A major sādhana in Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism is the chanting of Bhagavān’s name (nāma in Sanskrit). It is not surprising, then, that Sri Jiva methodically analyzes the subject of nāma in the Sandarbhas. Here, we discuss key attributes of Bhagavān’s names.
Bhagavan’s names are not mental constructs like other names in the world.
In Anuccheda 47 of the Bhagavat Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva starts by defining the name of any object:
मनोग्राह्यस्य वस्तुनो व्यवहारार्थं केनापि संकेतितः सङ्केतितः शब्दः नाम – The verbal symbol used to designate objects perceptible to the mind is called a name (nāma)
A characteristic feature of these names is that the object first exists, and then a word is developed to designate it. For example, the word ‘cellphone’ did not exist, say a hundred years ago. Once the object came into existence, then the word was coined. In this sense, all names are kalpita or mentally constructed to denote an object. The names in themselves are not intrinsic to the object at all; rather they serve to recall the object when heard. Thus, if someone has prior knowledge of the characteristics of the object called cellphone, but does not know that the object carries the name ‘cellphone’, he or she will not comprehend the word ‘cellphone’ upon hearing it. Names in the material world do not have independent potency to give an experience of the objects they denote.
Śrī Jīva Goswami explains that Bhagavān’s names, such as Krṣṇa or Rāma, are not kalpita, or mentally constructed in the manner above. This is because Bhagavān is outside the range of experience. As a result, His qualities are entirely unknown to people, and therefore the question of imagining a name to denote Him does not arise.
Bhagavān’s name is self-existent and known only through scripture
Instead, Bhagavān’s names are independent of anything else in existence, that is, they are self-existent (स्वतः सिद्ध). Śrī Jīva Goswami explains that Bhagavān’s names are imperceptible to material means of acquiring knowledge. This means that the only way to access them is through the Vedas. Śrī Jīva writes-
..कल्पनामयं नाम तन्नामिनं चार्थं सर्वमवज्ञाय निखिलप्रमाणपरिच्छेदागोचरत्वेन वेदात्मतया स्वतःसिद्धैः कृष्णादिनामोपलक्षणैः प्रसिद्धैरेव नामभिः स्वतःसिद्धस्त्वमेवेड्यसे मुनिभिर्वेदैश्च श्लाघ्यसे।न तु कल्पनामयैरन्यैस्त्वमपि श्लघ्यसे।तादृशमहिमभिस्तैरेव तव महिमा व्यक्तीभवतीति।
The self-existent Bhagavān is worshipped instead through self-existent, celebrated names, such as Krṣṇa, by the sages and the Vedas. These self-existent names constitute the Vedas, transcend all material names and their corresponding objects, and are imperceptible by any means of acquiring knowledge. Thus, Bhagavān is not glorified by manufactured names, or in other words, by names that are a product of conceptualization. Only transcendental names with the above characteristics can manifest Bhagavān’s glory.
He further adds,
अत्र यैः शास्त्रेSतिप्रसिद्धैः श्रीभगवानेव झटिति प्रतीतो भवति येषां च साङ्केत्यादावपि तादृशप्रभावः श्रूयते तेषां स्वतः सिद्धत्वमन्येषां कल्पानामयत्वं ज्ञेयम्
It should be understood that only those names that are celebrated in scripture, that invoke instant remembrance of Bhagavān and that manifest their potency even if chanted incidentally, are considered to be self-existent. All other names are a product of thought construction.
Another way to understand how Bhagavān’s names are self-existent is the fact that these names precede the existence of material sound itself. Material sound comes into being when the universe comes into being, but Bhagavān’s names are the very cause of the universe.
Bhagavān’s names are conscious
Unlike material names which are just pressure waves in a medium and are inert or lifeless, Bhagavān’s names are conscious. Śrī Jīva provides an interesting quote from the Rig Veda to support this-
ऊँ आस्य जानन्तो नाम चिद् विवक्तन महस्ते विष्णो सुमतिं भजामहे।
Om. O Śrī Viṣṇu! By chanting Your Name, which is conscious and glorious, we who have little knowledge about the Name attain true insight. This name is eternal. (RV 1.156.36)
Thus, when one chants Bhagavān’s name, one is interacting directly with the conscious Bhagavān. Śrī Jīva writes,
तथा श्रीभागवत इव तस्य नाम्नः सकृदपि साक्षात्कारः संसारध्वंसको भवति – Similarly, if one directly contacts the Name, even once, his material existence is destroyed, exactly as if he had witnessed Bhagavān directly.
There is no difference between Bhagavān and His names
As discussed above, there is a difference between the name and the object it denotes. The name is articulated with the tongue and heard with the ear, while the object it denotes exists independently elsewhere. This distinction between the name (nāma) and object (nāmi) is not present in Bhagavān’s name. This non-difference between nāma and nāmi is completely foreign to our experience.