VASISHTHA. [Source: Dowson's Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology] 'Most wealthy.' A celebrated Vedic sage to whom many hymns are ascribed. According to Manu he was one of the seven great Rishis and of the ten Prajapatis.
There was a special rivalry between him and the sage Vishvamitra, who raised himself from the Kshatriya to the Brahman caste.
Vasishtha was the possessor of a "cow of plenty," called Nandini, who had the power of granting him all things (vasu) he desired, hence his name.
A law-book is attributed to him, or to another of the same name.
Though Vasishtha is classed among the Prajapatis who sprang from Brahma, a hymn in the Rigveda and other commentaries thereon assign him a different origin, or rather a second birth, and represent him and the sage Agastya to have sprung from Mitra and Varuna. The hymn says, "Thou, O Vasishtha, are a son of Mitra and Varuna, born a Brahman from the soul of Urvasi. All the gods placed in the vessel thee the drop which had fallen through divine contemplation." The comment on this hymn says, "When these two Adityas (Mitra and Varuna) beheld the Apsaras Urvasi at a sacrifice their seed fell from them. It fell on many places, into a jar, into water, and on the ground. The Muni Vasishtha was produced on the ground, while Agastya was born in the jar."
There is a peculiar hymn attributed to Vasishtha in the Rigveda (Wilson , iv. 121), beginning "Protector of the dwelling," which the commentators explain as having been addressed by him to a house-dog which barked as he entered the house of Varuna by night to obtain food after a three days' fast. By it the dog was appeased and put to sleep, "wherefore these verses are to be recited on similar occasions by thieves and burglars."
In the same Veda and in the Aitrareya Brahmana, Vasishtha appears as the family priest of King Sudas, a position to which his rival Vishvamitra aspired. This is amplified in the Mahabharata, where he is not the priest of Sudas but of his son Kalmashapada, who bore the patronymic Saudasa.
It is said that his rival Vishvamitra was jealous, and wished to have this office for himself, but the king preferred Vasishtha. Vasishtha had a hundred sons, the eldest of whom was named Saktri. He, meeting the king in the road, was ordered to get out of the way; but he civilly replied that the path was his, for by the law a king must cede the way to a Brahman. The king struck him with a whip, and he retorted by cursing the king to become a man-eater. Vishvamitra was present, but invisible, and he maliciously commanded a man-devouring Rakshasa to enter the king. So the king became a man-eater, and his first victim was Saktri. The same fate befell all the hundred sons, and Vasishtha's grief was boundless.
He endeavoured to destroy himself in various ways. He cast himself from the top of Mount Meru, but the rocks he fell upon were like cotton. He passed through a burning forest without harm. He threw himself into the sea with a heavy stone tied to his neck, but the waves cast him on dry land. He plunged into a river swollen by rain, but although he had bound his arms with cords, the stream loosened his bonds and landed him unbound (vipasa) on its banks. From this the river received the name of Vipasa (Byas). He threw himself into another river full of alligators, but the river rushed away in a hundred directions, and was consequently called Satadru (Sutlej).
Finding that he could not kill himself, he returned to his hermitage, and was met in the wood by King Kalmashapada, who was about to devour him, but Vasishtha exorcised him and delivered him from the curse he had born for twelve years. The sage then directed the king to return to his kingdom and pay due respect to Brahmans.Kalmashapada begged Vasishtha to give him offspring. He promised to do so, and "being solicited by the king to beget an heir to the throne, the queen became pregnant by him and brought forth a son at the end of twelve years."
Another legend in the Mahabharata represents Vishvamitra as commanding the river Saraswati to bring Vasishtha, so that he might kill him. By direction of Vasishtha the river obeyed his command, but on approaching Vishvamitra, who stood ready armed, it promptly carried away Vasishtha in another direction.
The enmity of Vasistha and Vishvamitra comes out very strongly in the Ramayana. Vishvamitra ruled the earth for many thousand years as king, but he coveted the wondrous cow of plenty which he had seen at Vasishtha's hermitage, and attempted to take her away by force. A great battle followed between the hosts of King Vishvamitra and the warriors produced by the cow to support her master. A hundred of Vishvamitra's sons were reduced to ashes by the blast of Vasishtha's mouth, and Vishvamitra being utterly defeated, he abdicated and retired to the Himalaya.
The two met again after an interval and fought in single combat. Vishvamitra was again worsted by the Brahmanical power, and "resolved to work out his own elevation to the Brahmanical order," so as to be upon an equality with his rival. He accomplished his object and became a priest, and Vasishtha suffered from his power. The hundred sons of Vasishtha denounce Vishvamitra for presuming, though a Kshatriya, to act as a priest. This so incensed Vishvamitra the he "by a curse doomed the sons of Vasishtha to be reduced to ashes and reborn as degraded outcasts for seven hundred births." Eventually, "Vasishtha, being propitiated by the gods, became reconciled to Vishvamitra, and recognized his claim to all the prerogatives of a Brahman Rishi, and Vishvamitra paid all honour to Vasishtha.
A legend in the Vishnu Purana represents Vasishtha as being requested by Nimi, a son of Ikshwaku, to officiate at a sacrifice which was to last for a thousand years. The sage pleaded a prior engagement to Indra for five hundred years, but offered to come at the end of that period. The king made no remark, and Vasishtha, taking silence as assent, returned as he had proposed. He then found that Nimi had engaged the Rishi Gautama to perform the sacrifice, and this so angered him that he cursed the king to lose his corporeal form. Nimi retorted the curse, and in consequence "the vigour of Vasishtha entered into the vigour of Mitra and Varuna. Vasishtha, however, received from them another body when their seed had fallen from them at the sight of Urvasi."
In the Markandeya Purana he appears as family priest of Harischandra. He was so incensed at the treatment shown to that monarch by Vishvamitra, that he cursed that sage to be transformed into a crane. His adversary retorted by dooming him to become another bird, and in the forms of two monstrous birds they fought so furiously that the course of the universe was disturbed, and many creatures perished. Brahma at length put an end to the conflict by restoring them to their natural forms and compelling them to be reconciled.
According to the Vishnu Purana, Vasishtha had for wife Urja, one of the daughters of Daksha, and by her he had seven sons. The Bhagavata Purana gives him Arundhati for wife. The Vishnu Purana also makes him the family priest "of the house of Ikshwaku;" and he was not only contemporary with Ikshwaku himself, but with his descendants down to the sixty-first generation. "Vasishtha, according to all accounts (says Dr. Muir), must have been possessed of a vitality altogether superhuman," for it appears that the name Vasishtha is "used not to denote merely a person belonging to a family so called, but to represent the founder of the family himself as taking part in the transactions of many successive ages."
"It is clear that Vasishtha, although he is frequently designated in post-vedic writings as a Brahman, was, according to some authorities, not really such in any proper sense of the word, as in the accounts which are given of his birth he is declared to have been either a mind-born son of Brahma, or the son of Mitra and Varuna and the Apsaras Urvasi, or to have had some supernatural origin" (Muir, i. 337). Vasishtha's descendants are called Vasisthas and Vashkalas.
Modern Languages MLLL-4993. Indian Epics. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. The textual material made available at this website is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one. No claims are made regarding the status of images used at this website; if you own the copyright privileges to any of these images and believe your copyright privileges have been violated, please contact the webmaster. Page last updated: October 16, 2007 12:22 PM