The Rishis and Rishikās were great men and women in the ancient Hindu society who were able to experience Bhagavān within themselves because they followed Dharma and performed spiritual practices like meditation. Although Rishis are found in all religions, we Hindus are really blessed to have had hundreds of them. Rishis and Rishikās lived not just in the ancient times. Many of them have lived in modern times too. Let us now read incidents from the lives of some of the first Rishis and Rishikās who were the pioneers of Hindu Dharma.
Rishi Bharadvāja realizes Knowledge is endless
Some Rishis in the Hindu tradition are said to have lived a very long life. One of them was Rishi Bharadvāja. A beautiful story is narrated about his love for the study of the Vedas. He spent his long life of 100 years studying the Vedas. Pleased with his love for the scriptures,Indra- the King of Devas- appeared before the Rishi and asked: “If I were to increase your life by another 100 years, what would you want to do?”Rishi Bharadvāja replied, “I would spend the next 100 years again in studying the Vedas.” Indra increased his life, and returned to see the Rishi when he was 200 years old.
Indra then created three mountains of sand in front of the Rishi, and said, “These three mountains represent Rigveda, Yajurveda and Samaveda. And from each mountain, your study is but a fistful of sand because endless are the Vedas (anantā vai vedāh). The more you study these scriptures, the more new things you will learn every time.”
Rishi Bharadvāja was amazed, and realized that there is no end for Knowledge. Indra was pleased and said, “Well, you have studied enough. You will now reach Bhagavān very soon. ”
Today, Rishi Bharadvāja is regarded as one of the seven greatest Rishis who ever lived. Even Bhagavān Rama went to visit him at the beginning as well as at the end of his fourteen years long exile in the forest.
Rishi Agastya travelled far and wide to spread Dharma
Rishi Agastya was the first Rishi who travelled from northern India to South India for spreading the Sanatana Dharma.
In those days, an evil king named Rāvaṇa terrorized Rishis and other holy men in South India. He had also kidnapped Sītā, the wife of Bhagavān Rama. In fact, Rāvaṇa was none other than Agastya’s nephew, because Rāvaṇa’s father Vishravā was Agastya’s brother. To vanquish Rāvaṇa, Agastya gave a divine weapon to Bhagavān Rama. Just before the final battle between Rama and Rāvaṇa, Rishi Agastya appeared in the battlefield and taught the stotra called ‘Aditya Hridayam’ to Rama.
Bhagavān Rama chanted the stotra thrice, and was filled with strength and energy of the sun. He was successful in defeating and killing Rāvaṇa. Everyone in south India heaved a sigh of relief at Rāvaṇa’s death. In this example, we see how Agastya did not hesitate to kill his own nephew because he was terrorizing innocent people. This episode teaches us that we must always side with Dharma even if we have to go against our own family members.
Once, there was a drought in South India. Therefore, Agastya went to Mount Kailash in Tibet (China) and asked Bhagavān Shiva for some waters to take back. Shiva asked him to collect water from the Ganga River in a pot. When Agastya reached South India, he rested his pot on the ground. Bhagavān Ganesha took the form of a crow and toppled the pot. The water that flowed out of the pot became the River Kāverī, which has since then continued to irrigate many parts of South India for thousands of years.
Therefore, thanks to Rishi Agastya and Ganesha, South India became a very fertile region. It is said that once Bhagavān Shiva played his damaru and the sounds of Sanskrit came from its one side, and those of Tamil from the other. Rishi Agastya recorded the Tamil letters and then wrote the first book on Tamil grammar. Later, he also wrote many books on medicine (called Siddha medicine) which are used even today.
People of Indonesia believe that Rishi Agastya came to visit their country from South India, and brought the Hindu culture to them. Therefore, the Rishi was worshipped in Indonesia. Archaeologists have found mūrtīs of Rishi Agastya in old Hindu temples of Indonesia.
Rishi Bhrigu on how to judge greatness
One day, all the Rishis met together to decide which form of Bhagavān is the greatest. Rishi Bhrigu said, “Let me go and meet Brahmā, Vishnu and Shiva. I will test them and find out which of these three is the greatest.”
First, Bhrigu went to see Brahma who was reading scriptures. Brahma was the father of Bhrigu, but Bhrigu did not even say Namaste to his father. Brahma got very angry and said to Bhrigu, “You are a foolish man. You do not even have good manners even though you are my own son.” But Sarasvati, the wife of Brahma, asked her husband to calm down.
Then, Bhrigu went to Mountain Kailash to see Bhagavān Shiva. When Shiva saw Bhrigu arrive, He rushed to embrace Bhrigu. But Bhrigu said to Shiva, “Stop, do not hug me. You have ashes on your body and are so dirty. I do not want to embrace you.” Shiva was so annoyed that He lifted his weapon to kill Bhrigu. But Devi Parvati requested Shiva to calm down.
Rishi Bhrigu then went to Vaikuntha, where Bhagavān Vishnu was taking a nap. Bhrigu went close to Vishnu and suddenly kicked His chest, without any reason. Bhagavān Vishnu immediately woke up. But instead of getting angry at Bhrigu, he smiled and said, “Respected Bhrigu, I am sorry for hurting you. My chest is very strong and hard. I hope your foot did not get hurt. Let me give your foot a massage.”
Rishi Bhrigu was very impressed with Bhagavān Vishnu’s behavior. He went back and told all the other Rishis that Bhagavān Vishnu is greatest because He does not get angry, and forgives even those who hurt Him.
This story does not really mean that Vishnu is superior to Shiva and Brahmā. The different Forms of Bhagavān merely enact these plays to set up a good example for people to learn and emulate them. The gist of the story is that greatness should not be measured by how much power one has or how knowledgeable one is, but by how much humility, kindness, and compassion that one possess.
Rishi Dadhīchi Forgives Indra and helps him
Ashvinī Kumāras, the twin brothers, were unique Devatās, because they had the knowledge of reviving dead people back to life. Indra thought, “My advantage over them is that I have spiritual wisdom, which they do not possess. But if they acquire that spiritual knowledge too, then they might threaten me and become the Kings of the Devatās in my place.” Therefore out of fear and jealousy, Indra ordered that if anyone teaches spiritual wisdom to the Ashvinī Kumāras, that teacher’s head would split into a thousand pieces.
The Ashvinī Kumāras were upset when they heard of Indra’s decree. They went to a very pious Rishi Dadhīchi and requested, “O Rishi, no one dares to teach us the spiritual wisdom of the Vedic scriptures. Therefore, we are requesting you to stand up to Indra. We will replace your head with that of a horse, and when that horse head splits, we will replace it again with your original head.” Out of kindness, Rishi Dadhīchi agreed, and taught the spiritual wisdom to the twin brothers. As soon as he had done so, Indra hurled an axe and beheaded the Rishi. The Kumāras then re-grafted the head of the Rishi back to his torso when the horse head had broken into pieces. Rishi Dadhīchi regained his life and his original form.
Several years later, an evil demon named Vritra grew very powerful and he began to trouble all the residents of heaven. Finally, he even invaded heaven and drove out Indra. Homeless, Indra appealed to Bhagavān Vishnu to help him. But Vishnu replied, “Vritra can be killed only with a weapon made from the bones of a Rishi who has meditated a long time, who is pure and therefore whose bones have become charged with spiritual power. At this time, Dadhīchi is the only Rishi whose bones can give a strong enough weapon.”
Indra became very nervous now, because he had earlier beheaded Dadhīchi. But nevertheless, he went to Rishi Dadhīchi and begged for forgiveness and told him the reason for his visit. Rishi Dadhīchi smiled and said, “Aren’t you the same person who had tried to kill me earlier? But it is the duty of Rishis to forgive and forget. And even more important, if I do not forgive you and do not give you my bones, then because of your past actions, many innocent Devatās and other creatures will suffer. Therefore, I will forgive you and permit you to take my bones.”
Rishi Dadhīchi then sat in meditation, till his soul left his body and merged with Bhagavān Vishnu. Indra then used the weapon crafted from his bones, and was able to defeat Vritra in a battle. The story of Dadhīchi shows how we should forget old rivalries and enmities and should be willing to sacrifice ourselves when our society and when our loved ones are faced with a great danger.
Rishi Pippalāda realizes that a portion of the Devatās lives inside all of us
Rishi Dadhīchi gave up his body so that his bones could be used by Indra to make Vajra, a strong weapon, for killing evil Vritra. When the Rishi’s son, Pippalāda grew older, he was full of resentment for the fact that his father had to die for the sake of Indra. He blamed Indra and his Devatas for the death of his father, and all the suffering he had to undergo in his childhood due to the loss of his parent. He thought that the Devas were indeed selfish and depraved people, because they asked for his father’s bones to fulfill their own selfish motives.
He decided to teach the Devatās a lesson. He meditated for long to please Shiva, Who finally appeared before him and offered him a boon. Pippalāda asked, “May the Devas burn to death!” Bhagavān Shiva asked him to choose another boon, but the Rishi’s son would not agree. Therefore Shiva finally said, “So be it. Let the Devas start burning!”
But the moment Bhagavān Shiva said this, Pippalāda started feeling a strong burning sensation in his own body, from head to toe. He cried to Shiva, “What have you done Bhagavān? I had asked you to burn the Devas, but you are burning me instead!”
Bhagavān Shiva replied, “The Devas are not just outside. A portion of the Devas dwells inside all the creatures as well. Therefore, if you burn the Devas, you cannot escape their fate too. Your father was a great Rishi. No one forced him to die. All human beings have to die one day. But your father chose a very noble death, so that all the Devas and all the creatures may live. He made a great sacrifice for the sake of this Universe. Do not insult his sacrifice by bearing a grudge against the Devas.”
Pippalāda understood the greatness of his father through the words of Bhagavān Shiva, and he asked Bhagavān for forgiveness. In fact, he himself became a great Rishi and became one of the compilers of the Atharvaveda, which is one of the four divinely revealed books of the Hindus.
Rishi Āruṇī exemplifies Guru-Bhakti
Āruṇi was the son of Rishi Aruni. As per the tradition of the time, though Rishi Aruni was learned, he sent his son to study with another learned Rishi named Dhaumya. Āruṇi knew the secret of gaining the knowledge as he was the son of a Rishi. He knew that service of the Guru is the key, as it trains our minds and makes them more receptive.
His teacher gave him a job of taking care of a small farm in the outskirts of the town. The farm was on a small hill. In the rainy season, Āruṇi noticed water flowing down the hill and his crop was not getting enough water. So he told his teacher and the teacher said, “Why don’t you build a dam so that water can be saved for the farm?” Āruṇi went to build a dam.
He started pouring dirt to build the dam. Regardless of how much dirt he poured, it all went with the flow of water as the water current was swift. He tried and tried, but failed. He was tired but he needed to stop the flow of water as it was the command of his teacher!
He finally got a brilliant idea. He spread himself on the ground, lying across the place where the water was flowing. He could thus stop the flow of water. It was late evening and he was thirsty and hungry. But, how could he leave? He was the dam! He decided to stay there as the dam!
His teacher noticed that Āruṇi was not back from the farm. So, he along with a few other students went to look for Āruṇi. To the teacher’s surprise, Āruṇi was lying down on the ground as the dam, to prevent water from flowing down!
Rishi Dhaumya saw Āruṇi’s faith in the teacher and his words. Dhaumya was a man of wisdom and so he told Āruṇi that water will not flow down when he got up, because a dam had formed against his body as he lay on the ground for several hours. He blessed Āruṇi and told him that he would henceforth famous by the name Uddālaka. Due to his devotion to his Guru, Āruṇi became a great Rishi in his own right when he completed his education.
Rishi Mudgala: The Joy of Giving
Rishi Mudgala and his family in Kurukshetra spent most of their time in worship. He would gather excess grains scattered on the fields after the farmers had already harvested their crops, and feed his family with this meager food. Despite his poverty, Mudgala was very hospitable. No guest visiting his home left without Mudgala offering him some food.
One day, Rishi Durvāsa came to test him. He asked Mudgala for food and ate everything that Mudgala could gather that day from the fields.
This went on for several days in a row, but Rishi Mudgala did not complain even once. In fact, he would give his share of food to Rishi Durvāsa every day. On the seventh day, the latter blessed Rishi Mudgala, saying, “Despite your poverty, you did not give up your hospitality. By my Yogic powers, I will now summon Devatās to take you to heaven.” Immediately, Devatās appeared and requested Mudgala to come with them to heaven.
But Mudgala said that before leaving earth for heaven, he would like to know the length of his stay and the more about the pleasures of heaven. The Devatās answered, “You will stay in heaven as long as the fruit of your good karmas last. Heaven is a place full of pleasure – you will get the best food, drinks, clothes, homes and so on. You will be very happy till you live in heaven.”
Surprisingly, Rishi Mudgala refused to accompany them to heaven saying, “What is the use of heaven if I cannot stay there forever. And I get greater joy in serving others, than in feeding myself delicious food.” Rishi Mudgala then continued on the earth, worshipping regularly and feeding every guest. When he died, his soul reached Bhagavān forever, to enjoy complete happiness for all times to come.
Maharshi Vālmīki – the Author of Ramayana
Rishi Valmiki is called the ‘Ādi Kavi’ or the first poet in the Sanskrit language. He wrote the Ramayana, the story of the life of Lord Rama in 24,000 verses. The Ramayana has become so popular that even outside India, people in many countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Malaysia, China, and Japan have their own versions of Ramayana based on Rishi Valmiki’s original version.
Thousands of years ago, a dacoit named Ratnākara (also called Valya Koli) lived in the forests of north India. He earned his living by robbing and killing travelers, who were passing through the forest. He would steal their belongings and food, and take them home to feed his own children and wife.
One day, Sage Nārada was passing through the forest. Suddenly, Valya came from behind a bush and threatened to kill Nārada, unless he gave up his belongings. Nārada asked Valya as to why he lived this life of robbing and killing. “To feed my family,” replied Valya. Nārada then asked him, “Don’t you know, it is a bad crime to kill and steal from others? You will get bad Karma (i.e. fruit of action), and suffer punishment for it later. Will your family also share your bad Karma with you just like you share your loot with them?”
“Of course, I will go and ask them and confirm it for you.” said Valya. But when Valya asked his wife and children if they will also share his bad Karma, they refused. They all said, “It is your duty to take care of us and feed us. This does not mean that we should also share your bad Karma with you.” Now Valya was very sad, because the family whom he loved and for whom he did all the crimes was unwilling to share his bad deeds too. He realized that we all pay alone for our evil deeds, and earn good fruit alone for our good deeds. Valya then decided to mend his ways and become a good person.
So, he rushed back to Nārada to tell him how sorry he was for all that he had done so far. “How can I make good my bad deeds, and become a good person?” Sage Nārada asked him to sit in meditation, and continuously chant the name of Rama till he returned. So Sage Valya sat at one place, and chanted ‘Rama-Rama’ without moving for many years till termite ants made an ant-hill (called ‘Vālmīki’) and completely covered his body. And therefore, he came to be known as Vālmīki. Finally, a Divine voice from heaven said that Īshvara is pleased with the devotion of Vālmīki and he can come out of the ant-hill. Rishi Nārada appeared and told Vālmīki that now he was a reformed person. He narrated to him briefly the life-story of Rama, who was then the King of Ayodhyā.
In the course of time, Vālmīki became a Saint and a great poet. He composed the Ramayana, the story of the beautiful character of Lord Rama. His first students were none other than Luv and Kush, the twin sons of Bhagavān Rama himself. When the two princes sang the Ramayana in front of Rama, he was greatly overjoyed. Rama confirmed that everything that is written in the Ramayana about his life is true.
The Ramayana written by him became famous all over the world. Even today, millions of people read the Ramayana and learn from the good virtues and deeds of Rama so that they can themselves lead better lives.
The life of Sage Vālmīki shows that even an evil person can become a Saint, if he starts worshipping Īshvara with full devotion and faith, and gives up bad deeds. If we want to give up bad habits, we should keep trying really hard and also ask Īshvara to help us. In the course of time, Īshvara will have mercy on us and He will help us become virtuous.
We can also worship Bhagavān by reading the Ramayana of Valmiki. In this holy book, we read about the good character of Lord Rama – how he always listened to his parents, spoke gently to everyone, took care of all, and was loyal to his friends and so on. Reading the Ramayana will influence us to become a good person like Rama. Vālmīki was a robber and yet he became a Rishi and a saint by giving up his bad habits, and by worshipping Īshvara. Similarly, if we have any bad habits, we should try to leave them, and worship Bhagavān continuously to help us become good.
Shabari: the student of Rishi Mātanga
Bhagavān Rama and his brother Lakshmana were travelling through the forests of Southern India in search of Devi Sītā, the wife of Lord Rama, who had been kidnapped. They happened to pass by the Āshrama (hermitage) of Rishi Mātanga. In that hermitage, lived a humble, unintelligent and illiterate tribal woman named Shabari. Everyone thought that she was foolish, and they made fun of her because she was ugly and simple minded. But Shabari always did her work diligently in the Āshrama, served her Guru and remembered Bhagavān in her heart. On his death bed, the Rishi told Shabari that her devotion will be rewarded and Rama would come Himself to her.
Many years later, when she heard that the Rama was coming in the direction of the Āshrama, her joy knew no bounds! She wanted to feed the most delicious fruit and berries to Bhagavān Rama to satisfy his hunger. So she went around from one bush of berries to another, plucking berries in a plate. She chewed one-half of each berry. Whenever she tasted a delicious and sweet berry, she would store the non-chewed half of that berry in a bowl. When she came across a bitter one, she would throw the whole berry away.
When the Rama arrived, she offered Him a seat, and water, and then gave him the bowl of half-chewed sweet berries. In her excitement, she had forgotten that we must never give dirty food to our guests. Lakshmana felt disgusted that Shabari should have offered her half-chewed berries to Rama. But the Bhagavān was so touched by the simple devotion and love of the tribal woman that he ate the berries offered by her with great delight.
After He had finished the berries, Shabari folded her hands in Namaste, and asked Rama with great devotion – “O Lord! I do not know the correct way of worshipping you because I am a very lowly, ugly, and illiterate woman born in a degraded tribe. On top of that, I am not very intelligent or wise. Please tell me how I should worship you, and forgive me if I have offended you in any way.”
Lord Rama replied – “O beautiful lady! Listen to me. One should give up all pride due to one’s wealth, strength, good qualities, intelligence or due to belonging to good families or caste. Instead of seeking for praise from others, we should simply serve Bhagavān through our Bhakti, and should praise Him alone. A person who lacks Bhakti and faith is like that useless cloud that soars high up in the sky but does not shower any life giving rain. Now I shall explain to you the nine paths of Bhakti. Pay attention and listen to what I say.
First, seek always the company of saintly and virtuous people. Second, instead of paying attention to useless talk, spend your time in listening to the biographies of Avatāras and Saints. Third, serve your Guru with humility. Fourth, give up all crookedness of heart, and sing the praises of the great qualities of God. Fifth, chant the holy Vedas and recite the sacred mantras, sing Bhajans and pray whenever you can. Sixth, follow what the good people do, keep your senses under control, and do a lot of good deeds. Seventh, treat everyone equally and see Me in everyone. Eighth, do not be greedy and be satisfied with what you get as a result of your labor. Also, do not see the faults in others, even in your dream, but always see their good qualities and encourage them. Ninth, be straightforward, do not show any cunningness, and have faith in Me alone with all your heart.
Rare is that man or woman in which you can see even one of these nine types of devotion. Dear Shabari, everyone makes fun of you. But I can see that in reality, you are the most beautiful woman, because all these nine forms of devotion are practiced by you with great humility. Today, I will give you that reward that even Yogis and Saints do not get easily. I shall reveal my Divine form to you.”
And then Lord Rama showed his form as Lord Vishnu to her. Shabari’s soul then left her body, and merged with Lord Rama. She attained Moksha as a result of her simplicity and simple devotion towards the Lord.
Rishi Ashtāvakra: The Jivanmukta
Rishi Kahor was a famous scholar of the Vedas. One day, he was chanting the Vedas in the presence of his pregnant wife Sujātā. Suddenly, the fetus spoke from inside his mother’s womb, “Father, you are not chanting the Vedas correctly.” Kahor’s ego was hurt, and he cursed his own son, “You are a mere unborn infant. How dare you correct me! I curse you that you will be reborn with eight bends in your body.”
Before the baby was born, Kahor heard that King Janaka had organized a grand Yajna for which he was looking for suitable priests. Kahor reached the palace of Janaka and offered to help out. But the king placed a pre-condition before he would hire the services of Kahor, “I am interested only in a priest, who is a greater scholar than my own court scholar Vandi. If you defeat him in a scholarly debate on the Vedas, you will be hired. If you are defeated, you must drown yourself to death.” Kahor was confident of his knowledge and accepted the challenge. Unfortunately, he lost, and had to drown himself!
Sometimes later, Sujātā gave birth to a baby. Due to his father’s curse, the baby had eight bends in his body. Therefore, he was named as Ashtāvakra, or ‘one with eight bends’. Despite his physical deformity and ugliness, Ashtāvakra became a great scholar of Hindu scriptures as a child. When he was twelve years of age, his uncle told him how his father Kahor had died because he had lost the debate with Vandi.
Ashtāvakra decided to avenge his father’s death. He travelled to Janaka’s court after impressing the guards of his knowledge. But when he entered the court, the courtiers and scholars present there started laughing at his deformed appearance.
Once the laughter ended, Ashtāvakra said, “I had come here to meet scholars, but it appears that the assembly of King Janaka comprises not of scholars, but cobblers.” The King and his courtiers and scholars were stunned at Ashtāvakra’s rebuke. But the child continued, “A scholar is he who looks beyond the body, which is nothing but a bag of leather we call the skin, and which encloses bones, blood etc. within it. The scholar knows that this bag of leather is temporary and perishable. Only the Atma within it is real and survives death. But your so called scholars looked only at my body, and laughed. They had no idea of my Atma, which makes my body alive.”
King Janaka was very impressed by the wisdom of Ashtāvakra. But the boy then asked to debate with Vandi, with the same wager – if Vandi lost, he would drown himself to death. If Ashtāvakra lost, he would do the same. The debate resulted in Vandi’s defeat. But he would not drown himself, and instead said, “I am a messenger of Varuṇa, the Devata of water. I cannot be drowned. Your father was not the only scholar who drowned himself to death. There were many others who lost the debate with me and suffered the same fate. And the truth behind this is that these scholars are not dead. They were needed by my father for the performance of a Yajna. They were therefore immediately taken to realm of Varuṇa after they drowned. Now, that the Yajna is completed, and they can all return.”
As Vandi said these words, all the Rishis appeared from the water and walked on the river bank. Among them was Kahor, the father of Ashtāvakra. Kahor blessed his son for his devotion and asked him to take a dip in the river. When Ashtāvakra emerged from the water, his bends in the body had all disappeared and he had a normal physique like everyone else.
From this story, we learn that we should not judge a person based on his appearance. After all, the body is really like a leather bag inside which are contained bones, muscles, blood, and other organs. A wise person knows that it is not the body, but the mind and the Atma inside the body that are important. A person becomes great or low not by how his body looks like, but whether his mind is pure or not.
The teachings of Ashtāvakra given in the court of King Janaka are collected in a scripture called the Ashtāvakra Samhitā. The story is contained in the Mahābhārata and in other scriptures.
Rishi Markaṇdeya becomes Immortal
Long, long ago, there lived a Sage named Mrikaṇdu and his wife Marudvati. They had no children and so, they prayed to Shiva to grant them a child. Bhagavān Shiva was pleased with their devotion. He appeared to the couple and asked them to choose between a son, who would be very Dharmic and would be devoted to Shiva, but would live for just 16 years; and a hundred sons who will be foolish, but will all live long lives. Since Sage Mrikaṇdu and Marudvati were a very virtuous couple, they asked for one son who will be wise, and devoted to Bhagavān, even if he were to live for only 16 years.
Soon thereafter, a son was born to the couple, and they named him Markaṇdeya. Just as Bhagavān Shiva had promised, Markaṇdeya grew up to be a very wise and Dharmic boy. However, as he got closer to sixteen years of age, he started noticing that his parents became sadder and sadder. He asked them for the cause of their sadness. When he learned that he will die soon, he said – “Do not worry. I will worship Bhagavān Shiva to extend my life, because he answers the prayers of his true devotees.”
As he approached his sixteenth birthday, Markaṇdeya started worshipping Shiva in the form of a Linga. On his 16th birthday, Yamarāja, the Lord of Death appeared and started to pull Markaṇdeya’s Prana (life-force) out of his body. But Markaṇdeya did not get scared and continued to worship Bhagavān Shiva. He grabbed the Shivalinga with both his hands. Bhagavān Shiva emerged from the Shivalinga and stood in front of Yamarāja and stopped him. Shiva scolded Yamarāja and asked him to never harm his devotees.
Then, Shiva blessed Markaṇdeya with an eternal life, and told him that he will never die. Markaṇdeya later became a great Rishi, and one of the eighteen major Purāṇas is named after him. Devout Hindus believe that Markaṇdeya still lives on, invisible to us.
The prayer with which Markaṇdeya worshipped Lord Shiva is the Mahāmrityunjaya Mantra (‘The Great Mantra of victory over death’) which goes as under –
Om! Tryambakam yajāmahey sugandhim pushtivardhanam |
Urvaarukamiva bandhanaat mrityurmukshiiya maamritaat || Yajurveda (Mādhyandina) 3.60
“We worship the three eyed One (Lord Shiva, Who can see the past/present/future) who is fragrant (i.e. whose glory is spread far and wide) and who nourishes all creatures. May He free us from death and lead us to immortality, just as a melon detaches from its creeper branch on its own upon ripening.”
When someone is very sick or has just died, this Mantra is recited for his benefit at least eleven times.
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.”
Rishi Satyakāma Jabāla
Once, a boy named Satyakāma Jābāla wanted to study a lot. He heard that Rishi Hāridrumata Gautama was a very renowned scholar and that he was accepting new students. So, he approached Gautama with a request to take him in as a student too. In those days, it was a custom for the teacher to ask about the family background (Gotra) of their students, because the students had to live all the time with others in boarding schools. They would interact with each other throughout the day. A single student from a bad family could spoil the atmosphere of the boarding school. For this reason, famous teachers who ran the top-notch schools had to make sure that all of their students were from good families and had good values. Therefore, Gautama, also asked Satyakāma, “What is your Gotra, and who is your mother and father?”
Now, Satyakāma had never seen his father. So he went to his mother to ask. When he put the question to her, she trembled with fear, but told him truthfully, “When I was young, I knew a lot of men. Therefore, I do not know who your father was. My name is Jābāla. Therefore, you are Satyakāma Jābāla.” Now Satyakāma felt ashamed of what he heard. He thought that if he were to tell the truth to his teacher, he may be refused admission outright. Yet, he decided to speak the truth.
When he approached the teacher, he found all other students in the classroom studying. The teacher asked him, ‘Did you find out about your family details?” Satyakāma Jābāla said, “Guruji, my mother Jābāla does not know, who my father was. Therefore, she said that I am Satyakāma Jābāla.” When the students heard this, there was a hushed silence, because they were all aghast. They were sure that Gautama would immediately turn him out of the school.
But Gautama said, “This child did not hesitate to speak the truth. And truth alone is the true mark of belonging to Brahmana Varna and a good family. And therefore, I have no hesitation to say that Satyakāma’s parents are both very noble, because he did not hesitate to speak the truth to me. I will surely accept him as my student.”
And so, Satyakāma became a student of Gautama. In fact, in the course of time, he became a great Rishi himself, and compiled several Vedic and other Hindu scriptures. The Jābāla Upanishad, a sacred scripture of the Hindus named after him still exists and is highly respected to this day.
Although King Chitraketu had many queens, none of them bore him a child. He was very depressed, and worried about who will become the next king after him. Fortunately, due to the blessings of the Rishi, one of his queens gave birth to a Prince! The King was overjoyed. However, the other queens became very jealous. They were worried that the Prince’s mother will henceforth become the Chief Queen and the favorite of the King. Therefore, they conspired together and poisoned the young Prince to death.
King Chitraketu’s grief knew no bounds, and he lamented over the dead body of his son. Rishi Angirasa happened to stop by. The King served him with respect and begged the Rishi, “Respected Sir, through your spiritual powers, you can bring my dead son back to life. I beg you, please revive him. He is the greatest joy of my life, the heir to my kingdom.”
Rishi Angirasa tried to explain to the King, ‘Everyone who is born has to die one day. Some die at an old age, some die young. It is against the rules of nature to revive a dead person. Let go of your attachments and accept the reality of death, no matter how dear your son is to you.” But King Chitraketu and his Queen would not let go their grief, and they begged piteously again and again. Out of compassion, Rishi Angirasa revived the dead boy. King Chitraketu and his Queen were overjoyed. But a surprise awaited them.The boy spoke to his parents like a spiritually realized adult. He said, “I did not go anywhere. When I left my body, I recollected about all my past lives, through the grace of Rishi Angirasa. I have lived in many bodies before this one. I have had many fathers and many mothers. Therefore, who is my real father and who is real mother? I have never died, and I was never born. It was merely my bodies that died and took birth. I performed numerous karmas in each life, and was reborn to reap the results of my deeds. I have realized that I am, in reality, the eternal, unchanging, pure and free Atman.”
Saying this, the boy died once again, because he did not want to get attached to his parents. King Chitraketu and his Queen understood the purport of their son’s words. Their attachments disappeared when they realized that all relationships are temporary and end one day. It is only our Atman that is permanent. The only permanent relationship that we have is with the Divine, and He is our goal. Swami Sivananda explains the principle of this story with the help of another example from our daily lives:
“Life is like a manuscript, and each individual person is an author of that manuscript. In this manuscript of life, some of the pages are missing – the beginning and end have been misplaced, and one cannot recollect what he has written in them. He has only the middle portion with him, and that portion tells what he is in this present life. He knows he is here, but he does not know from where he has come, why he has come, or where he will go.”
Vyasa was the greatest Rishi of his times. He lived in Kurukshetra, northern India and in Badarika Ashrama in the Himalayas. He had a son named Shukadeva, who showed great spiritual advancement even as a child and a teenager.
Once, Vyasa sent his son to study under King Janaka of Videha, who was renowned for his spiritual wisdom and knowledge. Shukadeva travelled almost 1000 km on foot from his father’s home to listen to the sermons in Videha. King Janaka, through his spiritual powers, learned beforehand that Vyasa’s son is coming to study under him, and he made preparations accordingly.
When Shukadeva reached the palace, the guards (as instructed) hardly paid any attention to him. They allowed him into the assembly of the King, where he was offered a seat. For three days, King Janaka gave a sermon on Hindu spirituality. Shukadeva also listened intently, but no one paid attention to him, even though he was the son of a great Rishi.
From the fourth day onwards, however, things changed completely. The royal courtiers and officials gave Shukadeva a grand reception and welcomed him with pricey clothing, jewels and requested him to a lavish room for his stay. The teenager Shukadeva lived in his new lavish surroundings for 8 days. Janaka had asked his servants to keep a watch on Shukadeva during all of the 11 days. The servants reported, “King, Shukadeva remained calm and composed throughout the time. He never showed any anger or frustration during the first three days, when no one gave any attention towards him. And in the following eight days, he showed no joy or excitement, when we showered him with presents and attention, and catered to each one of his needs.”
King Janaka then sent a request to Shukadeva to come to the royal court for a meeting. When Shukadeva appeared, the king was seated on his magnificent throne. Beautiful girls danced all around to keep everyone entertained. Janaka said to Shukadeva, “I am offering you a bowl of milk filled to the brim. I want you to place this bowl on your head, and make seven rounds inside the room around all of us. If you do not spill a single drop, then alone I will offer to teach you my wisdom.”
Shukadeva placed the bowl on his head cheerfully. While he walked around the room, the dancing girls continued with their song and dance. The crowd gathered in the room was talking loudly and paying attention to what the boy was doing. But Shukadeva did not get distracted by anything and successfully walked around the room 7 times without getting distracted by the dancing girls, the music, the richly dressed courtiers, the comments of other onlookers or by the worry that he will not succeed.
When the King saw Shukadeva finish this feat remarkably, he said, “Dear boy, there is nothing that I need to teach you. You do not feel insulted or frustrated, when people ignore you or give you no importance. You do not feel excited, when you are surrounded by beautiful clothes, jewels, music, dance, etc. This is the main quality that a person needs to have to advance spiritually. And in fact, only a spiritually advanced person can show this kind of equipoise and concentration. You have renounced mentally all attachments, attraction,s and aversions. Therefore, you do not need to study under me.”
Janaka was correct indeed, because Shukadeva became renowned as a great Rishi in his own right, and became the narrator of Shrimad Bhagavata Purāņa to King Pareekshit later. Shukadeva attained Moksha in his father Vyasa’s own lifetime.
On his way to Dwaraka, Krishna met Rishi Uttanka, who had just come out of a long meditation and did not know what had happened for a long time in the world. The Sage asked Lord Krishna, “How are the Kauravas and the Pāṇdavas doing? I was in meditation for a long time and therefore I do not have the latest news about them.” Lord Krishna then relayed to him the tragic news of how the war had killed all the Kauravas except Yuyutsu (who had sided with the Pāṇdavas).
Sage Uttanka became very angry with Lord Krishna on hearing the news, because he thought that Krishna could have prevented the war, if He had really wanted to. He threatened to curse Lord Krishna and blamed Him for the death of Kauravas. But, Krishna explained to him patiently, how He had tried and tried to bring peace between the two families without success.
When Sage Uttanka heard these details, he repented for being angry with Lord Krishna unnecessarily. Lord Krishna forgave the Sage for his arrogance, and instead asked the Sage, if he wanted a boon from Him. Now, Sage Uttanka lived in a desert region between Hastinapura and Dwaraka. Therefore, he requested, “Bhagavān, this place has a scarcity of water. Please make water available whenever I feel thirsty.” Lord Krishna replied, “Whenever you are thirsty, remember Me, and you will find water immediately.” Then, He departed for his kingdom.
One day, when Sage Uttanka was travelling through the desert, he felt thirsty and therefore remembered Krishna. Immediately, a Chandala (a barbarian man) accompanied by two ferocious dogs appeared. The Chandala had a pot filled with water, and he offered to quench the Sage’s thirst. But the arrogant Sage thought that the Chandala was not worthy enough to offer water to him, and therefore he stepped back instead of accepting the water. The Sage thought that Krishna had played a cheap joke on him by sending such a lowly person to quench his thirst, and started criticizing Krishna instead. Immediately, the Chandala and his two dogs disappeared and instead, Krishna appeared.
The Sage said, “Lord! Why did you send that lowly Chandala to quench my thirst? How can an ascetic accept water from such a person?” Lord Krishna replied, “A Sage sees all creatures without prejudice, with the same eye. You have practiced so many spiritual austerities, and have practiced meditation for a very long time. Therefore, it was unbecoming of you to have scorned someone, because he was a Chandala. But you turned him away, and as a result, you remained thirsty. In reality, the Chandala was Indra, the King of Devas in heaven, and he had come with the nectar of immortality in his leather bag instead of water. But you judged him by his appearance, forgetting that the same Atman resides in him as it does in you.”
Hearing this, the Sage was greatly repentant and asked for forgiveness. He begged Krishna that there should be rain in the desert to quench the thirst of all creatures. Lord Krishna granted his wish. To this day, the clouds that rain water in the Indian desert are called Uttanka clouds.
The story shows that God resides in everyone, and therefore we should not disrespect anyone just on the basis of superficial appearances. Krishna says the same thing to Arjuna in the Gita – “The wise see the same (Supreme Lord) with an equal eye, in a learned and humble brāhmaña, in a cow, in an elephant, in a dog, and even in a dog eater (outcast)”. Gita 5.18
Nachiketa, the Child Rishi
Nachiketa was a very inquisitive little boy. One day, his father performed a grand yajna, in which he invited several poor Brahmanas and gifted cows and bulls to them. The Brahmanas would have used the cows to give them milk, and the bulls to help them in farming activities. Nachiketa was upset to note that the animals being donated by his father were very old and useless.
He thought, “Perhaps my father can gift me to one of these Brahmanas. At least, the person who receives me will be satisfied and this will result in Dharmic merit for my father.”
He went to his father and repeatedly asked, “Dad, who will you give me as a gift to?” The father finally got very angry and said, “I will gift you to Yama, the Lord of Death.” The words came true immediately and Nachiketa died and his Jivātma arrived at the doorstep of the palace of Yama.
Unfortunately, Yama was away, collecting the Jivātmas of other dead creatures. Nachiketa waited for three days, till Yama finally arrived. Seeing the little boy, hungry and thirsty, Yama felt sorry and offered three wishes to Nachiketa.
Let us now read the wonderful conversation that followed between Bhagavān Yama and Nachiketa:
Nachiketa: My first wish is that my father gives up his anger towards me, and forgives me. When I return to him, I want him to recognize me and love me just as he had done in the past.
Yama: You are a very good boy. Even though your father cursed you to die, you still love him. I grant your wish.
Nachiketa: My second wish is to know about the fire (i.e. fire sacrifice) through which one can attain heaven, where there is neither sorrow, nor hunger and where everyone lives in peace and contentment.
Yama: I am pleased with your second wish. That fire, which you wish to know is none other Virat itself, which is the support of the world, and is hidden inside the intellect. From now on, it will be called as ‘Nachiketa Agni’ and those who perform it will attain heaven.
Saying thus, Yama proceeded to explain how to do the fire sacrifice, the class and number of bricks to be used, and the manner of arranging the fire.
Nachiketa: And now my most important wish. Some people say that after death, we no longer exist. Others say that after we die, a part of us still lives. Bhagavān Yama, you alone can know the truth because you and your messengers visit us when we are dying.
Yama: Nachiketa, I see that even though you are a little you are wiser than most adults. Please do not make me answer this question. In return, I will gift you all the things that make one happy – like palaces, chariots, toys, gold and so on. Please take these things instead, and do not insist that I grant your third wish.
Nachiketa: Bhagavān, all these riches like palaces and gold do not last forever. Someday, they all get destroyed. What is the use of my life if I cannot understand what happens to us after we die. Therefore, please do grant my third wish by answering this question.
Yama: Nachiketa, only a person like you who is not attracted towards pleasures and riches deserves to know the answer to this difficult question. Let me first explain to you what you are in reality. Think of yourself as a chariot. The most important part of the chariot is the master, who sits inside the chariot and travels from one place to another. The master is like your ātman, the soul. The chariot itself is like your body. The master has a charioteer who drives the chariot. This chariot is like your mind. The chariot is pulled by five horses, which are like your five senses – nose, ear, tongue, eyes and skin. The charioteer controls and steers the horses with the help of reins. Think of the reins as your intelligence, that helps you decide between the right and the wrong.
Nachiketa: I do not understand the meaning of myself as the chariot. Please explain more clearly.
Yama: OK. Tell me – what will happen if the charioteer does not control the horses properly, or if the reins are weak and keep breaking when the charioteer tries to pull them to control the horses?
Nachiketa: If that happens, the horses will each pull the chariot in different directions, and the chariot will not go much far. Or the ride will be very bumpy.
Yama: Exactly! Now you understand the whole thing well. If your senses, which are like the horses, are not controlled by the mind properly, they will keep pulling you in multiple directions. One moment, your nose likes to smell a flower and you will rush there. The next moment, your tongue will pull you in the direction of a delicious chocolate and you will rush there, forgetting everything else. Then, your eyes will attract you towards something else. This will continue to happen, and you will not go much farther because your senses, or your horses are not under control. So tell me, how can you control your horses, or your senses well?
Nachiketa: I think, I can answer that. First, the charioteer must be disciplined and trained. Second, it should have strong reigns, and must control the horses well.
Yama: You are correct Nachiketa. What this means is that to succeed in life, you must have an intellect that is disciplined like a good charioteer. Then, you must have a strong mind, like strong reins, that can control your senses like unruly horses. Now I have another question for you. What happens if the chariot breaks down?
Nachiketa: In that case, the master will ask the charioteer to get off with his reins. They will find a new chariot, and will fix the reins and the horses to that new chariot. Then, the master and the charioteer will sit on the new chariot, and carry on with their journey.
Yama: This is what happens in this world. Remember that I said that the chariot was like your body? When your body becomes old and dies, the ātman does not die. Instead, it moves out of the dead body along with the intellect, the mind and the senses, and then takes birth inside a new body.
Nachiketa: So what does that mean? Please explain to me more clearly.
Yama: What I am trying to say is this – when a person dies, it is only his body that dies. He, the ātman, does not die. The ātman along its intellect, mind, and the senses takes birth in another body. This is called rebirth.
Nachiketa: But surely, the master has a goal or a destination that he must reach.
Yama: Yes. The master has a final goal, and that final goal is Bhagavān. To reach that goal easily, it should have a good command over the mind. Also, the intellect should be disciplined, and the mind should be strong, so that it can control the horses perfectly and make them travel in the right direction towards the goal. If the senses are not controlled, and if the mind is not strong, or if the intellect is not disciplined, the chariot and master will keep going round and round in circles and along wrong direction. The master, the ātman will have to replace his chariot hundreds of times before he reaches the goal after a very long time.
Nachiketa: Thank you Bhagavān Yama. Now I understand the truth perfectly. I am not my body. I am the ātman, the master of my body. I must have a disciplined intellect. My mind must be strong. And my mind and intelligence must always control my five senses in the right direction. I must not become a slave of things that attract the senses, like junk food that pleases my tongue, gadgets that please my eyes, gossip that pleases my tongue. Instead, I must choose the right things so that I can quickly reach Bhagavān without too many rebirths.
Yama: Indeed, Nachiketa! You are a very gifted child. Now, I will return you to your father. Go back to earth, and live the rest of your life wisely with the knowledge that I have given to you.
On the earth, Nachiketa’s dead body came back to life after having been dead for three days. Nachiketa’s parents were overjoyed. His father was no longer angry with his son, and even forget how he had cursed him to die.
Rishi Yajnavalkya and Rishikas Gargi and Maitreyi
Maharshi Yajnavalkya was born in the town of Chamatkrapur in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. He learned all the four Vedas from different Rishis. Due to some misunderstanding, his Yajurveda teacher Rishi Charaka Vaishampāyana asked Yajnavalkya to return the knowledge Yajurveda that was imparted to him by the teacher. As a result, Yajnavalkya vomited the knowledge in the form of digested food. Other students of Vaishampāyana took the form of ‘Tittiri’ (partridge birds) and consumed the digested knowledge and hence this branch of Yajurveda came to be known as ‘Taittiriya Yajurveda’ and Taittiriya Yajurveda is today widely prevalent in peninsular India, and contains the famous ‘Taittiriya Upanishad’ within it.
Subsequent to this incident, Yajnavalkya meditated upon Sūrya (the Divine as a Solar Deity) to learn another version of the Yajurveda. It is said that Sūrya appeared in the form of a horse (‘vaji’) and taught a different version of Yajurveda to Yajnavalkya, which then came to be known as Vajasneya or Shukla Yajurveda. This new form of Yajurveda is highly systematic and thorough in its description of Vedic ceremonies. But the greatest claim to fame of Shukla Yajurveda is its inclusion of two of the greatest scriptures of Hindu spirituality, namely Ishavasya Upanishad, and the giant Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The latter especially contains Yajnavalkya’s spiritual discussions with his spouse Maitreyi, with King Janaka and with various other scholars.
In these discussions, Yajnavalkya comes across as an extremely eloquent and a spiritual person who responds to every question on the nature of the world, the secret of Vedic ceremonies, the nature of the jīva (individual soul) and the Supreme Being (Brahman) in a very systematic and detailed way. He also establishes the Sannyāsa (asceticism) as an institution within the Vedic Hindu Dharma. He is also very blunt when it comes to exposing priestly pretensions, pedantry and hypocrisy. Many of these discussions occurred at the court of King Janaka, the extremely generous/liberal and learned philosopher King who ruled Mithila, a kingdom in Nepal and the Indian state of Bihar. In one such spiritual conference, King Janaka offered 1000 cows with horns covered with gold to the greatest knower of the Supreme Being. Yajnavalkya called the bluff by asking his students to herd the cattle to his Ashrama (hermitage). The shocked scholars ganged up and challenged him to prove his scholarship before daring to claim the prize. Yajnavalkya responded ably to all of their questions and the debate becomes progressively heated.
Suddenly, a woman scholar Gargi mediates and says, “I will ask two questions to Yajnavalkya. If he responds to them correctly, we must all collectively accept defeat.” All the other scholars in Janaka’s court accept her proposal. She asks the questions, and is humbled by Yajnavalkya’s erudition and understanding. What stands out in this entire episode is the fact that all the scholars in the assembly were open to a woman representing them to present the wager to Yajnavalkya. This shows that in ancient India, women could be distinguished scholars of religion and spirituality, not merely in private, but also as public leaders. We can summarize the answers of Yajnavalkya to other scholars in the following words:
- There is only one Supreme Being who manifests in many different ways. He controls this entire creation not from outside, but from within it. He abides within all of us, but unfortunately, we do not seek to know Him. One should hear about Him from a competent Guru, then reflect about Him, and finally meditate upon Him. But before you embark on your spiritual journey, acquire the pre-requisites of detachment towards worldly pleasures, the ability to discriminate the eternal from the non-eternal, equanimity, faith, self-control and the like and overcome the desire for procuring wealth, progeny and fame.
- A person becomes good through good karma, and bad through bad karma. Our desires lead to resolves, which lead to Karma. And our karma has good and bad results. But no matter how much good karma we do, their fruit eventually comes to an end. Therefore, he is unfortunate indeed, who leaves this world without seeking to know the Supreme Being.
- The Supreme Atman (Innermost Self) cannot be destroyed, it was never born, because it is eternal. It cannot be described completely and adequately, because it is different from everything that we perceive through our senses. It is full of Bliss. A person who experiences this Atman behaves like an innocent child, who is free of guile, jealousy, enmity. And yet, he is full of inner joy, and free of worries and negative emotions.
In his old age, Yajnavalkya decided to become an ascetic and started dividing his property between his two wives – Maitreyi and Katyayani. But the former asked him, “Will this wealth make me immortal?” He replied, “No one can hope for immortality through wealth. It will merely make your life a rich person’s life.” Maitreyi responded, “Then of what use is your wealth to me? Give me the knowledge that will take me to immortality.” Yajnavalkya is very pleased, and he gives her a very detailed discourse on the true basis of love, which is the realization that we all have an underlying unity in the Supreme Being, who abides within the hearts of all of us, and unites us like a string unites several beads and gems into a single necklace. As long as we consider ourselves separate from others, ignoring this underlying unity, we can always rationalize not loving them, be they our spouse, parents, children, or friends. We must love each other for His sake and for our own sake. When we love or hate others, we in fact love or hate our own selves. Therefore, the true basis of love is realizing that we are not really different and separate from each other. It is through knowing this immanent Brahman that we become eternal, joyous and transcend death, sorrow, and ignorance.
This particular episode shows how Hindu Dharma acknowledges women as valid recipients and students of the greatest truths of our faith. India has honored the memory of Gargi and Maitreyi by naming colleges after them in Delhi and in other places.
In Jabala Upanishad, Rishi Yajnavalkya allows the right to become an ascetic to even a young student, provided he has no attachment towards worldly matters. He is also credited with the compilation of a code of Dharma (Yajnavalkya Smriti), which is marked by a very skillful construction of verses. In this work, the Rishi notes that noble intent is also a valid source of Dharma (somewhat parallel to the ‘Good Samaritan Law’ in many societies). He also defends the right of a sonless widow to inherit her deceased husband’s property.
Rishi Yajnavalkya is known as Yogeeshvara (the Lord of Yogis) in the Hindu tradition. His work on Yoga exists even today in at least three different versions. It consists of the Rishi’s instructions on Yoga to Gargi, which demonstrates that ancient Hinduism allowed women to practice this spiritual discipline.
Yajnavalkya’s teachings form the bedrock of Hindu spirituality. In fact, he was one of those Rishis, who placed spirituality at the very core of Hindu Dharma. His own life and teachings demonstrate that spiritual values are the source of religious/ethical norms, and the former are therefore more important than the latter.