By Swami Harshananda
Ṛṣi literally means ‘a man of wisdom.
The word is derived from the verbal root ṛṣ which means ‘to know’. The word ṛṣi means any person who has attained expertise and proficiency in any field of knowledge. Hence, a ṛṣi need not be a person of religious, philosophical or spiritual bent of mind. In this sense, an expert in any field of knowledge like Caraka, Suśruta or Bhāskarācārya, can be called a ṛṣi.
General Meaning of Ṛṣi
However, in a more restricted sense, only a person of spiritual wisdom, who has transcended sansāra or trans-migratory existence, can be termed as ṛṣi. Being a man of perfect chastity with tremendous self-control and deeply devoted to truth, he is also capable of blessing the good and cursing the wicked. Rṣis could have been born in all castes and classes, because they attained that state by dint of their self-effort.
Classification of Ṛṣis
The general belief is that the number of ṛṣis may be around 48,000. They can be classified as:
- Devarṣi - A sage honored even by the devas or gods is a devarṣi.
- Brahmarṣi - One who has realised Brahman or is an expert in the Vedas is a brahmarṣi.
- Rājarṣi - A rāja or a king who has attained high spiritual states is a rājarṣi.
- Maharṣi - A maharṣi is one who is considered as very great.
- Paramarṣi - Paramarṣi is one who has realized Paramātman or God.
- Śrutarṣi - A śrutarṣi is one about whom many have heard, i.e., who is famous.
- Kāṇdarṣi - A sage to whom a kāṇḍa or a section of the Veda has been revealed, is a kāṇḍarṣi.
Present age Saptarṣis
The group of seven famous sages is known as Saptarṣis. The Saptarṣis of the present age are:
Other Great Ṛṣis
Apart from the saptarṣis mentioned earlier, the following are a few of the several great ṛṣis mentioned in the scriptures:
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore