A minister recently allegedly told scientists in the defence industry to be like rishis. He was referring to the story of sage Dadhichi who gave up his body so that his bones could be used to make the Vajra weapon for Indra, king of the gods. But, who were the rishis? Were they scientists or sorcerers or seers? Television would like us to believe that rishis had a dress code: white or orange robes, beards and a Gandalf-like staff. Our knowledge of the rishis comes from Vedas, composed 4,000 years ago, and Puranas, which were composed over a thousand years ago.
Science as a discourse is only 500 years old and we often confuse science with religion. This is why many people who ‘believe’ in science, insist on being ‘atheists’, while there are many scientists who have no problem with keeping an image of Ganesha in their laboratories. Science is about facts. Religion is about truth. The two are not the same. Science is based on measurement. Religion is based on experiences that are, by definition, not measurable. They are two ways of approaching reality, neither is superior nor inferior. When somebody asks whether yoga is scientific, it must be clarified that yoga is popular for the sublime ‘experience’ if offers, not because it is based on ‘measurable provable facts’. The experience does not care for the measurements and measurement does not indicate experiences.
The word rishi is rather mysterious. But some etymologists have traced it to the word ‘drishti’ or seeing. The rishis were thus seers: those who saw more than others. In the Vedas, they are often called ‘kavi’ or poets, those who questioned and wondered. The sound ‘ka’ refers to interrogation, and so interrogative pronouns such as what and why are derived from this sound. Ka is also name by which the divine is addressed in the Vedas. They were interested in enquiry (mimansa), who ‘heard’ the chants that we now know as Vedic mantras. Is that a metaphor for inspiration? Or is it humility of scholars who never attributed discovery to themselves? Or is it indicative of a mystical experience, or maybe an extra-terrestrial one, as some would like to believe?
Did rishis include women? When was the last time you saw a visualisation of the Sapta Rishis, the seven sages of lore, including a single woman? Photographs of Indian scientists, like the ones involved in the Mars mission, included quite a few women dressed in sarees and flowers in their hair. They were comfortable in their femininity, unlike many women in the corporate world — especially those at the junior level — who feel that the only way to show they are serious about their jobs is by downplaying their femininity. We can point to women who composed Vedic hymns, such as Lopamudra, and call them rishis, but that’s more like a face-saving argument, rather than indicative of trend.
In the Puranas, rishis are important narrative devices as their curses and boons give rise to twists in the plot. Durvasa curses Indra to lose his wealth and splendour, while he gives Kunti the boon to call any deva at will and have a child by them. Many of them are married: Gautama is with Ahalya, Vashistha is with Arundhati, Atri with Anasuya, and Agastya with Lopamudra. In fact, when they try to be celibate, Indra sends apsaras to seduce them. Holding of semen gave men supernatural powers known as ‘siddhi’, a popular theme in stories of the medieval Nath-jogis, which is why celibacy is valorised by our scientific gurus today.