RISHI A sage or seer, a rishi (ṛṣi) is a semidivine being gifted with insight, sacred knowledge, and special powers. Most famous are the seven rishis (saptārshayaḥ), the Brahmans to whom the Vedas were revealed. The entire corpus of sacred texts, beginning with the Rig Veda, was orally passed on to humans and even today is recited by Vaidika Brahmans who consider the original seven as role models. Both the idea of seven and several individuals called rishis were known in the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda, but the generally accepted list of seven names did not occur until centuries later in the Brihadāraṇyaka Upanishad and the Sūtras: Vishvāmitra, Jamadagni, Bharadvāja, Gotama, Atri, Vasishṭhatḥa, and Kashyapa. An eighth, Agastya, was added, associated with South India rather than the Gangā-Yamunā region usually given as the location of rishi ashramas. Bhrigu, Aṅgiras, and others were considered rishis as well. The core seven endured as a mythic nucleus, each one a progenitor of a distinct family. In modern times, if a person is asked to name a gotra (lineage) by a priest in a Hindu temple, for example, ancestry is declared by naming a specific rishi. And in the pravara included in personal prayers, an extended list of rishi ancestors is affirmed.
The signal features of the rishi were the gift of spiritual insight and his conduct of extraordinary asceticism. By means of tapas, powerful austerities, the rishi attained superhuman status rivaling the gods. Miraculous feats (siddhis) were accomplished, including the ability to change shape, become invisible, or fly through the air. Various siddhis and the role of rishi continued to be important later in traditions of Yoga, Buddhism, and Jainism. By the seventh century b.c., however, early Upanishads directed spiritual insight and power beyond the results of sacrifice (yajña) on one hand, or miracle working on the other, toward liberation through a new definition of existence as saṃsāra, and this by means of the ātman-brahman identity. In other words, the rishi of the early Upanishads became a being with esoteric knowledge not of the Vedas or of the rituals but of the cosmic identity that conquers death. These Upanishads also elaborated earlier identifications of the seven rishis with the seven life-breaths (prāṇa) of the body.
Many additional rishi names appeared in the Mahābhārata, Rāmāyaṇa, and the Purāṇas. Some groups were called the Seven Prajāpatis or Seven Mind-Born Sons of Brahmā. By virtue of tapas, the rishis achieved heaven (svarga). Myths note them in the night sky as the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear (or Big Dipper), first known in the Rig Veda as seven bears, later as seven rishis. Arundhatī was rewarded with the eternal company of her husband, rishi Vasishṭhaḥa; she is the tiny star Alcor immediately next to him, pointed out to the bride in marriage rites as a symbol of fidelity. Their enduring presence also resides in topography—in rivers, for example. Rishis are said to have made seven channels of the Ganga at Hardwar, and channels of the Godavari in its delta bear their seven names. The rishis belong to an ancient past, yet even today some village folk relate a lucky moment, a glimpse of the seven through the mist as they bathe in the river before dawn.
David M. Knipe
Eliade, Mircea. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. 2nd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1970. Lucid on the Upanishads, Yoga, the siddhis.
Elizarenkova, Tatyana J. Language and Style of the Vedic Ṛṣis. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Philological and literary analysis of mystical exchanges between rishis and Vedic gods.
Mitchiner, John E. Traditions of the Seven Ṛṣis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982. Detailed examination of rishis from Vedic Saṃhitās to epics, Purāṇas and beyond.
Rahurkar, V. G. The Seers of the Ṛgveda. Poona: University of Poona, 1964. Genealogical study of each family of rishis.