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Maharshis of Ancient India

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Atri

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Atri, one among the seven sages, an incarnation of Lord Brahma, was the purest among human beings, the most radiant and an upholder of truth. His very name refers to one who does not have the 3 gunas of satwa, rajas and tamas. It was to Sage Atri and the other members of his gothra that the fifth mandal of the Rigveda was revealed. The thought of Sage Atri brings to one’s mind his wife, Anasuya. Representing pure ‘purusha’ and  pure ‘prakrithi’, they formed an ideal couple who  lead an ideal family life and lived to serve humanity. Due to her devotion to God,  Brahma, Vishnu and  Maheshwara  were born as sons to her, being respectively Chandra, Dattatreya and Durvasa. Anasuya persuaded another ideal wife, Sumathi, to revoke her curse in order to save the world. She used the power of her own tapas to restore Sumathi’s husband to her. During Rama’s vanavaasa, they were an aged couple; yet, they served Rama, Sita and Lakshmana with full of love and devotion.

  Sage Atri was a disciplinarian, a person with a high degree of restraint, who engaged himself in people’s welfare and was proud of his wife’s divine powers. He was respected even by the chief of the gods, Devendra. Sage Atri’s fame spread from the time of the Vedas to the age of Mahabharatha. It was because of his timely counsel to Drona that  the rampage and the bloody carnage on the battlefield was stopped. Thus ,he was instrumental in preventing the destruction of the world and showing the path of salvation to Drona.

Vedavyasa

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Sage Vedavyasa, great grandson of Sage Vashista, was also known as Dwaipayana and Badarayana. He classified the Vedas into 4 , wrote the Brahma Sutra, and divided the Puranas into 18 Mahapuranas. He initiated four of his disciples –Paila, Vaishampayana, Jaimini and Sumanthu – into the Vedas and invested with them the responsibility of continuing the tradition.

Sage Vedavyasa had the power of seeing into the past and the future. Thus he convinced Drupada that the Pandavas were semi-divine and gave him a boon through which he was able to see the real form of the five brothers. Convinced, Drupada agreed to give his daughter in marriage to the five men. It was Vedavyasa who gave a sound warning to Dhritarashtra about the evil mind of his son, Duryodhana. He foresaw and warned Dharmaraya about several calamities that were to occur in the future. He appeared at an opportune time to arm Dharmaraya with a special mantra called Prathismruthi in order to face the Kauravas. He brought back to life, out of the Ganga, all those who had died in the Mahabharatha war.

Sage Vedavyasa wrote the Mahabharatha, one of the greatest epics, with the help of Lord Ganesha as his scribe. He composed a sea of literature to spread dharma but he always hungered for more. Thus came Srimad Bhagwatha, whose theme is devotion to God. Vedavyasa remains the best among sages even today as we see his name being invoked while offering tharpana. The great sage was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and we have references to this in our Puranas as well.

Parashurama

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Parashurama , considered to be the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, was  born in the Bhrigu clan to Jamadagni and Revathi . Born as Rama, he came to be known as Parashurama,’Parashu’ meaning ‘axe'. This is because he destroyed the Kshatriya clan with his divine axe in revenge for the death of his father at the hands of a kshathriya king’s sons. He received a number of divine weapons after performing tapas to Lord Shankara. He was obliged to kill his own mother and brothers in deference to his father’s wishes but using the boon that he received from his father, he brought all of them back to life. He went round the world 21 times killing all the bad kshatriya kings and princes but repented the bloodshed he had caused. So he went deep into the forests to perform tapas. He gifted away all the land that he had conquered to sage Kashyapa and lived a solitary life in “Shoopanaraka’.

Parashurama challenged Lord Rama to use MahaVishnu’s bow and was shocked that the latter could do it with great ease. He then realized that Rama was none other than Lord Vishnu himself. So he went round him once and then proceeded to Mt. Mahendra for tapas.

Drona sought him as a guru which he obliged but with Karna, it was a different story. When he came to know that Karna had not revealed his lineage, he cursed him and blessed him as well. He fought a long drawn war with Bhisma, one of his best students, in an attempt to make him accept Amba. All the devas had to intervene and dissuade him from wielding the Praswapanastra against Bhisma. He was not only impressed with Bhisma’s prowess but acknowledged it openly as well. It was only when Mother Ganga asked to stop the fight that he relented. Parashurama , the great tapasvi, the best among brahmanas, most feared and respected, saved the world from evil forces and established the rule of law in it.

NARADA

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Narada, Lord Brahma’s son, was asked to leave Satyaloka, be born twice as a human being in order to understand the trials and tribulations of earthly life. So first, he was born as a gandharva when he invented the Veena. Second, he was born as a  son of a housemaid who worked in a brahmin’s house. Thus his mind was filled thoughts of God and service to Him. God appeared before him saying that he had fulfilled his purpose. Soon after, there was the great deluge and everything was destroyed. When Brahma thought of creating the world all over again, Narada was born  along with four Sanaka brothers and the Prajapathis. It is as a result of his brother’s curse that he roams about the world, playing on his Veena, singing the praise of the Lord.

Narada blessed Dhruva when the latter resolved to go to Madhuvana and perform penance. He beseeched Devendra to release Kayadhu( Hiranyakashipu’s wife) when she was being dragged so that the child in her womb could be killed. Later, in the pious environs that Narada created for her, she gave birth to Prahlada. Upon the advice of Narada, Ratnakara who was the head of a band of robbers ,went into a  state of Samadhi chanting Lord Rama’s name.

Sage Narada was instrumental in getting the Bhagvatha composed; he himself  was a Parama Bhagvatha. He enlightened the people of the world  about the greatness of God, the need to love Him and be grateful to Him. Our Puranas proclaim that he was a child of the Goddess of Devotion. It’s believed that he still roams  all over the world, unseen by the mortal eye, carrying out the Lord’s biddings. Narada Bhaktisutra has become a beacon to spread bhaktirasa among those who want to reach the Creator.

VASISHTA

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Vasishta was one of the sapthabrahmas who were born of the mind of Brahma. He was the royal priest who was sought not only by great emperors but also by the Gods themselves. He was an ocean of knowledge as the Vedas, shastras , music and other arts were revealed to him as soon as he was born. His ashram was a center of holy and scholarly activities. People in and around his ashram received the fruits of the sage’s tapas, his wife Arundathi’s love,  and the divine cow Shabale’s bounty.

If Devendra appointed Vasishta as Brahma for a great yajna, Emperor Nimi and he cursed each other to die.  The emperor died but the immortal sage assumed a new body. Under the sage’s guidance, the kings of the solar clan shone as bright as the sun itself.

Vasishta’s advice to Emperor Dileepa to worship Nandini helped the royal couple to get a son thus averting a possible disaster of the solar line not having a successor. The sage was forced into a duel with King Kaushika when the latter coveted the holy cow, Shabale. It was upon Vasishta’s advice that Dasharatha agreed to send Rama and Lakshmana  with Sage Viswamithra to assist him in the great yajna. The sage was instrumental in Ahalya being relieved of her husband’s curse, in Rama getting married to Sita, in consoling Bharatha and making him agree to rule over Ayodhya during Rama’s absence, and in conducting Rama’s coronation after the death of Ravana.

King Saudasa who became Kalmashapada was subject to a series of curses. He killed all the sons of the sage due to which Vasishta tried to commit suicide. It was because of his grandson –son Shakthi and his wife Adrishyanthi’s son Parashara- that he got renewed interest in life. When the period of Kalmashapada’s curses were coming to an end , Vasishta forgot all about his misdeeds and blessed him to be a good king once again. Brahmarishi Vasishta is truly a deathless sage and it’s believed that he is still trying to establish the rule of law on earth.

VISHWAMITHRA

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Vishwamithra  was a brahmarishi who showed to the world that a man of resolution can attain the impossible with perseverance. His life story is one of a great friend of the world, one whose devotion to duty  was of the highest order. Born as Viswaratha, he went on to become a brave emperor. His greed for owning  Shabale, the holy cow in sage Vashista’s ashram, forced him into a mighty duel with the sage. Losing all his weapons, he swore to do severe tapas, become a Brahmarishi and attain the power to destroy Vashista.

Vishwamithra took the challenge of sending Trishanku to heaven in his mortal body, something that Vashista and his sons had turned down. In fact, when Trishanku was hurtling down to earth after being denied entry into heaven,  Vishwamithra stopped him in mid air and created an alternative heaven there itself for him. He was prepared to go to any length to attain the status of a Brahmarishi. The Aswini Devas advised him to overcome desire and anger in order to be successful.

Sage Vishwamithra saved the life of Shunashefa when he was going to be sacrificed to Lord Varuna in place of Rohitha, Harishchandra’s son. As a result, Varuna invited him to swarga where he took Vashista’s challenge to prove that even Harishchandra could not be truthful all the time. While he lost to Harishchandra( but was happy nevertheless),his loss of face to Vashista perturbed him a lot and his desire to become a Brahmarishi became stronger.

The string of defeats –at the hands of Vashista, Menaka, as well as in sending Trishanku to heaven or in desiring to own Shabale –only made him more resolute to bring his senses and mind under control. Devendra appeared before him and declared him to be a Maharshi. In order to become a Brahmarishi, he asked the sage to accept agnividya, which he did readily.

Vishwamithra took over Vashista’s sorrow and saved him, one who had been his sworn enemy. He considered Vashista to be his guru. With the help of more concentration, more severe penance, he was able to control his breath. Evil thoughts left him  and he attained Samadhi. Brahmadeva finally declared him a Brahmarishi. From then on, he became a model to the world. After a string of good deeds, he left for the Himalayas and sat in meditation at the end of which he attained the exalted position of being one of the Saptharishis. Vashista was very happy that God had revealed the Vedas and the Gayathri hymn to Viswamithra. In turn , Vishwamithra has become the guiding light to all righteous people by blessing them with the all powerful Gayathri manthra.

AGASTHYA

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Agasthya was one of the greatest Maharshis and was born with Mahavishnu’s blessings. He was a great devotee of Lord Sankara and Lord Shanmukha. He installed a number of Shivalingas and was the first sage to visit the southern part of India.

Lord Brahma  asked Vasishta to return to the world to resume  the good work. Thus, two Maharshis were born through Mithra and Varuna, Agasthya being the first and Vasishta following him. Agasthya knew the secrets of the Vedas at birth and was an expert in the use of weapons.

Two demons, Ilvala and Vatapi, were the scourge of several Brahmins. Agasthya saw through Ilvala’s devilish plans  and simply put an end to Vatapi by digesting him! Seeing his pithrus hanging head downwards from a big tree because he was not still a gruhastha, he agreed to get married so that they could reach heaven. Agasthya was able to swallow the water of an entire sea so that Kaleyas, the demons who hid at the bottom of the sea, could be got rid of. He could convince the Vindhyas to stop growing, something which no one could even believe, let alone achieve. It is because of Agasthya that Nahusha turned into a huge python, thus saving Sachi Devi from marrying him even while her husband was alive. Agasthya was so powerful that he alone was able to stop the tilt of the Himalayan Mountain Range. All the guests had assembled at the southern part of the range making it heavy on one side – this was when they came to witness Lord Siva’s marriage to Parvathi. Lord Siva himself asked Agasthya to go to the south and stop the tilt. In fact, as the sage was disappointed, the Lord bestowed on him the divine power to witness the celestial marriage from his position in the south.

On the advice of Agasthya, Lord Rama chanted the hymn,’Adithya Hridaya’ in order to kill Ravana and then  performed Aswamedha yaga for the welfare of the world. Agasthya’s curse was so powerful that he did not spare Kubera, the Lord of Wealth. Kubera had ignored when his friend, Mahiman, had spat on the sage’s head from the sky. Again, king Indradyumna was able to reach the lotus feet of Lord Narayana because of the sage’s curse. The sage was known to assume Devendra’s role for the sake of protecting people on earth.

Agasthya’s contribution to Tamil  is invaluable. He is worshipped in many temples  in Tamil Nadu. Sri Lalitha Sahasranamam is a gift to us from the sage in addition to a number of scholars whom the sage gave to the world.

DURVASA

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Durvasa was actually Lord Sankara who was born as the third son to sage Atri and his wife Anasuya. He was known to grant boons and heap curses. When Rama was in conversation with Kalapurusha and had asked Lakshmana not to allow anyone in, Durvasa  forced himself inside threatening to curse that Ayodhya and the entire clan would perish. Upon  Bhagawan Rudra’s intervention, Durvasa agreed to be a ritwik at the yaga of emperor Swethaki. Princess Pritha( Kunti) served the sage with such great devotion and patience that he blessed her with a manthra.When she chanted the manthra with a particular God in mind, the God would grant her  desire to her.

Durvasa was held in high esteem by the devas and was an invitee at Lord Brahma’s court. Sage Mudgala was a precious gem who was put to a rigorous test by the sage so that his good qualities came out shining. Duryodhana got an opportunity to serve the sage , which he did excellently. He then sent him to the Pandavas hoping to put them in trouble. But, Lord Krishna came to the Pandavas’ rescue. Durvasa brought out the utter devotion of Ambareesha towards Lord Vishnu only after putting him through a very difficult test. Even Devendra was not spared from his anger. In fact, he lost all his wealth as a result of the sage’s curse. He had to pray hard to Goddess Lakshmi who restored to him all that he had lost. Sri Krishna had great respect for Durvasa. The  Yamuna  river made way for the Gopikas to  cross so that they could have the sage’s darshan and an opportunity to serve him. As they had carried a lot of sweets and other food for Durvasa,the sage who lived on the juice of the ‘durve’ asked them to put only a little of whatever food they had brought to offer him.But, they were stunned to see that their vessels had become empty!

Once, when Durvasa did tapas in Kashi, the Gods were not pleased and hence did not appear before him. He got so angry that the fire of his anger reached the sky forcing all the Gods to come down in huge numbers. Finally, it was Lord Sankara who convinced the sage not to curse the holy place (Kashi) as many people found their salvation there.

Durvasa dealt with people rather harshly. Ironically, however, it was through his curses that people’s virtues came to the fore. So, directly or indirectly, he was responsible for unearthing many a great personality and presenting them to the world.

GAUTHAMA

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Gauthama, one of the saptharishis, finds reference both in the Thretha and the Dwapara yugas, in the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha. He had attained a lot of powers through severe tapas However, he lost them when he cursed two people at the same time. These two were Devendra and his own wife, Ahalya; Devendra had  impersonated  the sage and forced Ahalya ( Gowthama’s wife) to go astray. In the Ramayana, we are told how Sri Rama came to Gowthama’s ashram and how Ahalya was freed from her husband’s curse. On getting to know  through  his divine insight that the Lord was in his ashram, the sage who was doing penance on the Himalayas came to  meet Sri Rama.

Sage Gowthama was  bold and straightforward. He once chided sage Atri for heaping praise on  a king as he thought it was misplaced.  He  along with the other sages advised Drona to stop the cruel killings  in the war and give up arms. He travelled all over the world with the sole purpose of helping people. He had a very deep conversation with Lord Yama regarding dharma . Even Bhishma referred to Gawthama’s explanations when confronted by Yudhistira with similar questions.

Gawthama held discussions to seek clarity on several issues, asked questions to get convincing answers and did not hesitate to communicate with people younger than him. He admired his son who had desisted from killing his mother ( Devendra’s episode) at his own father’s behest.  He had achieved the power of controlling his senses. He was kind and compassionate not only to people but also towards animals. He once brought a baby elephant which had lost its mother and tended to it like a mother. He had become so possessive about it that when Devendra disguised as Dhritarashtra tried to take it away, he threatened to get it back from whichever loka he had to. Needless to say that Devendra was  struck by the sage’s love for the little animal.

Gowthama’s gurukula was very well-known as he himself was one of the greatest scholars of his time. He had mastered the great Savitri manthra and he was the one to whom the great Vyahrthi Manthra ‘Janah’ was revealed. There was plenty in his ashram because of his power of tapas. His ashram dwellers had never experienced famine. Once when the whole country reeled under a severe famine for several years, it was the sage who generously welcomed everyone with open arms and played host to them for as long as it was necessary. Though they were all ashamed to  stay on for such a long time, the sage would not hear of their leaving the ashram. Ganesha plotted for all of them to leave and when Gawthama got to know of it, he cursed  all the rishis whose minds became blank, bereft of all knowledge. Lord Narayana had to be born again as VedaVyasa in order to restore knowledge to the world.

MARKANDEYA

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In ancient Bharatha, 64 arts were taught in the gurukulas, history being one of them. In these pages of history, we come across the enthralling account of the lives  of great Maharshis, Sage Markandeya being one of them. He also figures among the Puranapurushas. He was born in the Bhrigu clan and was also called Bhargava, Bhrigunandana, and so on. He was an intellectual giant from birth and mastered the Vedas and Shastras. He also developed all the great qualities expected of a good human being and turned out to be a paragon of virtues. Unfotunately, he was destined by Lord Brahma to live a short but  meaningful life. However, the saptharishis blessed him with a long life which was not in accordance with the creator’s  blessings. So when  the day of his doom actually arrived, Markandeya chanted the Mrithyunjaya Manthra, prayed hard to Lord Sankara and chanted ‘Aum’ with a pure heart. Lord Yama himself came to take him when  Lord Sankara came out of the Sivalinga which young Markandeya held in an embrace. Yama had to beat a hasty retreat after being told by Sankara that the young boy had conquered death by severe tapas. Needless to say that the young boy’s worried  parents were supremely happy at the turn of events.

Markandeya was such a great tapasvi that  Indra felt threatened. So, when he sent Kamadeva, Vasantha and a few apsaras to  distract him, they failed. At the end of his tapas, Lord Nara-Narayana himself appeared before him  and blessed him to experience the Vaishnavi maya. Markandeya was ensnared by the tentacles of Lord Mahavishnu’s maya and he spent thousands of years struggling in the sea of deluge. This is when he  had a strange experience, that of the Lord’s Vaishnavi Maya – he was sucked into a child’s body where he saw the entire  creation of the Lord and  then  was thrown out by the force of the child’s breathing. Lord Siva felt that people like the sage had the capacity to make others pure by their very darshan. After this , Markandeya wrote a famous epic which came to be known as Markandeya Purana. He got initiated to Shiva Sahasranama  and composed Skandanama Sankeerthana and Sri Krishnamahima. Sage Markandeya remained by the side of the Pandavas whenever they were in trouble and infused confidence into them. He was present when Bhisma cast away his mortal body. He believed that only one force was true and real on earth and that was Sri Krishna. He believed that clean words, clean work and clean water ( source of life) can raise man from being mundane to divinity. In short, sage Markandeya was a beacon for all ages, a true friend, and a model personality.

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