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Vishnusahasranamam

One In A Thousand : Visnus As Many Names Being the Professor A V Krishna Rao Memorial Lecture, 2012 IIT-M Chennai October 9, 2012 Friends, Despite the Vedas, despite the Book of Genesis, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, notwithstanding Einstein and Hawkins, the world remains a puzzle, the universe a riddle, life a mystery. Our globe, the planet, is a spaceship among countless others no one knows the origins of. Who or what started this grand cosmic operatic performance , when, and above all, why ? Is the earth real, or are we imagining it ? Are we real ? My fear of the villain, the murderous kind, of injury, fear of loss of ability, of the faculties of mind and limb, of office, of the prospects of further offices, of image, fear of calumny, the rumblings in my stomach, the stirrings in my libido, my nerves, the stink in any public toilet tell me, sure, we are real. But then this thing called death, lights off, what does it lead to ? Anything at all ? The past, rich and pulsating, like a candle , out ! So does it matter if all the torque of pain we have known or the rapture of orgasm, was real ? One way of handling what we cannot understand is to imagine it does not exist. And so we wonder, is or was life just a massive dream ? Leela, Maya ? Does anyone know ? If someone tells you he does, be sure he is eitherdeluded, vain or stupid. More likely, a cheat. I wouldnt trust anyone wearing stitched clothes that need washing and ironing to give me answers to these mind-blasting questions. And so that someone better be a god.

2 The art and science of aesthetics, which includes music, literature, epic as well as more modest writing , and all the performing arts, the fine arts and much more , have all tried to grapple with these issues. The Vishnusahasranamastotram , with its 142 verses beginnignwith a dialogue between Bhishma and Yudhishthira, , has its home in the Anusasanika Parva of the Mahabharata. It combines, along with other Sahasranama Stotras such as those to Devi and to Siva the tonality of music, the sonority of chanting, the textuality of literature and, above all, the honesty of facing the riddle of the universe with guts, with wit, with vision. In other words, with all that it takes a master musician, a master philosopher, a master sculptor or a masterly aeronautical engineer to create a masterpiece. The Stotram as I shall call the work hereafter is for me primarily a work of aesthetic creation and I shall offer a few remarks on it today, as such. Aesthetic, as you know, is the adjective for aesthesia or aesthesis which means feeling, sensitivity, a sense of sensation. Its opposite is anaesthetic, the sense-killer. The Stotram uses text that is visual and invests it with sonority to give us an example of the aesthetics of philosophical postulation. It does this through the art of composing in a genre that is at once literary and musical. It offers some thoughts on the existential questions I posed, but not in self-delusion, vanity or hypocrisy. It does so differently. A Stotra is a chant. A chant is made up of a word or a phrase that is not prose, not poetry. It is not spoken, not sung. It is intoned. A japa is an intonation . It repeats a sound, repeats the repeated, almost hypnotizing the repeater and anyone listening. If accompanied by the movement between ones fingers of a rosary, a japa combines the hum of sonority with the thrum of tactility to induce a multi0mode acceptance. This Stotram does that, but differently and with different results. It is an unusual specimen of the aesthetics of sound and the meaning being conveyed though that sound. Aesthetics like yoga, have stances. We may call them asana-s. If one aesthetic asana is formal of structure and classical like Carnatic music another has a repose to its svarupa and an ease to its svabhava, like the songs of saint-singers like Meera, Tulsidas, Tukaram and Kabir, and of the Bauls of Bengal who sing as they dance, dance as they sing. Indian Institutes of Technology also have their own stances and asana-s. Teaching exact, precise and empirical subjects, IIT Departments are akin to the classical arts, to what may be seen as formal and structured yogic asana-s. In yogic terminology, the mainstream departments of IITs are like the extremely evolved and tractional Suryanamaskar which stretches and tenses the human anatomy to its greatest scope.

3 I would say if a Department of Electrical Engineering in an IIT has a yogic co-relative in the Vajrasana and the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Sarvangasana, a Department of Humanities in an IIT corresponds to the de-tensing yogic procedure where the mind and body are in un-agitated and yet restorative repose, namely, the Pranayama. Let us assume for an incredible moment that the IIT-Madras was a campus which teaches the highly codified form of music in the Carnatic tradition. The mainstream departments there would be teaching the structure of raga-s and kriti-s. The equivalent of a Department of Humanities in such an IIT would teach kirtana-s. The kirtana or bhajan is no less of a composition, no less exacting and meticulously formed than a mela or ghana raga. When Sangita Kalanidhi M S Subbulakshmi , for instance, moved from a Pantuvarali or a Brindavana Saranga to a Meera bhajan , the audience also moved from measuring her musical pace in tala-s to savouring her devotions grace in bhava. The matra of judgment was replaced during her singing of a bhajan by an un-judgmental but fully cognizant surrender which while stressing the devotional text remained, needless to say, essentially, musical. Likewise, today, when an artist of the creative vision and artistry of Vidvan T.M.Krishna weaves into a traditional ragam-tanam-pallavi concert a heart-wrenching viruttam by Tirumangai Azhvar or the Narayananamu Namu by Narsinh Mehta, the audience goes through an aesthetic re-configuration in which music remains paramount but opens the door of appreciation wider for text-based verbal attunement, giving itself over from delectation of form to ecstasy of spirit. If the Department of Humanities in the IIT-Madras is where technology settles down to a differentiated rhythm in breathing, like a kirtanai in a Carnatic concert, we have to thank, acknowledge and honour Professor A V Krishna Rao. It is a privilege for one like me to be asked to give this Memorial Lecture commemorating him. I pray that I may deserve this privilege. Professor Krishna Rao and I are linked with nothing but our names, which derive from the stock of Vishnus several name-attributes to which our parents turned like the good devotees of Vishnu that they were. My use of the expression I pray, a moment ago, may make some of you think I am a religious person. I am not, not in the sense of being a traditional temple-goer or practitioner of rites and rituals. I am moved by what may be called religion, when I see the position on the Universal Spirit of highly intelligent persons like Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi, Rajagopalachari and Radhakrishnan all Medhavi-s (77) and at the other end of the spectrum the faith of simple devotees as they worship at temples, trudging long distances and waiting for long hours for a darshan. Interestingly, Bhaktavatsala is a stotra name, at 736.

4 I have also been greatly affected by the extraordinary power that seems to dwell in and breathe from many religious venues. I have been struck more by their architectural and historical settings than by their religious gravitas though, ever so often, the religious magnetism of some of them like the Anantapadmanabhaswami Temple in Thiruvananthapuram , has astonished me. Ananta, needless to say, is traceable to the Stotram at 886 and Padmanabha at two positions, 48 and 196. But I am nauseated by the filth, the hypocrisy and the monetization that disfigures so many places of worship. I am unable to overlook the fact that the relentless growth in the number of such shrines in our country has less to do with devotion than with business, is less inspired by the power of the Creator than that of the cement trade and that the large-scale eruption of these pustule-like structures is aesthetically valueless, spiritually hollow and, in terms of civic planning and urban management, nothing less than scandalous. Who can miss the fact that cooking, eating and selling food occupies a major chunk of time in and around shrines ? This has a natural corollary that I need not describe, making the resultant stench all but overwhelm the gentler aromas of incense. You may not believe this I cannot but the Stotram has a name for Vishnu that is spot on on this. Analah, 293 according to Sankara means the One who is odourless. The phenomenon of priests in almost every religion, with great exceptions, tending to be overweight and under-exercised has regularly disappointed me. This has also reminded me of the fact that one of Vishnus thousand names is indeed Bhojanam (142) and another , following immediately after Bhojanam, is Bhokta (143), meaning that which is eaten or enjoyed, and that which eats or enjoys. Such being the case, if one like me can still be drawn to a particular text of obviously religious origin, nature and purport, there have to be some reasons. And if I then proceed to inflict my views on such a text on highly knowledgeable and thinking people in a public lecture, those reasons have to be very good reasons. Let me set my choice of theme in perspective. For one born to parents professing Vaishnava beliefs, I have been and am pre-disposed towards Vaishnavite literature.The compositions of Tulsidas, Surdas, Meera in the North Indian tradition, of Narsinh Mehta in the Western Indian, of Chaitanya in the Eastern and of Purandara and Tyagaraja in the Southern were a passive part of my aesthetic and cultural imagination. The arrival in the 1960s of M.S. Subbulakshmis record of the Stotram made me alive to this work. That someone could recite the whole of the tonguetwisting , heavily alliterated composition at one go and at great speed without tripping on a single aspirant, sibilant , vowel or consonant seemed to me a miracle. Perhaps there were breaks and re-takes during the recording which technology smoothed.

5 Dr Gowri Ramnarayan tells me Agnihotram Ramanuja Thathachariar, the great Vaishnavite scholar was called in to check the recording of the Stotram for its pronunciation and after hearing MSs rendering said even Agnihotris cannot aspire to MS's diction pure, flawless, resonant with nadam. But I must say something here which could sound subversive. In the very raciness of her flawless rendering, in the Rajdhani or Shatabdi-like pace of her breathless non-stop Duranta journey to Vishnu, MS does not permit us to view the names, see their profiles, their roundedness, their inner meaning. This is a pity, for the Stotram is unlikely ever to be recorded again in the voice of someone of MS stature. It deserves reflection, not recitation. It calls for thought, not rote. Japam may be good therapy, but it trivializes the word. High-speed japam does worse. It tears the concept to smithereens, like a shredding machine. Yet, hearing MSs rendering stirred nodes of wonderment lying inert on the floor of my subconscious. She linked those unsounded pellets in my slumbering deep to the sky of the Storams cosmic imagination. The names or attributes that she delivered like sparks , I could see, were cosmic truths speeding past the firmament like shooting stars. It occurred to me that Vishnus thousand names may be as many religious attributes but they were also were also astrophysical verities, ecological vignettes, existential truths. And I wanted to reach out to them. If only MS had sparkled the stars not in alliterative triumphalism but in a slow-motion cosmic probe of Vishnus many in one and one in many, names ! Vishnus alternative names are, in unaesthetic language, aliases Vishnu aka Krishna aka Govinda aka Keshava and could even be seen as alibis running away from a fixed identity. Krishna is , of course, one of the thousand names , occurring twice ( 57, 550) , with Ramah featuring austerely but once (394). Vishnu itself occurs three times in the series ( 2, 258, 657),in a relative frugality considering that Vishnu is the object and subject of the entire exercise. The given names of a good number of persons in this hall are likely to traceable to the Stotram. Taking one alphabet , A alone, there is bound to be an Aditya (39,563) here, an Ajit (549), Anil (234,812), Ashok (336), Atul (355). As also an Amrita (119), Anandi (560). Well, all those occur in the Stotra. Names that occur rather more in this part of the country than in the north may also be found in the Stotram Dhananjaya (660), Janardana (126). The last two being the given names of two distinguished Gurus of Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. For that matter the word Guru itself is a Stotra name (209). That of IIT-Ms guru of guru-s, its Director, is of course a Stotram -sanctioned name, with Bhaskara as Bhaskaradyutih occurring at position 282.

6 May I add that Professor Shreesh Chaudharys given name is also found in the list as Srisah at 606. Professor Chella Rajan has escaped by virtue of his pure Tamil first name Chella but, if translated or restored to the Sanskrit, Priya, even he would figure at 872 and 874, Priyarhah and Priyakrit. The Stotram is a parent document in which repose a good number of names of Vaishnavite character, not unlike a register of births which the Aadhaar scheme inectricably associated with the brilliant Nandan Nilekani may study as a reference-text. Nandan would be interested to know that before he gets an Aadhaar number, he already has one occurring, at 527 and 528 of the Stotram. Why, Aadhaar itself is a Stotra name, with Aadhaaranilayah at 7 meaning the support of supports, the basis , the foundation. But it is not its listing of orthodox list of names or proper nouns for devout Vaishnavites to refer to at namakaranams ,that makes the Stotram so valuable. It is in what the listing does that makes it so. As Eknath Easwaran reminds us , Bhishma tells Yudhishthira in the Mahabharata : I shall recite the Thousand Names. Listen carefully, and they will remove fear and evil from your life. From what I know of fear and of evil, I can say that they are not that easy to remove. But if understanding some of the roots of both can be a method of starting the process, then exploring the names for their underlying significance is hugely rewarding. And the roots lie in the ideas it puts forward, often self-contradictorily, of the whys and wherefores of Creation. Selfcontradiction, inconsistency, is in fact one of the attributes of the Stotram. Its descriptions show Vishnu to be kind, to be cruel. He is fire, he is water. He is anger, he is calm. He is subtle, he is simple. He is the past, he is the future. What is one to believe ? Make up your mind, Mahavishnu ! Inconsistency does no credit to us, humans, why and how must it be such an ornament in you ? Mahatma Gandhi was a Believer, a vaishnavite, not a philosopher. Yet , his masterful description of God is one that could have come from an Einstein if not a Russell. Writing in Young India on 11.10.1928 he said : I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever-changing, ever-dying, there is underlying all that change a living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and re-creates. Gandhi is not known to have read the Stotram but I find it felicitous that the Stotram has an entry with a near-exact meaning for almost every segment of his definition: Dimly perceive (or not explicit, invisible) = Achintya , 832 , Agrahyah, 55 , Amurtiman , 720, Anadih, 941 ; Everything around me = Sarvadarsanah , 94 ; Underlying all = Paryavasthitah, 931;

7 Living Power = Pranah, 66, Jivah, 513 and Jivanah, 930; Changeless = Aksharah, 17, Achyutah , 100, 318 and Sasvata-sthirah , 627; Holds all together = Bhutabhrit, 6 and Vishvadhrik , 238 ; Creates, dissolves, re-creates = Bhutakrit, 5. A work as broad of sweep as the Stotram cannot be confined to one religious or faith tradition. The descriptions of Vishnu as formless have to appeal to other faiths which do not believe in a God with a human morphology. John Donne has said in one of his Divine Poems : Eternall God, (for whom who ever dare See the new expressions doe the circle square And thrust into strait corners of poor wit Thee who are cornerless and infinite) What does this concordance between a non-conforming nd non-traditional Believer who was drawn to other faiths like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism and the great teachings of Zoroaster, namely,Gandhi and the Stotram show ? That Gandhi intuitively was a Stotra-adherent, that the Stotram anticipated a great mans twentieth century definition ? No. It shows that the Stotram is a work of philosophical imagination, of cosmic enquiry, of galactic speculation and hypothesising, which complements the Vedas, and can be a brilliant backdrop to recurring engagements with the question of Creation and of Existence. More, that it offers not one hypothesis but , in its seeming contrarinesses and contradictions, several schools and in fact faculties of enquiry. Professor Amartya Sen has written ( Amrtyuh, incidentally, is at Stotra 198) about how the Rig Veda asks difficult questions regarding the very creation of the world, one of which is:Who really knows ? Who will here proclaim it ? Whence was it produced ? Whence is this creation?...perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows or perhaps (even) he does not know According to widely accepted time-lines, the Rig Veda was composed sometime between 1500 and 1000 BC, and the Mahabharata (of which our Stotra is part) a little later. Be that as it may, I find it significant that the Stotra which denies itself the advantage of narrative argumentation and syntactical expression that the Rig Veda enjoys, and is only a bare-bones list, nevertheless, manages to convey the wonder of Creation and the equal wonder at there being more than one possibility as to its origins.

8 No religious skeptic, agnostic or even an atheist can but feel, at some point in time, on some occasion or other, a sense of there being a Power in the universe higher than the highest ether his brain can visualise and further than the farthest galaxy his remote sensing lenses can discern. And even if such a humbling thought has not occurred to the unbeliever a most unlikely circumstance he is bound to have felt in some hour of distress or moment of reflection that it would be good if such a Power like a Supreme Court did exist Yon High commanding a reliable down-linking network. The word network brings to mind cables, wires and suchlike appliances of the 21st century, does it not ? Well, believe it or not, the Stotram has a name for precisely that very facility Vishnu is described as Sutantuh (784). Tantu , as you know and as Vaman Shriram Apte explains in his Sanskrit to English Dictionary, means thread, cord, wire, string. Adi Sankara says As this Universe of infinite extension belongs to Him, the Lord is called Sutantu. There can be other conditions as well when the Creator is instinctively invoked and by the most unlikely persons. The nuclear age our age may be said to have begun on the 16th of July, in 1945.Not one but three things happened on that day, giving the worlds its nuclear teeth. The first was a meeting, at Potsdam, attended by statesmen from the worlds future nuclear powers US President Harry Truman, the Soviet supremo Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The meeting played with fire. The second was a testing, the worlds first, of a nuclear device took place, in complete secret, the very same day at Los Alamos, New Mexico, witnessed by J.R.Oppenheimer, Director of the Project, the physicist Kenneth Bainbridge, and a few carefully selected scientists and military personnel. At the moment of detonation, the ground swelled, shook, pummeled, rose and fell, sending up a plume of light so bright that every blade of grass in the vicinity stood out in the sharpest and most eerie relief. The test was about fire. The third was a sailing. A US cruiser, Indianapolis sailed that day from San Francisco for Tinian Island on the South Pacific on a mission that was directly related to both those proceedings. Carrying in large wooden crates parts of a device the Captain and crew knew was important but not how important or how ugly. From Tinian, bombers were to take off with the device, none other than the powerful new weapon, for its twin destinations in Japan, ending the war and starting our age, the nuclear age. And all this happened on the very same day.The vessel reached Tinian Island, off-loaded its cargo and sailed casually off, on 29 July. Its operation had been kept so secret that it was on no Allied radar. This was, for the Indianapolis crew, a disastrous folly.

9 A Japanese I-58 submarine sniffed the unprotected Cruiser and creeping up to firing range, rammed two torpedoes into it. Within fifteen minutes, the 9800 tonne vessel with formidable speed and fire power was under water, 880 of its 1196 crewmen sinking with her. Worse was to follow. As the survivors grouped together, holding hands, hoping to be spotted by US Navy or Air Force craft, Tiger Sharks smelt human blood and before anyone could react, two or three hundred of those eating machines were upon them. What does this set of three happenings on July 16, 1945 have to do with the Srivishnusahasranamastotram ? Nothing, really. And everything. At the level of names, the three meeting, testing and sailing all have echoes in Vishnus names. Believe it or not, meeting occurs as samiti in Samitinjayah, at 362, testing and that with fire can be visualized in Yajnah, 971 while sailing is echoed in Tarah, at 968 which refers to One who helped jiva-s to go across the ocean of Samsara. But , you might well ask, is that linkage not perverse considering that the meeting, the testing and the sailing were essentially horrible events with horrible results for humanity and for individual humans ? So they were. But that is where the Stotram rises , within the imagination of the reader, or the recite, above being a book of lofty names to a point of departure for thoughts about Creation , a Creation that is at once sublime and sordid, beatific and bizarre, transcendent and tragic. It has to be seen as a work with an alpha-numeral title that can help us see , dichotomously, the shade beneath the light of living on this planet. I believe the Stotram must be read by a bewildered humanity not to get de-bewildered but to find in its pages and name-entries resources for interrogating that very bewilderment. One of the names of Vishnu is mangalam-param, 63. There can be no concept of mangalam without there being something that is a-mangalam, even as there can be no light without darkness to contrast it with. I spoke of the worlds first testing of a nuclear device. That anti-epiphanic event led to all that we know. But in its authors, it also led to a certain self-interrogating and self-chastising moment. The test took place, as we know, in complete secret, at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Incidentally, the Stotram has not one but two names for that which is secret Guhyah, 542 meaning that which is esoteric and hidden, and Guptah, 545 again meaning that which is hidden. But to return to that test and the effect it produced on its authors.

10 Please recall the Stotrams word yajnah and imagine a yajnah of proportions so great as to leap out of or sink into the allocated yajnas space. Yajna-s in our mythology were performed by the good and the beastly. I am not saying Oppenheimer or Bainbridge were that creature ; they certainly were not. Who was the beast behind the bomb ? There was not one but many beasts and I am not referring to people. Human fear, human suspicion, human hatred were among the beasts. Here I must refer to the entry at 314, namely, Krodhakrit-karta which Sankara describes as meaning One who generates krodha or anger in evil people. And so, what does one make of the Stotrams giving Vishnu the name and attribute of the author of krodha among evil people ? When the Atom Bomb-yajna took place with all the mind-blasting physical features I have described, Oppenheimer is believed to have said, quite simply, It worked. But later, he was to turn famously to the Bhagavad Gita and quote its line: I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds. But Bainbridges reaction, much less known , was no less significant. Turning to Oppenheimer at the site at the very moment , he said Now we are sons of all. I have left out the crucial word, out of respect for the maryada of a memorial lecture but you can all guess it. The Stotram, needless to say, has no space for that four-legged fellow-being of ours. Robert Frost has a remarkable poem, Fire and Ice : Some say the world will end in Fire, some say in Ice. From what I know of desire I hold with those who favour Fire. But from what I know of hate I think I know enough of hate To say that Ice is also great and would suffice. Let us see Indias great texts , regarded by us as religious, as something much more than that. They are intellectual and aesthetic resources that may or may not lead us to devotion, piety or Grace, but which carry in them seeds of extraordinary wisdom, great with and a tantalising ambivalence, drawn from humankinds integrated perceptions, that can lead us to face the questions I started off with. And which can, thereby, be of physick, of medicament to our clearly diseased times. Aushadham is one of Vishnus names. It also has Asvatthah, 824 the longliving peepul tree, associated with the Buddha. Oscar Wilde is the lst person one would think of when discussing the Stotra. And yet his lines in De Profundis compel referencing. Society, he says, will have no place for mebut Nature will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide...She will hang the night with starscleanse me in great waters and with bitter herbs make me whole

11 The Stotram too is an aushadham which with is herbs, bitter and otherwise can make us whole. And it has clefts in its rocks where we may hide with our fears and our hopes. Let us not read it hypnotised by its sonority but with the respect that a great witness of the transactions of life deserves. That may be Vyasa., or many Vyasa-s. My favourite entry in the stotram is Saksi, 15 meaning (according to Sankara) One who witnesses everything. The Srivishnusahsranamastotram is about witnessing. It is about experiencing. It is about life. It is about what we are, in our multiplicities, in our complexities, in our one thousand natures. It is about the astral in us, about the celestial in us, about the terrestrial in us. It is about the real in us, who are not Vishnu but in whom Vishnu, if He dwells anywhere, must dwell.

References and Acknowledgings: 1. Sri Vishnu Sahasranama with Sankaras commentary as trabslated into english by swami Tapasyananda for Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras, 1987. The Bhashya of Sri Sankaracharya as translated by Sri R.Ananthakrishna Sastry for The Adyar Library and Research Centre, Madras,1980. A Thousand Names of Vishnu, by Eknath Easwaran, Jaico, 1997. Commentary on the Srivisnusahasranamastotram by C.Sivaramamurti, 1978. Vaman Shivram Aptes Sanskrit-English Dictionary, 1890, republished by Motilal Banarsidas, 2000. Sanskrit An Introduction, 1976, by Michael Coulson and Richard Gombrich. Dr Gowri Ramnarayan for insights into M.S.Subbulakshmis recordings. Vidvan T M Krishna for insights emanating from his recording in three CDs of Narayana Kritis on Lord Vishnu, 2007 (Rajalakshmi Studios, Coimbatore). Shri Karunaker Menon for loan of relevant books.

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10. Shri Govind Venkatesan for assistance in preparing the reading text.