Maharshi Agastya: Sage or Superhero? - Vishwas Govindrajan

There is an adage in Marathi – “Moorthi lahan pun keerthi mahan.” It means that the “ stature of the individual  is small but  fame is huge. This adage rings true for the rakish, dwarfed but august sage, Maharshi Agastya. Very few personalities , Gods inclusive find mention in so many texts and scriptures as him. Our rich itihaasa chronicles the life and times of this illustrious hermit in the Vedas, the Puranas, the Brahmanas, the Upanishads and in our two most celebrated epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. One interesting side note to the reader – Agastya is believed to have interacted with Lord Rama personally and Valmiki chronicles those encounters in the Ramayana while in the Mahabharata, only the tales and stories of Agastya are recounted.


Before we begin our little literary excursion to know more about this reclusive but towering icon, let us pay our respects to Sage Agastya and pray that he enlighten us with knowledge just as he taught Lord Rama the Aditya Hrudaya stotra, a very powerful shloka to propitiate Surya Deva.


Agastya Muni is one of the more prominent protagonists in our folklore. He is widely mentioned in Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism. He is like a recurring design pattern in the rich and intricately woven tapestry of our culture and itihaasa. He is placed alongside the BrahmaRishis of yore in the Hindu pantheon. He is represented in the annals of our itihaasa as an erudite scholar, a great philosopher, cultural icon, benevolent guide, compassionate teacher, strict enforcer of dharma and incomparable in archery.


Agastya’s birth, childhood and education are shrouded in the dense clouds of myth. One contrarian belief that can be found in the Puranas is that Agastya is the son of the illustrious sage Pulastya, one of the ten Prajapatis – the mind born sons of Lord Brahma. Visarvas, Ravana’s father and second son of Pulastya is Agastya’s brother so, he was Ravana’s paternal uncle !  There are varied versions of his birth but one prominent fact that emerges is that Agastya and Vasishta were born together from a pot ! They are called Maitravarunis. The Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata recounts the tales of Agastya’s birth. He does not have human parents but he was birthed from the semen of Varuna and Mitra . A common fact that is consistent in the many versions of Agastya’s birth is that the Devas – Varuna and Mitra were overcome with passion when they see the celestial nymph Urvashi and their seminal emission was stored in a pot. This pot broke open and two babies were born. One was Agastya and the other was Vasishta.


While not much is known about the teachers of Agastya, he is known to be an erudite scholar, well versed in the Vedas, the sciences and weaponry. Some legends state that Agastya was a disciple of the Great God Shiva himself. Agastya Muni is also believed to have been self-taught and spent many years in learning. Some early Puranas also refer to him as a prolific hunter and archer. In the Mahabharata, Dronacharya when instructing Arjuna in archery, tells him “Agnivesa, my teacher was a disciple of Agastya in the art of using bows and arrows and I am his disciple.” So, it can be gleaned that Sage Agastya had mastery over weapons. While some might find it surprising, Agastya’s mastery in warfare can be attributed to his association with Lord Muruga ( Subrahmanya ) and it was Lord Muruga who instructed him in the art of warfare. The God also taught Agastya the martial art of Kalaripayattu and the sage is considered to be the foremost expert and proponent of this art. In fact, this martial art is still practiced in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. He is also credited being the creator of ‘Silambam’ – a weapon based martial arts that is very popular in Tamil Nadu and the far east.  Another popular art, the Marma Vidya is also believed to have been passed down by Lord Murugan to Agastya.


Among his many literary accomplishments, he is credited with  a few hymns  in  Rig Veda. He is also considered to be the narrator of the Brahma Purana. The great sage authored the Agastya Samhita which is a treatise on ritualistic worship. Many aspects of this work are found in the Pancharatra Agama. Other works by him include the Agastya Gita, the Shiva Samhita, the Dvaita-nirnaya Tantra and the texts that he wrote on the martial arts and siddha medicine. The Aditya Hrudaya stotra is a composition of Agastya and he taught it to Lord Rama on the battlefield when the latter was battle weary having fought a score of the asura warriors and finally must face the demon king Ravana. It imbibed Rama with mental, physical and spiritual strength to fight Ravana and emerge victorious. As a teacher, Agastya had twelve disciples and is believed to have compiled the grammar of the Tamil language known as Agathiyam. Popular belief states that the Agathiyam went missing after the great deluge. One of his disciples was Tolkappiyar, who is credited with writing the oldest Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam.


Not many people are aware that Tamil is one of the oldest living languages in the world today and Lord Murugan is considered the God of the Tamil language and the patron deity of Tamilians worldwide. It was Lord Muruga who imparted the knowledge of the Tamil language to Agastya and the latter then became the foremost exponent and torch bearer of Tamil. Agastya is a cultural icon and the foremost Guru for the entire southern India. He is believed to have propagated the language extensively in the southern India sub-continent. In fact, the first Tamil Sangam ( around 9000 BCE ) is believed to have followed Agathiyam as its grammar for all its Tamil literary compositions and works. Agastya himself composed some of the greatest Tamil poetry even written and his involvement and influence reverberates down the long corridor of Tamil literature where poets and even medicine men have taken to poetry to pen down their thoughts, describe beauty and even record medicines and herbs.


As a medicine man, the great Rishi was the first Siddhar. He has propagated the Siddha medicine in South India and all the subsequent Siddhars have followed his footsteps in their research for herbs and medicinal solutions. He is believed to have received the knowledge of kundalini yoga from Lord Muruga and learned the art to channel one’s breath through the body’s channels ( nadis ).


The story on Agastya’s marriage is interesting. The sage was walking through a forest where he chances upon his ancestors hanging upside down. Distressed, he asked for the reason for their plight. He was told that he needed to be married and once he furthered his line with a son these ancestors would be allowed to ascend to heaven.  Having realized the importance of marriage the sage then set out to find a bride for himself but had doubts about finding a maiden who would marry a dwarfish, dark, stout ascetic. So, he decided to create a maiden and he took the most beautiful parts from animals and plants and created a maiden. Her name was Lopamudra. He gave her to the King of Vidarbha who was praying for a child and the King cared of the girl as his own daughter. Later, the Rishi asked the king for Lopamudra’s hand in marriage. Though the king had his misgivings about his daughter marrying an austere ascetic he acquiesced once his daughter agreed to the marriage. One should note that after marrying Agastya, Lopamudra also performed severe penance. She is believed to be seer of many hymns in the Rigveda. She along with Sage Agastya are believed to have popularized the Lalitha Sahasranama Stotra. This stotra is found in the Brahmanda Purana. Legend has it that Lord Hayagriva, an incarnation of Maha Vishnu with the head of a horse who is believed to be the storehouse of all knowledge and Agastya MahaRishi have a dialogue and upon a request from Agastya, Lord Hayagriva teaches him these thousand names of Goddess Lalitha. 


An interesting anecdote of the great Agastya revolves around the Vindhya mountains. Once, Sage Narada visited Vindhya and the two got chatting. Narada spoke about the arrogance of the Mount Meru. He said, “Kailasha, Nila, Gandhamadana, Nishadha and other mountains are far nobler than Meru but they are not as haughty. Meru’s arrogance stems from the fact that the Sun, Moon and other beings revolve around him.” Vindhya decided to teach Mount Meru a lesson and began growing. The peaks of the Vindhya mountains reached for the sky and threatened to block the passage of sunlight and moonlight. The devas failed in their attempt to pacify Vindhya and requested Agastya to intervene. Agastya agreed to help. On seeing Agastya approaching, Vindhya trembled with fear and bent low to pay reverential obeisance to the great mage. Agastya said, “Vindhya, I’m going to Southern Bharata. Let your heads be as low as this till I come back.” Vindhya agreed to the sage’s command. It is said that Agastya has never gone back to the North since then and the Vindhyas have never risen.


MahaRishi Agastya is what we would call a modern age Superstar of the south. There are very few who can equal his greatness or his claim to fame. Fewer still his benevolence. But Agastya is perhaps the only Rishi to have an entire race of people that look up to him as a teacher and no less than a God. He led a long and eventful life that was decorated with his exploits, greatness and goodness. All his contributions, be it martial arts or medicine, grammar or genealogy, language or lore have stood the test of time.


I bow my head in all humility and reverence to the great sage Agastya. Let my arrogance, ego and pride be stooped and not grow just as the Vindhyas stopped growing on Agastya’s command.

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