Saturday, April 12, 2014


Exposition of Vishnu In The background Of Paancharaatra   Theology


Vishnu, the embodiment of every aspect of the Cosmic sacrifice (Purushasookta) is known as Yajnapurusha. Among the Gods eulogized in Rigveda Vishnu is prominent and celebrated for his three gigantic strides encompassing the entire universe for the welfare of the worlds which are glorified in many Vedic hymns.  Etymologically speaking, the word Vishnu means one who pervades, one who has entered into everything as Antaryamin. So he is the transcendent as well as immanent reality of the universe. He is the inner cause and power by which things exist. In Srivaishnava concept he is also known by the name Naaraayana. The word Naaraayana carries several meanings. It could mean:  a) One who has made the casual water as his abode; b) one who is the abode of all human beings c) one who has made the hearts of human beings his abode d) one who is the final goal of all beings. He spreads over everything, enters into all objects and beings and envelopes all with these three strides, and therefore called Vishnu. Later Puranas have created a fascinating story out of the three strides glorified in Vamanaavataara. According to Koorma Purana Vishnu is the God of the gods (daivaanaaam daivatah).

Upanishads declare that Supreme Being moves inside the heart of created beings possessing manifold forms and He is Vishnu—Antascharati bhooteshu guhayaam viswamoortishu tvam Vishnustvam.  Upanishads prescribe Vishnu Gayatree Mantra for meditation. Naaraayanaaya vidmahe Vaasudevaya dheemahi tannoe Vishnuh prachodayaat--Let us know Naaraayana! For that we meditate upon Vasudeva. May Vishnu invigorate us towards it! In Pancharatra concept Supreme Being is Narayana; Vasudeva is his emanation; and Vishnu is the Archanaa moorthi.

Vishnu has ten important incarnations, four Vyuhaas (aspects)   and twenty-four worshipful forms which will be described later. Twenty-four classical forms of Vishnu are daily recited as Japa by all Hindus who have under-gone Upanayana Samskaara (thread ceremony), whether they are Saivites or Vaishnavites in their Sandhyaavandana rituals (morning, mid-day and evening prayers with Gayatree mantra). Similarly Aachamana (purification by sipping water) mantra is common to all in which three names are Vishnu are recited—Achyuta (The Reastrained); Ananta (Infinite); Govinda (Protector or Guardian of the Earth) whatever may be their tradition.

Bhagavadgeeta says that in order to save the harmless and destroy the evil Vishnu descends to earth, in limited or in more concrete form called Amsaavatar or Poornaavatar. Avatars make useful focal points for devotion because they are easier to relate to and interact with than the transcendent power that is Vishnu. Avatars are Vishnu’s signature method of action; because of them he is god of many faces and personalities.
To ward off the extraordinary perils to which mankind is prone—May be the visitations from the demons, may be from the human malefactors as we see today—and to preserve the socio-ethical order called Dharma, lord Vishnu whose responsibility it is to preserve this world often incarnates himself as per Pancharaatra Theology.

An Exhibition of Vishnu, Hinduism’s Blue-skinned Savior displayed by First center of Visual Arts, Nashville in May 2011 displayed the ten Avatars of Vishnu along with the controversial Avatar of Vishnu of   Buddha with the following description popular in Puraanas:
1.       Matsya, the Fish: retrieves the Vedas from the bottom of the ocean; saves Manu and others from the great flood.
2.       Koorma, the tortoise: serves as the base for Mt. Mandaara during the churning of the ocean.
3.       Varaaha, the boar: rescues the earth from the primordial ocean; kills the demon Hiranyaaksha.
4.       Narasimha, half-man, half-lion: kills the demon Hiranyakasipu.
5.       Vaamana, the dwarf: tricks the demon Bali out of his kingdom by turning into Trivikrama.
6.       Parasuraama, the vengeful Brahmin: fights the members of the warrior caste.
7.       Raama, the model prince: kills the demon Raavana after Raavana kidnaps his wife.
8.       Krishna, the cowherd prince: kills his evil uncle and many other demons; romances innumerable women; preaches the Bhagavad Gita; is often treated as god rather than an avatar.
9.       Balaraama, Krishna’s brother: changes the course of the river Yamuna; sometimes treated as an avatar of Sesha the serpent.
10.   The Buddha, founder of Buddhist religion: in the Vaishnava tradition he is celebrated as false prophet.
11.   Kalki, avatar of the future: will usher out the current era with much bloodshed.

Vishnu’s legend begins as Seshasaayee or Naaraayana—one who is reclining on the bed of serpent Adisesha of thousand heads floating on cosmic ocean. Ten Incarnations of Vishnu begin with Pralaya, cataclysm and ends with Pralaya, the dismantling of the universe in his final Avatar as Kalki. This again is cyclic in nature. After the destruction of the universe of the previous cycle and before starting the next cycle of creation, Naaraayana, the Supreme form of Vishnu falls as sleep on his bed of the great serpent Adisesha which is floating on the waters of the Ocean of Milk (Ksheera samudra).  Puraanas say that the serpent Sesha or Ananta is having thousand heads and is supporting the worlds on its hood. Ananta literally means the endless or infinite and stands for cosmic time which is endless or infinite. Created worlds come into being in time and are sustained in time. The thousand hoods simply indicate innumerable division of time coming in cycles. The serpent also represents cosmic space in which everything exists. Sesha also means in Sanskrit what is left over. Creation cannot proceed out of nothing. What is left over represents the totality of the jeevaatma or individual souls in their subtle form left over from the previous cycle which form the seed as it were for the next creation (yathaapoorvam akalpayat).

Vishnu’s divine avatar legend starts with cosmic dissolution, a time when chaos and evil overpowers the cosmos. Vishnu leaps into the crisis as Matsya, the fish and rescues Manu, father of mankind. Every individual faces a Pralaya and a situation arises that threaten everything he believes in and all that he has built. Holding on to Matsya with faith and hope, Manu found refuge on Mount Meru.  Without faith he would have his doom’s day swept away by the waters. The mission of this Avatar is “Keep Faith”.

Vishnu then becomes a turtle, and helps the Devas and Asuras to churn out the magnificent things from the Ocean of Milk. Ocean of Milk represents the infinite possibilities of existence. Man should have the patience and steadfastness of the turtle.  With determination, aggression and discretion man can churn whatever he wants out of his life. The mission of this Avatar is “Realize dreams by proper approach”.

Vishnu rescues his consort earth-goddess Bhoodevi from the bottom of the sea in his next avatar of Boar. Vishnu thus becomes eternal guardian. The blue sky representing Vishnu keeps the constant vigil ready to strike down anyone who abuses her. Earth is a living entity that nourishes all life. As Prithu, he teaches man to treat her as Kamadhenu, Cow for granting all our wishes.  Those who do not heed to his advice, pollute and abuse the world are punished with floods, tsunami, the forest fire, the acid rains etc. The mission of this Avatar is “Lead a Responsible life”.

The next Avatar of Narasimha is a reminder that however hard one tries, one cannot escape the trials and tribulations of life. Man must work towards fortifying himself against the turmoil. We often behave like Hiranyakasipu who believed he could outwit Nature and live forever. But Vishnu killed him anyway, by appearing as a being that is neither man nor beast, but both. The mission of this Avatar is “Accept the Inevitable; you can’t win over it”.

In his arrogance the demon-king Bali did not think Vaamana the next avatar as a threat. Pride often blinds a man, makes him think he is immune to danger, makes him ignore minor issues which could turn to major ones and overwhelm him. The dwarf Vaamana turned into a giant and strode across the heaven and earth in two steps   and crushed the demon under the third foot. The mission of this Avatar is   ‘’remain humble eschewing ego”.

Laws and rules based on ethics maintain cosmic stability and social harmony. Without laws of nature there would be chaos and without rules in human society there will be anarchy. Vishnu institutes and maintains them. In Parasuraama Avatar Vishnu lifts his axe and kills errant kings. The mission of this Avatar is “respect the rules of human society (called Samaaja Dharma) and live in peace”.

Raama stands out as a perfect man. He upheld righteousness even when he was faced with adversity.  He upheld the law sacrificing personal pleasures for the good of mankind and was called Maryaada Ramanna (respectful elder brother Rama) being Vishnu’s most vulnerable and august incarnation. The mission of this Avatar is “focus on doing one’s duty and follow Dharma as prescribed in scriptures at all cost”.

The next avatar is that of Balarama, the elder brother of Srikrishna with his plough.  His many adventures include the slaying of the demons Dvivida and Dhenuka, shaking the ramparts of Hastinapura and dragging the river Yamuna out of its course. He is portrayed as agricultural hero. The mission of this Avatar is “nurture agriculture as the basic industry and preserve flora and fauna for ecological balance and nourishment”. No country can survive without paying attention to Nature.

Krishna avatar takes us to different heights. Life is about enjoying the beauty of the cosmos. Krishna combined duty with delight. He showed a clear and balanced approach to life for people with complex and confused personalities. Bhagavad Gita serves as a guide to lead such a life and its teachings are true for all times. The mission of his Avatar is “Live life to the Full, discharge your duty and   be the recipient of divine assurance, Paritraanaaya sadhoonaam vinaasaaya cha dushkritam dharma samsthaapana-arthaaya sambhavami yuge yuge”  

The next avatar is of Buddha. The purpose of Buddha incarnation was to mislead men of low birth and genius, who had become too proficient in the sacred lore, abusing it and were a threat to the supremacy of the gods (learned)! This does not seem to warrant an incarnation as a serious proposition.  Therefore   religiously concerned Hindus replaced the Puranic Buddha with historic Siddharata who became Buddha on enlightenment. Thus they sealed the fate of Buddhism in India by absorbing Buddha, the Enlightened into the pantheon of the Dasavatars. Buddha preached that life is full of misery and it is all due to greed.  He was also against animal sacrifices. The mission of his Avatar is “do not be greedy, do not kill, practice ahimsa and do follow the path of Dharma”.  Does this not sound like Sanatana Dharma?

Vishnu’s avatars show us how to bring stability and order to life. The world today seems to be decaying, degenerating and life drifting towards destruction. The earth is being polluted and plundered, heritage is being ignored culture is being eroded all in the name of progress. Vishnu’s cosmic role as preserver, protector and patron of life is vital to us today.  We have the divine assurance in Geeta as to the restoration of Dharma, cosmic laws. It also says every man is expected to do his duty towards himself and the society.

We are eagerly looking forward to his benevolence in his prevailing incarnation, whether he is historic Buddha or the Puraanic.  Bhagavata says Buddha is in-charge till the next avatar arrives.  When it arrives,   its purpose will be cataclysm thus to end the present cycle. That incarnation is long way to go as we are still in the beginning of Kaliyuga with so much confusion and disturbances. That would bring the delusion to complete the cycle and bring the new order. We can only go on watching helplessly if we pin   our hopes on Puraanas. Alternatively we can spiritually elevate ourselves and reduce the number of our life cycles and attain liberation or Mukti while leading a peaceful life in our present life! We do not have to be part of repeated Incarnations wanting his mercy. We can be in equal partnership with Him.

Hindus believe in the cyclic order of creation, preservation and dissolution.  They also believe in four Purusharthas--Dharma, Artha, Kaama and Moksha. The first three always accompany us in our cycle of birth and death based on Sattva, Rajas and Tamas characteristics (gunas).  The only way to end this cycle is go beyond the three gunas and attain Moksha or salvation. While Lord is playing his part at Macrocosm level we have to play our part at microcosm level to end the cycle at our level.

The three in one deity Trimurti whom Vaishnavites call Naaraayana correspond to the three Gunas in the cosmic play of creation, preservation and destruction.  Vishnu represents Sattva, the power of existence and preservation. Siva represents Tamas, the power of annihilation. Brahma stands in between these two and represents Rajas. He represents the possibilities of existence resulting from the union of opposites. It is the business of Rajoguna to maintain a delicate balance between the two opposing forces. Hence it has got to be in a state of constant   internal tension and activity. This restless activity is its chief characteristic and it manifests itself as passion and ambition in the psychological world. That is how we start our lives after birth at microcosmic level which is in our own hands as to modify in whatever manner we wish.

The Bhaagavata or Pancharaatara  Theology preaches the tradition of Vishnu-Naaraayana and  puts forth the concept that Supreme Lord Narayana has four aspects of manifestation: 1. The Para or Supreme; 2. The Vyuha or the Emanation; 3. The Vaibhava or the Incarnation as described above; and 4. Archa or Icon.
Para is the Supreme or the Nirguna Brahman or Naaraayana or Paravaasudeva who is meditated upon in his formless form. In his glory as Vaibhava he makes several descents as described above. Archa is the descent of the Lord into the icon ceremoniously consecrated and worshiped in the temples as Saguna Brahman. In temples and homes he is worshipped by Moorti Upaasana or image worship or in his   vyakta-avyakta form as Salagrama.  Salagramas are ammonite fossil stones in which Vishnu is believed to reside and so considered as exceedingly precious and sacred. These stones require neither consecration (Kumbaabhishekam) nor any ritual infusion of divinity in them. They are ancient geological specimens. In its mode of worship it is similar to Linga form of worship of Saivites (Please refer to my detailed discourse on Linga and Salagrama Worship). Lingas are mostly hand sculpted.

The Vyoohas or the Emanations are four in number called Chaturvyuhas—Vaasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha. You could see these icons in Vykhanasa tradition temples like Parthasarathy Temple in Chennai.  According to Bhaagavata Sri Krishna is Vaasudeva. Sankarshana is his brother Balarama. Pradyumna is Krishna’s son and Aniruddha is his grand-son. They are all war heroes of Yadu dynasty.  From Puraanic point of view, it can be presumed that these war heroes were in course of time apotheosized into these Emanations. From spiritual angle symbolically Vaasudeva represents Chitta (consciousness), Sankarshana Ahankara (egoist), Pradyumna Buddhi (intellct) and Aniruddha Manas (mind). They are known Antahkarana in Vedanta and represent Psychological evolutions.  They are internal organs or faculties. Vishnu is Antahkaranaateeta or over lord of all these four inner-senses.

Later on these Vyoohas were increased to as many as twelve and later to twenty-four; these names of Vishnu are chanted in our daily prayers. Incidentally these 24 names are found in Vishnu Sahasranaama (VSN) composed by Vedavyaasa, delivered to the world by Bheeshma and elaborately explained of its deeper meanings by Sankaracharya after several thousand years. Vishnu-sahasranaama (VSN) is a Naama japa (glorifying the Lord chanting his several names and meditating upon). This mode of prayer has its origin in Sri Rudram, Hymn of praise and prayer to Lord Rudra from Krishna Yajurveda. It contains Chamakam which has mantras that direct us to meditate on odd and even numbers without any explanation. In fact this needed urgent explanation than VSN. Many of the names of Vishnu are self-explanatory.  I wonder how Sankaracharya completely ignored the same and concentrated on VSN.  It is   implied from his name that his Ishtadevata (principal deity) is Rudra and he should have been chanting Chamakam every day. It is unfortunate this missed his intelligent review and commentary. Till date people are struggling to unlock the mystery of these numbers.  The twenty four names of Vishnu are symbolically identified with 24 letters of the most famous and sacred Gaayatree mantra chanted daily by all those who have undergone Upanayana Samskara (sacred thread ceremony for getting ready to study Vedas) as well as others.
The Pancharaatra theology often mentions of the manifestation of Nirguna Brahman as Antaryaamin (the indweller or Self), who cannot be represented through icons. This Antaryamin is also often referred as Sat-Chit-Aananda (Truth-Consciousness-Bliss). Some of the ashtottara satanamavali (108 names of the chosen deity for worship) include the term Sat–Chit-Ananda Vigrahaaya namah in which Bhaktimarga followers in their enthusiasm made an icon of Antaryaamin also to pay their obeisance. This exposes our ignorance of Vedanta and Pancharaatra. We get offended when other religions call us as idolatrous!

Four primordial forms of Vishnu are extolled as emanations of Vishnu. These forms are conceptualized from six divine qualities called Shadguna—Gnosis (Jnaana); Lordship (Aiswarya); Potency (Sakti); Energy (Bala); Valor (Veerya); and Splendor (Tejas). The six qualities are grouped into three sets; the first set comprises of Jnaana, Aiswarya and Sakti.    The second set consists of Bala, Veerya and Tejas. The third set consists of three pairs—Jnana and Bala;  Aiswarya and Veerya ; Sakti and Tejas .  All the six qualities are manifested in Vaasudeva. Jnaana and Bala are manifested in Sankarshana. Aiswarya and Veerya are manifested in Pradyumna. Sakti and Tejas are manifested in Aniruddha.  They are also in that order of Vaasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha. Vaasudeva has four arms (chaturbujha) representing the four dimensions of the created universe--Shrishthi (emergence); Sthiti (maintenance); Samhaara or Laya (dissolution); Mukti (emancipation). From Vaasudeva’s body another body was dragged out namely Sankarshana, red in color and complete in all four aspects (chatushkalaa).  Based on Vaasudeva Sankarshana performed severe penance and produced Pradyumna, the third emanatory form or Vyuha. He was Viswaatma (the universal soul) and was four armed carrying conch, discus, mace and Lotus, symbolizing the four dimensions of the created universe. Pradyumna in turn contemplated and produced half of his own body (dehaardhaa), Aniruddha, the lord of the universe and master of yogins.  They were ritualistically named Paramahamsa (Purusha), Vyoma (Satya), Naada (Achyuta) and Hamsa (Naaraaayana). They represent the great time periods--Kritayuga, Tretaayuga, Dwaaparayuga and Kaliyuga.  The ten incarnations of Vishnu are accommodated within four emanatory form manifestation of Vaasudeva form—Vaamana and Krishna avatars; Sankarshana—Matsya, Koorma, Parasuraama, Raama and Kalki avatars; Pradyumna—Buddha and Aniruddha— Varaaha and Narasimha avatars.

Mandookya Upanishad of 12 mantras only effectively teaches as to the characteristics of the four Vyuhas and the particular state to which they relate. The modes of Upaaasana (contemplation) of these four aspects of Paramaatman ((Supreme Being) and the great benefits that man derives from such meditation are taught briefly and forcefully. Ranga Ramnuja explains that the Paramaatman who is the innerself of the Jeevaatman is never tarnished with any defects in the four states of Jaagrithi (wakeful state, Swapna (dreaming state), Sushupti (dreamless deep sleep state) and Tureeya, ardha maatra (blissful-  Aanadamaya State). These four states correspond to Aniruddha, Pradyumna, Sankarshana and Vasudeva.  The Pranava Om consists of A (akaara), U (ukaara), M (makaaraa) and ardhamatraa (half nasal). These correspond to the four Vyuhas and four states explained above. The Pranava OM signifies the entire universe of sentient and non-sentient. These four states are also expressed as Viswa, Taijasa, Prajnya and Tureeya.  

A--stands for Aniruddha that means passing over the boundaries of the gross body and slowly gliding into the subtle. U--stands for going into the subtle which is called Pradyumna. As the aspirant loses the consciousness of the gross body and moves into subtle body, the increased awareness guides him to the third stage that stands for M the Sankarshana. At this point   the aspirant is automatically pulled towards the eternal naada (sound) and goes into unity with primordial sound. AUM represents the Supreme Divine Power, the Absolute Brahman. A stands for Adimata (beginning or Srishthi), U stands for Utkrisha (progress or Sthiti) and M for Miti (dissolution or Laya)

 In VSN Stanzas 15 and 82 Vishnu’s four forms or aspects are described. These are: 

Chaturaatmaa chaturvyoohas-chatur-damshtras-chatur-bujah| (stanza15)  
Chaturmoortih-chaturbaahus-chaturvyoohas-chaturgatih |
Chaturaatmaa Chaturbhaavas-chaturveda-videkapaat || (stanza 82)

Chaturmoortih:  Puraanas say Vishnu appears in different colors in the four Yugas—Krita in white, Treta in red, Dwaapara in yellow and Kalki in black. The Aaatman or Lord has four distinct expressions in the subjective life of each individual as per Vedanta—The Waker, the Dreamer, the Deep Sleeper and Pure Self.  In microcosm these are called Viswa, Taijasa, Prajna and Tureeya. In macrocosm they are called Viraat, Hiranygarbha, Eaaswara and Paramaatman.
Chatur-baahuh: Vishnu is always shown with four hands. Four hands represent four Antahkaranaas or inner senses. These are four inner controllers or factors that control all physical activities of an individual. These are: Manas (mind), Buddhi) (intellect), Chitta (thought flow towards objects) and   Ahamkaara (ego).  These four regulate and constantly command from within the body all our physical activities.  It could also mean Vishnu commands in all four directions being all pervasive. Iconographical Vishnu is shown with Conch, Discus, Mace and Lotus. These four are used by the Lord to maintain Dharma, Universal orderliness. The conch calls man to the righteous path, chakra annihilates the entire and lotus ultimate goal. Conch (Sankha) stands for the wheel of time (dharma chakra), mind is the discus (Chakra), mace (Gadaa) is ego and Lotus (Padma) stands for Chit or consciousness. The Self functions in the four-fold pattern and Vishnu has the appellation as “the four-armed Lord”.
Chaturvyoohah: Vishnu is in the dynamic center of whirlpool (Vyooha) of activities. The Lord is the center source of all activities. Aitreya Upanishad mentions these four Vyoohas as: the person in the body; the person in the Vedic Mantra (chhandas); the person in the Vedas; and the great person. For the purpose of creation Mahaavishnu became four mighty powers—Vaasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha.
Chatur-Aatmaa or Chatvaraatma:  This is sometimes quoted as Chatvaraatma to mean clear minded. Lord is one who is free from all desires, passions, vanities, in short free from all egos and maladies. Chaturaatma could also mean the four Antahkaranas. Naaraayana is Infinite Effulgence which exhibits as four aspects of inner senses—Manas, Buddhi, Chitta and Ahankaara explained above.
Chatur-gatih: The ultimate goal of all the four Varnas, Aasramas and Purushaarthas. He is the inevitable goal for all activities of the Thinkers (Brahmanas); Rulers (Kshatriyas); Men of Commerce (Vaisyas) and  Workers  (Soodras). He is the inevitable goal of four stages of life: The age of study (Brahmacharya); The Householder (Grihasta); The Retirement (Vaanaprastha); Renunciation (Sanyaasaa).
Chatur-bhaavah: All the four stages of life as above as well as four human goals in life—Dharma (righteousness); Artha (wealth); Kaama (pleasure); Moksha (spiritual liberation)
Chatur Vedavit: Master of all four Vedas—Rig, Yajur, Saama and Atharva.
Chatur damshtrah:  Damshtra means fully developed four canine teeth. This reminds of Narasimha Incarnation as Man-lion. Vishnu’s elephant Airaavata is also described as having four tusks.  These are Puraaanic descriptions. To a Vedantin it means four feet or four states of existence—Wakeful, Dream, Deep-sleep and plane of consciousness called Tureeya.

These 24 names of Vishnu are chanted daily in the Sandhyaavandana ritual. While performing the daily rituals of Sandhyavandana (three times a day—praatah, maadhyahneeka and saayam) it is customary to recite the names of these twenty-four forms and consecrate the twenty-four spots in the body. It would appear that among the thousand names of Vishnu given in the Vishnu-sahasra-naama, twenty-four have been chosen to indicate the Vyuha, Murtyaantara and the further emanatory forms of Vishnu.
Each of the four emanatory forms of Chaturvyuha brings forth three other forms making it to twelve which twelve names are used in Aachamana (lip purification) mantra:
1.       From Vasudeva emanates Kesava, Naraayana, Madhava.
2.       From Sankarshana emanates Vishnu and Madhusoodana.
3.       From Pradyumna emanates Trivikrama, Vaamana and Sreedhara.
4.       From Aniruddha emanates Hrisheekesa, Padmanaabha and Daamodara.
These twelve emanations are together called Moortyaantara or Dwaadasa Moortis.
Eight other forms of emanations are produced from these twelve secondary emanations. These are Purushottama, Adhoksahaja, Naarasimha, Achyuta, Janaardhana, Upendra, Hari and Krishna. In fact these are also further manifestations of the four primary Vyuha-murtis. Thus the four primary vyuha forms, the twelve Moortyaantara forms and the eight supplementary emanatory forms together constitute the 24 forms known as Chaturvimsati Moorti. Iconographically, all these Vyuhaas are identical in appearance except for the arrangement of the four emblems of Vishu—Sankha, Chakra, Gadaa and Padma (Conch, Disc, mace and Lotus). The arrangement of the four weapons of Vishnu follow the circumambulatory (praadakshinya) order—upper right hand, upper left hand normal left hand and finally the normal right hand.  The first form of Kesava carries weapons in the familiar and conventional order: Sankha-Chakra-Gadaa- Padma as chanted in slokas. Sankha with which the enumeration should begin is held in the upper right hand.
Gayatree mantra has 24 letters as described elaborately in my earlier discourses.  Gayatree-saara-sangraha identifies the twenty-four letters of the mantra with Chaturvimsati Moortis, 24 Vishnu deities presiding over the letters as Abhimaani Devatas.

Gayatri Letter
Abhimaani Devata
Name of Vishnu
Bhavatri deva
Sri Krishna

Gayatri Tantra insists that each letter must be contemplated upon (thought and meditated for emancipation); "Varnaanaam chintanam dhyaanam samyak paapapraasanam".  The Gayatree letter associated with each one of the Vishnu deities from Chaturvimsati-moorti makes it all powerful to meditate upon each deity which is also employed in Sandhyavandana Mantra. It also makes Gayatree mantra more powerful.
Deeper meanings of these 24 names of Vishnu were explained by Sankaracharya for the first time and later by many others. These are briefly explained below:
1. Kesavah—one who has beautiful and graceful locks of hair as in Lord Krishna’s form. One who killed the demon Kesin.  Kesa are the rays of the Sun that illumine the Sun, Moon and other effulgent things of the Cosmos. Therefore Vishnu is called Kesava by the learned. Also Ka means Brahma the Creator and Easa means Siva the Destroyer. Both of them are sprung from Vishnu, the Preserver. Hence Vishnu is called Kesavah [VSN 3].
2. Naraayanah—The shelter (Ayanam), for Man (nara); one who is the sole refuge for the entire living beings. One who is the controller, the regulator and the very source of existence Naara tattvas (elements); here Naara means Easvara. One who is waterborne or resting on waters (puraanas). [VSN 3, 69].
3. Maadhavah—Lord of Lakshmi (Maa); Lakshmi also means Knowledge. Lord means Dhava. Therefore the Lord of all knowledge is Maadhava. Maadhava also means one who is silent. One who is the Silent Witness of the physical, mental and intellectual activities in the realm of change; who is a Non-interfering Observer [VSN 3, 8 and 18]
4. Govindah—Go means cow, speech, Vedas and earth. Therefore Govinda means protector of cows; one without whom no speech can emerge out of any throat; one who is the supporter of everything within the individual (earth is the supporter of everything that is existing); Theme and Author of Vedas; One who is to be known (vid) through the declaration of Vedanta (Go). Gobhih means the statement and declarations of the Upanishads (gobhireva yatoe vedyoe govindah samudaahritah) [VSN 58 and 20].
5. Vishnuh—That which pervades everything; long strident--with his three feet as Vaamana he measured the entire universe [VSN 1, 2].
6. Madhusooddanah—One who killed the great demon Madhu. Madhu means honey or fruits of action. These worldly sensuous matters called Vaasanaas which are destroyed by meditation on the Reality. Hence the Supreme is addressed as the destroyer of Madhu [VSN 8].
7. Trivikramah—one who has taken three steps to conquer the three worlds. The three fields of experiences are wakeful, dream and deep sleep states. Stepping across these fields of experiences one reaches the Infinite Consciousness, the Aaatman. This Aaatman is Vishnu [VSN 8].
8. Vaamanah—one who has a small body; In Vaamana incarnation he checked (vamayati) the rising pride of possession in Bali and He in that incarnation as Vatu is called Vaamana [VSN 17].
9. Sreedharah—Vishnu always carries Sree (Lakshmi) in his bosom. Aatman, the Self is never divorced from Its Omnipotence and All-fullness [VSN 65].
10. Hrisheekesa—one who has coiled up his locks of hair (hrish+kesa); Lord of the sense-organs (hrisheeka+Eesa); Hrisheeka also means the rays that gives joy. Hrisheekesa therefore means The Lord of the Rays--the Sun, the Moon and all effulgent bodies [VSN 6].
11. Padmanaabhah—one from whose navel springs the Lotus, the seat of the Creator; Lotus in Hinduism symbolizes the Truth or any of its manifested powers. The creative faculties in man flow from the navel area (center) and manifest as the four-faced inner faculties (antahkarana)—mind, intellect, ego and Chit (Consciousness) [VSN 6, 21, 38].
12. Daamodarah—one in whose bosom rests the whole universe (remember Krishna’s prank dragging the stone tied to his body); one who is known through a mind which is purified (udara) by means of self-control (dama) [VSN 40].
13. Sankarshanah—into whom merges the entire plurality into his own essence; during the great dissolution the entire universe of names and forms merges into Him; Lord Naaraayana who absorbs the whole world into himself at the time of deluge [VSN 59].
14. Vaasudevah—one who is Vas and deva; Vasu means one who dwells in the physical equipment of all living things (jeeva); deva means one who illumines. He is the vital consciousness in the light of which every experience is illumined. All beings remain in the Supreme, and He in all being and hence the Omnipresent is called Vaasudeva. Like the Sun with his rays covering (deva) in all beings and hence called Vaasudeva.  One who envelopes the world with   his Maaya powers of veiling and agitations.  One who revels in every living creature as the Jeeva entity. He is the son of Vasudeva born in the prison of Kamsa. [VSN 36. 74, 76]
15. Pradyumnah— means very rich. He gives riches and mighty glory to his devotees. Pradyumna is third of four manifestations as Vyoohaas or emanations.  He is Yadu warrior and son of Krishna in Puraanas.  [VSN 68]
16. Aniruddha—He who is invincible by any one of his enemies. Aniruddha is a manifestation of Vishnu (vyooha).  He is Yadu warrior celebrated in Mahabharata and grand-son of Krishna [VSN 68]
17. Purushottamah—The Transcendental Truth is indicated by the term Supreme Purusha (parmaatman). [VSN 3]
18. Adhokshajah—He is one whose vitality at no time flows downwards. He is one who is not available for the powers of sense organs to perceive. He is one who remains under both the atmosphere and the earth as the supporter of the entire universe. [VSN 44]
19. Naarasimhah—4th incarnation of Vishnu. He took the form of half human half lion to destroy the atheistic Hiranyakasipu and bless his devotee Prahlaada. [VSN 3]
20. Achyutah—He is one who has not got any modifications such as birth, growth, decay, disease, death etc. He is Eternal, Auspicious and Changeless (saasvatam sivam achyutam). [VSN 35]
21. Janaardanah—one who gives sorrow and disaster to the vicious, and who blesses with joy and peace to the good people. [VSN 14]
22. Upendra—the younger brother of Indra. One who is superior (upa=above) to Indra the king of Gods.  [VSN 17]
23. Harih—Hari means destroyer. Lord Naaraayana is the destroyer of sorrows in life (samsaara) of his devotees.
24. Krishnah—one who delights the Earth (Krish comes from Krishi-agriculture). In Mahaabhaarata Krishna says: “I shall turn myself into plough-share and shall plough the earth”. Krish means Existence (sattaa) and na means Bliss. Therefore Krishna means Existance-Bliss (Sattaa-Aananda). Thus the name Krishna represents the Supreme Parmaatman. Because of dark complexion he is called Krishna. The Krishna (the dark) is the unknown factor that expresses through us--whose manifestations are all our physical, mental and intellectual capabilities. He is therefore called as the Unknown, The dark—Krishna.  That is why Jayadeva addresses him as Jagannatha or Vishnu or Supreme Principal.  It also means one who sweeps away the hearts of those who meditate upon him. [VSN 7, 59]
Aachamana (mouth cleansing) Mantra besides Achyuta and Govinda includes Ananta for all traditions (Saivites and Vaishnavites)
Anantah—it means Endless-one whom is not conditioned by time and place (Self). In his all-pervading nature he is immortal, and thus immutable.

Bhaagavata mentions Naraayana as the son of Dharma by the daughter of Dhaksha Prjaapati. He is a great sage associated with Nara. Nara and Naaraayana are great sages (rishis) and inseparable companions, residing in the hermitage on the Himalayan slopes known as Badrikaasrama. They are regarded as incarnations of Vishnu. In Dwaaparayuga Nara and Naaraayan were Arjuna and Krishna. Bhagvadgeetaa confirms that.

The commonest form of Vishnu icon has one face, four arms holding Sankha (conch), Chakra (disc), Gadaa (mace), Padma (lotus) and wears a necklace with the famous gem Kausthuba dangling on the lock of hair Srivatsa on the left chest. Vishnu is also wearing a garland (of gems or fragrant flowers) Vyjayanti by name. The four arms represent the four quarters indicating absolute power of the Lord in all directions. The Sankha represents the five elements (earth, water, fire, air, sky). The Chakra stands for the cosmic mind. Gadaa indicates the cosmic intellect. The Padma points to the evolving world.  This world can be created only by the combination of five elements, the mind and the intellect. Hence the total meaning of this symbolism is that the Lord Vishnu is the Creator and master of this whole universe.

Final Word
Vishnu’s story begins with Pralaya and ends with Pralaya in the cosmic sense.  The world emerges with water everywhere and the plant life jetting out in the form of lotus which starts blooming. Then comes   Manu the first animate to start creation. Vishnu himself appears as fish. When the earth gets lifted from vast waters it comes with its pristine natural beauty of flora and fauna.  Water rules the world as it is two thirds and earth one third. The major constituent of our body is also water.  There is Orderliness on the earth; Sages call this Rhythm. Is that all illusion? The orderliness appears time after time, again and again. The Wise praise   the same as Truth (Satyam).  We worship the invisible hands behind all these as Parabrahman. We feel its presence everywhere and so call him Vishnu. Vishnu assumes his cosmic role as preserver, protector and patron of life and operates through us. Today the world seems to be decaying, degenerating and drifting towards destruction. The earth is being plundered, heritage is being ignored and culture is being eroded, all in the name of progress.  Here humans have failed to play their role. Vishnu’s cosmic role as preserver, protector and patron of life has acquired immediate significance. Though all things are eventually washed away by the waters of doom Vishnu strives to give life stability and order as long as they all exist. This he will continue to do when everyone finds the spirit of Vishnu within him so as to protect the earth, preserve the heritage and patronize the culture. That is the way we can give value to our world and meaning to our lives.  

Sarvam Vishnumayam Jagatwhole world is pervaded by Vishnu and let us see Vishnu everywhere and in all things.  
Surendra Sankarachrya in verses 24  of Bhajagovindam directs us to realize the glory of Vishnu as follows:

Tvayi mayi sarvatraiko vishnur-vyartham kupyasi mayyasahihnuh | sarvasminnapi pasyaatmaanam sarvatrotsrija bhedajnyaanam ||

Vishnu is there in me, in you and in all others. You are angry with me being unnecessarily intolerant. Please visualize the same Self (Atman) in all. Leave all your thoughts of difference (Medhatiti Sankaracharya).

Satrou mitre putre bandho  maa kuru yatnam vigrahasansanghau | bhava samachittah sarvatra tvam vaanchasyachiraad-yadi Vishnutvam ||

Don’t try to quarrel or compromise with friends, sons or relatives. If you desire the status of Vishnu you should soon become balanced in your thoughts.



Sri Vishnu Kavacham – Yoganidra – Brahma Vaivarta Puranam


The following is a rare Kavacham (armor stuti) on on Lord Vishnu by Lord Krishna taken from Brahma Vaivarta Puranam, Sri Krishna Janma Khanda, and Chapter 12 as told by Yoganidra to Lord Brahma.
The elaborate Phalashruti mentions that by reciting this hymn Goddess Durga was able to destroy Shumbha and Raktabija and Lord Shiva destroy Tripura. One who chants this hymn never gets afflicted by any fear – poison, fire, water, enemies, etc.
yoganidrovāca -
śrīhariḥ pātu me vaktraṁ mastakaṁ madhusūdanaḥ |
śrīkṛṣṇacakṣuṣī pātu nāsikāṁ rādhikāpatiḥ || 1 ||
karṇa-yugmaṁ ca kaṇṭhaṁ ca kapālaṁ pātu mādhavaḥ |
kapolaṁ pātu govindaḥ keśāṁśca keśavaḥ svayam || 2 ||
adharoṣṭhaṁ hṛṣīkeśo dantapaṅktiṁ gadāgrajaḥ |
rāseśvaraśca rasanāṁ tālukaṁ vāmano vibhuḥ || 3 ||
vakṣaḥ pātu mukundaśca jaṭharaṁ pātu daityahā |
janārdanaḥ pātu nābhiṁ ca pātu viṣṇuśca mehanam || 4 ||
nitamba-yugmaṁ guhyaṁ ca pātu me puruṣottamaḥ |
jānu-yugmaṁ jānakīśaḥ pātu te sarvadā vibhuḥ || 5 ||
hasta-yugmaṁ nṛsiṁhaśca pātu sarvatra saṅkaṭe |
pāda-yugmaṁ varāhaśca pātu te kamalodbhavaḥ || 6 ||
ūrdhvaṁ nārāyaṇaḥ pātu hyadhastāt kamalāpatiḥ |
pūrvasyāṁ pātu gopālaḥ pātu vahnau daśāsyahā || 7 ||
vanamālī pātu yāmyāṁ ca vaikuṇṭhaḥ pātu nairṛtī |
vāruṇyāṁ vāsudevaśca sato rakṣākaraḥ svayam || 8 ||
pātu te santatamajo vāyavyāṁ viṣṭaraśravāḥ |
uttare ca sadā pātu tejasā jalajāsanaḥ || 9 ||
aiśānyāṁ īśvaraḥ pātu pātu sarvatra śatrujit |
jale sthale cā'ntarikṣe nidrāyāṁ pātu rāghavaḥ || 10 ||
|| phalaśrutiḥ ||
ityevaṁ kavacaṁ brahman kavacaṁ paramādbhutam |
kṛṣṇena kṛpayā dattaṁ smṛtenaiva purā mayā || 11 ||
 śumbhena saha saṅgrāme nirlakṣye ghora-dāruṇe |
gagane sthitayā sadyaḥ prāpti mātreṇa sa jitaḥ || 12 ||
kavacasya prabhāveṇa dharaṇyāṁ patito mṛtaḥ |
pūrva varṣa śataṁ khe ca kṛtvā yuddhaṁ bhayāvaham || 13 ||
mṛte śumbhe ca govindaḥ kṛpālur gagana-sthitaḥ |
mālāṁ ca kavacaṁ dattvā golokaṁ sa jagāma ha || 14 ||
kalpāntarasya vṛttāntaṁ kṛpayā kathitaṁ mune |
abhyantara bhayaṁ nāsti kavacasya prabhāvataḥ || 15 ||
koṭiśaḥ koṭiśo naṣṭā mayā dṛṣṭāśca vedhasaḥ |
ahaṁ ca hariṇā sārdhaṁ kalpe kalpe sthirā sadā || 16 ||
ityuktvā kavacaṁ dattvā sāntardhānaṁ cakāra ha |
niḥśaṅko nābhikamale tasthau sa kamalodbhavaḥ || 17 ||
suvarṇa guṭikāyāṁ ca kṛtvedaṁ kavacaṁ param |
kaṇṭhe vā dakṣiṇe bāhau badhnīyādyaḥ sudhīḥ sadā || 18 ||
viṣā 'gni jala śatrubhyo bhaya tasya na jāyate |
jale sthale cā'ntarikṣe nidrāyāṁ rakṣatīśvaraḥ || 19 ||
saṅgrāme vajrapāte ca vipattau prāṇasaṅkaṭe |
kavaca smaraṇād eva sadyo niḥśaṅkatāṁ vrajet || 20 ||
baddhvedaṁ kavacaṁ kaṇṭhe śaṅkaras tripuraṁ puraḥ |
jaghāna līlā mātreṇa durantamasureśvaram || 21 ||
baddhvedaṁ kavacaṁ kālī raktabījaṁ cakhāda sā |
sahasraśīrṣā dhṛtvedaṁ viśvaṁ datte tilaṁ yathā || 22 ||
āvāṁ sanatkumāraśca dharmasākṣī ca karmaṇām |
kavacasya prabhāveṇa sarvatra jayino vayam || 23 ||
tasya nandaśiśoḥ kaṇṭhe cakāra kavacaṁ dvijaḥ |
ātmanaḥ kavacaṁ kaṇṭhe dadhāra ca svayaṁ hariḥ || 24 ||
prabhāvaḥ kathitaḥ sarvaḥ kavacasya hares tathā |
anantasyā 'cyutasyaiva prabhāvaṁ atulaṁ mune || 25 ||
|| iti śrībrāhme vaivarte mahāpurāṇe śrīkṛṣṇa-janma-khaṇḍe yoganidrovata śrīviṣṇu kavacaṁ sampūrṇam ||

A.  AACHAMANA MANTRA—Achyutaaya Namah; Anantaaya  Namah; Govindaaya Namah.

1)      Om Kesavaaya Namah (left cheek)—with thumb
2)      Om Naaraayanaaya Namah (left cheek)—with thumb
3)      Om Maadhavaaya Namah (Right eye)—with ring finger
4)      Om Govidaaya Namah (Left eye)—with ring finger
5)      Om Vishnave Namah (Left nose)—with index finger
6)      Om Madhusoodanaaya Namah—with index finger
7)      Om Trivikramaaya Namah (Right  ear)—with small finger
8)      Om Vaamanaaya Namah (Left ear)—with small finger
9)      Om Sreedharaaya Namh (Right shoulder)—with middle finger
10)   Om hrisheekesaaya Namah (Left shoulder)—with middle finger
11)   Om Padmanaabhaaya Namah (All four fingers leaving thumb)—belly button
12)   Om Daamodaraaya Namah (With all fingers)—head

C. JAPA MANTRA (12 Names)—1) Om Kesavaaya Namah; 2) Om Narayanaaya Namah; 3) Om Maadhavaaya Namah; 4) Om Govindaaya Namah; 5) Om Vishnave Namah; 6) Om Madhusoodanaaya Namah;  7) Om Vaamanaaya Namah; 9) Om Sreedharaaya Namah; 10) Om Hrisheekesaaya Namah; 11) Om Padmanaabhaaya Namah; 12) Om Damodaraaya Namah.  These mantras are extended to twenty four names of Vishnu as given in the table above.  It is also customary to chant the 12 names of the spouses of the above 12. These are: Sree; Amritodbhavaa; Kamalaa; Chandrasodaree; Vishnupatnee; Vaishnavee; Varaarohee; Harivallabhee; Saarnginee; Devadevikaa; Surasundaree; Mahaalakshmee.
[Note: Irrespective of the tradition (Siva, Vishnu or Sakta) of one who prays, the above Mantras are chanted during three daylight worships called Sandhyaavanadana. Aaachamana is also performed in all rituals to cleanse the mouth and lips before starting any Hindu worship. These are illustrative of the universal worship of Vishnu by all traditions]

Sri Vishnu Shodasa Nama Stotram with English Translation
Posted by P.R. Ramachander | Apr 16, 2014  | IndiaDivine.Org

This is one of the prayers to be addressed to Lord Vishnu as soon as you wake up. It lists the twelve names of Lord Vishnu to be recited at different times of the day.
Oushade Chinthaye Vishnum,
Bhojane cha Janardhanam,
Sayane Padmanabham cha,
Vivahe cha Prajapathim.
Yuddhe Chakradharam devam,
Pravase cha Trivikramam,
Narayanam Thanu thyage,
Sreedharam priya sangame,
Duswapne smara , Govindam,
Sankate Madhu soodhanam,
Kanane Jalasayinam,
Jalamadhye Varaham cha,
Parvathe Raghu nandanam,
Gamane Vamanam Chaiva ,
Karyeshu Madhavam.
Think him as Vishnu* while taking medicine,
As Janardhana while eating food,
As Padmanabha while in bed,
As Prajapathi at time of marriage,
As Chakra dhara while engaged in war,
As Trivikrama while on travel,
As Narayana on death bed,
As Sreedhara while meeting with the beloved,
As Govinda while tossing with bad dreams,
As Madhu sudhana while in trouble,
As Narasimha while in the forest,
As Jala Sayina while fire is ravaging,
As Varaha while struggling in water,
As Raghu nandana while lost in a mountain,
As Vamana while on the move,
And as Madhava while doing everything.
Shodasaithani Naamani,
Prathar uthaaya ya pathet
Sarva papa vinirmuktho,
Vishnu lokam samopnuyath.
As soon as one wakes up in the morn,
If these twelve names are read,
He would be bereft of all sins,
And reach the world of Vishnu at the end.
Vishnu — He who is spread everywhere
Janardhana – He who punishes evil people
Padhmanabha – He who has a lotus in his belly button
Prajapathi – He who is the chief of people
Chakradhara- He who is armed with the holy wheel
Trivikrama- He who measured all the worlds in three steps
Narayana- He who resides in all things he creates
Sreedhara- He who carries Goddess of Wealth in his chest
Govinda- He who can be attained by Vedas
Madhu Soodhana-He who killed the ogre called Madhu
Naarasimha- He who took the shape of half lion, half human
Jalasayina- He who sleeps on water
Varaha- He who took the shape of the holy boar
Raghu Nandana- The darling of the clan of Raghu
Vaamana- He who took the shape of a dwarf
Madhava-He who is Lord of everything

1.       Ramachandra Rao S.K., Vishnu Kosha, Kalpataru Research Academy, Sringeri Sharada Peetham,  Shankar Math, Bangalore, India.
2.       Swami Harshananda, Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India.
3.       Devdutt Pattanaik, Vishnu, Vakils, Feffer and Simons Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai, India.
4.       Frist center for the Visual Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, Vishnu, Nashville TN.
5.       Swami Chinmayananda,  Vishnusahasranama, Central Chinmaya Mission  Trust, Mumbai, India.
6.       Visual Arts Exhibition of Vishnu, Nashville, TN, USA.
7.       Swami Vimalananda, Mahaanaaraayana Upanishad, Ramkrishna Math, Chennai, India.
8.       Annta Rangacharya, Principal Upanishads Vol-I, Bangalore, India.
9.       Prbha Duneja, Bhagvad GeetaGovindaram Hasanand, Delhi, India.

 [This is a prepared lecture compiled from above references and others for a discourse at Sri Ganesha Temple, Nashville and to benefit those who are not able to attend the same in person. You are free to download and use it for your reading and reference as well as circulate to others to spread the wisdom of Vedas and Hindu values which good act will be appreciated.]