At the outset of the Mahābhārata Vyāsa outlines its literary qualities that befit an epic. At the end of the epic, he composes an epilogue of sorts titled Bhāratasāvitrī, where he solemnly records the poet’s helplessness:
ऊर्ध्वबाहुर्विरौम्येष न च कश्चिच्छृणोति मे।
धर्मादर्थश्च कामश्च स किमर्थं न सेव्यते॥ (१८.५.४९)
I scream with raised arms: Dharma is the source of artha and kāma. But nobody listens to me! Why do people not adhere to dharma?
Vyāsa is peerless in his sincerity. No one can better him in the candid acceptance of the limits of art, of the poet’s predicament. Let us not forget – he is the author of the Mahābhārata, the pañcama-veda that has the unique distinction of encapsulating everything there is to be known about the four puruṣārthas. Of dharma, artha, kāma and mokṣa, what is present here is there everywhere else; what is not here is present nowhere. The author of such a profound work was alive to the inescapable truth that poetry cannot actively transform the lives of its readers. He had the indomitable strength of will to record this truth dispassionately – an extraordinary virtue rarely seen in poets. To say that no other poet or aesthetician has expressed this fact is to highlight the eminence of Vyāsa and not to underscore the ineptitude of other authors. This single statement has the potential to disabuse several people of their false notion about poetry as an agent that brings about societal change.
Another interesting facet of the Mahābhārata is that Vyāsa, the author himself, appears in several watershed moments throughout the story to offer wise counsel. The Rāmāyaṇa, too, has a few instances where the poet appears as one of the characters. But they are few and far between. After his initial appearance at the beginning of Bālakāṇḍa, Vālmīki next appears only in Uttarakāṇḍa. Although he plays a major role in the lives of Sītā and Rāma here, his involvement is made somewhat muted by the fact that by this time the active life of the characters is drawing to a close. Vyāsa’s involvement in the Mahābhārata is vastly different. The fathers of Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas, the epic’s central characters, are Vyāsa’s own children. This amounts to saying that his work is the story of a long line of fights that broke among his grandchildren. His appearances are always in the thick of internecine feuds. Nevertheless, never is he blinded by attachment; never does he advocate adharma.
Let us examine a few instances of Vyāsa’s involvement:
After Vicitravīrya dies childless, the niyoga involving his wives becomes inevitable. Vyāsa comes to perform this at the behest of his mother, Satyavatī. This is his first appearance. The epic’s story would not have opened up but for this episode. Later, when Kuntī returns to Hastināvatī with the five Pāṇḍava brothers after the passing of Pāṇḍu and Mādrī, Vyāsa appears on the scene to take his mother and her daughters in law with him to the forest, to lead a life of austerities. If he had not taken Satyavatī with him, the far-visioned royal mother would have perhaps nipped the internecine acrimony at its bud. What would then become of the story!
After the Pāṇḍavas escape from the lac house, Vyāsa guides them at every step on the correct path. If not for his involvement, the Pāṇḍavas would have found it tremendously difficult to deceive Duryodhana’s elaborate network of spies, marry Draupadī and become the rulers of Indraprastha.
After participating as the adhvaryu in the Rājasūyayāga, Vyāsa had forewarned Yudhiṣṭhira that he would be the cause of a terrible war in the future. Replying to this Yudhiṣṭhira had pledged not to take on or oppose anyone. This pledge led him to supinely accept the consequences of dyūta, anudyūta and Draupadī’s humiliation. The story went on.
Vyāsa appears on several occasions during the Pāṇḍavas’ stay in the forests. Arjuna aspires to possess the pāśupatāstra at his insistence. At this juncture Vyāsa would also frequent the Kaurava camp, attempting to talk some sense into the heads of Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Duryodhana. That they remained steadfast in their perniciousness is another story.
In the Udyogaparva Vyāsa again tries to guide Dhṛtarāṣṭra on the right path. He offers him the privilege of divine vision, divyadṛṣṭi, thinking that he would change his mind if he saw the outbreak of the dreadful war. But that was not to be. The war did break out. After the war Aśvatthāmā uses the aiṣīkāstra intending to decimate the Pāṇḍavas. Arjuna hits back with the same. When the head-on collision of the two astras appeared to blow the whole world to smithereens, Vyāsa arrives to save the day. This time not just the story, but the world survives and proceeds.
Vyāsa then goes on to perform two starkly different acts: the last rites of the deceased and the coronation of Yudhiṣṭhira. He occupies the central place in the Aśvamedhayāga that happens next. When Kuntī, Vidura, Gāndhārī and Dhṛtarāṣṭra retire to the forests, the Pāṇḍavas come to see them. Everyone was utterly desolate. To console them Vyāsa monetarily causes their departed kin to reappear. He even performs the final rites of his befitting son, Vidura. Towards the end, after the passing of Kṛṣṇa, he comforts the distraught Arjuna and leads the Pāṇḍavas to prepare for their mahāprasthāna.
In this manner, Vyāsa is actively involved in all the significant events of the story. He is always there to conduct, guide and oversee the events: from the jātakarma and nāmakaraṇa of his children to the mahāprasthāna of his grandchildren. And yet he remains unattached, serene. Neither does he get entangled himself nor does he entangle others.
In a few places in the Bhagavadgītā Kṛṣṇa does not place the Vedas on a high pedestal as they usually are (2.42. 45, 46). Although Vyāsa is himself the one who compiled, divided and arranged the Vedic corpus, he is not the least perturbed by Kṛṣṇa’s pronouncements. He records Kṛṣṇa’s words as is. This demonstrates the inseparable connection between rasa and satya, an ideal that all poets should strive to achieve.
This is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhānī R. Ganesh's Kannada work, Saṃskṛtakavigaḻa Kāvyamīmāṃse. To read the original click here.
To be continued.
 Ayodhyākāṇḍa records a solitary incident of Rāma meeting Vālmīki during his stay in forests (2.56.16)