The History of Viśvāmitra
Told to Rāma by Satananda, the priest of King Janaka
The sage Viśvāmitra was once a king who ruled over the earth for many thousands of years. Collecting a great army comprising hundreds of thousands of soldiers on elephants, chariots, horses and foot, he set out on an expedition to examine his kingdom. Marching through many cities and states, over mountains and rivers, Viśvāmitra came at last to the dwellings of the ṛṣis. There he reached the hermitage of Vasiṣṭha, the leader best and indeed the best of all the ṛṣis. This most beautiful site was rich with all kinds of flowers, creepers and trees and was graced by the gods, Gandharvas, Siddhas and Cāraṇas. It thronged with multitudes of celestial seers and sages, who shone like fire, and it hummed with the constant recitation of sacred Vedic hymns. Some of the sages there lived on water and air alone, others on leaves fallen from the trees, while others subsisted on a spare diet of fruits and roots. All of them had mastered their senses and minds and were engaged in asceticism and meditation. The mighty Viśvāmitra looked upon this region as if it were the residence of Brahmā himself.
Approaching Vasiṣṭha and bowing low before him, Viśvāmitra greeted him with praises and prayers. Vasiṣṭha then said to Viśvāmitra, “Welcome is your appearance here, O king. Please be seated comfortably and ask of me anything you desire.”
The two of them spoke for some time in great delight, partaking of simple forest fare. Vasiṣṭha saw that Viśvāmitra was accompanied by a vast army and he said to the king, “I wish to offer full hospitality to you and all your troops. Please accept my desire without any question, O king. I am not satisfied by simply offering you fruits and water.”
Viśvāmitra was unwilling to take anything from Vasiṣṭha, whom he viewed as his superior. He declined politely, saying, “I am fully honored by your words and audience alone. Indeed your very sight is sufficient. How could I ask anything more? I am satisfied with the fruits you have offered. With your permission, I shall now depart. Please look upon me with love and let me leave taking only your blessings.”
But the sage was intent on offering Viśvāmitra further hospitality. Viśvāmitra tried again and again to dissuade him, but the pious-minded Vasiṣṭha would not be refused. He continuously requested the king to remain there longer. At last, seeing that this would be most pleasing to the sage, Viśvāmitra relented and agreed.
Vasiṣṭha felt joy and he stood up and called for his celestial cow, Sabala. “Come, come, my beloved Sabala,” he said. “I wish to entertain this king, Viśvāmitra, and all his army with a sumptuous feast. Please make every preparation.”
Vasiṣṭha’s wonderful cow began to produce from her body all kinds of food and drink in enormous quantities—steaming rice heaped high as hills, cooked vegetables of every variety, soups, breads, cakes, pies, pastries, sweetmeats, butter, cream and yogurt—all in silver dishes and plates filled to the brim. Streams of delicious juices flowed and pots filled with ambrosial milk drinks appeared there. Viśvāmitra and his entire army were fully satisfied by that splendid array of foodstuffs, every morsel of which tasted like nectar.
The king was astounded to see that it had all been produced from a cow, and he went before Vasiṣṭha, saying, “Your cow is highly amazing, O magnanimous one. I wish to ask from you that she be given to me in exchange for a hundred thousand other cows. As the king I should always be offered the best of everything and I see this cow to be the very best of her species. Therefore kindly give her to me, O sage.”
But Vasiṣṭha replied, “I shall never part with Sabala, even in exchange for a thousand million cows. Not even for heaps of gold and silver. Sabala is inseparable from me even as glory is inseparable from a man practicing asceticism.”
Vasiṣṭha had no interest in worldly wealth. His life was dedicated to the practice of sacrifice and austerity. All his happiness was derived from within himself. Even if Viśvāmitra had offered him the entire world, the sage would not have been interested. But Sabala was dear to him. She had long served the ṛṣi. Assisted by her Vasiṣṭha was able to perform many sacrifices for the good of the world. This was his sacred duty and he had no intention of renouncing it. He continued, “My very life depends upon this cow. For a long time she has sustained me with her milk. Each day she provides me with all the requisites for my sacrificial performances. She has become as dear to me as my own self and I shall not part with her under any circumstances.”
Viśvāmitra was not used to being refused anything. He was incensed by the sage’s insistence on keeping the cow. He did not want to be denied and spoke angrily to Vasiṣṭha. “How is it you are refusing to give this cow to your king? I am a warrior by nature and therefore see strength as the means of achieving my ends. If you will not give me this wonderful creature, then I shall remove her by force.”
The king was overwhelmed by pride and anger. Taking hold of Sabala with his exceptionally powerful arms, he began to drag her away, surrounded by his soldiers.
Vasiṣṭha looked sorrowfully upon the scene and said to Viśvāmitra, “As the king it is appropriate for you to use such force to achieve your purpose. As a Brahmin it also behooves me to exercise forgiveness, for that is my sacred duty in all circumstances. Nor can I ever use force, for gentleness is always prescribed for the Brahmins. Therefore, O king, I forgive you.”
Although deeply pained to see his cow being dragged away, Vasiṣṭha controlled his feelings. By his own power he was able to prevent her being taken, but he stood by silently, without doing anything. Sabala cried out in distress as the king seized her and she spoke to Vasiṣṭha, “Are you now abandoning me, O lord? What wrong have I done that I am now being removed in this wretched condition by wretched men, even as my master, the all-powerful Vasiṣṭha, looks on?”
Sabala broke loose from the king. She ran to Vasiṣṭha with tears in her eyes and all her exquisitely formed limbs trembling. Looking up at Vasiṣṭha she implored, “Am I now to be forsaken by you, O almighty son of Brahmā?”
Vasiṣṭha, his heart tormented with grief, replied to Sabala, “I am not abandoning you, nor have you ever wronged me, O Sabala. Intoxicated with power and depending upon his huge army, this great king, the ruler of the earth, is taking you away. What then can I do, being only a poor Brahmin?”
Sabala divined his deeper meaning and answered, “The wise have declared that a Brahmin’s strength is always superior to that of a warrior. The strength of the sages is spiritual while that of the warriors exists in their arms only. Therefore simply order me to stay and this arrogant king will not succeed in taking me away.”
Vasiṣṭha at once said to Sabala, “Stay!”
Immediately the wish-fulfilling cow brought forth from her body a vast army of fierce fighters, equipped with weapons of every kind, who fell upon the army of the king with terrible cries.
Seeing his own army routed by the fighters created by Sabala, Viśvāmitra stood his ground and released various kinds of weapons to beat them back. Wave after wave of ferocious looking warriors issued forth from Sabala, some rising up from her roar, some coming out of her udders, while others appeared from her anus. They rushed at the army of the king and in a short time Viśvāmitra saw his forces completely defeated and dispersed by the warriors of mystic creation.
Viśvāmitra had been accompanied by his one hundred sons. They became furious with Vasiṣṭha and surrounded him. They shot powerful weapons at the sage which sped toward him like blazing comets. Vasiṣṭha, not roused to anger, uttered a powerful Vedic mantra to check the weapons. Simply by the power of Vasiṣṭha’s utterance the princes were instantly reduced to ashes. Only one was left standing.
Viśvāmitra looked on in complete astonishment. He stood alone, filled with fear and shame. Resembling the furious ocean after it has become becalmed, he became lusterless like the eclipsed sun. He had lost his sons and his army and he felt miserable, his strength and spirit shattered. Ordering his remaining son to take on the earth’s administration, he resolved to retire to the forest to practice asceticism in order to increase his power.
After a long period of ascetic practice aimed at pleasing Śiva, the extremely powerful and beneficent god finally appeared and said, “Why are you engaging in such austerities, O king? What do you wish to achieve? I am capable of bestowing boons. Therefore ask from me whatever you may desire.”
At that time Viśvāmitra had only the knowledge of lesser celestial weapons and did not know how to use the missiles presided over by the principal gods. He fell prostrate before Śiva and offered many prayers, saying, “If you are pleased with me, O lord, then please bestow upon me the knowledge of every divine weapon presided over by all the gods, including the weapons of yourself and Brahmā. Tell me the complete science of archery and warfare with all its innermost secrets.”
Saying “So be it,” Śiva immediately disappeared, and by his mystic power he conferred upon Viśvāmitra the knowledge of warfare along with all the mystic weapons. After receiving the weapons, Viśvāmitra, who was already full of pride, became even more arrogant. Swelling with power like the ocean on the full moon, he took Vasiṣṭha, the most eminent of all seers, to be dead there and then.
He went at once to the hermitage and began to discharge all his weapons in Vasiṣṭha’s direction. The beautiful grove was consumed by the fire of the missiles and the sages rushed about in all directions, tormented and alarmed by the attack.
Vasiṣṭha saw the sages, as well as the beasts and birds, fleeing by the thousands, afflicted by Viśvāmitra’s weapons. He called out, “Do not fear! I shall now put an end to Viśvāmitra’s display of might, even as the sun dispels a morning mist.”
Vasiṣṭha was enraged. He went before Viśvāmitra, shouting, “Here I am, O wicked fellow. Show me, then, the limits of your strength!”
Viśvāmitra aimed at Vasiṣṭha the missile presided over by the fire-god, and it went toward him glowing like the sun.
Smiling even as the weapon raced toward him, Vasiṣṭha called out to Viśvāmitra. “What use is your martial power, O unworthy disgrace of your race? See today the power of the Brahmins!”
Vasiṣṭha was standing with only his staff. He held it up and the fire weapon was immediately absorbed into it. Viśvāmitra then let go each of the divine weapons one after another, including those presided over by Vāyu, Varuṇa, Indra, Yamarāja, Brahmā, the immortal Śiva, Dharma the god of virtue, and even Viṣṇu, the supreme controller. All of them were drawn into Vasiṣṭha’s staff and entirely neutralized.
As he stood there blazing in his own glory, Vasiṣṭha looked like the smokeless fire of universal destruction. Imbued with the force of the divine weapons, he shot forth tongues of flame from all his pores. Hosts of gods and celestial ṛṣis assembled in the canopy of the sky and, being fearful, spoke to Vasiṣṭha, “Today you have humbled the mighty Viśvāmitra. Your power is infallible, O most noble soul. Extinguish the fire blazing from your body and save the world.”
When he heard the heavenly voices, Vasiṣṭha regained his calm and stood silently with his mind controlled. Freed from anger, he told Viśvāmitra, “You may leave in peace. Do not act again in such a foolish way.”
Viśvāmitra, dejected, heaved a deep sigh. He considered his strength useless and said, “Weak indeed are my weapons when used against a Brahmin. Where is my pride now? The might of a warrior’s arms are nothing in comparison to Brahminical powers. I shall therefore return to the forest and perform severe penance until I attain the status of a Brahmin.”
Viśvāmitra went again to the forest, having made enemies with a highly exalted soul. Meanwhile, Vasiṣṭha recreated his hermitage by his mystic powers and began again the performance of his religious duties, meant only for the benefit of mankind.
Viśvāmitra practiced extremely difficult austerities. He lived only on fruits and roots and sat in meditation, perfectly controlling his mind by fixing it upon the Supreme and not indulging in any thoughts of sensual enjoyment. During the cold winters he would remain submerged in water up to his neck. In the blazing heat of the summer he sat surrounded by sacrificial fires on four sides. Once, for a very long period of time, he stood upon one leg with his arms upraised. A thousand years passed by as Viśvāmitra practiced his asceticism.
While Viśvāmitra remained in the forest, Vasiṣṭha had become the royal priest in Ayodhya. A king named Trishanku, a distant ancestor of Daśaratha, appeared in the line of emperors who ruled from Ayodhya. King Trishanku desired to attain the heavens in his own bodily form and he asked Vasiṣṭha to perform a sacrifice for that purpose. Vasiṣṭha replied, “O king, no man can attain heaven other than at the end of his life after the performance of piety and religion. This is the universal rule established by God. Therefore I shall not perform any sacrifice with the aim of placing you in heaven in your present body. You should give up this sinful desire.”
Trishanku, however, was set upon his aim and did not care for Vasiṣṭha’s good advice. He decided to seek out Viśvāmitra, knowing him to possess great powers as a result of his long practice of asceticism. He considered that Viśvāmitra, being a king who had preceded him in his own line, might be more amenable to his desire. Trishanku also intelligently considered the animosity of Viśvāmitra toward Vasiṣṭha, feeling that this would provide a further impetus to Viśvāmitra to perform the sacrifice refused by Vasiṣṭha.
After reaching the forest and finding Viśvāmitra, the king requested him to perform the sacrifice. Viśvāmitra, hearing that Vasiṣṭha had refused and remembering his enmity with the great mystic, agreed.
Viśvāmitra then began a sacrifice, carefully following the procedures laid down in the Vedas. He sat before a blazing fire and uttered prayers to all the gods headed by Viṣṇu, pouring offerings of ghee into the flames. At the proper moment he said, “Witness now my ascetic powers! By my command this king shall rise to heaven, even in this body of flesh and bones. O Trishanku, by virtue of the merits of my austerities, ascend now to heaven where you shall attain the state of the gods!”
As soon as Viśvāmitra said this, Trishanku rose up to the skies, but as he approached heaven, Indra checked him. Indra said in a voice booming like thunder, “O king, how are you trying now to enter heaven? You have earned no place here through religion or piety. Indeed, your own preceptor Vasiṣṭha has refused your illegal desire for heaven. O foolish man, fall headlong back to earth!”
Trishanku began to drop swiftly toward the earth and he cried out to Viśvāmitra, “Save me!”
Viśvāmitra, seeing Trishanku falling back down, called out, “Stop!”
Immediately the king’s downward progress was halted and he remained situated in the sky. Seated amid many ṛṣis the great sage Viśvāmitra became overwhelmed with anger at seeing Indra’s refusal to allow Trishanku into heaven. He said, “Since this jealous god will not let the king attain the heavenly regions, I shall now create a second heaven by dint of my mystic power. Trishanku shall then live there in peace.”
Like another Brahmā, Viśvāmitra evolved from his mind a galaxy consisting of twenty-seven lunar mansions which appeared in the sky. The sage then set about creating another hierarchy of gods to inhabit those heavenly planets. Observing this disturbance to the universal situation, Indra and the gods became alarmed and approached Viśvāmitra, saying, “This king does not deserve a place in heaven, O blessed sage. Rejected by his own guru, he now stands divested of all his pious merits.”
Viśvāmitra replied, “As I have pledged my word to this king, how shall I make it false? A promise of heaven has been given by me. Therefore please let this king enjoy heavenly bliss and let the lunar mansions I created remain in existence.”
Indra, out of respect for the great Viśvāmitra’s request, replied, “It shall be so. Your planets will endure in the heavens in the southern quarter beyond the celestial sphere. Trishanku shall remain in their midst, as happy as a god and shining brightly. All those stars shall circumambulate him, even as all the planets circle the pole star. May you be blessed.”
Viśvāmitra became pleased, but after ending the sacrifice he considered, “Driven by my anger toward Vasiṣṭha, I have now placed the impious Trishanku in the heavens here in the southern quarter. He will certainly exert a malefic influence upon this region. I shall now therefore move to some other place.”
Viśvāmitra realized he had considerably diminished his ascetic merits, expending them on the task of raising Trishanku to heaven. Still strongly desiring to attain the full status of a Brahmin sage, he continued to perform severe penances, gradually building his stock of pious credits and increasing his power. Indra became concerned, believing that Viśvāmitra may soon attain enough power to overthrow him from his post in heaven. The king of the gods desired to impede the sage’s penance and he sent the Apsarā Menaka to where Viśvāmitra sat in meditation.
Menaka entered a lake near to the sage and began to bathe. Hearing her anklets tinkling, and fully opening his half-closed eyes, Viśvāmitra saw the heavenly damsel, with her translucent clothes wet and clinging to her divinely formed body. Struck with passion the sage said, “You are most welcome, O celestial lady. Indeed, please dwell here in my hermitage. Heavenly Apsarās are not bound by earthly morality, so I will incur no sin by enjoying with you.”
Menaka took up her residence in the sage’s abode and they sported together in the beautiful grassy glades in that region. One hundred years passed as if it were only a day. Eventually realizing that he had again been diverted from his purpose, Viśvāmitra felt shame and he remonstrated himself, “Alas, I have been overcome by the ignorance born of lust. My mind has been completely bewildered by the beauty of this maiden. Surely this is the work of the gods.”
Menaka stood before him trembling. She feared his terrible curse, but Viśvāmitra dismissed her with kind and gentle words. Resolving then upon lifelong celibacy, the sage went to the bank of the Kaushiki River, his own sister, and continued his asceticism.
The sage practiced the most rigid austerities, eating only air. A thousand years passed by and he began to emit a blazing fire from his body, born from the power of his asceticism.
Again Indra became alarmed. He approached another Apsarā named Rambha and asked her to divert the sage from his austerity. She duly went to where he was sitting and began to dance alluringly before his gaze. However, Viśvāmitra did not allow his mind to give way to lust. Becoming angry with her he uttered a curse: “O nymph, since you have maliciously attempted to prevent my penance, you shall remain at this spot as a stone for one thousand years. You may then return to heaven.”
The sage realized that he had again diminished his piety, this time by becoming angry. He determined that he would never again give way to anger, nor even speak at all, and he resumed his austerities in that beautiful Himālayan region, suspending even his breathing as well as taking neither food nor water.
Finally, after another thousand years had elapsed, the gods went to Brahmā and, seized with anxiety, implored him, “Be pleased to grant this Viśvāmitra his desire. By his powerful penance we see the entire energy of the universe becoming disturbed. The earth is quaking with her mountains riven and her seas roaring in great turbulence. Violent winds are blowing and the four quarters are enveloped in darkness. If Viśvāmitra does not cease his practice of penance, then universal destruction will surely ensue!”
At this Brahmā went before Viśvāmitra and said to him in a gentle voice, “O highly blessed sage, you have attained your desire. You now stand equal to Vasiṣṭha as a Brahmin ṛṣi. All the Vedic knowledge will become manifest in your pure heart. Stop your austerities.”
Requested by Brahmā, the sage Vasiṣṭha also came there and befriended Viśvāmitra, saying, “You have surpassed all with your tremendous asceticism and have become a worthy Brahmin. No anger toward you exists in my heart. Be blessed, O great ṛṣi!”
Falling prostrate before Vasiṣṭha, Viśvāmitra sought his forgiveness and, forming a firm friendship with that son of Brahmā, left that place with his purpose fulfilled.