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There are fourteen nAmas (= names) of Lord Vishnu which are scripturally most sanctified and which are very often used for the most fundamental of all rituals, namely the Acamanam,are:

achyuta, ananta, keSava, nArAyaNa, mAdhava, govinda, vishNu, madhusUdana, trivikrama, vamana, SriIdhara, hRshIkeSa, padmanAbha, dAmodara.

All these names occur in the vishNu-sahasra-nAma. In fact some of them occur more than once. And commentators wax eloquent in producing different derivations and meanings for the different occurrences of the same name. Of these we have a separate page for nArAyaNa .The names keSava  and vishNu  have already been discussed. The remaining eleven are taken up below. These fourteen are made up of two sets of names, one consisting of three names and the other consisting of twelve names, with the proviso that one name (govinda) occurs in both the sets.. The first set is made up of three names: achyuta, ananta and govinda. These three names are so purificatory that before every act of religious duty one recites achyutAya namahanantAya namaH and govindAya namaH and sips a small drop of water after the recitation of each name and this ritual, being the first part of the Acamanam, is supposed to purify one spiritually. Without such an Acamanam no religious rite or ritual is begun and none is complete; more, at each stage of the ritual, on completion of one part of the ritual one does an Acamanam and on the beginning of the other part of the same ritual one does the Acamanam; so that during an elaborate ritual there are several occasions when one will be doing two Acamanams consecutively. The importance of the Acamanam for spiritual purification can never be overstated. The second part of the Acamanam consists of touching different parts of the body with specified fingers and movements of the right hand, saying as we go along, the remaining twelve names, namely, keSava, nArAyaNa, mAdhava, govinda, vishNu, madhusUdana, trivikrama, vAmana, SriIdhara, hRshIkeSa, padmanAbha, dAmodara. These twelve nAmas have such a great sanctity that orthodox followers of vaishnavism put marks on twelve parts of the body with each mark representing one of these names and this practice became so ingrained in the culture that these marks came to be called 'nAmams' in Tamil . It is significant to note that the famous avatAra-names, rAma and kRSNa are not in these twelve. However, most of the names are also Krishna's names thus reverberating the general thought that Krishna's is a complete avatAra. The only avatAra referred to directly in these twelve names is the vAmana (= dwarf) incarnation in which the Lord after appearing as a dwarf later grows up in cosmic space to extend His feet to the three worlds of the universe and is therefore also referred to as trivikrama. (= the One who took three giant strides ). This incarnation is mentioned in the vedas also very often.

The most important one of these twelve is govinda. Already we have noted above that this name is common to the two fundamentally important sets of names. Govinda means the Lord of the Cows. Go means cow. That is why the lord is also called gopAla (the protector or sustainer of cows). Incidentally the name gopAla does not occur in the vishnu sahasra-nAma but the parallel word, gopati, having the same meaning, occurs. Go also means the word of the vedas. He confers (vindate) the wisdom of the vedas on us, therefore govindah. Also because He is known only by the word or mantras of the vedas. Go also means the Earth. In one of His cosmic manifestations (namely, varAha-avatAra, the incarnation as a giant boar) He recovered the Earth from the demon Hiranyaksha who had carried it away. So He is govindaH. It is interesting to note that Adi Sankara chose this name of God to be used as the deity in his immortal poem 'bhaja govindam' which, within a short span of 30 verses comprises the whole of Hindu philosophy, mythology and metaphysics and is also one of the best devotional stotras that one can enjoy reciting. The folklore is that Sankara immortalised the name govinda in his stotra because it was the name of his guru! The name govinda occurs twice in the sahasra-nAma. A lecture on spiritual matters, particularly the ones which seek to cover a purANa or Ramayana or mahA-bhArata is usually preceded by a chorus recitation of the name govinda, on the prompting of the speaker by the words: sarvatra govinda-nAma-samkIrtanam. The pilgrims who visit the Tirupati temple of the Lord always raise the cry of govindA, govindA throughout their way to the temple and to the sanctorum. The devout, almost till the previous generation, used to remember and recite the name of govinda for every mouthful they eat . The name govinda may thus be seen to pervade the entire cultural milieu of Hinduism.

The name mAdhavaH occurs thrice. mA is lakshmi. Her beloved is mAdhavaH. In ChAndogya upanishad, the technique of madhu-vidyA is taught. It is a way of worship by which one considers the Sun-God as the honey tasted by the divines and through that worship one attains the knowledge of brahman. So He is the One who is realised by madhu-vidyA, therefore mAdhavaH. The third interpretation: mA is the flow of mind. The mind needs to be controlled from its getting dissipated by the sense organs bringing in several images and impressions of distractions. The three methods of controlling the mind are silence, meditation and practice of yoga. These make one get rid of the bondage to the sense-objects. The One who thus channelises the mind away from the sense objects (mAm cittavRttim dhavati dUrI-karoti) is mAdhavaH. Also the family of madhu is one branch of the yadu dynasty. And the One who belongs to the madhu clan is mAdhavaH.Again, mA is learning. The Lord of that learning is mAdhavaH.

SrIdharaH is His name because He holds SrI, the divine Mother, the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, in His divine chest. She is therefore the most proximate to the Lord and that is why we pray to Her to plead for our cause.

hRshIkeSaH is His name because He is the Lord of the senses which bring us all the pleasures of life. harsha is happiness or pleasure. hRshIkA is that which causes pleasure. The Lord of all the hRshIkAs is hRshIkeSaH. . He is the One who remains as the Moon in our mind, as the Sun in our eyes, and other deities in our various senses and make them sense. So He is the lord of these all, therefore hRshIkesaH. Also hRshI means the light rays from the Sun and the Moon; they are the ones which bring us the pleasures of Mother Nature. They are His keSas,that is, they are His rightful property, therefore hRshIkeSaH.

padmanAbhaH appears three times in the sahsra-nAma. padma means lotus and nAbhi means the navel. The three meanings of padmanAbha are: He in whose navel stands the lotus from which the creator brahmA, the source of the universe, originated; He whose navel is beautifully shaped like a lotus; He who resides in the central part of the heart lotus - the reference here being to the vedic passage which says: It (The Supreme) lies below the heart as an inverted lotus, the stalk of the lotus reaching just above the navel: (nArAyaNopanishad)

padma-koSa-pratIkASam hRdayam cApy-adho-mukham /

adho nishTyA vitastyAnte nAbhyAmupari tishTati //

In addition to these three meanings padmanAbha has an esoteric meaning derived from the fact that the word mahA-padma stands for the number million-million (10 raised to the power 12). The name symbolically states that the Transcendental Supreme is the Ultimate source of Time . 

The name dAmodara has the unique distinction of building into itself the two parts of the Lord - one, the naivete that was exhibited by Him when He as a child was bound by a few feet of rope tied around his waist by His mother Yasoda; and the other, the divine grandeur which in its cosmic form has the entire universe in its stomach. dAma means rope. His stomach (udara) was bound by the rope affectionately tied round his waist by the mother. dAma also means abode; the abode of the whole universe is His stomach. A third meaning is: he is greatly compassionate (udAra ) towards even sinful people, because of his self-control (dama).

There are several names of the lord which contain a whole mythological event within the name. One such name is madhu-sUdanaH. The story is pretty complicated. We extract it from devI-bhAgavatam chapter 1. After each deluge, the next morning (of the Cosmic Day of brahmA) the Creator has to create from scratch. At the beginning of one such morning, two demons arose from the dirt of the Lord's ear (who was just rising up from His Cosmic yogic sleep) and from the tamo-guNa which was the first thing that emanated from the creator. These demons were madhu and kaiTabha. The creator caused the first sound vibration of AUM and from that the vedas arose. But the two demons took away the vedas and made them inaccessible. The Lord took the manifestation as haya-grIva and brought the vedas back. The demons were furious and began to shake up the very foundations of the divine lotus stalk which was the seat of the Creator from which He was to start His work of creation. So the Lord decided to do away with the two demons who were nothing but tamo-guNa personified. The Lord promised to give them whatever they wanted. They were arrogant enough to throw back the same question of the Lord: What boon do you want from us? The Lord now replied: I want your death! They replied very 'cleverly', 'yes, you can destroy us, provided you do it in sky uncovered by cloth'! The Lord removed the cloth covering His thighs, put them on his lap and destroyed them. It is important to note here that in the Lord's Cosmic Form, His feet are the Earth and His thighs are the space of the sky. (cf. bhUh pAdau yasya nAbhir viyat … ) So His act of removing the cloth from His thighs fulfilled the demons' requirement of a sky uncovered by cloth. What they thought would not happen did happen by the Lord's strategy. This is the lIlA of the Lord to kill the two asuras madhu and kaitabha. Therefore He is madhu-sUdanaH.

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