VISHWAMITRA Biography - Religious Figures & Icons


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Vishwamitra is one of the most well known of the great sages. His epic tussle with Vasishta for the position of the greatest sage of all time, makes a very interesting story. He was not a Brahmana by birth, but a Kshatriya (warrior). He was a King named Kaushika, and was a valiant warrior. He is the great-grandson of a great sage named Kusha. One of the four sons of Kusha was named Kushanabar, who performed the Puthrakameshti sacrifice and obtained a son named Kadhi as the result. Kaushika was the son of this king Kadhi.


Kaushika succeeded his father to the kingdom and ruled it ably. He was well liked by his people. Once he was on a tour of his kingdom, listening to the complaints of his subjects, and issuing orders to remedy them. He finally came upon the hermitage of the great sage Vasishta. He was at once impressed by the atmosphere of tranquility and peace that surrounded this place. Spring was in full bloom here and all the animals were seen to be living together in complete harmony. The chant of the Vedas filled the air and many sages were seen to be indulging in various rituals and penances. The king was received by Vasishta and everyone was lavishly entertained by the sage. The king was surprised that living in such a remote place, the sage was able to conjure up a magnificent feast for his army.


He expressed his surprise to the sage. Vasishta said, “O King, this feast that you have partaken with your kinsmen, has been provided by my calf Nandini, who was gifted to me by Indra. You must know that she is the daughter of Indra’s cow Kamadhenu. She provides me with everything that I need.”


Kaushika was filled with wonder when he heard this. He began to think that possessing this cow would mean a lot to him; after all, the sage did not have to provide food and sustenance for a large army! He expressed a desire to the sage for obtaining Nandini from him. Vasishta was polite, but steadfast in his refusal. He would not be tempted by the offer of untold wealth that was made by Kaushika, for after all who can set a price on a cow, which can readily yield all the riches in the world.


The king grew exceedingly angry. He insulted the sage with harsh words, and ordered his soldiers to seize the cow, and drive it to his kingdom. By his yogic powers, the great sage Vasishta, brought forth an entire army of fierce warriors. They fought the army of Kaushika and defeated them thoroughly. Kaushika was captured and presented before Vasishta. The sage pardoned the king and sent him away with words of advice.


This incident made a deep impression on the King. He realized that the power obtained by penances was greater than mere physical might. He renounced his kingdom and began his quest to become a greater sage than Vasishta. He took on the name Vishwamitra.


One of Vishwamitra’s chief faults is his short temper. He is very quick to anger and sometimes utters curses on helpless victims, thereby depleting his yogic powers obtained by much penance. People fear his temper and pray that their actions might not get misconstrued by the touchy sage.


After many trials and undergoing many austerities, Vishwamitra at last obtained the title of Brahmarishi from Vasishta himself. During this time he had a daughter named Shakuntala (who appears in the Mahabharata), with the Menaka, an Apsara in the court of Indra.


He is also famous for creating the Trishanku Swarga, a rival Swargaloka, for a king named Trishanku. This King wanted to ascend heaven in his mortal body. He was sent back by Indra saying that only after discarding his earthly body could he aspire to heaven. Trishanku approached several sages with his request, but only Vishwamitra was able to oblige him. Even then it was not an unqualified success, as he had to be suspended midway between heaven and earth. Finally he was transformed into a constellation.