Heroes, Saints, and Sages
Vasistha & Vishvamitra
It's not difficult to see the connection between the poses Vasisthasana and Vishvamitrasana and the attributes of the legendary sages—one a priest, the other a king—for whom the asanas are named. Both poses are advanced arm balances, but Vasisthasana (Side Plank) is particularly sattvic, or "pure"—it has a buoyant, mind-clearing quality—while Vishvamitrasana is distinctly driven and rajasic, or "fiery." The latter is an intense pose that requires a dramatic hip opening and a firm sense of purpose.
The sattvic and rajasic qualities are embodied in the two sages, who engaged in a long battle with each other over a magical, wish-fulfilling cow named Nandini. As in many ancient Indian tales, the very human motives evident in this story—competition and greed—sit atop layers of spiritual symbolism.
Here we find the dynamic tension in spiritual life between effortless grace and determined practice. Vasistha embodies the grace that comes with spiritual attainment and contentment: A divine son of the god Brahma and a member of the priestly caste at the top of the Indian social hierarchy, Vasistha seemed destined by birthright for high spiritual achievement—and goodies like his magic cow.
Vishvamitra wasn't quite so blessed. Even though he was a king, a member of the Kshatriya warrior caste that was second only to the priestly Brahmins, he didn't have Vasistha's earthly or spiritual advantages. "Having been born a Kshatriya," says Kofi Busia, a senior Iyengar Yoga teacher who studied Sanskrit and Indian mythology at Oxford, "Vishvamitra had little initial hope for the highest achievements in the spiritual realm."
But like most Indian sages, Vishvamitra was strong-willed. First, he tried to seize Nandini by force. No matter how he tried, this approach failed. As the conflict continued, both sages demonstrated the spiritual achievements for which they're still renowned. Vasistha displayed his tolerance and mastery of the emotions; even though Vishvamitra and his warriors are said to have slain a hundred of Vasistha's sons, the Brahmin remained calm and was never vengeful.
During the course of the battle, the king Vishvamitra eventually came to desire not just a wish-fulfilling cow but spiritual strength. He set out to become a Brahmin and, after many penances and austerities, succeeded. In fact, says Aadil Palkhivala, student of B.K.S. Iyengar since the age of seven and a YJ editorial adviser, "when Vishvamitra transformed himself and became a man of God, even Vasistha came to pay homage to him. This is why Vishvamitra's pose is more difficult than Vasistha's: His sadhana [spiritual practice] was more difficult."
Fathers have never much liked being outsmarted by their offspring. In most cultures, any evidence of a son's arrogance can get the son into deep trouble with his father. Astavakra's tale contains classic elements of the intergenerational tensions that show up even—or perhaps especially—in the realm of religion and spiritual practice.