Vyasa is the author of, and an important character in, the Mahabharata. Vyasa was the grandfather of both the warring parties in the Kurukshetra War, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. He made occasional appearances in the story as a spiritual guide to the young princes. In the first chapter of the Mahabharata, Vyasa asks the scribe Ganesha to write down the stanzas of the Mahabharata as he recites them from memory. Ganesha's inability to keep up with Vyasa's rapid recitation is supposed to explain the complicated Sanskrit used in some sections of the Mahabharata. The Brahma Sutra is attributed to Badarayana, making him the founder of the crest-jewel school of Hindu philosophy, Vedanta.
The Legend of Vyasa
Vyasa appears for the first time as the author of, and an important character in, the Mahabharata. Many scholars believe the epic has its roots in actual historical events occurring centuries before the common era; others accept the work as a compendium of legendary events, philosophy and semi-historical material about ancient India. Thus it is impossible to point out if or when the 'historical' Vyasa lived, or to disentangle a possible factual story from any non-factual elements contained in the epic.
According to the Mahabharata, he was the son of Satyavati, a ferryman's daughter, and the wandering Brahmin Parashara, a sage in the lineage of Vasistha. He was born on an island which was covered by Badara (Indian jujube) trees in the river Yamuna, said to be near Kalpi in Jalaun district in Uttar Pradesh. He was dark in color and is therefore called by the name Krishna (black), and also the name Dwaipayana, meaning 'island-born'. The child grew up to be an adult as soon as he was born; adopting the life of an ascetic, he soon became one of the greatest rishis.
Vyasa was born to Satyavati before her marriage with the Kuru king Santanu, king of Hastinapura, and had two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Both sons died without fathering a son, and taking recourse to an ancient practice called Niyoga, in which a chosen man can father sons with the widow of a person who dies issueless, she requested Vyasa to produce sons on behalf of her dead son Vichitravirya. Vichitravirya had two wives, Ambika and Ambalika. Vyasa called them to come near him. Ambika approached first, but because of shyness and his frightful appearance, she closed her eyes. Vyasa told Satyavati that her child, Dhristrashtra would be born blind. Satyawati then sent Ambalika, warning her to remain calm. But Ambalika's face became pale because of fear, and Vyasa predicted that her child, Pandu, would suffer from anemia, and not be fit to rule the kingdom. Vyasa told Satyavati to send one of the wives to him again, so that a healthy child could be born. This time Ambika and Ambalika sent their maid in their place. The maid was calm and composed, and so she gave birth to a healthy child named Vidura. While these are 'legally' not Vyasa's sons, another son Shuka, born of a celestial nymph, is considered his true spiritual heir. Through Dhristrashtra and Pandu, Vyasa was the grandfather of both the warring parties in the Kurukshetra War, of the Mahabharata, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. He made occasional appearances in the story as a spiritual guide to the young princes.
Vyasa lived in Kurukshetra, in a forest, very near to the battle field, enabling him to know in detail about the Kurukshetra War, as it took place before his eyes.
According to Hindu tradition, it was Vyasa who categorized the primordial single Veda into four. The word “vyasa” means “to split, differentiate, or describe;” hence he was called Veda Vyasa, or "Splitter of the Vedas," the one who split the Veda so that people could understand its divine knowledge. It has been debated whether the Veda was split by Vyasa alone or by a class of scholars.
The Vishnu-Purana suggests that Vyasa makes recurring historical appearances in order to clarify the truth. The Hindu view of the universe is that it is a cyclic phenomenon that repeatedly comes into existence and dissolves. Each cycle is presided over by a number of Manus (progenitors), one for each Manvantara (astrological time period), that is divided into four epochs, Yugas comparable to Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. The Dvapara Yuga is the third Yuga (Fall season). The Purana (Book 3, Ch 3) says:
In every third world age (Dvapara), Vishnu, in the person of Vyasa, in order to promote the good of mankind, divides the Veda, which is properly but one, into many portions. Observing the limited perseverance, energy, and application of mortals, he makes the Veda fourfold, to adapt it to their capacities; and the bodily form which he assumes, in order to effect that classification, is known by the name of Veda-vyasa. Of the different Vyasas in the present Manvantara and the branches which they have taught, you shall have an account.
Twenty-eight times have the Vedas been arranged by the great Rishis in the Vaivasvata Manvantara… and consequently eight and twenty Vyasas have passed away; by whom, in the respective periods, the Veda has been divided into four. The first… distribution was made by Svayambhu (Brahma) himself; in the second, the arranger of the Veda (Vyasa) was Prajapati… (and so on up to twenty-eight).
Author of Mahabharata
Vyasa is traditionally known as author of the Mahabharata.
The Jaya, the core of Mahabharata, is structured in the form of a dialogue between the blind Dhritarashtra (the Kuru king and the father of the Kauravas, who opposed the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra War) and Sanjaya, his advisor and chariot driver, who has the gift of seeing events at a distance granted by the rishi Vyasa. Sanjaya narrates each incident of the Kurukshetra War, fought in 18 days, while it is taking place. Dhritarashtra sometimes asks questions, expresses his doubts, and sometimes laments the destruction caused by the war to his sons, friends and kinsmen. He also feels guilty for his own role in the events leading up to this war, destructive to the entire Indian subcontinent. Sanjaya had the unpleasant duty of breaking the news of the death of Dhritarashtra's hundred sons at the hands of Bhima at different points of time in the battle and offers the sorrowing king solace in his darkest hours.
Jaya deals with diverse subjects like geography, history, warfare, religion and morality.
In the beginning Sanjaya gives a description of the various continents of the Earth, the other planets, and focuses on the Indian subcontinent and gives an elaborate list of hundreds of kingdoms, tribes, provinces, cities, towns, villages, rivers, mountains, and forests of the (ancient) Indian Subcontinent (Bharata Varsha). He also explains about the military formations adopted by each side on each day, the death of each hero and the details of each war-racing. The entire Bhagavad Gita (The Song of God or God's song) is the recital, in eighteen chapters, of Sanjaya to Dhritarashtra of the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna.
Jaya is embedded in the Bharata, which is embedded in the Mahabharata, structured as a narration by Ugrasrava Sauti, who was a professional story teller, to an assembly of sages like Saunaka.
Reference to Writing
In the first book of the Mahabharata, there is a passage in which Vyasa wishes to write down or inscribe his work. The Grandsire Brahma (creator of the universe) comes and tells Vyasa to ask Ganesha's assistance in this task. Ganesha (Ganapati) writes down the stanzas of the Mahabharata as they are recited by Vyasa from memory. Before agreeing to help, Ganesha imposes a condition that he will do so only if Vyasa narrates the story without pause, to which Vyasa imposes a counter-condition that Ganesha must understand the verse before he transcribes it. This is supposed to explain the complicated Sanskrit used in some sections of the Mahabharata, recited by Vyasa when he wanted a break. Ganesha, unable to keep up with Vyasa, missed many words and even stanzas.
The earliest portions of the Mahabharata are estimated to date from roughly the fourth century B.C.E., the time of the introduction of writing to India. There is some evidence, however, that writing may have been known earlier, based on archaeological findings of styli in the Painted Grey Ware culture, dated between 1100 B.C.E. and 700 B.C.E.123 and archaeological evidence of the Brahmi script being used from at least 600 B.C.E.4
The difficulty encountered by Ganesha (Ganapati) in writing down the Mahabharata, described in the tradition, could be real, and was most probably faced by those people who first attempted to write it down as some narrator recited it continuously. The narrator would not have been able to stop the recitation in the middle and resume it, because the lines were committed to his memory as a continuous sequence.
The name “Ganapati” was used in ancient days to denote the head of a republic. In ancient India, there were kingdoms ruled by kings or Rajas as well as republics ruled by elected heads or Ganapatis. Kambojas was a republic, and Dwaraka Kingdom had a republican style of rule. Ganapati, the scribe who wrote down the Mahabharata, was probably a chief of this republic, well-educated in the art of writing or inscription.
Vyasa in the Puranas
Vyasa is also credited with the writing of the 18 major, if not all, Puranas. His son Shuka is the narrator of the major Purana Bhagavata-Purana.
The important Bhagavata Purana (Chapter 11) narrates:
The sages Visvâmitra, Asita, Kanva, Durvâsâ, Bhrigu, Angirâ, Kashyapa, Vâmadeva, Atri, Vasishthha, along with Nârada and others, once stayed in the house of the lord of the Yadus Krishna… The young boys of the Yadu dynasty playing there approached them with Sâmba the son of Jâmbavati dressed up in woman's clothes. Taking hold of their feet they, feigning humility, impudently asked: 'This black-eyed pregnant woman wishing for a son, o learned ones, too embarrassed to ask it herself, is asking you whether you, with your vision never clouded, can tell if she'll give birth to a son or not?' The sages thus tricked said angered to the boys, o King: 'For you, o fools, she'll give birth to a mace which will destroy the dynasty!
Vyasa in Buddhism
Within Buddhist tradition, Vyasa appears as Kanha-dipayana (the Pali version of his name) in two Jataka tales: the Kanha-dipayana Jataka and Ghata Jataka. The former, in which he appears as the Bodhisattva, has no relation to the tales about him in Hindu works, but his role in the latter one has parallels to an important event in the Mahabhrata.
The sixteenth book of the epic, Mausala Parva, describes the end of the Vrishnis, clansmen of Vyasa's namesake and Vishnu incarnate Krishna:
One day, the Vrishni heroes… saw Vishvamitra, Kanwa and Narada arrive at Dwaraka. Afflicted by the rod of chastisement wielded by the deities, those heroes, causing Samba to be disguised like a woman, approached those ascetics and said, 'This one is the wife of Vabhru of immeasurable energy who is desirous of having a son. Ye Rishis, do you know for certain what this one will bring forth?' Those ascetics, whom the Vrishni were attempting to thus deceive, said: 'This heir of Vasudeva, by name Samba, will bring forth a fierce iron bolt for the destruction of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas.
The Buddhist Ghata Jataka relates a similar story:
The Vrishnis, wishing to test Kanha-dipayana's powers of clairvoyance, played a practical joke on him. They tied a pillow to the belly of a young lad, and dressing him up as a woman, took him to the ascetic and asked when the baby would be born. The ascetic replied that on the seventh day the person before him would give birth to a knot of acacia wood which would destroy the race of Vásudeva. The youths thereupon fell on him and killed him, but his prophecy came true.
In the Arthashastra
The only non-religious book in which Vyasa makes a notable appearance is the Arthashastra of Chanakya. In chapter 6, it says:
'Whosoever is of reverse character, whoever has not his organs of sense under his control, will soon perish, though possessed of the whole earth bounded by the four quarters. For example: Bhoja, known also by the name, Dándakya, making a lascivious attempt on a Bráhman maiden, perished along with his kingdom and relations; so also Karála, the Vaideha… Vátápi in his attempt under the influence of overjoy to attack Agastya, as well as the corporation of the Vrishnis in their attempt against Dwaipáyan (Vyasa).'
This is a reference to the story in which the Vrishnis attempted to deceive the sages by dressing a boy as a pregnant woman, and were consequently destroyed.
Author of Brahma Sutra
The Brahma Sutra is attributed to Badarayana, making him the founder of the crest-jewel school of Hindu philosophy, Vedanta. As the island on which Vyasa was born is said to have been covered by Badara (Indian jujube) trees, he is known as Badarayana. Though traditionally, Vyasa is considered to be the Badarayana who wrote the Sutras, many historians think they were two different personalities.
Author of Yoga Bhashya
Vyasa is also credited with authorship of Yoga-Bhashya, a commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is technically impossible unless Vyasa is accepted as immortal, as it is a later text.
- ↑ S. U. Deraniyagala, Early Man and the Rise of Civilisation in Sri Lanka: the Archaeological Evidence. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- ↑ N. R. Banerjee, 1965, The Iron Age in India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
- ↑ Frank Raymond Allchin, and George Erdosy, 1995, The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia: Emergence of Cities and States. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521376955
- ↑ T. S. Subramanian. Skeletons, script found at ancient burial site in Tamil Nadu. Institute for Oriental Study, Thane. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
- Allchin, Frank Raymond, and George Erdosy. 1995). The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia: Emergence of Cities and States. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521376955.
- Bhaktivedanta, A. C. (trans.). The Bhagavata-Purana. Swami Prabhupada, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1988. ISBN 8186791094
- Cowell, E. B. 1981. The Jataka or stories of the Buddha's former births. Vols 1 and 2. Vols 3 and 4. London: Pali Text Society. ISBN 0860130533 ISBN 9780860130536 ISBN 0710076045 ISBN 9780710076045
- Dange, Sindhu Sadashiv. 1984. Bhagavata purana. India: Ajanta Publications.
- Nott, S. C. (ed.), and Ganguli, Pandit K. M. (trans.). The Mahabharata of Vyasa Krishna Dwaipay. 2007. Gardners Books. ISBN 9780548083543 ISBN 0548083541
- Purnaprajna Das, and Vyāsa. 2007. Bhaviṣhya Purāṇa. Vrindavana: Rasbihari Lal & Sons. ISBN 8184030150 ISBN 9788184030150 ISBN 8184030169 ISBN 9788184030167
- Sullivan, Bruce M. 1990. Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa and the Mahābhārata a new interpretation. Leiden: E.J. Brill. ISBN 9004088989 ISBN 9789004088986
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