Saturday, September 28, 2013

2. The Grandeur of the Epic Mahabharata

It is well known that Mahabharata was written by Sage Vyasa. But who was Vyasa?

Vyasa was the son of Parasara, another eminent sage and the author of Vishnu Purana (the Story of Lord Vishnu). Vyasa was born to Parasara, a Brahmin and Satyavati, the daughter of a fisherman. (It is my personal view that caste often finds a mention in the puranas not to justify the caste system, which was a prevailing reality, but to highlight the fact that inter-caste marriage was a normal phenomenon and that many a great man like Vyasa was the product of inter-caste union). Vishnu Purana is the first purana and is also considered the best ('purana ratna' meaning the gem of a purana)

Vyasa compiled the four Vedas. The Vedas are considered timeless entities. They were created by unknown scholars during various times in the remote past. They contain knowledge on various aspects of life and the universe. It was Vyasa who classified the Vedas into four branches Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva, each focusing on certain specialized streams of knowledge. For this reason, Vyasa is also known as Veda Vyasa. The name Vyasa itself means to divide or classify.

In addition to writing the Mahabharata, Vyasa has also composed the Bhagavatham (the Story of Bhagawan Vishnu). While Vishnu Purana speaks about the glory of Vishnu and the way of worshipping Him, Bhagavatham deals with the ten avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu. Bhagavatam was composed by Vyasa but was narrated by his illustrious son Sukha, another great Sage. Vyasa had the unique distinction of having a great father Parasara and a great son Sukha, who were on par with him in their erudition, wisdom, glory and divinity.

Vyasa also composed sixteen other puranas. The eighteen puranas (including Vishnu Purna and Bhagavatham) together with the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the four Vedas and the Upanishads form the core literature of Hinduism.

Vyasa has also authored Brahmasutra, a treatise on Hindu philosophy.

Vyasa is also a character in the Mahabharata. He is the grandfather of the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

After composing the Mahabharata, Vyasa was pondering how he should teach this treatise to his disciples. He had composed the story in his mind but had not yet given it a tangible form. He sought the guidance of Brahma, the Creator. When Brahma appeared before him, Vyasa said, "Lord! I have composed a poetical work, which contains the essence of the Vedas and the Upanishads. It deals with various aspects of life in this world. like the art of war, politics and governance, rules of behavior, problems faced by people, means to reach God etc."

Brahma said, "Your work will remain nonpareil, for all time to come. I suggest you seek the help of Lord Ganesha to transcribe it."

Vyasa prayed to Lord Ganesha seeking his services to transcribe his work. Lord Ganesha agreed, with the stipulation that Vyasa narrate the verses without any time interval so that Ganesha could write continuously. Vyasa agreed but added a rider that Ganesha should understand the meaning of each verse before transcribing it! Thus began the greatest publishing event of the world. 

Vyasa would compose the verses in a fast pace as stipulated by Ganesha but whenever he needed time to think, he would come out with a difficult verse. Ganesha would take some time to ponder over the verse and understand its meaning. Vyasa would make use of this time cushion to compose more verses in his mind. There is a story that as he was writing the verses fast on the palm leaves, Ganesha's pen broke. Having had no time to fetch another pen, with Vyasa rendering the verses in a fast pace, Ganesha cut off the sharp end of his tusk and used the broken piece to write on the palm leaf!

There is also a version that Lord Ganesha inscribed the Mahabharata on the Meru mountain. This should be understood to mean two things.

1)The Mahabharata was so vast in length that it needed such a large area like the sides of Meru to accommodate the verses.
2) The Mahabharata was etched in stone since this epic was intended to last forever.

The epic composed by Vyasa had 600,000 verses, of which only 100,000 verses are known to mankind. The remaining 500,000 had been distributed among several other worlds like the Deva Loka (the world of the celestials), Pitru Loka (the world of our ancestors) etc. 

The epic was disseminated through various channels. Vyasa first taught this to his son Sukha and then to several of his other disciples. It was Sage Vaisampayana who gave a discourse on Mahabharata to a large gathering in the Sarpa Yaga performed by Janamejaya, the great grandson of Arjuna. Sage Ugrasrava listened to this discourse and then narrated this epic to the ascetics living in the Naimisaranya forest.

In fact, the Mahabharata begins with the episode of these ascetics approaching Ugrasrava and querying him on his itinerary, when he reveals his experience of having listened to the great story of Mahabharata at the site of the Sarpa Yaga performed by King Janamejaya. The excited ascetics ask him to narrate the great story to them and so he does.

Vyasa has also composed the epitome of this epic in 150 verses, as if he had to submit a synopsis to a publisher for approval! The story of Mahabharata can be learnt completely from these 150 verses. But I am deliberately refraining from giving this short version since I feel that Mahabharata cannot be served as fast food!

The Kurukshetra war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is narrated to Dridharashtra, the blind King of Hastinapura and the father of the Kauravas by his charioteer cum mentor Sanjaya. Sanjaya was a clairvoyant and was able to witness the war in his mind's eye. It was left to him to convey to Dridharashtra the news of the killing of Dridharashtra's sons Duryodhana, Duschasana and others, in the war.

On hearing the news of his the death of his son Duryodhana, Dridharashtra becomes remorseful of his own commissions and omissions. He narrates a number of incidents which should have given him the cue that his sons were bound to meet with a sad end if he didn't take the right steps to bring them back from the path of immorality and wickedness. The almost endless list of such events serving as writings on the wall, which Dridharashtra keeps giving, should be a good lesson to all of us on the need to take the clues life gives us from time to time and take corrective action without being complacent.

The Mahabharata is divided into 18 parvas (parts or volumes) named as below:
1. Adi Parva
2. Sabha Parva
3. Vana parva
4. Virata Parva
5. Udhyoga Parva
6. Bhishma Parva
7. Drona Parva
8. Karna Parva
9. Salya Parva
10. Sauptika Parva
11. Stri Parva
12. Shanti Parva
13. Anusasana Parva
14. Aswamedhika Parva
15. Asramavasika Parva
16. Mausala Parva
17. Mahaprasthanika Parva
18. Svargarohana Parva.

Harivamsa, the story of Krishna which comes at the end of the Mahabharata is also considered a part of the epic but is not counted in the list of parvas.

Next:  Vaisampayana Narrates the Mahabharata
Previous: The Threshold

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