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Encyclopedia > Rishis

In Hinduism, the Rishis are sages and/or seers who "heard the hymns of the Devas"; and then wrote them down as Vedic scriptures. Seven seers have the special status of "Saptarishi". They included Atri, Gautama, Bharadwaja, Vasishta, Viswamitra, Jamadagni and Kasyapa. In Hindu astronomy, the stars of the Big Dipper are named for the Saptarishi. They, with Vishnu, brokered the truce between Vritra and Indra.


In addition to "Saptarishi," there are other classifications of sages. In descending order of precedence, they are Brahmarishi, Maharishi, Rajarishi, and Rishi.


According to Monier-Williams, the great Sanskritist, the Sanskrit word rishi perhaps derives from an obsolete Sanskrit root meaning "to see". Far more likely, the word derives from Dravida *aric- meaning "wise man, sage, astrologer, seer". The Sanskrit word rishi designates, again according to Monier-Williams: "a singer of sacred hymns, an inspired poet or sage, any person who alone or with others invokes the deities in rhythmical speech or song of a sacred character (e.g. the ancient hymn-singers Kutsa, Atri, Rebha, Agastya, Kushika, Vasishtha, Vy-ashva) RV. AV. VS. etc.; the Rishis were regarded by later generations as patriarchal sages or saints, occupying the same position in India history as the heroes and patriarchs of other countries, and constitute a peculiar class of beings in the early mythical system, as distinct from gods, men, Asuras.


"They [the rishis] are the authors or rather seers of the Vedic hymns i.e. according to orthodox Hindu ideas they are the inspired personages to whom these hymns were revealed, and such an expression as 'the Rishi says' is equivalent to 'so it stands in the sacred text.' Seven Rishis are often mentioned in the Brahmanas and later works as typical representatives of the character and spirit of the pre-historic or mythical period; in SBr. xiv, 5, 2, 6 their names are Gotama, Bharadva1ja, Vishva-mitra, Jamadagni, Vasishtha, Kashyapa, and Atri; in MBh. xii Marici, Atri, Angiras, Pulaha, Kratu, Pulastya, Vasishtha are given as the names of the Rishis of the first Manvantara, and they are also called Prajapatis or patriarchs; the names of the Rishis of the subsequent Manvantaras are enumerated in Hariv. 417 ff.; afterwards three other names are added: Pracetas or Daksha, Bhrigu, and Narada, these ten being created by Manu Svayambhuva for the production of all other beings including gods and men A1s3vS3r.


In Astronomy the Seven Rishis form the constellation of the Great Bear (RV. x, 82, 2; AV. vi, 40, 1; SBr. AsvGr., MBh. etc.). Metaphorically the Seven Rishis may stand for the seven senses or the seven vital airs of the body (VS. xxxiv S3Br. xiv Ka1tyS3r.), a saint or sanctified sage in general, an ascetic, anchorite (this is a later sense; sometimes three orders of these are enumerated, viz. Devarshis, Brahmarshis, and Rajarshis; sometimes four others are added, viz. Maharshis, Paramarshis, Shrutarshis, and Kandarshis) Mn. iv, 94; xi, 236 Shak.; Ragh. etc.; the seventh of the eight degrees of Brahmans Hcat.; a hymn or Mantra composed by a Rishi; the Veda Comm. on MBh. and Pat.; a symbolical expression for the number seven; the moon; an imaginary circle; a ray of light L.; the fish Cyprinus rishi L; [cf. Hib. arsan, 'a sage, a man old in wisdom'; arrach, 'old, ancient, aged']."


See also

  • Hindu Sages

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