Beach 1: The First Prostration

Wave 2: Names ad infinitum for the nameless

Drop 5: Litanies of thousand names

1201: subrahmaNya 1202: Idol worship 1203: One truth - Many Expressions 1204: Glory of the Lord's name1205: sahasranAmas 1206: Power of words 1207: Capsules of Divinity 1208: Scriptural epitomes209: AUM or OM 1210: rAma 1211: kRSNa 1212: nArAyaNa

 A sahasra-nAma is a litany of one thousand names (of God). sahasra is one thousand and nAma is name. There are plenty of them, at least one for each particular divinity. The most well-known are the VishNu-sahasra-nAma and the Siva-sahasra-nAma (both occurring in the mahA-bhArata) and the LalitA-sahasra-nAma (occurring in the brahmANDa-purANa.). Nowhere else in world literature do we have anything to match these long, 'streamlined' poems, densely packed with meaning and seemingly endless recitals of the Lord's names, glories and splendours, with no sacrifice of poetic elegance and grace. The rhythmic sound effects and the elvating moods that these stotras can produce must be heard and experienced to be believed. Every sahasra-nAma describes the Lord's infinite qualities in several ways and each description is only a fragmentary rendering of his ananta kalyANa-guNa (infinite number of auspicious attributes). It does not matter which sahasra-nAma we are looking at, whether of VishNu or Siva or the Goddess LalitA. Everywhere we see the same majesty of encyclopaedic exhaustiveness.

LalitA sahasra-nAma is famous for the internal organization of its text and the rhythmic sound vibrations it can produce.. Usually, in a sahasranAma, if the same name repeats, the commentators use their scholarship and inspiration to give different meanings to different occurrences of the same name. LalitA sahasranAma has the unique distinction, among all the sahasranamas, of not repeating even a single name. Further, in order to maintain the metre, sahasranAmas use the artifice of adding words like tu, api, ca, hi, - which are only conjunctions nnot necessarily needed for the meaning except in rare cases of interpretation. Lalita sahasranAma has again the unique distinction of not having even a single such innocuous word in its texture.

These extracts from the 'catalogues' of God's names are not meant to overwhelm the reader; they are given only to show that these sahsra-nAmas are not just directories or name lists compiled for the benefit of expectant mothers though they are often used for this purpose by parents. Each name has a profound significance in terms of the entire gamut of Hindu religion and philosophy. To recite these names is to be immersed in the wealth of their meanings and this is the surest way to concentrate on God and delight in ecstatic states of experience in His remembrance.

The LalitA-sahasra-nAmA and the LalitA-triSatI (= 300 names of LalitA) are the two most famous stotras of the Goddess. They were both taught by Hayagriva, Her foremost devotee, who was Himself VishNu incarnate, to Agastya, the sage of all sages. The first one was originally recited by the vAg-devatAs, the goddesses of speech, right in the presence of Goddess LalitA Herself. The second one was originally composed by no less a divinity than Lord Siva and Parvati, taking turns.

The VishNu-sahasra-nAma was taught by Bhishma to Yudhishtira, the eldest of the Pandavas. The bhAghavataM says that there are only twelve men in the whole world who know the ins and outs of dharma in all its subtlety. These twelve are: BrahmA, the Creator; Narada, the roving sage; Lord Siva; Lord SubrahmaNya; the sage Kapila; Manu the law-giver; the boy-devotee Prahlada; King Janaka; Bhishma; King Bali; the boy-sage Suka, the reciter of the bhAgavatam; and Yama, the Lord of Death and Dispenser of Justice:

svayambhUr-nAradas-SambhuH kumAraH kapilo manuH /

prahlAdo janako bhIshmo balir-vyAsakir-vayaM //

This is a statement by the God of Death himself to his assistants in the story of ajAmiLa as related in the bhAgavatam. Thus Bhishma happens to be one of the twelve most knowledgeable people on dharma. It was fitting therefore that when Yudhishtira, at the end of the mahA-bhArata war wanted to know all the subtleties of all the different types of dharma, he was asked to go to Bhishma by Lord Krishna Himself. After all the dharmas (of Kings, of persons, of women) had been talked about, finally Yudhishtira asks six fundamental questions:

         What is the One Supreme God?

         What is the One Ultimate Resort?

         What is the One by worshipping which man can attainin everything that is good for him?

         What is the One whose praise by man will give him everything that is good for him?

         What dharma is considered to be the greatest of all dharmas?

         What is the One by the memory of which man may be released from the cycle of births and deaths?

To all these questions Bhishma answers by quoting the VishNu-sahasra-nAma as the ultimate answer and so he recites the VishNu-sahasra-nAma to Yudhishtira. Bhishma says that either by meditating on these names or by reciting them or by doing prostrations to God using these names ( dhyAyan-stuvan-namasyamSca) one obtains everything that has to be obtained.

In the southern parts of India whenever any collective religious worship is planned or intended one practice is to repeat the names from a sahasra-nAma and do flower offerings to either a temple deity or a specially invoked deity for this purpose. This is the most sanctified way in which these sahasra-nAmas are used. Each name is taken in the dative case, prefixed by AUM and suffixed by NAMAH: thus, aum viSvasmai namah; aum vishNave namaH, and so on through all the names. This simply means, Prostrations to viSvam, Prostrations to vishNu and so on. The importance of aum for Hinduism is well known.This way all the names in the sahasra-nAma are repeated to make up one thousand and eight prostrations in the form of flower offerings to the deity. Such a ritual pUjA is called a sahasra-nAma archanA. This method of worship is very popular both at home and in temples and public functions. A far more intensive version of this is for several people to sit together, perform the arcanA in chorus and finish in a prefixed time (usually several days, each day for a certain number of hours) one hundred such sahasra-nAma arcanAs, counting the number of arcanAs according to the multiplicity of people who joined in the chorus. This composite congregational programme is called a lakshArcanA (laksha = 100,000) since the recital of the different people for the several days adds up to 100,000 repetitions of God's names. (Each arcanA has 1008 names but we do not count the extra eight). There are occasions when a koTi arcanA is also performed to the deity by counting up to 100 lakshArcanAs (koTi is 100 lakshas, that is, ten million). Such massive repetitions of God's names has been one of the soundest traditions which have kept up the torch of spiritual fervour alive through the ages.

Previous page Homepage of SCIENCE AND SPIRITUALITY Next page


For notes on mythological names referred, go to MYTHOLOGY

April 20, '99 Copyright V. Krishnamurthy