Maharishi Atri, A Great Sage of Hinduism

Vedas, Sruti

An imaginary portrait of Maharshi Atri

by Jayaram V

Atri is one of the well-known sages of Hinduism, who appeared at the beginning of the current Manvantara (the reign of a Manu). He along with Marichi, Angiras, Pulaha, Kratu, Pulastya and Vashistha are known as seven great sages (saptarishis) of Hinduism 1. They are considered the founding fathers of the Vedic religion and direct descendants of Brahma as his mind-born sons (manasa putras). The earliest reference to them is found in the Jaiminiya Brahmana and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. All the lineages, family names and gotras of the Vedic Brahmana families are traced to them.

The name Atri means the one who is free from the predominance of the triple impurities namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas or one in whom the triple entities are in perfect equilibrium. Since the triple gunas are represented by Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva respectively, it also means Atri contains within himself the powers and attributes of the three gods. The name also refers to the triple aspects of the earth (bhu), the middle heaven (bhuva) and the highest heaven (suva), to the triple letters in AUM and to the triple strands in the sacred thread worn by the Brahmanas.

According to some accounts Atri was the last of the seven sages to have manifested from the mind of Brahma. The organ tongue is associated with his origin, which points to his erudition or the power of speech, which is considered the key to the knowledge of the Vedas and the chanting of the sacred mantras in Vedic rituals.

Sage Atri Atri meeting the triple gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva

Many Vedic hymns are credited to Atri, especially those of fifth mandala (divison) of the Rigveda which goes by the name Atrimandala. It contains 87 hymns which are addressed to various gods such as Indra, Agni, Visvadevas, Maruts, etc., and which were probably composed by Atri and his sons, descendants and disciples.

Due to his popularity and status as a great sage (maha rish), Atri is also associated with many ancient legends and stories which are found in the Puranas and epics. According to them, Atri was married to Sati Anasuya and had three children through her namely Dattatreya, Durvasas and Chandra. The birth of the three sons is ascribed to the triple Gods (Trimurthis).

It is said that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were pleased by the devotion, purity and penances of Atri and Anasuya and were born to them as their children. Some accounts mention the name of Brahmavadini or Shubhatreyi as their daughter. Anasuya was a paragon of virtue and chastity, and as popular as Atri. She is also associated with a few legends, which point to her exemplary conduct and popularity.

Of the three sons, Dattatreya is venerated by many Hindus as an incarnation of Mahavishnu or as a deity who contains within himself the triple aspects of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Durvasa was a famous sage, who was well known in the Puranic age for his uncontrollable temper. He was believed to be born from the destructive rage of Shiva.

The lineage of Atri through his third son Chandra consists of many legendary warriors, kings and deities. The fabled lunar dynasty (chandravansh) is traced to Atri through his son Chandra and grandson Budha. King Soma was the first king of the lunar dynasty, who ruled over Prayag. Other prominent kings of this dynastic lineage were Purava, Aayu, Nahush, Yathi, Yayati, Samyati, Aayati, Viyati and Kriti.

Atri and Anasuya Atri and Anasuya from an eighteenth century illustrated manuscript of the Bhagavata Purana2

Of them, Yati and Yayati were the children of Nahush. Yayati had two wives, Devayani and Sharmistha. Through them he had five children, Yadu, Turvasu, Drhyu, Anu and Puru. Yadu is the progenitor of the Yadavas, Turvasu was of the Yavanas (Greeks), Drhyu of Bhojas, Anu of Mlecchas and Puru of the Pauravas. They represent the ancient warrior clans who ruled different parts of the land known as Aryavarta, the land of the Aryas. Atri’s lineage also consists of the names of a few seers and sages such as Sāvāsva, Avistir, and Pūrvātithi, Mudgala, Uddālaki, Shākalāyani, Chāndogya, etc.

Atri’s name appears in a few legends associated with Indra. In one, he was responsible for his defeat and humiliation when he tried to steal a sacrificial horse from Prithu against the wishes of the sage. In another, he revived his powers when he was engaged in a prolonged battle with the demons and his power was diminished by Rahu and Ketu. It is also said that Atri’s action against Indra in the former instance prompted the devas to churn the ocean and extract Amrit, the nectar of immortality so that they would remain invincible and immortal.

Atri is also mentioned in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is stated that during his exile, Lord Rama met with Atri who told him about Dandakaranya, the deep forest which existed beyond the Vindhyas, while Sati Anasuya revealed to Sita the duties of a chaste wife (pativrata dharma). In the Mahabharata, Atri is mentioned in the Yuddha Parva, when Dronacharya was fighting a fierce battle and about inflict a great harm upon the Pandavas with uncontrollable anger, thinking that his son, Asvatthma, died. Atri appeared on the battlefield and persuaded him to stop fighting and give up his life for the sake of Dharma.

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1. The names or seven great sages vary. It may be because different lists of rishis are associated with each Manvantara. Atri appears in at least two, one with Swayambhu and the other with the current Manu, Vaivasvata. The Jaiminiya Brahmana (2.218-221) mentions Agastya, Atri, Bhardwaja, Gautam, Jamadagni, Vashistha and Vishvamitra. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (2.2.6) mentions Gautama and Bharadvaja, Shandilya and Jamadagni, Vashistha and Kashyapa and Atri, Bhrigu. The Gopatha Brahmana (1.2.8), which is a later rendition mentions Vashistha, Vishvamitra, Jamadagni, Gautama, Bharadvaja, Gungu, Agastya, Bhrigu and Kashyapa. Ancient Indian astronomy recognizes seven stars in recognition of the seven sages namely Vashistha, Marichi, Pulastya, Pulaha, Atri, Angiras and Kratu.

2. Partial reproduction. This manuscript was supposedly prepared for Maharaja Pratap Simha of Jaipur (1779-1803)

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