Agasthya the Hindu Sage who drank the oceans

by Jayaram V

Agasthya is the name of a vedic seer who played an important role in the spread of vedic religion south of the Vindhayas, a mountain range located in central India. According to the Puranas, he was born in a pitcher from the seed of Mitra and Varuna (vedic gods). When they saw Urvashi, the celestial nymph, they lost control and their seed fell into a pitcher. From it were born two great rishis, Vashista and Agasthya. Since he was born from a pitcher he was given the name Agasthya, pitcher born. One Rigvedic hymn dedicated to Mitra mentions the name of Agasthi, another name of Agasthya.

Agasthya is credited with the composition of some Rigvedic hymns and also many miracles. He is also considered as the father of Tamil literature. His knowledge and wisdom was greater than the combined knowledge and wisdom of all the sages in the world. According to legends, he married Lopamudra, whom he created himself combining all the beautiful aspects of the being of the forest, and lived with her in a hermitage south of the Vindhyas. When all the sages went to attend the wedding of Lord Siva in the Himalayas, Agasthya stayed in the south and kept the equilibrium between the north and the south.

According to the Puranas, once the Vindhya mountains grew so high that they obstructed the light of the sun and were on the verge of entering the heavens. The gods grew worried at this development and approached Agasthya for help. Agasthya went and stood before the mountains. The mountains prostrated in reverence to him. Agasthya blessed the mountains and asked them to remain prostrated forever. The mountains obeyed his command and remained prostrated from then on, thus saving the world and the heavens. This incident earned him the epithet Vindhyakuta or the subduer of the Vindhyas. According to some historians, his encounter with the mountains is an allegorical reference to his crossing the mountains and traveling south which is considered an important event in the history of Hinduism as it led to the integration of many southern traditions into vedic religion and its eventual flowering into the present form.

On another occasion he helped the gods who were fighting with the demons. During the fight, as part of a strategy, the demons went and hid themselves in an ocean. The gods went to Agasthya for help. Agasthya drank the waters of the ocean and exposed the hiding demons. This incident earned him the epithet Samudrachuluka.

Sage Agasthya is mentioned in the epic Ramayana with great respect. According to the epic, the region of Dandka forest in south central India was known in those days as the region of Agasthya. According to a story in the epic narrated by Sage Visvamitra to Lord Rama, there used to live in the Dandaka forest a Yaksha (ethereal being) named Sunda and his wife Tataka. Mareecha was their son. Once Sunda incurred the curse of Sage Agasthya and died. Angered by his sudden death, both Tataka and Mareecha attacked Agasthya, who cursed them to become corpse eating monsters. Because of the curse they became a menace in the region and began harassing the rishis during their sacrificial ceremonies. It fell upon Rama and his brother Laskhmana to kill these demented Yaskhas and free the region from their atrocities.

In another story Agasthya put an end to the wicked deeds of two demon brothers, Vatapi and Ilvala. Vatapi received a boon from gods which gave him a special ability to regroup himself by bringing together the disjointed parts of his body when they were severed and become normal again. Both brothers took advantage of this supernatural power of Vatapi and hatched a plan to kill rishis. As per the plan, Ilava would approach the rishis with feigned reverence and invite them for meals. It was a tradition in ancient India among the rishis not to refuse any invitation given to them or reject any food that was served to them by the host. Ilava used to cook food by cutting Vatapi into several pieces and serve the meat to the unsuspecting rishis. When the rishis completed their meals, he would give a signal to Vatapi to come out of their bodies tearing their bowels. Vatapi would come out of their bowels killing the rishis and reunite himself into one piece. After killing several rishis in this fashion, they tried to play the same trick on Agasthya. But Agasthya knew their intent. So when Vatapi entered his body in the form of food, the sage simply digested him. When Vatapi failed to come out, Ilava became angry and attacked the sage, who reduced him to ashes with a mere thought. After this incident no demon dared to harm the sage.

Agasthya is frequently mentioned in the Ramayana with due respect. When Lord Rama was in exile living in the forests according to the wishes of his father, he went to see Agasthya in his ashram. Agasthya received him with love and affection. At the end of his stay, Lord Rama received three gifts from him, a bow made by Visvakarma for Vishnu, an inexhaustible quiver and a sword. Being a knower of three times, the sage told him to use these weapons effectively in slaying the demons. He also advised Rama to spend the rest of his exile at Panchavati a place where Ravana abducted Sita and from where Rama began his epic journey to Lanka to rescue her.

Historians believe that Agasthya might be one of the early Vedic seers who traveled to south and introduced the vedic religion there. According to Tamil tradition Agasthya was instrumental in the creation of Tamil language and literature. He is believed to be still dwelling on the mountain Agasthyamalai. Agasthya is also identified with the star Canopus which is the brightest star in the south Indian sky. He is worshipped as a deity in some temples of south India.

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