In the previous article, I sketched the life accounts of Rishis like Vālmīki, Mātanga, Ashtāvakra, Markaṇdeya, and how these accounts teach us regarding forgiveness, charity, Guru-Bhakti, among other things. Now let us look into the life accounts of few more Rishis.
Veda Vyāsa: Rishi whose birth anniversary is celebrated as ‘Guru Poornima’
The full-moon night in the month of Ashādha in the Hindu calendar, is celebrated as the birthday of Sage Veda Vyāsa. Therefore, this day is called Vyāsa Pūrṇimā, where the word Pūrṇimā means ‘full-moon night’. Since Veda Vyāsa was an excellent teacher (=Guru), his birthday is also celebrated as ‘Guru Pūrṇimā’ or the Teacher’s Full-Moon Night, and traditional Hindus honor their teachers this day every year.
Rishi Veda Vyāsa was born to a fisherwoman named Satyavatī and Rishi Parāshara. He was very short and dark and is said to have also been very ugly. But despite his looks, and his birth from a fisherwoman, he became a greatest Rishi of Hindu Dharma. The life of Rishi Veda Vyāsa teaches us that no matter who our parents are, and no matter how our looks are, we can become great through our knowledge, austerity and hard work.
He re-edited the Vedas because they were very large in size and people found them difficult to master.He divided them into four shorter divisions that we have today.
In addition, he wrote the Mahābhārata and the 18 Purāṇas, which together have 500,000 verses. He also wrote Brahma-Sutras, a treatise on Vedanta. He wrote many other holy books of the Hindus and taught all of them to his many students. His students taught their own students, and therefore these books are being studied even today, after several thousand years. In this way, Vyāsa was an ideal teacher because he wrote many books, and taught them well to many students. If Vyāsa had not lived, Hindu Dharma might have been very different today.
Several major traditions in Hindu Dharma trace back their roots to Veda Vyāsa and his birthday is celebrated as the festival of Guru Pūrṇimā. On this day, people honor their Gurus by offering them gifts and worshipping them. A popular stotra that is chanted on the day is the Guru Stotram. Therefore, it is like the ‘Teacher’s Day’ on a day when we have a full moon (a full moon night is called Pūrṇimā).
The following are the traditional verses that are chanted in the honor of this great Rishi:
OM! Salutations to Veda Vyasa, the descendent of Vashishtha Muni
And the sinless grandson of Shakti.
Salutations to the son of Parāshara, to the father of Shukadeva,
To him who is an repository of spiritual austerities ||
Salutations to Vyasa, an incarnation of Vishnu.
Salutations to Vishnu in the form of Vyasa!
Salutations to him who is a repository of Brahman and the Vedic lore
Repeated prostrations to the descendant of Sage Vashishtha ||
Salutations to Vyasa, who is Brahma without the four heads
Who is Vishnu without the four arms, Who is Shiva without the third eye.
Prostrations to Bhagavān Bādarāyaṇa, the teacher of Vedanta ||
[Traditional verses in praise of Veda Vyasa, loosely translated]
Veda Vyāsa had four children. The first were a set of three brothers – Dhritarāshtra, Pāṇdu and Vidura. The fourth was Shukadeva. The story of the first three brothers is found in the Mahābhārata, whereas Shukadeva is an important character in the Bhāgavata Purāņa, which is another very important holy book. There was great enmity between the Adharmic sons of Dhritarāshtra, who were called the Kauravas, and the sons of Pāṇdu, who were called the Pāṇdavas. Many a times, Veda Vyāsa stopped violence and killing and also tried to prevent injustice.
Here is an interesting account that Veda Vyāsa narrated to King Dhritarāshtra. After the Kauravas cheated the Pāṇdavas and robbed them of their kingdom, the Pāṇdavas had to leave their home and live in great difficulty in the forest for several years. Right after the Pāṇdavas had left, Veda Vyāsa arrived at the palace of King Dhritarāshtra and narrated the following story to him:
“Long ago, Surabhi who is the Mother of all cows and bulls on this earth, went to Indra in heaven. She wept in front of Indra saying, “King of Devas, look at that weak bull, my son below on the earth. He is pulling a plough with another son of mine, a stronger bull. A farmer is beating him with a stick, and twisting his tail because he is too weak to pull it along with my stronger son.” Indra said, “There are thousands of sons of yours who are pulling carts and ploughs for different people on the earth. Then why do you cry only for that weak son?” The Mother Cow Surabhi replied, “My Lord, I know that my stronger sons will be able to do their work without any pain. They can take care of themselves. You are correct that they are all my own children. But the heart of the mother always weeps, and gets filled with love for her weakest children. And this is the reason, why I cry for that weak bull.”
Rishi Veda Vyasa then said to Dhritarāshtra, “King, Mother Surabhi had a special love for that weak bull, even though all the cows and bulls on this earth are her children. After King Pandu died, you are father not only of the Kauravas, but also of the Pāṇdavas. The Kauravas are one hundred, the Pāṇdavas are only five in number. The Kauravas were already enjoying living in the Kingdom since their birth, whereas the Pāṇdavas suffered a lot in their childhood. Even now, because of your partiality, the Pāṇdavas are roaming like beggars in a forest. Their clothes are torn, and they have barely enough to eat. And yet, you still love only the powerful and rich Kauravas as your sons. Why does not your heart melt at the suffering of the Pāṇdavas? Don’t you have any compassion in your heart? Where is your sense of justice?”
Veda Vyāsa then said to King Dhritarāshtra, “King, I can understand your love for your son. But remember that Dharma is supreme. You must stop him from doing evil Karma. And after all, the Pāṇdavas are also your own family. Then why are you allowing Duryodhana to harm them?”
Rishi Vashishtha teaches Vishvamitra about our Six Greatest Enemies
Rishi Vashishtha is famous in the Hindu tradition for his forgiveness. In his earlier years, King Vishvaratha, who later became Rishi Vishvamitra, was a great enemy of Vashishtha. But by forgiving Vishvaratha, Rishi Vashishtha made him realize that his real enemy was not Vashishtha. Instead, he had six other real enemies that he had to defeat. Let us read the story to find out who these real enemies were.
King Vishvaratha (the name means “whose chariot treads the entire earth”, i.e., a powerful Emperor) was once on a hunting expedition with his soldiers. They felt very tired and hungry after a long day of hunting activity and were looking for a place to rest and eat. They happened to come across a small āshrama (i.e., forest dwelling in which Rishis live a simple life) of Brahmarishi Vashishtha. The Rishi greeted them and enquired about their needs. After learning of their needs, he asked his magical cow Kāmadhenu to do give whatever was needed to make the guests comfortable. Kāmadhenu magically produced all the food that the army could eat. Vishvaratha was amazed at the powers of the cow.
Overcome with lobha (greed) to have Kāmadhenu, Vishvaratha argued with Vashishtha that this cow would be more useful to a King like him, whereas Vashishtha could fill the needs of his small hermitage with perhaps a few ordinary cows. He offered as many cows as Vashishtha wanted, in return for Kāmadhenu. But Vashishtha said, “King Vishvaratha, the divine cow can only remain with the one who has realized the Truth. You already have many cows. Why do you need mine? Moreover, such a cow could not be treated disrespectfully like a toy that can be given to another as a gift.” But being very greedy and having been refused by Vashishtha, King Vishvaratha became very angry (krodha) and started a fight. He tried to drag the cow forcibly to his palace.
During the fight, Kāmadhenu produced many soldiers and weapons and Vishvaratha’s army was defeated. The arrogance (mada) of Vishvaratha (after all, he was a king) led him to challenge Vashishtha directly. But all the weapons that Vishvaratha could hurl at Vashishtha were swallowed by the Sage’s staff (Brahmadanda) of Vashishtha. In the end, Vishvaratha himself was felled by the Brahmadanda. Seeing the plight of the mighty king, Rishi Vashishtha, who was a man of great compassion and kindness, forgave the king.
But Vishvaratha still hated Vashishtha in his heart. Therefore, he got all the sons of Vashishtha
killed. When Sage Vashishtha heard that all of his sons had been killed, he was filled with deep grief and decided to end his own life. But not once did he bear any anger towards Vishvamitra, and not once did he desire to take revenge by killing Vishvamitra and his family. In a state of deep sorrow, Sage Vashishtha hurled himself from a cliff, but the bottom of the cliff became as soft as a heap of cotton and his head did not get injured at all. He entered a burning forest, but the fire refused to burn him. Then, he tied a stone around his neck and jumped into the ocean to drown himself, but the waves washed him ashore. The Sage then decided to bind himself in chains and jumped into the river Beas in northern India. But the river currents cut his chains and threw him ashore. (For this reason, the river Beas is called ‘Vipāshā’ in Sanskrit. This word means, ‘that which cuts all the chains’). Sage Vashishtha then hurled himself in the river Sutlej in northern India, thinking that the ferocious crocodiles in the river will chew him to death. But even this river respected the Sage so much that it split into a 100 shallow channels, throwing the Sage onto a dry ground. ( For this reason, the river Satluj is called ‘Shatadru’ in Sanskrit. This name means, ‘the river with a hundred flows’). Sage Vashishtha then thought – “Perhaps God does not want me to die by committing suicide. I will go back to my Ashram as I have been away from it for several years.”
As he approached his Ashram, he heard the sound of a young child, resembling that of his own dead son Shakti (when he was a young boy) reciting the Vedas beautifully. His widowed daughter-in-law, who lived in the Ashram explained – “Before my husband Shakti died, I was expecting his child, and this little boy is your grandson named Parāshara.” Sage Vashishtha was overjoyed on seeing his grandson, and got a new reason to live. Sage Vashishtha took care of the little boy for several years. Innocent Parāshara thought that Sage Vashishtha, his grandfather, was his father. One day, he actually addressed Vashishtha as ‘Dad’ in the presence of his mother. As a result, his mother was filled with sorrow and remembered her dead husband. She told Parāshara that Vashishtha was actually his grandfather and he should not therefore address him as ‘Dad’. She also told him how his own father Shakti was killed in a most cruel manner because of King Vishvaratha.
When Parāshara heard this, he was filled with anger. He said – “This world is so cruel. My father was innocent and yet he was killed for no fault of his. My grandfather was kind to me and yet he hid this fact from me, while raising me lovingly. I will destroy this whole world with my spiritual powers, because it so full of evil people.” But Sage Vashishtha reasoned with his grandson through stories of great sages that it is not good to be angry and one should give up anger and forgive others. And therefore, Parāshara decided not to proceed with his decision to destroy the whole world. Parāshara let go of his anger, and forgave the murderers of his father. He devoted himself completely to his spiritual advancement and to the study of Vedas. In the course of time, he became a great Rishi and authored many Hindu scriptures, including Parashara Smriti. But most importantly, he gave birth to Sage Veda Vyasa, who became the greatest Rishi of Hindu Dharma.
The story shows that anger and hatred can sometimes lead us into a downward spiral of anger-hatred-revenge-anger-hatred-revenge; eventually leading all of us towards destruction. Anger cannot be fought with anger, and hatred should not be countered with hatred. Instead, just as Sage Vashishtha, we should counter violence, anger and hatred with forgiveness, love and kindness. Often, nothing is gained through anger, hatred and revenge. We should learn to put these things behind us, and instead focus on advancing ourselves in the right direction.
Meanwhile, Vishvaratha had not given up his wish for revenge. He felt humiliated and insulted. He resolved to learn the Truth by doing meditation. He decided to renounce his family and kingdom and meditate in order to realize the truth. He also entertained the idea that by doing meditation, he would acquire enough powers to retaliate against Vashishtha.
Vishvaratha did not know the fundamentals of meditation. He could have gone to Vashishtha or another Guru for proper instruction. But his ego was so big that he would not do so. By his sheer willpower, he focused his mind on Bhagavān Shiva. The intensity of his prayers produced tremendous heat from his head and the billowing smoke travelled towards the sky. Indra, the head of the Devatās in heaven, was very worried that Vishvaratha would acquire great Yogic powers and would be a menace to all. In order to disturb Vishvaratha’s concentration, he sent a divine nymph named Menakā to the place where Vishvaratha was meditating. Menakā was a beautiful and an exquisite dancer. Her song and dance disturbed Vishvaratha’s concentration. Opening his eyes, he saw this beautiful woman and immediately, his Kāma (lust or desire) made him fall in love with her. Forgetting his resolve to realize the Truth, he married Menakā. Soon thereafter, they were the parents of a baby girl Shakuntalā. One day, Vishvaratha recalled his original goal and decided to leave Menakā and the child and return to the depths of the forest to resume his austerities. Menakā too went to her home in the skies, and left the daughter Shakuntalā in the hermitage of Rishi Kaṇva, who brought her up as his own daughter out of compassion for the abandoned child.
Vishvaratha now resumed his meditation with even greater concentration and prayed with greater devotion. The ensuing heat from his austerities made Indra very nervous. This time, he sent another beautiful dancer named Rambhā to distract Vishvaratha. When Vishvaratha got distracted from his deep concentration, he opened his eyes and saw Rambha. This time, instead of Kāma, Krodha (anger) took hold of him. Infuriated by her distractions, he cursed Rambhā and turned her into a stone. All the powers that he had acquired as a result of his Tapasyā (spiritual efforts) were destroyed in a moment of anger. Not wanting to give up his determination to humiliate Vashishtha, Vishvaratha resumed his austerities.
During that time, there was a king named Trishanku who wanted to reach heaven in his human body. He went to his Guru Vashishtha and requested him to officiate as the priest in the Yajna for the said purpose. But Vashishtha refused Trishanku’s request. He said that Hindu scriptures prohibit going to heaven in one’s present earthly body. Disappointed at the turn of events, Trishanku approached Vishvaratha with his request. Now Vishvaratha thought that this is the right opportunity to humiliate Vashishtha. He did not consider the fact that no one can ascend to heaven in his earthly body, and was overpowered by the delusion (moha) that he could somehow do this for Trishanku. Therefore, he agreed to perform the Yajna for Trishanku.
By the power of the Yajna performed by Vishvaratha, Trishanku started rising from the earth and ascended towards heaven. Seeing this improbable sight, the Devatās wanted to push Trishanku from reaching heaven and they pushed him back towards the earth. When Vishvaratha saw this, he stopped Trishanku in mid-air and created a new heaven for him. This is called Trishanku heaven and it shines as a star in the sky even today. Vishvaratha realized that no one can ascend to heaven in one’s earthly body and by realizing that spiritual things are different from earthly things, he overcame his delusion (moha). But as he had promised to Trishanku that he will take him to heaven, he created this parallel heaven.
Once again, Vishvaratha had used up all his powers, having been overpowered with moha. He resolved to try regaining them once again through austerities. Pleased with his devotion, Bhagavān Brahmā appeared to him and blessed him with the title ‘Maharshi.’ But Vishvaratha was not happy with this and said out of jealousy, “Just a Maharshi? I deserve the highest title of Brahmarishi.” But Brahmā said, “You can get that title and status, only if you are blessed by Brahmarishi Vashishtha.
Now, Vishvaratha really got frustrated, but his mada (pride and arrogance) did not allow him to go to Vashishtha and ask for his blessings. He was overcome with anger and mātsarya (jealousy) towards Vashishtha, and he decided to kill Vashishtha to eliminate all competition! Armed with a big rock, he waited at night outside the door of Vashishtha’s hut, thinking that he will hurl the stone at Brahmarishi Vashishtha, the moment he comes out.
He waited and waited. In the early hours of the morning, he heard Vashishtha saying to his wife, “Vishvaratha is a great man and is fully qualified to be a Brahmarishi. In fact, he is greater than I. I do not know, why he has not come to see me yet.” When Vishvaratha heard these words of praise from none other than the person he hated out of jealousy, he felt very repentant. His feelings of jealousy, anger, frustration, and ego disappeared for good. He went inside the hut and fell at Brahmarishi Vashishtha’s feet and said, “I had tried to kill you several times. I killed all your sons. Just to insult you, I tried several austerities. But despite that, you do not harbor any ill-will towards me. Look at me – I had come to kill you. But instead, I learn how much you respect me. What a degraded person I am. I hope my tears of repentance will make you forgive me.”
Vashishtha said, “Every person has six enemies – lust/desire, anger, greed, arrogance or ego, delusion and jealousy. You have overcome each one of them. You were led astray many times in your pursuit of Truth, but you never gave up. Finally, you conquered jealousy as well. I bless you and indeed, you are also a Brahmarishi from now on.”
As Vashishtha said these words, Devi Gāyatrī appeared in front of Vishvaratha and gave him the Gāyatrī Mantra, chanting which everyone in this world can come closer to Bhagavān. From that day, Vishvaratha became Vishvamitra (meaning ‘the friend of the entire world’). He became an eternal emperor in the true sense of the word, because his name became associated with the holiest mantra of Hindus.
Rishi Vishvamitra shares the joys and sorrows of others out of Compassion
In the above account, we read how King Vishvaratha became Brahmarishi Vishvamitra. Now, let us read a story of how Vishvamitra truly lived his name, which means, ‘the friend of all.’
Once, Rishi Vishvamitra and his disciples passed through a region that was struck with a devastating drought. There was no food to be had and the locals were starving. So the people of the area could obviously not give any food to the Rishi and his entourage as alms.
One of the Rishi’s students came to him and said, “The only thing I can find for us to eat is a carcass of a dog. But how can we eat rotting dog-flesh?” Rishi Vishvamitra said, “It is better to eat rotting dog meat than die of hunger. Bring the carcass here in my bowl. When he received the bowl, the Rishi sprinkled some holy water on it and prayed, “Our Dharma teaches us that before we eat anything, we should offer a portion to the Devatās in heaven. So I am offering the first piece to them.” Meanwhile, in heaven, the Devatās felt embarrassed that the Rishi was dying of hunger and had been forced procure a dead dog. They also felt revolted that he should offer them the dog meat. Therefore, Indra, the King of Devatās, came down to earth disguised as a hawk and flew way with the bowl. The Rishi recognized Indra’s disguise and threatened to curse him. Then, Indra returned with a pitcher of Amrit (the nectar that gives immortality) and offered it to the Rishi saying, “I am sorry respected Rishi. That meat of dog is not fit for you and your students to eat. Instead, I have brought this pitcher of Amrit for you. Please throw away the meat in your bowl and drink this instead.”
When Rishi Vishvamitra heard Indra, he replied, “How dare you offer this Amrit to me and my students, when everyone else in this area is dying of hunger? Their cattle have also died, because you have not sent down any rains. All I found therefore was this dead dog to eat. So what is wrong if I offer a portion to you? After all, you are responsible for this. I am not a selfish person who would want to become immortal while everyone is dying around me. Therefore, bring back the vessel with the flesh, or I will curse you.”
Indra said, “Respected Rishi, I am moved by your compassion. You and your disciples could have drank the Amrit and become immortal. Yet, you did not forsake the people of this village, who gave you shelter to die on their own. I will cause the rain to come down to this region immediately.” It started pouring in the land, and once again, people were able to grow food and prevent starvation deaths. The people thanked Rishi Vishvamitra for standing by them and giving up his own immortality for their sake. The place where this incident happened is today a holy place (teertha) for the Hindus, and is known as ‘Vishvamitra Teertha.’
This story shows that good human beings do not think only about their own happiness and prosperity. Instead, they want everyone to be happy even if it means that they have to give up their own happiness.
Rishi Kavasha Ailusha’s practical teaching on Atman
Once, a man named Kavasha Ailūsha approached a group of Rishis, who were performing a Yajna on the banks of the Saraswati River. The Rishis did not permit him to join their Yajna, saying, “We are all high-born Brahmanas, whereas your mother was a maidservant. How can a lowly person like you join us in our religious ceremony?”
Kavasha Ailūsha was hurt. He then pointed them to the corpse of a Brahmana named Ātreya lying on the banks of the river. He asked them, “Now this person too was born in a very illustrious family. He led you in the performance of all Yajnas. Then, is he now superior to me too? Is he of equal rank as you all are?” The Rishis hung their heads in shame, and asked Kavasha to give them true knowledge. But Kavasha said, “Go to the Naimisha forest, and ask the Vālakhilya Rishis to enlighten you.”
The Rishis then took leave of Kavasha Ailūsha and went to the Vālakhilya Rishis. The latter then said, “Just like a chariot is just a piece of wood and metal without the driver, because it cannot go anywhere, similarly, the body is just a corpse without the ātman, which makes it alive. The body can never be higher than the ātman. Between the two, the ātman is higher, and the body is low. And the same ātman is present inside every person.”
The Rishis who had initially humiliated were now chastened. They had unfairly insulted Kavasha Ailūsha, because of his humble parentage, when the fact was that he had the same ātman that they had as well.
Rishi Jaigishavya, the Great Yogī describes the greatest source of joy
Rishi Jaigishavya was a great master of meditation who lived thousands of years ago. His accomplishments are described in the Mahabharata. Due to his Yogic powers, he came to remember hundreds of his past lives. One day, a person asked him, “What has been your most joyous experience in all these lives? What do think brings the greatest joy?”
Rishi Jaigishavya replied, “True happiness results not from indulging in all kinds of temporary pleasures, but by being a balanced person and being contented. And even greater happiness is being one with Brahman (the Supreme Being), because that alone brings complete and eternal joy.”
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Vishal Agarwal is an independent scholar residing in Minneapolis (USA) with his wife, two children and a dog. He has authored one book and over fifteen book chapters and papers, some in peer reviewed journals, about ancient India and Hinduism. He and his wife founded the largest weekend school teaching Hinduism to students, and also a teenager organization to keep them engaged in Dharma. Vishal has participated in numerous interfaith forums, and has represented Hindus and Indians in school classrooms and in seminars. Vishal is the recipient of the Hindu American Foundation’s Dharma Seva Award (2010), the Global Hindu Academy’s Scholar award (2014) and service awards from the Hindu Society of Minnesota (2014 and 2015). He is very strongly engaged in the social and Dharmic activities of the Indian and Hindu communities of Minnesota, and has authored a series of ten textbooks for use in weekend Hindu schools by children from the ages 4-14. Professionally, Vishal is a biomedical Engineer with graduate degrees in Materials Engineering and Business Administration (MBA). His scientific and statistical training enables him to bring precision and a high level of rigor in his research – qualities that are very often missing in contemporary publications on Indology and in South Asian Studies.