The Vishnu Sahasra-namam or Thousand Names of the Lord are a key to faith in many Indian homes. Their resonance can strengthen the resolve of the most non-confrontational person in taking a stand for dharma.
This poem has an exalted status in spiritual literature perhaps because the Vishnu Purana has decreed that singing the praise of the Lord has the same merit in Kali Yuga as meditation had in Satya Yuga, puja (ritual worship) in Dvapara Yuga and yagna (ritual sacrifice) in Treta Yuga.
The Vishnu Sahasranamam is revered as intuited through divine grace. It occurs in the Anushasanika Parva of the Maha-bharata. Bhishma lies on his chosen bed of arrows waiting to give up his breath at the auspicious time of Uttarayan (January 13-14). Lord Krishna tells Yudhishthira to sit by the grandsire and learn “all dharmas”. At the end, the Pandava prince, now king, asks six questions, of which two are: “Who is the Supreme Lord?” and “How may a person free himself of worldly ties?” Bhishma answers: “Vishnu,” to the first and to the second, “Singing God’s praise will carry man across the ocean of existence”.
This is the prologue to the poem, followed by the Thousand Names sung by past saints, which Bhishma elaborates. Then comes the ‘phalashruti’ or epilogue of merits so gained.
A story about the great Hindu reformer Adi Shankara. goes that he wished to write on the Lalita Sahasranamam, the great paean to Devi. He asked his disciple to fetch the text. But the shishya handed him the Vishnu Sahasranamam instead.
Shankara sent him back for the right one, with the same result. When rebuked, the shishya explained that each time he was directed by a dazzling feminine form to pick up the Vishnu text. Shankara read this as a signal from the Goddess herself, to comment first on Vishnu’s Thousand Names.
Here are Bhishma’s words introducing the Vishnu Sahasranamam: Tasya lokapradhaanasya/ jagannathasya bhupathe/vishnor-namasahasram me/shrunu paapa-bhayaapaham. ‘O King! Hear me tell forth the thousand Names of Vishnu, the Lord of the Universe, the Great-est One: these Names take away sin and fear’. But who is ‘Vishnu’, one of the greatest Hindu names for God? The Bhagavad Gita speaks in His voice. In Chapter 9, Verse 11, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna:
Fools deride Me when I descend in human form. They do not know My transcendental nature and My dominion over all that is.
In Verse 17, He says, I am the father of this universe, the mother, the support, and the grandsire. I am the object of knowledge, the purifier and the syllable Om. I am also the Rg, the Sama, and the Yajur (Vedas).
Verse 18-19 say: I am the goal, the sustainer, the master, the witness, the abode, the refuge and the most dear of friends. I am the creation and the annihilation, the basis of everything, the resting place and the eternal seed.
O son of Kunti, all that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away, as well as all austerities that you may perform, should be done as an offering to Me.
And that is the spirit of the antyeshti, the Hindu cremation. As in life, so in death. The open fire is the conduit of offerings to God in all rites of passage in a Hindu life. The proper cremation of a Hindu’s mortal remains is his or her final offering to the Almighty.