Sage Gautama

Introduction

Gautama is one of the greatest amongst all Saptarshis (seven sages). During one of the kalpas of Caturmukha Brahma, fourteen Manus ruled over this world. Swayambhu was the first. During this long period there were fourteen Indras in Heaven. The word ‘Indra’ here refers to a position and not a name.

At present, the fourteenth Manu by name Vaivasvata is ruling over the world, holding sway over Heaven. In every Manvantara (age of Manu), the administrative structure and rules change. In the same way the sages who occupy the position of Saptarishis also change. In the present Vaivasvata Manvantara, the seven holy men who occupy the position of Saptarishis are Vishwamitra, Jamadagni, Bharadwaja, Gautama, Atri, Vasishta and Kashyapa.

The power of Saptarishis

The Saptarishis or the seven great men are not bound by time and space. Thus they would live for lakhs of years, acquire superhuman powers and perform deeds which ordinary human beings can never perform. They would face trials and tribulations in life to finally acquire Brahma Jnana and Brahma Sakshatkara. During their long life they perform thousands of good deeds and help millions of people to uplift themselves. In the same way they would also get caught in the web of life and make mistakes which ordinary men do. And all these appear very normal, as it is natural for them to gather the power to bless or to confer favors to others. At times like ordinary mortals they would become slaves to emotions such as anger and desire and lose their extraordinary powers gained from thousands of years of penance. They would bless and at the same time they could heap terrible curses on others.

Treta Yuga – Ahalya and Devendra cursed by Gautama

Now let us try to study the history of Gautama, one of the Saptarishis. Both Ramayan (Treta Yuga) and Mahabharatha (Dwapara Yuga) have references to Sage Gautama as he lived during these two Yugas. One of the five greatest amongst women (Panchakanyas) modesty-incarnate Ahalye was his wife. She was a devoted and virtuous wife, very faithful to her husband.

Unfortunately, due to a dirty trick played on her by Devendra (Indra of the Devas), she was forced to sacrifice her faithfulness to her husband. The irate Gautama then cursed Devendra for committing a disgusted deed of forcing a faithful wife to go astray. He also cursed Ahalya, the wrong-doer, and turned her into a stone. She remained in that state for thousands of years.

As a result of uttering terrible curses on two persons at the same time, Sage Gautama lost the extraordinary power he had acquired from long years of penance. In order to win back his power, he left his beautiful ashram near the township of Mithila and went to the snowcapped mountains of Himalayas. He chose a secluded place on the slope there and sat performing tapas.

A thousand years later, the great Sage Vishwamitra decided to perform a ten day long yaga and he was heading towards his ashram along with Rama and Lakshmana, sons of Dashratha, the Emperor of Ayodhya. He brought the two princes to help him to complete the yaga by protecting from marauding rakshas who had made it their routine to disturb the yagas performed by sages. At first Dasharatha was not ready to send the young princes to the forest to fight the terrible demons. But on the advice of his royal preceptor Vasishta(another Saptarishi), the emperor finally agreed to send them to help Vishwamitra. On their way to Mithila, they had to traverse through the deserted but supremely attractive ashram of Gautama. Sri Rama was interested in seeing the place. He desired to learn how such a beautiful place came to be abandoned by its possessor. Vishwamitra began, ‘Hantate Kathayishyamishrnutatvena Raghava’ and continued. He gave a graphic account of the surrounding of the ashram which was, a thousand years earlier, an exquisitely attractive and holy place and with Gautama as its master.

“Dear Rama, this ashram was in no way inferior to an ashram in Devaloka, and it belongs to Sage Gautama. He performed penance for a number of years in the company of his wife Ahalya whose beauty was unmatched by any apsara. He was an extraordinary sage. He became great as a result of the power of his tapas. A holy stream by name Ahalyahrada, was flowing near his ashram. Every morning he would have a holy bath and would come back to the ashram chanting the name of God. At that moment he would look as bright as Yajneswara (God of Fire) himself. He would have the holy ash applied over his forehead, arms and chest, a garland of crystal and rudraksha and he looked like Lord Shiva himself. This great sage, in a fit of anger cursed Indra who was clad in the dress of Gautama and sinned against Ahalya. By doing so he lost the great strength which he had acquired after hundreds of years of penance.”

Vishwamitra relieves Ahalya from the curse

Devendra was subjected to untold suffering as a result of the curse. He told Agni and other Devas that he put himself to great trouble by trying to destroy Gautama’s great powers and strength which he had earned from long years of penance. The Devas believed him and helped him to get out of the curse. In the same way Sage Vishwamitra helped Ahalya to get relieved of the curse. He told Sri Rama who was an incarnation of MahaVishnu, “Please enter this ancient but deserted ashram of Sage Gautama and save the heavenly Ahalya.” As instructed by the sage, Sri Rama entered the dilapidated hermitage. As soon as he stepped inside, the entire place underwent a great change. The trees and creepers got a new lease of life. The whole atmosphere put on a holy exterior. The touch of Sri Rama’s feet made the entire ashram piously pleasant. Ahalya who had disappeared and could not be seen in the three worlds as a result of Sage Gautama’s terrible curse, was released from the effect of the curse and she appeared before Sri Rama as bright as the morning star. A thousand years of penance had made her look holier.

As soon as Sri Rama and Lakshmana saw her bright and holy figure, they went near her and touched her feet and sought her blessings. Ahalya remembered her great husband’s words spoken a thousand years earlier and welcomed the three guests to the ashram with all customary rituals such as arghya and padya and so on. Sri Rama received the hospitality extended to him with reverence. The Devas rained flowers from heaven. Heavenly music was heard. Gandarvas, the divine musicians, sages and apsaras, the divine dancers, were seen celebrating the event.

Sage Gautama, who was doing penance on the slopes of the Himalayas, came to know about the happening in his former ashram with the help of his divine insight. In a moment he presented himself at the ashram. He received his wife, Ahalya, in her original pure state after getting herself released from the curse. He welcomed Sri Rama to his ashram performing all the rituals specified in the shastras. Sri Rama accepted the sage’s hospitality and was over-whelmed by it. Vishwamitra and the princes continued their journey to Mithila while Sage Gautama went back to the place where he was performing tapas on the slopes of the Himalayas.

Gautama’s son rejoices

Mithila was ruled by King Janaka. The royal priest in his court was Shanthananda and he was known for his unequalled knowledge in all the three worlds. He was the elder son of Sage Gautama. On hearing about the release of his mother Ahalya from his father’s curse Shanthananda became overwhelmed. As soon as he heard it from Sage Vishwamitra he fell at his feet and said, “O great sage did you show my mother who had been doing penance for a thousand years to Sri Rama and Lakshmana?”he continued, “Did my mother play host to divine Sri Rama? Did she join her husband, my father? Did great Gautama have darshana of Sri Rama? Did my father play host to Sri Rama? Had my father’s anger subsided? Did he bless Sri Rama happily?” Thus Shanthananda rained questions on Sage Vishwamitra. Vishwamitra, who had understood Shanthananda’s great eagerness and excitement, spoke warmly.

“O great sage Shanthananda, everything went well, I have played my part successfully. Your father, the great Gautama, is reunited with your mother. It is as if Renuka got reunited with Sage Jamadagni”

Vishwamitra’s words made Shanthananda very happy. He welcomed Raghu Nandana Sri Rama whole heartedly saying,

‘Swagtam tenarashreshtadisphya praptosi Raghava”

These are the references we have about Gautama in Treta Yuga. In Dwapara Yuga as well Gautama one among the Saptarshis, exhibited his great power of penance, unequalled knowledge and wisdom.

 

Dwapara Yuga – Gautama blesses Arjuna

Once, the seven sages felt very hungry. While searching for food they saw a lake with clear water full of lotus flowers. They knew that the stems of these flowers offer nutritious food and they decided to eat them. They had to get into the lake to collect the stems for which they needed the permission of Yathudhani, an angel guarding the lake. When they asked her for permission she demanded that every one of them should explain the meaning of his name. When Sage Gautama’s turn came he gave the following explanation.

“I am capable of controlling my senses (Govus) therefore I’m Godama. I’m as bright as fire without smoke. I look at things impartially. My greatness cannot be equaled or cowed down by anyone”

As mentioned in the epic, when Pandu was living in the forest along with his two queens Kunti and Madri, and Arjuna was about to be born;  the presence of Gautama played an important role. It was with the blessing of Devendra (Indra of the Devas) that the all-powerful, lustrous and lovable Arjuna was born. Among the sages who came to bless the child, Gautama was one.

Sage Gautama was bold and straight forward and he would always give his clear opinions on matters of dharma. Once, his own colleague Atri praised the king, Vainya, who was immersed in worldly pleasures. Atri called him by great names such as Brahma, Indra and dispenser of human beings, bringer of good fortune and so on. Gautama,on the contrary, could not tolerate it. So, he in return without hesitation chided Atri. He disagreed on the fact that for the sake of a little wealth, it is wrong to extol one to the state of divinity and such an act is unpardonable. This incident shows his straightforwardness and honesty.

Gautama’s presence in Kurukshetra

When the terrible battle of Kurukshetra was going on, Dronacharya took over the commandership of the Kaurava army and during his tenure an incident happened. In order to subdue the great Drona who was an unmatched wielder of the bow and arrow, Sri Krishna devised a plan. He made Bhishma say ‘Aswathama Hatah’, meaning Aswathama was dead. But Drona was sure that Aswathama could not have died and he resumed the battle with redoubled vigor. He knew for certain, that it was Sri Krishna’s plot to make him leave the battle field. He got ready to destroy the entire Pandava army. At that point Gautama and six other sages entered the battle field, addressed the fire brand Drona thus. “Stop your cruel killings and give up arms. You are fighting a battle completely against your Varnashram dharma. Embrace death and go to heaven”. Drona, giving respect to the words of these sages, made an effort to find out whether his son Aswathama was alive or really dead. He asked Dharmaraj Yudhisthira to tell him the truth. At the instance of Sri Krishna and pressure from Bhima-Sena, Dharmaraj Yudhisthira made a statement which was both true and false. He announced ‘Aswathama hathah’ loudly and adds in a soft tone ‘Kunjarah’ – meaning an elephant by name Aswathama was dead.

When he heard Dharmaraj’s words, Drona came to the conclusion that his son was really dead and he gave up his arms and left the battle field. As advised by Gautama he went to heaven by the Yogadharana way.

Gautama used to travel all over the world with the intention of helping people and giving them darshan of great sages. At the closing stages of the Kurukshetra war, when uttarayana was about to begin the Saptarishis went to Kurukshetra in order to have darshan of ‘Sharatalpe Shayanastu Bharathanam Pitumahah’. Bhishma, that time, was about to give up his mortal body and journey to heaven. A number of great men including sages, devarishis, mahamunis, chaste brahmins, the righteous and thousands of others used to visit the spot. Sage Gautama was one among the people thus congregated at that place.

While resting on the bed of arrows, Bhishma gave a long discourse on how to rule a country well. In the course of his discourse he made a reference to a discussion between Yama the Lord of Death and Sage Gautama.

Meeting with Yama Dharmaraja

Gautama’s famous holy ashram was situated on the slopes of Pariyathra. He was performing tapas for over sixty thousand years. Once, the protector of the southern region and the Lord of Death – Yama Dharmaraja -came to the holy ashram of great sage Gautama. Dharmaraja felt very happy to see the sage shining with divine brightness as a result of thousands of years of tapas. By the power of his intuition Gautama realized that the divine visitor was none other than Lord Yama. Dharmaraja, with folded hands and great humility, made obeisance to the Brahmarshi and asked him, “O holy sage, what can I offer you?”In reply the sage said, “I have a few questions which relate to dharma and its nuances. Please give solutions to some of the doubts and problems I have in my mind.” So saying he placed two very important questions before Dharmaraja. The first question was- “Dharmaraja, by performing what kind of actions a person gets himself relieved of his obligations to his parents?”

The second question was – “How does man attain heaven which is not open to ordinary mortals?” Dharmaraja, who was Lord Yama himself gave convincing answers to both these questions. His answers ran like this:

“O great sage, everyone has to engage in tapas. They should strive at achieving both internal and external purity, purity of the body and the mind. They should lead a life of truth and righteousness, serve their parents faithfully and get freed from their obligation to their parents.”

In answer to the second question, Dharmaraja said, “A man should perform yajnas and yagas and satisfy the needy. This would make God happy. By doing so he entitles himself to reach heaven”.

Bhishma elaborates on Gautama

Dharmaraj Yudhisthira visited Bhishma who was lying on the bed of arrows and on the advice of Sri Krishna he asked a number of questions pertaining to a king’s duties and his obligations to his subjects and other points relating to individual’s problems in life. Many other questions which he asked relate to the preceptor’s orders and father’s dictates. Sometimes the father who occupies the acharya’s position at home orders something against the established customs and practices. Should the son carry out such orders even when he knows that it is wrong? Yudhisthira placed this problem before Bhishma. For the answer, Bhishma referred to Sage Gautama and Chirakari in his explanation. This happened in Treta Yuga. But what happened then applies to life at all times. That was why Bhishma made references to such happenings.

Once Sage Gautama went to perform his early morning ablations and bathe in the holy lake Ahalyahrada. When he was away from the ashram Devendra (Indra of the Devas) disguised himself as Gautama and entered the ashram and polluted the chastity of the devoted Ahalya. When the sage returned he came to know what had happened. In an extreme fit of rage, he ordered one of his sons Chirakari to kill his mother Ahalya. He said, “Jaheeman Jananim” (kill your mother). He left the place in an angry mood. It was not an order given after thinking about the pros and cons of the situation. Chirakari, true to his name, was a person who would not do anything without thinking about it and discussing its pros and cons.

His problem was ‘Piturajnam Katham Kuryam,nahanyam mataram Katham’

‘How can I carry out my father’s order?

How can I desist from killing my mother?’

Finally he decided that it was better to protect the mother rather than carrying out the father’s order. Therefore he did not carry out the command which was irrational and against his dharma.

Later on, Gautama realized that his wife did not make the mistake knowingly and he had ordered his son to kill her wrongfully. Had the son carried out his order, it would have been a great sin.

Gautama was pleased at his son’s decision. The son had not acted on the spur of the moment like his father. Bhishma narrated this incident to Yudhistira.

Gautama, the great Tapasvi

Sage Gautama had mastered the great Savithri Manthra. This is revealed in the Yajurveda. Again, Sage Gautama was the one to whom the great Vyahrthimanthra ‘Janah’ was revealed.

Gautama was a great tapasvi and all-knowing. He was devoted to God and a generous host. He was a greatly honored sadgrihasta. His heart was simple as that of a cow. There is an interesting story which brings out his great qualities in a touching manner.

Sage Gautama with his power of tapas had become a Siddhapurusha, a person who can get things done at his own will. Once the whole country was reeling under a great famine, but owing to the virtue of Sage Gautama, his ashram dwellers had not experienced the calamity. Thousands of sages had to take refuge in his ashram. Sage Gautama welcomed everyone with open arms and played host to them gladly. He never gave them an opportunity to feel neglected. The famine continued for years and the sages felt a bit uneasy to bother Gautama for so long, but Gautama offered his great hospitality and would not allow them to leave.

During this period an interesting incident took place in Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva. When Gowri and Ganesha saw Ganga shining like a jewel on Shiva’s head, they felt jealous. They thought of bringing her down. Ganesha decided to execute his plan. He came to Gautama’s ashram and enjoyed the sage’s hospitality. He addressed the guests in the ashram one day and said, “Don’t you people feel ashamed of your behavior? How long are you going to enjoy someone else’s hospitality and live in his house?” he tried to touch the chord of their self-respect, but they expressed their helplessness. Ganesha then said, “I will make a plan. I will create a magic cow and make it wander round the ashram and cause a lot of commotion. Gautama would come out and try to drive it out by gently hitting it with a darbha grass. It will fall on the ground, to all it will appear dead. Then you can say, ‘Gautama, you have committed the sin of killing a cow. We cannot stay in your ashram for a single minute. So saying, you come out. Then Sage Gautama will implore you, ‘O great ones, please pardon me. Please tell me how I can redeem my sin. I will do whatever you suggest, however difficult it is going to be’ following which you tell, ‘If you make the Ganga on the head of Lord Shiva come down and flow here, and if you take a bath in that Ganga, your sin will be redeemed.’ So saying you leave the place. I will drive away the famine from your ashrams and make it plentiful.”

However when Gautama came to know through the power of insight about the plot hatched by the sages, he got angry. He called them and said, “You ungrateful ones, how could you return my hospitality in that way. Let all your knowledge be lost.” He cursed them.

Rishis give knowledge to the world. But as a result of this curse, their minds became blank and got filled with darkness. The entire world was plunged in the darkness of ignorance. In order to save the world Lord Narayana who is compassion-incarnate came to be born as Veda Vyasa and he restored knowledge to the world.

This incident brings to light great Gautama’s power, his compassion and simplicity. He is the greatest among the great and deserves to be worshipped. We make obeisance to the great sage Gautama.

Author of the earliest Dharma-sutra:

Gautama authored the famous Dharma-sutra named Gautama Dharma Sutra which is one of the earliest all Dharma-sutras composed till date. Gautama Dharma Sutra contains 28 chapters and 1000 aphorisms.

In his compiled works, Gautama has included almost every aspect of Hindu dharma –

  • the forty Sanskaras,
  • the four Varnas,
  • kingly duties,
  • the punishments for various offences,
  • the dharmas of women,
  • the rules for Prayashchitta (atonement for sins),
  • the rules for the four Ashrams,
  • the obsequies for the dead,
  • do’s and don’ts of food consumption,
  • the rules of succession of property are present in his works.

On the basis of the content, Gautama Dharma Sutra may perhaps be considered as the world’s earliest law book.

Footnote

Akshapad Gautama, the founder of the Nyaya (Logic) philosophy, who lived in the 2nd century CE, is not to be confused with Gautama Maharishi.