Monthly Archives: June 2020

Vasishtas, the Pre-eminent Seers of Ancient India

The sage Vasishta has played a very significant role in the cultural history of ancient India. There is indeed hardly any period of the Vedic and the epic ages on which Vasishta and his family have not left the special stamp of their almost inimitable personality. Of the eight rishi progenitors which produced Brahmin families, that of Angirasas, Vasishtas and Bhrgus are important and have great antiquity. Vasishta is the only seer to whom some kind of divinity is attributed in the Rig Veda and is considered one among the saptarishis both in the Rig Veda and the Puranas.

Divine birth

Vasishta is said to be born miraculously along with sage Agastya in a pot from the parentage of Mitra, Varuna and Urvashi. Sadashiva Dange in analysing this mytho-poetic description of the birth of Vasishta says that Vasishta was considered a master of mystic knowledge with inimitable priestly prowess and who could call Indra at will to save his patrons (for instance king Sudasa in his fight against the ten kings). Hence the birth of such an eminent person is depicted as of divine origin without semen and a mortal womb. We have several instances in the epics of these types of divine births. In Ramayana Rama and his brothers are described as born from the payasa which emerged from the sacrificial fire and in Mahabharata Draupadi is described to have born from the sacrificial altar.

Pioneer of Bhakti cult

The seventh mandala of the Rig Veda contains the majority of references to Vasishta and the members of his family. A critical study of the Varuna suktas in the seventh mandala shows that Vasishta must be regarded as the pioneer of the bhakti cult. These hymns are some of the loftiest and the most inspired in the whole of the Rig Veda. The poet approaches Varuna in all surrendering humility and pleads for forgiveness of his sins. The hymns in general are full of pathos and are more devout in tone than any others. They are surcharged with a deep sense of complete self-surrender and a passionate longing for close personal communion with god- the two important characters of true bhakti.

Vasishta’s rivalry with Vishwamitra

The Vasishta family was connected with the kings of Ayodhya from the earliest times and the Vasishtas were their hereditary priests. But some kings of Ayodhya like Satyavrata and Trishanku due to their feud with the Vasishtas appointed Vishwamitras as their royal priests. Also, Vishwamitra who was the purohita of Sudasa, the hero of the famous Dasarajna war mentioned in the Rig Veda was later replaced by Vasishta by Sudasa. The feud between Vasishta and Vishwamitra had its origin in changing the office of the purohita by Sudasa and other kings mentioned above. Though the feud between these two celebrated Vedic families is nowhere directly mentioned in the Rig Veda, it is abundantly testified by indirect references in the Rig Veda and by tradition. Ghurye is of the opinion that the feud between Vasishta and Vishwamitra is symbolic of a struggle between the Brahmin class and the Kshtriya class. But a hard and fast demarcation between Brahmin and Kshtriya was unknown to the early Rig Vedic period.

As a religious peacemaker

A critical study of the Rig Veda shows that in the beginning, the Vedic religion centred around the worship of Asura Varuna and Vasishta was originally a great champion of the Varuna cult and regarded Varuna as the supreme god and Indra as his subordinate. Indra was originally a human hero who led the Vedic tribes in their victorious march towards Sapta Sindhu. In course of time history was transformed into mythology and the human hero Indra became the national war god and Indra cult became popular. This led to the suppression of all religious cults including the Varuna cult by the followers of Indra cult. Some Vedic tribes continued to adhere to the old Varuna cult in spite of the growing popularity of the Indra cult. Instead of either giving up the Varuna religion altogether or dogmatically sticking to it in the face of the prevailing Indra cult, they very wisely tried to bring about an honorable compromise between the two cults. They argued that after victory is won by the war god Indra, Varuna is needed to establish law and order. ‘Indra conquers and Varuna rules’ seems to be their slogan. Such attempts at a religious compromise seem to have been made more particularly by the Vasishtas.

Apart from the seventh mandala of Rig Veda which contain 102 hymns of the Vasishtas, the first and tenth mandala of the Rig Veda also contains nine and twenty-six hymns respectively of this family and one each in the fifth and ninth mandala. Vasishta was an expert in Atharvanic practices and was therefore regarded as being specially qualified to officiate as purohita. In the ritual of the Brahmanas, the office of Brahmana was usually assigned to a Vasishta. A critical study of the role of Vasishta as represented in the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda would establish the remarkably prominent position which that seer and his family occupied in respect of both the religion of the classes and the religion of the masses.

References

  • Swami Mahadevananda Giri – Vedic Culture

  • Sadashiva Dange- The birth of Vasistaa, QJMS, vol 55, 1964-65

  • V.G.Rahurkar- Seers of Rig Veda, University of Poona, 1964

  • R.N.Dandekar- Exercise in Indology, select writings 3, Ajanta Publications, Delhi, 1981

  • Shrikant Talageri- The Rigveda, A Historical Analysis