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Why Lord Vishnu is Called as

Shunyah or Zero in the Vishnu


Sahasranama?

One of the namas in the Sahasranamam that Im always intrigued by is the


name shunyah given to Vishnu, which appears in sloka No. 79:

suvarnavarno hemango varangas chandhanangadhi


viraha vishamaha sunyo grithasirachalaschalaha
The Sanskrit word sunya means zero, nullity, cipher, emptiness.
It would strike anyone as extremely odd that the Sahasranamam should
choose to call Lord Vishnu as Zero! You can understand God being called
ekaha, the One Supreme Being. The essence of all monistic theism lies in
the belief that God is One (the Upanishad says, sayaschayam purushe;
yaschasavadhithye; sa ekaha).
You can understand too God being addressed as ananthaha the Infinite, as
in the Sahasranamam stanza 70:
kamadhevaha kamapalaha kami kanthaha krithagamaha
anirdhesya vapurvishnuhu viro nantho dhananjayaha
Since God is Immeasurable it seems plainly alright to name Him
ananthaha the Infinite. But how is one to explain hailing the Almighty as
shunyah the Cipher?
There is a view that If Infinity is immeasurable, so is Zero. Mathematically
speaking, one could define zero to be anti-infinity. If Infinity is
immeasurable plenitude, Zero is immeasurable emptiness. If you were to
imagine, say, an interminable series of values, from zero to infinity, floating
somewhere out there in endless space, then, surely, Zero would be at one
end of it while Infinity would be found at the other end, wherever, that is,
the two ends may be found, if at all. And if you reflect upon it deeply, that
would make out Zero and Infinity to be two sides of the same ungraspable coin.
By the same logic, you might say the Sanskrit ananthaha and shunyah
might seem antonymous but in reality they mean the same thing. Hailing

God Almighty as Lord Infinity is hence no different from hailing Him Lord
Zero.
Incredible logic notwithstanding, we know for a fact however that the
Infinite and the Cipher are never really the same thing. None of us would
be willing to exchange one for the other if it came to a real choice between
the two. If I go up, for instance, to a venerable acharya or guru and
prostrate at his feet, I would expect him to shower his benediction upon me
saying, May you be blessed in life, my son, with Gods infinite Grace! If
instead the man were to say, May Gods zero grace be thine in life!, the
blessing would stand transformed into a vicious curse, wouldnt it?
So then, why is God, who is Infinite Being, being called sunya, a Zero the
very opposite of infinity? The traditional commentators of the VishnuSahasranamam offer us some explanation in their respective bhashyas.
Lets take up Adhi Sankaras Sahasranama bhashya first.
In his commentary, Sri Sankara (6th CE) explains sunya as an apt nama
for God, the Supreme Brahman, who is nirguna i.e. the Being who is
totally devoid of any qualities or attributes. In other words, according to
Sankaras school of metaphysics, God is guna sunyan.
According to this explanation, God transcends all attributes. His qualities like
omnipotence, omniscience etc. only serve to help us in ascertaining His
reality but they do not per se define Him. The truth of Gods existence
cannot be grasped by us with reference to His qualities or guna alone,
says Sankara. Brahman is to be apprehended as an Absolute Being who
stands far apart from and quite beyond any of His infinitely (ananthaha)
great qualities i.e. He is nirguna brahman, a Being without qualities, a
Being with zero qualities. Hence it is fit to call Him shunyah

Lets turn to the other explanation found in the commentary of Sri Parashara
Bhattar (11th CE) on the Vishnu Sahasranamam titled bhagavadh guna
dharpanam.
Bhattar explains shunyah in the typical way of the school of Visishtadvaitha
theology. According to this school, God is the Supreme Abode of all
auspicious attributes. The Almighty is full of innumerable good qualities like
gny+an+a, bala, aiswarya, virya, shakthi and thejas. In
Visishtadvaitha, God is ananthakalyana guna ganan+ (to use a famous
expression of Sri Ramanujacharya) i.e. Brahman is Being with infinite
number of happy and wholesome attributes. The theology next states that
God, by corollary, is also totally devoid of inauspicious, un-wholesome or
negative qualities.
According to Bhattar, in so far as, Brahman is replete with infinitely good
attributes, He is to be known as ananthaha. And in so far as He is
absolutely bereft of defective qualities, He is to be known as the God of
zero-defects in other words, He is shunyah.

From a purely theological standpoint both explanations above are equally


valid and wholly satisfying (depending, of course, upon which school of
Vedanta Sankaras or Ramanujas one is predisposed towards). All the
same, for one who is not steeped in the various nuances and niceties of
Vedhantic theology, (especially for one who cannot really appreciate the

technical difference between the metaphysical nirguna and savisesha


Brahman), the explanations of Adhi Sankara and Parashara Bhattar for
sunya might only seem to resemble the case of the proverbial bottle that
got described as half-empty by one and half-full by another.
Even leaving theological considerations aside, one can still regard Zero to be
a remarkably apt nama for the Almighty. Common knowledge of the world
around us reveals how allpowerful the concept of Zero, sunya, truly is.
When we look at the history of Zero, we realize why sunya is almighty
indeed!
Until about 1500 years ago nobody in the world outside India could count
numbers beyond 9 without enormous difficulty. The entire Graeco-Roman
Western world knew nothing about the Hindu-Arabic system of numerals that
prevails in the entire world today. The Romans depended upon alphabets to
denote numbers such as I, X and C or with V, L and D. In their system the
number 32 had to be written, for example, as XXXII but writing a number
like 3200 or 32000 for the Greeks and Romans presented a huge, often
insurmountable problem! For several centuries the Graeco-Roman civilization
struggled with this cumbersome system of numbering. It was the principal
reason why for almost a thousand years Western mathematics hardly
advanced beyond being a method of elementary counting and mensuration
using crude devices like the abacus. The Greeks and Romans had no
knowledge of how to deal with large numbers, ratios, series, complex
algebraic functions and calculations all childs play for any high-school
student today. Western thought simply stagnated for ages since it could just
not grapple with the mathematical problem of large numbers and
calculations.
Somewhere between 1000 and 1200 AD, the Western world came in contact
with the Arab world and that was when the Hindu-Arabic system of numerals
opened the eyes of the Europeans to a whole new world of mathematical
thought.

The Arabs had for long borrowed and been using the Hindu system of
numerals that had been in use in ancient India for more than a thousand
years earlier. The Hindu system did not use alphabets but a simple but
versatile scheme of numeric symbols starting from Zero the famous
sunya and ending with 9. These symbolic numerals made it so easy to
represent and calculate numerate values anywhere from zero to infinity in
quick time. They enabled complex functions and calculations. They made it
possible to represent the most formidable series of values by a mere formula
which in turn facilitated further complex mathematical functions! The
Western world realized for the first time ever the power of the Hindu
numeral system: a power that became the inspiration for all the
mathematical advancements to later come out of Europe: algebra, ratios,
surds, functions such as squares, cube and root, series and progressions,
logarithmic tables, quadratic equations and so on and so forth.
It was the power of Zero, sunya, indeed, that made the European
Renaissance possible the Renaissance that eventually gave birth to all the
wonderful discoveries of modern mathematics such as Fibionacci series,
Pascals Probability theory and even Newtons Calculus! The concept of Zero
unleashed something more profound than just an enhanced method of
counting and calculating. Zero revolutionized the old modes of human
thought. It meant firstly people could use only ten digits, from 0 to 9, to
perform every conceivable calculation and to write any conceivable number.
Secondly, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities for abstract human
thinking that had been simply unthinkable before!

How did the ancient Hindus discover such a powerful concept as sunya
while the rest of the world remained ignorant of Zero for ages?
To grasp the concept of sunya required a very high level of intellectual and
spiritual advancement as what prevailed in India during and after the Vedic
period. As the English philosopher, A.N.Whitehead wrote: The point about
zero is that we do not need to use it in the operations of daily life. No one
goes out to buy zero fish or eggs. (But) It is in a way the most civilized of all
the cardinals, and its use is only forced on us by the needs of cultivated
modes of thought. Vedic mathematics and astronomy of those ancient times
clearly bear evidence to the highly sophisticated conceptual and ideological

skills that our Indian forbears possessed. There was no doubt at all that the
ancient Vedic Indians who gave to the whole world the idea of sunya were
indeed masters of the most civilized and cultivated modes of thought.

There was a great mathematician in India who lived in the 10th century CE,
He was Bhaskaracharya. He wrote several pioneering treatises (in Sanskrit)
on Vedic mathematics. In one of the treatises, it is said, he wrote a small
dedication: To the Supreme Brahman, who is Infinity, I offer my salutation.
Bhaskaracharya used the Sanskrit word khahara to denote God as
Infinity in the dedication. It is derived from kham which means Zero
and hara meaning divided. The word khahara was meant to indicate
that God who is Infinity is related to Zero.
Bhaskaracharya was the first mathematician to reveal to the world the
intimate relationship between sunya and ananthaha, between Zero and
Infinity. Any quantity divided by sunya is equal to Infinity, he said. Take a
value like 16 and divide it (haraha) with progressively decreasing divisors.
What happens? The quotient progressively enlarges. For e.g. 16 divided by 4
= 4; and 16 divided by 2 = 8; and eventually when 16 is divided by 0 it
equals Infinity! Every quantity, every value in the world, when divided by
sunya, results in the same quotient or result viz. Infinity, ananthaha
Such is the mighty power of Zero that it can raise and relate all values on
earth to the exalted state of Infinity that very same state in which God
Almighty, the Vishnu of the sacred Sahasranama, is said to eternally reside
and rule!