The Transmigrations of the Seven Brahmans

Translation by

Henry David Thoreau

from Harivamsa, appendix to The Mahabharata.

The world is founded upon the sraddha [1]

The divine eye, which Sanatcoumara had given me, made me perceive the seven Brahmans, of whom he had spoken, unfaithful to their sacred rules, but yet attached to the worship of the Pitris. They bore names answering to their works: they were called Vagdouchta, Crodhana, Hinsa, Pisouna, Cavi, Swasrima, and Pitrivarttin: they were sons of Cosica, and disciples of Gargya. Their father dying they commenced the prescribed ceremonies under the direction of their master. By his order they took care of his foster cow, named Capila, who was accompanied by her calf already as large as herself. On the way, the sight of this magnificent cow, who supplied all the wants of Gargya tempted them; hunger impelled them, their reason was blinded; they conceived the cruel and mad project of slaying her. Cavi and Swasrima endeavored to prevent them from it. What could they do against the others? But Pitrivarttin, that one among them who was always occupied with the sraddha [2], having his mind then on the duty the thought of which possessed him, said to his missing or wandering brothers with anger: "Since we have a sacrifice to make to the Pitris, let this cow be sacrificed by us with devotion, and her death will profit us. Let us honor the Pitris, and no reproach can be made to us." 'Well", cried they all, and the cow was sacrificed in honor of the Pitris. They told their master afterwards: "Your cow has been slain by a tiger, but here is her calf." The Brahman, without suspecting evil, took the calf which they delivered to him.

But they had failed in (the regard) and the respect which they owed to their master; and when Time came to take them all together from this world, for having been cruel and wicked, for having rendered themselves guilty of impiety toward their spiritual perceptor, they all seven reappeared in life in the family of a hunter, of the country of Dasarna. However, as in sacrificing the cow of their master, they had rendered homage to the Pitris, these brothers, filled with force and intelligence, preserved in this existence the remembrance of the past; they showed themselves attached to their duties, performing their functions with zeal, and abstaining from very act of cupidity and injustice: now holding in their breath as long a time as endured the recitation of a mantra [3], now plunging themselves into profound meditations on their destiny. These were the names of these pious hunters: Nirvera, Nirvriti, Kchanta, Nirmanyou, Criti, Veghasa and Matrivarttin. Thus these same men who had formerly loved evil and injustice, were now so changed that they honored their mother bent (down) under the weight of age and rejoiced the heart of their father. When death had taken away their parents, then leaving their bow, they fixed themselves in the forest, where soon after they themselves also surrendered their souls.

As a recompense for their good conduct, they retained still in their following life the remembrance of the past; they were born upon the agreeable mountain Calandjara, under the form of stags with high branching horns, by turns experiencing and inspiring fear. Their names were then Ounmoukha, Nityavitrasta, Stabdacarna, Vilotchana, Pandita, Ghasmara, and Nandin. Thus going over in their memory their ancient actions, they wandered in the woods, detached from every sentiment, from every affection, submitting with resignation to the duties which they had to fulfill, and in their solitude delivering themselves to the exercises of the Yoga [4]. Extenuated by fasting and penitence, they died in the course of pious practices, by which the earth was worn bare and one sees yet, O son of Bharata, upon the mountain Calandjara the mark of their feet.

Their piety caused then that they passed into a class of beings more elevated; transported into the beautiful country of Sarodwipa, they had the form of those geese which inhabit the bode of the lakes: entirely isolated from all society, true Mounis occupied only with divine things, they were named then Nihspriha, Nirmama, Kchanta, Nirdwandwa, Nichparigraha, Nirvriti and Nirbhrita. In the midst of their austerities and their fastings, they died, and returned to life under the form of swans, frequenting the waves of Manassa. The names of these seven brothers were Padmagarbha, Ravindakcha, Kchiragarbha, Soulotchana, Ourouvindou Souvindou and Himagarbha. In the remembrance of their past life, they pursued their holy exercises; the fault committed toward their master, when they were Brahmans, had caused them to retrograde in the scale of beings; but the worship which they had then, in the midst even of their crime, rendered to the Pitris, had procured for them the faculty of adding to their knowledges at each new birth. Finally they returned to the world under the appearance of wild ducks, with the names of Soumanas, Swani, Souvak, Souddha, Tchitradarsana, Sounetra and Sautantra. By the effect of the acts of penitence which they had performed in their various states, their exercises of devotion and their good works, and divine science which they had formerly learned in the lessons of their different masters, formed a treasure which went on always accumulating in their transmigartions. In their new condition of inhabitants of air, they continued their holy practices; in their language they spoke only of sacred things, and the Yoga was the only object of their meditations.

Such was their existence, when Vibhradja, descendant of Pourou, and prince of the family of the Nipas, brilliant with beauty, glorious or illustrious with power, stately, and surrounded by all his house, entered into the forest where these birds lived. Soutantra saw him, and suddenly dazzled by so much riches, (he) formed this desire: "Might I become like this king, if I have acquired any merit by my austerities and my penitence! I am unhappy to have fasted and mortified myself without any fruit."

Then two of the wild ducks his companions said to him: "We wish to follow you, and share the destiny of our friend." "So be it" replied Soutantra, till then only animated by religious thoughts, and they associated themselves all three in this resolution. Souvak said to him: "Since consulting only your passion, you reject our pious exercises, in order to form earthly desires, hear my words. Be cursed by us: You shall be king of Campilya, and these two friends shall follow you thither." Thus the four birds, faithful to their vocation, addressed imprecations and reproaches to their old companions, whom the desire of a throne had turned aside from the good way. Cursed, fallen from their devotion, all lost, these three unhappy ones asked the pardon of their comrades. Their despair was touching, and Soumanas spoke to them in the name of others: "Our curse shall have its effect. You shall become men, but you shall return one day to the holy practices of devotion. Soutantra, shall know the language of all animals. It is to him we owe the favors with which the Pitris have loaded us. When we slew the cow of our master, it was he who counseled us to offer her as sacrifice to the manes: it is therefore to him that we are to attribute the science which we possess, and the devotion which we have practiced. Yes, one day, (in) hearing some words which will recall to you in a concise manner, a past, the knowledge of which shall have been concealed at the bottom of your souls, (then) you shall abandon all to return to devotion."

As I was saying, (that) while these seven birds, on the waves of Manassa, nourishing themselves only on air and water, suffered their bodies to waste away, the king Vibhradja betook himself to their woods, surrounded by all his court, and shining like Indra in the midst of his celestial garden of Nandana [5]. He saw there these seven birds occupied with their pious practices; humbled by the comparison which he made of them and himself, he came back all pensive to the city. He had a son extremely religious, who was named Anouha, because forgetting this body composed of material atoms, he elevated himself even to the contemplation of the soul. Souca gave him for his wife his daughter, the illustrious Critwi, no less estimable for her good qualities than for her devotion.

Vibhradja, having yielded the throne to his son Anouha, gave his last advice to his subjects, made his adieus to the Brahmans, and betook himself to the borders of the lake where he had seen the seven friends in order to do penance there. There, fasting, contenting himself with air for all nourishment, renouncing every kind of desire, he thought only of mortifying his body. His object, however, was to obtain by force of his austerities the privilege of becoming the son one of these beings whom he admired. The ardor of his penitence soon gave to Vibhradja a luminous appearance. He was like a sun which enlightened all the forest. O son of Courou, the wood was from his name called Vebhradja, as well as the lake, where the four birds, constant in devotion, and the three others, who had strayed from the good road, abandoned their mortal coil.

Then all together and in harmony they betook themselves to Campilya; and there these seven noble and holy souls, purified by science, meditation, (and) penitence, (and) instructed in the Vedas and the Vedangas underwent a new birth. But there were only four who preserved the memory of the past; the three others found themselves in the shades of their folly.

Soutantra became the son of Anouha and was the glorious Bramhadatta; the desire with which he had formed, when he was a bird, was thus accomplished. As for Tchitradarshana and Sounetra, they were born into a family of Brahmans: they were sons of Babhravya and of Vatsa, able in the science of the Vedas and of the Vedangas, and friends of Brahmadatta, as they had been in their previous births. One was named Pantchala; it was he who, in the various transmigrations, had been the fifth; the sixth was called then Candarica. Brahmadatta had been the seventh. Pantchala, learned in the Rig-veda, was a great Acharya [6]; Candarica possessed two vedas, the Sama and the Yadjour. The king, son of Anouha, had the privilege of knowing the language of all beings. He cultivated the friendship of Pantchala and Candarica. Delivered, like common men, to the empire of the senses and the passions, on account of what they had done in their preceding births, they nevertheless knew how to distinguish the requirements of duty from desires and from luxury.

The excellent prince Anouha, after having crowned king the virtuous Brahmadatta, animated by devotion, entered on the way which leads to heaven. Brahmadatta married the daughter of Devala, called Sannati, and who owed this name to the respect which she inspired. Her father had instructed her himself in the great science of devotion, and her virtue was such that she was destined to be born only once on the earth.

The four friends, who had followed Pantchala, Candarica, and Brahmadatta to Campilya, were born into a family of Brahmans very poor. These four brothers were named Dhritiman, Soumanas, Vidwan and Tatwadarsin; profound in the reading of the Vedas, and penetrating all the secrets of nature, they united all the knowledge which they had gathered in their preceding existences. Happy in the exercise of their devotion, they wished still to go and perfect themselves in solitude. They told it to their father, who cried out: "It is to fail in your duty to abandon me thus. How can you quit me, leaving me in poverty, taking away from me my children who are my only riches, and depriving me of their services." These Brahmans replied to this disconsolate father: "We are (about) to give you the means of coming out of this state of poverty. Hear these words: they will procure you great riches. Go find the virtuous king Brahmadatta, repeat them to him before his counselors. Happy at hearing you, he will give you lands and riches, he will crown at last all your desires. Go; and be satisfied." Then they told him certain words, and having honored him as their spiritual master, they gave themselves only to practices of the Yoga, and obtained (their) final emancipation [7].

The son of Brahmadatta was Vibhradja himself, born again; animated by piety, and covered with glory, he was named Viswaksena. One day Brahmadatta, his soul content and happy, was walking in a wood with his wife: he resembled Indra accompanied by Satchi. This prince heard there the voice of an ant: it was a lover who sought to bend his mistress by his tender language. In picking up the answer of the passionate lover, and thinking of the littleness of the being, Brahmadatta could not help laughing out loud. Sannati appeared offended at it, and blushed. Her resentment went so far as to make her refuse to eat: he husband wished in vain to appease her. She replied to him with a bitter smile: "O prince, you have laughed at me, I can no longer live". The king told her the truth such as it was. She was unwilling to believe it, and replied to him with wounded feelings: "O prince, that is not in nature. What man can know the language of the ants? unless it is an effect of the favor of a god recompensing the good actions of a preceding life, or the fruit of a great penitence, or the result of a supernatural science. O king, if it is true that you have this power, if you know the language of all beings, deign to communicate to me your knowledge, or let me die, as truly cursed by you."

Bramhadatta was touched by the tender complaints of the queen: he had recourse to the protection of Narayana, lord of all beings. Abstracted and fasting for six nights, he adored him: then this glorious prince, in a vision, perceived the god, who is the love of all nature, and who said to him: "Brahmadatta, tomorrow morning thou shalt have good fortune." Thus spoke the god, and disappeared.

In the meanwhile the father of the four Brahmans having learned from his children the mysterious words which they had communicated to him, regarded himself as sure of his object. He sought a moment when he might meet the king with his counselors, and could not for some time find the moment to make him hear the words which he had to say to him. Narayana had rendered his oracle; the king, satisfied with his answer, had performed ablution of his head, and mounted upon a chariot all shining with gold, was reentering into the city. The chief of the Brahmans, Candarica, was holding the reins of the horses, and the son of Babhravya was bearing the chowri [8] and the royal fan. "This is the moment," said the Brahman to himself, and immediately he addresses these words to the king and (to) his two companions: "The seven hunters of the country of Dasarna, the stags of mountain Calandjara, the geese of Sarodwipa, the swans of Manassa were anciently in Couroukchetra [9] Brahmans instructed in Vedas: in this long voyage why then do you remain behind?" At these words Brahmadatta was struck dumb, as well as his two friends Pantchala and Candarica. Seeing the one let fall the reins and the standard, and the other the royal fan, the spectators and courtiers were struck with astonishment. In a moment, the king elevated upon the car with his two companions, recovered his senses and continued his route. But all three recalling to mind the borders of the sacred lake, recovered also at the same time their ancient sentiments of devotion. They loaded with riches the Brahman giving him precious stones and other presents. Brahmadatta yielded his throne to Viswaksena, and caused him to be crowned king: as for him, he retired into the forest with his wife. There the pious daughter of Devala, Sannati, happy to give herself only to devotion, said to her husband: " O great king, I knew very well that you were acquainted with the language of the ants; but by feigning anger, I wished to warn you that you were in the chains of the passions. We are going now to follow the sublime route which is the object of our desires. It is I who have reawakened in you this love of devotion which was there only drowsy". The prince was charmed at this discourse of his wife; and by means of devotion, to which he consecrated himself with all the might of his soul he entered into that that superior way to which it is difficult to arrive.

Candarica, animated by the same zeal, was as able in the science of Sankhya as in that of the Yoga, and purified by his works, he obtained perfection and the mysterious union with God.

Pantchala labored to explain the rules of the holy law, and applied himself to develop all the percepts of pronunciation; he was a master in the divine art of devotion, and by his penitence he acquired a high glory.

[1] rites in honor of Ancestors.
[2] Worship offered to the Pitris or fathers.
[3] An act of piety in which the penitent collects himself, and holds his breath, until the prayer he repeats mentally is ended.
[4] An exercise of penance or extreme devotion.
[5] the Elysium of Indra.
[6] a spiritual teacher.
[7] That is, they died to be born no more on earth.
[8] A fly-flap made of the tail of a Tartary cow.
[9] A part of India.

Thoreau's translation is from S.A. Langlois' French translation of the original Sanskrit, published in Paris, 1834, and entitled, "Harivansa; ou, Histoire de la famille de Hari, ouvrage formant un appendice du Mahabbarata". The translation is from volume 1, p. 100-110.

Published posthumously in 1932.

This version is taken from
by Henry David Thoreau
Edited by K.P. Van Anglen
Princeton University Press (1986).