Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XI : Brahmarṣi Vaśiṣṭha
December 18, 2015
Brahmarṣi is an honorific title used in Indian epics to denote the highest attainments of knowledge of life acknowledged by one’s peers. Since there is no competition, the achievements are determined through the creative potential of the person. The logic is that all creativity is due to the maker of the universe Lord Brahmā; and so, the title would be conferred by Lord Brahmā in order to reward the work by the individual. What we may analyze is that Lord Brahmā facilitates the creative potential of the individual and continues to nurture the person for better productivity. In course of time the person is respected by the mankind for his or her wisdom and scholarship. When they receive universal respect, they assume the title of Brahmarṣi. Because of their immense wisdom, they may never perish.
A Brahmarṣi lives on earth as a human being, but knows the mechanics of the universe and beyond. Such contemplative knowledge of the unseen objects and future scenes has been termed as “brahma jñāna” in Indian literature. A Brahmarṣi has the ability to visualize the past and has the capacity to foresee the future. He or she becomes a representative of Lord Brahmā in the present universe. Though very capable, the person maintains humility displayed in wisdom and operates like any other person. He or she may have a family and might go for children. The children would have to cultivate enough disciplinary activities in order to inherit the talents of the Brahmarṣi. In Indian system, seven such persons are named in literature. All happen to be men. They are credited with the composition of the Vedic hymns.
In Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa, Vaśiṣṭha appears as the chief priest in King Daśaratha’s court. He was the head of an eight member counselor team, who advised the king in matters of personal as well as administrative nature. Such advice was offered on call, when the King sought such an advice. As we see in the story, the King mostly took a decision by himself and only reached out when he would get stuck. The counselors came in play to help implement King’s decisions, than help him make a decision. All of King Daśaratha’s decisions were his own; Vaśiṣṭha came into play only to preside over the rituals. On his side, Vaśiṣṭha did not prod to influence the King on his decision making. The role of the priest was subservient.
Vaśiṣṭha endorsed the King’s decision to go for a son at his old age. The charioteer Sumantra however put in the King’s ears that the proper person to conduct the ritual was the Sage Rśyaśṛṁga, who happened to be the son-in-law to the King. The King did confer with Vaśiṣṭha before proceeding to invite the Sage Rśyaśṛṁga. The King ordered the wish-fulfilling horse sacrifice and requested Vaśiṣṭha to help organize it. Vaśiṣṭha tasked the staff, instructed the builders and made arrangements for the hospitality for all the invitees. He knew the rules and called the protocol. The horse was released under his orders and he acted as the preceptor to the ritual when the horse returned after a year. All the assembled scholars and the Sage Rśyaśṛṁga listened to his instructions. Interestingly, the priests gave all their collected gifts to Vaśiṣṭha with a view that he would make an equitable distribution. He was not only a coach, but he was also a referee!
Vaśiṣṭha intervened on behalf of the Sage Viśvāmitra when the latter came to ask for Rāma to go with him to guard his ritual location. From the King’s point of view, it was an absurd request, because Rāma was not even sixteen. While Viśvāmitra’s intentions are not revealed in the text, Vaśiṣṭha saw through the merits of such an outing. Viśvāmitra did teach Rāma the application of many weapons and mentored him to handle many challenges. Though the wedding seems to occur as an event in the outing, it is possible that Vaśiṣṭha had the foresight of the possible development. Vaśiṣṭha presided over the wedding ritual on behalf of King Daśaratha at Rājā Janaka’s place in Mithila.
As a Brahmarṣi, he possibly had intuitive understanding of the likely outcome of events though he would not know the mechanics of the process. He was convinced that Parśurāma’s obstruction could be succumbed, and he made efforts to calm him down. He was not successful, but Parśurāma did go his way after recognizing Rāma. Vaśiṣṭha possibly knew the ultimate outcome in Rāma’s exile, but he did object when Kaikeyī was insisting that Sītā should put on a forest dweller’s dress. He did not appear to diagnose that King Daśaratha would be unable to bear the shock of Rāma’s exile. The situation following the King’s death was chaotic. The full management of the situation however rested with Vaśiṣṭha and he handled it with calmness and proper judgement. It is possible that he had faced similar situations in his long tenure of serving many kings over the centuries. He was at his best as a wise manager.
Vaśiṣṭha exhibited his humility when he presided over the meeting of the wise men following the King’s death. As the practice had been in the royal courts, divergent opinions were expressed. The wisdom of Vaśiṣṭha was to guide the discussion to a pragmatic solution without creating instability. He convinced all to the opinion that Bharata should be summoned back. Knowing however the kingdom and the greed of the kings, he took the decision to advise the messenger that Rāma’s exile must not be reported to Bharata while he was in the Kaikeya kingdom. It was a political move on his part, but he played it right. Powerful kings could take advantage of the unstable kingdoms in times of stress. Vaśiṣṭha wanted to protect the Ikṣvāku clan. He was the chief custodian to the rulers in Ayodhyā.
Vaśiṣṭha did not try to counsel Bharata to override his personal decision of not installing himself on the throne. Vaśiṣṭha cooperated with Bharata to create roads in the forest such that all can travel to recall Rāma back in full regalia. He supported Bharata in his quest and did request Rāma to return to Ayodhyā possibly with the aim of protecting the kingdom. Rāma’s personal conviction not to violate his father’s words was too powerful against such counsel. When Bharata failed to convince Rāma and requested that he would install the sandals worn by Rāma to the throne, Vaśiṣṭha did endorse such an unusual move. A brahmarṣi would not only be wise, he or she got to be pragmatic!
The best of Vaśiṣṭha showed up when he was confronted by the Sage Viśvāmitra during a visit by the latter during his expedition to be a world conqueror. Viśvāmitra was learned and intelligent, but at the same time he was competitive and ambitious. He could win others through his skills in wit and warfare, but he remained a victim of sensory indiscipline and irreverence. He had hard time to get a notice from Lord Brahmā for the highest attainments of the title Brahmarṣi. He showed up at the Vaśiṣṭha’s small cottage in order to pay respects to the old teacher. Vaśiṣṭha invited him and his whole entourage for a meal.
Discovering that the meal was indeed served to their satisfaction, Viśvāmitra demanded the source of such efficient management. Vaśiṣṭha confounded Viśvāmitra by simply pointing to a cow. Viśvāmitra tried to steal the cow and a fight ensued between the two. Viśvāmitra brought his enormous skills and potential of warfare which were neutralized by a simple stick by Vaśiṣṭha. While these are described as metaphors by Vālmīki, it points to the assertion that a person with Lord Brahmā’s blessings would always succeed.
Vaśiṣṭha was an escort and a guardian to the Ikṣvāku clan. We do not know how he was appointed, nor do we know how he earned the credentials he had. What we observe is that he presents himself as a secure wise man, always diligent in his tasks, dutiful to his position. He exhibits right discrimination at every turn of the event. He does not predict events, but he acts in a manner such that there is victory of principles versus convenience. He maintains himself orderly and conducts himself to maintain the righteous order in the world. The Vedic Vaśiṣṭha was a prolific author. Vālmīki’s Vaśiṣṭha was a family man, who gained respect by all where he interacted.
Let Sai bless all.