Agastya: History, Legend & Reality written by Anuradha Gajaraj Lopez is about one of the most eminent and revered sages (Rishis) of our Vedic corpus. This book is above all a labor of love. What jumped out at me most of all was an outpouring of honest emotions from a true devotee. I came to realize that a prospective reader should keep that in mind for a greater appreciation of the book.
The author has covered multiple facets of the lore of Agastya: the legends associated with him; the many temples and holy places associated with him; his teachings; his various contributions like in medicine and other spheres and above all the wonderful hymns composed by him. For this, she makes us often travel through a world where myth and reality transcend upon each other, where time and space lose their conventional interpretations. We as readers should try to attune ourselves to this mindset for a fuller appreciation of the book. She also relates some of her personal experiences and that of her father, which adds considerably to the book.
Vedic Rishis like Vashishta, Bhrigu, Kashyap, Atri, Bharadwaja, Gautama, and Jamadagni are major edifices on which the tradition of the Indian ethos is built. They are reputed to possess supernatural powers. And perhaps more importantly, they are also seers of truth and are the source of much philosophy and mythology that have come down to us. Their influence is present everywhere: in the ancient Vedas, the epics, and other mythological writings like the Puranas. Each Rishi is unique in his own way – each has his own unique legacy. Agastya comes out as a supreme Yogi, much influenced by Lord Shiva.
A particularly attractive feature of the book is the many wonderful black and white photographs showing the temples, the statues, and other items mentioned in the book. From many of the photos of the statues and images of Agastya, one cannot fail to notice that unlike the image of the Rishis embedded in our minds – tall, handsome, and with flowing beards – Agastya was short and plump and with a big pot belly: a real contrast. We find the sage finds mention in the Rigveda, the earliest of the four Vedas, in the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, in the Puranas, and other texts associated with the pantheon of Hindu tradition. The author has endeavored to provide simple explanations for the benefit of the western readers and others not sufficiently familiar with the Hindu iconography and terminologies. This should add considerably to the merit of the book.
The epics and the Puranas contain a fair number of legends related to Agastya: the various myths of his birth; his celestial marriage to beautiful Lopamudra and the birth of son Dridhasyu, who was born reciting Vedic hymns; the death of Lopamudra and her subsequent rebirth as Kaveri and the source of the river Cauvery; his drinking of the ocean to expose the demons hiding under it; his travel south under the orders of Lord Shiva to restore the balance of the earth (Here his short plump stature came to his aid along with his yogic powers!); the popular story of his killing the demons Vatapi and Ilvala; freeing King Nahusa, cursed to be a snake from the curse and a similar story of King Gajendra being freed from being cursed as an elephant; and stopping the Vindhya Mountains separating North and South India from growing too tall to obstruct the sun.
Perhaps the greatest contribution attributed to Agastya is his association with the origin of the Tamil language, the most ancient of the South Indian languages. According to legend, it was a gift to him from the Lord Muruga, which is perhaps a testament to its claims to antiquity and to its divine origins at par with Sanskrit. Reading through the book, one cannot miss the major presence of South India in all aspects of the lore of Agastya. This is reflected in the large number of temples dedicated to him there. In this regard, two particular legends caught my particular attention. One was where he was ordered by Shiva to go south to balance the earth and the second was where he controlled the height of the Vindhyas. The philosophical text Thirumanthiram by Tirumular also references that the sage Agastya came from the north and settled in the south. I wonder if these legends were rooted not in the history of the hoary past when the Aryan culture made its way to South India.
One tradition unique to South India I came to learn about was the Siddha tradition. The Siddhas are endowed with eight unique powers: anima (ability to reduce the body to the size of an atom); mahima (ability to grow large); laghma (ability to be weightless); prapti (ability to travel anywhere at will); prakamya (ability to realize anything); Isitva (ability to control nature); and Garima ( ability to become infinitely heavy). Agastya is recognized as the foremost leader in the Siddha tradition which explains the myriad contributions attributed to him.
Near the end of the book, the author narrates the experiences of her father with great respect. His purported conversations with the great Rishi were indeed impressive. To appreciate them, one has to reorient his/her ‘modern scientific’ mind by not getting overly engrossed with thoughts of how it was possible. And I am thankful that I did. After all, such things are not unheard of in the culture I grew up in. It helped me really enjoy the wonderful discourses on such profound issues and spiritual advice: Karma, Consciousness, Brahman, Seeking Liberation, Self Realization, Time, Power of a Guru, Root of Difficulties, and Ridding of Evil Spirits. They were all accompanied by Tamil transliterations (which, unfortunately, I did not understand). The information was presented in simple language, easy to understand. Most of the information was, to me, in sync with our commonly held beliefs born out of our Vedic and Puranic traditions.
For my part, I would like to forward a few personal opinions. I would venture to suggest that Agastya was probably not a single person, but a series of persons over the ages sharing the same entity and contributing their share in the legacy. In this, I was reminded of the Shankaracharyas. This may remove much of the ambiguity over Agastya’s presence over long periods of time. I would also suggest that the presence of the Agastya lore in Southeast Asia is more an effect of the travel of Indian merchants and others to those lands, rather than some miracle.
Finally, I found a few errors in the book, which I felt I should point out. The legendary mathematician Ramanujam propounded his famous theories in the 1920s (not the late 1800s as noted on page 22). Also on the same page, a 400 BC date is noted for the mathematician Brahmagupta. Standard sources indicate that he lived in the seventh century CE.
Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He loves to write and can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.