Personalities - Rishi Vasistha

Rishi Vasistha

Rishi Vasiṣṭha

Vasiṣṭha is one of the most prominent seers of the Veda he along with his progeny is the seer of the seventh mandala of the Rig Veda Samhita comprising104 hymns amounting to more than one thousand mantras. His mantras include the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra which is one of the two most celebrated mantras in the entire Vedic literature. Needless to point out that the other one is the famous Gayatri one as seen by Viśvāmitra, the seer of the third mandala of the Rigveda. How powerful the mantras seen by Vasiṣṭha and his descendents were considered even in the Veda itself is evident from the following:

सूर्य॑स्येव व॒क्षथो॒ ज्योति॑रेषां समु॒द्रस्ये॑व महि॒मा ग॑भी॒रः।
वात॑स्येव प्रज॒वो नान्येन॒ स्तोमो॑ वसिष्ठा॒ अन्वे॑तवे वः ॥ (Rigveda.7, 33, 8.)

“Like the sun’s expanding light is the luminosity borne by them. They are as deep (in sense) as the ocean itself. They are as speedy as the wind. Nobody else is capable of bringing to bear these qualities in his prayers O Vasiṣṭhas.”

It is obvious from the mantra itself how highly placed Vasiṣṭha was amidst his contemporaries. His excellence as a seer is implicit in his name itself meaning the most luminous or enlightened. It is significant to note that many of the Vedic seers happen to have been given some secondary names as per their accomplishment in vision and expression.

How did Vasiṣṭha attain this excellence in seerhood? An indication to this is available in the next two mantras in a relatively explicit way. The first one of these mantras reads as follows;

त इन्नि॒ण्यं हृद॑यस्य प्रके॒तैः स॒हस्र॑वल्शम॒भि सं च॑रन्ति।
य॒मेन॑ त॒तं प॑रि॒धिं वय॑न्तोऽप्स॒रस॒ उप॑ सेदु॒र्वसि॑ष्ठाः ॥ (Rigveda. 7,33,9.)

“They move around what is available to us in thousand branches and reach the secret destination by following the indications of the heart. Thus, passed through the process of weaving the cloth assigned to them by the Controller of the creation, they came to sit beside the Apsaras.”

Rishi Vasistha

Rishi Vasistha

There may be the difference of opinion about the identity of the Apasras in this context, but it is quite clear from the rest of the mantra that it talks of the Vasiṣṭha having gone into the secret of the creation in all its infinite diversity and to have reached eventually the point of unity of all these manifestations which is the matter of constant quest of Vedic seers and is very often described as the lap of Aditi, the goddess of Infinity. Infinity has infinite potentiality of diversification. Vedic seer’s awareness of this fact is evident from the well known Upanishadic equation that the Infinite is a whole as also is a whole each one of the Finite and even after the deduction of the Finite from the Infinite the latter remains all the same intact in Its wholeness:

ॐ पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पूर्णमुदच्यते ।
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ॥
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

The word sahastra in the Veda also means the same besides its literal meaning ‘a thousand’.

How Vasiṣṭha could have reached the idea of the Infinite number of identities emerging out of the Infinite and thus by getting woven with one another would have resulted in the universe where everything is so closely related with one another, is indicated in the mantra by the term hridayasya  praketaih. The word hridasya literally means ‘heart’ which in such context in the Veda is not the physical heart serving as the pumping station of blood in an organic body. It really means the depth of the human consciousness lying beyond the reach of our common place awareness. It is by the virtue of his access to that depth that any Vedic seer has come to be regarded as a seer.

By way of elucidating this point, one would like to refer to an anecdote as recounted in the Chāndogya Upanishad. According to the Upanishadic account, an enlightened teacher asks one of his students to go to a solitary place and try to discover what lies inside the tiny space in the centre of the heart having conceived it as a lotus flower. The student tries his best to get the sense of the suggestions but having failed in his effort asks the teacher:

तं चेद्ब्रूयुर्यदिदमस्मिन्ब्रह्मपुरे दहरं पुण्डरीकं वेश्म दहरोऽस्मिन्नन्तराकाशः किं तदत्र विद्यते यदन्वेष्टव्यं यद्वाव विजिज्ञासितव्यमिति स ब्रूयात् ॥ (Chāndogya Up.7,1,2)

“What can possibly be there inside the tiny space at the centre of the heart conceived as a lotus flower so significant as to be discovered and understood?”

Rishi Vasistha

Rishi Vasistha

What the teacher observed in response to the query of the student is really the key to the understanding of the secret of the Veda and the accomplishment of any Vedic seer whosoever. The teacher observes:

सोऽहं भगवो मन्त्रविदेवास्मि नात्मविच्छ्रुतं ह्येव मे भगवद्दृशेभ्यस्तरति शोकमात्मविदिति सोऽहं भगवः शोचामि तं मा भगवाञ्छोकस्य पारं तारयत्विति तं होवाच यद्वै किंचैतदध्यगीष्ठा नामैवैतत् ॥ (Chāndogya Up. 7, 1, 3)

“The space inside the heart is as large as the space outside. Both heaven and earth lie inside it, as also lie inside it both fire and air, the sun and the moon, lightening and stars. In fact, whatever lies in the space outside as also whatever does not lie there, all that is accommodated inside that seemingly tiny space.”

Thus it is evident that the space inside the heart is indeed the latent potentiality of the human consciousness through the use of which one is capable of knowing anything in the universe and even beyond. Obliviously it would have been by virtue of his access to that potential consciousness that Vasiṣṭha would have got unveiled to him the secret of emergence of the Finite from the Infinite in all its diversity. Herein lies the clue to the theory of all theories scientists today are trying hard to formulate but until now have failed even to unite the four physical forces together and not to talk of consciousness which is a category quite distinct from any physical force whatsoever.

Another significant autobiographical note Vasiṣṭha has left for the posterity to ponder over concerns his voyage in the deep sea along with Varuna, his favorite deity. The account starts with the following mantra:

आ यद्रु॒हाव॒ वरु॑णश्च॒ नावं॒ प्र यत्स॑मु॒द्रमी॒रया॑व॒ मध्य॑म् ।
अधि॒ यद॒पां स्नुभि॒श्चरा॑व॒ प्र प्रे॒ङ्ख ई॑ङ्खयावहै शु॒भे कम् ॥ (Rigveda.7,88,3.)

“When I and Varuna take to the boat and sail in the midst of the sea, and take ride over the tides, let that experience turn splendid as if we are swinging on a swing.”

This account has been taken by historians of culture to bear out the fact that the Vedic people were good mariners, so much so, of course as to undertake voyages up to the deep sea, although it goes counter to the Aryan Invasion theory according to which the Vedic Aryans remained so much confined to their access to India and they were not aware of the sea at all. This evidence is sufficient to explain how the people of the Indus Civilization could have trade relationship with the Mesopotamians even in the beginning of the third millennium B.C. as is evident from the findings of the sealing’s of Indus seals in that land.

Rishi Vasistha

Rishi Vasistha

This interpretation no doubt, is good so far as it helps in understanding the then achievements of the people of India but this is just the periphery of the matter. It explains only how the humans of the age took too long voyages through the sea routes. But it does not tell us anything about a human, as Vasiṣṭha was, could travel with a god. If Varuna was the sheer fancy of the seer, the voyage would also turn out to be a fancy, but of a different variety. If the fancy of an ordinary man is based on these experiences and that of a poet on his imagination, that of  a seer is sure to be based on his deeper psychic experiences. In support of this contention, we have a mantra seen by him in which he observes that three heavens and three earths are lying within Varuna and besides them he has created a golden swing at the top of all these (RV. 7,87,5). That the former swinging is not very much different from this golden swing is evident from another mantra seen in the continuation of one referred to the last but one. In this mantra he expresses his satisfaction on having reached the house of Varuna of one-thousand doors by virtue of his friendship with him:

क्व त्यानि नौ सख्या बभूवुः सचावहे यदवृकं पुरा चित् ।
बृहन्तं मानं वरुण स्वधावः सहस्रद्वारं जगमा गृहं ते ॥ (Rigveda.7,88,5.)

“What has happened to our friendships which were there beforehand? We want to get it restored. (It was by virtue of this friendship) that I could have entry into your house which is as large in its make as to have thousand doors in it.”

 A house of thousand doors cannot but be the state of emancipation. This interpretation gets confirmed by another mantra placed in the close proximity of it in which the seer’s praise to Varuna to please not to send him to any house made of clay:

मो षु व॑रुण मृ॒न्मयं॑ गृ॒हं रा॑जन्न॒हं ग॑मम् ।
मृ॒ळा सु॑क्षत्र मृ॒ळय॑ ॥ (RV.7, 89, 2.)

“So that I may not be obliged to go to the house made of clay, O Lord Varuna, you please be merciful on me.”

Rishi Vasistha

Rishi Vasistha

This house obviously is the physical body as a matter of fact, at the time of making this prayer, Vasiṣṭha must have been embodied in the physical itself. Even then, his prayer that he may not be sent to the clay-house, shows that he at the moment was in a spiritual state closer to that of emancipation than to the earthly life.

Herein lies the relevance of the famous Mahmritunjya Mantra as seen by him. The mantra reads as follows:

ॐ त्र्य॑म्बकं यजामहे सु॒गन्धिं॑ पुष्टि॒वर्ध॑नम् ।
उ॒र्वा॒रु॒कमि॑व॒ बन्ध॑नान् मृ॒त्योर्मु॑क्षीय॒ माऽमृता॑॑त् ।। (Rigveda.7,59,12.)

“Let us devote ourselves to Rudra, the traymbaka, who is nourishing and decent smelling like the melon fruit, so that he may release us from the bondage of death and not from immortality.”

Rudra is tryambka beause He manifests Himself through the three entities, that is the heaven, the intermediate space and the earth. His good smell is symbolic of the excellence which is being manifest via the vital here in life. Devotion to Him, as such, is expected to release one from the circle of birth and death and thus make one restored to ones original status of immortality. In this way, while escape from the circle of birth and death is equivalent to getting rid of the clay-house, getting restored to immortality amounts to reaching Varuna’s house of a thousand doors.

The seer of magnificent vision like this is said subsequently to have entered into quarrel, with another seer of the same stature as Viśvāmitra. The reason for the quarrel, as stated in the Ramayana, relates to the ownership of a cow. The story is well known. According to it, Viśvāmitra, originally as a king, reaches the hermitage of Vasiṣṭha once upon a time along with his army just incidentally without any prior information. Vasiṣṭha provided for the entire army all sorts of amenities including particularly food of various varieties. Viśvāmitra was amazed at these provisions particularly in the wilderness of the hermitage. He asked Vasiṣṭha about the secret of it. Vasiṣṭha told him that all these provisions were due to his cow, Kamdhenu. The king became greedy of the cow and offered a large number of them in exchange for Vasiṣṭha’s. Vasiṣṭha declined to part with her since she served as his mainstay. Viśvāmitra so greedy of her that he asked his army to grab her by force. A fighting ensued since the cow herself produced a large army to fight against Viśvāmitra’s. Inspite of all its effort, the latter got defeated. It is on this shocking defeat that Viśvāmitra denounced and renounced his royalty and took to the path of tapas as is stated in the Ramayana:

Rishi Vasistha

Rishi Vasistha

dhik balam kṣhatriya balam brahma tejo balam balam |
ekena brahma daṇḍena sarva astrāṇi hatāni me || 1-56-23

tat etat samavekṣhya aham prasanna indriya mānasaḥ |
tapo mahat samāsthāsye yat vai brahmatva kāraṇam || 1-56-24

Ramayana 1,56,23-24.

“Fie with the force of royalty. Force of Brahma — is supreme. This is evident how my entire force has been nullified by the force of spirituality. I will, therefore take up to tapas which is the way to spirituality.”

It is evident from this statement of Viśvāmitra’s that the point of difference between Viśvāmitra and Vasiṣṭha was not one of difference between two seers but that between a seer and a king. The fault too was not committed from the side of the seer but from that of the king. The fault lay in the king’s misunderstanding of the secret of the seer’s cow. He took her simply as a cow. That is why politely enough he offered one thousand cows in exchange for the seer’s cow which was not a cow at all in essence. She really was the cow of wisdom the Veda embodies. She was the cow of the praketa of the hridaya, that is the wisdom lying in our inmost being and accessible only through contemplation, meditation and tapas. She was the knowledge of the creative will of the Creator. It is for the sake of this knowledge that the king renounced his kingship, like Siddhartha Gautama doing the same subsequently, took to the path of tapas and was successful eventually in realizing it, as is evident particularly from his formulation of the sacred Gāyatrī Mantra.

The Savitṛ of this mantra is symbolic of the Supreme Being particularly as inclined to act as the Creator. The luster, bhagas, of that Being is His consciousness to which the Gāyatrī stimulates us to devote our own consciousness for its transformation. Vasiṣṭha’s cow is the Vāk, word, embodying that wisdom which Viśvāmitra tried initially to acquire in exchange for his material wealth which his cows represented. Having failed in this bargain, he made use of his royal force. Having failed here also, he took to tapas and succeeded in its acquisition eventually. It is out of that sense of fulfillment that stimulates people in general to meditate on the luster of savitr so as to get stimulated in his inner being, dhi.

Rishi Vasistha

Rishi Vasistha

That Vashishtah’s cow which  proved so alluring to the king was really an embodiment of the higher wisdom can be understood from a mantra seen by him in which he conceives of Indra, the embodiment of the supramental consciousness, as a cow for milking which he is offering his prayer to:

धे॒नुं न त्वा॑ सू॒यव॑से॒ दुदु॑क्ष॒न्नुप॒ ब्रह्मा॑णि ससृजे॒ वसि॑ष्ठः। (RV.7,18,4.)

“Intending to milk you like a well-fed cow, O Indra, Vasiṣṭha is offering prayers to you.”

This viewpoint gets further confirmed by another mantra seen by Brahamn or Atman compiled in the Atharva Veda. The mantra reads as follows:

कः पृश्निं धेनुं वरुणेन दत्तामथर्वेणे सुदुघां नित्यवत्साम्।
बृहस्पतिना सख्यं जुषाणो यथावशं तन्वः कल्पयाति।। (Atharveda. 7,104,1.)

“Who will conceive at will out of himself the form of the cow which is multi-coloured abundantly milking, associated with her calf constantly and has been given by Varuna owing to his frienship with Brihapati?”

Brihaspati being the divine source of the Vedic knowledge, one living in his friendship is supposed to conceive so deliberately only of that knowledge as a cow of the above specifications.

Rishi Vasistha

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