Festivals of India: Rishi Panchami

Rishis are learned sages and the Sapta Rishis or the seven great sages are the seven rishis in ancient India, who are extolled at many places in the Vedas and other Hindu literature. The Vedic Samhitas never enumerate these rishis by name, though later Vedic texts such as the Brahmanas and Upanisads do so. They are regarded in the Vedas as the patriarchs of the Vedic religion.

In ancient Indian astronomy, the asterism of the Big Dipper, part of the constellation of Ursa Major, is called Saptarishi, with the seven stars representing seven rishis, namely Vashistha, Marichi, Pulastya, Pulaha, Atri, Angiras and Kratu. There is another star slightly visible within it, known as Arundhati with Arundhati and Vashishtha who are married, and together form the Mizar double.

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The Saptarishis included Sage Kashyapa, Sage Atri, Sage Vashishta, Sage Vishvamitra, Sage Gautama, Sage Jamadagni and Sage Bharadwaja. The Saptarishis were created by Lord Brahma to impart education to the human race. They passed down wisdom to the mankind so that it is able to follow the path of knowledge, understand the basic principles of goodness, and become enlightened.

Tomorrow is Rishi Panchami, a very auspicious day for Hindus. Rishi Panchami is celebrated on the fifth day of Shukla Paksha in the month of Bhadrapad, from mid-August to mid-September. It is celebrated two days after Hartalika Teej and the day after the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. It is believed that this day honours the entire gamut of sages of ancient India and is especially dedicated to the Saptarishis, the seven great sages. In some parts of Kerala, the day is also observed as Vishwakarma Puja. The festival is very famous in Nepal among the Hindus where in some regions the three days Hartalika Teej fasting ends on Rishi Panchami.

On Rishi Panchami women fast to pay obeisance to the seven sages and to get purified. Hinduism gives highest priority to purity and there are strict guidelines to maintain the purity of the body and soul. Women are believed to be contaminated during their menstrual cycle and in many families, even today, women are not allowed to enter in the kitchen or to participate in any religious activities and touch anyone during this time. And it is believed that by doing such things, women are inflicted by the Rajaswala Dosha. The fast on Rishi Panchami is believed to get rid of this Rajaswala Dosha.

Rishi Panchami is also celebrated as Raksha Bandhan or Rakhi festival by some Dadheech Brahmins and also the Agrawal and Maheshwari communities of Rajasthan. Sisters tie the Rakhi or a sacred thread and both brothers and sisters pray for the well-being of each other and vow to protect each other.

The day is so auspicious that it is believed that a fast kept on this day and all the rituals followed will relieve a person from all sins in not just the current life, but also from past lives. The story behind Rishi Panchami was narrated by Lord Brahma himself. According to him, there was a simple Brahmin named Uttank who used to live with his wife Sushila and their daughter, a widow. One night, several ants covered the body of the daughter and the parents were astonished to see this. They became extremely worried and immediately called a sage, so that he could explain the situation and give them a solution. The Rishi whom they called was a learned sage and he explained the reason behind the trouble. He made them aware of the sin that their daughter committed in her previous life which was that she had entered the kitchen during her menstruation. The rishi advised the daughter to perform certain rituals on the day of Rishi Panchami to purify her body and soul, so that she would be relieved of the sin that she has committed. Following the instructions given by the sage, the daughter performed all the customs with absolute devotion which set her soul free from the dosha.

On Rishi Panchami, devotees wake up early morning and take a bath immediately and then begin their fast. The only purpose of Rishi Panchami is to sanctify a person completely which is why some people do things like the cleaning of teeth and bathing with herbs, which are very pure and are considered to leave the body extremely clean. A mixture of curd, milk, basil and butter is drunk to purify the soul. Worshipping Gods including Lord Ganesh, the Navagraha or nine planets, the Saptarishis and the star Arundhati form the concluding part of the rituals performed. The prayers are offered in order to invoke the presence of the seven sages, with different offerings like food and flowers being offered.

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