THE story of Vasishtha and Vishvamitra forms an intrinsic part of the Indian ethos. Vishvamitra was a king, a khashtriya, but from early childhood he wished to become a Brahmin. Now, this cannot normally happen in a lifetime; one needs to be born into a different life. Vasishtha, on the other hand, was a Brahmin, who lived in a forest hermitage. When Vishwamitra became king, he took a tour of his kingdom with his army, including his hundred sons. He was honoured by Vasishtha, on his arrival at his hermitage. Vasishtha organised a lavish feast, which impressed the king greatly.
On asking how he, a simple hermit, could manage such delicacies, he was informed it was due to Sabala, a miraculous cow that the sage had, who could fulfill all her master’s desires. The king was overcome by greed; he decided to have Sabala at any cost. He offered Vasishtha thousands of elephants and horses in exchange, but he politely declined, saying the cow was not for sale. He increased the stake, and offered millions of cows in exchange, but was rebuffed. Enraged, Vishwamitra decided to take Sabala by force. He dragged Sabala off but she broke free from her chains and rushed back to her master.
Vishwamitra organized a huge army and attacked Vasishtha. Sabala organized an army too, but was defeated in battle by Vishwamitra’s superior forces. Undaunted, she created an even bigger army, and this time, managed to rout Vishwamitra’s armed warriors. The king looked on in horror as his sons rushed to attack the sage but save one, were reduced to ashes by Vasishtha’s fierce gaze. Broken and humiliated, he rushed from the field of battle; handing over his kingdom to his one surviving son, he retreated to the Himalayas where he hoped, through his austerities, to become superior to Vasishtha. He performed impossible austerities; ultimately, Shiva, who was pleased with his sacrifices, granted him the gift of invincible weapons that only the gods are permitted to use.
Overjoyed, Vishwamitra rushed back to the hermitage and hurled his weapons at Vasishtha, but the sage easily deflected them all. Desperate now, the king hurled his last and most powerful weapon, the Brahmastra, at the sage. It struck Vasishtha with tremendous force, but the sage calmly absorbed its energy, and emerged unscathed. Dumbstruck, Vishwamitra slunk away hastily while Sabala mooed in triumph. The next two stories reveal, how, in the end, he did match the sage, achieving not revenge but reconciliation, a far nobler victory.