Vishwamitra is, in mythic terms, one of the most important rishis of India. His
influence is profound and permeates every cranny of the collective consciousness
of the Hindus. Vishwamitra is that strange and rare phenomenon - the Hero who becomes
an Enlightened Sage. He was a veritable tsunami of Will, storming the gates of heaven
and wresting acknowledgement for his spiritual status. Vishwamitra is the highest
point of spiritual realization, even the very gods are his inferior. He
is also regarded as being not just Chiranjeevi (immortal) but eternal, outside the
cycle of cosmic dissolution and creation.
Vishwamitra also as befits a rishi, which literally means "seer", gave to the world
the most sacred of all Hindu mantras, the pinnacle called the Gayatri Mantra.
His sympathy with the victims of entrenched prejudice, his disdain for convention,
his all too human flaw of an explosive temper and above all his ability to recover
from his mistakes have endeared him to his people and given him the name of "The
Friend of the World." (Vishwa - world; Mitra - friend)
Very little from a historical point of view is known about Vishwamitra. He is traditionally
acknowledged to be the rishi who set down the hymns of the third mandala of the
Rig Veda, which includes the Gayatri Mantra. That should be enough, but he was obviously
of so powerful a personality that the stories about him became plentiful and many
ancient texts tried, in giving their versions of his life, to come to terms with
this phenomenon. To begin with, he was not even from the Brahmin caste which normally
produces sages and seers. He was a warrior, a Kshatriya, and for a long time his
spiritual aspirations were regarded as pretentious as well as a cause for hilarity.
It did not help that Vishwamitra had a talent for always putting his worst foot
forward, and that his fatal flaw, his temper, was always leading him to making wild
and extravagant gestures. These were spectacular explosions of spiritual power,
but really accomplished sages and masters rightly regarded them as ego-display and
refused to grant him his true status as a rishi. This was akin to a martial artist
of the seventh or eighth level being told he does not deserve even the first black
belt and Vishwamitra did not take kindly to being repressed like this.
At first nobody could have been less likely material for spiritual accomplishments.
He was a normal sort of king, Gadhija by name, ruling over Kanya-kubja, content
to be known as the toughest warrior of his time, so formidable that he never had
to fight any wars. This left him lots of leisure, and he had over a hundred sons
from his many wives. One fateful day his entourage wandered into the hermitage of
the Brahma-rishi [highest stage of spiritual accomplishment] Vashistha and his world
turned upside down. For the sage had a wish-fulfilling cow called Kamdhenu
and using her powers he was able to entertain the royal party in a stylez that aroused
the king's envy. When bribery and cajolement failed, Vishwamitra, like kings everywhere,
decided to invoke royal prerogative and seize the animal. Vashistha was used to
deference from the very gods, and his angry manifestation of powers soon vaporized
the royal forces, including the sons of the king. This act led to a never resolved,
implacable enmity between the two men. Vishwamitra came forward to do battle but
he too was routed.
Vishwamitra was still enough of a warrior to think that he had lost because he did
not have enough firepower. He went off to the Himalayas to perform severe penances
and austerities - called tapasya - to win divine weapons from Shiva. This was his
true m�tier, for nobody before or after has ever performed such tapasya, but the
man was still operating on old mental patterns. An amused Shiva gave him
the weapons, an act of great significance, for the sage would in later ages teach
them to the incarnation of Vishnu called Rama. The angry king went back for round
two against Vashistha and fared no better. Each and every one of his divine weapons
was absorbed by Vashistha's meditation crutch. It was a revelation as to the limitations
of material power. Now his entire being became absorbed by the thought that he had
to rival Vashistha in spiritual stature.
His gigantic will was eminently suited to such endeavors. He also had a queen, unnamed
in the texts, who was his genuine source of strength and of course was taken for
granted nevertheless. She seems to have followed him from the palace to the hermitage
and made his life less bitter and corrosive but we do not know who this extraordinary
lady was. It was to her that he made a remarkable statement when frenziedly poring
over texts written by his great rival. She wanted him to observe how brightly the
moon was shining, whereupon he said, "But ten thousand times more brightly does
the intellect of Vashistha shine". He could recognize genuine quality when he saw
it, even if it was his enemy. He even had some more sons during this initial period
of tapasya. His austerities were so powerful that it alarmed the gods and they decided
he needed to be placated with some sort of recognition. In Hindu myth, powers
developed by tapasya enable you to replace the ruling class in heaven with your
own self, so this was a dangerous situation. Brahma, the creator god, granted him
the rank of Raja-rishi, a royal sage. It was a brush-off and Vishwamitra was not
foolish enough to fall for it.
At this point he pulled off one of his most celebrated exploits. A king called Trishanku
wanted to ascend to heaven while still in the mortal body. Dissuasion by sages and
gurus only made this desire into a monomania until some angry sages cursed him to
become an outcaste. Vishwamitra, always on the side of aspirations to achievement,
furious at this degradation of fellow royalty by pompous Brahmins, promised to get
the king into heaven. He held a grand fire sacrifice which should have culminated
in the gods granting this plea. When it was refused, he showed why he was called
"The Tiger amongst Rishis", for he used his spiritual energies to hoist Trishanku
into space and into the gates of a bewildered heaven. The angry gods hurled
him back, but by now Vishwamitra had taken it personally and he froze the poor man
in space and set about creating a new heaven and new constellations to go with it.
Brahma as usual had to step in and promise Trishanku entry into heaven as well as
the acceptance of the new stars in the sky! What else could they do? As a Raja-rishi,
the sage had proved unstoppable. The gods were panic stricken at the thought of
what he might do if he ever became a Brahma-rishi.
Vishwamitra did not accept this consolation prize supinely. He went in for even
more arduous tapasya. His attitude was unbeatable. He would not ask for his due,
he would over-perform to such an extent that he could not be denied. His spiritual
power grew so rapidly that he was soon acknowledged as a rishi, the first non-Brahmin
to ever break through the ranks of exclusivity. Completely unsatisfied with that
he intensified his austerities to inhuman levels and the sheer power filling his
being caused his body to emanate smoke that began to choke creation. (Hindu
myth never settles for plausibility when hyperbole will do). When Brahma arrived
to grant him the status of Maha-rishi - the Great Sage, an irascible Vishwamitra
said in no uncertain terms that he was being cheated of his due - his status as
a Brahma-rishi. The god explained that while he had gained supreme mastery over
all other aspects of human existence his temper was still an independent life form.
A wrathful Brahma-rishi was a contradiction in terms.
For once our hero took criticism gracefully and he conceded the point. He withdrew
even further into the Himalayas and increased his quest. By now the king of the
gods, Indra, was in open panic. Since the dawn of creation no such tapasya had been
seen, and a logical reward to distract Vishwamitra from asking for Brahma-rishi
status was to make him king of heaven. He pulled out that old standby of the gods,
the supernatural beauty of the Apsaras, heavenly maidens who were as much weapons
the arsenal as rewards for good living. Menaka got the assignment of distracting
the sage with her allurements and she succeeded for a while. This is by
far the most popular myth in all India, rapidly ascending to the level of a working
archetype. The seduction from the spiritual by the enticements of beauty form a
theme that popular art never tires of, and in mild or raunchy variations it remains
a staple sequence of films. It is the perfect encapsulation of the Indian dilemma,
whether to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh or go for the spiritual brass ring.
Vishwamitra is a popular hero precisely because he managed to achieve both aspects.
That is what people would like to be possible, spiritual success but after you have
your fun, and with no price to be paid for such dalliance. Even Saint Augustine
used to pray in a similar vein, "Oh God, grant me chastity and continence - but
not just yet!"
After a few years however Menaka gave birth to a daughter, Shakuntala, and the shocked
rishi realized he had collaborated in being led astray. Menaka is unique in myth
for having crossed the tiger and getting away unscathed. Shakuntala's son, Bharat,
became the first emperor of India and the country is still named Bharat after him
so Vishwamitra is one of the founding fathers so to speak. Many years later another
Apsara, Rambha, was sent to replicate the distraction but this time the sage was
not only alert, he cursed her to turn into stone for 10,000 years. After which,
no more attempts at celestial seductions were made.
Vishwamitra made a final push for Brahma-rishi status, abandoning food altogether.
By now his tapasya had become so formidable that creation was literally rocking
on its foundations. Indra made a last attempt to provoke the astringent tiger. Just
as Vishwamitra was about to break his fast he turned up as a beggar professing great
hunger. The etiquette was to feed the guest and Vishwamitra did so and did not say
a word even when the wily Indra ate up all that was available. The king of the gods
acknowledged that Vishwamitra had achieved complete control of himself and, in sheer
exhaustion more than anything else, they granted him the rank of Brahma- rishi.
At this point, Vishwamitra insisted that his old rival Vashistha acknowledge him
as a Brahma-rishi too, which the other sage was only too willing to do. Through
sheer will and manifestation of ability he had forced the universe to acknowledge
his spiritual primacy.
A Brahma-rishi is immortal so Vishwamitra turns up in every era of Indian myth.
One of his less known acts was to prevent a human sacrifice. A young lad of accomplishments
called Shunashepa was being sacrificed to rid the king of gout, and his parents
were actively collaborating in this act because of the reward. The shock and trauma
of being betrayed in this primary relationship caused Shunashepa to achieve enlightenment
as he was freed of all limiting concepts like family and human relationships.
He began to chant sacred hymns that had been revealed to him while still tied to
the post. These hymns are part of the Rig Veda. Vishwamitra turned up at that opportune
moment, instantly recognized the boy had become a rishi and put an end to all this
superstitious ritual. He also adopted the boy as his own son, stating the parents
had forfeited their claims with this brutality, the first recognition in the Indian
mind that parents are not always perfect.
It is a greater achievement than it may seem, for the right of parents to dispose
of their children as they deemed fit was a vital pillar of the social value system.
Any suggestion to the contrary still causes great anxiety and powerful punitive
backlashes so it was nothing short of a revolution when Vishwamitra untied the boy.
He never cared about convention; his dedication was only to what was true. Once in
a great famine, he ate some dog meat. Aghast protests were raised at such
unseemly behavior from a Brahma-rishi but his answer was a classic of good sense.
"First one must stay alive. Then one can philosophize." Brahma-rishis do not need
to eat, being immortal; he deliberately performed this act of provocation to teach
some people a lesson. Such flamboyantly independent thinking is a miracle in its
own right in an India always bound by social codes and the people took warmly to
this unusual rishi.
In an interesting episode the great Swami Vivekananda had a vision in 1899 wherein
he saw Vishwamitra meditating in a river at the moment the Gayatri Mantra was revealed
to him. As a consequence the meter of chanting the Gayatri was changed by the Swami
to bring it into accordance with how he had heard Vishwamitra chant it. It is an
intriguing footnote as to how the spirit of the Friend of the World still influences
the spiritual climate.
- Rohit Arya