Vasistha Rishi, Part Two


Rishi Vasistha with Khamadhenu
Trichinopoly, c. 1830
British Museum Collection

Sep 06, 2014 — CANADA (SUN) — A study of the famous Rishis and Munis of Vedic literature.

The great feud between Rishi Vasistha and the sage Vishvamitra is told in both the Adi parva of Mahabharata and in the Ramayana. In the latter, the story is narrated by Satananda, King Janaka's priest, on the occasion of Rama's wedding.

The account of these events deals with not only with the pastimes of the great Rishi Vasistha, but also with the kshatriya-turned sage, Vishvamitra. The two sages took opposing sides, which resulted in the ruinous War of the Ten Kings described in the Rig Veda.

Vishvamitra is also known as the great seer who created the Gayatri Mantra, recited by the Brahmanas, and as the rescuer of his nephew, Shunahshepa from being sacrificed. As Harishachandra's priest, Vishvamitra had advised that this rare human sacrifice be performed to placate Varuna, who had afflicted the king with a physical ailment for having broken his vows.

The conflict between Vasistha and Vishvamitra, as narrated by Chitraratha, revolves around Mother Khamadhenu, the Wish-fulfilling Cow. Here are excerpts of the story, as summarized by Prof. P. Lal in a series of presentations on Mahabharata:

Vishvamitra, the king of Kanyakubja, chanced upon Vasistha's hermitage, exhausted after a hunt. The sage entertained the king and his retinue with all types of food and gifts, with the help of Khamadhenu. Vishvamitra decided that he must have Nandini, the baby cow, for himself, and he attempted to take her from Rishi Vasistha by force.

Vasistha Rishi did not wish to oppose the king with violence, and as he told Nandini,

    "But what can I do? I am a Brahmin.
    I must overlook Vishvamitra 
    though he beats you
    and drags you away"… 
    But the maha-muni 
    would not give up patience, 
    nor would he break his vow,
    though touched by Nandini's suffering. 
    Vashishtha said, "A Ksatriya's strength
    lies in his body, a Brahmin's 
    lies in the spirit of fortitude.
    I will not give up fortitude."
    (Sambhava, Adi Parva, 177.24.27-28)

The Rishi tells Nandini that she is free to stay if she can manage to, and the moment she hears this, the cow produces myriads of Dravidas, Keralas, Kanchis, Simhalas, Pahlavas, Shakas, Yavanas, Kiratas, Paundras, Hunas, Chinas, Barbaras, Chibukas, Pulindas, and other mlechchha armies who then routed the king's forces.

Vasistha himself foiled all Vishvamitra's arrows and weaponry with his mystic powers. This impressed the king so deeply that he renounced his kingdom and began penance, hoping to win the same powers for himself as a brahmarshi. His desires are not fulfilled, however, as his envious nature overtakes him, and he arranges for an asuric spirit to possess king Kalmashapada, inspiring him to kill all of Vasistha Rishi's progeny. Still, the saintly Rishi did not strike back:

    "When Vashishtha learnt
    that Vishvamitra had schemed 
    and got his sons killed, he bore his grief
    as maha-Meru bears the earth…
    decided to sacrifice his life
    rather than harm Kaushika-Vishvamitra."

The Rishi's desire to end his life was frustrated, however, by the intervention of two holy rivers, named Vipasha and Shatadru after the pastime. Later, although his sons were now dead, Vasistha discovered that his daughter-in-law was carrying his grandson, Parashara.

(To be continued…)


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