The Tale of Vishwamitra, the King Sage
Viswamitra, while he was king, once went out with his army and chanced to visit Sage Vasishtha’s ashram. The rishi cordially welcomed his royal guest and his huge entourage and extended to them all hospitality so sumptuous that the King wondered where all the rich abundance came from in a forest hermitage. Questioned by him, Vasishtha called his cow Sabala and explained that she was the fountain of unfailing plenty. Expressing gratitude to the sage, King Viswamitra said: “You must give me this cow as she would be more useful with me than with you. Such things of power and wealth by right belong to the King.” Now Vasishtha could not part with the divine cow. He gave many reasons and asked the King not to press his request. But the more unwilling Vasishtha was to give the cow, the more eager the King became to possess her. Failing in his efforts to tempt or persuade the sage to part with the cow, Viswamitra became angry and ordered his men to seize the cow by force. Sabala could not understand why she was being roughly handled and she was unwilling to go away from the sage and his ashram. Shedding tears, she wondered how she had offended Vasishtha that he should stand by and look on while she was being dragged away. The cow easily put to flight the soldiers and sought refuge at the feet of the sage. Moved by the piteous appeal of his beloved cow, who was like a younger sister to him, the sage said: “Bring forth soldiers to resist Viswamitra’s men.” Sabala instantaneously did so, and the aggressors were soon worsted. Wild with rage, Viswamitra got into his chariot and, taking up his bow, rained arrows on the soldiers brought forth by the cow, but their strength was inexhaustible, and the royal forces suffered utter defeat. The sons of Viswamitra now chose Vasishtha himself as their target, only to be reduced to ashes. Defeated and disgraced, Viswamitra then and there entrusted his kingdom to one of his sons and proceeded to the Himalayas to perform tapas, directing his devotions to Lord Siva to gain power with which to subdue Vasishtha.
So firm and steadfast was Viswamitra in his austerities that Lord Siva was pleased and appeared before him. He asked the king what his object was in performing tapas. Viswamitra replied: “If you, Umapati, are satisfied with my tapas let me be blessed with divine arrows and be master of every weapon.” “So be it,” said Siva, and gave Viswamitra all the weapons available to the Devas, Gandharvas, Rishis, Yakshas and the Demons. Swelling with pride like the ocean, Viswamitra considered Vasishtha as already vanquished. He straightway made for the abode of the sage. Frightened at the fearful sight of the onrushing Viswamitra, Vasishtha’s disciples and the animals in his ashram ran helter-skelter. Hit by the fire-weapon of Viswamitra, Vasishtha’s ashram was reduced to cinders. Vasishtha regretted the turn of events, but determined to end the haughtiness of the erstwhile king; he faced him calmly with his Brahmadanda (holy staff) in hand. Mad with rage, Viswamitra shot at him all the divine weapons he had acquired, but they were quenched as they approached the rishi’s staff and were absorbed by it. Viswamitra had but one more weapon in his armory, and that was the most powerful of all, the Brahmastra. As he hurled it against Vasishtha the world became wrapped in gloom as in some huge eclipse, and the very immortals trembled with fear. But the terrible astra itself was merged in the rishi’s staff, making both it and the holy man glow with the glory they had absorbed. Viswamitra stood dazed. Openly accepting defeat, he said: “Of what use is the Kshatriya’s might in arms? With but a staff in his hand, this Vasishtha has nullified all my weapons. Lord Siva has indeed fooled me. There is no alternative for me but to become a Brahma Rishi like Vasishtha.”
So saying, he withdrew from the field of battle and proceeded south for more rigorous tapas. For years and years Viswamitra went through terrible austerities. Pleased with his perseverance, Brahma presented himself before him. Advising Viswamitra that, as a result of his tapas he had risen to the position of a rishi among kings, Brahma vanished from the scene. Viswamitra was disappointed that all his penance could get him only the status of Raja Rishi. Not content with anything but the highest the rank of a Brahma Rishi; he subjected himself to still more rigorous austerities in order that he might be acknowledged an equal of Vasishtha.
That was the time when the famous king of the Solar dynasty, Trisanku, was reigning, who was so much in love with the beauty of his body that he could not bear the thought of parting with it at death and desired to ascend to heaven in that very body. Vasishtha, his preceptor, whom he approached for help in realizing his wish, advised him to give up attempting the impossible. Dissatisfied with Vasishtha’s response, the King approached the sage’s sons and sought their help. They were wroth at being asked to do something which their father had pronounced impossible, ridiculed his vanity and curtly bade him be gone. King Trisanku would not give up his aim and told them that, since they and their father were too poor in merit to help him, he would find others who were richer. Vasishtha’s sons were provoked beyond endurance, and said: “Be you a chandala.” The curse began to act and the next morning Trisanku woke up a different person altogether, an untouchable, ugly of form, attired in dirty clothes. His ministers and his people could not recognize him. Driven out of his kingdom he wandered hungry and weary almost to death, till his destiny took him to Viswamitra’s ashram. The king’s appearance moved the heart of the sage, who enquired: “Aren’t you King Trisanku? What has brought you to this plight? Whose curse?” Recounting all that had happened he fell at the sage’s feet and said: “I have been a good king and never swerved from the path of dharma. I have committed no sin and wronged none. My preceptor and his sons have deserted me and cursed me and you see me thus before you.” Viswamitra took pity on the King converted by a curse into a chandala.
This was Viswamitra’s great weakness; he was impulsive and easily over-powered by emotions like anger, sympathy and love. In sweet words, he made the king happy: “O, King, I have heard of your righteous rule. I offer you refuge; be not afraid. I will arrange for the sacrifice which will enable you to enter heaven in your own body. And in this very chandala form you shall reach heaven despite your Guru’s curse. Of this you may be sure.” And he made arrangements for a great and unprecedented yaga. Viswamitra directed his disciples to invite all the sages and, their disciples for the proposed yaga. Afraid of saying “No” to what was more or less a command, all the Rishis agreed to be present. But the sons of Vasishtha declined the invitation and made merry about a yaga at which the officiating priest was a once upon-a-time Kshatriya and the yajaman a stinking chandala. This reply, duly conveyed, enraged Viswamitra who exploded into a curse that Vasishtha’s sons do die and be reborn for seven generations in a tribe given to eating dog’s flesh. The sage then began the yaga. Extolling Trisanku’s eminent virtues, Viswamitra sought the help of the other Rishis in effecting the bodily translation of Trisanku to heaven. Well aware of the sage’s mighty powers and fulminous temper, the invitees lent their support, and the yaga went on. It reached the stage when the gods were invoked to descend and accept the offerings. But no god came. It was clear that Viswamitra’s yaga was a failure. And the Rishis, who had attended the ceremony, laughed within themselves at Viswamitra’s discomfiture. Wild with rage, Viswamitra held the ladle of ghee over the flames and said: “O Trisanku, here behold my power. I now transfer for your benefit all the merit I have earned. If my austerities have any value, they should lift you to heaven in your physical frame. I care not if the Devas reject my offerings. King Trisanku! Ascend!” A miracle followed. To the astonishment of those assembled, Trisanku in his chandala body rose heavenward. The world saw the power of Viswamitra’s tapas. Trisanku reached Swarga. But Indra forthwith pushed him down saying, “Who are you, entering heaven with a chandala body? You fool that earned the curse of your preceptor, go down again.” Trisanku fell from heaven, head down wards, screaming, “Viswamitra! Save me!” Viswamitra, seeing this, was beside himself with rage. Determined to teach the gods a lesson, he shouted to Trisanku. “Stop there! Stop there!” and, to the amazement of all, Trisanku’s earthward descent came to an abrupt stop and he stopped in mid air, shining like a star. Like a second Brahma, Viswamitra proceeded to create a new starry horizon to the south as well as a new Indra and new Devas. Alarmed at their supremacy, the Devas now came to terms and humbly entreated Viswamitra to desist. They said: “Let Trisanku stay where he is at present. Let the other stars, of your creation shine forever, like your own fame and honor. Control your anger and be friends with us.”
Gratified at this submission, and as easily appeased as provoked, Viswamitra baited his creative process. But his stupendous activities had consumed the whole of the power that he had thus far acquired by his austerities, and he found he had to begin again. Viswamitra now proceeded westwards to Pushkara and resumed his austerities. For years the rigorous tapas continued, but once again as it was about to bear fruit something happened to rouse his anger and he lost his balance and cursed his own sons. Soon recovering himself, he firmly resolved never again to yield to anger, and resumed his tapas after many years of austerities, Brahma and the Devas appeared before him and said: “O Kausika! Your tapas have borne fruit. You are no longer in the ranks of kings; you have become a real rishi.” Having thus blessed Viswamitra, Brahma returned. This was again a disappointment. He wanted to become a Brahma Rishi and Vasishtha’s peer and he had only been acknowledged an ordinary rishi. It was recognition as futile as the missiles of power, which Vasishtha’s Brahmadanda had swallowed. He therefore decided to go on with his tapas, making it more severe than ever before.
The Devas did not like this. They sent the heavenly damsel Menaka to tempt him with her celestial beauty and allurements. She went to Pushkara where Viswamitra was undergoing austerities and played, to catch his eye with a hundred wiles of charm and grace. Viswamitra saw her and was fascinated by her beauty. His vow was broken and he spent ten years in a dream of joy, forgetful of his high resolve. Awaking at last, he looked at the trembling Menaka sorrow fully and said he would not curse her, for it was his own folly, and not her fault, as in tempting him she was only carrying out the orders of her master. And sadly he wended his way to the Himalayas to resume his broken tapas. There, for a thousand years, controlling his senses, he performed rigorous tapas. At the request of the Devas, Brahma appeared before Viswamitra, and spoke to him thus sweetly: “I welcome you as a Maharishi, my son. Pleased with your soulful tapas I confer on you that title and the sanctity it imports.” Unmoved alike by gratification or disappointment, Viswamitra folded his hands in adoration and asked the Father of the Universe if the boon meant conquest over the senses. “By no means”, said the Creator, “but strive to subjugate the senses, tiger among munis!”
Resolved on the supreme conquest, Viswamitra entered on another thousand years of even harder tapas which threw the Devas into even greater consternation. Indra called unto him the celestial damsel Rambha, and enjoined on her as a vital service to the Devas, to employ all her art to bring Viswamitra under the spell of her charm, and divert him from his purpose. She was sorely afraid, but Indra assured her that she would not be left alone, but be accompanied by the God of Love and the Spirit of Springtime would be with her for support. Unwillingly she went and as she entered the precincts of the hermitage, the forest blossomed into vernal beauty, and the south wind blew gently laden with the scent of flowers, and kokilas burst into song. Love and spring were both there to assist Beauty. Disturbed by stirrings to which he had long been a stranger, Viswamitra opened his eyes and saw a smiling damsel of surpassing beauty, who seemed the very soul of the spring with its flowers and fragrance and song. At this vision of soft voluptuousness a white heat of anger surged through him as he recognized in it another temptation thrown in his way by the envious gods, and he cursed the temptress: “O Rambha, for seeking to tempt me who am striving to conquer anger and desire, be thou frozen to an image of stone for ten thousand years.”
But this explosion of rage made him see how far he was from the fulfillment of his purpose and sadly he quitted the Himalayan forests, and sought the solitude of the east. There, he restrained his breathing, gave up all thought of the things of the world, and performed austerities so stern that smoke and flames issued from his body and enveloped the universe. Then at the prayer of the panic-stricken gods, Brahma again appeared before him, and hailed him as Brahma Rishi: “All hail, Brahma Rishi, I am pleased with you. Blessed be your life.” Viswamitra was happy. But humbly he said: “How can I be happy unless from Vasishtha’s lips I hear that I am a Brahma Rishi?” Vasishtha smiled remembering his fight with Viswamitra, and said to him: “You have achieved the fruit of your great austerities. Indeed you are a Brahma Rishi, my brother.” And There was joy all round.