Narayaniya (Narayaneeyam)

by Vishwa Adluri | 41,385 words

The English translation of the Narayaniya (Narayaneeyam), literally, “the work containing everything about Narayana”) which is a small text of 1006 verses occurring in the Shantiparva of the Mahabharata. The aim of the text is the glorification of the God Hari-Narayana, who is described as the God of gods (devadeva). Narayana is described as the g...

Introduction (to the Nārāyaṇīya)

The Nārāyaṇīya

The Nārāyaṇīya or “(the work containing) everything about Nārāyaṇa” (or “(the work) promulgated by Nārāyaṇa”[1]) is a small text of 1006 verses occurring in the Śāntiparvan of the Mahābhārata.[2] The name of this text, which is found consistently in the manuscript colophons, is possibly derived from verses 12.326.100–101 of the text: “This great Upaniṣad, perfectly consonant with the four Vedas, nourished with Sāṃkhya and Yoga is sung by Nārāyaṇa and designated Pañcarātra by Him, dear one. Nārada told this again in Brahmā’s dwelling exactly as was seen and heard [on Śvetadvīpa].”[3] The Nārāyaṇīya, then, would be the knowledge[4] concerning Nārāyaṇa or the knowledge uttered by Nārāyaṇīya (concerning himself). The principal aim of the Nārāyaṇīya is the glorification of the God Hari-Nārāyaṇa, who is described as the God of gods (devadeva, 12.325.4[1]), the Creator (prajāpati, 12.325.4[18]), the Supreme Soul (paramātma), and the supreme Brahman. The text unfolds a monistic ontology that explains how the One Being, though remaining distinct from and transcending all beings, nonetheless is the indwelling Self of all beings (antarātmā bhūtāna, 12.321.28), the knower of the field (kṣetrajña, 12.321.28) and the allpervading witness (sarvagataḥ sākṣī, 12.326.21). Nārāyaṇa is described as the goal not only of all sacrifices and rites but also of austerities and the different philosophical systems of Sāṃkhya, Yoga, and Pañcarātra (12.330.29–31, 12.337.59–68). The text, however, recommends devotion (bhakti, 12.321.41 and 323.48) or onepointed focus (ekāntitvam, 12.321.42 and 323.49) as the best means for attaining Him.

Origins and Composition

The Nārāyaṇīya is the first work to systematically work out a theology and an ontology of Nārāyaṇa. But the God Nārāyaṇa is not its creation: Nārāyaṇa appears for the first time as a name for the Puruṣa[5] (the primordial Being or the primordial Man) in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (ŚB), a text dated to around the seventh century BCE. In ŚB, Nārāyaṇa is described as having sent forth the Vasus, Rudras, and Ādityas by means of the morning, midday, and evening rites, until he is left alone in the sacrificial place. When Prajāpati instructed him to sacrifice again, Nārāyaṇa placed himself in all the worlds, the gods, the Vedas, and the vital airs, and they, in turn, in himself.[6] In ŚB, Nārāyaṇa is said to have desired to surpass all beings: he did so by conducting a five-day sacrificial rite (pañcarātra sattra) called the Puruṣamedha, at the end of which he became identical with all beings.[7] The Puruṣamedha rite mentioned here probably refers to the Puruṣa Sūkta hymn of the Ṛgveda (ṚV 10.90), which refers to the origin of the universe from the sacrifice of the primordial Being; interestingly, Nārāyaṇa is also the name of the seer (ṛṣi) to whom this hymn is attributed. In the Taittirīya Āraṇyaka (TA 10.11) (the section known as the Mahānārāyaṇa Upaniṣad [MNU]), there are several references to Nārāyaṇa. Verse 13.1 describes Nārāyaṇa in terms of the viśvarūpa (the thousand-headed universal Being from the Puruṣa Sūkta), while verse 13.2 identifies Nārāyaṇa Hari with the Puruṣa. Nārāyaṇa is the supreme Brahman, the ultimate reality (tattva), and the highest Self (ātman), according to verse 13.4.

Although we know little about the circumstances of the Nārāyaṇīya’s composition (the few studies that have been produced on the subject are highly speculative and cannot be considered trustworthy[8]), there are some indications that Nārāyaṇa was already a major deity in the earliest period of Hinduism. Doris Srinivasan thinks Nārāyaṇa was originally a “Vedic cosmic god.” She traces his rise to one of the central deities of the Hindu pantheon to the Mahānārāyaṇa Upaniṣad, a theistic composition in which Nārāyaṇa (along with Rudra) is one of the two main gods glorified. According to Srinivasan, Nārāyaṇa was “certainly a great god in his own right during the periods when Brahmanism dominated,”[9] even though his final ascent may have occurred around the first century CE (the period to which she dates the Mahānārāyaṇa Upaniṣad[10]).

Reviewing the texts in which Nārāyaṇa (or one of his prototypes appears), she offers this summary:

Viṣṇu and Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa (to become an avatāra of Viṣṇu in bhakti literature), are both associated with the viśvarūpa concept in the early texts. The occurrence of the viśvarūpa Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa in the Gītā has just been mentioned. Viṣṇu is likely to be a creator god conceived as the axis mundi or world pillar in Rig Veda [...]. The axis mundi is a creative force in the Atharva Veda, where it is called Skambha (“pillar”) and considered to be viśvarūpa [...]. In the Brāhmaṇas, the connection between Viṣṇu and the pillar reasserts itself. This time it is the sacrificial pillar (yūpa) which is associated with Viṣṇu (cf. ŚB and the multiform nature of the pillar continues to be recognized ([...] Ṣaḍ Brāh. 4.4.10). Viṣṇu also has affinities with the major cosmic creator of the Brāhmaṇas, namely viśvarūpa Puruṣa Prajāpati [...]. The outcome of this gradual rapproachment between the viśvarūpa concept and the future great god of Vaiṣṇavism can be espied in the Mahānārāyaṇa Upaniṣad, a theistic Upaniṣad glorifying viśvarūpa Nārāyaṇa, destined to become subsumed into Viṣṇu, in many Vaiṣṇava sects.[11]

Srinivasan is correct to note the complementarity of Rudra and Nārāyaṇa[12] as well as the connection between Vedic cosmography and the later, theistic representations of Nārāyaṇa (and/or Rudra).[13] However, she is less convincing when she attempts to see Nārāyaṇa as the outcome of a process of merger between the Vṛṣṇi hero (and, later, god of the Bhāgavata religion) Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa and the Brahmanic Nārāyaṇa.[14] Critiquing Alf Hiltebeitel’s suggestion of an underlying theological unity,[15] she argues “neither is a theological unity apparent wherein Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa combines heroic and pastoral qualities, and becomes equated with Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa.” Srinivasan acknowleges that a “syncretic pull towards Vaiṣṇavism may be operating,” but, in my view, seriously underestimates the creative role of the Mahābhārata in articulating the theology of Nārāyaṇa when she writes: “One force assisting a merger towards Vaiṣṇavism is the avatāra notion.”[16] Srinivasan recognizes that the Mahābhārata, especially the Nārāyaṇīya, contains references to avatāra. She correctly notes the Vedic antecedents of Nārāyaṇa’s avatāras in the Nārāyaṇīya, including the dwarf, the boar, and the horse’s head.[17] But she misunderstands the role of the Nārāyaṇīya, when she reduces its references to Nārāyaṇa’s incarnations as providing merely adventitious riffs on a preexisting cast of motifs. Rather, as we shall see, the Nārāyaṇīya is the central text that works out not only the avatāra doctrine but also the vyūha theory, the descent of the One Being through a logic of reflection, the manifestation of Nārāyaṇa as a vision of all beings (viśvarūpa), the relationship of the Demiurge Brahmā to the One, and the Trimūrti doctrine in the form of the opposition between the generative and resorptive forces represented by Brahmā and Rudra, and, finally, the articulation of a monistic ontology in the debate over whether there are many puruṣas or only one.

Outline of the Narrative

The Nārāyaṇīya occurs in the Śāntiparvan, the twelfth major book of the Mahābhārata. The Śāntiparvan contains three sections: the Rājadharmaparvan (on the law of kingship), the Āpaddharmaparvan (on the law of emergencies) and the Mokṣadharmaparvan (on the praxis of salvation). The Nārāyaṇīya appears in the last of these sections and marks the culmination of the epic’s cosmological, soteriological, and literary program. The immediate context of the Nārāyaṇīya is an extended dialogue between the fallen Kuru patriarch Bhīṣma and the victorious king Yudhiṣṭhira regarding the various forms of dharma.[18] It includes the divine sage Nārada’s visit to the mystical island Śvetadvīpa (or the “White Island”) where Nārāyaṇa reveals himself in his universal form (viśvarūpa, Mahābhārata 12.326.1c). The text is interesting as it provides not only a well-developed theology, but also philosophical discussions on ontology, cosmology, etymology, divinity, and ritual. A summary of the various descents of the One Being (ekaṃ puruṣaṃ, 12.326.31c) Nārāyaṇa into the cosmos can be found here[19]—a theme that is richly developed in later sectarian texts, the Purāṇas.

Although a spate of philological scholars have insisted that the doctrine of Nārāyaṇa was introduced into the text by later dogmatic philosophico-religious interpolators,[20] and that the text is nothing more than a transparent attempt to import “theology” into the Mahābhārata, a closer view reveals matters to be much more complex. The Nārāyaṇīya articulates a sophisticated philosophy of number, which, to be sure is oriented toward the One Being called Nārāyaṇa here, but the text is anything but dogmatic. The difficulty in conceiving the one reality, the difficulty of articulating it and achieving it are problems the text struggles to articulate. These difficulties—along with the difficulties the very conception of one reality creates for cosmology in terms of how, then, such a plurality (as is implied in the idea of cosmology) can exist—are exposed in this text. To be sure, the text does recommend certain practices conducive to this vision, but I am chiefly concerned here with the philosophical problem of the One and its relation to the many. Although Nārāyaṇa is said to be this One, due to his infinity, this conception appears with all the attendant philosophical problems. Nārāyaṇa must be the One, but also the several levels between the One and the many. Thus: a dyad, a doubling, a pair, a fourfold. These are the emanations of the One (note that this series always proceeds through doubling). At the head of the many is a series of numbers: one, two, three (eka, dvi, tri). The One of the former progression (that is, of the series which proceeds through ontological doubling) and the one of the numerical series are quite different. Throughout, the text attempts to hold together these two senses of “one” in their irreducible difference.[21] The dyad, moreover, appears to be assigned a liminal role between the simple One and the many.[22]

Although the Nārāyaṇīya initially appears to propound a number of doctrines, giving it a very diverse appearance, on closer examination we find that it is actually held together by a very small number of philosophical themes. Key among these is the relation of the One to the many. The text opens with a question concerning the highest divinity. King Yudhiṣṭhira asks:

What God ought one sacrifice to if one wishes to obtain perfection, whether he is a householder or a student or a hermit or a mendicant?

How indeed can he obtain infallible heaven and [beyond it,] the ultimate good? By following what ritual practice to the gods and to the ancestors ought he to sacrifice?

When liberated, to which state does one go? Of what nature is liberation? Having attained to heaven, what must one do so as not to fall from the celestial realm?

Which god is the god of gods and likewise the ancestor of ancestors? And what transcends even that [heaven], tell me all that, grandfather! (Mahābhārata 12.321.1–4)

This question inaugurates a set of themes that inform the structure of the Nārāyaṇīya. Yudhiṣṭhira’s question circumscribes an area of philosophical inquiry. Part of the question is critical; it wants to separate the subject from āśramas, stages of life, and by implication varṇāśramadharma, the articulation of life according to one’s social function and age.[23] Moreover, the question also separates out the attainment of heaven, and with it, all finite goals, however lofty they may be. Specifically, the question is one of transcendence beyond heaven; it is what I have elsewhere called double transcendence, where heaven constitutes the first transcendence.[24] The question is one of perfection (siddhim āsthātum icchet, 12.321.1c), ultimacy (niḥśreyasaṃ param, 12.321.2a), and also permanence articulated by concerns with stability (dhruvam, 12.321.2a) and immunity to fall (na cyavate, 12.321.3c). This set of ultimate concerns is posited in a twofold theoretical perspective which can be named “cosmological—soteriological.”[25] The cosmological aspect is the enquiry into the “god of gods” and the ancestor of ancestors and what goes beyond even that. Thus the question will seek a stepwise progression up to the creator god, and beyond that to the ontological concept of the “One.” This manifold question requires a manifold answer, but the essence of the question and the purport of the answer remain the ineffable One.[26] The unity of the Nārāyaṇīya is the problem of the One.[27] Thus although Bhīṣma in his response touches upon many themes (including a visit by the divine sage Nārada to the mystical island Śvetadvīpa to view the One Being, here called Nārāyaṇa), these all pertain to the central and abiding question of this text: what is the relationship of the One to the many?[28]

In response to Yudhiṣṭhira’s inquiry, Bhīṣma states that the questions the king has raised concern a great mystery, but he knows of an ancient narrative (itihāsaṃ purātanam, Mahābhārata 12.321.7a) concerning a conversation between sage Nārada and Nārāyaṇa. Sage Nārada, realizing that the highest Being has become four (ekā mūrtir iyaṃ pūrvaṃ jātā bhūyaś caturvidhā, 12.321.16c), goes to seek out two of these four, Nara and Nārāyaṇa. These two are a pair. When he reaches their retreat, he is surprised to find them engaged in worship. Surprised, Nārada asks Nārāyaṇa about the deity to whom he sacrifices: “You are glorified in the Vedas along with the ancillary texts and the purāṇas. You are considered the Unborn, the Sempiternal, the Sustainer, the Insuperable Immortality. In You is established the entire universe, past, future and so on. [....] [You are the] Father and Mother of the entire universe, and also the Eternal Guru. We know not to which deity or ancestor you sacrifice today” (12.321.24–26). Nārāyaṇa tells Nārada about a still higher form of his known as Kṣetrajña (the Knower of the Field) or as Puruṣa (the Person or the Self). From this masculine Being proceeds the Unmanifest, Prakṛti, the womb of all beings.[29] Nārāyaṇa tells the sage that they worship Prakṛti as “both deity and parent,” and, beyond her, the Self. This Self, however, is not attainable except through intense intellectual effort (jñānayoga).[30] Through this practice, unified souls (ekāntins) reach their goal of entering into the Self.[31]

Learning that the One is higher than the four, Nārada sets out to behold that highest Being. He describes his preparation (purification, austerity, truthfulness, study of the Vedas, devotion to god, and one-pointedness) and then sets out, via Gandhamādana, to mount Meru.[32] From the summit, he spies a wondrous site: Śvetadvīpa or the “White Island,” a luminous abode inhabited by beings, who “transcending senses and abstaining from food, unblinking and very fragrant, [...] are luminous, free of all sins, blinding the eyes of evildoing men” (Mahābhārata 12.322.8–12). But the most interesting thing about these beings is that they are dyadic. For example, each of these radiant beings is endowed with four testicles, sixty-four teeth, and eight canines. A clear numerology is being worked out here (with the usual number of testicles, teeth, etc. being doubled). The text then tells us how, before Nārada arrived there, the three sons of the Creator Ekata, Dvita, and Trita had previously come there to view the One Being. In spite of their askesis they failed, because they lacked intense love or bhakti. Literally translated, the names Ekata, Dvita, and Trita mean: Oneness, Twoness, and Threeness. Nārada is luckier, but the vision he is granted of the One is a multiplicity, a vision of the “form of all beings”: viśvarūpa. This One Being, surprisingly shimmers in various colors and is glorified with numerous names. The simple One, he is told, is beyond this cosmic form and is ineffable and incomprehensible. But the discourse that follows insists that cosmology and soteriology are intimately linked, and that the One being is to be experienced (rather than viewed) through exclusive and unwavering love or bhakti, and a philosophical system for this is expounded.

Footnotes and references:


Nārāyaṇīya is a taddhita samāsa formed from the word nārāyaṇa with the suffix–īya. It literally means everything about or all that concerns Nārāyaṇa. It can also mean everything (enunciated) by Nārāyaṇa. The Nārāyaṇīya is thus either (the work containing) everything about Nārāyaṇa or (the work) promulgated by Nārāyaṇa. This ambiguity reflects both the text’s ontological comprehensivity and its underlying monistic ontology. In the Nārāyaṇīya, Nārāyaṇa’s avatāra or descent is described ontologically and enacted poetically, that is to say, the text is an invitation to experience it theistically.


In the critical edition, the Nārāyaṇīya occurs in book 12, chapters 321–39. The order and length of the chapters is as follows: 321 (1–43), 322 (1–52), 323 (1–57), 324 (1–39), 325 (1–4), 326 (1–124), 327 (1–107), 328 (1–53), 329 (1–50), 330 (1–71), 331 (1–52), 332 (1–26), 333 (1–25), 334 (1–17), 335 (1–89), 336 (1–82), 337 (1–69), 338 (1–25), 339 (1–21).


idaṃ mahopaniṣadaṃ caturvedasamanvitam |
sāṃkhyayogakṛtaṃ tena pañcarātrānuśabditam ||
nārāyaṇamukhodgītaṃ nārado’śrāvayat punaḥ |
brahmaṇaḥ sadane tāta yathā dṛṣṭaṃ yathā śrutam ||

     (Mahābhārata 12.326.100–101)


Deriving upaniṣad from upa + ni + sad; see Śaṅkara’s Commentary on the Kaṭha Upaniṣad: “Now then, a brief exposition of the cantos of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad is begun for the sake of making their import easily comprehensible. The word upaniṣad is derived by adding upa (near) and ni (with certainty) as prefixes and kvip as a suffix to the root sad, meaning to split up (destroy), go (reach, attain), or loosen. And by the word upaniṣad is denoted the knowledge of the knowable entity presented in the book that is going to be explained. By virtue of what relationship with (any particular) significance (of the word upaniṣad), again, is knowledge denoted by the word upaniṣad? This is being stated. Knowledge is called upaniṣad by virtue of its association with this significance.” Swāmī Gambhīrānanda, trans. Eight Upaniṣads: With the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya, vol. 1 (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2006), 99.


The exact nature of the derivation is unclear. R. G. Bhandarkar notes that “the word Nārāyaṇa is similar to Nāḍāyana, which last is formed by P. IV, I, 99 and means the Gotra Nāḍāyan. The termination is significative and means in this case the resting place or the place to which Nāḍa or a collection of Naḍas go. So Nārāyaṇa means the resting place or goal of Nāra or a collection of Naras.” He adds: “In the Nārāyaṇīya (XII‚ 341) Keśava or Hari says to Arjuna that he is known as the resting place or goal of men (narāṇām). The word Nṛ or Nara is also used to denote gods as manly persons, especially in the Vedas, so that Nārāyaṇa may be construed as the resting place or goal of gods.” R. G. Bhandarkar, Vaiṣṇavism, Śaivaism and Minor Religious Systems (Strassburg: K. J. Trübner, 1913), 30. Madeleine Biardeau thinks that the name is modeled on puruṣāyaṇa from Praśna Upaniṣad 6.4 and suggests, based on the synonymy of nara and puruṣa, the derivation: “made of those who direct themselves toward Nara/Puruṣa.” Madeleine Biardeau, “Nara et Nārāyaṇa,” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens 35 (1991): 79.


“Let him know this:—‘All the worlds have I placed within mine own self, and mine own self have I placed within all the worlds; all the gods have I placed within mine own self, and mine own self have I placed within all the gods; all the Vedas have I placed within mine own self, and mine own self have I placed within all the Vedas; all the vital airs have I placed within mine own self, and mine own self have I placed within the vital airs.’ For imperishable, indeed, are the worlds, imperishable the gods, imperishable the Vedas, imperishable the vital airs, imperishable is the All: and, verily, whosoever thus knows this, passes from the imperishable unto the imperishable, conquers recurrent death, and attains the full measure of life.” Julius Eggeling, trans., The Satapatha-Brahmana According to the Text of the Madhyandina School, part 5 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1900), 174. R. G. Bhandarkar thinks this passage “shadows forth the rising of Nārāyaṇa to the dignity of the Supreme Soul, who pervades all and in whom all things exist and who in the beginning sent forth all the gods, being himself their receptacle or resting place as indicated in RV. X, 82, 6.” Bhandarkar, Vaiṣṇavism, Śaivaism and Minor Religious Systems, 31.


Purusha Narayana desired, ‘Would that I overpassed all beings! would that I alone were everything here (this universe)!’ He beheld this five-days’ sacrificial performance, the Purushamedha, and took it, and performed offering therewith; and having performed offering therewith, he overpassed all beings, and became everything here. And, verily, he who, knowing this, performs the Purushamedha, or who even knows this, overpasses all beings, and becomes everything here.” Eggeling, trans., The Satapatha Brahmana, 403.


See the next chapter.


Doris Meth Srinivasan, Many Heads, Arms, and Eyes: Origin, Meaning, and Form of Multiplicity in Indian Art (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 7.


See ibid., 120.


Ibid., 20–21.


If mahā in the title of the Mahānārāyaṇa Upaniṣad (MNU) were still to retain a technical connotation, then this Upaniṣad should be about the glory of the Large Nārāyaṇa, the first embodiment of Brahman. And it is. What the title does not reveal is that the text is also about the glory of Rudra as the first embodiment of Brahman. The Upaniṣad does not reflect vacillation between the 'better' of the two, nor is it a compilation of two separate works. The text reflects man's desire to understand how the impersonal and transcendental is connected to the personal and manifest god; it is less concerned with man's need to proclaim one god's superiority over the other. Man in this context is the adept who wants to get behind the world of the seemingly Real to grasp the real Real. The quest becomes knowing the Absolute by grasping the Absolute incarnate, the personal god, be it Puruṣa-Prajāpti, Nārāyaṇa, Rudra etc.” Ibid., 112.


“The time has come to close the circle. The opening verses of this Upaniṣad announce, by way of key terms and concepts, the retention of a Vedic cosmography applicable to divine manifestation. It places Puruṣa-Prajāpati, enclosed in the Brahman-Womb, into the invisible sphere wherefrom his emission as the first embodiment of Brahman is possible. In identifying this embodiment with both Mahā Nārāyaṇa and (Mahā Puruṣa as) Rudra, it may be deduced that the manifestation of these two gods could also originate from this same invisible sphere. The text does not specifically state this, but I think the implication is there, together with the probability of the continued validity of the multiplicity definition (number 3), locked into these conditions. Besides the continuation of the ancient cosmography, the Mahānārāyaṇa contains numerous other continuities: the cosmic birth analogy, the viśvarūpa literary image, number symbolism involving ‘5’ and ‘7’, repetition of Vedic passages which exemplify a multiplicity definition (i.e. Number 1), and lastly, the apparent retention of Definitions 1 and 3, themselves. All these concepts are holdovers in a text whose sophisticated and highly selective religious imagery is mirrored in several mūrtis. It can only be concluded that in spite of approximately a millenium of religious development and change, quite a number of notions pertaining to divine multiplicity weave through time and space, and arrive without undue enfeeblement at the doorstep of setarian image making.” Ibid., 127.


“The god of the Bhagavad Gītā is Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa, main deity of the Bhāgavata religion. Vāsudeva Kṛṣṇa is not yet subsumed within Vaiṣṇavism. He is the Gītā’s supreme god who choses to descend to earth and take on a manifest form. As such, the divine unfolding described in the Gītā ought not to be viewed as an example of the belief that Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa is an avatāra of the god Viṣṇu.” Ibid., 134.


“One must reconcile oneself to the fact that both texts [that is, the Mahābhārata and the Harivaṃśa] are rooted in the same theology: Kṛṣṇa is an avatāra of Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa.” Alf Hiltebeitel, “Kṛṣṇa at Mathurā,” in Reading the Fifth Veda: Studies on the Mahābhārata, Essays by Alf Hiltebeitel, vol. 1, ed. Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2011), 539.


Srinivasan, Many Heads, Arms, and Eyes, 258.


See ibid., 258–59: “The Vedic and epic antecedents of Trivikrama have already been outlined. Antecedents of the Varāha incarnation begin with the Taittirīya Saṃhitā ( In this text, Prajāpati becomes a boar so as to create the earth. In the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (, the boar Emūṣa raises up the earth. The seeds of the Hayagrīva incarnation (and manifestation of Nārāyaṇa) are present in the later Vedic mythology. Legends as well as Viṣṇu’s identification with the Vedic sacrifice contribute to Viṣṇu’s association with a horse’s head. The Mahābhārata allows this association to surface in connection with Nārāyaṇa. Nārāyaṇa appears before Brahmā under the cover of a horse’s head, and, Viṣṇu is praised as Hayaśiras (i.e. head of a horse).”


The term dharma (variously translated as “law, ordinance, duty, virtue,” etc., see Monier-Williams, s.v. “dharma”) refers primarily to prescribed duties, obligations and/or laws within a definite social order. However, it is also hypostatized to an abstract concept, to Law or Justice personified, and, ultimately, into a cosmic principle and a deity. But here what Yudhiṣṭhira specifically has in mind is the dharma of the four classes and that appropriate to each of the four stages of life (student, householder, forest dweller, and renunciate) or varṇāśramadharma. The question concerns the duties and actions proper to each stage of life so as to attain the final good.


The text discusses two types of manifestations, which have become famous in later literature as the four vyūhas (caturvyūha) and the ten avatāras (daśāvatāra). The Nārāyaṇīya contains the earliest reference to the caturvyūha doctrine, although the text does not refer to Nārāyaṇa’s forms by this name (with the exception of Mahābhārata 12.336.53, where Vaiśaṃpāyana mentions that some worship Nārāyaṇa as having one form, others as having two, others as having three, and yet others as having four forms [caturvyūha, 53d]). Rather, Nārāyaṇa is spoken of as being of quadruple form (caturmūrtiḥ, 12.321.8a; cf. also12.326.67c and 12.327.95c);although of one form previously, he has become fourfold (ekā mūrtir iyaṃ pūrvaṃ jātā bhūyaś caturvidhā, 12.321.16c; cf. also 12.326.93a: caturmūrtidharo hy aham).

These forms are referred to as his Vāsudeva, Saṃkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna, and Anniruddha forms and identified with the kṣetrajña (the knower of the field), jīva (soul), manas (mind), and ahaṃkāra (ego), respectively. Collectively, these entities are referred to as his fourfold form (mūrticatuṣṭayam, 12.326.43e).

The caturvyūha doctrine becomes famous in later texts and iconography, especially those attributed (I believe, mistakenly) to the Pāñcarātra sect. (Because references to Nārāyaṇa’s fourfold forms in the Nārāyaṇīya often occur in conjunction with root bhū plus the prefix prādur meaning “to become manifest,” it is also common to refer to the manifestations as Nārāyaṇa’s prādurbhāvās and the doctrine as the prādurbhāvā doctrine.) However, there is no doubt that the intellectual roots of the later practice of depicting Vāsudeva in fourfold form can be traced back to the Nārāyaṇīya (see Doris Srinivasan, “Early Vaiṣṇava Imagery: Caturvyūha and Variant Forms,” Archives of Asian Art 32 [1979]: 39–54). The Nārāyaṇīya again provides us with the earliest list of the ten incarnations of Nārāyaṇa, but whereas the vyūhas have a role in cosmogenesis (at the end of the fourfold division of Nārāyaṇa, Brahmā the creator appears and, acting under Nārāyaṇa’s direction, creates the universe), the incarnations are intracosmic events. This difference in status is also reflected in the word “avatāra” which is derived from avataraṇa meaning,“descending, alighting” (from avatṝ meaning, “to descend”) (see F. B. J. Kuiper, Varuṇa and Viduṣāka: On the Origin of the Sanskrit Drama [Amsterdam: North-Holland Pub. Co., 1979]).


See the articles in Peter Schreiner, ed., Nārāyaṇīya-Studien. Purāṇa Research Publications 6 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1997). For my criticisms of this approach, see Vishwa Adluri, “Philosophical Aspects of Bhakti in the Nārāyaṇīya,” in The Churning of the Epics and Purāṇas at the 15th World Sanskrit Conference, ed. Simon Brodbeck, Alf Hiltebeitel, Adam Bowles (New Delhi: Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan and D. K. Printworld, 2015), 127–54


Indian philosophy knows of several senses of “one.” Brahman is said to be ekam eva advitīyam (one only, without a second; Chāndogya Up. 6.2.1); in the Puruṣa Sūkta hymn of the Ṛgveda, we find a reference to “that One” (tad ekam, ṚV 10.9.3), who is prior to the distinction between being and nonbeing;. ṚV 1.164.46 also refers to truth being one only (ekam sat). Likewise, the Nārāyaṇīya is rich in usages of “one,” including references to Nārāyaṇīya as ekaṃ puruṣaṃ (Mahābhārata 12.326.31c), to Rudra and Nārāyaṇa as “one being manifesting as two” (sattvam ekaṃ dvidhākṛtam, 12.328.24a), Nārāyaṇa as the One (ekaḥ, 12.328.35c, 12.339.9c).


In chapter three, the three sages Ekata, Dvita, and Trita (whose names literally mean “Oneness,” “Twoness,” and “Threeness”) are unable to see the One, but they are told that the One Being is seen through the dyadic beings of Śvetadvīpa being seen (Mahābhārata 12.327.47c); likewise, when Nārada returns to the Badari hermitage, having seen Nārāyaṇa in his universal aspect, Nara-Nārāyaṇa, who were formally a pair, now appear to have the characteristics of the Śvetadvīpa dyadic beings (12.331.25c–30a).


Indian thought traditionally divides social functions into four varṇas (literally, “colors,” but used with the general meanings of “kind, sort, character, nature, quality”): royal (military), sacerdotal, commercial or agricultural, and the menial classes. The varṇa scheme is crossed with a second social division, āśrama or the articulation of life according to age, to produce the concept of varṇāśramadharma. For a good survey of the concept, see the chapter “The Hindu Social Order: Caturvarṇāśramadharma” in Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 288–97; a comprehensive treatment can be found in P. V. Kane, A History of Dharmaśāstra, 5 vols. (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1930–61).


See my paper “Ascensio ad Deum: Garuḍa and Onto-Theologic Praxis in the Mahābhārata,” paper presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religions, Chicago, November 17, 2012.


These two concerns are ultimately one for a thought that, as Biardeau has shown, conceives of cosmology as but the reverse of the process of reabsorption by which a yogin absorbs the sensory world into himself and of the Puruṣa as “un yogin cosmique, un mahāyogin” who lets the world emerge periodically from himself by turning outward. Madeleine Biardeau, “Études de mythologie hindoue (I): Cosmogonies purāṇiques,” Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient 54 (1968): 39. One consequence of this conception, as Biardeau correctly noted, is that “individual salvation [now] has to be integrated into this rhythm [of the periodic emission and reabsorption of the universe by the Puruṣa] and must also translate in its own way the hierarchy of the values which the successive levels of the cosmogony brought to light.” Madeleine Biardeau, Hinduism: The Anthropology of a Civilization, trans. Richard Nice (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989), 109. Cosmology and soteriology are thus intimately connected in the Nārāyaṇīya, just as, in Plotinus, the soul’s ascent cannot be understood independently of the process of emanation by which it descends.


When Nārada initially asks Nārāyaṇa about whom he sacrifices to, Nārāyaṇa responds that this topic is not to be revealed (avācyam), the secret of the eternal self (ātmaguhyaṃ sanātanam, Mahābhārata 12.321.27a). It is said to be subtle (sūkṣmam), inconceivable (avijñeyam), unmanifest (avyaktam), immovable (acalaṃ), permanent (dhruvam, 12.321.28a), and transcending the senses and the primordial elements (indriyair indriyārthaiś ca sarvabhūtaiś ca varjitam, 12.321.28c). Earlier, Bhīṣma had said that this secret could not be stated by logic alone (na hy eṣa tarkayā śakyo vaktuṃ, 12.321.5c), but was to be had through divine grace (devaprasādād, 6a) alone. Nārāyaṇa, too, confirms that it can be revealed only to one of devoted mind (bhaktimataḥ, 12.321.27c).


The demonstration of the unity of being is ultimately based on the principle of non-contradiction, and is a well-known aspect of Mahābhārata ontology. See Bhagavadgītā 2.16: nāsato vidyate bhāvo.


The Nārāyaṇīya sees knowledge of the One not only as the ultimate import of this text, but explicitly as the goal of all previous texts, including the Vedas (see lines 12.321.41a-42c). Thus, there is good reason to take the Nārāyaṇīya not as an isolated example, but as the fulfillment of a long tradition of a philosophical ontology, whose roots are to be found in the monistic speculations of the Vedas, especially the Puruṣa Sūkta and Nāsadīya Sūkta hymns of the Ṛg Veda (ṚV 10.90 and 10.129) and, of course, the Upaniṣads.


The exact passage reads: “From him has arisen the Unmanifest (avyakta), composed of the three guṇas, O best of the twice-born. She is the unchanging Prakṛiti, who is the Unmanifest established in manifest forms. Know her to be the womb of us both. There is none either preceptor or god or twiceborn one who is greater than He who is of the nature of being and non-being and who is verily being worshipped in divine and ancestral rites performed by both of us” (Mahābhārata 12.321.29e-31a). The change of gender (from the masculine Puruṣa to the feminine Prakṛti and back to the masculine Puruṣa) is also in the original and appears intentional; Puruṣa and Prakṛti, the male and female principles, appear to be conceived of as a dyad. Note also that brahman as an impersonal term for the One is a neuter singular noun, but, when conceived theistically as the Supreme Being Nārāyaṇa, is represented as male. In cultic and theurgic practice, god often appears either as male with a female consort or, less often, explicitly as the androgyne (for example, Śiva as Ardhanārīśvara), where the distinction between the male and female aspects is often interpreted as the difference between Being and its State of Being. Thus Indian thought in general is well aware of gender as a way of thinking about the unity, difference, and co-belonging of the One and the many.


Literally, the text says that he “can be seen only by the discipline of knowledge” (dṛśyate jñānayogena āvāṃ ca prasṛtau tataḥ, Mahābhārata 12.321.40a).


Literally, the text says that to those who are established in oneness with him even in this world (ye tu tadbhāvitā loke ekāntitvaṃ samāsthitāḥ, Mahābhārata 12.321.42a), he, that Being (taṃ [puruṣaṃ], 12.321.41a), grants the supreme state (ādyaṃ gatiṃ, 12.321.41c): they enter into him (te taṃ praviśanty uta, 12.32142c).


Every aspect of Nārada’s journey, beginning with his double ascent from mount Gandhamādana to mount Meru is significant. As Mabbett notes, mount Meru is “much more than a feature on the cosmographic map. A map is a misleading metaphor, for a map is two-dimensional. Meru rose up in a third dimension; in doing so, it pierced the heavens; in piercing the heavens, it transcended time as well as space; in transcending time it became (in Mus’s sense) a magical tool for the rupture of plane. This is evident in the many layers of symbolism that exchange Meru for the cosmic man, for the temple at the center of the universe, for the office of kingship, for the stūpa, for the maṇḍala, and for the internal ascent undertaken by the tantric mystic. Meru is not, we must recognize, a place, ‘out there,’ so to speak. It is ‘in here.’ Ian W. Mabbett, “The Symbolism of Mount Meru,” History of Religions 23, no. 1 (1983): 66.

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