Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
All of us know that the Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram contains a thousand names of the Lord. Each of these refers to a particular auspicious attribute, a specific quality of Emperuman, among His innumerable ones. As His enchanting traits are endless, so too are His names describing the former and afford infinite delight to devotees, who find the divine names delectable to utter, sing and to contemplate. Among these names, however, we find that some find greater favour with bhaktas than others. For instance, we find several Maharshis and Poorvacharyas enamoured with the tirunaamam, “Bhagawan”.
Manu, while describing the process of creation, uses the term to denote the Parabhrahmam. Sri Ramanuja uses the name any number of times in his commentaries on Brahma Sutras and more frequently in the Gita Bhashya and Gadyas. Sri Bhattar is so taken up with the moniker that he has named his commentary on Vishnu Sahasranamam as “Bhagavat Guna Darpanam”-a mirror reflecting the flawless attributes of the Ultimate. Swami Desikan too finds the name glorious and great. If such exalted souls have been partial to this sobriquet “Bhagawan”, there must indeed be something in it. Shall we see what exactly the term means and why it should endear itself to devotees?
The etymological significance of the term “Bhagawan” is brought out by Sri Vishnu Puranam. The word consists of the principal word “Bhaga:” and the suffix “wan” denotes one who possesses this “Bhagam”. “Bha” and “ga” are the two letters constituting the word “Bhaga:” Of these, the first letter “Bha” indicates the qualities of absolute ownership or Overlordship (“Swaamitvam”) and the capability of making non-sentient matter undergo transformation, resulting in the process of creation-“Sambhartaa iti tatthaa bhartaa Bhakaara: artthadvayaanvita:” Emperuman is the sole proprietor of all things and people that we find in this world and others. Everything belongs to Him, forever. Irrespective of what the individual may think, regardless of our own misconceived feeling of absolute freedom, all of us belong, body and soul, to the Lord. And it is He who, during creation, transforms inert matter into objects and bodies for souls, to enable them to work off their Karma. The second letter “ga” refers to the Lord being the Creator, Protector and Destroyer of the universe.
Thus, read together, the term “Bhaga:” comprehensively describes the unbeatable combination of six great gunas-Ishvaryam, Veeryam, Yashas (glory), Richness beyond contemplation, Gnaanam and Vairaagyam, which make the Lord what He is. This is clear from the following Vishnu Purana slokam-
“Iysvaryasya samagrasya Veeryasya yashasa: Sriya:
Gnaana Vairaagyayo: chaiva shannaam Bhaga iteerana”
The letter “wa” in the name “Bhagawan” indicates that the Paramatma is the Inner Dweller of all sentient beings and insentient objects, having them as His body and residing in them eternally. And they too have Him as their immutable abode. This aspect is brought out by the letter “wa”.
Summarizing the glorious import derived from the individual meanings of the letters “Bha”, “ga” and “wa”, the Vishnu Purana tells us that Bhagawan is one who possesses the six principal and premier traits of Gnaanam, Balam, Isvaryam, Veeryam, Shakti and Tejas. Though each of these attributes calls for separate volumes of description, shall we see briefly what they represent?
1. Gnaanam is infinite, instantaneous and immaculate knowledge, by which the Lord is able to see and know all that happens in His vast domain, irrespective of whether it is done in public or private. We may fondly imagine that the sins we commit in private, whether in thought or deed, are unknown to anyone-but the Lord always knows, for no event, however insignificant and however carefully hidden from the public gaze, can ever escape Emperuman’s vigilant eyes and knowledge– He is instantly aware of everything, as it happens, or even before-“Yo vetti yugapat sarvam, pratyakshena sada svata:” says Sri Nathamuni, describing the Lord’s omniscience.
2. Balam: It is Emperuman who bears the burden of the entire lot of universes, cosmos and galaxies. It is He who shores them up and is their unwavering support. And all this He does effortlessly. Some of us may be able to lift a 20 kilo weight, some 200, but even for the strongest of us there is a limit to the weight we can hoist. And even while lifting and bearing these weights, we have to strain every sinew and grunt and groan with the resultant stress. However, despite the unimaginable load of all the universes on His apparently delicate shoulders, the Lord is not a bit strained. For Him, the exercise is effortless and absolutely nothing to speak of. This phenomenal and prodigious strength characterized by effortlessness and absence of fatigue, is Balam.
3. Isvaryam: The Lord controls the entire gamut of beings and objects in all the worlds, irrespective of their individual status. There is none who is immune to His dictates, whether it is the mighty emperor of all lands or even Brahma or Rudra, supposedly in charge of creation and destruction of these worlds. This uninhibited Lordship and infinite control over all sentient beings and non-sentient objects are known as Isvaryam.
4.Veeryam: Despite being the singular source of all creation, despite bearing all components of His vast empire single-handedly, despite controlling and directing all His innumerable subjects, Emperuman Himself does not undergo any change and remains immutable. None of the aforesaid functions and burdens causes any change in Him. This trait of Virility and of remaining immutable despite the discharge of onerous responsibilities is what is known as Veeryam.
5. Shakti: The Lord is the Primordial Cause, from which all Creation sprouts. It is the potency to become the material cause of the world, as also the power of bringing about what appears impossible, that constitute Shakti. It is interesting to note that the Tamizh savant Tiruvalluvar too used the term Bhagawan to denote the material cause of the world-“Aadi Bhagawan mudattre ulagu”.
6. Tejas: In performing His various functions as enumerated above, Emperuman does not need any assistance, either by way of implements or lackeys, being entirely capable of carrying out His onerous tasks by Himself. While even a potter, manufacturing humble pots and pans, needs his wheel and other implements for producing pots, the Lord needs no such assistance even in the monumental and complex process of Creation. He is totally independent of others and singularly self-sufficient, needing none to extend a helping hand in His endeavours. This, in short, is Tejas. Alternative purports of this word are unmatched splendour, matchless might and the power to overcome others, however mighty.
It is the glorious combination of the aforesaid six traits that is depicted by the short word “Bhagawan”.
The Vishnu Puranam itself provides another definition of the term- as one who knows the origin and end, the arrival and exit, of beings, as also Vidya and Avidya-
“Utpattim Pralayam chaiva bhootaanaam aagatim gatim
Vetti vidyaam avidyaam cha sa vaachyo Bhagawan iti”
However, a closer look at this definition would tell us that it is only an expansion and extension of the divine attribute of Gnaanam, detailed above.
Sri Bhattar’s commentary on the tirunaamam is unique. He defines Bhagawan as one endowed with all auspicious qualities, eminently worthy of worship by virtue of His essential nature, which is the antithesis of all that is bad and negative-
“Sarva heya pratyaneeka kalyaanaatmakatayaa sthita:
Poojyaat poojyatamee yosou Bhagawan iti sabdyate”.
From all the aforesaid, it is clear that the word “Bhagawan” denotes the Parabrahmam, Sriman Narayana, the Ultimate and the Almighty all rolled into one. However, we are assailed by a doubt here. In several contexts, we have seen the term being used to denote several others, no doubt great and glorious, but who cannot hold a candle to the Lord in any respect. Instances are galore of such usage, in the epics Srimad Ramayanam and Sri Mahabharatam, where even Sri Rama and Sri Krishna address elders and Maharshis as “Bhagawan!”. Even the Mahopanishad contains a reference to the four-headed Brahmaa as “Bhagawan”-“Sa eva Bhagawan Brahmaa sarva loka pitaamaha:” The same Upanishad refers to Veda Vyasa too as Bhagawan-“Vyaasopi Bhagawan buddhva putra abhipraayam eedrisam”. In the Mahabharata, elders and Rishis are routinely referred to as Bhagawan-the term is used to refer to Kasyapa-“tam aagatam abhiprekshya Bhagawan Kasyapa: tada”
to Bhrigu Maharshi-“Brahmano hridayam bhitva nissruto Bhagawan Bhrigu:”:
to Vasishtta- “atha abhyaagacchat Bharataan Vasishtto Bhagawan Rishi:”
to Agni-“Tatheti tat pratishrutya Bhagawan Havyavaahana;”.
Even the deity of the waters and the Himalayas are referred to reverentially as Bhagawan-“Hiranya shringo Bhagawan maha mani mayo giri:”, “yatha Samudro Bhagawan yatha cha Himavaan giri:” etc.
And to add to the confusion, the Amara Kosam tells us that Bhagawan is definitely one of the names of the Buddha-
“Ashtaadasa naamaani Buddhasya-
“Sarvagya: Sugata: Buddha: Dharmaraja: Tathaagata:
Samanta bhadro Bhagawan Maarajoka Ujijjina:”
From all these and a plethora of similar references, are we to conclude that Bhagawan is a generic and general term referring to all who are great, even if their glory is nothing compared to the Lord’s? It does appear as though it is a common word, applied to all who have some aspect of greatness in them and not necessarily and exclusively to the Lord. In Srimad Ramayanam, it is very common to find Sri Rama addressing Maharshis by this honorific.
The beauty of our Scriptures is that all sorts of doubts that may occur to lesser mortals like us, have been foreseen and comprehensively clarified. The Vishnu Puranam, which furnishes various definitions of the word Bhagawan, also tells us that it refers unequivocally to the Lord alone. Wherever it is used to denote others, it is used in a laudatory sense and as an honorific-it does not at all mean that the subject so addressed possesses the entire gamut of attributes which the term is capable of denoting. It is thus used merely to convey respect and regard, when applied to entities other than Emperuman. It is used to indicate esteem and deference and not the absolute devotion to which only the Lord is entitled.
Here is the categorical sloka from Sri Vishnu Puranam, which clarifies beyond doubt that Bhagawan refers only to the Ultimate and to none other-
“Evam esha maha sabda: Maitreya! Bhagawan iti
Parama Brahma bhootasya Vasudevasya naanyaga:
Tatra poojya padaarthokti paribhaasha samanvita:
Sabdoyam na upachaarena anyatra hi upachaarata:”
The term is used in its most comprehensive sense when applied to the Lord and in other cases, in an extremely limited sense, intended merely to convey respect and reverence. For anyone who still has any doubt in this regard, here is the Varaha Purana slokam, which lays down beyond misgiving and misconception, that it is indeed Emperuman who is entitled to be addressed as Bhagawan and as Purusha, without any reservation whatsoever, the sobriquet suiting Him perfectly and highlighting His essential nature and enchanting attributes-
“Bhagawan iti sabdoyam tatha Purusha ityapi
nirupaadhee cha vartete Vasudeve sanaatane”.
This becomes clear to us when we find even those lesser beings, who are referred to as Bhagawan, themselves addressing Emperuman Sriman Narayana by the term, thus forsaking any claim to the status and sobriquet. Leave alone the Vishnu Sahasranamam, which is after all specifically adulatory of Sri Vishnu. We find that the Siva Sahasranamam too refers to Sri Mahavishnu as Bhagawan, telling us how the Devas in their entirety paid obeisance to the Lord-
“Taan sameekshya atha Bhagawan deva devesvaro Hari:
Pranipatya sthitaan devaan idam vachanam abraveet”
Devi Maahaatmyam and Durga Saptasati, both of which are indubitably in praise of Shakti, lavish unrestrained praise on Sriman Narayana, acknowledging Him to be the Parabrahmam, by referring to Him as Bhagawan. In the portion dealing with the Lord’s encounter with Madhu and Kaitapa, the Bhagavat sabdam is used reverentially to denote the Lord, praising Him as the only entity surviving the cosmic floods-
“Aasteerya Sesham abhajat kalpaante Bhagawan Prabhu:
Tadaa dvou asurou ghorou vikhyaatou Madhu Kaitapou”
Srimad Bhagavatam confirms that none other than the Lord can be indicated by the term Bhagavan, in its true sense-“Bhagawan anyo Mukundaat ko naama loke!”. Only Sri Krishna is Bhagawan, says another text-“Krishnastu Bhagawan swayam”. Sri Madhwacharya tells us that because He is Bhagawan, He is entirely independent-“Vishnu: svatantra: Bhagawatvaat”. Quoting from the Bhaagawata Tantrasara, it is Sri Madhwacharya again, who proclaims that Bhagawan is one who is responsible for the mutation of everything sentient and non-sentient, while Himself remaining immutable. Though Sri Mahabharata contains any number of references to others being addressed as Bhagawan, whenever Sri Krishna says something, it is prefaced with “Sri Bhagawan uvaacha” (Thus spoke the Lord), thus clearing all possible doubts as to whom the term really means. Similarly, the word “Bhagawati”, the feminine equivalent of Bhagawan, denotes only Sri Mahalakshmi, in its comprehensive sense, though it is applied laudatorily to other deities too.
I received an invitation yesterday, addressed to “U.Ve. Sri Satakopa Iyengar Swamy”! The sender had conferred on me the title of “Ubhaya Vedanta Vidvan”, little knowing that I was neither Vidvan, nor had mastered even one Vedanta, leave alone “Ubhaya” (two) Vedantas. Perhaps he meant the title “U.Ve.” merely as a mark of his (rather misplaced) regard for me. Whither an ignoramus like me and whither mastery of Vedantas! It was then that it struck me that addressing anyone as Bhagawan is something similar-we don’t really mean it, as it sits well only on the Paramatma.
Srimate Sri LakshmiNrisimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:
Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore