Vashishtha (Sanskrit: वशिष्ठ, IAST: vaśiṣṭha) is one of the oldest and most revered Vedic rishis. He is one of the Saptarishis (seven great Rishis) of India. Vashishtha is credited as the chief author of Mandala 7 of Rigveda. Vashishtha and his family are mentioned in Rigvedic verse 10.167.4,[note 1] other Rigvedic mandalas and in many Vedic texts. His ideas have been influential and he was called as the first sage of the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy by Adi Shankara.
Yoga Vashishtha, Vashishtha Samhita, as well as some versions of the Agni Purana and Vishnu Purana are attributed to him. He is the subject of many mythologies, such as him being in possession of the divine cow Kamadhenu and Nandini her child, who could grant anything to their owners. He is famous in Hindu mythologies for his legendary conflicts with sage Vishvamitra.
Vashishtha is also spelled as Vasiṣṭha and is Sanskrit for "most excellent, best or richest. According to Monier-Williams, it is sometimes incorrectly spelt as Vashishtha or Vashistha (vaśiṣṭha, वशिष्ठ).
In Rigvedic hymn 7.33.9, Vashisht is described as a scholar who moved across the Indus river to establish his school. He was married to Arundhati, and therefore he was also called Arundhati Nath, meaning the husband of Arundhati. Vashisht is believed to have lived on the banks of Ganga in modern-day Uttarakhand. Later, this region is believed in the Indian tradition to be the abode of sage Vyasa along with Pandavas, the five brothers of Mahabharata. He is typically described in ancient and medieval Hindu texts as a sage with long flowing hairs that are neatly tied into a bun that is coiled with a tuft to the right, a beard, a handlebar moustache and a tilak on his forehead.
In Buddhist Pali canonical texts such as Digha Nikaya, Tevijja Sutta describes a discussion between the Buddha and Vedic scholars of his time. The Buddha names ten rishis, calls them "early sages" and makers of ancient verses that have been collected and chanted in his era, and among those ten rishi is Vasettha (the Pali spelling of Vashisht in Sanskrit).[note 2]
Vashisht is the author of the seventh book of the Rigveda, one of its "family books" and among the oldest layer of hymns in the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism. The hymns composed by Vashisht are dedicated to Agni, Indra and other gods, but according to RN Dandekar, in a book edited by Michael Witzel, these hymns are particularly significant for four Indravarunau hymns. These have an embedded message of transcending "all thoughts of bigotry", suggesting a realistic approach of mutual "coordination and harmony" between two rival religious ideas by abandoning disputed ideas from each and finding the complementary spiritual core in both. These hymns declare two gods, Indra and Varuna, as equally great. In another hymn, particularly the Rigvedic verse 8.83.9, Vashisht teaches that the Vedic gods Indra and Varuna are complementary and equally important because one vanquishes the evil by the defeat of enemies in battles, while other sustains the good during peace through socio-ethical laws. The seventh mandala of the Rigveda by Vashisht is a metaphorical treatise. Vashishtha reappears as a character in Hindu texts, through its history, that explore conciliation between conflicting or opposing ideologies.
According to Ellison Findly – a professor of Religion, Vashisht hymns in the Rigveda are among the most intriguing in many ways and influential. Vashisht emphasizes means to be as important as ends during one's life, encouraging truthfulness, devotion, optimism, family life, sharing one's prosperity with other members of society, among other cultural values.
Practise righteousness (dharma), not unrighteousness.
Speak the truth, not an untruth.
Look at what is distant, not what's near at hand.
Look at the highest, not at what's less than highest.
Vashisht is a revered sage in the Hindu traditions, and like other revered sages, numerous treatises composed in ancient and medieval era are reverentially named after him. Some treatises named after him or attributed to him include:
Vashisht samhita is a medieval era Yoga text. There is an Agama as well with the same title.
Vashisht dharmasutra, an ancient text, and one of the few Dharma-related treatises which has survived into the modern era. This Dharmasūtra (300–100 BCE) forms an independent text and other parts of the Kalpasūtra, that is Shrauta- and Grihya-sutras are missing. It contains 1,038 sutras.
Yoga Vashisht is a syncretic medieval era text that presents Vedanta and Yoga philosophies. It is written in the form of a dialogue between Vashisht and prince Rama of Ramayana fame, about the nature of life, human suffering, choices as the nature of life, free will, human creative power and spiritual liberation. Yoga Vashisht teachings are structured as stories and fables, with a philosophical foundation similar to those found in Advaita Vedanta. The text is also notable for its discussion of Yoga. According to Christopher Chapple – a professor of Indic studies specializing in Yoga and Indian religions, the Yoga Vashisht philosophy can be summarized as, "Human effort can be used for self-betterment and that there is no such thing as an external fate imposed by the gods".
Vishnu Purana is attributed to Vashisht along with Rishi Pulatsya. He has also contributed to many Vedic hymns and is seen as the arranger of Vedas during Dwapara Yuga.
A Vashisht statue in granite stone.
According to Agarwal, one mythical legend states that Vashisht wanted to commit suicide by falling into river Saraswati. But the river prevented this sacrilege by splitting into hundreds of shallow channels. This story, states Agarwal, may have very ancient roots, where "the early man observed the braiding process of the Satluj" and because such a legend could not have invented without the residents observing an ancient river (in Rajasthan) drying up and its tributaries such as Sutlej reflowing to merge into Indus river.
Rivalry with Vishwamitra
Vashisht is known for his feud with Vishwamitra. The king Vishwamitra coveted Vashisht's divine cow Nandini that could fulfil material desires. Vashisht destroyed Vishwamitra's army and sons. Vishwamitra acquired weapons from Lord Shiva and incinerated Vashisht's hermitage and sons, but Vashisht baffled all of Vishwamitra's weapons. Vishwamitra betook severe penances for thousands of years and became a Brahmarshi. He even reconciled with Vashisht.
Vashisht is best known as the priest and preceptor , teacher of the Ikshvaku kings clan. He was also the preceptor of Manu, the progenitor of Kshatriyas and Ikshvaku's father. Other characters like Nahusha, Rantideva and Bhishma were his disciples.
When the Bharata king Samvarta lost his kingdom to the Panchalas, he became the disciple of Vashisht. Under Vashisht's guidance, Samvarta regained his kingdom and became the ruler of the earth.
The Vashishtha Head
A copper casting of a human head styled in the manner described for Vashisht was discovered in 1958 in Delhi. This piece has been dated to around 3700 BCE, plus minus 800 years, in three western universities (ETH Zurich, Stanford and UC) using among other methods carbon-14 dating tests, spectrographic analysis, X-ray dispersal analysis and metallography. This piece is called "Vashisht head", because the features, hairstyle, tilak and other features of the casting resembles the description for Vashisht in Hindu texts.
The significance of "Vashisht head" is unclear because it was not found at an archaeological site, but in open Delhi market where it was scheduled to be remelted. Further, the head had an inscription of "Narayana" suggesting that the item was produced in a much later millennium. The item, states Edwin Bryant, likely was re-cast and produced from an ancient pre-2800 BCE copper item that left significant traces of matter with the observed C-14 dating.
There is an Ashram dedicated to Vashisht in Guwahati, India. This Ashram is situated close to Assam-Meghalaya border to the south of Guwahati city and is a major tourist attraction of Guwahati. Vashisht's Temple is situated in Vashisht village, Himachal Pradesh. Vashisht Cave, a cave on the banks of Ganges at Shivpuri, 18 km from Rishikesh is also locally believed to be his winter abode and houses a Shiva temple, also nearby is Arundhati Cave.
^Kasyapa is mentioned in RV 9.114.2, Atri in RV 5.78.4, Bharadvaja in RV 6.25.9, Vishvamitra in RV 10.167.4, Gautama in RV 1.78.1, Jamadagni in RV 3.62.18, etc.; Original Sanskrit text: प्रसूतो भक्षमकरं चरावपि स्तोमं चेमं प्रथमः सूरिरुन्मृजे । सुते सातेन यद्यागमं वां प्रति विश्वामित्रजमदग्नी दमे ॥४॥
^The Buddha names the following as "early sages" of Vedic verses, "Atthaka (either Ashtavakra or Atri), Vamaka, Vamadeva, Vessamitta (Visvamitra), Yamataggi, Angirasa, Bharadvaja, Vasettha (Vashistha), Kassapa (Kashyapa) and Bhagu (Bhrigu)".
^Rigveda, translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith, A form of lustre springing from the lightning wast thou, when Varuṇa and Mitra saw thee; Tliy one and only birth was then, Vashiṣṭha, when from thy stock Agastya brought thee hither. Born of their love for Urvasi, Vashiṣṭha thou, priest, art son of Varuṇa and Mitra; And as a fallen drop, in heavenly fervour, all the Gods laid thee on a lotus-blossom
^Maurice Bloomfield (1899). Atharvaveda. K.J. Trübner. pp. 31, 111, 126.
Atreya, B L (1981) [1935)]. The Philosophy of the Yoga Vashista. A Comparative Critical and Synthetic Survey of the Philosophical Ideas of Vashista as presented in the Yoga-Vashista Maha-Ramayan. Based on a thesis approved for the degree of Doctor of Letters in the Banaras Hindu University. Moradabad: Darshana Printers. p. 467.