Hymnology of Hinduism is as old as the Ṛgveda itself. As the religion evolved and its influence spread, gradually absorbing and integrating various cults, sects and movements into its fold, the number of deities of the Hindu pantheon also increased. Consequently hymnology also grew to voluminous proportions.
Among the various types of such hymns, or ‘stotras’ as they are called, ‘the aṣṭottaraśata’ as also the ‘sahasranāma’ group plays a more significant role. It can be used not only for chanting but also for offering flowers and other objects used in worship, as a part of the ritualistic process, the latter being the more common.
The word ‘aṣṭottaraśata’ indicates the number 108. In the Hindu mystic and ritualistic traditions, this number, 108 (as also 1008), has acquired great significance. The several explanations offered for this are more academic and mystical than logically convincing.
The aṣṭottaraśata hymns are always composed in the simple anuṣṭubh or śloka metre. They are generally preceded by certain preliminaries like ‘nyāsas’ or conse-cration of one’s body, paying homage to the ṛṣi, the sage through whom the hymn was revealed, the chandas or the deity presiding over the metre in which the hymn is composed, the devatā or the deity to whom the hymn is addressed, and, viniyoga or the purpose for which the hymn is chanted. There is also a dhyānaśloka, a verse in which the form of the deity is described in detail to facilitate meditation.
The hymn itself contains 108 names of the deity, the names dealing with the form, qualities and exploits of the deity (based on the mythological accounts).
When the names are used individually in pūjā or arcanā (ritualistic worship) they are repeated one after another, but in the ‘caturthī vibhakti’ or dative case, adding the word ‘namaḥ,’ ‘obeisance’ at the end.
For instance, the aṣṭottaraśatanāma-stotra of Śiva begins thus: śivo maheśvaraḥ śambhuḥ. When these names are used in worship, they are repeated as: śivāya namaḥ, maheśvarāya namaḥ, śambhave namaḥ and so on.
Later Hinduism has attached great significance to these aṣṭottaraśatanāma and sahasranāma hymns. Their repetition is believed to yield many desired results. They are quite popular in the modern Hindu society and are widely used in the temples.
See also SAHASRANĀMA-STOTRAS.