Category Archives: k. The Rsis of Ancient Indian Tradition

Veda Vyasa, The Great Indian Sage

Vyasa was a central and admired figure of the Hindu Tradition. He was a famous Rsi in the longest epic (Rodrigues 177), The Mahabharata, and was also credited for the Epic (Rodrigues, 145).

Vyasa’s Birth and Family

According to the mythic sources, Vyasa was the son of Satyavati, the Daughter of a fisherman and Parashara who was a wandering sage. Satyavati used to row boats for passengers from one end of the shore to another. That was where Parashara and Satyavati met. Since Satyavati was the daughter of a fisherman, she smelled of fish hence Parashara gave her a boon that she would never smell like she had been around fishes ever again, she then gave birth to Krishna Dvaipayana on the shore of River Yamuna. At birth, he was given the name Krishna Dvaipayana (Ramesh 1-2). The name Krishna Dvaipayana came from his dark complexion meaning Krishna and Dvaipayana-came from the place he was born. He was born on the shore of Yamuna (which is a river in India) Dvipa (meaning island). He was married to the daughter of Rsi Jabali, named Vaachika. After marriage, he entered the stage of Grahasthashram and then fathered a son named Shuka.

Vyasa’s Achievements

According to legends, Veda Vyasa was the type of character that always had full loyalty and faith for the Vedas meaning he had Veda Niṣṭha. We know that he had full faith on the Vedas since at a very young age he had mastered Vedas as well as the Sastras, literature, mythology, history and other branches of knowledge. Another meaning of Nistha is steadiness, we see that he had steadiness in his life, he was always successful in what he wanted to do, we don’t see many obstacles coming in the way of his success in his lifetime. Later, then went on to Badarikashrama to perform ‘tapas’ meaning meditation. According to Vyasa, the Veda was not stabilized, since there was only one Veda, they weren’t separate at the time, it was hard for people to understand it due to which not many people would be able to read them. This caused the essence of the Veda to go down in society therefore the Veda was not stable. Vyasa wanted to restore Vedic Saahitya (literature) by doing the punar uddhar (revival) of the Vedas. To stabilize the Vedas, he decided to divide the Vedas into four sections. The Vedas were divided in such a way that all the hymns were grouped based on their requirements in the sacrificial rites. Each of the four Vedas were given to four different Rsis. Vyasa taught these four Vedas to his four disciples. Rg Veda was given to Paila Rsi, Atharva Veda was given to Sumanthu Rsi, Sama Veda was given to Jaimini Rsi and lastly Yajur Veda was given to Vaishampayana Rsi. As the Vedas were divided, the respective Rsis taught their part of the Vedas to their disciples who then passed down the knowledge to the society, and restoring the values and information of the Vedas among the society. It was easier to pass on the knowledge of the Vedas now since they were all divided (Sullivan 11-15). Two events took place after Vyasa had divided the Vedas. First was when he got the name Veda Vyasa; until then he was known as Krishna Dvaipayana. Second even was when Vyasa decided to write the Puranas. The Puranas were a way to spread the thoughts of the Vedas in the form of stories to the general people. Puranas contain stories about the Vedas for easier understanding, since the Vedas are too complex to understand by general people. There is a total of 18 Puranas, Vyasa did Sansodhana (research) and Adhyayana (study) in detail to achieve his goal. It takes such immense knowledge for a person to achieve so many achievements in life, like writing such great Epics that are still known till date. After writing the Puranas, he started writing the Brahma Sutra. The Brahma Sutra consists of four chapters, 16 Padas, and 555 Sutras. The Brahma Sutras are part of the Vedantas, which include Sankara’s Radical Non-dualism, Ramanujan’s Qualified Non-Dualism and Madhava’s dualism (Rodrigues 155-159).

It is said that Vyasa first composed the entire story of The Mahabharata in his head for years, after which he was encouraged by Lord Brahma that Vyasa should now write the story (Rodrigues 2016, 177). Vyasa asks Ganesha to aid him in writing the text, but Ganesha imposed a condition that he would do so only if Vyasa narrated the story without pause. Vyasa replied with a counter-condition, that Ganesha must understand the verse before he wrote it. Thus, Vyasa narrated the entire Mahabharata and all the Upanishads and the 18 Puranas, while Lord Ganesha wrote. At one point while writing, Ganesa ran out of ink, therefore he broke one of his tusk and continued writing The Mahabharata (Rodrigues 224). He had also composed the Great Bharata, which tells the story of Janamejaya’s, Pariksit’s son and Arjuna’s grandson. The book talked about Janamejaya’s ancestors, the descendants of King Bharata (Rodrigues 182).

What is The Mahabharata about?

The reason that The Mahabharata is a great epic is that it enlightens the 5 main aspects of human life, namely: psychology, sociology, economics, politics and philosophy. It also offers a vision on the four goals of life: Righteousness (Dharma), Wealth (Artha), Enjoyment (Kama) and Salvation (Moksa) (Ramesh 1). Vyasas way of representing these qualities to the society was through the characters of the Epic. The Mahabharata has characters such as Bhiṣma, Krṣṇa, Draupadi, The Paṇḍava and The Kaurava. Rsi Vyasa’s characters are said to be Padachyuta and Dhyeyachyuta. This means that none of them lost their focus from their goals. If we look at The Paṇḍava’s, their goal was to keep the kingdom of Hastinapura with the help of Dharma in place, whereas The Kaurava’s goal was to keep the kingdom of Hastinapura using Adharma. Even if all these characters were on opposite sides, they all stuck to their goals, no matter the situation and stayed focused on that goal. These characters teach us that we should stay focused to achieve our goal. They are the types of characters that even if death was headed their way, they stay focused and loyal to their beliefs. An example can be Abhimanyu (son of Arjuna). During the big Kuruketra war, there was a point that the Kauravas were planning an evil game to hurt the Paṇḍava’s, but despite no proper knowledge of how to escape the trap known as the ‘Chakra-Vyooha’ (Chaturvedi 5-6) which the Kauravas had set, he went into that trap and fought against all the evil until his last breath. He knew he was not coming out alive, before going in, but he still went in and fought for Dharma. All these characters make us feel like we can achieve something in life if we stay focused. They also show us the true meaning of Tyaga (sacrifice). The characters that were on the side of Dharma made many sacrifices to do the establishment of Dharma, no matter what the situation. These are the types of character that Vyasa gave us and through them we can learn many lessons in life. There is something to learn from every character despite them being evil or good and Dharmic (Righteous) or Adharmic (Non-Righteous), all characters were able to keep their goals through the Epic, this shows us their loyalty towards their goals and that they can go to any level to stay focused on their goals.

Vyasa’s involvement in Politics

In Ancient Indian Culture Legislation was in the hands of Rsi, and the execution was with the king. There are some examples from Vyasa’s life where we can see how he was related to politics.

One example was about the almost extinct Hastinapura kingdom. Satyavati (Vyasa’s mother) had two other sons Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Vichitravirya was married to Ambika (had a maid named Parishrama) and Ambalika. Vichitravirya dies leaving the kingdom of Hastinapura without a heir. This was when Vyasa was called by Satyavati because at that time, if anyone other than the Rsi wife had a child with a Rsi, it was considered big. Vyasa decided to surrogately father the heirs of Hastinapura (Rodrigues 177). Vyasa visits the three queens of Vichitravirya. Since he was a Rsi, he had a beard, long hair with a bun on top. He was there to grant the three queens a boon so they can have children, and the boon was dependent on how the queens react when they see Vyasa. When the first queen Ambika saw Vyasa, she closed her eyes, which meant that her son was going to be born blind who came to be known as Dhritarastra, father of the Kauravas. Then, when the second queen Ambalika saw Vyasa, she got sick meaning her son would stay unfit for life; her son was Pandu, father of the Pandavas (Rodrigues 177). Since the two queens were not able to give birth to kids that will be very suitable for the throne, due to their disabilities, he decided to give a boon to Ambika’s maid as well. When Parishrama (the maid of Ambika) saw Vyasa, she didn’t react in a bad way, she was herself and gave birth to a son, Vidura, who was normal and was brilliant. However, he would never be considered to rule the throne since he was the son of a maid. This was the political step taken by Vyasa to save a dynasty from becoming extinct (Ramesh 3). With no descendant, there will be no king therefore Satyavati called Vyasa, even though he was a Rsi. Vidura, despite being a maid’s son, was honest and was against injustice. Therefore, according to Vyasa’s ‘political move’, Vidura was one of the ministers in the kingdom so he can give honest advice to the king. This shows his involvement in politics and since the legislation was in the hand of Vyasa he was authorized to punish the king, if king made any mistakes.

Another story about his involvement in politics was that when the Paṇḍava’s had grown up, he sent them to Drupada’s kingdom, where the swayamwara of Draupadi was going on (Rodrigues 179). His intention was that the Pandavas should have a wife like Draupadi who would be a great strength for the Paṇḍavas. He always wanted a powerful woman like Draupadi behind the Paṇḍavas, because she was the type of person who could stand up against injustice, as well as she was the daughter of the Agni. Draupadi was said to be the daughter of Lord Agni, since she came out of the fire pit. After Arjuna had won Draupadi in the swayamwara, Vyasa’s wanted Draupadi to be the wife of all five Paṇḍava’s, not just Arjuna’s wife. At a time when The Mahabharata took place, people thought what a female could not have more than one husband. But once Vyasa made the decision that Draupadi will have five husbands, no one had the audacity to say anything against Vyasa. He also wanted to keep all the brothers together, and so his strategy to make Draupadi the wife of the Pandavas was so that there will be no rift between them in the future. This incident shows us that Vyasa was given great respect from the people of the villages that they did not say anything about what he had done. Their culture did not allow such a practice, but their trust in Vyasa was so deep that they did not utter a word against him. This incident also shows Vyasa’s vision in favor of Dharma and the Pandavas, because if Draupadi was married to Pandavas her father kingdom will support Pandavas in the final battle for Dharma. Thus, by sending the Pandavas to the swayamwara, he had already played his ‘political move’ for the betterment of the Hastinapura kingdom, and the fact that he made Draupadi the wife of all the Pandavas would bring positive changes to the society where women will be given respect, not just considered lower than men, which is the M-1B state (Rodrigues 90).

The third example can be seen when the Pandavas were in exile for thirteen years, and in disguise for one year (Rodrigues 180). This was when Vyasa goes to give them a visit in the forest. When Vyasa paid the Pandavas a visit, he was furious at them for just sitting around, and not preparing for the future war of The Mahabharata in advance. Vyasa already knew there was going to be a war and to prepare the Pandavas he sent Arjuna to do Tapa (tenacity). This was his ‘political move’, by sending Arjuna to sit in meditation for Lord Siva, and by doing the meditation Arjuna would be able to impress Lord Siva, so when Arjuna impressed Siva, Siva gave Arjuna some Celestial weapons that would be useful for the war (Rodrigues 180).

What is the importance Guru Purnima and why is it celebrated?

This day dedicated to the great Sage Vyasa. A Guru is someone who removes our ignorance. The meaning of Guru comes from ‘Gu’ meaning ignorance and ‘Ru’ meaning remover of ignorance. Guru (teacher) Purṇima (full moon day) is also known as Vyasa Purnima because on that day Vyasa was born as well as he started writing the Brahma Sutras. Vyasa is considered as the original Guru of the Hindus. This festival is a symbol of the Guru and Sisya (student) relationship. Gurus are considered a link between the individual and the immortal. This festival falls in the Hindu month of Ashad (July-August). This is the day for the disciples to pay respect to their Gurus, since Gurus are given great importance in Hinduism. On this day, the disciples or devotees provide seva (service) to their Gurus which grants the disciples their Guru’s grace for their spiritual progress. If the Guru has passed away, then their portrait is worshipped instead. We pick our Guru based on their Gyan (knowledge) and Shraddha (faith) not the age. The word Upanishad also means sitting down with a Guru to gain knowledge. A famous philosopher Adi Sankaracharya has said that “If a person, despite possessing a disease-free body, fame, wealth, and studied the Vedas and Scriptures, and even if he wrote many scriptures, but has not surrendered himself to a Guru, then he would have achieved nothing” (Tumuluru 17-20). A Guru is someone who guides his disciple on the path of self-realization and strengthens their faith. On this day, Bhajans (songs for festivals and special occasions) and performances are organized by ashrams (hermitage). Kabir (Indian poet) said that “If we put God and Guru side by side, we have to pray the Guru first because he is the one through who you can realize God” (Tumuluru 17-20).

The study of the text the Guru Gita (Tumuluru 17-20) is recommended on this day as well as meditation at the Guru’s feet by waking up at 4am to obtain God’s grace. After waking up to do the meditation the devotees place flowers by the Guru’s picture and light a lamp, some may even keep moun (silence).

This day is observed by Monks when they give offerings to the Guru, they also start a four-month seclusion period (a four-month rainy season period) known as the Chatur Masa where they stay at a selected spot and have discourses. This is also an important day for Farmers because it marks the start of rainy season. This festival is also celebrated by Buddhists because it is the day that the Buddha gave his first sermon.

The best way to worship a Guru is to follow their teachings and do their seva by helping the Guru achieving their mission, by spreading the message of their teachings.


Chaturvedi, B.K. (2002) Abhimanyu. New Delhi: Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd.

Ramesh, Sri B.G. (2012) Vyasa: Volume 3. Karnataka: Sapna Book House (P) Ltd.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism—The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sullivan, Bruce (1990) Krsna Dvaipayana Vyasa and the Mahabharata: A New Interpretation. Leiden: E.J.Brill.

Tumuluru, Kamal Kumar (2015) Hindu Prayers, Gods and Festivals. Haryana:Partridge Publishing India.

Related Research Topics for Veda Vyasa:

History and Family

Involvement in the Mahabharata

The types of characters he wrote about compared to Shakespeare

Guru Purnima

What kind of politics did Vyasa play throughout Mahabharata

His Achievements- Vedas, Puranas, and Brahma Sutras

Related Websites for the Topic:

This article is written by: Aastha Patel (Spring 2017), and I am entirely responsible for the content.


There is a multitude of miracles and myths associated with Agastya, a famous Vedic sage, beginning with his miraculous birth by two godly fathers, Mitra and Varuna (Dallapiccola). The Matsya Purana’s account of Agastya’s birth is as such: in a fight between Indra and Visnu, a celestial nymph named Urvasi (Mahadevan 25) was created from Visnu’s thigh and upon seeing her, Mitra and Varuna cast their semen into a water pot, from which Agastya and his brother, Vasistha, were born (Bolon 76). Agastya was described as dwarfish, about the size of a thumb and born “white in colour with four hands, a sacred thread, a vessel, and a garland” (Bolon 76). Over the span of his lifetime, Agastya is given many names, however, the one he is known by, around the time of his birth, is Kumbhayoni, or jar-born (Mahadevan 25). There is little proof of Agastya’s formal education in life, however, it is widely accepted that he knew a great deal about the Rg Veda, the sciences, and weaponry (Parmeshwaranand 4).

As Agastya grew older, he took on an ascetic lifestyle, becoming a hermit and wandering the forests (Parmeshwaranand 4). It was not until one day, in the forest, he came across his ancestors. After some conversation, they told Agastya they were waiting to go to heaven, but they were not allowed until Agastya had a son. Upon their urging, he became invested in finding a wife (Parmeshwaranand 4). The story goes that Agastya created a beautiful baby girl named Lopamudra and gave her to the King of Vidarbha. Once she was of marrying age, Agastya asked the king for her as his wife (Parmeshwaranand 4). The king was not sure he wanted to give her up; he had concerns about Agastya’s asceticism and what that would mean for his daughter, but Lopamudra went willingly (Parmeshwaranand 4). After they got married, a hymn in the Rg Veda depicts their ascetic married life and the desires of Lopamudra. She pleads with him to give up their asceticism and have a child (Patton 27). The hymn depicts some disagreement between the two, but eventually, Agastya yields and Lopamudra becomes pregnant and gives him a son, Drdhasyu, who supposedly chanted the Vedas immediately at birth (Parmeshwaranand 5). Agastya would later go on to participate in various activities that would become certain myths of the Rg Veda, (Parmeshwaranand 6) which will be discussed later.

While there are little physical depictions of Agastya in the Rg Veda, there are many statues that have survived from cults in Nepal that give a glimpse of what he is believed to have looked like. In one instance, depicted in bronze and only three and a half inches tall, Agastya is seated with crossed ankles and elevated knees. Water sprays out of the pot, in which he is seated, on either side – perhaps giving homage to his birth. He wears a short, pointed beard and the hair on his head is tied on the top in eight loops. Agastya is also depicted as having a vertical third eye on his forehead and in each of his four hands, a symbol is portrayed: a rosary in the upper right, a miniature staff in the upper left, the lower right making a teaching gesture and the lower left holding a water pot (Bolon 75). While this is only one depiction, a later myth tells of Agastya being unable to run away from a king and being whipped (Parmeshwaranand 6), corroborating his small stature. Alternatively, other myths tell the famous story of Agastya ingesting the ocean (Abhyankar 2174), perhaps proving his size was greater.

Throughout his life, Agastya has also been the subject of many Hindu myths and important stories that helped to develop the land in which he lived. Agastya was once known by the name “Mover-of-Mountains” (Danielou 322) after “forcing the Vindhya Mountains to prostrate themselves before him” (Dallapiccola). This act itself is miraculous, but it also gives Agastya credit for connecting the civilizations in the north and south of the mountain range. In a Puranic story, it is said that the Vindhya Mountains were competing with the Himalayans to see who could grow the tallest. The Vindhyas began to block out the sun for villages below and Agastya was called in to help. He told the mountains to lie down until he returned from his journey south. However, he never returned and the mountains stayed down and allowed those people in the north and south an easy passage between (Abhyankar 2174). Not only does this story have a great cultural significance, joining the people on both sides of the mountain, but it also gives way to the story of Agastya’s star, also known as Canopus. The star is considered the brightest in the southern Indian sky (Dallapiccola). Since it is believed that Agastya was the first to see it when he moved the mountains down and was the first to cross them from the north to the south, it is associated with him (Abhyankar 2174).

Agastya is also subject to a myth that involves him drinking the ocean, either as another way across the vast distance (Abhyankar 2174) or to aid Brahmin hermits (Mahadevan 26). As the story goes, he swallowed all of the ocean’s water to expose the Kaleyas, in order that the Devas could remove them easily. The Kaleyas were supposedly killing the hermits and needed to be stopped (Mahadevan 26). Finally, perhaps one of the most famous myths surrounding Agastya is his assistance to Rama in the legendary epic, the Ramayana. In the story, Agastya gives the hero Rama a divine weapon, the “arrow of Brahma” (McLeish), to save Sita, Laksmana, and himself (McLeish) from the demons of the forest in which he was exiled (Danielou 323). Agastya is described as a “friend, advisor and protector of Rama” (Dallapiccola) in this story, making him recognizable even to this day by those that know the story. Given Agastya’s alleged extensive knowledge of weaponry (Parmeshwaranand 4), the myth seems all the more plausible.

Agastya is also known for his hymns in the Rg Veda. The author of about 25 hymns in the first mandala (Abhyankar 2174), Agastya “became a kind of heavenly historian, writing the gods’ stories down and passing them to mortals in the form of the [Rg Veda]” (McLeish). Not only was Agastya an author of many of these hymns, but he also was the subject of a select few, being referred to by name approximately eight times throughout, along with members of his family who are referred to as the Manas (Mahadevan 25). Agastya’s ability to connect the northerners and southerners (Mahadevan 25) is also depicted in the hymns, validating his journey from the north to the south, regardless of the possible fictional liberties taken with the Mountain Mover myth.

Centuries after the life of Agastya, he is still revered and worshiped by Hindus around the world. Because of his affinity for grammar, medicine and other sciences, Agastya “represents the power of teaching” (Danielou 322), and is worshiped for success in such fields. According to a passage in the Matsya Purana, there are, like in the instances of other rsis, many rites that must be done in order to properly worship Agastya. The ritual, repeated for seven days, must start early in the morning, at the rising of Canopus, after the devotee has bathed and dressed in white. While wearing a garland of white flowers, the worshipper must fill a pot with five gems and adorn it with cloth and flowers. Another pot filled with clarified butter must be placed on top of the first pot, and finally, a golden statue with four heads and many arms must be made and placed at the top of both pots. Both pots should be donated to a Brahmin after it has been filled with seven grains, and while the worshipper faces the south, the gold figure should also be given away (Bolon 76). The worship takes into account the number seven, a holy number in Hinduism, as well as the practices of purification before a worship ritual, underlying the connection between the cults of Agastya in Nepal and the significance of Agastya in Hinduism as a whole.

Agastya’s presence also had a lasting impact on societies outside of Hinduism, influencing both the Tamil and Nepalese traditions. Specifically in Tamil, Agastya made an extremely important impression. He is regarded as being crucial in the establishment of the language and literature in Tamil (Dallapiccola), and many Tamil people “believe that Agastya still dwells on the sacred mountain Agastya Malai” (Dallapiccola) in South India. He is so vital in Tamil language and literature that he is venerated as the “father of Tamil” and has his name included in the titles of many works in the Tamil Saivite hymns (Thompson 762). Within these hymns, there is a section specially entitled the Agastya Selection, which includes many of the Tamils most recognizable hymns (Thompson 763). In the myths that describe Agastya’s interactions with the people of the south, there are comments praising him for giving “the gift of the Cauvery river and Tamil language to the people” (Abhyankar 2174). Not only was Agastya’s connection of the north and south important, but him giving the Tamil people their language is also a crucial detail. Because of this advancement, Agastya was “given a very different role by the Tamil tradition,” and labelled “Tamil muni… [or] Tamil sage” (Mahadevan 27). As a Tamil scholar, Agastya was so well known and highly regarded “that for centuries [,] many works on astrology and medicine written by others were fathered on him” (Mahadevan 27). The Tamil even created a cult worshipping Agastya (Danielou 323), and it has spread from South India to Southeast Asian countries (Mahadevan 27).

In the spread across the globe, Agastya is also associated with cults in Nepal. Artefacts such as images and inscriptions of Agastya can be found there, providing evidence of the extended range of his worship (Bolon 75). Agastya’s association with Siva not only helped him bring language to the Tamil people – it is said “Agastya received the Tamil language from Siva… and gave it to the world” (Mahadevan 27) – but also helped validate Agastya’s presence in Nepal. The image of Siva and Agastya also seem to be related: “Agastya is identified with Siva as his devotee and therefore partakes of some of his nature and attributes” (Bolon 88). Images of Agastya in Nepal are similar in appearance to those of Siva, showing their connection as well as Agastya’s significance within Nepalese society in relation to the god Siva. There is also a connection between the two in terms of the importance of the pot imagery; Agastya gets his from his miraculous birth in a pot, being known in images from Nepal as “Kumbharsi Agastya, the rsi of the pot,” and Siva, in some instances being called “Kumbhesvara Siva, Siva Lord of the pot” (Bolon 88).

The life of Agastya, beginning with his miraculous birth, depicts a full life of asceticism, marriage, and fatherhood (Parmeshwaranand 4); myths of moving mountains (Danielou 322) and drinking oceans (Mahadevan 26); writing the histories of the gods (McLeish); and being hailed as the father of a society and its language (Thompson 762). Agastya was a vital figure, not only in the Hindu tradition but other ideologies and civilization developments as well, shaping both the Tamil culture (Abhyankar 2174) and Nepalese worship of him (Bolon 88). As such, he remains an important figure in many of these traditions to this day.

Bibliography and Further Recommended Reading

Abhyankar, K.D. (2005) “Folklore and Astronomy: Agastya a sage and a star.” Current Science 89:2174-2176. Accessed January 31, 2017. Retrieved from

Bolon, Carol Radcliffe (1991) “Images of Agastya in Nepal.” Artibus Asiae 51:75-89. Accessed February 2, 2017. doi: 10.2307/3249677.

Cush, Denise, Catherine Robinson, and Michael York (2008) “Agastya.” In Encyclopedia of Hinduism, 16. London: Routledge.

Dallapiccola, Anna. L. (2002) “Agastya.” In Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Danielou, Alain (1985) “The Mover-of-Mountains (Agastya).” In The Myths and Gods of India, 322-323. Rochester: Inner Traditions International.

Mahadevan, Iravatham (1986) “Agastya Legend and the Indus Civilization.” Journal of Tamil Studies 30:24-37. Accessed January 31, 2017. Retrieved from

McLeish, Kenneth (1996) “Agastya.” In Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth. London: Bloomsbury.

Parmeshwaranand, Swami (2001) “Agastya.” In Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Puranas, 3-12. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons.

Patton, Laurie L. (1996) “The Fate of the Female Rsi: Lopamudra and Agastya.” In Myth and Mythmaking: Continuous Evolution in Indian Tradition. Edited by Julia Leslie, 27-30. Florence: Routledge.

Thompson, M. S. H. (1928) “The Agastya Selection of Tamil Saivite Hymns.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 4:761-768. Accessed January 31, 2017. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00123675.

Williams, George M. (2003) “Agastya, Agasti.” In Handbook of Hindu Mythology, 47-48. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Related Topics for Further Investigation:

Agastya Malai

Arrow of Brahma





King of Vidarbha

Kumbharsi Agastya

Kumbhesvara Siva




Nepalese cults



Ritual worship





The Matsya Purana




Vindhya Mountains

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Article written by: Ryley Gelinas (Spring 2017), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Rsis of Ancient Indian Tradition

Rsis are unique figures in Indian culture with a distinct status. Their role in Indian culture in both ancient and modern times is significant. Despite their importance to Indian tradition, the topic of the rsis has not been explored in the literature to as great an extent as many other topics within the study of Indian religious tradition. Much of the literature that exists lacks academic objectivity, which can lead to bias, limiting the usefulness of those sources. Even so, the amount of scriptural material dealing with rsis is overwhelming, as are the seemingly endless categories and classifications within the broad designation of rsi, and as a result this study will only briefly explore the legends and traditions of the rsis.

To satisfactorily define the rsis is a fairly daunting task in itself, given the wide variety of descriptions and scriptures associated with them. Mitchiner describes a rsi as “one who seeks to bring about change, a transformation both of himself and also of his environment” (246). This definition is broad, and by no means comprehensive. Some of the rsis’ means of implementing change must be described in order to understand Mitchiner’s definition. First, and perhaps foremost, the rsis are said to be composers of Vedic hymns, or rather, those to whom Vedic hymns are shown by means of divine revelation (Mitchiner 172). According to Mitchiner, rsis are said to have composed all ten books (mandalas) of the Rgveda and various Dharma Sastras (books of law and duty,) among other things (172-176). The rsis also performed the distinct (albeit closely related) role as teachers, passing on the knowledge revealed to them. While the Vedas emphasize rsis as seers, the Epics and Puranas emphasize rsis as teachers (182). Pandey (2-3) notes a distinction between categories of rsis, namely between saksatkritadharma (direct seers of hymns) and asaksatkritadharma (those who could not directly perceive divine truth.) Rsis of both categories, however, are said to have observed other important traditions as well.

The rsis’ position as seers of hymns is linked to their traditions of sacrifice, as many hymns are said to have been “seen” during the performance of sacrifice (Mitchiner 177). By offering sacrifice (yajna,) the main goal is said to have been “svarga-loka” (paradise) and ‘brahmaloka’ (eternal residence of the god Brahma)” (Pandey 158). It is by reaching such a realm that the foremost Seven Rsis are said to have become stars in the sky (Mitchiner 249). Other aims of sacrifice also included the acquisition of sons, wealth and cattle, but not all sacrifices performed by rsis were in pursuit of personal gain. Some literature tells of rsis performing sacrificial rituals for kings and their families, fulfilling the role of family priests (purohitas) (Mitchiner 178). Mitchiner points out that in most cases “men are urged to perform the same sacrifice in order to fulfill the same aim” (178), whether that aim is obtaining heaven or obtaining earthly goals (178-180).

Agastya, one of the legendary Seven Rsis, Cidambaram Temple Sculpture, Tamil Nadu
Agastya, one of the legendary Seven Rsis, Cidambaram Temple Sculpture, Tamil Nadu

Another rsi tradition was that of asceticism (tapas.) The word tapas is derived from the Sanskrit tap, basically meaning heat, and tapas has come to mean “the basic idea of inwardly heating oneself, through the performance of various religious and ascetic practices” (Mitchiner 187). In the Atharvaveda it is said that through the practise of severe austerities, one could acquire supernatural abilities (Pandey 187). These powers (siddhis) are said to have been wide ranging. Through severe practices of tapas, one could acquire the ability to fly, to fulfill one’s desires, and to escape old age and even death (Mitchiner 206). Siddhis were not the only goal of tapas, however. In the Vedas, immediate goals were often sought, such as wealth or victory over enemies, however the goals of tapas could also be more abstract, for example the “destruction of past sins and deeds (karma) (Mitchiner 201). Pandey (187-188) outlines several ascetic practices that rsis are said to have engaged in including: sitting “motionless like wood” (187) for extended periods, laying on various beds designed to cause pain and following strict diets. Rsis reportedly chose isolated locations (often called hermitages) to practice tapas in order to be “free from the disturbances and distractions of the world around” (Mitchiner 190). Hermitages were often located in forested or mountainous areas, especially in the Himalayas around the sources of the river Ganga, or in the pine forests of the southern slopes of the Himalayas, which remain a popular location for modern ascetics (190). Some rsis maintained hermitages and dwelled there for extensive periods, and became known as asramavasis or hermitage dwellers (Pandey, 5).

Another common method of practicing tapas is by abstaining from sexual activity, or more specifically by avoiding the spilling of semen. Rsis practicing total celibacy were referred to as urdhvaretas (having the seed drawn upward) and are held in high regard (Mitchiner 233). There are several tales in which the gods (or Indra, specifically,) seeing the power that the rsis acquired through tapas as a threat to their (or his) status or well being, sent beautiful water nymphs (asparas) to seduce them. Some tales tell of rsis succumbing to the temptation of the asparas, while others are said to have prevailed and subsequently used their supernatural abilities to curse the asparas (234-235). Interestingly, by some accounts all rsis are said to have married, which is seemingly at odds with their status as celibate ascetics. It has been said that only after Siva, the ideal ascetic, made clear his intention to marry Parvati, that the foremost Seven Rsis became unashamed of marriage (235-236). Marriage, or at least the performance of sexual intercourse, however, is essential to many accounts, which claim the rsis as the progenitors of all creation (Pandey 241, Mitchiner 248).

Having described the rsis without extensive breadth or detail, it is already clear that they occupy a large and enigmatic place in Indian scriptural history. They are legendary for their roles as seers and revealers, teachers, devout ascetics, celestial bodies, celibate urdhvaretas and (perhaps most interestingly) progenitors of all existence. They are difficult to define, largely because of their dynamic roles in Indian religion. However, it is their dynamic nature that has made them so integral to the scriptures in which they play such a broad role.


Mitchiner, John E. (1982) Traditions of the Seven Rsis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Pandey, Chandra Bhanu (1987) Risis in Ancient India. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan.

Related Readings

The following is a brief list of readings pertaining, at least in some aspects, to the material discussed in the work above. For more comprehensive research, one might be advised to look into various scriptural texts through which rsi tradition has been maintained. It is scriptural texts such as the Vedas, the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana that provide the greatest wealth of knowledge on the legends and traditions associated with rsis.

Brent, Peter (1972) Godmen of India. New York: Quadrangle Books.

Doniger, Wendy (1993) Purana perennis. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

MacDonell, Arthur Anthony (2004) History of Vedic Mythology. New Delhi: Sanjay Prakashan.

Oldenberg, Hermann (1988) The Religion of the Veda. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1999) Seer of the Fifth Veda. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related Topics

Presented here is a brief list of topics that one who is interested in rsi tradition might also enjoy researching:

Topics within the study of rsis:

  • The Seven Rsis
  • Brahmana lineages (gotras) claiming descent from rsis
  • Legendary Rsi authorship of scriptural texts

Topics related to the study of rsis:

  • Traditions and culture of gurus
  • Vedic sacrificial rituals and practices
  • Indian ascetic traditions
  • Puranic mythology

Related Websites

The websites provided in the following list pertain not to rsis specifically, but rather provide valuable resources on Hindu tradition in general. While not necessarily academically defensible, these pages provide a wealth of information for casual study and reference:

Written by Alex Masse (Spring 2006) who is solely responsible for its content