Time in Hindu cosmology is a complex concept that is difficult to explain. There are four yugas (Satya, Treta, Dwapar and Kali). A complete cycle of the four yugas is called Maha-Yuga and 71 Maha-yugas constitute a Manvantara. Each Manvantara is ruled by a Manu and at present we are in the Kaliyuga of Vaivasvatha Manvantara. Every Manvantara had its own Manu, Indra, Vishnu, Rishis and deities who were born anew in each Manvantara. Saptarishis are seven great sages who are the manasputras Brahma. Each Manvantara has its own Saptarishis who obtained knowledge from Mahadev Himself in His Dakshinamurti form. The Saptarishis were entrusted with the task of passing on the knowledge they obtained from Maheshwara to humanity for the larger good of humans. It is to be noted that unlike in the Swayambuva Manvantara most Saptarishis of this Manvantara are not manasputras of Shri Brahma.
The Saptarishis played a very important role in accumulating and dispersing all the knowledge that we have received today. They have been equated with the seven stars of the constellation Ursa Major (Big Dipper). As it happens with most ancient texts, there is a slight variation in the names of the Saptarishis as occurring in the Shatapatha Brahmana, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Brihat Samhita and Krishna Yajurveda. While the Jaiminiya Brahmana (2.218-221) lists Agastya, Atri, Bharadwaja, Gautama, Jamadagni, Vashishta and Vishvamitra as the Saptarishis; the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (2.2.6) varies slightly by naming Gautama, Bharadwaja, Vishvamitra, Jamadagni, Vashishta, Kashyapa and Atri. The late Gopatha Brahmana (1.2.8) has stated Vashishta, Vishvamitra, Jamadagni, Gautama, Bharadwaja, Gungu, Agastya, Bhrigu and Kashyapa to be the Saptarishis. We will go with the list given in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad which is the same as stated in the Shatapatha Brahmana.
1) Atri: He is the manasputra of Brahma Dev and one of the most popular Saptarishis. Not only does he find mention in both the Hindu epics, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata, but is also one of the most named Rishis of the Rigveda. The fifth Mandala of the Rigveda has been named Atri Mandala in honour of this Rishi. He and his wife Anusuya were parents to Dattatreya, Durvasa and Chandra (also known as Soma). Anusuya was the epitome of chastity.
2) Bharadwaja: and his students are credited with the authorship of the sixth Mandala of Rigveda. Besides making immense contributions to economics and literature, he was also a well known physician who finds mention in the Charaka Samhita, a treatise on medicine. He was the son of Brihaspati and Utathya. Many texts, treatises and compositions are attributed to both Bharadwaja as well as his students. The chapter on Dhanurvidya in Mahabharata is credited to Bharadwaja and is considered to be an Upaveda on archery. He is also known for authoring texts such as Bharadwaja Samhita, Bharadwaja srautasutra and grhyasutra, Bharadwaja theories on medicine and causal phenomenon is described in Charaka Samhita, Bharadwaja-siksa is an ancient Sanskrit treatise on phonetics and his niti-shastra is a treatise on ethics and practical conduct. He was married to Sushila with whom he had a son named Garga. He also begot a son from an Apsara named Ghritachi who grew up to be the Guru of Pandavas and Kauravas, the great Brahmakshatriya Dronacharya.
3) Gautama: Maharishi Gautama authored several suktas of the first Mandala of the Rigveda. He married Ahalya and begot Shatananda with her. He was also father to Anjani, Nodhas and Vamadeva. Shandilya, Gargya and Bharadwaja are some of his popular disciples. He authored the Gautama Dharma sutra. He undertook tasks for the larger benefit of humanity. In one such act of generosity, he meditated to please Varuna Deva when there was a drought and people of the land were suffering as a result of the drought. When he requested Varuna for rain, the latter turned down his request saying he couldn’t go against the law ordained by nature and governed by Mahadev Himself. The Maharishi then requested Varuna to ensure incessant supply of water in the reservoir so that the people may not suffer due to lack of rain. This request was acceded to by the god of rains.
4) Jamadagni: He was descendant of Rishi Bhrigu and father of Parashurama, an avatar of Sri Hari Vishnu. He and his wife Renuka had five sons the youngest of whom was Parashurama. Jamadgini was the son of Richika and Satyavati. Aushanasa Dhanurveda was a conversation regarding warfare that took place between Jamadagni and Ushanas or Shukracharya. Unfortunately this conversation is lost and with it the knowledge in the exercises of warfare that this Saptarishi possessed.
5) Kashyapa: after whom Kashmir is said to be named, was the author of several hymns and verses of the Rigveda. He finds mention in many Vedic scriptures. He is said to be the progenitor of all living beings. Vishnu Purana states that he married 13 daughters of Prajapati Daksh so as to bring to life every living form and fathered Devas, Asuras, Nagas, Yakshas, Dravidas and all living creatures. His children from Aditi were Adityas or demigods, Diti were Daityas or demons, Vinata were Garuda and Aruna, Kadru were the Nagas (serpents), Krodhavasha were Pisachas, Kala were Asuras and rakshasas, Danu were Danavas (giants), Khasa were Yakshas, Apsaras were born to his wife Muni, Ira gave birth to all vegetation, Tamra to all birds, Arishta was the mother of the Gandharvas (celestial beings), Sursa gave birth to Uragas (dragons) and Surbhi was the mother of Kamadhenu and other cattle.
6) Vishvamitra: Vishvamitra’s rise to become one of the Saptarishis is a testimony to the fact that not merely one’s birth but in fact it was one’s karma and actions that led to one’s rise on the spiritual path. He was a Kshatriya by birth who renounced everything he possessed so as to acquire spiritual fulfilment. His tussle with Maharishi Vashishta is stuff of legends. When Vashishta destroyed Vishvamitra’s entire army, the latter undertook penance for several thousands of years and pleased Mahadev. Mahadev then gave Vishvamitra several celestial weapons. However, Vashista destroyed all of Vishvamitra’s celestial weapons including the Brahmastra using the Brahmadanda (stick embedded with the power of Brahma Dev). The realisation dawned upon him that spiritual powers were far more important than possession of divine weapons. He renounced his kingdom and began undertaking severe austerities and tapa in the quest to become a greater Rishi than Vashishta himself. He passed through several trials before ultimately acquiring the title of Brahmarishi from Rishi Vashista himself.
7) Vashishta: The most famous among the Saptarishis and Rajguru of Ikshavaku clan to whom Shri Rama belonged. He was the Guru of Rama and his brothers. The conversation between Sri Rama and Maharishi Vashishta with regard to Vedanta and Yoga is recorded in Yoga Vashishta. He was in possession of the wish fulfilling cow Kamadhenu and her daughter Nandini. His wife Arundhati is known for her chastity and is believed to be one of stars in the constellation Ursa Major that forms a double star with that of Mizar (identified with Maharishi Vashishta).
The Saptarishis are the most enlightened beings and are considered to be greater than even Devas. Their knowledge has been passed on through generations and all Vedic and post-Vedic scriptures can be attributed to them and their family of sons and students. It is from these Rishis that Gotras are derived. Rishi Panchami is celebrated in honour of Saptarishis and falls on the fifth day of Shukla Paksha in Bhadrapada masa. The Saptarishis in the next Manvantara, namely Savarni, will be Diptimat, Galava, Parasurama, Kripa, Drauni or Ashwatthama, Vyasa and Rishyasringa.