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Chapter 31: Agastya

THE brahmanas, who had been with Yudhishthira in Indraprastha, had followed him to the forest. It was difficult to maintain such a large establishment.

Some time after Arjuna had gone on his quest of Pasupata, a brahmana sage named Lomasa came to the abode of the Pandavas.

He advised Yudhishthira to minimize his retinue before going on pilgrimage as it would be difficult to move freely from place to place with a large following.

Yudhishthira, who had long felt that difficulty, announced to his followers that such of them, as were unaccustomed to hardship and to hard and scanty fare and those who had followed merely in token of loyalty, might return to Dhritarashtra or, if they preferred it, go to Drupada, the King of Panchala.

Later, with a greatly reduced retinue, the Pandavas started on a pilgrimage to holy places, acquainting themselves with the stories and traditions relating to each. The story of Agastya was one such.

Agastya, it is said, once saw some ancestral spirits dangling head down and asked them who they were and how they had come to be in that unpleasant plight.

They replied: "Dear child, we are your ancestors. If you discharge not your debt to us by marrying and begetting progeny, there will be no one after you to offer us oblations. We have, therefore, resorted to this austerity, in order to persuade you to save us from this peril."

When Agastya heard this, he decided to marry.

The king of the country of Vidarbha was childless and, so, careworn. He repaired to Agastya to get his blessing. In granting him the boon, Agastya announced that the king would be the father of a beautiful girl, who, he stipulated should be given in marriage to him.

Soon the queen gave birth to a girl who was named Lopamudra. She grew with years into a maiden of such rare beauty and charm that she became celebrated in the kshatriya world. But no prince dared to woo her for fear of Agastya.

Later, the sage Agastya came to Vidarbha and demanded the hand of the king's daughter. The king was reluctant to give the delicately nurtured princess in marriage to a sage leading the primitive life of a forester but he also feared the anger of the sage if he said nay, and was plunged in sorrow.

Lopamudra, greatly concerned, discovered the cause of her parent's unhappiness and expressed her readiness, nay her desire, to marry the sage.

The king was relieved, and the marriage of Agastya and Lopamudra was celebrated in due course. When the princess set out to accompany the sage, he bade her give up her costly garments and valuable jewels.

Unquestioningly Lopamudra distributed her priceless jewels and garments amongst her companions and attendants, and covering herself in deerskin and garments of bark, she joyfully accompanied the sage.

During the time Lopamudra and Agastya spent in tapas and meditation at Gangadwara, a strong and abiding love sprang up between them. For conjugal life, Lopamudra's modesty shrank from the lack of privacy in a forest hermitage.

And one day, with blushing and humbleness she expressed her mind to her husband.

She said: "My desire is that I may have the royal bedding, the beautiful robes and the valuable jewels I had when I was in my father's place and that you too may have splendid garments and ornaments.

And then we shall enjoy life to our heart's content."

Agastya smilingly replied: "I have neither the wealth nor the facilities to provide what you want. Are we not beggars living in the forest?"

But Lopamudra knew her lord's yogic power, and said: "Lord, you are allpowerful by the strength of your austerities. You can get the wealth of the whole world in a moment if you but will."

Agastya said that no doubt that was so, but, if he spent his austerities in gaining things of such little moment as riches, they would soon dwindle to nothing.

She replied: "I do not wish that. What I desire is that you should earn in the ordinary way sufficient wealth for us to live in ease and comfort."

Agastya consented and set out as an ordinary brahmana to beg of various kings. Agastya went to a king who was reputed to be very wealthy. The sage told the king: "I have come in quest of wealth.

Give me what I seek, without causing any loss or injury to others."

The king presented a true picture of the income and expenditure of the State and told him he was free to take what he deemed fit. The sage found from the accounts that there was no balance left.

The expenditure of a State turns out always to be at least equal to its income.

This seems to have been the case in ancient times also.

Seeing this, Agastya said: "To accept any gift from this king, will be a hardship to the citizens. So, I shall seek elsewhere,"

and the sage was about to leave. The king said that he would also accompany him and both of them went to another State where also they found the same state of affairs.

Vyasa thus lays down and illustrates the maxim that a king should not tax his subjects more than necessary for rightful public expenditure and that if one accepts as gift anything from the public revenues, one adds to the burden of the subjects to that extent.

Agastya thought he had better go to the wicked asura Ilvala and try his luck.

Ilvala and his brother Vatapi cherished an implacable hatred towards brahmanas.

They had curious plan for killing them.

Ilvala would, with effective hospitality, invite a brahmana to a feast.

By the power of his magic he would transform his brother Vatapi into a goat and he would kill this pseudo-goat for food and serve its meat to the guest. In those days, the brahmanas used to eat meat. The feast over, Ilvala would invoke his brother Vatapi to come out, for he had the art of bringing back to life those whom he had killed.

And Vatapi, who as food had entered the vitals of the unlucky brahmana, would spring up sound and whole and rend his way out with fiendish laughter, of course killing the guest in doing so.

In this manner, many brahmanas had died.

Ilvala was very happy when he learnt that Agastya was in the neighborhood, since he felt that here was a good brahmana delivered into his hands.

So, he welcomed him and prepared the usual feast. The sage ate heartily of Vatapi transformed into a goat, and it only remained for Ilvala to call out Vatapi for the rending scene. And, as usual, Ilvala repeated the magic formula and shouted:

"Vatapi come out!"

Agastya smiled and, gently rubbing his stomach, said: "O Vatapi, be digested in my stomach for the peace and good of the world." Ilvala shouted again and again in frantic fear: "O Vatapi, come forth."

There was no response and the sage explained the reason. Vatapi had been digested. The trick had been tried once too often.

The asura bowed to Agastya and surrendered to him the riches he sought.

Thus was the sage able to satisfy Lopamudra's desire. Agastya asked her what she would prefer whether ten ordinarily good sons or one super-good son with the strength of ten.

Lopamudra replied she would like to have one exceptionally virtuous and learned son. The story goes that she was blessed with such a gifted son.

Once the Vindhyas became jealous of the Meru Mountain and tried to grow in stature, obstructing the sun, the moon and the planets. Unable to prevent this danger, the gods sought aid from Agastya. The sage went to the Vindhya Mountain and said:

"Best of mountains, stop you’re growing till I cross you on my way to the south and return north again. After my return, you can grow, as you like. Wait till then."

Since the Vindhya Mountain respected Agastya, it bowed to his request.

Agastya did not return north at all, but settled in the south and so the Vindhyas remain arrested in growth to this day.

Such is the story as narrated in the Mahabharata.