VISHVAMITRA. [Source: Dowson's Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology] A celebrated sage, who was born a Kshatriya, but by intense austerities raised himself to the Brahman caste, and became one of the seven great Rishis.
According to the Rigveda he was son of a king named Kusika, a descendant of Kusa, but later authorities make him the son of Gathin or Gadhi, king of Kanyakubja, and a descendant of Puru; so Vishvamitra is declared in the Harivansa to be "at once a Paurava and a Kausika" by lineage. According to some, Gadhi was of the Kusika race, descended from Kusika. Vishvamitra is called Gadhija and Gadhinandana, 'son of Gadhi.'
The story of Vishvamitra's birth, as told in the Vishnu Purana, is that Gadhi had a daughter named Satyavati, whom he gave in marriage to an old Brahman of the race of Bhrigu named Richika. The wife being a Kshatriya, her husband was desirous that she might bear a son having the qualities of a Brahman, and he gave her a dish of food which he had prepared to affect this object. He also gave her mother a dish intended to make her conceive a son with the character of a warrior. At the instigation of the mother the dishes were exchanged, so the mother gave birth to Vishvamitra, the son of a Kshatriya with the qualities of a Brahman; and Satyavati bore Jamadagni, the father of Parasurama, the warrior Brahman and destroyer of the Kshatriyas.
The most noteworthy and important feature in the legends of Vishvamitra is the active and enduring struggle between him and the Brahman Rishi Vasishtha, a fact which is frequently alluded to in the Rigveda, and is supposed to typify the contentions between the Brahmans and the Kshatriyas for the superiority. Both these Rishis occupy a prominent position in the Rigveda, Vishvamitra being the Rishi of the hymns in the third Mandala, which contains the celebrated verse Gayatri, and Vasishtha of those of the seventh. Each of them was at different times the Purohita or family priest of King Sudas, a position of considerable importance and power, the possession of which stimulated if it did not cause their rivalry. The two sages cursed each other, and carried their enmity into deeds of violence.
Vishvamitra's hundred sons are represented as having been eaten or burnt up by the breath of Vasishtha. On the other hand, the hundred sons of Vasishtha were, according to one legend, eaten up by King Kalmashapada, into whom a man-eating Rakshasa had entered under the influence of Vishvamitra, or, according to another legend, there were reduced to ashes by Vishvamitra's curse "and reborn as degraded outcasts for seven hundred births."
The Aitareya Brahmana states that Vishvamitra had a hundred sons, but that when he adopted his nephew Sunahsephas he proposed to make him the eldest of his sons. Fifty of them assented, and them Vishvamitra blessed that they should "abound in cattle and sons;" the other and elder fifty dissented, and them he cursed "that their progeny should possess the furthest ends (of the country)," and from them have descended many of the border tribes and most of the Dasyus.
The Mahabharata has a legend of Vishvamitra having commanded the river Saraswati to bring his rival Vasishtha that he might kill him, and of having turned it into blood when it flowed in another direction and carried Vasishtha out of his reach.
Vishvamitra's relationship to Jamadagni naturally places him in a prominent position in the Ramayana. Here the old animosity between him and Vasishtha again appears. He as a king paid a visit to Vasishtha's hermitage, and was most hospitably entertained; but he wished to obtain Vasishtha's wondrous cow, the Kamadhenu, which had furnished all the dainties of the feast. His offers were immense, but were all declined. The cow resisted and broke away when he attempted to take her by force, and when he battled for her, his armies were defeated by the hosts summoned up by the cow, and his "hundred sons were reduced to ashes in a moment by the blast of Vasishtha's mouth." A long and fierce combat followed between Vasishtha and Vishvamitra, in which the latter was defeated; the Kshatriya had to submit to the humiliation of acknowledging his inferiority to the Brahman, and he therefore resolved to work out his own elevation to the Brahmanical order.
While he was engaged in austerities for accomplishing his object of becoming a Brahman he became connected with King Trisanku. This monarch was a descendant of King Ikshwaku, and desired to perform a sacrifice in virtue of which he might ascend bodily to heaven. His priest, Vasishtha, declared it to be impossible, and that priest's hundred sons, on being applied to, refused to undertake what their father had declined. When the king told them that he would seek some other means of accomplishing his object, they condemned him to become a Chandala. In this condition he had resort to Vishvamitra, and he, taking pity on him, raised him to heaven in his bodily form, notwithstanding the opposition of the sons of Vasishtha.
The Harivansa version of this story is different. Trisanku, also called Satyavrata, had attempted the abduction of the young wife of a citizen. For this his father banished him, and condemned him to "the performance of a silent penance for twelve years." During his exile there was a famine, and Trisanku succoured and supported the wife and family of Vishvamitra, who were reduced to the direst extremity in that sage's absence. Vasishtha, the family priest, had done nothing to assuage the wrath of the aggrieved father, and this offended Trisanku. At the end of his penance, being in want of meat, he killed Vasishtha's wonder-working cow and partook of her flesh; for this act Vasishtha gave him the name of Trisanku, 'guilty of three sins.' Vishvamitra was grateful for the assistance rendered by Trisanku, and gave him the choice of a boon. He begged that he might ascend bodily to heaven. Vishvamitra then installed Trisanku in his father's kingdom, "and in spite of the resistance of the gods and of Vasishtha he exalted the king alive to heaven."
The Mahabharata and the Ramayana tell the story of Vishvamitra's amour with Menaka. His austerities had so alarmed the gods that Indra sent this Apsaras to seduce Vishvamitra "by the display of her charms and the exercise of all her allurements." She succeeded, and the result was the birth of Sakuntala. Vishvamitra at length became ashamed of his passion, and "dismissing the nymph with gentle accents, he retired to the northern mountains, where he practiced severe austerities for a thousand years." He is said to have had an amour with the nymph Rambha.
The result of the struggle between Vasishtha and Vishvamitra is thus told in the Ramayana: -- "Vasishtha, being propitiated by the gods, became reconciled to Vishvamitra, and recognized his claim to all the prerogatives of a Brahman Rishi. Vishvamitra, too, having attained the Brahmanical rank, paid all honour to Vasishtha."
The Ramayana gives many particulars of Vishvamitra's connection with Rama. It was Vishvamitra who prevailed upon King Dasaratha to send his son Rama for the protection of the Brahmans against the attacks of Ravana and his Rakshasas. He acted as his guru, and returned with Rama to Ayodhya, where the prince obtained the hand of Sita.
In the Markandeya and other Puranas the story is told of Vishvamitra's implacable persecution of King Harischandra (see Harischandra), one result of which was that Vasishtha and Vishvamitra cursed each other so that they were turned into birds, and fought together most furiously till Brahma put an end to the conflict, restored them to their natural forms, and compelled them to be reconciled.
Modern Languages MLLL-4993. Indian Epics. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. The textual material made available at this website is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one. No claims are made regarding the status of images used at this website; if you own the copyright privileges to any of these images and believe your copyright privileges have been violated, please contact the webmaster. Page last updated: October 16, 2007 12:22 PM