AGASTYA

 By Ryley Gelinas - 19.7 2018

THE RSI OF ANCIENT INDIAN TRADITION

There is a multitude of miracles and myths associated with Agastya, a famous Vedic sage, beginning with his miraculous birth by two godly fathers, Mitra and Varuna (Dallapiccola). The Matsya Purana’s account of Agastya’s birth is as such: in a fight between Indra and Visnu, a celestial nymph named Urvasi (Mahadevan 25) was created from Visnu’s thigh and upon seeing her, Mitra and Varuna cast their semen into a water pot, from which Agastya and his brother, Vasistha, were born (Bolon 76).

Agastya was described as dwarfish, about the size of a thumb and born “white in colour with four hands, a sacred thread, a vessel, and a garland” (Bolon 76). Over the span of his lifetime, Agastya is given many names, however, the one he is known by, around the time of his birth, is Kumbhayoni, or jar-born (Mahadevan 25). There is little proof of Agastya’s formal education in life, however, it is widely accepted that he knew a great deal about the Rg Veda, the sciences, and weaponry (Parmeshwaranand 4).

As Agastya grew older, he took on an ascetic lifestyle, becoming a hermit and wandering the forests (Parmeshwaranand 4). It was not until one day, in the forest, he came across his ancestors. After some conversation, they told Agastya they were waiting to go to heaven, but they were not allowed until Agastya had a son. Upon their urging, he became invested in finding a wife (Parmeshwaranand 4). The story goes that Agastya created a beautiful baby girl named Lopamudra and gave her to the King of Vidarbha. Once she was of marrying age, Agastya asked the king for her as his wife (Parmeshwaranand 4).

The king was not sure he wanted to give her up; he had concerns about Agastya’s asceticism and what that would mean for his daughter, but Lopamudra went willingly (Parmeshwaranand 4). After they got married, a hymn in the Rg Vedadepicts their ascetic married life and the desires of Lopamudra. She pleads with him to give up their asceticism and have a child (Patton 27). The hymn depicts some disagreement between the two, but eventually, Agastya yields and Lopamudra becomes pregnant and gives him a son, Drdhasyu, who supposedly chanted the Vedas immediately at birth (Parmeshwaranand 5). Agastya would later go on to participate in various activities that would become certain myths of the Rg Veda, (Parmeshwaranand 6) which will be discussed later.

While there are little physical depictions of Agastya in the Rg Veda, there are many statues that have survived from cults in Nepal that give a glimpse of what he is believed to have looked like. In one instance, depicted in bronze and only three and a half inches tall, Agastya is seated with crossed ankles and elevated knees. Water sprays out of the pot, in which he is seated, on either side – perhaps giving homage to his birth. He wears a short, pointed beard and the hair on his head is tied on the top in eight loops. Agastya is also depicted as having a vertical third eye on his forehead and in each of his four hands, a symbol is portrayed: a rosary in the upper right, a miniature staff in the upper left, the lower right making a teaching gesture and the lower left holding a water pot (Bolon 75). While this is only one depiction, a later myth tells of Agastya being unable to run away from a king and being whipped (Parmeshwaranand 6), corroborating his small stature. Alternatively, other myths tell the famous story of Agastya ingesting the ocean (Abhyankar 2174), perhaps proving his size was greater.

Throughout his life, Agastya has also been the subject of many Hindu myths and important stories that helped to develop the land in which he lived. Agastya was once known by the name “Mover-of-Mountains” (Danielou 322) after “forcing the Vindhya Mountains to prostrate themselves before him” (Dallapiccola). This act itself is miraculous, but it also gives Agastya credit for connecting the civilizations in the north and south of the mountain range. In a Puranic story, it is said that the Vindhya Mountains were competing with the Himalayans to see who could grow the tallest.

The Vindhyas began to block out the sun for villages below and Agastya was called in to help. He told the mountains to lie down until he returned from his journey south. However, he never returned and the mountains stayed down and allowed those people in the north and south an easy passage between (Abhyankar 2174). Not only does this story have a great cultural significance, joining the people on both sides of the mountain, but it also gives way to the story of Agastya’s star, also known as Canopus. The star is considered the brightest in the southern Indian sky (Dallapiccola). Since it is believed that Agastya was the first to see it when he moved the mountains down and was the first to cross them from the north to the south, it is associated with him (Abhyankar 2174).

Agastya is also subject to a myth that involves him drinking the ocean, either as another way across the vast distance (Abhyankar 2174) or to aid Brahmin hermits (Mahadevan 26). As the story goes, he swallowed all of the ocean’s water to expose the Kaleyas, in order that the Devas could remove them easily. The Kaleyas were supposedly killing the hermits and needed to be stopped (Mahadevan 26). Finally, perhaps one of the most famous myths surrounding Agastya is his assistance to Rama in the legendary epic, the Ramayana. In the story, Agastya gives the hero Rama a divine weapon, the “arrow of Brahma” (McLeish), to save Sita, Laksmana, and himself (McLeish) from the demons of the forest in which he was exiled (Danielou 323). Agastya is described as a “friend, advisor and protector of Rama” (Dallapiccola) in this story, making him recognizable even to this day by those that know the story. Given Agastya’s alleged extensive knowledge of weaponry (Parmeshwaranand 4), the myth seems all the more plausible.

Agastya is also known for his hymns in the Rg Veda. The author of about 25 hymns in the first mandala (Abhyankar 2174), Agastya “became a kind of heavenly historian, writing the gods’ stories down and passing them to mortals in the form of the [Rg Veda]” (McLeish).

Not only was Agastya an author of many of these hymns, but he also was the subject of a select few, being referred to by name approximately eight times throughout, along with members of his family who are referred to as the Manas (Mahadevan 25). Agastya’s ability to connect the northerners and southerners (Mahadevan 25) is also depicted in the hymns, validating his journey from the north to the south, regardless of the possible fictional liberties taken with the Mountain Mover myth.

Centuries after the life of Agastya, he is still revered and worshiped by Hindus around the world. Because of his affinity for grammar, medicine and other sciences, Agastya “represents the power of teaching” (Danielou 322), and is worshiped for success in such fields. According to a passage in the Matsya Purana, there are, like in the instances of other rsis, many rites that must be done in order to properly worship Agastya. The ritual, repeated for seven days, must start early in the morning, at the rising of Canopus, after the devotee has bathed and dressed in white.

While wearing a garland of white flowers, the worshipper must fill a pot with five gems and adorn it with cloth and flowers. Another pot filled with clarified butter must be placed on top of the first pot, and finally, a golden statue with four heads and many arms must be made and placed at the top of both pots. Both pots should be donated to a Brahmin after it has been filled with seven grains, and while the worshipper faces the south, the gold figure should also be given away (Bolon 76). The worship takes into account the number seven, a holy number in Hinduism, as well as the practices of purification before a worship ritual, underlying the connection between the cults of Agastya in Nepal and the significance of Agastya in Hinduism as a whole.

Agastya’s presence also had a lasting impact on societies outside of Hinduism, influencing both the Tamil and Nepalese traditions. Specifically in Tamil, Agastya made an extremely important impression. He is regarded as being crucial in the establishment of the language and literature in Tamil (Dallapiccola), and many Tamil people “believe that Agastya still dwells on the sacred mountain Agastya Malai” (Dallapiccola) in South India. He is so vital in Tamil language and literature that he is venerated as the “father of Tamil” and has his name included in the titles of many works in the Tamil Saivite hymns (Thompson 762). Within these hymns, there is a section specially entitled the Agastya Selection, which includes many of the Tamils most recognizable hymns (Thompson 763).

In the myths that describe Agastya’s interactions with the people of the south, there are comments praising him for giving “the gift of the Cauvery river and Tamil language to the people” (Abhyankar 2174). Not only was Agastya’s connection of the north and south important, but him giving the Tamil people their language is also a crucial detail. Because of this advancement, Agastya was “given a very different role by the Tamil tradition,” and labelled “Tamil muni… [or] Tamil sage” (Mahadevan 27). As a Tamil scholar, Agastya was so well known and highly regarded “that for centuries [,] many works on astrology and medicine written by others were fathered on him” (Mahadevan 27). The Tamil even created a cult worshipping Agastya (Danielou 323), and it has spread from South India to Southeast Asian countries (Mahadevan 27).

In the spread across the globe, Agastya is also associated with cults in Nepal. Artefacts such as images and inscriptions of Agastya can be found there, providing evidence of the extended range of his worship (Bolon 75). Agastya’s association with Siva not only helped him bring language to the Tamil people – it is said “Agastya received the Tamil language from Siva… and gave it to the world” (Mahadevan 27) – but also helped validate Agastya’s presence in Nepal. The image of Siva and Agastya also seem to be related: “Agastya is identified with Siva as his devotee and therefore partakes of some of his nature and attributes” (Bolon 88). Images of Agastya in Nepal are similar in appearance to those of Siva, showing their connection as well as Agastya’s significance within Nepalese society in relation to the god Siva. There is also a connection between the two in terms of the importance of the pot imagery; Agastya gets his from his miraculous birth in a pot, being known in images from Nepal as “Kumbharsi Agastya, the rsi of the pot,” and Siva, in some instances being called “Kumbhesvara Siva, Siva Lord of the pot” (Bolon 88).

The life of Agastya, beginning with his miraculous birth, depicts a full life of asceticism, marriage, and fatherhood (Parmeshwaranand 4); myths of moving mountains (Danielou 322) and drinking oceans (Mahadevan 26); writing the histories of the gods (McLeish); and being hailed as the father of a society and its language (Thompson 762). Agastya was a vital figure, not only in the Hindu tradition but other ideologies and civilization developments as well, shaping both the Tamil culture (Abhyankar 2174) and Nepalese worship of him (Bolon 88). As such, he remains an important figure in many of these traditions to this day.

Bibliography and Further Recommended Reading

Abhyankar, K.D. (2005) “Folklore and Astronomy: Agastya a sage and a star.” Current Science 89:2174-2176. Accessed January 31, 2017. Retrieved from www.currentscience.ac.in.

Bolon, Carol Radcliffe (1991) “Images of Agastya in Nepal.” Artibus Asiae 51:75-89. Accessed February 2, 2017. doi: 10.2307/3249677.

Cush, Denise, Catherine Robinson, and Michael York (2008) “Agastya.” In Encyclopedia of Hinduism, 16. London: Routledge.

Dallapiccola, Anna. L. (2002) “Agastya.” In Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Danielou, Alain (1985) “The Mover-of-Mountains (Agastya).” In The Myths and Gods of India, 322-323. Rochester: Inner Traditions International.

Mahadevan, Iravatham (1986) “Agastya Legend and the Indus Civilization.” Journal of Tamil Studies 30:24-37. Accessed January 31, 2017. Retrieved from www.ulakaththamizh.org.

McLeish, Kenneth (1996) “Agastya.” In Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth. London: Bloomsbury.

Parmeshwaranand, Swami (2001) “Agastya.” In Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Puranas, 3-12. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons.

Patton, Laurie L. (1996) “The Fate of the Female Rsi: Lopamudra and Agastya.” In Myth and Mythmaking: Continuous Evolution in Indian Tradition. Edited by Julia Leslie, 27-30. Florence: Routledge.

Thompson, M. S. H. (1928) “The Agastya Selection of Tamil Saivite Hymns.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 4:761-768. Accessed January 31, 2017. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00123675.

Williams, George M. (2003) “Agastya, Agasti.” In Handbook of Hindu Mythology, 47-48. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.