“Vishnu Sahasranamam” means the 1000 Names of lord Vishnu. There are such Sahasranamas of most of the prominent deities like Shiva, Devi Lalitha etc. but Vishnu Sahasranam is the oldest and foremost among them so much so that, if we simply say Sahasranamam, what is connoted is the Vishnu Sahasranam.
Practice of the ‘Name’ (Chanting/Meditating) is the foremost sadhana for the Kaliyuga. The Names of the various Deities are not simple words. All the powers of the Deities are inherent in their Names and Chanting/Meditating upon these names invokes their blessings. If it was Dhyana in Sat Yuga ( Krita Yuga), Yajna in Treta Yuga & Deva Puja in Dwapara Yuga, it is Nama Japa in Kali Yuga which ensures the attainment of the four Purusharthas. Lord Brahma declares in the Kali Santarana Upanishad that the sure means of getting over the ills of Kali Yuga is the chanting of Lord Hari’s Name. Shri Ramkrishna Parmahamsa said: “God & His Name are identical. There is no difference between Rama and His holy Name”.
Among the names of the various divinities, the ‘Rama’ Name is considered the most powerful. When the ‘Vanara Sena’ was constructing the ‘Rama Setu’ for crossing over to Lanka, they were dropping the stones inscribed with the “Rama” Name in the ocean, which floated due to the power of the Name and the setu was completed very fast. Again, an illiterate forest thug namely Ratnakar, was turned into one of the greatest saints and the first poet known to mankind -Valmiki, by the power of the Ram Nam. Ratnakar did not know what Ram meant and even could not pronounce it right. He started with the reverse ‘Mara’ which in course of repetition became “Rama’ and transformed him into Valmiki..
The 1000 Names denote the various Vibhuties (glories) of the Lord Vishnu as the Supreme Brahman or Paramatma. The Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, all other Divinities, the Universe and its creatures, have all evolved from the Paramatma and will be absorbed back into Him eventually. Each name in the Vishnu Sahasranamam signifies a particular Vibhuti of Lord Vishnu who is the embodiment of the Paramatman. Among these, there are names signifying health, wealth, fame, freedom, power, glow, beauty, strength and such other glories of the Lord. Hence, practice of these varied names bestows the corresponding benefits on the regular practitioners. Thus the Vishnu Sahasranam acts as a ‘Kalpa Vriksha’ or ‘Kamdhenu’ to its practitioners i.e. the bestower of all wishes.
The Vishnu Sahasranamam appears in the Anusasanika Parva of the Mahabharata. It was originally advised to Bhishma Pitamaha by the celestial sage Sanaka. Bhishma fell on the 10th day of the Mahabharata battle and was lying on the ‘bed of arrows’. The war was over in 18 days and Yudishtira was anointed as the Emperor. But he was grieving over the death of his elders and relatives in the war and was inconsolable. Finally, Shri Kishna asked him to take Bhishma’s advice. Bhishma was still lying on the bed of arrows, awaiting the advent of Uttarayana for leaving his body (since it is believed that the souls who depart in Uttarayana do not have re-birth). Bhishma advised
Yudhishtira on all types of Dharma but Yudhishtira was still not satisfied. He had some more doubts which he put forth in the form of some questions which ultimately elicited the Vishnu Sahasranamam from the mouth of Bhishma as the final panacea for Yudhishtira’s grief. Vedvyasa, who was standing by, alongwith Krishna and the other Pandavas, incorporated it in the Mahabharata.
The questions Yudhishtira asked Bhishma were:1. Who is the only Lord of the world? 2. Who is the World’s only resort (Parayanam)? 3. Whose praise (Stuti) and archana should we do for attaining auspiciousness (subham)? 4. Which is the ultimate Dharma, in your opinion? 5.By chanting what can creatures overcome the bondage of birth and ‘Sansara’?
Bhishma, in short, answered that Lord Vishnu is the ultimate Lord of the World and by singing his praises and doing his archana, people can overcome all grief. According to him, the best Dharma is singing the praises of, meditating upon and doing archana to Lord Vishnu. He then advised the Vishnu Sahasranam to Yudhishtira as the most efficient means to propitiate Lord Vishnu and added that it should be practised daily.
The importance of Vishnu Sahasranam can be gauged from the fact that Shri Adi Sankara, who wrote the interpretations of the “Prasthana Traya” (Upanishads, Brahma Sutra and the Bhagvat Gita), which is his cardinal work, also wrote a detailed Bhashya to the Visnhu Sahasranam, which is followed to date. Sankaracharya’s famous composition “Bhaja Govindam” prescribes the standard spiritual sadhana, for us, as follows:
Geyam Gita Nama Sahasram Dhyeyam Sripati Roopam Ajasram Neyam Sajjana Sange Chittam Deyam Deena Janaaya Cha Vitham
(Chant the Bhagavat Gita and Vishnu Sahasranamam, meditate upon the form of Lord Vishnu, lead your mind to the company of the virtuous and donate funds to the needy)
Hence, let us start the practice of the Vishnu Sahasranamam as a daily sadhana, which offers the highest protection, both in the life here and hereafter. Om Namo Narayanaya Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya.