The importance of the names of Ishvara
The Mahabharata is a complete and complex story about what it is to be human. It is said that what is not found in the Mahabharata simply does not exist. The idea is that all that can be imagined by the human mind can be found in the epic story.
In the Mahabharata, many characters and their choices – both good and bad – are pictured, serving as an example for reflection and learning. Their options and their consequences are portrayed with significant detail.
In the middle of this epic of 18 chapters and 100,000 verses, there is a great war from which a reorganization of society emerges. We know that the Mahabharata was written by Shri Veda Vyasa, who tells the story to Vaishampayana, who tells it to Janamejaya, son of Parikshit and grandson of Arjuna. Ugrashravas heard the dialogue between Vaishampayana and Janamejaya and told it to a group of rishis conducting a great ritual that would last for years.
It is said that Ugrashravas went to visit the rishis during the years of the ritual. The leader of the rishis, Shaunaka, requested that he tell them something significant he had learned, seen or heard, during his travels. Ugrashravas told them of the incredible dialogue he had heard between Yudhishthira and his grandfather, Bhishma, who was on his deathbed after the great war on the plain of Kurukshetra. Yudhishthira had asked him about dharma – beautifully explained by Bhishma – which nonetheless includes the dharma of a king. As part of this discourse, Bhishma teaches him the Vishnu-sahasra-nama-stotram, the verses that contain the 1,000 names of Vishnu. It is as if Bhishma had been waiting on the battlefield for the auspicious hour to leave his body at the end of the war that lasted 18 days, when he would have the opportunity to teach his last lesson to King Yudhishthira.
Bhishma teaches Yudhishthira that the 1,000 names of Vishnu should be sung for freedom from daily suffering and the final liberation, which is ananda, plenitude, the fearlessness that comes with the comprehension of the only reality there is: Brahman.
Ishvara is nimitta-karana (the intelligent cause of creation) and upadana-karana (the material cause of creation). He must be comprehended, since He is all that there is, which naturally includes each individual, including me and you. This is why Ishvara is called Vishnu: That which pervades everything, That which Everything is.
Ishvara is the creator, nimitta-karana; however, when conducting a ritual or offering to Ishvara, He is envisaged in a specific form, although all forms are His body, since He is the material cause of the entire universe, or upadana-karana. But the truth is that there is nothing beyond Ishvara, and whatever form He is envisaged is understood as a symbol of All that there is. All forms, be them devas or devis, are forms of Ishvara. All greatness and devotion are for Him.
In order to sing his names, they must truly be comprehended so that they become votes of confidence, a true declaration of love. On the contrary, they lose their force, since the one singing them does not know the significance of their meaning, like praising someone for something without knowing why.
Singing the names and qualities of Ishvara requires understanding of what is being pronounced, thereby strengthening the relationship with Him by recognizing that He is the intrinsic part of our life.
That is why Bhishma teaches Yudhishthira the thousand names of Vishnu so that all may sing them – be it 1,000 names, 108, just 18 or even by only one name in the form of a japa. Each and every one of His names leads the person singing to meditate upon Ishvara and comprehend Him better.
I herein state some of those names: the first is Vishvam, That which can be seen as the entire form of the Universe; and it is followed by Vishnuh, That which Everything pervades, That which is the truth of Everything. Later on, Darpaha is found– Ishvara is That which destroys pride and vanity by destroying that which makes a person proud and vain. It is followed by Darpadah – Ishvara is That which gives appropriate pride, since the qualities for which one is proud were acquired by one’s own effort and the corresponding result. That is to say that self-confidence is important and produces the force by which one overcomes obstacles. Lastly, we encounter the name Anantarupah – That of uncountable forms, since the Universe is its form. And then Amurtiman – That which has no form at all, which is its true nature, nirguna-brahman.
In any namavali (naama aavalii – sequence of names) for Ishvara, we encounter names that are apparently contradictory. This contradiction helps us to comprehend the nature of Ishvara that is both the intelligent and material cause at the same time; That which has no form yet That which all forms depend upon; That which is immanent to everything yet free of everything. One of the names that appears on the list of 108 names of Sri Krshna is sat-cit-ananda-vigrahah, meaning: He whose form is a decoration of sat-cit-ananda; it is an acknowledgement and at the same time it is a declaration of understanding of Him.
Declaring the thousand names of Vishnu, the Vishnu-sahasra-nama-stotram is taught by Bhishma Pitamaha in the form of verses in which the names follow one after the other, adding up to 1000 names. Each name in these verses is separated and placed in the fourth case, meaning “for”, and followed by “namah”, which means “salutations” (in reverence). This other form is called Vishnu-sahasra-nama-avalih – The sequence of the 1000 names of Vishnu, thereby the name Vishnuh becomes vishnave namah = Salutations to Brahman.
All these names refer to various forms of devas and devis, which are Ishvara, which is the immutable truth and the essence of All that there is, Brahman. Regardless of the repeated chant or mantra in whatever form of thought or invocation, the prayer goes to Ishvara, Parameshvara. By singing the various names, one is reminded of Him and the mind of the devotee who sings in reverence goes to Ishvara. It is in that moment that the two are recognized as one in a moment called samadhi, or jnana-samadhi: the moment in which duality disappears to give room the comprehension of One, a samadhi of knowledge.
Om tat sat