[Advaita-l] Etymology for 'Vishnu' - Shankara in the VSN Bhashya

V Subrahmanian v.subrahmanian at gmail.com
Sat Mar 13 05:57:13 EST 2021

For the word 'Vishnu' occurring in the Vishnu Sahasra Nama as the very
second name, Shankara gives this grammatical derivation:

वेवेष्टि व्याप्नोतीति विष्णुः विषव्याप्त्यभिधायिनो नुक्प्रत्ययान्तस्य रूपं
विष्णुरिति | देशकालवस्तुपरिच्छेदशून्य इत्यर्थः -

[As it envelops, pervades, it is called 'Vishnu'. For the root 'viSh' which
conveys the meaning 'pervading', the suffix 'nu' is added to derive the
word 'vishnu.'  It means: That which is free of limitations due to space,
time and object.]

From this we clearly understand that for Shankara the 'Vishnu' in this
VSN is not an individual entity but the Brahman of the Vedanta which is not
limited by space, time and *object.*  The last one, object-wise limitation,
can be understood thus:

A is different from B and so is B from A.  This is called 'bheda',
difference. Here, A, not being B, is 'absent', abhava, in B. So is with B.
Thus there is anyonya abhava of A and B (in each other). This is what is
meant by A limiting B and vice versa as an object. Such a difference can
exist only between created things and not in Brahman. If Brahman is
admitted to be different from everything 'other' than it such as gods,
humans, animals, etc. and all inert objects, that amounts to admitting the
abhava of Brahman in all these and their abhava in Brahman. This will
result in Brahman not Purna; it will have to remain a-purna.  Hence alone
Brahman is devoid of vastu-pariccheda.  Shankara cites a verse from the

व्याप्य मे रोदसी पार्थ
क्रान्तिरभ्यधिका  स्थिता  ।
क्रमणाद्वाप्यहं पार्थ
विष्णुरित्यभिसंज्ञितः ॥ ( महाभारत, शान्ति ३४१/४२-४३)

[My reach pervades heaven and earth and also beyond it, 'adhikaa' (heaven
and earth). Since I (have) tread (in the Trivikrama form) heaven and earth
too I am known as 'Vishnu'.] (The Trivikrama form, too, has to be
understood as not devoid of the vastu-pariccheda shunya aspect.)

From the above verse we get an important point: Brahman not only pervades
all creation but is 'above', 'beyond' creation as well.  This is stated in
the Purusha Sukta: 'अत्यतिष्ठत् दशाङ्गुलम्' = adhikaa (It is beyond the
creation by 10 inches, meaning, it is beyond creation as well).  In other
words, Brahman is known to be everywhere, everything in creation but also
exists as transcending creation. It is this transcendental aspect of
Brahman that is to be known, realized, for liberation.

Shankara has given us a very clear, unambiguous, meaning for the word
'Vishnu' which is very easily mistaken, restricted, to mean a deity with
conch, discus, etc. and is absolutely different from all other entities.
Shankara has thus conveyed that for him the term Vishnu as Brahman means
Nirguna Brahman.

There itself, Shankara has given another etymology for Vishnu:
विशतेर्वा नुक्प्रत्ययान्तस्य
रूपं विष्णुरिति | Here it means: by 'entering'   the entire created
universe, it is called Vishnu. He cites a verse from the Vishnu Purana:

यस्माद्विष्टमिदं विश्वं यस्य शक्त्या महात्मनः ।
तस्मात्स प्रोच्यते विष्णुर्विशोर्धातोः प्रवेशनात् ॥ ३,१.४५ ॥

[Since the entire world is 'entered' by Its Power, It is called Vishnu upon
the basis of the root 'viSh' meaning 'entering'.]

In the above meaning too, the Nirguna aspect is retained and not given up
since the ever pervading Vishnu cannot really 'enter' something different
from itself.  In other words, the world with all its content can't be
'outside' Brahman for the latter to be able to 'enter' it.  Shankara has at
great length discussed the meaning of the word 'pravesha' in the Taittiriya
Upanishad bhashya.  An article on this topic of pravesha is available


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