Meaning of the birth of Agastya and Vasishtha to Mitra-Varuna
by Jayasree Saranathan on 04 Apr 2023 1 Comment

Agastya and Vasishtha were two great sages, each with their own unique attributes and contributions to Veda Dharma; but one event combines them both in what appears a metaphorical description of a secret of Nature and also of their lives. That event pertains to the story of their combined birth in a pitcher to Mitra-Varuna. The plausible meaning of this event is deciphered in this article.


Birth in water pot


There are quite a few references to birth in water pots. Iravatham Mahadevan has collected all pitcher-born stories from olden texts of the Veda Dharma, in a bid to relate it to the ‘jar’ symbol in the Indus seals. When I read his article, “Meluhha and Agastya: Alpha and Omega of the Indus Script” for my paper critiquing his works, I came to realise that all those stories cannot be taken literally, for, there was a common under-thread in all of them of a ritual related to water pot of the kind we use in Udaka Shanthi ritual.


Some kind of mantra-upasana or penance was done in the water-pot as a result of which the concerned person was deemed to have attained a new identity or a kind of rebirth. Normally Udaka Shanti water is meant for purification, rejuvenation or a revival. Such kind of renewal into a fresh identity can be noticed in pitcher-borns.


Quoting from the Jar-born myths given by Mahadevan in pages 13-14 of that paper, “Vasishtha and Agastya were generated by Varuna and Mitra in a ‘sacred pitcher’ or ‘water-jar used in sacrifice’”. Of the two, Agastya came to be known as Kumbha Yoni or Kuda Muni.


Drona “was generated in a ‘wooden trough’ by Bharadvaja”. “The Kauravas were born from pots filled with clarified butter in which Gandhari’s foetus was stored.”


Coming to Southern traditions, the Pallavas of Kanchi who descended from Ashwatthama, the son of Drona, have written in their Pallankoyil Plates that they descended from a water-pitcher (paattra- skhalita- vrttiinaam). Similarly, the Chalukyas claimed descent from ‘Suluka’ (water pot).


There are similar rebirths from Fire sacrifices. For example, the Tamil Sangam poem (Purananuru) contains a verse by poet Kapilar on the birth of ‘Velir’ from ‘Tadaavu’ of a northern sage which refers to sacrificial fire pit. The Agni-Kula kshatriyas were born from Yajna fire, which was similar to the narration on the birth of Velir from fire. When someone is given a new identity, it is done following a Vedic Yajna. Similar are the re-birth kind of change for the people doing Ghar wapsi after a Vedic Homa.


In the light of these events giving clear lead on getting a revival or a new identity or a kind of rebirth for going forward with a new work, the story of Vasishtha and Agastya taking fresh birth from the water pot are better understood.


Birth from Mitra-Varuna


Taking up the co-born nature of Agastya and Vasishtha from Mitra Varuna, the leads come from Srimad Bhagavatam and Valmiki Ramayana. Though this story finds mention in the Rik Veda, we must keep in mind that Vedas cannot be understood or interpreted without Itihasa- Puranas.


Bhagavatam states that ‘by the semen of Varu?a, the great mystic Valmiki took birth from an anthill. Bh?gu and Valmiki were specific sons of Varu?a, whereas Agastya and Vasi??ha ??is were the common sons of Varu?a and Mitra’.(6-18-5)


Examining the more familiar birth of Ratnakar as Valmiki, the Bhagavatam reference to his birth from Varuna solves the mystery. Anthills are formed by ants where is there moisture. The perspiration from the body of Ratnakar staying motionless in deep penance for a very long time, had attracted ants to build their house around him. (Even as per astro-meteorology, we gauge the presence of water in a place by the growth of anthills in the location) Wherever water is released by evaporation, there Varuna is said to be present. (By this logic Bhrgu (who was fire-born) must have emanated humidity by perspiration while engaged in penance, which gave him the name Varuni-Bhrgu when he emerged with new powers)


In the case of Vasishtha and Agastya, both Mitra and Varuna were the fathers. To understand this, we must look at the way the basic Gods, Mitra- Varuna- Aryama are saluted at the beginning of the prayers as in Taittriya Upanishad.


Aryama, Mitra and Varuna are the three Gods who travel with the Sun every day. They always appear together in the sky and take up the Havis offered from the earth and by the earth. Of these three Gods, Aryama is Pitru God representing the 3 Pitru Devas namely Vasu, Rudra and Aditya.

( The water oblation (tarpan) given to three generations of ancestors reach Aryama through Vasu, Rudra and Adityas. This is the Havis for Aryama.


Aryama means ‘bosom friend’. He is always in the company of the two – Mitra and Varuna. Mitra also means friend who takes care of the kine. Varuna, the God of water never leaves these two.


The Havis for Mitra and Varuna are water evaporating from all the water bodies of the world. That is the Soma offered to them or taken by them which they give back to the earth as rains (RV 1-152-7). In many Rik Vedic verses we come across reference to the Sun accompanying Mitra-Varuna. This sun goes by the name Bhaga, the blind sun (Bhaga is the name of the sun when he scorches everyone alike, without any discrimination – like a blind man who cannot differentiate. Bhaga is also the name of one of the years in the 60-year cycle. Each year represents a Sun by the nature of heat expected to be felt in the year. The year of Bhaga will be felt hot by everyone)


We find the same combination of Mitra- Varuna- Bhaga and also Agni in the verses on Vishvadevas for whom we give a place in Pitru ceremonies that we do even today for our departed ancestors and in whom all the oblations reach, though given through Vasu, Rudra Aditya and Aryama. In the Pitru ceremony, Aryama is the receiver of the water oblation. Mitra and Varuna also receive the offerings everyday as they cross the sky along with the sun, but that offering is the evaporated water from the water bodies of the world.  


Their combination is central to the Vaastu Mandala as depicted in Eka ShIti Pada Vaastu which is applied to all habitations. The same central alignment of Sun- Aryama – Mitra – Varuna is also found in Satapada Vaastu that is preferred for Mantapa-s (pavilions).


When the sun crosses the sky from east to west, it is followed by Aryama who absorbs the water oblations given for Pitrus after crossing mid-day in a place (that is why Tarpan and annual Pitru ceremonies are done after the sun crosses the zenith at a place). On further cruising through the sky, water evaporation accelerates from all the water bodies of the earth which is absorbed by Varuna and facilitated by Mitra.


This can be physically observed in the morning hours in Dhanur Maasa when the sun is crossing Purvashadha (in Sagittarius) whose lord is Varuna or Aapas. One can see the mist in the morning sky transforming into clouds as the sun starts heating the earth (Agni) by eight a.m. in the morning. Vayu plays a gentle role at that time which is also observed as part of astro-meteorology. Those 14 days of the Sun’s transit in Purvashadha are the only time Varuna’s work becomes palpable to human eye. On the other months, the oblation by the earth by means of evaporation happens during late afternoon when the sun starts dropping towards western sky. That is why Varuna is placed in the west.


This is the basic idea behind Varuna and Mitra. When they are well taken care of, Indra confers bounty on the land as rains. Vaayu when he does his role in moderate or at required level, there is happiness from the rainfall or else there is destruction. Agni is fundamental to the entire process because only if he emanates heat in the right quantity, all these Devas can function optimally. That is why the basic Upasana is to Agni. Paramacharya of Kanchi says that the entire compendium of Rik Vedas is for Agni Upasana. The mutual help between man and devas, outlined by Geetacharyan is about this Upasana so that the earth gets sufficient rains to make food for everyone.


The absorption of water from all water sources are the food for Mitra-Varuna. When a rishi does a penance standing in a restricted water source, and attains exalted state as a result, he is said to have been born to Mitra-Varuna. Such birth, rather re-birth is reported of Agastya in Valmiki Ramayana.


Birth of Agastya as Kumbhayoni


In Valmiki Ramayana, there is an account of how Agastya transformed into Kumbhayoni by which he came to be known as having born to Mitra-Varuna.



The name Kumbhayoni appears for the first time in Uttara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana when Rama addressed Agastya thus. This was at the conclusion of 12 years of penance by Agastya in the receptacle of Kaviri waters.


Initially, Agastya was living in the southern edge of the Dandakaranya Forest. In the 11th year of Rama’s exile, Rama met Agastya near Panchavati. After that Agastya’s residence is mentioned to be in the Kaviri on top of the Malaya Mountain. This appears in the 14th year of exile when Sugreeva described the route towards the South. This shows that Agastya had shifted his residence to the Kaviri which was confined within a pot like formation. Ramayana mentions Kaviri as a receptacle (Aashaya). Even today one can see the source of river Kaviri within a pot like formation. Kaviri was not flowing as a river at the time of Agastya’s penance.


From the Tamil Epic Manimekalai we come to know that Agastya caused Kaviri to flow down as a river which he led to Pumpuhar – then known as Samba-pati. Pumpuhar was the new name to that place after Kaviri entered Samba-pati and entered the sea from there. Pumpuhar is the shortened name of “Kaviri Pum Pattinam” the new name given at that time.


Coming back to Agastya doing penance in the Kaviri on the Malaya Mountain, Rama happened to be there (for Sambuka Vadha) when Agastya had completed his 12-year-old penance in the Kaviri Kund. It was Rama who addressed Agastya as Kumbhayoni then. The birth of Kumbhayoni was indeed a rebirth for Agastya who shifted to Kavaatam, the newly established capital of the Second Tamil Sangam Age in the 6th millennium BCE. He started his new-found work as a Tamil Grammarian.  


The story of twin birth from Mitra-Varuna can be resolved from this.


Birth of Vasishtha to Mitra-Varuna


As per the logic of Kumbhayoni, well attested in Ramayana, Vasishtha also must have done a penance in a water receptacle and gained newer identity and powers.


That story revolves around Nimi, the king who did a Yajna which Vasishtha could not attend due to his prior commitment to attend Indra’s Yajna. But Nimi went ahead with performing the yajna without Vasishtha which went on for 500 years. The yajna was over by the time Vasishtha returned. Infuriated by this, Vasishtha cursed Nimi that his body should fall. Nimi in turn cursed Vasishtha that he would lose his body. Following this, Vasishtha went to the Ashrama of Mitra-Varuna and merged with their brilliance. During that time, Urvashi came to the ashrama. Seeing her, Mitra-Varuna let off the semen by which Vasishtha was born again, so goes the story.


Now deciphering the story, let us begin from the etymology of Nimi. Nimi means ‘closing the eyes’ according to Shiva Purana (2.2.30), though it refers to winking of the eye. When he was cursed by Vasishtha for having done the yajna without him, the story says that the Gods ordained him to stay on the eyelids of living beings. This conveys two scenarios – of a time when human beings could not see because of closed eyes and of a time later when they could see (with eyelids starting to wink). In the time in-between, Vasishtha was with Indra in his realms and yajna was going on in the world with closed eyes (darkness). This scenario speaks of absence of Indra’s bounty (rains) on the earth and people having difficult times as though there is darkness everywhere.


There was a time of absence of South west monsoon after its first arrival in the Holocene. We must understand that rainfall is dependent on heat received by the land. Indian monsoon started only after the current period of warm Holocene started. The first bout was for a period of 500 years between 11,000 to 10,500 BCE as per research. (See: Mahabharata 3136 BCE, pp. 100-05)


Then there was long lull for a period of 1500 years. None of the rainfed rivers of the Deccan plateau was running then. Some sparse vegetation started in North India and in the Dandaka region in South India during the first season of 500 years of rainfall. Some pools of water must have been formed during that time, of which Mitra-Varuna ashrama must have been one. The absence of rainfall after 10,500 BCE is characterized as Yajna happening in Indra loka (not on earth) for which Vasishtha had gone.


In the 1500 period following that first rainfall, there was slow increase in insolation to melt the Himalayan glaciers such as Gangotri (as per research articles) but no scope for flowing rivers. Sometime then, Vasishtha was doing penance in Mitra-Varuna kund. The location can be deduced from the story of Urvashi. As per the story, she was playing in Badrikashrama (Badrinath) when she was seen by Mitra-Varuna. From the etymology of Urvashi, it is known that Urvashi was another name for River Ganga.


It is because she sat on the ‘Uru’ (thigh) of Bhagiratha, Ganga came to be known as Urvashi. Ganga, who descends at Haridvar passes through Badrinath (known by the name Alakananda) before joining Bhagirathi. Thereafter she is known as Ganga.


Going by the course of Ganga, it is deduced that Mitra-Varuna kund was near Badrinath. The time it was inundated by the first flow of Ganga near Badrinath is indicated by the story of Urvashi, seen by Mitra-Varuna by which Vasishtha was born afresh.


This represents the conclusion of the penance of Vasishtha in the kund, much like Agastya who stood in the water pot of Kaviri for 12 years in penance. Bhagirathi started flowing at the conclusion of Vasishta’s penance. Kaviri too started flowing after the conclusion of Agastya’s penance. King Rajendra Chola has stated in the Thiruvalankadu Copper Plate inscriptions that King Chitradhanva desirous of repeating the feat of Bhagiratha in bringing River Ganga, caused the river Kaviri to come down from the mountain.


Two sages, having accomplished their penance by standing in water-pool by offering Soma (evaporated water) for Mitra-Varuna came up with newer energy. That is the import of birth of the two in a Kumbha to Mitra-Varuna. Chronologically, Vasishtha’s penance must have been earlier than Agastya’s – during Bhagiratha’s time, whereas Agastya’s rebirth as Kumbhayoni occurred after Rama ascended the throne. With clear reference to Kumbhayoni appearing in Ramayana, it is inferred that the story of the co-born nature of the two sages must have been conceived after Rama started calling Agastya as Kumbhayoni. That is why no explicit reference to Vasishta’s penance is available. The sages have wanted us to think, explore and grasp the nuances.



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