Vishnu Sahasranama Interpretations

There are Sahasranāma for many forms of God (Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, Shakti, and others). The Vishnu Sahasranāma is popular among common Hindus, and a major part of prayer for devout Vaishnavas, or followers of Vishnu. While Vaishanvas venerate other deities, they believe that the universe, including the other divinities such as Shiva and Devi, is ultimately a manifestation of the Supreme Lord Vishnu. Followers of Shaivism similarly give prominence to Shiva. Interestingly, despite the existence of other sahasranamas of other forms of God, referring a sahasranama as "The Sahasranama," generally refers to the Vishnu Sahasranama alone, thereby indicating its wide popularity and use.
Smarta interpretations

In fact, the Shri Rudram, one of the most sacred prayers for Hindus and Shaivites in particular, describe Vishnu as an aspect of Shiva in the fifth anuvaka. Likewise, two of the names in Vishnu sahasranama that refer to Shiva are "Shiva" (names #27 and #600 in Adi Sankara's commentary) itself, "Shambhu" (name #38), "Eesanah" (name #64), and "Rudra" (name #114). Most notably, Adi Shankara, according to one interpretation, has not interpreted these to mean that the deity Shiva and the deity Vishnu are the same. Specifically, he asserts that the deity Vishnu is Brahman itself (not just an aspect of Brahmam). Again, he notes that "only Hari (Vishnu) is eulogized by names such as Shiva", a position consistent with interpretations of the Srivaishnavite commentator Parasara Bhattar. Parasara Bhattar had interpreted Shiva to mean a quality of Vishnu, such as "One who bestows auspiciousness."

However, this interpretation of the name Shiva has been challenged by Swami Tapasyananda's translation of Sankara's commentary on the Vishnu sahasranama. He translates the 27th name, Shiva to mean:" One who is not affected by the three Gunas of Prakrti, Sattva, Rajas,and Tamas; The Kaivalaya Upanishad says, "He is both Brahma and Shiva." In the light of this statement of non-difference between Shiva and Vishnu, it is Vishnu Himself that is exalted by the praise and worship of Shiva." Based on this commonly held Advaitan point of view which has been adopted by Smartas, Vishnu and Shiva are viewed as the one and the same God, being different aspects of preservation and destruction respectively. As many Sanskrit words have multiple meanings it is possible that both Vishnu and Shiva share names in this instance. For example, the name Shiva itself means "auspicious" which could also apply to Vishnu. The deity of Harihara in particular is worshipped by Shaivites as a combination of both personalities.

Vaishnava interpretations

However, the Vaishnava commentator, Parasara Bhattar, a follower of Ramanujacharya has interpreted the names "Shiva" and "Rudra" in Vishnu sahasranama to mean qualities or attributes of Vishnu, and not to indicate that Vishnu and Shiva are one and the same God. Vaishnavas worship Vishnu in his four-armed form, carrying conch, disc, flower and mace in his hands, believing that to be the Supreme form. However, Smarthas do not subscribe to this aspect or personification of God, as Smarthas say that God is pure and thus devoid of form. Additionally, they believe that God is not limited by time nor limited by shape and color. Vaishnava traditions are of the opinion that Vishnu is both unlimited and yet still capable of having specific forms, as to give arguments to the contrary (to say that God is incapable of having a form) is to limit the unlimitable and all-powerful Supreme.

In the Sri Vaishnava tradition, the Bhagavad-gita and the Vishnu Sahasranama are considered the two eyes of spiritual revelation.

In other Vaishnava traditions too, the Vishnu Sahasranama is considered an important text. Within Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Vallabha sampradaya, Nimbarka sampradaya and among Ramanandis, the chanting of the names of Krishna and Rama to be superior to that of Vishnu. Based on another verse in the Padma Purana which says that the benefit of chanting the one thousand names of Vishnu can be derived from chanting one name of Rama, and a verse in the Brahma Vaivarta Purana equating the benefit of chanting three names of Rama with one name of Krishna. However, it is important to realize that those verses in those puranas are not to be interpreted literally, as many believe that there is no difference between Vishnu and Krishna. This theological difference can be expressed as follows: Many Vaishnava groups recognize Krishna as an Avatar of Vishnu, while others, instead, consider Him to be svayam bhagavan, or the original form of the Lord. Yet these verses can be interpreted as it is more important to have pure bhakti or devotion than merely repeating the many names of God without emotion. Indeed, Shri Krishna Himself said, "Arjuna, One may be desirous of praising by reciting the thousand names. But, on my part, I feel praised by one shloka. There is no doubt about it.”

Within Vaisnavism some groups, such as Sri sampradaya, adhere to and follow the Rig Veda: V.I.15b.3, which states "O ye who wish to gain realization of the supreme truth, utter the name of Vishnu at least once in the steadfast faith that it will lead you to such realization."

Interpretations alluding to the power of God in controlling karma

Many names in the Vishnu Sahasranama, the thousand names of Vishnu allude to the power of God in controlling karma. For example, the 135th name of Vishnu, Dharmadhyaksha, in Sankara's interpretation means, "One who directly sees the merits (Dharma) and demerits (Adharma), of beings by bestowing their due rewards on them."

Other names of Vishnu alluding to this nature of God are Bhavanah, the 32nd name, Vidhata, the 44th name, Apramattah, the 325th name, Sthanadah, the 387th name and Srivibhavanah, the 609th name. Bhavanah, according to Sankara's interpretation, means "One who generates the fruits of Karmas of all Jivas for them to enjoy." The Brahma Sutra (3.2.28) "Phalmatah upapatteh" speaks of the Lord's function as the bestower of the fruits of all actions of the jivas.

General thoughts

Sections from Swami Tapasyananda's translation of the concluding verses of Vishnu sahasranama, state the following: "Nothing evil or inauspicious will befall a man here or hereafter who daily hears or repeats these names." That comment is noteworthy. King Nahusha, a once righteous king, ancestor of Yudhisthira, according to excerpt from C. Rajagopalachari's translation of the Mahabharata, became an Indra, king of devas, but was later expelled from Swarga or heaven due to a curse by the great sage Agastya for his eventual gain in pride and arrogance and became a python for thousands of years.

Thus, chanting of Vishnu sahasranama will help lead to success in this life and hereafter.

A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada gives a Gaudiya Vaishnava interpretation of verse 7.24 from the Bhagavad Gita, wherein he quotes the Avatar, Krishna, as saying: "Unintelligent men, who do not know Me perfectly, think that I, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, was impersonal before and have now assumed this personality. Due to their small knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is imperishable and supreme." Prabhupada has also stated that “I beg to point out that the Hindu religion is perfectly based on the personal conception of God, or Vishnu."

In Swami Chidbhavananda's translation of the Bhagavad Gita, he gives an opposite interpretation of the same verse, 7:24, "men of poor understanding think of Me, the unmanifest, as having manifestation, not knowing My supreme state, immutable and unsurpassed." Swami Chidbhavananda, holding Advaita views, gives more importance to God being formless while Srila Prabhupada, following Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's philosophy, gives importance to God with form. Ramakrishna analogized God with form and without form as being like ice and liquid water, as being both the same but in different states.