Vishnu Sahasranamam: Why so many names? Why should I chant all these names?

lord-vishnu-picture

The Visnu sahasranamam is a compilation of the different names of the Lord. Why should I chant all these names? Can I not repeat any one name several times? If there are so many Visnus, which one am I calling? The word Visnu is applicable only to the Lord. It is derived from the root visl विश्ल, vyaptau व्याप्तु, meaning to pervade. So Visnu means one who is all-pervasive. The all-pervasive is only one, not more than one. This name is appropriate only for the Lord, and nobody else. Therefore, when I call out to Visnu, nobody else but the Lord can come. Being all-pervasive, he cannot be away from me; he is inside as well as outside. The moment I call for Visnu, there is no question of him not hearing me. Why, then, are there so many names? If he does not respond to one name, will he respond to a different one? These verses are not even complete sentences that I can understand through syntax.

 The names of the Lord in the Visnu Sahasranamam are so many words, one after another. The reason there are so many names is that if you do not understand one word, you can go on to the next. If you do not understand the second word, there is the third, and so on. The Amarakosa, authored by Amarasimha, is the classic Sanskrit thesaurus. Unlike a dictionary, this consists only of a series of synonyms and not meanings or explanations. For instance, when we look up the word Visnu,18 it says Krsna, Damodara, and so on. However, if you do not understand any of the 1000 words, what do you do? Then you need to understand them.

“But, I am praising the Lord by chanting the sahasranamam.” Who are you to praise the Lord? You can praise a person only when you are an equal, that is, when you have adequate knowledge to understand who the person is. You cannot flatter lsvara. You flatter someone only when you describe the person as being greater than he is. In fact, when you cannot describe the Lord adequately to begin with, how can you presume to say something that describes him as being greater than he is? For example, let us analyze the praise, “Oh Lord! You are omniscient, all knowledge” You cannot call him all-knowledge because you yourself do not know what it means. It is like Einstein being praised as the greatest scientist of his time by an elementary school dropout! Einstein would be neither flattered nor praised by his words.

As an individual, jiva, I must be qualified to praise the Lord. If the Lord is all-knowledge, I have no way of understanding what all-knowledge is. I have limited knowledge and cannot even spell the Word omniscient. If he is a Bhagavan of infinite virtues; where is the question of praising or flattering him?

A स्त्रोत्र stotra is meaningful only when it comes from a wise person

Suppose one commits to writing a set of 108 names, one may, at some point, run out of meaningful names to write, but would need to keep on writing names nevertheless We do find such meaningless names in some of the astottarasata namavalis. We still use them because, for Bhagavan everything is okay. The author is very important in such stotras because We are talking of the Lord. The words have to come from a heart that knows. it is a set of words coming from somebody who understands his or her own limitations, and at the same time understands the Lord because of the शास्त्र  sastra. That is why the sastra is so important here.

The stotra is meaningful only when it comes from one who knows the sastra. The human mind cannot fathom ईश्वर Isvara, but the sastra is something that we can employ to understand lsvara and bless ourselves. Generally, our knowledge is fraught with ignorance; we may know something in one area, but not know much in many others. Even to ask questions in a particular area, we need to know many things about it. We do not know enough even to ask questions. Therefore, who is this human being to praise the Lord?

Those who understand the sastra may not know what all-knowledge means, but they do know that the word ‘omniscient’ describes one who is free from ignorance and confusion. The one who praises the Lord is the one who is ‘I know’ and ‘I don’t know’ person. If the ‘I know’ statement is more and the I don’t know’ is less, you are almost all-knowing. However, our situation is such that ‘I don’t know’ is always much more than ‘I know’. The area of ignorance is not there in the one who is all knowledge which is why you can use the wonderful word Ananta अनन्त  (end-less) to describe the Lord at every level. He is ananta in terms of time, ananta in terms of space, and ananta in terms of knowledge, wisdom, and creativity. You can understand and address lsvara this way and it would not be mere praise at all.

However, if the praise, comes from the heart of one who knows, those words become meaningful. Veda Vyasa is such a person. He is a सर्वज्ञ कल्प sarvajna-kalpa, one who has knowledge in all the areas that count, that makes life meaningful. From Veda Vyasa have come these names forming what is known as Visnu sahasranamam. These names are not ordinary words. They are highly meaningful. Many names of the Lord in the Visnu sahasranamam reveal the nature of Bhagavan. If you understand their meaning, you will find that the names contain the essence of Vedanta.

A word and its meaning are inseparable

A word and its meaning are inseparable. Once you know the meaning of a word, it is never separate from the word in your mind. Until then, a word is just a sound or set of sounds. Therefore, a word is a word only when you know its meaning. Once the meaning is known, the word disappears giving way to its meaning. Only the meaning remains in your mind as an object of recognition. That is what we mean when we say a word and its meaning are inseparable.

Words can be meaningful only when they come from somebody who knows the sastra, a शास्त्रज्ञ sastrajna. Only a sastrajna can write. Coming as they do from a heart that really understands Isvara, words become an expression of bhakti, an expression of that person’s knowledge of Isvara. Through these words we get in touch with the devotion in the heart of that person. We also arrive at the Vision of Isvara, the truth of Isvara. This is the reason why we have stotras like the Visnu sahasranamam.  

There are sahasranamams of different deities, but many of the names are the same in form or in meaning. Only the words that describe the episodes, lilas, in the various incarnations of the Lord will be different. Since that truth is only one, the words are bound to be the same in form or in their meaning. Bhagavan Vyasa is arguably the most important link in the Vedic tradition. This sahasranamam is presented by the sage in his astounding epic, Mahabharata.

Isvara is revealed by the One Thousand Names in the Visnu sahasranamam. The more you understand the words, the less alienated you are from Isvara. Once this is understood, the repetition of these words becomes a means of contemplation. I know many learned mahatamas daily repeating these words, and ‘seeing’ their meaning. More often than not, they are bound to be the very meaning of these words. This is called निदिद्यासन nididhyasana, contemplation, necessary for abiding  निष्ठा nistha.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati

Excerpts from: Prayer Guide

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