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File:Rishikesh upstream ganga india.jpg

A view of the upper Ganges area of Rishikesh in the Himalaya. Regarded by tradition as the abode of Vedic rishis.

Rishi (Sanskrit: ṛṣi, Devanagari: ऋषि) denotes the composers of Vedic hymns. However, according to post-Vedic tradition, the rishi is a "seer" to whom the Vedas were "originally revealed" through states of higher consciousness. The rishis were prominent when Vedic Hinduism took shape, as far back as some three thousand years ago.

Many of ancient rishis were in fact women, rishikas in Sanskrit.[1] According to the late Vedic Sarvanukramani text, there were as many as 20 women among the authors of the Rig Veda, known as rishika. According to modern teachers Deepak Chopra and Swamini Mayatitananda, this number could be as high as 35.

One of the foundational qualities of a ṛṣi is satyavāc (one who speaks truth) when composing Vedic hymns. According to tradition, other sages might falter, but a ṛṣi was believed to speak truth only, because he existed in the Higher World (the unified field of consciousness). Ṛṣis provided knowledge to the world which included the knowledge of Vedas.


In Indian tradition, the word has been derived from the two roots 'rsh'. Sanskrit grammarians[2] derive this word from the second root which means (1) 'to go, to move' (- Dhātupāṭha of Pānini, xxviii). V. S. Apte[3] gives this particular meaning and derivation, and Monier-Williams[4] also gives the same, with some qualification. Another form of this root means (2) 'to flow, to move near by flowing'. (All the meanings and derivations cited above are based upon Sanskrit English Dictionary of Monier-Williams).[4] Monier-Williams also quotes Tārānātha who compiled the great (Sanskrit-to-Sanskrit) dictionary named "ṛṣati jñānena saṃsāra-pāram" (i.e., one who reaches beyond this mundane world by means of spiritual knowledge).

More than a century ago, Monier-Williams tentatively suggested derivation from drś "to see".[5] Monier-Williams also quotes Hibernian (Irish) form 'arsan' (a sage, a man old in wisdom) and 'arrach' (old, ancient, aged) as related to rishi. In Sanskrit, forms of the root 'rish' become 'arsh-' in many words, e.g., arsh. Monier-Williams also conjectures that the root 'drish' (to see) might have given rise to an obsolete root 'rish' meaning 'to see'.

However, the root has a close Avestan cognate ərəšiš[6] "an ecstatic" (see also Yurodivy, Vates). Yet, the Indo-European dictionary of Julius Pokorny connects the word to a PIE root *h3er-s meaning "rise, protrude", in the sense of "excellent, egregious".

Modern etymological explanations such as by Manfred Mayrhofer in his Etymological Dictionary[7] leaves the case open, does not prefer a connection to ṛṣ "pour, flow" (PIE *h1ers), rather one with German 'rasen' "to be ecstatic, be in a different state of mind" (and perhaps Lithuanian 'aršus').

Other uses

In Carnatic Music, Rishi is the seventh chakra (group) of Melakarta ragas. The names of chakras are based on the numbers associated with each name. In this case, there are seven rishis and hence the 7th chakra is Rishi.[8][9]

"Seer" of the Vedas

In the Vedas, the word denotes an inspired poet of Ṛgvedic hymns, who alone or with others invokes the deities with poetry. In particular, Ṛṣi refers to the authors of the hymns of the Rigveda. Post-Vedic tradition regards the Rishis as "sages" or saints, constituting a peculiar class of divine human beings in the early mythical system, as distinct from Asuras, Devas and mortal men.

The main rishis recorded in the Brahmanas and the Rigveda-Anukramanis include Gritsamada, Vishvamitra, Vamadeva, Atri, Bharadvaja, Vasishta, Angiras, Kaṇva.

Seven Rishis (the Saptarshi) are often mentioned in the Brahmanas and later works as typical representatives of the pre-historic or mythical period; in Shatapatha Brahmana (Brhad Aranyaka Upanisad), their names are Uddālaka Āruni (also called Gautama), Bharadvaja, Vishvamitra, Jamadagni, Vasishtha, Kashyapa, and Atri. Daksha, Bhrigu and Nārada were also added to the saptarshis riṣis in Āshvalāyana-Shrauta-Sutra, where these ten principals were created by the first Manu (Svāyambhuva Manu) for producing everyone else.

In Mahabharata 12, on the other hand, there is the post-Vedic list of Marici, Atri, Angiras, Pulaha, Kratu, Pulastya and Vasishtha. The Mahābhārata list explicitly refers to the saptarshis of the first manvantara[4] and not to those of the present manvantara. Each manvantara had a unique set of saptarshi. In Harivamsha 417ff, the names of the Rishis of each manvantara are enumerated.

In addition to the Saptarṣi, there are other classifications of sages. In descending order of precedence, they are Brahmarshi, Maharshi, Rajarshi. Devarṣi, Paramrṣi, Shrutarṣi and Kāndarṣi are added in Manusmriti iv-94 and xi-236 and in two dramas of Kālidasa.

The Chaturvarga-Chintāmani of Hemādri puts 'riṣi' at the seventh place in the eightfold division of Brāhmanas. Amarakosha[10] (the famous Sanskrit synonym lexicon compiled by Amarasimha) mentions seven types of riṣis : Shrutarshi, Kāndarshi, Paramarshi, Maharshi, Rājarshi, Brahmarshi and Devarshi. Amarakosha strictly distinguishes Rishi from other types of sages, such as sanyāsi, bhikṣu, parivrājaka, tapasvi, muni, brahmachāri, yati, etc.

Female Rishis (Rishikas)

Notable are several rishikas, female contributors to the composition of the Vedic scriptures.

The Rig Veda mentions Romasha, Lopamudra, Apala, Kadru, Visvavara, Ghosha, Juhu, Vagambhrini, Paulomi, Yami, Indrani, Savitri, and Devajami.

The Sama Veda adds Nodha, Akrishtabhasha, Sikatanivavari and Gaupayana.


In Hindu astronomy, the Saptarṣi (seven rishis) form the constellation of Ursa Major,[11] which are distinct from Dhruva (Polaris).

See also


  1. Swami Vivekananda public lecture, Vedanta Voice of Freedom, ISBN 0-91635663-9, p.43
  2. cf. Commentary on Unādi-Sutra, iv, 119
  3. V. S. Apte (Sanskrit-Hindi Kosh, 1890, reprint 1997 by Motilāl Banārasidās Publishers, Delhi)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Monier-Williams, Monier (1899), A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, p. 226, 
  5. [1]
  6. Yasna 31.5; cf. 40.4
  7. Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoarischen, Heidelberg 1986, I 261
  8. South Indian Music Book III, by Prof. P Sambamoorthy, Published 1973, The Indian Music Publishing House
  9. Ragas in Carnatic music by Dr. S. Bhagyalekshmy, Pub. 1990, CBH Publications
  10. Amarakosha (2.7.41-42)
  11. e. g. RV 10.82.2 and 10.109.4 ; AV 60.40.1.


  • Apte, Vaman Shivram (1965), The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary (Fourth Revised and Enlarged ed.), New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 81-208-0567-4 .
  • Apte, Vaman Shivram (1966), Sanskrit-Hindi Koṣa (Reprint 1997 ed.), New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass .
  • Chopra, Deepak (2006), Life After Death: The Burden of Proof (first ed.), Boston: Harmony Books .
  • Śāstri, Hargovind (1978), Amarkoṣa with Hindi commentary, Vārānasi: Chowkhambā Sanskrit Series Office 
  • Kosambi, D. D. (1956), An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (Second ed.), Bombay: Popular Prakashan Pvt Ltd, 35c Tardeo Road, Popular Press Bldg, Bombay-400034