Mythology and Symbolism : Vasishtasana and Vishwamitrasana

 ऋषि मूलम् नदी मूलम् न विचारयेत्

 Rishi Moolam Nadhi Moolam Na Vicharayet

Do not inquire about the origins of a Rishi (a yogi) and a River

1) The standing joke in the yoga room and in the great epic, Mahabharata

There is a standing joke in the ashtanga vinyasa school of yoga that every few years, Vasishtasana and Vishwamitrasana, the first two poses (shown below) of the Advanced-A series (Sthira Bhaga) will have their names switched. David Robson, the well known Ashtanga Yoga teacher, jokes in this video (1:15) that when someone (typically from another school of yoga) would interchange the names, there will be a lot of skirmish and tension created (by the Ashtanga yoga police) in the Mysore yoga room.

Ashtanga Vinyasa jokes aside, the epic feud between Rishis Vasishta and Vishwamitra, two great Rishis of Indian mythology, is uttered throughout Indian Mythology. Similar to the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga joke, there is also a Mahabharatha Joke. When Arjuna was born to Pritha (Kunthi), the great sages came to visit the baby and his mother. Vyasa was planning to write "Vasishto Vishwamitras cha", which means Vasishta and Vishwamitra, since it rhymes well in the poem. However he realized that the name of his work itself was mahabharatha (the great war) and he did not want to create a mini-battle inside the book on the epic war by putting their names together and therfore inserted Kashyapa in between their names in the poem even though it did not rhyme (Ref: Dushyant Sridhar, youtube video @ 6:20).  Perhaphs, the Ashtanga Vinyasa school should take note and insert Kashyapasana between the two poses to end the squabble that is bound to arise when the two are next to each other in any way.

2) The feud

More on the feud between Vasishta and Vishwamitra can be found in the  "Mythology and Symbolism behind asanas-2" workshop (slides, video, audio in the link above). Vashishta was known as one of the most benevolent Rishis (sages). His descendants are illustrious and have contributed to some of the greatest scriptures and epics of Sanatana Dharma - Vishnupurana (Parashara narrate's Vyasa's composition), Mahabharata (Vaishampayana narrates Vyasa's composition) and Shrimad Bhagavatham (Shuka narrates Vyasa's composition). The lineage from Vashishta to his great great grandson Shukacharya is recited in the dhyana shloka of the Vishnusahasranamam (00:15 of the Vishnu Sahasranamam chant)

The story goes that the king Kaushika was once returning from a hunt with his retinue and stops by at Vasishta's hermitage. Vasishta feeds the king and his entire retinue. When asked how he was able to feed such a large number of people, Vasishta attributes it to the divine cow Kamashenu, the bestower of wishes. Kaushika asks for the cow and tells Vasishta that the cow would better serve the king since he can then use it to feed an entire kingdom but the Rishi refuses. Kaushika, then, repeatedly tries to steal the cow but Vasishta, with his yogic powers, is able to thwart all of the attacks. The angry Vishwamitra, then, stoops so low as to make a demon eat Vasishta's son, Shakti. Vasishta still  forgives King Kaushika but refuses to give the cow, Kamadhenu, over to the king. 

Vasishta, the benevolent rishi

Kaushika tries to steal Kamadhenu from Vasishta

3) Kaushika becomes Vishwamitra, the Rishi

After being repeatedly vanquished by Vashishta during his attempts to take Kamadhenu by force, Kaushika was amazed by the yogic powers of the sage and decides to become a Rishi himself. He then came to be known as Vishwamitra, the friend of all people due to his eagerness to help anyone who approached him with a problem. He performs severe austerities but every time, when he was just about to become a Brahma Rishi (the highest among sages), he slips and falls from grace to due one weakness or another. At first, he falls from grace due to his temper. Then it happens because he is seduced by a heavenly nymph called Menaka. Finally, due to his ego, he decides to create a heaven for a king named Trishanku who was very attached to his body and would not want to leave it when ascending to heaven. The Gods, led by Indra, would not permit it and Vishwamitra wastes all the powers he had earned to please Trishanku who sought his help, by creating a 2nd heaven between heaven and earth.

In the end he performs tapas and finally Brahma told him that he had become a Brahma Rishi. This did not satisfy Vishwamitra and he told Brahma that he will consider himself a Brahma Rishi only if Vashishta acknowledged. The ever kind Vasishta did indeed recognize Vishwamitra as a Brahma Rishi and things ended well.

4) Conclusion

The moral of this piece from the mythology is that once a person has burnt away his identity and karma in the yogic fire of tapas, then irrespective of what lowly acts they had done in the past, it would be irrelevant to the future of the person, because they had become a yogi. In other words, actions do not stick to a Yogi (Yoga Sutra 4.7).

Trishanku's heaven (left) Trishanku is shown in pictures as suspended between heaven and earth in his own heaven created by Vishwamitra (below)