with the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, Narayaneeya, etc.

The above reasons given to illustrate the importance of Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram become all the more obvious when we recount the personalities involved in the events that resulted in the stotram. It was no ordinary person's advice that was sought. No ordinary person was seeking the advice, and at no ordinary person's urging was the advice being sought. Bhishma was the son of the Mother Ganga and a person sanctified by his unswerving devotion to Lord Krishna, and one who had controlled and conquered all his senses. Yudhishthira was the son of Dharma, and himself a practitioner of justice, righteousness, truth, honesty and integrity. Vyasa was the knower of all vedas. Lord Krishna was a witness to the whole event involving the advice and revelation of the easiest and best means to achieve happiness and peace of mind, given by Bhishma to Yudhishthira. As we know, the advice is in the form of Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram. No other justification is needed to recognize the greatness of the education that is imparted to the human race through the medium of Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram by Vyasa and Bhishma.

The Organization

Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram as printed for chanting purposes consists of three sections:
· A prolog, which gives the background on why the Stotram was imparted to the great and just Yudhishthira by Bhishma.
· The thousand names of Vishnu, organized in a poetic format in 107 stanzas, in the anushtup chandas, (a meter with eight syllables in a quarter), with two quarters per line, and two lines per stanza.
· The phala sruti, or a recounting of the benefits that can accrue by chanting the Stotram.
The above is the typical organization of many stotrams, for example, the Lakshmi Ashtottara Satanama Stotram with which many of us are familiar.

The Prolog

In the introductory part of the Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram, Yudhishthira asks Bhishma six questions, related to how mankind can attain happiness. 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 bliss 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 (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

The Benefits

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 Sahasranamam.

Some have held the view that the phala sruti need not be, or even should not be chanted, because they somehow feel that it smacks of selfish desires. This is not consistent with the age-old practices of our ancestors. It is true that the phala sruti says that anything that is desired can be obtained if the prayer is sincere and offered with devotion. However, it is up to those who seek benefits through prayers that they should seek things that elevate them in life rather than lower them. An example of the latter type is the case of the evil king Ravana, who had prayed and obtained enormous powers through his prayers to Lord Siva. In the end, he lost all he had including himself by the misuse of his powers.

The phala sruti in Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram was not just an add-on by someone trying to popularize the Stotram, but is an integral part of the Mahabharata text. Both Sri Sankara and Sri Parasara Bhatta have written commentaries to the phala sruti slokas. Thus, what is stated in the phala sruti has its authority from those who are worthy of great respect from us, and who have found it fit to comment and elaborate on the advice and information given to us through the phala sruti.
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 a very important and desirable benefit 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 the sincerity of purpose and devotion.

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 idam srunuyan nityam ....).

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 Chandrasekhara Saraswathi Swami 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.

Some could feel that they do not know the correct pronunciation, and so do not want to chant incorrectly. H. J. Achar, in his book "Sri Vishnu Sahasranama - A Study", H.J. Achar, Sharada Press, Mangalore, 1972, has given the analogy of 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. It is the spirit or bhava that matters, and so as long as one chants the name of God with sincerity, considerations such as not knowing the meaning, not knowing the pronunciation, etc., do not matter, and God who is the Mother of all of us will confer His blessings on us.

The Final Word Sage Vedavyasa concludes the Stotram with the assertion - twice stated - that there is no way a devotee of Vishnu can meet with any dishonor or disgrace of any kind (na te yanti parabhavam - ne te yanti parabhavam om nama iti). If this is not worth striving for, with as little investment as the mere chanting of the thousand names of Vishnu with sincerity, then nothing else is worth striving for.

Those interested in more information may refer to the following works.
"Sri Vishnu Sahasranama with the Bhashya of Sri Parasara Bhattar, with Translation in English", A. Srinivasa Raghavan, Sri Visishtadvaita Pracharini Sabha, Madras, 1983.
"Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram", Keelathur Srinivasachariar, The Little Flower Co., Madras, Reprinted 1981.
"Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram", C. V. Radhakrishna Sastri, C. Venkatarama Sastri Trust, 1986.

In the previous write-up, I had presented the view that it is beneficial to chant Sri Vishnu Sahasra NAma Stotram even if we do not know the meaning, even if we do not know the correct pronunciation, etc. In the current and subsequent articles, I am going to attempt to present the meanings of the Names occurring in Sri Vishnu Sahasra NAmam. One can legitimately ask the question: Why spend our time to learn the meanings, when the benefit of chanting is obtained anyway even without knowing the meanings? In fact, one of our devotees had sent me mail privately earlier, referring to the sloka that occurs in the phala sruti portion:

sri rAma rAma rAmeti rame rAme manorame
sahasra nAma tat tulyam rAma nAma varAnane

(As stated by Lord Siva to PArvati - if you just chant the name "RAma",
it is equivalent to chanting the 1000 names of Sri MahA Vishnu").

Sri 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 is beneficial (upakAriNAmapi), but revelation through etymological interpretation quickly affords DELIGHT TO MIND AND PURITY TO HEART (mana: prAsanatvam pAvanatvam ca).

Sri Bhattar also refers to the chapters in MahAbhArata relating to the significance in knowing the meanings of the Names in addition to just chanting without knowing the meanings:
nAma karmArtavit prApnuyAm purushottamam (Udyoga Parva 59)

While I am not proficient in Sanskrit, I certainly derive great mental delight in trying to understand the meanings behind the Names; and in trying to understand the grammatical interpretation behind these Names. The reason for the latter is that it helps one to delve deeper mentally into the guNas of Sri Vishnu and enjoy His qualities even more.

In his Bhagavad guNa darpana, Sri Bhattar proceeds to explain the names of MahA Vishnu in accordance with rules of grammar, etymology, and interpretation by the great Sages, with special reference to their significance, context, and propriety. Etymology according to the English dictionaries is the analysis of a word, based on its origin and development, including how the words are formed from their simple roots. Sri Bhattar also indicates in his introduction that even though the same name may occur more than once, its interpretation is different depending on the context in which it occurs, and there is no redundance or repetition in Sri Vishnu SahasranAmam based on the interpretation.

In his commentary on Sri Vishnu Sahasra Namam, Sri Bhattar has beautifully traced a thread of connectivity in the sequence of the 1000 names as they occur in the stotram. He 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, as described in the PancharAtra Agamas. These manifestations are: para, vyuha, vibhava, archa, and antaryAmi. Thus, for instance, Sri Bhattar has noted that the first 122 names in the stotram describe the qualities of the Lord in his para vAsudeva form. The next set of names describe the vyuha forms etc. Thus the names as they occur in the stotram are not just a random collection of names, but have a beautiful thread of organization and structure to them. Sri Bhattar has identified 44 such manifestations of Bhagavan in his exposition. Sri Srinivasachariar, in his editorial introduction to Sri Vishnu Sahasra Namam published by LIFCO, (1967), describes this beautifully as an arrangement of the petals of a rose 44 layers deep, or a step of stairs with 44 steps leading to the enjoyment of the Supreme. I will not go into the enumeration of these 44 forms at this stage. but will identify these as we go along. The enumeration and the corresponding slokas can be found in the LIFCO publication.

A brief introduction to the five types of manifestations of the Lord, to which Sri Bhattar refers in his exposition of the significance of the 1000 names of the Lord, is given below.

The para can be viewed as the full and undifferentiated manifestation of the Lord in His complete and resplendent glory in which He has chosen to be unlimited by anything. He does not assume this form as a result of another object, and in this form He is endowed with the fullness of the six qualities - jnAna, bala, aisvarya, vIrya, sakti, teja). In this form, He is the shAdguNya paripUrNa, mahArNava, ni:sima - complete in all respects in the Six qualities, the Great Ocean of all that is perfect, unlimited by anything. Sri Bhattar refers to the sAtvata samhita in explaining the para-vyuha, and vibhava 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".

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 differentiated forms which arise from the para form. The vyuha forms are also referred to as Emanations by the translator of the Bhagavad GuNa darpana, Sri A. Srinivasa Raghavan. In particular, the following vyuha forms are identified:

pradyumna - aisvarya and vIrya - function of srshti or creation
aniruddha - sakti and tejas - function of sthiti or protection and preservation
samkarshaNa - jnAna and bala - function of samhAra or destruction

The sAtvata samhita describes the vyuha forms as follows:

etat pUrvam trayam ca anyat jnAnAdyaih bheditam guNai: |
viddhi etat vyuha samgjnam vai nissreyasa phala pradam ||

"From this para form emerge three other forms (SamkarshaNa, 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".

The vibhava is that group of manifestations which are taken by BhagavAn in the form of god, man, animal, etc. (sura, nara, tiryagAdi). Vibhava is of two kinds: mukhya and anuvrtti, also referred to as vibhava and vibhava antara.
Vibhava occurs in one of four forms:

1. Some like matsya and kurma are direct manifestations
2. In some incarnations, the Lord enters into the bodies of distinguished sages such as Sri VyAsa.
3. In others, He invests His sakti for some period of time in others.
The example of Puranjaya is given here, and we will dwell into the details when we look at the explanation behind the nAma puranjaya later on.
4. There are others in which He manifests Himself in idols as for instance in the arcAvatAra.

It seems to me that Sri Bhattar, in his vyAkhyAna, has grouped the arcA form as a subgroup of the vibhava form. I request the bhAgavatas in this group to shed more light on whether I have misunderstood this explanation.
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 from the Paushkara samhita 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 red-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 amsa (part) of Bhagavan. He is the subordinate of BhagavAn, and he only propounds the knowledge he got from Bhagavan to all in the world".

These are distinguished as the prAdurbhAva and prAdurbhAvAntara forms. Here the prAdurbhAva is the adhokshaja form, and the prAdurbhAvAntara is Brahma. It is pointed out that the creations of the Lord such as Brahma, agni, etc., are to be understood at a different level than the manifestations of the Lord in His para, vyuha, and vibhava forms. This is the basis for why those who have been initiated in the worship of acyuta are to worship only Acyuta and not the other gods (prAdurbhAvAnAm ArAdhyatvam .prAdurbhAvAntarANAm ArAdhana nishedhasca).

With the above brief introduction, I will attempt to summarize the meanings behind the Names in Sri Vishnu SahasranAmam. The main source I will be using is the Bhagavad guNa darpaNa by Sri Bhattar. I will be using Sri Sankara's commentary as a secondary reference.

As I am starting this attempt at learning, I am finding out that just by reading books, and without the aid of an AcArya, it is impossible to gain knowledge. However, this is all what I can do at this stage. My request to all of you is to freely comment on and correct what I am saying because I know that it is full of errors and misinterpretations. With that request which goes without my repeating it for future write-ups as well, I present what I understand for the first of the 1000 names.

Sri Bhattar interprets the first 122 nAmas in the stotram as describing the para form of the Lord. Recall that the para form is the all-perfect, undiminuted, absolute, manifestation of the Lord. The description of this form includes all the nAmas starting from visvam and including varArohah in slokam 13. Sri Bhattar views this segment of the stotram as Bhishma's response to YudhisThira's first two questions:

kim ekam daivatam loke and kim vApyekam parAyaNam -
who is the one deity to be worshipped, and what is the supreme goal of attainment.