The Vishnu Sahasranam is one of the three jewels of the Mahabharat - the other two being, the Bhagvad Gita and the Sanatsujatiya. While the Bhagvad Gita was expounded by Lord Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, the Sanatsujatiya was told to Dhritarashtra by Sanatkumar on being requested by Vidur. The Sanatsujatiya is contained in the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharat. It is the sublime message of salvation imparted to Dhritarashtra, the father of Duryodhan, by Sanatsujat, also called Sanatkumar. The central teaching of the Sanatsujatiya is the realization by Dhritarashtra of the transitory nature of life and its miseries consequent on ever-recurring birth and death, and his desire to get liberation therefrom.
It is interesting to contemplate on the circumstances under which the Vishnu Sahasranam Stotram came into existence.
The Vishnu Sahasranam was expounded by Bhishma (He was reverentially called Bhishma Pitamaha) at the end of the Mahabharat war, and is contained in the Anushasanaparva of the Mahabharat (Chapter 254). Yudhishthir, 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. Yudhishtir, goaded by Lord Krishna went to Bhishma, who was lying on the bed of arrows waiting for the Uttarayan Punyakal to leave his mortal coil. He had the boon of Ichchamrityu, the power to die whenever he wished. 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 Vedavyas and Lord Krishna advised Yudhishthir, who himself was an epitome of righteousness and virtue, to seek the advice of Bhishma Pitamaha on any and all aspects of life on which he had any doubts. Lord Krishna who gave the discourse of the Gita to Arjun did not advise Yudhishtir Himself but made him go to Bhishma to learn about Dharma because He wanted Yudhishtir to learn the greatness of Narayan Bhakti and also to show the world the greatness of Bhishma Pitamaha.
Yudhishthir did as advised, and a series of dialogs ensued between the two, witnessed by Lord Krishna Himself, and by other great sages including Sage Vedavyas.
In one of these sessions, Yudhishthir sought Bhishma’s advice on the easiest and best means, by which mankind can attain lasting happiness, peace of mind, and relief from all bondages and sorrows. This was the setting in which the Vishnu Sahasranam Stotram was imparted, with the welfare of future generations also in mind, by Bhishma to Yudhishthir, as part of the advice given by Bhishma in response to the above question.
The following Shloka in the prolog to the Vishnu Sahasranam Stotram identifies some important aspects pertaining to the composition of the Stotram :-Vishnor Nama Sahasrasya Vedavyaso Mahamunih |
Chandonustup Tatha Devo Bhagavan Devaki Sutah ||
Vedavyas is the Rishi of Lord Vishnu’s one thousand names, i.e., the sage who strung together the thousand names as they were revealed by Bhishma to Yudhishthir. Anushtup (eight syllables per quarter) is its meter. Krishna, the son of Devaki, is the Lord being worshipped.
Lord Krishna willed Yudhishtir to ask the questions ‘‘Kimekam Daivatam Loke’’ and ‘‘Ko Dharmah Sarvadharmanam Bhavatah Paramo Matah’’ in order to elicit the Vishnu Sahasranam from the mouth of Bhishma, for his own benefit, as it purifies the one who recites as well as the one who hears it.
Yudhishtir, after listening to the discourse on Dharma from Bhishma, asked him six questions :-
1. ‘‘Kimekam Daivatam loke’’, who is the supreme Deity ?
2. ‘‘Kimvapyekam Parayanam’’, which is the supreme goal ?
3 & 4. ‘‘Stuvantah Kam, Kamarchantah Prapnuyurmanavasshubham’’ , praising whom and worshipping whom men attain happiness ?
5. ‘‘Ko Dharmah Sarvadharmanam Bhavatah Paramo Matah’’, what is, in your opinion, the best Dharma of all ?
6. ‘‘Kim Japan Muchyate Jantuh Janma Samsarabhandhanat’’, meditation on whom leads one to salvation ?
Bhishma replied, “If man, with constant endeavour praise the Lord of the universe, the unlimited Supreme Being, with his Thousand Names, if he worships daily and with devotion the same imperishable Being, meditating on Him, praising Him, bowing to Him, and making offerings to Him, if he sings daily the praise of that Great Lord of the whole universe, Vishnu, Who has neither beginning nor end and presides over the world, he overcomes all unhappiness. If man should constantly adore in devotion the lotus-eyed Lord with hymns, that according to me, is supreme over all the Dharmas. The God of Gods, He Who is the eternal Father of all living beings, from Whom all beings proceed on the advent of the primary aeon and into Whom they disappear again when the aeon comes to an end, of that Lord of the whole world, the Chief of all beings, hear from me O King, these Thousand Names which drive away sin and fear ! The celebrated names of the great Lord which are based on His qualities, and which the sages have sung, I shall proclaim for the weal (of the world)”
Shirdi Sai Baba’s belief in the Vishnu Sahasranam was tremendous. It’s clearly evident when one goes through the Chapter XXVII of Shri Sai Satcharita. Shama was a very intimate devotee of Sai Baba, and Baba wanted to favour him in a particular way by giving him a copy of the Vishnu Sahasranam as Prasad. This was done in the following way.
Once, a Ramadasi (a great devotee of Lord Ram) came to Shirdi and stayed there for some time. The routine that he followed daily was as follows :-
He got up early in the morning, washed his face, bathed and then after wearing saffron-coloured clothes and besmearing himself with sacred ashes, read the Vishnu Sahasranam (a book giving a thousand names in praise of Lord Vishnu) and the Adhyatma Ramayan (The Adhyatma Ramayan is an epic spread across 4200 double verses, and considered a treatise of Vedantic philosophy and study of Advaita (non-dualistic) philosophy. It is supposed to have provided Tulsidas (1511-1637 A.D.) the inspiration to write his seminal work the Ramcharitmanas.). The Ramdasi read these books often and often, and then after some days Baba thought of favouring and initiating Shama with the Vishnu Sahasranam.
One day, while the Ramadasi was reading the Vishnu Sahasranam, Baba sent him out on an errand. He obeyed Baba and stopped the Parayan in the middle. After the Ramdasi left, Baba took the Vishnu Sahasranam book of the Ramdasi and gave it to Shama, saying, “Oh Shama ! this book is very valuable and efficacious; so I present it to you, you read it. Once, I suffered intensely and my heart began to palpitate and my life was in danger. At that critical time, I hugged this book to my heart and then, O Shama ! What a relief it gave me ! I thought that Allah Himself came down and saved me. So, I give this book to you; read it slowly, little by little, read daily one name at least and it will do you good.”
Shama thought that Baba wanted to set him up against the Ramdasi by this act of His; but he had no idea of what Baba felt for him. Baba must have thought to tie this necklace of the Vishnu Sahasranam round the neck of Shama, as he was an intimate devotee, and thus save him from the miseries of the worldly existence. The efficacy of God’s Name is well-known. It is so easy and so effective. This Sadhana, Baba wanted Shama to practise, though he did not crave for it. So, Baba forced this on him. The reading and study of the Vishnu Sahasranam is a broad open way of purifying the mind, and hence Baba thrust this on His Shama.
Shama hesitated to take the book as it belonged to the Ramdasi who was an angry and quarrelsome person. Shama replied that he did not want it and that the owner of it, the Ramdasi who was a mad, obstinate and irritable fellow would certainly pick up a quarrel with him; and besides, being a rustic himself, he could not read distinctly the Sanskrit letters of the book.
But, Shama in fact failed to understand that Baba’s aim was to do him good. On his return, the Ramdasi learnt about this and created a scene even though Shama narrated the facts. Then, Baba called Ramdasi and said to him, “O Ramdasi, why are you in an angry and quarrelsome mood ? Shama had nothing to do in the matter. I gave the book to him. Is he not my child ? Why are you so turbulent ? Why are you quarreling with him unnecessarily ? Can’t you speak soft and sweet words ? Even though you read sacred books daily, your mind still is impure and your passions uncontrolled. What sort of a Ramdasi you are ! A real Rambhakta should practice equality and detachment and not attachment. With money you can purchase any number of books, but not persons. You ought to think well and act intelligently, and be indifferent to all things. Is it not strange that you should covet this book so strongly ? You know this book ‘by heart’. Let Shama also read this and be benefitted. If you desire, you can have some other book from Shama in exchange for your book.” How sweet were these words of Baba, soft, tender and nectar-like ! Their effect was wonderful.
Hearing this loving advice from Baba, the Ramdasi cooled down and accepted the Pancharatna Gita from Shama, in exchange for his own copy of the Vishnu Sahasranam.
Here, we see the wonderful effects of Guru’s grace. Anger was quenched with love and Baba loved Ramdasi in spite of his quarrelsome qualities. He gave loving spiritual instructions and the words took root. The Sadhana of the Ramdasi for all those years bore fruit.
The above speech of Baba was not only intended for Ramdasi but to all of us. Even though we read a lot of religious books or spend our time in the worship of God, there will not be any benefit unless our hearts get purified. Baba favoured not only Shama but also the Ramdasi by giving him some valuable spiritual lessons.
We should get rid of ‘attachments’ to outside things and the words ‘I’ and ‘mine’. We must always think that all are one and equal. Everyone should try for such a change of hearts.
When one’s physical life or spiritual life is in danger, one has to seek God and surrender to Him. That is what Baba conveyed by saying that He hugged the book to His heart. Intellectual reading is necessary; but what is read has to be absorbed into the heart, i.e. one’s whole heart and mind has to be imbued by the divinity. Then only one reaches the true state of spirit and is free from the chain of birth and death and is free from the danger of falling back into the old ways of ignorance.
God’s name saves us from all sins and bad tendencies, frees us from the cycle of births and deaths. There is no easier Sadhana than this. It is the best purifier of our mind. It requires no paraphernalia and no restrictions.
It is also reported that long ago, Eknath Maharaj, similarly, forced the Vishnu Sahasranam on a poor Brahmin, and thus saved him from ruin. This Brahmin, living in Eknath’s neighbourhood, was an impious and wicked merchant, who never even bothered to have a Darshan of a saintly soul as like of Eknath. Moreover, he by no means attended temple programmes, and always hated being part of the Hari Kirtans and Bhajans. Besides, though he lived permanently by the side of the river Ganga, he preferred to take bath at home with hot water. Furthermore, he always ignored and neglected to recite the names of his ancestors of a glorious past. When Eknath Maharaj spotted the lifestyle of this man, his pity put him upon devising means for the good of this reduced Brahmin.
“By greatest good fortune this man got a human birth”, Eknath soliloquized, “but he will needlessly go to hell. I must adopt some means whereby good desires may spring up in his heart and he may seek after the Supreme Attainment.” Thus thinking, Eknath went out into the street hoping to meet the Brahmin, where they exchanged salutations by word of mouth. Out of respect for Eknath, the man stood still for a moment. Now, Eknath began to question him, “Who are your dependants ? What business are you engaged in ? How do you care for your family ?” The merchant listened patiently, first, and, then, replied, “I live with my wife and sons at home. I serve a money-lender, and he provides sustenance for our entire family.” To this, Eknath replied, “I have now a request to make of you.” Great fear sprang into the mind of the man, blinded by his attachment to objects of sense, and a great miser withal, and so he made no answer. Eknath wasted no time in sensing his underlying mood. Going back to clarifying the nature of his own request, he said, “I have no desire to obtain from you any money, or any substance of any kind. I simply ask you to take a moment’s time to come to my house for the Hari Kirtans and Bhajans.” The Brahmin replied, “I basically have no leisure time away from me because of my preoccupation with the arranging of my daily necessities.” Eknath suggested, “Listen to what I tell you ! I will repeat to you a Shloka from the Vishnu Sahasranam. Commit that much to memory. That will fully satisfy me.” As the Brahmin listened to Eknath’s voice, a reverential feeling filled his mind. Eknath wrote the words on a bit of a paper and requested him with a gentle-toned voice to daily read those words. And, as Eknath gently caressed the Brahmin with his lotus-like hand, his heart was at once transformed. He took the words of the Shloka to the heart, and quickly committed them to memory. On the next day, he came and asked Eknath for another Shloka. In a few days time he could commit to memory the whole of the Vishnu Sahasranam. Eknath then told him still further that after his bath he should sit in fixed contemplation, keeping himself to himself by repeating the Vishnu Sahasranam. The Brahmin listened and assented, and did as advised. His heart now started somewhat transforming and he began to visit Eknath’s house longing to have a direct vision of God. He daily prostrated at the feet of Eknath before setting out for his daily routine. Many days thus passed, when suddenly he became desperately ill with a ninety-day fever. As he was reaching the end of his life span, the servants of Lord Yama came to take him to hell. His voice was already choked; but somehow he suddenly began to repeat loudly the Vishnu Sahasranam. All were greatly pleased and exclaimed, “Blessed is his fortune.” The angels of Lord Yama, as they heard the sound of his voice repeating the names of Lord Vishnu, ran away. The angels of Lord Vishnu then came, and paying their respects to him took him with them to heaven (Vaikuntha).
Almost all the great Acharyas of yore commented on the greatness of the Vishnu Sahasranam. Adi Sankaracharya, the Advaita philosopher, in verse 27 of his hymn, Bhaja Govindam, said that the Gita and the Vishnu Sahasranam should be chanted and the form of the Lord of Lakshmi, Vishnu should always be meditated on. He also said that the Vishnu Sahasranam bestowed all noble virtues on those who chanted it :-
dhyeyam ùrèpatirüpam ajasram
neyam sajjana-sañge cittam
deyam dènajanáya ca vittam (27)
Parashar Bhattar said that the Vishnu Sahasranam absolved people of all sins and had no equal.
Acharya Madhva said that the Vishnu Sahasranam was the essence of the Mahabharat which in turn was the essence of the Shastras and that each word of the Vishnu Sahasranam had 100 meanings. Madhva has given quotes in many of his works for the different meanings of the names of Vishnu in the Vishnu Sahasranam.
The recitation of the Vishnu Sahasranam brings unwavering calm of mind, complete freedom from stress and eternal knowledge. Nothing evil or inauspicious will befall a man here or hereafter who daily hears or repeats these names. Whichever devoted man, getting up early in the morning and purifying himself, repeats this hymn devoted to Vasudev, with a mind that is concentrated on Him, that man attains to great fame, leadership among his peers, wealth, that is secure and the supreme good unsurpassed by anything. He will be free from all fears and be endowed with great courage and energy and he will be free from diseases. Beauty of form, strength of body and mind, and virtuous character will be natural to him. One who reads this hymn every day with devotion and attention attains to peace of mind, patience, prosperity, mental stability, memory and reputation. Whoever desires advancement and happiness should repeat this devotional hymn on Lord Vishnu. Never will defeat attend on a man who adores the Lotus-eyed One (Kamalnayani), Who is the Master of all the worlds, Who is birthless, and out of whom the worlds have originated and into whom they dissolve.
Dr. Subodh Agarwal
So, at present, this is the belief that devotees should hold. Sai Samartha is always there, permanently and continuosly. (Shri Sai Sat Charita, Chapter 43, Verse 148)
He, Who espoused the cause of the devotees, has abandoned His body in Shirdi and is all-pervasive with the movable and the immovable. He is capable of taking Avatar again. (Shri Sai Sat Charita, Chapter 43, Verse 73)
Though we cannot see Him with our naked eye He is everywhere. Though He is hiding in a subtle form, He keeps us engrossed in Him. (Shri Sai Sat Charita, Chapter 44, Verse 111)
“Even when I pass away, believe in my words. From my tomb my bones will give you assurance.” (Shri Sai Sat Charita, Chapter 25, Verse 105)
“Not only I, but my tomb would be speaking, moving and communicating with those who surrender themselves whole heartedly to me.” (Shri Sai Sat Charita, Chapter 25, Verse 106)
“Do not worrry that I shall be hidden from your eyes. You will hear my bones speak and discuss your welfare.” (Shri Sai Sat Charita, Chapter 25, Verse 107)
“Always remember me only. Believe in my heart and soul. Pray without selfish motives and you will attain your welfare.” (Shri Sai Sat Charita, Chapter 25, Verse 108)