Honoring our Gurus: Learning from the life accounts of Rishis – VII

Honoring our Gurus: Learning from the life accounts of Rishis – VII

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In the previous article, we looked into life accounts of Rishi Nārada. In this concluding part, let us look into life accounts of few more Rishis.

Bhagavān Dattātreya


Dattātreya is the child of Rishi Atri and Rishika Anasūyā. The three heads of Dattātreya are said to represent Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, respectively. He has six arms that hold the symbols of these three Deities. He is worshipped as a Deity in his own right by millions of Hindus, and is regarded as a primeval yogi and Guru by many others.

He is accompanied by four dogs that represent the Vedas. This means that the four Vedas are always in the service of Dattātreya, or that the spiritually realized soul transcends the Vedas themselves. The cow represents spiritual wisdom and realization.

The Dattātreya Upanishad, a holy book of the Hindus, begins with a declaration that Dattātreya is identical to Vishnu, and ends with the declaration that the Deva is an Avatāra (incarnation) of Shiva.

Avadhūta learns good Lessons from Everyone

The most effective way of overcoming the tendency to find faults in others is that whenever our mind looks at the flaws in someone, we should immediately try to look for good things in that person and learn from them. Everyone has some unique abilities, and we can learn something good from everyone. In this connection, there is a beautiful story of Bhagavān Dattātreya Avadhūta, which has been recorded in the Shrimad Bhāgavata Purāņa.

One day, Emperor Yadu was passing through a forest, when he saw the Avadhūta seated with a joyous smile on his face. The Emperor asked Avadhūta, “What is the true source of your happiness?” Why do you look so happy all the time, when everyone in this world has some sorrow? Bhagavān Dattātreya replied, “I am always happy, because my Ātman (soul) has taught me a lot of things, and because I have learned wisdom from twenty four Gurus.”

The Emperor was surprised, because it would have taken a very long time to study under two dozen teachers. So, he requested Bhagavān Dattātreya to name his teachers and summarize what he had learned from them. But to the great surprise of the Emperor, Bhagavān Dattātreya did not name any Rishi or scholar as his teacher. Instead, he gave him a list that comprised of the honey bee, the earth, water, wind, sky, moon, sun, pigeons, snake, fish, python and so on. He explained, how everything surrounding us gives some profound teaching that we can practice every day in our lives.


For example, people stomp on the earth everyday, but she bears their blows patiently and instead gives food grains, flowers and fruits to human beings. Likewise, we should just bear the abuses of others and always respond with kind words and gifts.

The honey bee collects the essence from numerous flowers and then mixes it to make nectar like honey. In the same way, we should learn good things from everyone and use this knowledge from several sources to produce something more valuable.

Numerous rivers fall into the ocean, but the ocean never overflows and stays calm in its interior. In the same way, no matter what difficulties befall us, we should always keep our heart and mind stable.

In this way, Bhagavān Dattātreya explained to him the lessons that he had learned from all of his twenty four teachers, and these teachings are compiled in a scripture called the Avadhūta Gita, which forms a part of the Bhāgavata Purāņa. Emperor Yadu was very impressed by the central message of the Sage, which was that he who wants to learn and progress in the path of spirituality will always find a way to learn a good message from everything that he encounters. But that person, who does not want to succeed will only dwell on the negatives of others.

Rajarshi Bharata: Who gave India its Name

The story of Bharata, the son of Shakuntaka and Dushyanta, is immortalized in the Mahabharata and in Kalidasa’s play ‘Abhijnāna Shākuntalam’. Bharata became the Emperor of India and gave the country of India its name ‘Bhārata’. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa in its narrative on Bharata speaks about his old age, when he became an ascetic, and his future lives as well. This narrative is one of the finest accounts of Hindu spirituality, and we reproduce Swami Vivekananda’s narration of it [Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama: Calcutta (1989), volume 4, pages 111-114].

The great king Bharata in his old age gave over his throne to his son, and retired into the forest. He, who had been ruler over millions and millions of subjects, who had lived in marble palaces,

inlaid with gold and silver, who had drunk out of jeweled cups – this king built a little cottage with his own hands, made of reeds and grass, on the banks of a river in the Himalayan forests. Then, he lived on roots and wild herbs, collected by his own hands, and constantly meditated upon Him, who is always present in the soul of man. Days, months, and years passed. One day, a deer came to drink water nearby, where the royal sage was (in) meditation. At the same moment, a lion roared at a little distance off. The deer was so terrified that she, without satisfying her thirst, made a big jump to cross the river. The deer was with young, and this extreme exertion and sudden fright made her give birth to a little fawn, and immediately after she fell dead. The fawn fell into the water and was being carried rapidly away by the foaming stream, when it caught the eyes of the king. The king rose from his position of meditation and rescuing the fawn from the water, took it to his cottage, made a fire, and with care and attention fondled the little thing back to life.

Then, the kindly sage took the fawn under his protection, bringing it up on soft grass and fruits. The fawn thrived under the paternal care of the retired monarch, and grew into a beautiful deer. Then, he whose mind had been strong enough to break away from lifelong attachment to power, position, and family, became attached to the deer, which he had saved from the stream. As he became fonder and fonder of the deer, the less and less he could concentrate his mind upon the Lord. When the deer went out to graze in the forest, if it were late in returning, the mind of the royal sage would become anxious and worried. He would think, “Perhaps my little one has been attacked by some tiger – or perhaps some other danger has befallen it; otherwise, why is it late?”

Some years passed in this way, but one day death came, and the royal sage laid himself to die.

But his mind, instead of being intent upon the self, was thinking about the deer; and with his eyes fixed upon the sad looks of his beloved deer, his soul left the body. As a result of this, in the next birth he was born as a deer. But, no Karma is lost, and all the great and good deeds done by him as a king and sage bore their fruit. The fruit was that he was born as a Jatismara, and remembered his past birth, though he was bereft of speech and living in an animal body. He always left his companions and was instinctively drawn to graze near hermitages, where oblations were offered and the Upanishads were preached.

After the usual years of a deer’s life had been spent, it died and was born as the youngest son of a rich Brahmin. And in that life also, he remembered all his past, and even in his childhood, was determined to not get entangled in the good and evil of life. The child, as it grew up, was strong and healthy, but would not speak a word, and lived as inert and insane, for fear of getting mixed up with worldly affairs. His thoughts were always on the Infinite, and he lived only to wear out his past Prarabdha Karma. In the course of time the father died, and the sons divided the property among themselves; and thinking that the youngest was a dumb, good-for-nothing man, they seized his share. Their charity, however extended only so far as to give him enough food to live upon. The brothers were often very harsh to him, putting him to do all the hard work; and if, he was unable to do everything they wanted, they would treat him very unkindly. But he showed neither vexation nor fear, and neither did he speak a word. When they persecuted him very much, he would stroll out of the house and sit under a tree, by the hour, until their wrath was appeased, and then, he would quietly go home again.

One day, when the wives of the brothers had treated him with more than usual unkindness, Bharata went out to a tree and rested. Now, it happened that the king of the country was passing by, carried in a palanquin on the shoulders of the bearers. One of the bearers had unexpectedly fallen ill, and so his attendants were looking about for a man to replace him. They came upon Bharata seated under a tree; and seeing that he was a strong young man, they asked him if he would take the place of the sick man in bearing the king’s palanquin. But, Bharata did not reply. Seeing that he was so able-bodied, the king’s servants caught hold of him and placed the pole on his shoulders. Without speaking a word, Bharata went on. Very soon after this, the king remarked that the palanquin was not being evenly carried, and looking at the palanquin, addressed the new bearer, saying, “Fool, rest a while; if thy shoulders pain thee, rest a while.”

Then, Bharata laying the pole of the palanquin down, opened his lips for the first time in his life, and spoke, “Whom do you, O King, call a fool? Whom do you ask to lay down the palanquin? Who do you say is weary? Whom do you address as ‘you’? If you mean, O King, by the word ‘you’, this mass of flesh, it is composed of the same culture as yours; it is unconscious, and it knows no weariness and it knows no pain. If it is the mind, the mind is the same as yours; it is universal. But if the word ‘you’ is applied to something beyond that, then it is the Self, the Reality in me, which is the same as in you, and it is the One in the universe. Do you mean, O King that the Self can ever be weary, that it can ever be tired, that it can ever be hurt? I did not want, O King – this body did not want to trample the poor worms crawling on the road, and therefore, in trying to avoid them, the palanquin moved unevenly. But the Self was never tired; it was never weak; it never bore the pole of the palanquin: for it is omnipotent and omnipresent.” And so he dwelt eloquently on the nature of the soul, and on the highest knowledge, etc.


The King, who was proud of his learning, knowledge, etc., and philosophy, alighted from the palanquin, and fell at the feet of Bharata, saying, “I ask thy pardon, O mighty one, I did not know that you were a sage, when I asked you to carry me.” Bharata blessed him and departed. He then resumed the even tenor of his previous life. When Bharata left the body, he was freed forever from the bondage of birth.”

Maharshi Charaka: The Importance of a Healthy Lifestyle

According to the Hindu tradition, Agnivesha taught the principles of Hindu medicine to his several students, who then wrote their own textbooks. One of these students was Charaka, whose work called the Charaka Samhitā is still studied by thousands of scholars, who practice Āyurveda. Amazingly, in his book on medicine, Charaka declares that many diseases are caused by creatures, who are very minute in size and can therefore be seen only with the help of a ‘Yantra’ (instrument), just like we can see disease causing bacteria and viruses today only with the help of a microscope. Charaka also describes, how hospitals should be constructed properly for speedy and comfortable treatment and recovery of patients. For example, he recommends that rooms should be cooled during summer months, and heated during the winter.

He also taught that it is very important to live a healthy lifestyle, eat a balanced diet, exercise properly and live in clean surroundings. Most people think about medicine only when they are sick. But Charaka, much like modern physicians, believed that a healthy lifestyle will greatly decrease our chances of falling sick. The story below in this regard is very interesting.


Charaka Muni compiled a marvelous book on Ayurveda (Hindu medicine) in which he describes hundreds of diseases, their cures, healthy lifestyles, etc. Sometime after he published his book, he decided to find out, if people were becoming healthier and living longer due to his efforts. Therefore, he took the form of a speaking parrot.

The parrot alighted on the branch of a tree at the center of a marketplace, where a great conference of physicians was going on. The parrot started shouting, “koraruk?” (Meaning “who does not become sick?” in Sanskrit). All the physicians heard the parrot’s cry. All tried to answer the question to demonstrate their knowledge and proficiency in Ayurveda.

The first physician replied, “Only he who eats the nutritional supplement called ‘chyavanaprāsha’ stays healthy.” The second physician retorted, “No, you are wrong! It is the ash of burnt metals mixed with the blue berry that keeps the stomach healthy.” The third physician said, “Of course not! One must eat the Chandraprabhāvati to fight sickness.” And the fourth disagreed with all the three and recommended the Ashvagandhā mixture.

Their answers really disappointed Charaka. He flew away, thinking, “I did not compile my book on Āyurveda to make every human being’s stomach a warehouse of medicines!” He went around and asked the same question “koraruk,” to every physician he could meet, but got similar disappointing replies.

Finally, he sat on a tree below which was sitting a famous physician Vāgbhatta, who had just taken his bath. “Koraruk?” asked the parrot. Vāgbhatta was really amused to see a parrot ask a question that is so important to physicians. And he replied, “hitabhuk (he, who eats only those foods, which benefit the body), mitabhuk (he, who eats only controlled amounts of food), ritabhuk (he, who is not a slave to taste, and does not fill his stomach with junk food).” When the parrot heard the reply, “hitabhuk, mitabhuk, ritabhuk,” he was very pleased. Charaka Muni now assumed his normal human form and appeared in front of Vāgbhatta. “You alone have understood the secret of medicine, dear Vāgbhatta.”

The moral of the story is that instead of stuffing our body with medicines and supplements, we should rather eat a healthy and a controlled diet. We should eat to live, not live to eat!

Rishi Kapila and Rishi Kaṇāda

Two Hindu philosophies that deal with the nature of the universe as well as with the nature of the soul are Sāmkhya Darshana and the Vaisheshika Darshana. They were first taught by Rishi Kapila and Rishi Kaṇāda respectively.


Rishi Kapila taught that this universe is made of two different things – the consciousness called Purusha and the matter called Prakriti. The consciousness and matter can never convert into each other. Matter keeps changing its properties with time, but the consciousness does not change at all. Both of them are eternal. The consciousness gives life to living beings, and the matter gives it a form and shape. However, some types of matter (like air) have no form or shape. Rishi Kapila and his students taught that the Jiva is reborn, when it dies, because it does not know that it is really consciousness, which is different from matter. When, through Yoga, this Jiva is able to understand its true nature as Purusha, separate from Prakriti, then it becomes free and does not have to go through rebirth.

Rishi Kaṇāda said that all matter is made of one or more of these five substances: Akāsha (space); Agni (Energy); Vāyu (gases like air); Āpah (liquids like water); and Prithivi (solids like earth). Of these, the last four are comprised of ‘Paramāṇus’ (atoms). The soul (ātman) is different from matter.


It is interesting to note that a Greek philosopher named Democritus (460 – 370 BCE), who lived a few centuries later also stated a similar theory. However, it was more than 2000 years later, when John Dalton (1766 – 1844 CE), an English scientist, described the atoms in a detailed, scientific manner. The ideas of Democritus were never accepted by Christianity and Islam. However, the atomic theory of Vaisheshika Darshana became a part of Hindu Dharma in some way or the other, since very ancient times. This is another example that explains why there has never been a serious disagreement between Hindu beliefs and science in history.

Maharshi Panini: Value Hard work over Fate or Luck


Sanskrit is a very beautiful language. Even prose passages in Sanskrit can be sung in a musical tone. When Europeans first discovered Sanskrit, they concluded that it was more perfect and complete than old European languages like Greek and Latin. When they studied Sanskrit grammar, they were amazed at how systematic and scientific the Sanskrit language was. In fact, the grammars of many European languages were re-designed by Europeans after studying the Sanskrit grammar of Panini, who lived around 500 BCE.

But, Panini was not a very bright student in his childhood. Frustrated, he went to a palmist to know what his future had in store for him. The palmist said to him, “You are fated to be an illiterate fool, because the line of education is missing from your palm.”

Panini asked him, “Tell me where that line is.” When the palmist answered his question, Panini took a knife and carved the line at that place on his palm. Panini, then decided to give up his laziness, and worked hard to learn the grammar of the Sanskrit language.

After years of intense study, he wrote the book ‘Ashtādhyāyī’, which is considered as one of the greatest works of Sanskrit grammar even today, 2500 years after Panini had lived. Panini’s grammar consists of just about 4000 short sentences called ‘sūtras,’ which can be memorized easily by students. It consists of eight chapters, of which two deal with the grammar of the Vedic scriptures, and the rest with the grammar of spoken Sanskrit, and the language of other Hindu scriptures. His grammar has six appendices, of which some are said to have been composed by other scholars. It is the most scientific and systematic grammar known of all the languages of the world.

There is a very interesting story about how Panini died. He was teaching his students in an open air classroom, when suddenly a lion arrived and started roaring. All the students ran away, but Panini was so engrossed in teaching his students that he did not realize that a lion had come to the place, when after he heard its roar. Instead, the roar of the line made him realize that it can be analyzed using the rules of Sanskrit grammar. Thus, he exclaimed: “The roar of the lion is very interesting. Let me teach you how the sounds can be analyzed with the rules of Sanskrit grammar.” Unfortunately, the lion did not wait for Panini to realize regarding its presence and it killed and ate him within few moments.

But, Panini’s books on grammar became very famous. Almost a 1000 years later, a Chinese traveler named Hieun Tsang visited his birthplace Salatura and still saw a memorial that people had raised in his honor.

Panini’s life shows that we must not get disheartened, when someone tells us that ‘we cannot do something, because we do not have the intelligence.’ By hard work, we can all overcome our weaknesses to become wise and knowledgeable.

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Vishal Agarwal

Vishal Agarwal is an independent scholar residing in Minneapolis (USA) with his wife, two children and a dog. He has authored one book and over fifteen book chapters and papers, some in peer reviewed journals, about ancient India and Hinduism.