Rishis of the Rig Veda and oral traditions of the Vedas

04 Sep

This post is in response to comments and queries from Kaveriyamma. Those related to the Rishis of the Rig Veda, their linage, the female Rishis and the oral tradition.


A Rishi in Rig Veda is an author of a Rik, a mantra.  It is not a product of his reasoning or intellect, but of an intuitive perception. He envisioned the entities beyond the range of human senses,concived the self evident knowledge (svatah pramana) and realized the Truth by direct intution. Vamadeva , a Rishi in one of his hymns (RV 4.3.16) describes himself as the illumined one , expressing the Truth reveled to him(ninya vachasmi).

The term Rishi is defined as “rishati jnānena samsāra-pāram” meaning one who goes beyond the mundane world by means of knowledge. Further, some scholars think the root ‘drish‘ (sight) might have given rise to root ‘rish’ meaning ‘to see’.

Rishi is therefore a wise seer, a drastara, one who visualizes a mantra. He is also the one who hears. The seers were the “hearers of the Truth” (kavayaha sathya srutah) .Sri Aurobindo described Shruthi as “divine recordings of cosmic sounds of truth” heard by the Rishis.The Vedas are thus Shruthis , revealed scriptures. That is the reason , the Vedas are Apaurusheya , not authored by any agency.

Amarakosha, the Sanskrit lexicon, gives the synonym for the term Rishi as satyavachah, the one who speaks truth. A Rishi in the Rig Veda is a sage who realized the truth. However all sages are not Rishis; just as not all Rishis are Kavis.

(For more on Kavis, please see Kavi, Rishi and the Poet ).

Yasca_charya makes a significant  classification even among the Rishis.He draws a clear distinction between a Sakshath_krutha_Rishi , the seer who has the direct intutional perception; and the Shrutha_rishi , the one heard it from the seeres and remambered what he heard.

The Srutha_rishi is like the mirror or the moon that basks in the glory of the sun .The moon and the mirror both take in the glory of the sun and put forth the shine to the world in their own way. Similarly, the Srutha_rishi obtained the knowledge by listening to the Sakshath_ Krutha_ Rishi, and more importantly by remembering what he heard. The bifurcation of the Vedas/Upanishads on one hand (as Shruthi, as heard) ; and the Vedangas, Shastras, Puranas, Ithihasa etc. on the other (as smriti, as remembered) , stems from the above concept.  Smriti, in general, is secondary in authority to Shruti .

Rig Veda mentions about four hundred Rishis and about thirty of them were women. Before going into their names and other details, let us, briefly, talk about the mantras.


Poetry raised to its sublime heights is mantra to which a Rishi gives utterance. The Rishi visualizes a magnificent idea, through intuitive perception, crystallizes it and gives it an expression. . One cannot be a sublime poet unless one is a Rishi (naan rishir kuruthe kavyam).  Badarayana Sutra (244:36) says Rishi not only lives the mantra but also is the essence of it.

A mantra is usually prefaced by a segment made of three components, mentioning the Rishi who visualized the mantra, the Deva or the Devatha who inspired the mantra or to whom the mantra is addressed; and the metrical form of the mantra. Every time, one meditates on the deity uttering its mantra with devotion; one recalls its Rishi with reverence and gratitude. For instance, the most celebrated Gayatri   mantra which appears in Rig Veda at 3.62.10 is prefaced by a short description, Vishvamitra risihi, Savitha devatha, Gayatri chandaha, which says that the mantra was revealed to Rishi Vishwamitra; the illuminating spirit behind the mantra was Savitha Devatha from whom everything comes into being ; and it was conveyed to the Rishi in Gayatri chandas (a metrical form having three lines of 8 syllables each, a total of 24 syllables). Before one meditates on goddess Gayatri uttering her mantra, one submits salutations to its Rishi, Vishwamitra.

Yaska_charya also mentions that mantras have three layers of meaning (traye artha).The essential power of the mantras are to transport us to the world of ideas beyond the ordinary and to experience the vision that the Rishi had.

BOOKS of Rig Veda

The Rig Veda contains 10,552 mantras; grouped into 1, 028 Sukthas each of roughly ten mantras, spread over ten Mandalas (Books).The Mandalas are of uneven size. These mantras are authored by about 400 Rishis of whom about 30 are women. Each Rishi is identified by two names – his/her personal name and the name of his/her father or teacher or lineage. For instance, the first Suktha of Rig Veda was revealed to Madhuchchanda Vishwamitrah meaning that he was the son or the disciple of Vishwamitra; the Gayatri mantra was revealed to Vishwamitra Gathin meaning Vishwamitra was the son of Gatha. It also indicates whether the Rishi was a man or a woman; for instance, Ghosha Kakshivali (RV 10.39-40) was the wife of kakshivan another Rishi.

A   Rishi could be a man or a woman, could be a celibate or a householder or unmarried.

As mentioned, each hymn of the Rig Veda is attributed to a Rishi. Of the ten Mandalas (Books) six Mandalas, numbering from 2 to 7 are homogenous in character and are considered the oldest parts of the Rig Veda. Each of these six books was composed by a Rishi and by members of his family / disciples and of his Gotra. These Mandalas (2-7) are therefore often called Family Books. On the other hand, the books 1, 8 and 10 were not each composed by a distinct family of Rishis but by different individual Rishis. The Books #1 and 8 are almost Family Books as a majority of their hymns are composed by the family of Kanvas and many hymns are found in both the Books.  The Book # 9 is different from the rest; all the hymns therein are addressed to Soma (while not a single hymn is addressed to Soma in the Family Books) and by groups of Rishis. The tenth Book is a collection of various earlier and later hymns.Book # 10 appears to be of a later origin and of a supplementary character. The Books # 1 and 10 are the latest and the longest Books together accounting for about 40 percent of the bulk of the Rig Veda.

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There are certain texts called Anukramani (also called Anukramanika) which serve as Index to the Rig Veda and provide basic information about each hymn of the Rig Veda. The most well-known of the Aukramani is Katyayana’s sarvanukramani and is dated around the second century. The entries in the texts mention about each hymn specifying, the name of the Rishi who   authored the hymn; the Devatha who inspired or to whom the hymn is addressed; and the Chandas or the metre of the hymn. They are extremely useful in historical analysis of the Rig Veda.For more on Anukramanis, please see .

The following table indicates the number of hymns in the rig Veda, attributed to some main families.

Family No. of


Angirasa 3,619
Kanva 1,315
Vasistha 1,267
VIshwamitra 0,983
Atri 0,885
Brighu 0,473
Kashyapa 0,415
Grtsamanda 0,401
Agasthya 0,316
Bharata 0,170

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As regards female Rishis (Rishikas), about 30 of them are named in the Rig Veda. To name some of them: : Ghosha Kakshivati , Dakshina Prajapathya ,Vishvavara Atreyi,  Godha, Apala Atreyi, Yami Vivasvathi, Lopamudra, Romasha Svanya, Aditi Dakshayeni, Ratri Bharadwaja , Vasukra Pathni , Surya Savitri, Indrani, Sarma Devasuni ,   Urvashi, Shashwati Angirasi, Sri Laksha and others .

Lopamudra , a great Rishika in her own right , was the wife of Rishi Agasthya and Ghosha Kakashivati was the wife of another Rishi kakashivan . Daughters of the Rishis Bharadwaja , Angirasa and Atri were also Rishikas.Vishvavara, Romasha and Vach Ambrini stood out as other Rishikas of merit.


Tradition accepts that Rishi Veda_Vyasa categorized and compiled four Vedas by splitting the primordial single Veda and rendered the Vedas more amenable to study and to memorize. The task of preserving and perpetuating each  branch of the Veda, in its entirety and purity , was assigned to a specified Shakha (meaning branch).The followers of each Shakha ,  identified as Shakins  of that particular Vedic school, were responsible for preserving their assigned part of the Veda. Followers of each Shakha would learn and preserve one the four Veda Samhitas along with their associated Brahmana, Aranyaka, Upanishads and the Sutras such as Grhyasutra and Shrautasutra. Only a small number of these Shakhas have survived; the prominent among them are Sakala and Baskala. For more on Shakas, please see:

It is astounding that large bodies of Vedic texts have been preserved in oral traditions for over thousands of years, safeguarding their purity and entirety. How our ancients could successfully achieve such an unbelievable task, is truly remarkable.

In order to achieve this difficult task, an elaborate and a meticulous systems of recitations were devised. These systems of discipline with their  checks and balances , ensured the correctness of a text including the correct sequence of its words; purity of the language; exact pronunciation of the words; precise stress on syllables ; measured pause between syllables; appropriate tone, accent, modulation  and pitch of recitation; proper breath control etc. Shiksha one of the six Vedangas (limbs of Veda) that dealt with phonetics and phonology of Sanskrit, laid down rules for correct pronunciation of Vedic hymns and mantras.

Along with this, several patterns of Vedic chants were devised to ensure complete and perfect memorization of the text and its pronunciation including the Vedic pitch accent. These patterns called Pathaas ensured correct recital of the Veda mantra by weaving the mantras into various patterns and complex combinations of patterns. There are eleven acknowledged patterns or Patahaas Viz. Samhitha or vakhyaa, padaa, krama, jataa, maala, Sikhaa, rekhaa, dhvajaa, dandaa, rathaa and Ghana.

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The salient features of a few main Paathaas are as under:

Vakhya Pathaa or Samhitaa Pathaa: To recite the mantras in a straight sentence.

Pada Paathaa: to recite the mantras, word by word, instead of joining the words; to acquaint the student with the words in the text.

Krama Paathaa: the first word of the mantra is added to the second, the second to the third, the third to the fourth and so on, until the whole sentence of the mantras is completed. The order of words will be 1-2; 2-3; 3-4; 4-5 and so on. This helps to fix the words in their proper position and sequence. It also helps the students to understand changes occurring in swara in such a combination. The person who is well versed in reciting the Krama Paathaa is known as “Krama Vit.”.

Jata Paathaa: the first two words are recited together and then the words are recited in a reverse order and then again in the original order. Jata Paathaa is a play by twisting the Krama Paatha:   Krama + Inverse of Krama + Krama = jataa. The order will be 1-2-2-1-1-2, 2-3-3-2-2-3, 3-4-4-3-3-4, 4-5-5-4-4-5 and so on

Ghana Paathaa: This is one of the most popular form of recitations and requires years of learning and practice. A scholar proficient in recitation in this format is honored as Ghana_ paathi. In Ghana Paathaa the combination will be: 1-2-2-1-1-2-3-3-2-1-1-2-3  2-3-3-2-2-3-4-4-3-2-2-3-4, 3-4-4-3-3-4-5-5-4-3-3-4-5 and so on till last pada ends in that sentence. This is a complex combination of Jata Paatha and Pada Paatha in the following order:   jataa + 3rd Padaa + Inverse of 3 Padaas + 3 Padaas in Straightway = Ghana Paathaa.

The Samhita Paathaa and Pada Paathaa are called Prakrithi (or natural) Paathaas, as the words of the mantras occur in normal sequence. The rest are called Vikrithi (or artificial and not natural) Paathaas. Recently mathematical series have been devised to work out the Krama, Jata and Ghana Paatha patterns. For more on this and for greater details on Paathas please visit

By applying these stringent methods  of learning and complicated patterns of recital, each generation committed to memory long passages of its assigned texts through incessant practice spread over a number of  years, retained the form and content of the texts in their pristine condition and transmitted, orally, to the next generation. This was how the Vedic texts were retained in oral form, uncorrupted, over the centuries.


Posted by on September 4, 2012 in Indian Philosophy, oral traditions, Rigveda


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8 responses to “Rishis of the Rig Veda and oral traditions of the Vedas

  1. Pooja LoPriore

    October 14, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Reblogged this on S U A R I * सुअरी and commented:
    Mantras – they Hymns of Intuition. Beautiful Article.

    • sreenivasaraos

      October 15, 2012 at 3:14 am

      Dear Pooja , Thank you for the appreciation ; and for reaching the article to wider circle of readers. Puja Greetings . May the Mother Bless you and be with you forever. Regards

  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 9:51 am


    wow! this is more than i can digest! i will come back to it again and again to digest this!

    my doubts got cleared though. my father-in-law (no more unfortunately) used to say our (ie., my hubby’s) linage as below (btw, my hubby does not know any of this!) —–>

    angirasa, bruhaspati, bharadwaja (trio) when he (my fil) performed some poojas…
    so your chart of rishis puts angirasa on top; good; fil had also said our veda is rig.

    also, it is nice to know that daughters of angirasa, bharadwaja were also rishikas; so rig linage need not be from male rishi’s only… right?

    more qs:

    1) can one say bruhaspati & bharadwaja are also rig vedic rishis?

    2) did some/all of rig vedic rishi’s also put together mantras in other vedas like… yajurveda, samaveda etc.. or was there a separate linage of rishi’s for them?

    thanks a lot for making a separate blog for my qs!


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 9:52 am

      dear kaveriyamma,

      thank you for the response.

      yes, bharadwaja was a rishi of the rig veda .there were many of the same names in the subsequent ages. they could be of his gotra.

      brihaspathi was a deity of rig veda. he also figures in puranas. please rig veda- the gods that faded away (7/7) for more on that.

      as regards the mantras in rig veda and other vedas , let me say there is a considerable overlapping among the four veda books. about 95 per cent of the sama veda text is borrowed from the rig veda. similarly about 50 per cent of the shukla yajur veda samhita and about 35 per cent of atharva veda samhita are from rig veda.

      the differences among the vedas are not so much with regard to their contents than with the their emphasis, treatment and interpretation of their subject..

      thanks for asking.

      please keep talking.


      • sreenivasaraos

        March 21, 2015 at 9:55 am

        dear kaveriyamma,

        further to what i mentioned. brihaspahi was also the name of a rishi. he was one of the sons of rishi angirasa

        there is a pravara with agirasa, brahaspathya and bharadwaja rishis.

        the gotra is bharadwaja.


  3. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 9:53 am

    dear sreenivasarao,

    it is nice that you have given some useful information and also given the links for knowing more about rig veda. i have copied it for my future reference. thanks.

    according to some historians like p.t.srinivasa iyengar or madras university, many rishis whose names appear in many scriptures from vedas to puranas refer to their family names and not individuals. we can observe that the time gap between the appearance of names could be thousands of years. for example agastya was shown as contemporary of rama in ramayana and also as having composed a grammar for tamil language many centuries later. the gotra system carried the names of the originators for many generations it seems.
    just a point for thought. originally ‘gotra’ meant “cow pen”. rig vedic people were pastoralists we have heard.

    Narayan MKV

  4. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 9:55 am

    wonderful. beautiful style of narration. your language style is really superb. keep writing such serious articles.

    can i recommend a book by name”addi sankara’s vision of reality/ panoli/ foreward by justice r. krishna iyer. regards.


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 9:56 am

      dear penmight,

      very happy to talk to you, after a very longtime. welcome back.

      thank you very much for the appr4eciation and kind words.

      that was a part of about ten articles i posted on the rig veda. you are welcome to peruse the rest.

      as regards shankara and his views on reality, kindly read

      adhyasa bashya of sankara and
      sankara – a genius , misunderstood

      an individual experiences the world through his senses, mind and other ways of perception. his experience of the world may be tainted by the defect in his senses or other constraints, internal or external. nevertheless, that person creates his own set of impressions and experiences and he accepts those subjective experiences as real.

      sankara says that individual’s experience cannot be disputed, because the experience. what he went through was real to him; though that may not be real from the absolute point of view. sankara makes a distinction between the absolute view and the relative view of things.

      sankara explains that vyavaharika (relative) and para_marthika (absolute) both are real. however, the relative reality is “limited” in the sense it is biologically or mechanically determined and it is not beyond contradictions. the absolute on the other hand is unitary (meaning utter lack of plurality) and is beyond contradictions.

      sankara is careful to point out that the two dimensions – vyavaharika and paramarthika- are two levels of experiential variations. it does not mean they are two orders of reality. they are only two perspectives. whatever that is there is real and is not affected by our views, one way or the other.

      thank you for recommending “aadi sankara’s vision of reality” by panoli. i have not heard of that book. i shall try to get it.

      please keep talking.



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