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The Mahabharata opens with this famous verse:

nārāyaṇaṃ namaskṛtya naraṃ caiva narottamam |

devīṃ sarasvatīṃ caiva tato jayamudīrayet ||

Om! Having bowed down to Narayana and Nara, the most exalted male being, and also to the goddess Saraswati, must the word Jaya be uttered.

Nara and Narayana were two ancient sages who were twin sons of Yama god of death and famously meditated in Badrikashrama. Nara was the previous birth of Arjuna, whereas Narayana was an incarnation of Vishnu and thus the previous birth of Krishna.

But my question is about the word "narottamam", which means "the best of men" or as the translation puts it, "the most exalted male being". Why is it that "narottamam" is referring to Nara and not to his brother Narayana? After all, in the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata, Vishnu's incarnation Parashurama says "Narayana, again, became superior to Nara in consequence of many more qualities." Also, a common name of Vishnu is Purushottama, which also means "best of men", so it seems like a logical epithet of Vishnu's incarnation Narayana.

Is it possible that Ganguli (the translator) made an error, and that narottamam actually does refer to Narayana and not Nara?

  • Narayana means Lord specifically the Supreme Lord. Best among men, or King, is Narendra. – Swami Vishwananda Nov 13 '14 at 10:31
  • You are saying sage Narayana was the previous birth of Krishna? If Narayana was incarnation of Vishnu then he must be ansh avatar, now if Krishna was purna avatar and sage Narayana = Krishna, then how did ansh avatar became purna avatar? – Chinmay Sarupria Oct 27 '15 at 14:49
  • @ChinmaySarupria What makes you think Narayana was only an Amsha Avatara? – Keshav Srinivasan Oct 27 '15 at 14:56
  • If he was purna avatar then he must be incarnated to do some big things. People hardly know him, if you ask to people who is Narayan, they will say he is Vishnu but if you ask about Sage Narayan, people hardly know about him. – Chinmay Sarupria Oct 27 '15 at 15:02
  • @ChinmaySarupria That's just because Nara and Narayana lived in the Chakshusha Manvantara, so they're not as well-known now. But in ancient times they were famous. In any case, they did do big things. They defeated the Asuras after the churning of the ocean, they defeated Karna's previous birth Sahasrakavacha, they created the Apsara Urvashi, they originated the Pancharatra system, they revealed the Purusha Sukta, etc. – Keshav Srinivasan Oct 27 '15 at 15:09
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The root words (namas) to consider here are nārāyaṇa, nara, devī and sarasvatī. All of them are used in the above verse in dvitiya(second case) serving as an object or as a qualifier to an existing object. Devīm is the qualifier for sarasvatīm. Now narottamam in the above case is applied to nara as a qualifier. I don't think it is a translation error while philosophical reasoning may differ.

Now, because of your great question I looked up previous acaryas commentaries. Indeed Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura (VCT), commenting on verse 1.2.4 of Srimad Bhagavatam (that is exactly same as this but one word differs in some editions and VCT addresses this below), says narottamam means Lord Sri Krishna. The Sankrit scanned copy of VCT and other commentaries is available here

One translation of VCT commentary (Sarartha-darsini) into English is done by Bhanu Swami (only hard copies available) and what I type below is from his book. So VCT says:

Having offered respects to guru, SUta offers respects to devatA, presiding deity, etc. Nara-nArAyaNa are designated as the presiding deities of this work since they have authority over the place. The devatA or subject of the BhAgavatam is KRSNa (narottamam). SarasvatI is the Shakti. The word ca indicates the RShi (sage) of the work, VyAsa. Some editions have the word vyAsam instead of caiva. That makes the meaning clear.

So, according to VCT, it seems Narayana and Nara refer to the presiding deities in Badikasrama where Vyasa first compiled Bhagavatam. Narottamam refers to Krishna and Devim to Sarasvati.

  • Thanks for your answer! I'm not a Gaudiya Vaishnava, so I don't take Visvanatha Chakravarthi Thakura's commentary as gospel, but it's an interesting thought nonetheless. (I'm not sure I buy it though, because the Mahabharata is older than the Bhagavatam.) By the way, as far as the grammar goes, why is it that narottamam can't serve as a qualifier to the noun narayanam? Is it because of the proximity of the words? – Keshav Srinivasan Nov 13 '14 at 1:32
  • And by the way, another reason I'm somewhat skeptical is that the sort of document for which you would start out by listing a rishi, devata, shakti, etc. is a document consisting of mantras. But the Bhagavatam amd the Mahabharata consist of shlokas, not mantras. – Keshav Srinivasan Nov 13 '14 at 1:50
  • @KeshavSrinivasan, for your first question, yes the location. – srinivasacarya dasa Nov 13 '14 at 3:19
  • @KeshavSrinivasan, on you speculation about the prayer it's strange how you brush things off! This verse of Bhagavatam is spoken by Suta Gosvami just before addressing the sages as a sort of mangalacarana and there is nothing unusual about it. – srinivasacarya dasa Nov 13 '14 at 3:22
  • Well, if Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura just meant that Ugrashrava is paying respects to various people he should pay respects to, that's plausible. (Although there's still the matter of the Mahabharata being older than the Bhagavatam.) But how I interpreted Thakura was that Ugrashrava was indicating things like the "rishi of the work" and the "shakti of the work", which is terminology usually used in the context of a Nyasam of a mantra. – Keshav Srinivasan Nov 13 '14 at 4:36
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Here the extract from the Mahabharata tatparya nirnaya by Sri Madhvacharya for this verse from mahAbharata. Adiparva. 1.1

jayo nAmetihAso.ayaM kR^ishhNadvaipAyaneritaH | vAyurnarottamo nAma devIti shrIrudIritA ||

nArAyaNo vyAsa iti vAchyavaktR^isvarUpakaH | ekaH sa bhagavAnuktaH sAdhakesho narottamaH ||

upasAdhako narashchokto devI bhAgyAtmikA nR^iNAm | sarasvatI vAkyarUpA tasmAnnamyA hi te.akhilAH ||

kR^ishhNau satyA bhImapArthau kR^ishhNetyuktA hi bhArate ||

I shall proceed to narrate the (Bharatha) story called Jaya, after saluting Narayana, Sesha called Nara, Vayu who is referred as narotthama, the Devi (Universal mother Lakshmi), Saraswathi and Vedavyasa.

This Bharatha Itihasa composed by Krishna Dwaipayana is named Jaya. Vayu is called Narothama. Sri Lakshmi is described as Devi. The one and the same Lord is known both as Narayana and Vyasa in his two aspects of the author and the subject described. Vayu is the highest of the exponents of this work and next to him in this task is Nara. Devi is the goddess of prosperity to all jivas.

Saraswathi is the presiding deity over this work.

Therefore all of them named in the Bharatha as also the two Krishnas (Yadava Krishna and Vasishta Krishna), Universal mother Lakshmi/Satyabhama, consort of Lord Narayana/Krishna (Devi), Bheema and Arjuna (Nara and Narothama) Krishna (Draupadi) deserve to be saluted.

  • Does Madhvacharya give any reason why Narottama is a name of Vayu? I haven't heard Vayu referred to as the best of men before. By the way, out of curiosity, what sect of Vaishnavism do you belong to? Are you a follower of Madhvacharya? – Keshav Srinivasan Nov 13 '14 at 16:26
  • i am not a follower of Madhva sampradayam. But if you see as per madhvas, Bramha and mukhya prana (Vayu) are first servants of Lord and Goddess lakshmi. Also, if you see Mahabharata tatparya nirnaya, Madhva gives Bhima more importance than Arjuna, as bheema is amsa of Vayu.. ithink, that may be the reason for the definition, but i i am not sure # thanks# Krishna – user808 Nov 14 '14 at 6:06
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As I begin the study of Mahabarata a few things come to mind in this opening passage...

It seems to me Vyasa is paying respect, saluting and acknowledging all the realms of God manifestation from Om down to individualized consciousness and through the fundamental energy (Shiva Shakti) that runs through all things.

Narayana is God in all pervading form or supreme purusha. Nara is all living entities, or individual purusha. Exalted male being is Shiva or masculine principle, consciousness. Saraswati is female principle, or energy, Shakti, prana.

By acknowledging all the realms of God manifested concsiousness then the Lila can begin. But with the held knowledge that all Lila happens inside God manifested and ultimately in God.

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    This doesn't answer the question. Did you intend to make a comment instead? – sv. Mar 14 '16 at 22:08

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