Monthly Archives: July 2020

Vyasa the Literary Genius of Ancient India

To Him who is Brahma, but without four faces;

To Him who is Vishnu, but with two hands:

To Him who is Shankara, but without the third eye,

To Vyasa in the form of Vishnu and Vishnu in the form of Vyasa:

To Him, Vasishta’s heir, the Self realised, I bow.’

With these words Hindus pay homage to Vyasa every year on the full moon day of the month of ashada (July) which is celebrated as Guru Poornima or Vyasa poornima. Vyasa is one of our revered gurus in our Guru Parampara, namely Narayana, Brahma, Vasishta, Shakti, Parashara, Vyasa, Shuka, Gaudapada, Govinda Bhagavatpada and Shankaracharya. Vyasa was known as Krishna Dvaipayana as he was dark in complexion and born in an island in river Yamuna. As he performed penance under a Badara tree, he is referred as Badarayana and as he is said to have classified the Vedas, he is known as Veda Vyasa. He is said to have spent his whole life living in an hermitage first at Badari and later on the banks of river Saraswati pursuing spiritual and literary activities.

Progenitor of Pandavas and Kauravas

Vyasa was born to sage Parashara and Satyavati. Later Satyavati married Shantanu the Kuru king of Hastinapura and had two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada who ascended the throne after the demise of Shantanu lost his life in a battle with the Gandharvas and his place was taken by his brother Vichitravirya. He had married Ambika and Ambalika, but died due to illness before having any heirs. Satyavati then requested Vyasa to impregnate Ambika from whom was born Dhritarashtra and Ambalika from whom was born Pandu.

Composer of Mahabharata

Vyasa is considered as the star of the first magnitude in the literary horizon of Bharatavarsha. Apart from classifying the Vedas, Vyasa is credited with the composition of the epic Mahabharata and the Puranas. He is also said to have written the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavata which some scholars beg to differ. With regards to Mahabharata It is mentioned that Vyasa composed Mahabharata in three years working day and night and the name given to the original epic by Vyasa was ‘Jaya’ or Triumph and it consisted of 8800 verses. He taught this to Vaishampayana, Jaimini, Paila, Sumantu and Shuka and all of these rishis are called as Bharatacharyas or the editors of Bharata by Ashwalayana. On the occasion of the sarpayaga organised by Janamejaya, Vyasa’s pupil Vaishampayana recited the whole story before the assembled sages and warriors in the forest hermitage of Naimisha. Now the text was called Bharata and consisted of 24000 verses. The epic attained the name Mahabharata when Sauti narrated the same to sage Saunaka and it consisted of one lakh verses. According to R.K.Mukerjee, the original work of Vyasa was called Bharata and consisted of 24,000 stanzas. Handed down by the bards, it was later expanded into the Mahabharata by the Bhrigus who incorporated into its various myths and legends, as well as moral and religious materials. Ashvalayana a pupil of Shaunaka is said to be the final redactor of the epic.

Heralded a Renaissance

The Mahabharata is the glorification of a united India brought under the imperial authority of Yudhisthira as a chakravartin with his capital in the holy land, once celebrated for Vedic learning and culture. The popularity of Mahabharata is such that even today the stories of Mahabharata are recited, dramatized and refashioned according to modern cultural needs over a vast section of south and east Asia. According Meera Chakravorty during the age of Mahabharata a galaxy of meritorious personalities, their thoughts and action gave rise to such doctrines, notions and practices which created a renaissance that directly and indirectly influenced people, their lives, literary genres and their consciousness over the years. This was possible only because Vyasa who was a witness to this renaissance was able to document it in the form of Mahabharata.

Composer of the Puranas

The Puranas occupy a unique position in the sacred and secular literature of the Hindus, being regarded as next in importance only to the Vedas. Along with Mahabharatha they are considered as the fifth Veda, the Veda of the masses. According to Vishnu Purana, Vyasa compiled a Purana Samhita with tales, anecdotes, songs and ancient lore that had come down from the ages. The Purana Samhita is divided into four padas namely

  • Prakriya Pada– consisting of 300 sholkas which gives a description of the creation of the universe.

  • Anusanga Pada– consisting of 1600 shlokas it narrates the history of the dynasties of the kings and rishis of the early manavantaras.

  • Upodghata Pada– consisting of 2600 shlokas it records the history of Vaivasvata manvantara with information on ancient Indian tribes and the geneologies of dynasties of kings and rishis.

  • Upasamhara Pada– consisting of 125 shlokas it gives an account of the destruction of the universe or pralaya.

Vyasa taught this Purana Samhita to his disciple Suta Lomaharsana who in turn taught it to six of his disciples. There were four recessions of the Purana Samhita, those of Suta Lomaharsana and three of his disciples; of which three of them is in narrative form and the remaining one in the form of a dialogue and is known as Shamshapayanika Samhita. Probably out of these recessions evolved the present 18 Puranas.

Classification of the Vedas

In ancient times Vedas meant only one collection of all the mantras numbering about twenty-five thousand or more. Later for the purpose of study and preservation, the single collection was divided by Veda Vyasa into four overlapping collection of mantras as Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda and taught one each to his disciples, Paila, Vaishampayana, Jaimini and Sumantu respectively. Though the epic and puranic traditions unanimously and repeatedly declare that the Veda was arranged by Vyasa, the Vedic literature is remarkably silent about him. According to Suryakant Bali on the basis of some internal evidences, which are corroborated by tradition and literary testimony, it has been observed that the Vedas were compiled four times in all and the present shape of the samhita represent the fourth and final compilation. The first compilation was done in the realm of king Shruta of Ayodhya, the second compilation was undertaken at the instance of king Shrutaayu of Videha; the third during the time of king Brahmadatta of Dakshina Panchala and the fourth by Vyasa and his team. At each compilation some mantras might have been discarded and some more mantras might have been included. This was also the view of Pargiter who says that much earlier to Vyasa, two Brahmins, Kandarika (or Pundarika) and Subalaka (or Galava), ministers of Brahmadatta, the king of sourthern Panchala classified the Vedas about 150 years before the Mahabharata War and Vyasa might have added all the hymns that were incorporated later and completed the canon.

Bhagavata Purana

The Bhagavata or Bhagavata Purana is the most popular of all Puranas and it is held in the highest esteem by the Vaishnavas in all parts of India. The Padma Purana devotes a chapter to the worship of this Purana and calls it the most exalted of all the Puranas and the book is actually worshipped in many Hindu homes. According to traditional accounts once Vyasa sat in a lonely place on the banks of the river Saraswati and was pondering over the cause of his inner dissatisfaction of not yet realizing the essential nature of the Self. At that time sage Narada came to him and asked him to write about the greatness of Lord Vishnu and the result was the compilation of Bhagavata Purana by Vyasa. However according to S.N.Dasgupta there is no reference to Bhagavata Purana before the 10th century A.D. and even Ramanuja had not mentioned its name. But by the time of Madhvacharya it had become famous. As the Bhagavata Purana makes references to the Alwars who have probably never been referred to by any writers in north or upper India, Dasgupta feels that the Bhagavata Purana was composed by a southerner.

Compiled the Brahma Sutras

As the Upanishads do not have ready-made consistent system of thought there arose the necessity of systematizing the thought of Upanishads which resulted in the composition of Brahma Sutras, the authorship of which is attributed to Vyasa. The Brahma Sutra itself refers to other schools of Vedanta like Audulomi, Kasakristna, Badari, Jaimini, Karshnajini, Asmarathya and others with its own followers. This shows that Brahma Sutras was not the only systematic work in the Vedanta school though it was probably the last and the best. Shankaracharya in his commentaries on the Brahma Sutras refers to Vyasa as the author of Mahabharata and Badarayana as the author of the Brahma Sutras. Perhaps to him these two personalities were different. According to R.D.Karmarkar even tradition is against the view that one and the same Vyasa was the compiler of both the Gita and the Brahma Sutras. While Veda Vyasa is the compiler of Mahabharata, the author of Vedanta Sutras or Brahma Sutras is Badarayana Vyasa. The Gita looks upon Samkya and Yoga as two important ways leading to the same goal and is permeated through and through with the doctrines of these two systems of philosophy. The Vedanta Sutras on the other hand seem to be using all their energy in refuting the Samkya doctrine and as many as nineteen sutras being clearly reserved for this task. Hence Karmarkar says that the Gita and Vedanta Sutras could not have been written by one and the same person.

A National Integrator

Vyasa was a seer, ascetic and prophet. According to Skanda Purana, Vyasa had married Vatika the daughter of rishi Jabali and Shuka was born to them. His wife’s name is given as Arani by Pargiter. Vyasa was responsible for expounding Krishna Bhagavatism or the new Pancharatra creed in such a manner that it did not became a heresy like Jainism and Buddhism but was on the contrary fully assimilated into the general trend of Upanishad thought. Further Vyasa stressed an eclecticism and spirit of tolerance towards Shaivism and Shaktism that has since became a leading characteristic of popular Hinduism. Vyasa was a national integrator and a universal man too. Not only did he write voluminously about our culture but also instituted the order of sanyasis dedicated to the general welfare and the practice of pilgrimages to the holy places spread out through the whole of our country. At Ramnagar palace in Varanasi there is a shrine dedicated to Vyasa and at the Varadaraja temple in Kanchi we find his sculpture.


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