Viswamitra’s moment of Truth

In Balakanda of Valmiki Ramayana,one will find a good collection of ‘bed-time stories’ of the sage Viswamitra narrated to Rama and Lakshmana during their sojourn in the forests on a specific mission to kill ‘Rakshasas’. While these stories are certainly very interesting,the story of the sage Viswamitra himself is even more gripping. Therefore I will start with the story of the sage himself.
The sage was born as a kshatriya(great grandson of Kusa and the son of the great king Gadhi). During his long rule,he happened to undertake a tour around the globe with his entire retinue including his huge army. On the way he halted at the hermitage of the great sage Vasishta(who was the son of the creator Brahma himself). He paid his respects to Vasishta,stayed on for a while after accepting a few fruits and roots offered by the sage. And as he got ready to leave with his entire retinue,Vasishta had other ideas. He was not willing to let them go without accepting his hospitality. He offered to provide a sumptuous meal to them all. Viswamitra simply ignored the offer and told him humbly that the sage should not bother himself to give them such a treat and in any case he was more than happy with the offer of fruits and water. Vasishta insisted that there was no way that he was going to let them go without enjoying his hospitality. Viswamitra had no option but to agree to stay on.
To the surprise of everyone including Viswamitra,Vasishta was,indeed, in a position to provide a highly sumptuous meal consisting of all 6 kinds of dishes(sweet,bitter,salt,acidic,alkaline,pungent)to Viswamitra and his huge army. Everyone including Viswamitra was mightily pleased with the hospitality.
Viswamitra later learnt the secret behind Vasishta’s hospitality – it was the famous ‘Kamadhenu’ cow(by name ‘Sabala’). This priceless possession of Vasishta was famous for granting or fulfilling any wish as demanded by its owner. Thus Vasishta was able to satisfy every single requirement of his hosts simply by asking ‘Sabala’ for the same!
Viswamitra was pleased and impressed with the manner in which Sabala yielded every wish and desire of the sage Vasishta. And at that very instant, he entertained an intense desire to possess such an invaluable Cow himself. He immediately put forth his request to Vasishta and asked him to part with Sabala. As the latter said ‘No’ politely but firmly,Viswamitra tried to reason with him saying that such a wish yielding Sabala would be of immense value to a king like him rather than to a sage who lived in a hermitage. Vasishta was equally stubborn and gave his own reasons for not parting with it. He explained that Sabala was a jewel in his possession and he needed it to feed his innumerable guests,rishis and also to produce material needed for conducting Yajna etc. Viswamitra,whose intellect was clouded by his deep desire,was equally unrelenting. He insisted on physically taking Sabala and ordered his men to attack Sabala and forcefully take it away. Sabala resisted and pleaded with Vasishta to save it from Viswamitra and his men. Thereupon Vasishta used his spiritual power and commanded Sabala to produce different weapons to attack its attackers. Encouraged by Vasishta,Sabala could successfully neutralize attacks and defended itself. Then the hundred sons of Viswamitra who attacked Vasishta were burnt to ashes by the sage himself. Finally Viswamitra himself began to fight directly attacking Vasishta with several divine weapons (presided over by the gods Varuna,Fire-God,Indra,Rudra,Siva etc). Vasishta simply used his ‘Staff'(so called Brahminical staff or ‘Dand’) to counter and defeat all these missiles. Viswamitra used his ultimate weapon,the most powerful ‘ Brahmastra'(a weapon presided over by the creator Brahma himself).
As Vasishta managed to repulse this as well using his powerful Staff,Viswamitra was left completely clueless and accepted defeat.

This great defeat set him to introspect very deeply. It was a moment of Truth for him as he realized that his strength(as a kshatriya)is nothing before the strength of Vasishta who is a ‘brahma-rishi’. The strength of a kshatriya is reproachful while that of a person with ‘Brahma tejas'(brilliance of spiritual power of a true brahmin)is the real strength. In his own words:”Dhig balam kshatriya balam,brahma tejo balam balam ekena brahmadandena sarvaastrani hataani me”.
This is the profound conclusion reached by Viswamitra and it is this statement which saw him set very high standards for himself. He took a vow to keep performing ‘Tapas'(penance) untill he became a so called “Brahma Rishi”(This is the highest status in the hierarchy of rishis – the others being ‘Rajarishi’ meaning royal sage,Rishi,Maharishi). Energised by this vow,as the story goes,he goes on with severe ‘tapas’ for a thousand years or so. During this period of ‘tapas’,he was tested with several obstacles. As is well known,he briefly succumbed to the beauty of one divine woman(Menaka). He realized his folly and continued with his ‘tapas’. And yet again, he had to face and overcome one more distraction in the form of another divine woman(this time, it was Rambha). And the final distraction was provided by revival of his old rivalry with Vasishta which gave ample scope for exhibition of his ego once again. He offered to help Trisanku (a king) to enter heaven even as he was alive much against the advice and wishes of Vasishta(the story of a heaven created exclusively for Trisanku is well known).

Recovering once again from his ego inspired detours, Viswamitra continued with his ‘tapas’. Brahma was pleased with him and bestowed on him the status of ‘Maharishi’ – still one notch below the much sought after ‘Brahma rishi’ status. This was because he was yet to completely control or master his senses and ego (as the episodes of Menaka and Trisanku proved abundantly). However ,not content with the title of Maharishi,Viswamitra continued his ‘tapas’ -this time around it was so severe that the fire of his ‘tapas’,began to destroy the mother earth itself. Thereupon all the Gods and Brahma were mightily pleased and conferred the title of ‘Brahma rishi’ and requested him to stop his tapas at once. Viswamitra ,however,said he would stop only if Vasishta pronounced him as Brama rishi. Ultimately,Vasishta also obliged and the great tapas came to an end with the conferment of the title of brahma rishi by vasishta.

The story of Viswamitra has several interesting parallels to our lives. Viswamitra exhibited pretty much similar tendencies like any one of us – play of ego and desiring something unjustly and trying to acquire the same in an unfair manner. By any standards,his demand for Sabala is completely unjustified not to talk of using force to acquire the same. But the comparison with the common mortals probably ends there. The defeat he faced in the hands of Vasishta forced him to look at life in a completely different perspective. It was an ‘Eureka’ moment for him. It shows that a wise man will need just one incident to completely transform himself. For Viswamitra the comprehensive defeat at the hands of Vasishta was such a moment. He took it as a challenge and set himself a high goal.
It is also important to realize that whenever we undertake a great task,there are bound to be distractions and obstacles which can make us lose control over our senses and allow our ego to take control. A wise man is one who can quickly see the traps(as Viswamitra did)and apply corrections.
The story also goes to establish the principle of meritocracy. No matter how influential one is,there is no easy way to attain the highest status of Brahma rishi. It is not a birth right nor is it to be gained by any short cuts. One has to attain it by sheer hard work alone.


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