The Historicity of Vishwamitras

Among the ancient Rishi families, that of the family of Vishwamitra stands prominent. Their names have been associated with the rulers of Ikshavaku dynasties like Trishanku, Harishchandra, Sudasa and Dasharatha Rama. The famous king Bharata in whose memory our country is today named was the grandson of a member of this family. Moreover the third mandala of Rig-Veda is ascribed to a member of Vishwamitra family and so also the famous Gayatri mantra. Information about Vishwamitra is found in the Rig-Veda, Brahmanas, Ramayana and the Puranas. In the Puranas 1 the name of Vishwamitra is associated with Ikshavaku kings who ruled during different time periods. For instance Trishanku was the 26th ruler of that dynasty, while Sudasa was the 47th ruler and Rama was the 65th ruler.2 If we have to believe that a single Vishwamitra had associated with all these rulers, it means that he lived for several centuries and this defies human reasoning and makes Vishwamitra a mythical person. An alternative assumption which we could make is to consider the Vishwamitra associated with Trishanku as Vishwamitra I, the one who is associated with Sudasa as Vishwamitra II and so on.3 In this essay an attempt have been made to find the historicity of the members of the Vishwamitra family and identify the interpolated stories associated with them.

Vishwamitra’s rivalry with Vasishta

Vishwamitra it is said in the Puranas was originally a Kshatriya and ruler of Kanyakubj. Once he met sage Vasishta who entertained Vishwamitra and his retinue in his ashram with a lavish lunch with the help of a divine cow Kamadhenu/Nandini. Vishwamitra asked Vasishta to give him Nandini and offered him a thousand cows, horses, gold and precious stones; but Vasishta refused. Vishwamitra tried to use force but was defeated. After repeated defeats under the hands of Vasishta, Vishwamitra undertook severe penance and attained the status of Brahmarishi. From Kshatriya he became a Brahmin.4 But the old grudge which he had with Vasishta persisted and continued in various episodes involving various characters like Trishanku and Harishchandra.

Vishwamitra and Trishanku

From the chronological point of view the first ruler with whom Vishwamitra is associated is Trishanku, the king of Ayodhya. Trishanku desired to go to heaven with his body intact and approached Vasishta to fulfill his desire, but the latter declined saying that it was not possible. Trishanku then approached Vishwamitra who took it as a challenge and using his merit of penance sent Trishanku to heaven. When Trishanku reached the gates of the heaven, Indra did not allow him and Trishanku started falling down towards earth. He cried for help and Vishwamitra using his supernatural power created a separate heaven for Trishanku (Trishanku swarga). Indra then pleaded Vishwamitra not to create a parallel heaven and agreed to admit Trishanku to his heaven.5

Vishwamitra and Harishchandra

Harishchandra was the son of Trishanku and once performed the Rajasuya ceremony with Vasishta as the main priest. This made Vishwamitra jealous and he waited for an opportunity to take revenge upon Harishchandra. As Harishchandra was famous for his truthfulness and charitable disposition, Vishwamitra in disguise as a Brahmin went to him for help to marry his son. Harishchandra promised to give whatever Vishwamitra wish to have. Vishwamitra demanded his kingdom with all its wealth. Harishchandra gave up his kingdom and with his wife and son decided to leave the kingdom. It was a convention that whenever a gift is given to a Brahmin, a dakshina should also be given along with it, otherwise the gift would be futile. When Harishchandra asked the Brahmin what he wanted as dakshina, the Brahmin demanded two and a half bhaaras of gold. As Harishchandra was now penniless, he promised the Brahmin to pay him as soon as possible. Later the Brahmin persisted for the dakshina resulting in Harishchandra selling his wife and son to pay him. As there was shortage of the amount promised, Harishchandra pledged himself to a grave digger and finally settled the amount. Finally when Harishchandra was about to commit suicide with his wife after cremating his dead son, Vishwamitra reveals his true image and along with gods bless Harishchandra for keeping his word.6

Vishwamitra and Shunashshepa

In Rig-Veda Vishwamitra’s name is associated with an episode in which he partakes in a sacrificial ceremony in which a human is to be slayed. The story goes on like this- Harishchandra, the ruler of the Ikshavaku dynasty is childless and is keen to have one. Sage Narada advises him to pray god Varuna for a son with a promise that he (Harishchandra) would surrender the child to Varuna in a sacrifice. Varuna agree to this and grants him a son. Later Harishchandra makes several excuses to part with his son and later apprises his son Rohita of the contract which he had made with Varuna. Rohita who did not wish to be sacrificed went to the forest. Meanwhile Varuna curses Harishchandra with a disease. In the forest Rohita meets a sage Ajigarta and offers him 100 cows in return for giving him (Rohita) his son, Shunashshepa. Ajigarta agrees and Rohita brings Shunashshepa to his father Harishchandra and tell him to approach Varuna with an offer to sacrifice Shunashshepa in lieu of Rohita. Varuna agrees to this and a sacrificial ceremony begins in which sages like Vishwamitra, Vasishta and Jamadagni take part. Distressed of being sacrificed Shunashshepa pleads to the gods who taking pity of him decides to set him free. Shunashshepa is then adopted by Vishwamitra.7 Apart from the above stories Vishwamitra is also associated with Rama whose help he took to slay the demons who tried to disturb his sacrificial rites.8

Identifying the historic Vishwamitras

The information with regards to Vishwamitra creating a heaven for Trishanku is first referred in the Bala kanda of Ramayana. As the Bala kanda and Uttara kanda are not genuine to the original Ramayana, the narrative in question is clearly a later interpolation.9 Vishwamitra creating a heaven for Trishanku defies commonsense and is just an imaginary fiction of a person who misused his authority to insert it in the epic Ramayana during revision of the text.10 The story of Vishwamitra tormenting Harishchandra first appears in the Devi Bhagavata Purana (a upapurana), which might have been fabricated by the fertile imagination of the story teller.11 Hence regarding the historicity of Vishwamitra I we can presume that he was a contemporary of Trishanku and lived around 5169 B.C.12 As Trishanku was not in good terms with Vasishta, his family preceptor, he took the help of Vishwamitra I in conducting a ceremony which further enraged Vasishta. Hence Vasishta had probably refused to perform Trishanku’s obsequies. This could have forced Trishanku’s son Harishchandra take the help of Vishwamitra I to conduct his father’s last rites by paying a heavy fee (dakshina). These facts were blown out of proportion by the Puranic writers of the later period. Hence we find all those fanciful stuff like Vishwamitra creating a heaven for Trishanku and later harassing his son Harishchandra for dakshina, etc.13 The next important member of this family was Vishwamitra II who lived around 4489 B.C.14 His daughter was Shakuntala who married the Paurava king Dushyanta. Their son was Bharatha in whose memory our country is named.

The most famous member of this family was Vishwamitra III (4329 B.C.) who composed the 62 hymns of Rig-Veda (third mandala). He was a contemporary of a member of Vasishta family who composed the VII mandala of the Rig-Veda.15 Vishwamitra III is said to have helped the Ikshavaku king Sudas and his retinue, to cross the confluence of river Vipas and Shutudri (Beas and Sutlej).16The credit of having composed the famous Gayatri mantra also goes to him. In Atharvaveda Samhita, Vishwamitra’s name is connected with charms and spells, the utterance of which could cure diseases and food grains becomes abundant. Hence he was called Vishwa Mitra, friend of the world.17 But it is difficult to prove whether it is referred to Vishwamitra III or another member of this family.

Now let us verify the story of Shunashshepa. Reference to Shunashshepa is found in verses in the first and fifth mandala of the Rig-Veda. With regards to the reference to Shunashshepa in the first mandala, H.L.Hariyappa in his work, Rig-Vedic Legends through the Ages infers that two of the verses (1.24.12 and 1.24.13) ascribed to Shunashshepa could be a later insertion or interpolation by samhita designers in order to remind themselves of that great Vedic event.18 If two verses can be interpolated why we can’t doubt the entire verses ascribed to Shunashshepa to be interpolated on the following grounds.

  1. This story is not even indirectly mentioned in the Vishwamitra mandala (III mandala) and Vasishta mandala (VII mandala) though both the rishis officiated as priests in the ceremony in which Shunashshepa was to be sacrificed.19
  2. It is surprising that Shunashshepa story is recorded in the fifth mandala by the Atri family who were in no way connected with the affair.20
  3. It was only during the Brahmana period that sacrifices gained a prominent place not during the early Vedic period. Hence it is hard to believe that eminent seers like Vishwamitra, Vasishta and Jamadagni belonging to the early Rig-Vedic period could take part in a ceremony where an innocent Brahmin is sacrificed.
  4. Harishchandra is famous for keeping up his word at any cost and this is known from the episode (once again interpolated) in which he sold his wife and pledged himself to raise money to pay the dakshina of Vishwamitra and how he underwent untold miseries just to keep his promise. In the Shunashshepa episode he is seen not only avoiding fulfilling his promise but also replacing his son with Shunashshepa at the sacrificial altar which is quite amazing.
  5. Based on the then current popular stories, there is a possibility of Shunashshepa’s story being introduced by the editors of the Rig-Veda.21
  1. Even the reference to Vishwamitra of having performed the Ashvamedha yaga (horse sacrifice) on behalf of the Bharatas mentioned in the Rig-Veda appears to be an interpolation as it was during the Brahmana period that sacrifices attained prominence; the details of the said ritual are found in the Brahmana and Sutra literature and not in the Rig-Veda.

Vishwamitra’s rivalry with Vasishta

Vishwamitra’s rivalry with Vasishta is purely fictions. It lacks Vedic authority to say that Vishwamitra was a Kshatriya elevated to Brahmanhood. Apart from orthodox tradition, researches point to the fact that caste held sway over the people during a very late period of the Rig-Vedic age. As Vasishta and Vishwamitra belonged to a hoary past even at the time of the Rig-Vedic compilation, it would be short-sighted to attribute any varna to them.22

In Valmiki’s Ramayana we hear of one Vishwamitra who took the help of Rama and Lakshmana to fight against the asuras who were causing havoc at the ceremonies being conducted by the rishis in the forest. This person was probably another descend from the famous Vishwamitra family and lived during the period 3609 B.C. We shall identify him as Vishwamitra IV.

Probable reasons behind the interpolations

  1. In the Shunashshepa episode seers like Vishwamitra and Vasishta were deliberately involved to show that these eminent men of yore supported sacrifices. These interpolations may have taken place during the period when due to the influence of the ideals of Upanishads, Buddhism and Jainism sacrificial ceremonies were looked upon with contempt.
  2. The reason behind the story of the rivalry between Vishwamitra and Vasishta was to show that no matter how strong and powerful a Kshatriya king was; he would be always inferior to a Brahmin.
  3. Katre in his work, Introduction to Indian Textual Criticism says that Interpolation is a natural instinct in man and such cannot be considered a crime. Considering the texts which have been transmitted for centuries by oral tradition only- namely the Veda and Vedic literature- the aspect of interpolation need not be doubted at all, “for the organs of tradition were not machines, but men”.23
  4. According to Prof. R.C.Hazra adherents of various sects such as Shaktas, Sauras, Pancaratras interpolated chapters in the Puranas of the established group and in some case wrote new and independent works to propagate their own ideas and styled them Puranas.24

Just like the historians of the Macaulay/Marxist breed, the Itihasakaras and Pauranikas of ancient India have made a mess of our ancient history by interpolating imaginary tales and other absurdities in the Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharatha and the Puranas during successive revisions of these texts. There is an urgent need to critically edit the above source books, so that the political history of ancient India could be reconstructed from at least 5000 B.C.

As we have not reconstructed the political history of the Vedic period in a systematic manner, political history of ancient India is studied beginning with 3rd century B.C. Hence in the study of world civilizations top priority is given to Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greek civilizations as the annals of their kings and rulers whose historicity dates back as far as 4000 B.C. have been well documented. To put Indian civilization at par with other ancient civilizations we need to reconstruct a comprehensive political history of ancient India at the earliest so that the historicity of persons now considered as mythical can be established.

As the personalities of the Vedic and epic period traversed across the whole of India, they have left behind rich memories which are still remembered in regional folklore and places of interest in India. For instance personalities like Agastya, Parashurama, Hanuman, etc., and places like Kishkinda, Lepakshi, Hampe, Rameshwaram, etc., to name a few. Hence documenting the history of the Vedic period would also rectify the lacuna found in the existing description of Indian history where inadequate coverage is given to south India.


  1.  The main source of information about the rishis of ancient India is the Puranas which unfortunately mix up gods and mythological persons with real rishis. It was also difficult for the Sutas (bards whose duties was to preserve the genealogies of rishis as well as the kings) to preserve the genealogies of the rishis as they lived in secluded forests. Unlike that of the kings, there was no exciting tales to tell about the rishis for the Sutas and therefore they did not give much importance to maintain the genealogies of the rishis. (E.Pargiter, Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, p.185) Hence we find the same names of rishis who were associated with the rulers living in different times.
  2. See the list of kings belonging to Ikshavaku dynasty mentioned in the Vayu Purana in D.R.Mankad’s, Puranic Chronology, Gangajala Prakashana, 1951, p.341
  3. The mention of a person by the simple name is no sure criterion that the original person of that name is intended, but often means a descendant. F.E.Pargiter- Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, London, 1922, pp:139,140
  4. Vettam Mani- Puranic Encyclopedia, Motilal Banarsidass, 1975, p.835
  5. Ibid, p.795
  6. Ibid, pp: 873-875
  7. Hariyappa- Rig-Vedic Legends through the Ages, Poona, 1953, pp:191-193
  8. Vettam Mani- cit, p.632
  9. Hariyappa, Op.cit, pp:295,296
  10. Ibid, p.329. The author (Hariyappa) opines that a lot of concoction and distortion have taken place in the epics and the Puranas and those who were responsible for that did so with bad taste and unworthy motive.
  11. Ibid, p.320. In the footnotes in the same page the author (Hariyappa) writes – “popular impression now is that Vishwamitra was a cruel sage and all that. How different from the Vedic Viswamitra, ‘heaven born, favourite of the gods, great sage’. One is tempted to ask whether or to what extent, if at all, has the cause of TRUTH been served by unbridled tradition, by the unscrupulous story teller of Harikatha performer, or even by the high handed poet.
  12. As members of the Vishwamitra family were associated mainly with the rulers of the Ikshavaku dynasty, we can tentatively arrive at the dates of important members of that family if we can fix the dates of the Ikshavaku kings. To fix the dates of the Ikshavaku rulers I have relied upon the list of the said rulers given in the Vayu Purana. (D.R.Mankad p.341) The Ikshavaku king who participated in the Mahabharatha war was Bruhadbala who is placed in the number 94 in the list. Anterior to him is Rama placed in number 65; that is 29 generation before. If we take 2449 B.C. as the date of Mahabharatha war and allot 40 years for each king, then Rama’s date would be 3609 B.C. (40 years X 29 generations = 1160+2449 = 3609) Sudasa’s number in the list is 47, that is 18 generations prior to Rama and is date would be 4329 B.C. (40 years X 18 generations = 720+ 3609 = 4329). Trishanku’s number is 26, that is 21 generations prior to Sudasa and his date would be 5169 B.C. (40 years X 21 generations = 840+4329 = 5169). (In the Purana list given by Pargiter, (pp: 144-148) the number given to rulers belonging to Ikshavaku dynasty varies from that given in the Vayu Purana. For instance in Pargiter’s list, Trishanku’s number is 32 while it is 26 in the Vayu Purana. Similarly Sudasa’s number in the Pargiter’s list is 53 while it is 47 in the Vayu Purana. But the numbers given to Rama and Brihadbala, 65 and 94 respectively are same in both the list.)
  13. Over a period of time the Sutas who were the preservers and propagators of the Puranas sunk low in the social scale and foreign dynasties like that of Kanishka and the Huns did not patronize them. The Sutas probably became Buddhists as Buddhism with its Jataka stories gave to all persons following the profession of a bard sufficient scope for earning their livelihood. (P.V.Kane, History of Dharmashastra, vol-5, part II, p.857) With the exit of the Sutas and as Sanskrit learning became peculiarly the business of Brahmins, the profession of studying Puranas was taken over by the Brahmins. (E.Pargiter, Op.cit, p.24) But the Brahmins who studied the Vedas considered the Brahmins who were devoted to the study of the Puranas as having fallen away from the highest Brahmanic standard. Hence the Brahmins studying the Puranas magnified their own profession and extolled the Puranas by incorporating distinctly Brahmanic teachings and practice into the Puranas and compared them as sacred as Vedas. (F.E.Pargiter, Op.cit, p.29) According to P.V.Kane, (Op.cit, p.838) the extant Puranas and some of the Upapuranas have been so much tampered with and inflated by additions intended to bolster up particular forms of worship and particular tenets that great caution is required before one recognize them as genuine and reliable representatives for ascertaining the general state of Indian society and beliefs in ancient India.
  14. For fixing the date of the member of Vishwamitra family who was the father of Shakuntala, I have relied on the list of the Paurava kings given by Pargiter in his work Ancient Indian Historical Traditions, (p.146). Dushyantha who married Shakuntala is placed at number 43 in the list and the Pandava brothers are placed at number 94. This means that Dushyantha lived 51 generation earlier to the Pandavas and hence his date would be 4489 B.C. (40 years X 51 generations = 2040+2449 = 4489).
  15. Hariyappa, Op.cit, p. P.241
  16. Ibid, p.244
  17. Ibid, p.261
  18. Ibid, p.186
  19. Ibid, p.187
  20. Ibid
  21. Ibid, p.190
  22. Ibid, 330
  23. Ibid, p.186
  24. V.Kane- History of Dharmashastra, vol-5, part II, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1962, p.837
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