Rishi is a Sanskrit word for an accomplished and enlightened person to whom knowledge is revealed. Rishis or sages who, after intense meditation, realized the supreme truth and eternal knowledge.
Maharishi Vishvamitra (महर्षि विश्वामित्र) is considered to be one of the most revered rishis of ancient India. As per the holy Puranas, there have been only 24 Rishis who have understood the Gayatri Mantra. It is believed that Sage Vishvamitra is supposed to be the first and Yajnavalkya the last. He is credited as the author of the majority portion of the Mandala 3 of the Rig-Veda.
The name “Vishvamitra” literally means “friend of the world.” He is a famous figure in other Southeast Asian cultures as well, mainly because of his role in Ramayana. He is referred to by Vishwamitra, Viswamitra, Vishvamitra, and Kaushika.
Life and birth
Rishi Vishvamitra was not a Brahmana by birth but a valiant warrior. He was a Kshatriya King named Kaushika, as he was a descendant of the Sage Kusha and son of King Gaadhi. Vishvamitra competently ruled the kingdom for many years before he finally gave up everything and went on to become a saint.
The Vishnu Purana and Harivamsha chapter 27 of the Mahabharata describes the birth of this great sage. As per Vishnu Purana, Kaushika married a damsel of the Purukutsa dynasty. In due course of time, they had a son named Gaadhi, who then had a daughter named Satyavati.
Satyavati married an old Brahmin named Ruchika. He was the main member of the Bhrigu race. Ruchika wanted a son holding the potential of a Brahmin, and hence, he gave Satyavati a sacrificial offering charu, which he had arranged himself. He then also gave her mother another charu to make her conceive a son with a Kshatriya character. Satyavati’s mother secretly asked her daughter to exchange her charu with her. As a result, Satyavati’s mother gives birth to Vishvamitra, the son of a Kshatriya King Gaadhi. He had all the qualities of a Brahmin, just as Ruchika had desired.
Conflict with Sage Vasishtha
Vishvamitra always had a personality clash with Rishi Vasishtha. In one instance, the former cursed king Harishchandra to become a crane. When Vasishtha came to know of this, he turned himself into a crane too so that he could accompany the king. There were many more clashes between the two sages, and at times, Brahma, the god of creation, had to interfere.
In yet another version, Vasishtha independently destroyed Vishwamitra’s entire army by using his spiritual and mystical powers. Vishvamitra then decided to undertake Tapasya for several years to appease Lord Shiva to revenge this humiliation. The Lord finally appeared and granted him the knowledge of celestial weaponry. Finally, He succeeded in the killings of Vashista’s thousand sons but not Vashista himself.
An anger Vashista takes out his Brahmadanda, a wooden stick filled with the power of Brahma. It spent all of Vishwamitra’s most powerful weapons, including his Brahmastra. He then tried to attack his marauder, but the Devas interjected in time and stopped him from doing this. In this way, Vishwamitra was humiliated once again at the hands of Sage Vasishtha.
The above-mentioned incident deeply affected Vishwamitra’s life. He realized that spiritual power was greater than physical strength. He renounced his throne and began his journey to become a great sage. After undergoing intense meditation and severe Tapasya, he was given the title of Brahmarishi by Lord Brahma himself.
Vishvamitra is featured in many legends and different works of the Sanatana dharma. It is said that Sage Vishwamitra created parallel heaven, known as Trishanku Swarga, for King Trishanku. In Ramayana, Vishvamitra is the preceptor of Lord Rama and the seventh Avatar of Vishnu and his brother Lakshmana. He gave his brothers the knowledge of the Devastras (celestial weaponry), trained them in advanced religion, and taught them how to kill powerful demons like Tataka, Maricha, and Subahu.
Menaka and Vishvamitra
Menaka was born from the churning of the ocean by the Devas and the Asuras (Samudra Manthan). She was the most beautiful, talented, and intelligent apsaras. She went on to become one of the prime apsaras in Lord Indra’s court. (Apsaras and Gandharvas)
Vishvamitra’s severe penance and rapid climb into the spiritual realm frightened Indra and even tried to create another heaven. Indra then decided to send Menaka down to Earth to lure the rishi and distract him from his mediation. She successfully breaks the meditation of Vishvamitra. However, she fell in love with him, and a baby girl was born called Shakuntala. Later, she grew up in Sage Kanva’s ashram, falls in love with King Dushyanta, and gives birth to a child called Bharata.
When Vishvamitra understood how Indra had tricked him, he flew into a rage. However, he loved Menaka deeply and also knew the true extent of her feelings for him. So he told her that she would be separated from him forever. Menaka was very proud of her youth and beauty.
Gayatri Mantra is regarded as the highest and most powerful Hindu prayer. Brahmarishi Vishvamitra is said to have found the sacred Gayatri Mantra. It is a verse from a sukta of the Rigveda, and Gayatri is the name of the Vedic meter in which the verse is composed.
ॐ भूर्भुवः स्वः तत्सवितुर्वरेण्यम भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि।
धियो यो नः प्रचोदयात॥
Aum Bhur Bhuvah Svah Tat Savitur Varenyam Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi
Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat
Vishvamitra faced numerous difficulties along his journey toward becoming a Brahmarishi. This made him mellow, freeing him from his greed, jealousy, anger, and other negative emotions. Once a Brahmin tried his level best to bother him and make him angry. But Vishvamitra remained calm and smiling throughout, thus proving that he had gained complete control over his emotions and passions.
He continued his intense sadhana for many years until the day Lord Brahma appeared before him. Lord Brahma was pleased with his austerity and called him a Brahma Rishi. Rishi Vasishtha also appeared before Vishvamitra and said, “Indeed, you are a Brahma Rishi.”
After facing thousands of years of massive problems, Vishvamitra was finally conferred the title of Brahmarishi by both Lord Brahma and Rishi Vasishtha.