The Saptarshi explain their names – Part I

The seven rishis as the progenitors of Sanatana Dharma have a much deeper meaning attached to them.

The Saptarshi explain their names – Part I


The importance of ṣi‑s in Indian culture, especially in the Vedic Sanātana Dharma, is paramount. Who are ṣi‑s? In the Nirukta of Yāska, the word ṛṣi is derived from the root √dṛś (“to see” or “to know”) as well as from the root √ (“to go”) in Sanskrit.[1] One who sees (knows) hidden meanings is a ṣi, or one whom the self-born Veda‑s approached of their own accord is a ṣi.[2] A famous definition of ṣi is ṛṣayo mantradraṣṭāraḥ,[3] which means “Ṛṣi‑s are the seers of the mantra‑s”. The word mantra in this definition refers to a Vedic mantra. Ṛṣi‑s are the seers of Vedic mantra‑s. As per the Uṇādi Sūtra and the grammar of Pāṇinī, the word ṛṣi comes from the root √ (“to go” or “to know”) and literally means “one who knows”. [4] The meaning is that ṣi‑s are not only the seers of the mantra‑s but they also know their meanings. That which is associated with ṣi‑s is called ārṣa, which literally means “of a ṛṣi”.[5] For example, the ārṣa vivāha (“the wedding of the ṛṣi‑s”) described in the Manusmṛti,[6] or ārṣa sāhitya (“literature of the ṛṣi‑s”) or ārṣa vāṅmaya (“the words of the ṛṣi‑s”). The key scriptures of Sanātana Dharma like Veda‑s, Smṛti‑s, Purāṇa‑s, Itihāsa‑s (Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata), etc. are called ārṣa vāṅmayasince all these are all seen or composed by ṛṣi‑s.

The number seven is associated with ṛṣi‑s. So much so that the Sanskrit word ṛṣi also means the number seven.[7] The reason for this is the well-known group of seven ṛṣi‑s. These seven ṛṣi‑s are called saptarṣi. The Ursa Major constellation in the sky is also called saptarṣi. The seven ṛṣi‑s are first mentioned in the fourth maṇḍala of the Śākala Saṃhitā of the Ṛgveda where it is said in a mantra—“those seven ṛṣi‑s were our forefathers”.[8] The word saptarṣi is mentioned in many mantra‑s in the saṃhitā‑s of the Ṛgveda, the Śukla-Yajurveda, the Kṛṣṇa-Yajurveda, and the Atharvaveda. This proves that the importance of the saptarṣi dates right from the Vedic era.

The names of the saptarṣi are mentioned in the Brāhmaṇa‑s and the Upaniṣad‑s. Their names are mentioned in an esoteric manner in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa of the Śukla-Yajurveda.[9] “These two [ears] alone are Gotama and Bharadvāja … these two [eyes] alone are Viśvāmitra and Jamadagni … these two [nostrils] alone are Vasiṣṭha and Kaśyapa … vāk (tongue) alone is Atri.”[10] The same mantra is found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad with some variations.[11] In this way the saptarṣi are equated with the two ears, the two eyes, the two nostrils, and the tongue. These are the organs of perceptions in humans. Thus, the organs which perceive are the ṛṣi‑s of our body. This is in accordance with the definition “one who knows is a ṛṣi”. As per the Purāṇa‑s, the saptarṣi of the Vaivasvata Manvantara are—Atri, Vasiṣṭha, Viśvāmitra, Gautama (Gotama), Jamadagni, Kaśyapa, and Bharadvāja.[12] As per the sandhyā practice followed in the tradition of Yajurveda, the ṛṣi‑s of the seven vyāhṛti‑s (“utterances”) bhūḥbhuvaḥsvaḥmahaḥjanaḥtapaḥ, and satyam are Viśvāmitra, Jamadagni, Bharadvāja, Gotama, Atri, Vasiṣṭha, and Kaśyapa, respectively.

An interesting account about the names of the saptarṣi is found in the Anuśāsana-parvan of the Mahābhārata. This account named Visastainyopākhyāna (“the account of the stealing of the lotus-stalks”) is narrated by Bhīṣma to Yudhiṣṭhira. Through the narrative of this account, the faults of accepting gifts and the sins of stealing are taught. In addition, this account has an unparalleled treasure in the form of the dialogue between the saptarṣi and Yātudhānī in which Arundhatī and saptarṣi explain the hidden meanings of their names in one esoteric verse each. In this first part of this article series, the Visastainyopākhyāna is briefly summarized. In the remaining parts, the hidden meanings behind the explanations of their names by the saptarṣi will be presented.

The Visastainyopākhyāna

Once upon a time the saptarṣi (Kaśyapa, Atri, Vasiṣṭha, Bharadvāja, Gotama, Viśvāmitra, and Jamadagni) and Vasiṣṭha’s wife Arundhatī were wandering the earth while performing penance. With them was a female servant Gaṇḍā and her husband Paśusakha. Once there was a severe drought and food became scarce. At that time, a son of King Vṛṣādarbhi who had been offered as dakṣiṇā to the Ṛṣi‑s died and the starved saptarṣi surrounded his corpse. Vṛṣādarbhi then said to the saptarṣi, “I offer you wealth, animals, grains, and rare treasures as pratigraha (gifts), please do not eat my son.” The saptarṣi turned down the gifts of the king and left. The king sent fruits filled with gold coins to the saptarṣi through his ministers. The saptarṣi, Arundhatī, Gaṇḍā, and Paśusakha turned the fruits down too, criticizing greed and desire.

When the ministers informed King Vṛṣādarbhi of their decision, the enraged king took it as an insult. To avenge this, the king offered many oblations to the āhavanīya fire as a result of which a terrifying sorceress appeared. The king named her ‘Yātudhānī’ and ordered her, “Go to the forest; understand in your mind the names of the saptarṣi, Arundhatī, and the slave couple; and kill them.” Yātudhānī said, “So be it,” and went to the forest.

Meanwhile in the forest, the saptarṣi, subsisting on fruits and roots, saw an obese parivrājaka (saṃnyāsin) with a dog. When Arundhatī asked the seven rṣi‑s if they will ever become stout like him, all the seven rṣi‑s speculated why the saṃnyāsin would have become obese. The saṃnyāsin approached the saptarṣi with his dog, greeted them by touching their hands, and behaved appropriately. Thereafter the saṃnyāsin and his dog started wandering in the forest along with the group of ten (the seven rṣi‑s, Arundhatī, Gaṇḍā, and Paśusakha).

One day they saw a lake full of lotuses. There was only one path with exquisite stairs to enter the lake. Yātudhānī stood protecting the lake on the path. The starved rṣi‑s asked for Yātudhānī’s permission to gather lotus-stalks from the lake. Yātudhānī said, “One-by-one, explain your name to me and then take the lotus-stalks.” The rṣi‑s sensed that Yātudhānī wants to kill them after knowing their powers through the meaning of their names. Therefore, they explained their names in extremely esoteric language so that Yātudhānī could not understand them.

[Saptarshi Kund in Yamunotri]

Atri—“Arāttri  Attri. That night when one does not study the three. Definitely today arātri, Atri. Know this to be my name.”[13]

Yātudhānī—“I cannot understand your name in my mind, please descend into the lake.”

Vasiṣṭha—“Vasiṣṭha, variṣṭha. Reside in vāsagṛha‑s. Being variṣṭhaand residing, know me to be Vasiṣṭha.”[14]

Yātudhānī—“The explanation is difficult to even pronounce, I cannot understand the name, please descend into the lake.”

Kaśyapa—“Kula kulakuvama kuvama, the twice-born Kaśyapa. Kāśanikāśa, hence kāśya, understand the name like this.”[15]

Yātudhānī—“I cannot understand your name in my mind, please descend into the lake.”

Bharadvāja—“I nourish asuta‑s, aśiṣya‑s, deva‑s, dvija‑s, bhāryā, and dvāja‑s. I am Bharadvāja.”[16]

Yātudhānī—“The explanation is difficult to even pronounce, I cannot understand the name, please descend into the lake.”

Gotama—“Godama due to damaadhūma and adama due to samadarśana, know me to be Gotama.”[17]

Yātudhānī— “I cannot understand the name, please descend into the lake.”

Viśvāmitra—“Viśvedeva‑s my mitra‑s, am mitra of cows. Know this, I am known as Viśvāmitra.”[18]

Yātudhānī—“The explanation is difficult to even pronounce, I cannot understand the name, please descend into the lake.”

Jamadagni—“Know this, there was jijāyiṣā in the jāna of the jājamat yaja. I am known as Jamadagni.”[19]

Yātudhānī— “I cannot understand the name, please descend into the lake.”

Arundhatī—“I, the anurundhatī of my husband’s mind, take recourse to dhara‑s, dharitrī, and vasudhā after my husband. Know me to be Arundhatī.”[20]

Yātudhānī—“The explanation is difficult to even pronounce, I cannot understand the name, please descend into the lake.”

Gaṇḍā—“A part of the mouth is the ‘gaṇḍa’ dhatu.  Due to that being pronounced, know me to be Gaṇḍā.”

Yātudhānī—“The explanation is difficult to even pronounce, I cannot understand the name, please descend into the lake.”

Paśusakha—“I please animals. After seeing animals, I am their eternal friend. Know me to be gauṇa Paśusakha.”[21]

Yātudhānī—“The explanation is difficult to even pronounce, I cannot understand the name, please descend into the lake.”

After everybody else, it was the turn of the obese saṃnyāsin.

Śunaḥsakha—“I am unable to speak as they have spoken their names. Know me to be Śunaḥsakhasakhā.”[22]

Yātudhānī—“The words explaining the name are ambiguous. Therefore, once again tell me the name.”

Śunaḥsakha—“If you did not understand my name which I uttered once, may you be reduced to ashes with this tridaṇḍa.”

Śunaḥsakha then struck Yātudhānī on the head with his brahmadaṇḍa, as a result of which she fell down and was reduced to ash.

After this all the rṣi‑s gathered lotus-stalks to their fill. They then tied them in bundles on the banks of the lake and performed tarpaṇawith water. After their tarpaṇa, they noticed that the stalks were missing. The hungry rṣi‑s said that somebody has stolen the stalks. Doubting each-other, they decided that they will all take oaths. Atri, Vasiṣṭha, Kaśyapa, Bharadvāja, Jamadagni, Gotama, Viśvāmitra, Arundhatī, Gaṇḍā, and Paśusakha took oaths one-by-one that the person who stole the stalks would incur the demerit of such-and-such sin and would get such-and-such undesirable fruits. Finally, Śunaḥsakha (the obese parivrājaka) said,

“May he who has stolen the stalks give his daughter in matrimony to a practitioner of Yajurveda or Sāmaveda, or may he complete his studies after learning Atharvaveda.”

On hearing such an oath, the ṛṣi‑s said,

“Śunaḥsakha, this oath is desirable for Brāhmaṇa‑s, this means you alone have stolen the stalks of everybody.”

Śunaḥsakha said,

“It is true, it is I who had stolen the stalks. For testing you, I had hidden away the stalks. I had come for your protections, since this cruel sorceress Yātudhānī  wanted to kill you. Vṛṣādarbhi had sent her. As she would have harmed you, I came here. Know me to be Indra, the king of gods. You have now earned inexhaustible loka‑s by not giving in to greed. Now please arise from here and proceed soon to the loka‑s.”

Pleased, all the rṣi‑s went to svargaloka with Indra.

Essence of the Visastainyopākhyāna

After narrating this account, Bhīṣma tells Yudhiṣṭhira,

“These great men did not give in to lobha (greed or avarice) despite being severely afflicted by hunger and despite being allured by riches and comforts of many kinds. As a result, they obtained svarga. Due to this reason, people should abandon greed in all situations. O king, this is the supreme dharma.”

In the remaining parts of this article series, the meaning of the esoteric words of the saptarṣi, Arundhatī, Gaṇḍā, Paśusakha, and Indra disguised as Śunaḥsakha will be explained.

[To be continued]

References / Footnotes

[1] ṛṣirdaśanāttadyadenāṃstapasyamānānbrahma svayambhvabhyānarṣatta ṛṣayo’bhavaṃstadṛṣīṇāmṛṣitvam (Nirukta 2.11).

[2] paśyati hyasau sūkṣmānapyarthān and brahma ṛgyajuḥsāmākhyaṃ svayaṃbhvakṛtakamabhyāgacchatanadhītameva tattvato dadṛśustapoviśeṣeṇa (Durgādās’s commentary on Nirukta 2.11).

[3] Source to be traced, in some publications this is also traced to Yāska’s Nirukta.

[4] ṛṣa gatau, [ṛṣati=] jānāti ṛṣiḥ (Nārāyaṇa’s Prakriyāsarvasva commentary on the igupadhātkitUṇādi Sūtra).

[5] ṛṣeridaṃ ārṣam, The aṇ suffix from the word ṛṣi by the rule tasyedam (A. 4.3.120) of the Aṣṭādhyāyī.

[6] See Manusmṛti 3.29.

[7] See the word ṛṣi in Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English dictionary.

[8] asmākamatra pitarasta āsantsapta ṛṣayo (RV 4.42.8).

[9] Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa

[10] Though vāk usually means “speech” (a karmendriya or “organ of action”), the Brāhmaṇa further says vācā hyannamadyate, i.e. “food is eaten by vāk”. Therefore the meaning of vāk here is the tongue, a jñānendriya (“organ of perception”).

[11] Bṛ.U. 2.2.4.

[12] vaśiṣṭhaḥ kāśyapo’thātrirjamadagniḥ sagautamaḥviśvāmitrabharadvājau sapta saptarṣayo’bhavan (Viṣṇu Purāṇa 3.1.32). Also see the Śabdakalpadruma on the word ṛṣiḥ.

[13] arāttrirattriḥ sā rātriryāṃ nādhīte triradya vaiarātriratrirityeva nāma me viddhi śobhane(MBh 13.93.25).

[14] vasiṣṭho’smi variṣṭho’smi vase vāsagṛheṣvapivariṣṭhatvācca vāsācca vasiṣṭha iti viddhi mām (MBh 13.93.27).

[15] kulaṃ kulaṃ ca kuvamaḥ kuvamaḥ kaśyapo dvijaḥkāśyaḥ kāśanikāśatvādetanme nāma dhāraya (MBh 13.93.29).

[16] bhare’sutānbhare’śiṣyānbhare devānbhare dvijānbhare bhāryāṃ bhare dvājaṃ bharadvājo’smi śobhane (MBh 13.93.31).

[17] godamo damato’dhūmo’damaste samadarśanātviddhi māṃ gotamaṃ kṛtye yātudhāni nibodha mām (MBh 13.93.33).

[18] viśvedevāśca me mitraṃ mitramasmi gavāṃ tathāviśvāmitra iti khyātaṃ yātudhāni nibodha mām (MBh 13.93.35).

[19] jājamadyajajāne’haṃ jijāhīha jijāyiṣijamadagniriti khyātaṃ tato māṃ viddhi śobhane(MBh 13.93.37).

[20] dharāndharitrīṃ vasudhāṃ bhartustiṣṭhāmyanantarammano’nurundhatī bharturiti māṃ viddhyarundhatīm (MBh 13.93.39).

[21] paśūn rañjāmi dṛṣṭvā’haṃ paśūnāṃ ca sadā sakhāgauṇaṃ paśusakhetyevaṃ viddhi māmagnisambhave (MBh 13.93.43).

[22] ebhiruktaṃ yathā nāma nāhaṃ vaktumihotsaheśunaḥsakhasakhāyaṃ māṃ yātudhānyupadhāraya (MBh 13.93.45).

About Author: Nityanand Misra

Nityanand Misra is a finance professional. editor & author based in Mumbai. He is an alumnus of IIM Bangalore and works in the investment banking industry. He writes on Indian literature, arts, music and has authored seven books.

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