Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Agastyas- Hindu Missionaries of Ancient India

Among the rishi families who composed the Rig Vedic hymns, it was the members of the Agastya family who first crossed the Vindhya Mountains and established ashrams in south India. The members of this family acted as preceptors of royal dynasties, propagated Shaivism and played an important role in introducing Hindu religion and culture in south-east Asian countries.

In ancient Indian literary works there are references to the activities of Agastya in relation with characters appearing in different time frames. This indicates that a single Agastya could not have achieved all these feats single handedly and unaided. He was therefore the progenitor of a large family and founded a long surviving generation of representatives known by the name of Agastya gotra. The originator of this family Agastya was the brother of sage Vasishta. His descendants composed hymns in the Rig Veda of which we find 27 hymns in the first mandala, one each in the fifth and eighth mandala, two hymns in the ninth mandala and four hymns in the tenth mandala.

Agastya and Lopamudra

One prominent figure among this family was the one who married Lopamudra and was a contemporary of Alarka, grandson of Pratardana of Kashi. This Alarka was a contemporary of king Dushyanta the father of the famous Paurava ruler Bharata after whom our country is named.

Agastya of Ramayana

In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Aranyakanda sarga II describes the beautiful hermitage of Agastya situated at Nasik, a few miles from Dandakaranya where a peaceful atmosphere prevailed. When Rama and Lakshmana visited his ashram, Agastya presented Rama a bow of Vishnu and later Agastya accompanied Rama and his followers on his return journey to Ayodhya from Lanka with Seeta after killing Ravana.

Exploits of Agastya

According to K.D. Abhyankar, the Puranic story of the Vindhya mountain trying to compete with the Himalayas in height by becoming taller and taller and sage Agastya ordering the Vindhya mountain to lie prostrated till he returned from the south is an allegory to the actual crossing of the Vindhyas by Agastya, a prominent rishi of north India for the first time in history. In ancient times, it was easier to cross the seas by navigation. But it was quite difficult to traverse the mountainous land covered with thick forests and inhabited by wild animals. Hence it was a great feat on the part of Agastya to cross the Vindhya Mountain. Similarly the story of Agastya drinking the water of the ocean is another allegory of his crossing the sea and as we know sage Agastya is quite popular in Indonesia, the land beyond the Indian Ocean.

Star Canopus named after Agastya

The star Canopus is named after Agastya as it was first sighted by him. Around 5000 B.C. this star was visible from the south of the Vindhyas, but not from the north of it. As a member of sage Agastya’s family was the first to cross the Vindhyas from the north, he would have been the first northerner to see the star. Hence the star has been named after his family.

Agastya and Tamil

There is no clear and specific mention of Agastya and his exploits in any of the early Tamil works and reference to his work on Tamil grammar called Agattiyam first occur in Iraiyanar Agapporul Urai, a work of the 8th or 9th century A.D. This work mentions Agastya as a member of the first and second Sangams.  Just like the Europeans who have written works on Indian languages after learning them, probably a member of the Agastya clan settled in south India, had learnt Tamil and written a grammatical work which probably has now gone into oblivion.

Founder of Siddha System of Medicine

A daitya named Ilvala who had a grouse against sages used to invite them for lunch, serve the flesh of a goat (which was actually his brother Vatapi turned into a goat) and later call his brother who used to come out ripping the stomach of the diner. Agastya who had gone to Ilvala to seek financial help was also fed in a similar manner but when Ilvala called him, Vatapi could not come out as Agastya had digested him. This incident is probably an allegory to indicate that Ilvala used to kill sages by serving them with poisoned food. A member of Agastya family who was served with poisoned food came out unharmed as he knew about antidotes for food poisoning and was probably the founder of the Siddha system of medicine.

Discoverer of River Cauvery

According to a Tamil work Manimekhalai, Cauvery stream was released by Agastya from his water pot at the request of Chola king Kantan for perennial water. Agastya overturned his pitcher from which Cauvery flowed towards the sea in the east. The Purana also says that Agastya had compressed the River Cauvery and held the water in his water pot and Ganapathi came in the form of a crow and toppled the water pot and got released the river Cauvery. These stories can be interpreted as a member of Agastya family discovering the river Cauvery or naming the discovered river as Cauvery.

Oversea connections of Agastya

Members of this family even migrated to distant lands and introduced Shaivism there. A statue of sage Agastya is found in a Shiva temple in a temple complex at Pramban in Java. Similarly at a cave in Kombeng situated to the north of Muara Kaman in east Borneo we find the image of sage Agastya. Indradevi the queen of the ruler of Kambuja Empire, Indra Varman I (877-889 A.D.) is said to have descended from sage Agastya. In the old Javanese literature we have a work Agastya Parva, where Agastya describes to his son Driddasyu the creation of the world in puranic style.

Cult of Agastya

Members belonging to the Agastya family became the preceptors of royal dynasties. For instance the Pandya king Sundara Pandya is referred as Agastya Shisya ‘disciple of Agastya’. An inscription of Chalukya Kirtiraja of Lata (Gujarat) says that their spiritual preceptor was Agastya. As a preacher and preceptor of Shaiva religion and guru of many princes, Agastya soon came to be regarded as the object of personal worship and a cult of Agastya was soon formulated and his images consecrated in many temples began to receive the honour of worship. The mode of his worship is laid down in the Skanda Purana and Agni Purana. The Agasteshwara temple at Thodnavada in Chittor district, the Meenakshi Agasteshwara temple at Wadapally in Nalgonda district, the Agasteshwara temple at Guntur district all in Andhra Pradesh, the Agasteshwara temple at T.Narasipura in Mysore district of Karnataka and the Agasteshwara temple at Chennai to name a few are some of the temples dedicated to Agastya.

Agastya’s name has often been cited as an example of courage and wisdom which implies that the members of this family were known for their enterprising nature and intelligence. The members of this family played an important role in national integration by synthesizing the culture of north and south India.

References

  1. A.Nilakanta Sastri- A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the fall of Vijayanagara
  2. D.Abhyankar – Folklore and Astronomy: Agastya a Sage and a Star, Current Science, Vol- 89, No. 12, 25th December, 2005
  3. C.Majumdar- Hindu Colonies in the Far East
  4. Swami Parmeshwaranand- Encyclopedic Dictionary of Puranas, Vol-I
  5. C.Gangoly- The cult of Agastya and the origin of Indian colonial art, Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society, Vol-XVII, No.3, January 1927
  6. Shrikant Talageri- The Rig Veda- A Historical Analysis
  7. N.Saletore-Encyclopedia of Indian Culture

 

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