Saturday, April 3, 2010

Thousand Names of the Divine Lord: Supremacy or Simplicity?

Acharya Sri Adi Sankara's service to the cause of preserving Vedic Sanatana Dharma from the onslaught of Buddhism, Jainism, and atheism (cArvAka philosophy) is unparalleled. He wrote commentaries on the Vedantic philosophical canon (prastAna traya) consisting of Upanishads, the Brahma-Sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita.

Acharya Shri Adi Shankara with his disciples

During his time, Sri Adi Sankara is also said to have written a commentary on Sri Vishnu Sahasranama (shrI viSNu sahasranAma), the thousand Divine Names of Supreme Lord Vishnu. The Thousand Divine Names occur as part of the great epic (known as itihAsa) Mahabharata. The epic describes the great war between five princes, known as Pandavas, and their evil cousins known as the Kauravas. It happened during the time that Lord Vishnu came down to the earth as Krishna avatAr, and hence contains a lot of stories about Him. The elderly Prince Bhishma, who was the beloved of the Pandavas and their great preceptor, fell in battle and was ensnared into a bed of arrows. In that state, he instructed Yudhishtra and the other Pandavas on various aspects of morality and ethics. Finally, he instructed the Pandavas that the greatest dharma (ethical way of action) is to chant the divine names of the Supreme Lord Vishnu. Thus, the Divine Names of Lord Vishnu were instructed to the Pandavas, in the presence of Lord Vishnu Himself in the form of Krishna. The names detail about various avatArs that the Lord undertook as well as describe His distinguishing Divine Qualities.

 Preceptor Bhishma on a bed of arrows instructing the Pandavas as Lord Krishna looks over

Sri Adi Sankaras' lucid commentary is perhaps the earliest available exposition on the Divine Names. This work has been referred to by Sri Narayana Bhattathiri, the composer of Narayaneeyam, a 16th century scholar of the Advaita Vedanta school. We also have a gloss on Sri Sankara's explanations of the names by a late (15th/16th century) commentator known as Taraka Brahmananda Sarasvati (tAraka brahmAnanda sarasvati). Another important commentary on Vishnu Sahasranama commentary came from Srimad Ramanuja's Vishishtadvaita school of Vedanta philosophy. This work, coming down as a great gift to us, was the contribution of none other than Sri Parasara Bhattar [1] and is titled "bhagavad-guNa-darpaNa", which means "The Mirror of the Divine Qualities of the Supreme Lord". In this work, Sri Bhattar has also made at least a couple of references to Sri Adi Sankarar's commentary on the Divine Names.

Sri Parashara Bhattar was the son of Sri kUrattAlvAn -- a senior disciple of Sri Ramanujacharya himself. Sri Bhattar's Acharya (Guru/Teacher) was Sri Embar (embAr) a.k.a. Govinda Bhatta (govinda bhaTTa) -- the maternal cousin of Sri Ramanujacharya. Let us then salute Sri Parasara Bhattar with the following invocation and then proceed with the topic of our discussion:
shrI parAshara bhaTTAryaH shri ra"ngesha purohitaH      |
shrIvatsA"nka sutaH shrImAn shreyase me-astu bhUyase   ||
Translation: "May Sri Parasara Bhattar, the son of shrI shrIvatsA"nka (a.k.a. kUresha or kUrattAlvAn), who has superior wealth of knowledge, and serving as the PurOhithar for Lord RanganAtha bless me with all auspiciousness!"

Acharya Shri Parasara Bhattar

I came across an interesting article that compares the two great commentaries to the Divine Names by Adi Shankara and Sri Bhattar here. The source for the article seems to be a commentary in Tamil of the Divine Names by the great Srivaishnava scholar of the 20th Century, Sri Prativadi Bhayankaram Annangaracharya (PBA) Swami. Sri PBA Swamy observes that Sri Shankara's explanations are mostly in light of the might, valor, glory, immaculateness, omnipotence, etc. which constitute the Divine Quality known as "paratvam". Sri Bhattar's explanations, however, mostly elaborate on the Lord's saulabhyam and saushIlyam. In the last article, we dealt with the Lord's Divine Quality of being accessible (saulabhyam) and readiness to act and mingle with us as though he is one among us (saushIlyam). The article I came across then proceeds to list a few instances where the commentators Shri Shankara and Shri Bhattar focus on one of these two contrasting aspects each. In this post, I endeavor to point out and elaborate on a few more such instances not covered in that article. (Credit goes to [2-5] for hosting the clear and easy-to-understand meanings of the Divine Names along with the explanations given by Shri Shankara and Shri Bhattar which made my task easy.)

(1) Parigraha (In Adi Shankara's enumeration, this is name #420, in Parasara Bhattar's ordering, this is #421)

This name occurs in the following verse of the Vishnu Sahasranama:
RtuH sudarshanaH kAlaH parameSThI parigrahaH        |
ugraH saMvatsaro dakSo vishrAmo vishvadakSiNaH       ||58||
 Shri Adi Shankara's explanation of this name goes as:
"sharaNArthibhiH parito gRhyate sarvagatatvAt, parito j~nyAyate iti vA, patra puSpAdikaM bhaktairarpitaM parigRhNatIti vA parigrahaH"

There are three meanings that Sri Shankara gives. The first meaning that Adi Shankara Acharya gives is: "One who is approached on all sides by His devotees (those who surrender to Him)." Obviously, this is an explanation given in light of the Lord's Might, Power, and Glory. One is almost reminded of Sri Andal's (one of the Twelve Azhwars) work in Tamil (which is again part of the Divya Prabandha) known as Tiruppavai (tiruppAvai) where she says:
a"nkaN mA ~nyAlattu arasar abhimAna
        bha"ngamAy vandu nin paLLik kaTTiR kIzhE
sa"ngam iruppAr pOl vandu talai peydom
Translation: "Just as those kings from all over the world who you defeated in war came to the leg of Thy Divine Couch and surrendered to Thee with their egos destroyed, we have now come here to take refuge in Thee, with our heads bowing down in modesty."

The other two explanations given by Sri Shankara to the name Parigraha are: "One who can be reached in many different ways" and "One who gets many offerings from His devotees, such as flower, fruits, leaves, etc."

The explanation given by Shri Parasara Bhattar are again very different. This Acharya says:
"atra tatra ca parito grahaH asya iti parigrahaH. svasambandhi-paurajAna-padatat-sambandhinAm taddevatA tadArAma tarudUrvadeH api parama pada prApaNAt"
Sri Bhattar interprets the preceding few names to this one as to do with the Lord's avatar as Rama, and the name "Parigraha" to Bhattar is the last one that has to do with Rama in this set. Hence, he interprets the name as: "Here, there, and everywhere, He accepts all. When Lord Rama went back to Vaikuntam, the paramapadam (paradise) of Him as Lord Vishnu, after the purpose of His avatAr was completed, He took with Him every resident of the city of Ayodhya including, plants, trees, etc." The Lord in His avatar as Sri Ramachandra,  though born and raised as a Prince till the age of 24 in the palace of King Dasaratha, mingled with everyone affably during His exile to the woods. That includes the tribal chief Guha, the huntress Sabari, the vulture-king Jatayu, the monkey-king Sugriva, etc. This and the very fact that He granted liberation to everyone, including the lowest forms of life, who belonged to Ayodhya means that the Lord is indeed full of saulabhyam and saushIlyam.

(2) Kumuda (AS# 807, PB# 813) :

This name occurs in the following verse of the Sahasranama:
kumudaH kundaraH kundaH parjanyaH pavano(a)nilaH            |
amRtAMsho(a)mRtavapuH sarvaj~nyaH sarvatomukhaH            ||99||
The explanation given by Shri Shankara is: "kuM dharaNIM bhArAvataraNaM kurvan modayatIti kumudaH" meaning, "One who gladdens the earth by relieving it of its burdens (i.e., evil forces)".

The explanation given by Shri Bhattar is: "kau prakRtimaNDala evataissaha modata iti kumudaH" meaning, "One who likes to come down to this mundane material world to enjoy the company of His devotees". In other words, the Lord's accessibility is evident from the fact that He even likes to leave aside His supreme abode which is free from all ills, to come down to this world where evil and amorality rules, just to enjoy the company of His devotees!

Mother Earth approached in the form of a cow the celestials, and finally Lord Narayana, supplicating to have the burden of evil relieved.

The Lord likes to come down to the material world to enjoy the company of His devotees.
 Thanks:  Copyrighted images reproduced with permission of the artist Smt. Madhavapriya Devi

The rest of the Divine Names we are going to see in this post occur in the following verse of the Sahasranama:
sulabhaH suvrataH siddhaH shatrujicchatrutApanaH       |
nyagrodhodumbaro(a)shvat cANUrAndhra-niSUdanaH    ||101||

(3) Nyagrodha-udumbara (AS# 822 & 823, PB# 827):

Shri Adi Shankara interprets the above as two names:

a. The first explanation he gives for "Nyagrodha" as: "nyak arvAk rohati sarveSAM upari vyartata iti nyagrodhaH", meaning "One who, being primordial, is above all". The Acharya also provides an alternate explanation to the same name as "sarvANi bhUtAni nyakkRtya nijamAyAM vRNoti niruNaddhIti vA" meaning, "He who controls all beings by veiling Himself with His Maya power".

b. For "Udumbara", Sri Shankara gives two explanations. The first one is: "ambarAdudgataH kAraNatveneti udumbaraH" meaning, "He transcends the Ether, Himself being its cause." The second interpretation is: "URk annam, tena tadAtmanA vishvam poSayan udumbaraH" which translates to: "He that nourishes the universe in the shape of (or being the pervader/inner soul of) food etc." Shri Shankara then quotes the Veda (taittirIya brAhmaNa, 1.3.8 and 1.2.7), which says "Udumbara means food" in support of this interpretation.

Sri Bhattar gives the following explanations for the parts "Nyagrodha" and "Udumbara", then combines them to interpret "Nyagrodha-Udumbara" as a single name:

a. "Nyagrodha" - "kRtAnjalIbhI rudhyate svaprasAdaur-mukhyena vyavasthApyate iti" meaning, "One who is controlled by His devotees by means of their folded hands". In other words, the Lord is so benevolent to His devotees that His heart melts when He sees His devotees approach Him with folded hands. Sri Bhattar then quotes the following verse from Vishnu Dharmottara (33.105): a~njaliH paramA mudrA kSipram devaprasAdinI (The sight of hands joined in supplication immediately pleases the Lord).

b. "Udumbara" - "sarvaguNaiH udgataM ambaraM paraM dhAma tadupalakSitA lakSmI parijanAdayosyeti udumbaraH" meaning, "He Who has as the Supreme Abode, the paradise Shri Vaikuntam, is Udumbarah. This abode is Supreme because it has Lakshmi, and it rises above all other things by its magnificent qualities".

Shri Bhattar then combines the above parts into one name with the following comment: "atyucchRta sevyaH api atyanta-nIcAnAM api anuvartana sAdhyaH" meaning, "Though He is sought after by the great residents of His Supreme Abode, He is within easy reach of the lowest of people (as He does not demand much to be pleased)."

(4) Sulabha (AS# 817, PB# 823): This is at least one instance where both the revered commentators converge on the saulabhyam aspect of the Lord. I guess this is because the name does not lend itself to any other explanation. Again, they give great enjoyment for the devotee:

Shri Shankara explains the name as "patra-puSpa-AdibhiH bhaktimAtra-samarpitaiH sukhena labhyata iti sulabhaH" meaning, "One who is easily attained by simple offerings such as a leaf and a flower". He then quotes a verse from the Mahabharata in support of this:
patreSu puSpeSu phaleSu toyeSvkrItalabhyeSu sadaiva satsu                    |
bhaktyekalabhye puruSe purANe muktyai kathaM na kriyate prayatnaH     ||
"How can one fail to work for emancipation, when the ancient Purusha is capable of being attained by devotion alone, worshipping Him with offerings of leaf, flower, fruit, and water, which are always obtainable without much cost?"

The explanation given by Shri Bhattar is: "anarghaH-api mUlya bhAsena svIkartuM sakhyaH" meaning, "Even though He is priceless, He is attained for a small  price". Sri Bhattar then quotes an instance in the Lord's pastimes as Krishna -- During Lord Krishna's time on this earth, a lady with severely deformed face who makes sandal paste offered Him some of the same and made Him visit her humble dwelling by seizing His garbs and saying: "Come to my house!"

Conclusion: While elaborating on the Divine Names (Sahasranama), Shri Adi Shankaracharya emphasizes the omnipotence, omniscience, might and other qualities of the Lord related to His greatness, whereas Shri Bhattar dwells on the Lord's affability. In the last two posts, we got to clearly understand the qualities of saulabhyam (approachability) and saushIlyam (accessibility) of the Lord. Both are indispensable to our Lord. The CEO of a big corporation may have a lot of influence, power, and might, but is not really accessible to employees in the lowest strata of his organization. Your pet kitten at home may be easily accessed and approached, but it cannot save you from evil forces and calamities. As He combines these two aspects as part of His personality, our Lord is indeed unique! This makes devotion to Him possible even for people with very little means. Thus, He is quite benevolent and kind to us, even though He is the Lord of the entire cosmos.

From the next post onwards, we shall start on the next major Divine Quality, namely His magnanimity, known as audAryam.


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