The Rishi and the Society
It is difficult to assess the immensity of the influence that the Vedic rishis exercised over the people in the midst of whom they lived and with whom they had direct or indirect contact. But there is no doubt that the Vedic rishis were held in highest esteem by people of all categories and that their advice was sought and implemented so readily that they were able to cast the early forms of social life in some flexible mould so as to secure progressive unfoldment and development of culture on some sound and original lines over the centuries and millennia.
Three important points may, in this regard, be noted.
I. In the first place, the image and ideal of rishihood was so strongly impressed upon the society that the rishi has been held throughout the ages as the object of the highest reverence. The word of the rishi, whether of the past or of the present, has had always an authority greater than that of any other leader of the society. Even the law of the state was very often obeyed and accepted by the people only when it received sanction from the rishi. Often, the word of the rishi had an automatic authority of the law of the state. Many rapid changes in society were effected in certain important periods of Indian history, not by any struggle of the people or by any legislative process, but simply by what the rishi said or advised.
II. There was an explicit recognition in the society of a distinction between the rishi and the priest. The mark of the rishi is that he has lived in fullness the human life and experienced the true truth of man and the universe. He lives in the truth and hears the truth and reveals the truth and the limitations of time and space do not apply to him. At the highest, the rishi has the knowledge of the past, of the present and the future, possessed of trikalajnana and trikaladrishti (the knowledge of the three times, past,
present and future, and the perception of the three times). The rishi has not only the knowledge but he has also the wisdom. The rishi is not only a man of contemplation but also a warrior, a hero, capable of handling the most difficult situations of human life and giving an unambiguous and sure guidance. The rishi is not a mere transmitter of tradition, but he can, if necessary, break the tradition and establish the new. The rishi was not merely a scholar, often he was not a scholar at all, but he could command knowledge whenever needed. He was not a mental being, but one who had transcended the limitations of the mental consciousness and had a direct access to superior modes of knowledge and action. All this was recognized by masses of people throughout the Indian history, and it is-a significant fact that throughout the ages India has thrown up a long and unbroken line of rishis of various orders (even among the rishis there are recognized gradations), and there is hardly a period in which there have not been at least a few rishis recognized and revered by the people.
III. The rishi alone was and has been recognized as the real teacher, the guru. He alone has the authority and power to mediate between the seeker and the supreme Object of seeking. He has the power of evocation, and he can, if he so chooses and feels necessary to break the seals of the seeker's consciousness, lead him to the direct experience of the reality. He has the right word of instruction and the right mantra of initiation. He is himself an example of the ideal that he places before the seeker, and he has a spontaneous power of influence, not indeed of any external authority or arrogant arbitrariness, but that which flows from his inmost being to the inmost being of the seeker. He is, in fact, a teacher because he does not teach, he is simply a channel of the real Teacher who is seated in the heart of every living and thinking being. He is a brother of brothers, a child leading the children.
Such has been the concept of the rishi as the teacher in Indian culture. And those who practised teaching but did not reach the stage of rishihood were not accorded the highest reverence that is due to the guru. They were acharyas, but not rishis. The acharyas were respected for their learning, for their proficiency, for their special standing in their respective disciplines of knowledge and art, but they received the highest reverence only when they rose to rishihood. The rishi was the ideal even for the acharyas, and every
teacher has been enjoined in Indian culture to grow progressively into the image of the rishi.
A remarkable feature of the institution of the rishi is the special place accorded to the rishis by the rulers, politicians, statesmen and administrators. Rishi was to them not merely a spiritual preceptor but also an adviser in regard to state policy and state affairs. The rishi was approached by them for counsel and his counsel was accepted. And this determined the major developments of the political and social activities and institutions. Often rishis presided over the special sacrifices as Rajsuya and Ashavmedha. And there are traditions of rishis acting as permanent political advisers. In fact, there arose in India an arrangement whereby rishis became as a rule principal advisers or ministers, and they exercised supervening influence in kings' councils.
It was from this arrangement that, as varna system became more and more pronounced, there grew a tradition of Kshatriya king and a Brahmin minister. The Kshatriyas represented the qualities not only of courage, heroism, but also of power and strength, and ambition and desire for rule. The Kshatriyas represented, predominantly, the principle of vital force, and it was known in Indian psychology that the vital force, if left unbridled or untransformed, could easily become a source of mis-adventure and even of destruction. Happily, the Brahmin as a minister provided to the Kshatriya king the right guidance and inspiration which the pure intelligence of intellect and intuition can give. For the Brahmins, even when far below the Rishis in their attainments, represented the qualities of the clarity of the intellect and wise intuitive perception as also wide knowledge of sciences and arts and of affairs and men. The Brahmin often lacked the drive and intuition and force of action, and thus he needed as his complement the Kshatriya, just as the Kshatriya needed the Brahmin as his complement. This combination of the Brahmin and Kshatriya in regard to political power and activity constituted a wise and powerful element in Indian culture, and this was certainly one of the important factors in the stability and ordered progress of many kingdoms and states that flourished from age to age. This system was not without its defects, and there were often rivalries between the king and the minister for supremacy. But, on the whole, these rivalries were a part of the natural friction among powerful personalities. In due course, however, the tradition began to break and after the first
millennium of the Christian era, this system operated only in some parts and only for short periods from time to time. New systems of political organization were introduced, and after centuries, under the British rule, an alien way of rule and administration prevailed over most parts of India.
It is, however, important to note that the basic Vedic idea of the rishi as the seer and knower and as a guide of the individual and collective life has remained alive, at least to a certain degree, even in the present-day India. And there is even today an imagination and conviction in some deep recesses of Indian thought and feeling that there cannot be right and wise and ideal governance of society unless the rishi or a group of rishis guide and exercise political power. In some such conviction, Indian culture is today seeking, mostly secretly, to bring to the surface the wisdom and guidance of the rishis.