Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – X :  Maharṣi Viśvāmitra

Bijoy Misra

October 14, 2015


We do not know the origin of the word ṛsi, popularly used in the Indian scriptures to denote to individuals who “know”.  It was possibly an old social belief that some persons had more insight than others, or, the belief could be that some individuals could apply their knowledge better than others.  ṛsis had a characteristic of detachment by living away from the society.  They survived in solitude.  The solitude and the tranquility gave them an opportunity to “observe” the society from a distance and comment on it as they thought fit.  These compositions have come down to us as hymns that taught people how to conduct life.  ṛsis had poetic talents.  It could be the reverse that persons of poetic talents observed the society and wrote about life and conduct.  Poets and ṛsis became synonymous.  A new word kavi was developed to denote all composers.  All ṛsis are kavis, the reverse may not be true. Vālmīki is a ṛsi and a kavi, the older Viśvāmitra is a ṛsi.

While the hymn composers were called ṛsis at the Vedic times, a new phrase maharṣi was used in the later scriptures to distinguish individuals who had much higher contribution than others.  maharṣi would denote a “great” ṛsi, the greatness could be due to social prestige, productivity or public admiration.  Viśvāmitra has been given the title maharṣi by the poet Vālmīki, who was himself conferred the title by the later writers.  Since Viśvāmitra is a historical personality identified in the Vedic hymns, the linguists place the Rāmāyaṇa events to the Vedic times.  Vālmīki portrays him as a person of skills with high ambitions.  He cultivated engineering methods and studied the material nature of objects.  He designed arrows and had skills in navigating airflow.  He was a rebel to the existing Brahmanical order of the society.  He wanted to view the universe in a direct scientific way.  His efforts to rule the world by force did not however succeed.

Vālmīki introduces Viśvāmitra where the latter showed up in King Daśaratha’s court to ask for Rāma to accompany him in the difficult task of protecting his hermitage from the disturbance of two rākṣasas, Mārīca  and Subāhu.  Viśvāmitra had gone to a location called siddhāśrama on the Vindhya mountain range which had the reputation for being the holiest site to practice penance and austerities.  The rākṣasas did not appreciate encroachment into their roaming territory. They would do tricks to disturb and hound away the intruders.  The ṛsis liked the southern mountains for the solitude and the tranquil environment.  There was a conflict.  Vālmīki does not say why Viśvāmitra thought that Rāma was the only person who can provide protection to the hermitage.  It is possible that people took note of the valor of the youth in the country.  It is also possible that Viśvāmitra had gained insight into the future course of Rāma’s life. He was possibly preparing Rāma for the task without revealing what he knew.

Rāma was only a fifteen years old when Viśvāmitra asked King Daśaratha to part with his son. Viśvāmitra was known for his anger and he expected his words would be followed to the letter.  Apparently he had merited the powers to curse individuals.  The curses could destroy people.  There is a peculiar yogic accomplishment when one’s word could yield results.  Viśvāmitra would use it in a negative way in his whim. He would curse people to test their inner strength and stamina.  He would bless them if they survived the curse.  We do not know how many did not survive his curse; the King Hariścandra was cursed and then rewarded.  Viśvāmitra would move around to test his powers.  He was aware of his accomplishments but always wanted more through further austerities in yogic life.

It is possible that after long years in austere life Viśvāmitra was tired and wanted to pass on his knowledge to an able-bodied young man.  Interaction with Rāma and fixing him up with Sītā in wedding was his last act before he retired to the Himalayas.  During the course of their travel to Janaka’s court Viśvāmitra tested Rāma with various tasks and rewarded him with new weapons.  He taught him the knowledge of executing the weapons at every step.  His important instruction was that a weapon would not achieve its desired goal unless it was supported by the meditative energy relayed to it through special yogic chants.  Such techniques were exclusive to him and he taught them to Rāma as a part of his tutelage.  He would also make sure that Rāma learned the technique well by letting him apply it on various road encounters.

Like Rāma, Viśvāmitra’s father Gādhi was born through a sacrifice intended to procure a son.  Gādhi’s father was Kuśa, a pious ascetic man.   Viśvāmitra is called Kauśika because of this lineage.  He had an elder sister called Satyavatī,  who was married to the sage Rucika.  Viśvāmitra thought that his sister lived as the holy river Kauśikī, next to the Himalayas.  He lived close to the river assuming her proximity.  He however had the desire of achieving new skills through self-discipline.  He went around various holy places to engage in meditative practices and austerities.  

Viśvāmitra was of royal pedigree and never relinquished the idea of ruling over others.  Such conduct was not appreciated for a person of ṛsi attitude, but he remained an exception.  Through a whim he was successful in amassing a large army and then made an expedition to conquer the world. On his journey he encountered the sage Vasiṣṭha who trounced him and his army with a faith-laden stick.  Known as Brahmarṣi Vasiṣṭha, he possessed other latent powers that Viśvāmitra lacked.  Having realized his folly, Viśvāmitra went back to the mode of penance.   Viśvāmitra failed again because of his worldly weaknesses.

The sage Viśvāmitra could be called a haughty showman.  He had mastered enough knowledge of gravity and projectiles that he did not hesitate to dispatch a man to the outer space.  It could have been the first interplanetary travel by a human being.  He had possibly calculated the trajectory with planets as mutually separated point objects, but was unaware of the asteroid belt.  The King Triśaṁku got stuck in the asteroid belt and could not go further.  Neither he was able to descend down.  Apparently he is still revolving along the asteroid belt.  The Indian languages picked up a new word triśaṁku denoting a “stuck” position.

A good quality the sage had was to respond to calls of distress of people who approached him for help.  His own nephew S’unaḥśepa was being hounded away for a human sacrifice and the nephew accidentally met the sage near a river.  He taught his nephew special chants that could please the heavenly bodies and get him released from his sacrificial post.  Later he engineered the release of Ahalyā from her husband’s curse through the interaction with Rāma.  He was a master of the techniques in chants of life and longevity.  Vālmīki does not indicate if he took other students besides Rāma to part his craft.

Being aware of the Brahmanical powers, Viśvāmitra’s goal was to receive a title of Brahmarṣi by his peers and to be blessed by Lord Brahmā.  Apparently Lord Brahmā would show up to express his pleasure to a person’s deep penance and self-discipline.  Viśvāmitra’s path was not easy. He was tested many times and would fail through his weaknesses.  His eventual success was a desperate move.   

 The dramatic entry of Viśvāmitra to the Rāmāyaṇa story sets it in an adventurous direction.  Rāma’s journey in the forest along with his receiving weapons and learning the useful chants add excitement to the story.  Viśvāmitra was a good teacher and Rāma receives good instructions on history and geography through the sage.  By reading the story, it would appear that it was Viśvāmitra who knew the latent traits in Rāma and hardened him through training to prepare him for the difficult task later.

Let Sai bless all.