Atri was one of the six supreme patriarch ṛṣi (rishi; sage) — like Marīci (Marichi) and Aṅgirā (Angira) — who were born at the onset of the Creation. Many legends are associated with the birth of these six prime sages, and the great sage Atri is no exception. The foremost of these legends is that all of these six sages were born out of Brahmā’s (Brahma) mind — brahmaṇo mānasāḥ putrāḥ —
marīciraṅgirā atriḥ pulastyaḥ pulahaḥ kratuḥ
ṣaḍhete brahmaṇaḥ putrā vīryavanto maharṣayaḥ.
However, a few verses of Śāntiparva (Shantiparva) of Mahābhārata (Mahabharata) report the number of Brahmā’s mind-born sons to be seven instead of six, including Vaśiṣṭha(Vasishtha) in the list. Whether Brahmā’s mind-born sons, these sages who filled the world with their progeny and became the foremost patriarchs, were six or seven in number is a matter of debate to the scholars, for various sources provide with contradictory information. But the major Purāṇas (Purana) support the Seven Sages (saptarṣi; saptarshi or ‘the seven sages’) theory, which has also found its way into popular myth with the tenets that they were Brahmā’s mind-born sons manifesting at the dawn of the Creation; that from them originated numerous famous kingly dynasties and sagely lineages and even a number of gods; and that together they form the constellation of Saptarṣimaṇḍala (Saptarshimandala; the asterism consisting of seven bright stars of the constellation Ursa Major) in the sky. Atri was one of those premier Seven Sages or saptarṣi.
The majority of of the Puranic texts acknowledge Atri to be the mind-born son of Brahmā. However, many Purāṇas vary from one another in the description of his birth. For instance, Bhagavatapurāṇa (Bhagavatapurana) describes Atri to be born of Brahmā’s eyes at the beginning of the Creation — akṣno’tri.
Many verses in Mahābhārata and Purāṇas recognise Atri as the second of the premier Seven Sages, born right after Marīci. But Vāyupurāṇa (Vayupurana) retells a different version of the story of the birth of the Sages. As this particular legend goes, during the epoch (manvantara) of Svāyambhūva (Swayambhuva) Manu the patriarch sages were indeed born of Brahmā’s heart, but they were not six or seven in number, but ten — namely, Bhṛgu (Bhrigu), Marīci, Atri, Aṅgirā, Pulaha, Kratu, Manu (Svāyambhūva), Dakṣa (Daksha), Vaśiṣṭha and Pulastya. These ten patriarch sages of the Svāyambhūva epoch were burnt to the ashes by the fire of wrath of an aggrieved Śiva (Siva), after his consort Satī’s (Sati) self-immolation at the sacrificial festival conducted by her father Dakṣa. Later, during the epoch of Vaivasvata (Vaivaswata) Manu, they were reborn as Brahmā’s sons. At the onset of the Vaivasvata epoch, Brahmā, conceiving of creating the populace of the universe, made an offering of his own powerful seed to the sacrificial fire. The first result that the offering yielded was the sage Bhṛgu, who came out of the fire immediately, and none other than Śiva took him for his son. Next, Aṅgirā emerged, and was adopted by Agni, the fire-god. Thereafter, two of Brahmā’s sons, Marīci and Kratu, made appearance. After that, the third son of Brahmā emerged, announcing, “I am the third”. The Sanskrit word for ‘third’ is tṛtīya (tritiya). As the third son declared himself to be the third, pronouncing the word tṛtīya, he was named ‘Atri’ —
ahaṃ tṛtīya ityarthastanmādatriḥ sa kīrtyate.
However, many other Purāṇas also have conceived of the birth of ten patriarch sages in the beginning, and Manusaṃhitā (Manusamhita) also considers Atri among the ten patriarch sons of Brahmā.
A verse in Śāntiparva (Santiparva) of Mahābhārata accounts that together Atri and the seven other mind-born sons of Brahmā are also renowned by the name Citraśikhaṇḍī (Chitrasikhandi). In Śāntiparva, Atri has been featured in the catalogue of the twenty-one patriarchs.
Ṛgveda (Rigveda) and the other Brāhmaṇa (Brahmana) texts first mention Atri as one of the great sages and patriarchs. One hymn in the first maṇḍala (mandala) includes Atri in the list of the long-lived patriarchs along with Dadhīci (Dadhichi), Aṅgirā, Manu and so on. This is the earliest instance of Atri being categorised as a patriarch, one from whom originated many dynasties and lineages. Many verses in Ṛgveda mention Atri in singular as well as in plural number; and more than one of his sons and disciples are recorded to be the ones to have seen or conceptualised various Vedic hymns. This leads us to the conclusion that since the Rigvedic era, Atri has been so firmly established as a patriarch, an originator of a number of lineages, that his descendants and heirs also came to be known by his name. At least forty times in Ṛgveda the term ‘Atri’ has been used in singular number, and in plural in nearly equal number. Various hymns of Ṛgveda mentions persons as Kumāra (Kumara), Gaya, Puru, Dvita (Dwita), Sūtambhara (Sutambhara) and likewise as Atri’s son. It is common to find the Vedic narratives encapsulating the prototypes of many legends associating Atri which blossomed and spanned in the epics and the Puranic texts over the time.
The epics and the Puranic texts tell us numerous stories from the life of Atri; at the same time they provide us with innumerable legends and myths which incorporate this great sage as a character.
According to Purāṇas, Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa (Ramayana), Anasūyā (Anasuya) was Atri’s wife. The majority of the Puranic texts describe her to be the daughter of Kardama, another patriarch. However, as per the accounts of Vāyupurāṇa and Viṣṇupurāṇa (Vishnupurana), she is the daughter of Dakṣa. In Purāṇas, Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa we come across a number of legends associating Atri and Anasūyā.
In Anuśāsanaparva (Anushasanaparva) of Mahābhārata the following myth regarding Atri and Anasūyā is related, while recounting the glory of god Śiva. Once, after falling out with his husband Atri, Anasūyā left him and sought recourse to Śiva. She took shelter of the deity out of her fear for her husband Atri, and she informed Śiva of her decision that she would not give birth to Atri’s offspring; instead, she wished to Śiva for a son fathered by Śiva himself, and started severe tapasyā (tapasya) to achieve this goal. After satisfying Śiva in this way, she received from Śiva the boon that by virtue of Śiva’s fierce energy she would give birth to a son without having indulged in copulation with her husband—
vinā bhartrā ca rudreṇa bhaviṣyati na saṃśayaḥ.
This son of Anasūyā, born with the fierce energy of Śiva, was none other than the sage Durvāsā, who was famous for his temper and affinity for curses.
A number of other legends regarding the birth of the son of Atri and Anasūyā also can be found throughout the Puranic texts.
A legend found in Bhāgavatapurāṇa (Bhagavatapurana) recounts that Atri, upon being asked by Brahmā to produce the populace of the universe at the very onset of the Creation, started an austere tapasyā at the charming site of Ṛkṣaparvata (Rikshaparvata; the Ṛkṣa mountains), with his wife Anasūyā as his sole companion. Their tapasyā dedicated to the Supreme Being was so powerful that it summoned all the three principal deities — namely, Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva — in front of the meditating couple. To them Atri said, “You are the lords of creation, preservation and destruction respectively. Now it is upon you to tell us who among you we have meditated upon and called for.” All the three deities unanimously answered, “You have meditated upon the Supreme Being, whom all three of us personify in different aspects. Therefore you shall have three sons, each with the power of each of us, who will spread your lineage and renown.” Having received this boon, Atri’s wife Anasūyā gave birth to Soma (who had the grace of Brahmā), Datta or Dattātreya (Dattatreya), the most knowledgeable sage in yoga (with the virtues of Viṣṇu), and Durvāsā (encapsulating the energy of Śiva). This myth of the holy trinity appearing as the children of Atri and Anasūyā is also linked with another legend of Anasūyā’s life. [See Anasūyā]
There is a number of legends as well on the birth of Soma or Candra (Chandra, the Moon).
Some Purāṇas account that at one point of time Atri, the mind-born son of Brahmā, had been immersed in deep tapasyā, with the goal of a general benefit of the universe. It was then that his body acquired the soft splendour of Soma or the Moon, and his eyes forgot blinking. When the splendour of Soma spread towards his head, his eyes started secreting dazzlingly radiant tear, which was actually droplets of the divine beverage, Somarasa (which, again, has a close association with the Moon). From these droplets of Soma from Atri’s eyes was created the Moon. Not only the Moon, but the renowned Candravaṃśa (Chandravangsha; the Lunar Dynasty) also originated from Atri.
According to Bhāgavatapurāṇa, Candra originated from Atri’s tears of happiness.
Another myth says that Atri was once asked by Brahmā to create the populace for the earth; so he started an austere tapasyā. As a result of his deep meditation, the Supreme Being, the essence of all the gods and the ultimate shelter of the entire universe, manifested Himself in Atri’s inner eyes. At the same time the greatly revered divine couple, Śiva and his consort Pārvatī (Parvati), appeared before Atri. Seeing these manifestations, Atri’s heart filled in happiness and his eyes dropped tears. From these droplets of happy tears originated the Moon, which illumined the world with his soft radiance.
Apart from the Moon-god, Candra and Dattāttreya, the renowned king Nimi also was born in the line of Atri, says Mahābhārata.
When Atri is considered to be the father of the Moon, one of the most important sources of light, an association of him with Agni or the Fire (the Fire-god, to say so) is automatically established. Mahābhārata specifically speaks about this identical oneness of Atri with Agni, when it says that all the forms of Agni are Brahmā’s mind-born sons and have originated from Atri’s lineage; not only this, but the varieties of Somayāga (Somayaga; a very significant and particular type of yajña) are equal in number with the forms of Agni. Atri, when he pondered upon procreation, gave shelter to all the forms of Agni in his heart. In this way, all the forms of Agni was then reproduced from Atri’s body.
In Mahābhārata, another story has been narrated, indicating Atri’s oneness with the fierceness of Agni. Once the gods and the demons were combatting each other viciously in darkness. Svarbhānu (Swarbhanu), a demon prototype of another demon Rāhu (Rahu), struck both the Sun and the Moon down with arrow, leading them to lose their lustre and the world to sink in darkness. As is evident, the demons’ powers increased manifold in the absence of light; they became nearly invincible in darkness and killed numerous gods. The vanquished gods, fleeing, met a meditating Atri. To the calm and composed sage, who had conquered all the desires of life, they prayed, “Give us the light of the Sun and the Moon, so that we can defeat the demons.” By virtue of his occult powers, Atri produced dazzling radiance equivalent to the Sun and the Moon, which the demons could not endure and the majority of them was destroyed. Recounting the story of this fierce form of Atri, a brāhmaṇa, Vāyu (Vayu), the Wind-God, asked Arjuna whether he could name a kṣatriya who could excel Atri in such power — vravīmyahaṃ vrūhi vā tvamatritaḥ kṣtriyaṃ varam.
This account of Mahābhārata posits Atri at a pivotal position in the myth of retrieving the light of the Sun and the Moon. However, the Vedic texts encapsulate the seed of this myth. A hymn of Ṛgveda accounts that when the Sun was concealed by Svarbhānu, it was the sage Atri who underwent a quest, recovered the Sun and re-established him in the firmament, battling the spell of Svarbhānu —
svarbhānoradha yadindra māyā avo divo vartamānā avāhan/
gūḍhaṃ sūryaṃ tamasāpavratena turīyaṇa brahmaṇāvindadatriḥ.
One hymn in Atharvaveda also mentions a similar legend, which has been recounted more elaborately in Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (Satapatha Brahmana). Here, Atri has been mentioned in the context of giving away valuables in charity (dāna; dana) to the brāhmaṇa most appropriate for receiving such an honour in a yajña. Once, while a yajña had been going on, after chanting the necessary hymns in the morning, standing in front of the holy altar, the performer of the yajña sought such an honourable brāhmaṇa who could receive the dāna. Atri was present in that yajña as a high priest. As soon as the summons for a suitable recipient brāhmaṇa was declared, the site of yajña was covered in the magical darkness created by the demons. The other sages present at the site requested Atri to lead them and disperse the darkness —
te ṛṣayo’trim avruvan — ehi pratyaṅ idam tamo’pajahīti.
Within moments, Atri dispelled the darkness, and it was readily granted by all that the one to dispel such great darkness himself was the true essence of incandescent light — ya idam tamo’pāvadhīditi tasmāt etad jyotiḥ.
In fact, etymologically speaking, the word atri originates from the Sanskrit verbal root ad, which indicates ‘to eat’ or ‘to consume’. The phenomenon to consume or ‘eat’ everything is fire, which also is a source of light. In this sense Atri can be another name for Agni or the fire.
The verbal root ad of atri has also led the name to be equated with tongue, speech and logocentric knowledge (vāk; vak). Tongue is needed for the act of speaking as well as consuming. In Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣada (Brihadaranyaka Upanishada) and its commentary by Śaṅkarācārya the root of the word atri is clearly stated to be the verbal root ad. However, the word stemming directly from the root ad and associated with speech or eating is decidedly not atri, but atti. Atti in turn transformed into atri. Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa states that Atri is vāk or speech, and it is through speech (vākya; vakya) that food is consumed (here the Sanskrit word vākya, in a metonymical usage of the word, stands for the tongue, not for speech). Therefore, atti, or Atri in transformation, is identical with the tongue —
vāgevātrirvācā hi annaṃ/hyannaṃ adyate,
attirha vai nāmaitat yad atririti.
King Pṛthu (Prithu), son of Veṇa (Vena) and the first king in the world famous for his love for and generosity towards the subjects, gave away a lot of wealth to Atri in charity. As Mahābhārata informs us, once Atri, in dire need of wealth, thought of visiting Pṛthu with the prayer of financial assistance. But that would have made him lose the honourable path of a brāhmaṇa sage, whose philosophy dictated leading a life devoid of material wealth and full of intellectual and spiritual riches. Therefore Atri decided to forgo this idea and leave the material world for the forests, where he, along with his wife, would indulge in spiritual pursuits. When he told his wife Anasūyā about his decision, she suggested, “You should first visit King Pṛthu and bring wealth from him. Then you can distribute the wealth among your near and dear ones and thereafter we can immerse ourselves in spiritual pursuits in the seclusion of the forests.” Atri consented to his wife’s idea. Visiting the court of King Pṛthu, Atri started singing praise of him, greeting him with hyperbolic appellations as vidhāta (vidhata) and prajāpati (referring to the king as the sole creator and ruler of the universe, exaggeratingly equating him with the godhead). At this, the other sages present in the court, like Gautama, protested and a quarrel between Gautama and Atri broke out. When the quarrel went out of hand, Sanatkumāra (Sanatkumara), the son of Brahmā, had to appear as the mediator. He explained before everyone the divine nature and rights of the king, validating the eulogising statements made by Atri. This immensely pleased Pṛthu, who made a gift of many servants, steeds, cattle and a lot of wealth to Atri. Distributing them among his sons and servants, Atri went away in the forests and immersed himself in tapasyā.
Beside this legend of Mahābhārata, another story of associated nature can be found in Bhāgavatapurāṇa. In this story we find King Pṛthu performing his hundredth Aśvamedha (Aswamedha) yajña. In order to bring shame on the king, who had earned fame by performing ninety-nine yajña of such esteemed nature, Indra, the king of the gods, took the disguise of a heretic and escaped with the sacrificial horse. When he was fleeing, he was noticed by Atri. He instigated Pṛthu’s son to pursue Indra. Upon catching up with Indra, the prince bent upon killing him, but he refrained when he saw Indra’s guise of a (false) hermit. But Atri was not to be fooled by such trickery. He kept on egging the prince and the prince ultimately grabbed Indra. Indra had no way but to shed his guise and return the holy horse to the prince. Once again thereafter Indra attempted to abduct the horse, but this time also he could not escape the eyes of Atri and his attempt became a futile one. Whether this story of King Pṛthu being aided by Atri has any connection with the Mahābhārata legend of Atri being presented with wealth by the king can be an interesting topic for research.
In Rāmāyaṇa (Ramayana) we find Rāmacandra (Ramachandra), Lakṣmaṇa (lakshmana) and Sītā (Sita), after the departure of Bharata from the forest station of Citrakūṭa (Chitrakuta) Hills, were roaming in the forests with a heavy heart, when they arrived at Sage Atri’s hermitage. Atri behaved with Rāmacandra as if he was the sage’s own son and offered them cozy hospitality. His wife Anasūyā imparted to Sītā the knowledge on the topic of the duties of a wife to her husband and presented her with many invaluable clothes and ornaments.
In Laṅkākāṇḍa (Lankakanda) of Rāmāyaṇa Atri has been described as a patriarch sage and patron of innumerable followers and disciples. Here too, by virtue of his fierce splendour, Atri has been compared to the Sun and fire — atriḥ kulapatiryatra sūryavaiśvānaropamaḥ. His affection for Rāma was so great that from far south of the country he visited Ayodhyā (Ayodhya) at the time of Rāma’s coronation. Another sage called Atri coming from the western part of the country is mentioned to be present at the coronation, but we believe the two Atri to be identical.
Although Rāmāyaṇa describes Atri as hailing from the south or the west of the country, in the Puranic texts his hermitage is said to be founded in one of the Himalayan valleys, to reach where one must cross the river Airāvatī (Airavati). Matsyapurāṇa (Matsyapurana) recounts a legend of one of the past lives of King Purūravā (Pururava), the famous lover of the apsarā (apsara) Urvaśī (Urvasi). According to this legend, in one of his past lives Purūravā was the king of the Madra kingdom, when he, whie roaming in Himālaya parvata (Himalaya; the Himalayas), arrived at the hermitage of Atri. The natural beauty of the park of the hermitage was exquisite and the text describes it in great length. For one month the Madra king, living solely on water, meditated upon the god Janārdana (Janardana) or Viṣṇu. At last Janārdana appeared before him and promised him that the very next morning the king would meet the great sage Atri, who would fulfill all his desires. The king did meet the sage the next morning, when the sage suggested him to worship the god and then pay offerings into the fire in god’s name. Following Atri’s suggestions, the king received all that he desired.
Atri is seen to be present in many instances in various Purāṇas and Mahābhārata.
- Atri is one of the Great Seven Sages during the epoch of Śrāddhadeva (Sraddhadeva) or Vaivasvata Manu, the son of Vivasvān (Vivasvan; the Sun-God).
- According to Purāṇas, in the months of jyaiṣṭha (jyaishtha) and āṣāḍha (asharha) [also called śuci (shuchi) and śukra (shukra) respectively] in Indian lunar calendar, Atri stays on the chariot of the Sun-God.
- A legend in Vāmanapurāṇa (Vamanapurana) describes that once an enraged Śiva decapitated Brahmā with his sharp nail. The severed head of Brahmā got stuck to Śiva’s left palm and would not shift. A worried Śiva visited Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa (Narayana) at Badrikāśrama (Badrikasrama) to seek the latter’s advice. Upon hearing the ordeal, Nārāyaṇa asked Śiva to strike on Nārāyaṇa’s left palm with his trident, and Śiva complied. From the three wounds of the trident on Nārāyaṇa’s palm gushed out three streams of hot blood, one of which flowed towards the star-strewn firmament. Another stream flowed down onto the Earth and the sages took care of it on the planet. From the latter stream, Atri was born with the grace of Nārāyaṇa, and Durvāsā, with that of Śiva.
- When Sage Paraśurāma (Parashurama), son of the sage Jamadagni, went to the forests to observe tapasyā, he was visited by a number of sages and ascetics. Atri is said to be one of them.
- Sage Śaktri (Shaktri), father of the renowned sage Parāśara (Parashara), was killed by a rākṣasa (rakshasa; a type of demon). Therefore Parāśara waged war against them and performed a powerful yajña the spell of which would drag all the rākṣasa of the world into the sacred fire. His powerful spell worked perfectly, but led to the deaths of many innocent rākṣasa as well. A number of sages and ascetics, sensing the wrong of this genocide, took it upon themselves to dissuade Parāśara from this gruesome revenge mission. Of the sages who visited Parāśara to convince him of the unjust wrong he was committing, Atri was one.
- Atri is one of the great sages present in the court of Brahmā.
- We come to know from Anuśāsanaparva (Anushasanaparva) of Mahābhārata that Atri is one of the sages who became brahmarṣi (brahmarshi) by chanting Gāyatrīmantra (Gayatrimantra) continuously.
- Once King Soma organised a Rājasūya (Rajasuya) yajña at Somatīrtha (Somatirtha), in which Atri acted as hotā (hota) or the priest of Ṛgveda.
- Before Skanda Kārtikeya (Kartikeya) set out to kill the demon Tarakāsura (Tarakasura), he was formally instated as the commander-in-chief of the divine army. Atri was there among the sages present in that ceremony.
- The legend of Nala and Damayantī (Damayanti), recounted in Vanaparva of Mahābhārata, informs that Damayantī, wandering here and there in search of Nala, arrived at a divine park which was abode to many renowned wise men. Atri was one of those great sages.
- According to Skandapurāṇa (Skandapurana), while performing tapasyā at the holy site of Mahīsāgara-Saṅgama (Mahisagara-Sangama), Atri installed a śivaliṅga (sivalinga) towards south of Koṭītīrtha (Kotitirtha), which, after the sage, is renowned as Atrīśvara (Atrishwara) liṅga.
- On the advent of the era of Dvāpara (Dwapara), people indulged in more sinful acts, became demented and left śivadharma (sivadharma; the traditional, liberal path of principles and righteousness). As a result, the hierarchy of the caste-system or varṇāśrama (varnasrama), which was the backbone of the ancient Indian society, crumbled. In order to save the society from destruction and reinstate the rules and principles, Atri wrote Dharmaśāstra (Dharmasastra) or the scripture of principles of life, and preached the ancient śivadharma.
- During the Kurukṣetra (Kurukshetra) war, Atri was one of the sages to visit Droṇācārya (Dronacharya) at his moment of demise, in order to take his soul after death to the domain of Brahmā, where dwells the souls of the pious and acclaimed brāhmaṇas.
- Atri was also among the renowned sages who had gathered at Kurukṣetra to pay homage to Bhīṣma (Bhishma), who had been lying on the bed of arrows.
- When King Parīkṣit (Parikshit), the grandson of Arjuna and the ruler of Hastināpura (Hastinapura), decided to fast to death, distinguished sages gathered around him in order to show respect to him. Atri was one of those sages.
- Janka Bahulāśva (Bahulaswa) was the king of Mithilā and contemporary of Kṛṣṇa (Krishna). In his kingdom resided a pious brāhmaṇa called Śrutadeva (Srutadeva). Both the king and the brāhmaṇa were great devotees of Kṛṣṇa, who personally visited Mithilā in order to meet them. Atri was one of the companions of Kṛṣṇa on this Mithilā tour.