Salutations to Vyāsa (Part 1)

The Life of Vyāsa

It is in the literature bestowed upon us by Maharṣi Veda-vyāsa that we find the roots of the elements that we today identify as being unique to Indian cultural heritage. Vyāsa was the one who organized and arranged the Vedas, which are the fundamental records of all the wisdom-treasure of India. In fact, it is this extraordinary accomplishment that gave him the name ‘Vyāsa.’[1]

If we have been able to preserve the unparalleled Vedic literature until the present day, it is because of his matchless achievement. It is further awe-inspiring when we learn that the selfsame Vyāsa not only arranged the Vedas but also composed the Mahābhārata and the eighteen Mahā-purāṇas as an extension of his accomplishment – with a view to share the message of the Vedas in a simple, intelligible manner. The Bhagavad-gītā, which has attained universal acclaim today, is a part of the Mahābhārata and is akin to a glorious crown to the grand literature of Vyāsa.

Further, the same Bādarāyaṇa Vyāsa is the composer of the Brahma-sūtra, which serves as the foundation for Vedānta-darśana. And it is Maharṣi Veda-vyāsa who has opened the eyes of the world to the supreme personality of Bhagavān Śrīkṛṣṇa—the ideal of the Indian tradition—through the Mahābhārata, Bhāgavata, and such treatises.

Simply put, if we take out Vyāsa from the picture, even fragments of our Sanātana Saṃskṛti (timeless culture) will not remain. Veda-vyāsa is not just a literary genius but  is also the spiritual leader of Indian heritage. The values that he has fostered as a result of his unfathomable efforts—love for the world, structure of a well-organized society, friendship, mindfulness, goodness of heart, etc.—transcend space and time; they are forever relevant everywhere.

It is owing to this magnanimity and expansiveness that most of the great classics of Indian literature produced in the past few millennia have been based on the literature of Vyāsa. A significant portion of those are either directly based on a work of Vyāsa or are re-creations. Similarly, several śāstras (knowledge systems) and arts owe their existence to the literature of Vyāsa. It becomes amply clear from the Śrīmad-bhāgavata that Vyāsa was not just a great dārśanika (philosopher) but also a gifted kavi (poet).

The great rṣis of the past deemed it their responsibility to preserve the memories of the long-standing history of the ancient world for the sake of humanity, particularly in order to serve as a guide for future generations. Having fulfilled this responsibility in the best possible manner, Vyāsa composed the supremely resplendent Mahābhārata and other works. He then spread this great literature through his disciples; this is a matchless gift of Vyāsa.

Examining the sheer magnitude of the extant literature  that has traditionally been designated as the creation of Vyāsa or perhaps due to some other reason, there are several lines of argument such as: ‘Vyāsa’ is not the name of a single person, it is a title, several wise men have composed using that name, and so on. There are also utterances in the Purāṇas that for every Epoch, a Vyāsa takes birth—in other words, a new avatāra in every yuga—for the express reason of bestowing welfare upon the world. The very meaning of the word ‘vyāsa’ is ‘arranger’ or ‘organizer.’ Whatever might be the case, the Indian tradition has embraced the idea that there was a person by name Vyāsa who was a historical character.

References for an individual by name Vyāsa can be found in the Vedas itself. The Taittirīya-āraṇyaka says, “Sa hovāca vyāsaḥ pārāśaryaḥ[2] (So says Vyāsa, the son of Parāśara). We find a reference in the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini: “Pārāśarya-śilālibhyāṃ bhikṣu-naṭa-sūtrayoḥ[3] And in the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas, we have in story form a description of the life of Vyāsa. In Buddhist literature, while referring to the previous births of Buddha, there is a reference to one ‘Kaṇha-dīpāyana’[4] (= Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana). Aśvaghoṣa, who lived as early as the first century bce writes in his poetical work Saundarananda – “...dvaipāyano veda-vibhāga-kartā[5] (Dvaipāyana, the one who classified the Vedas). In the backdrop of the existence of countless such references we cannot negate the historicity of the character of Vyāsa. The Devī-bhāgavata has even constructed the genealogical tree of Vyāsa – From Brahmā, Prajāpati was born and from Prajāpati, Śukrācārya; the tree that begins thus goes forward and Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa is born as the twenty-eighth in the line.

The mystical union of Sage Pārāśara and Satyavatī resulted in the avatāra of Vyāsa, who is an aṃśa of Viṣṇu; since he was born on a dvīpa (island), he came to be called ‘dvaipāyana;’ as soon as he was born, Vyāsa went away to perform tapas – several of these stories have been told and retold in the Mahābhārata, Viṣṇu-purāṇa, Devī-bhāgavata, and so forth, without too many variations and in a fairly consistent narrative. It is also unambiguous that Vyāsa lived in the beginning of the Dvāpara-yuga.

The following episodes that appear in the Ādi-parva are quite well known: Satyavatī gets married to Śantanu, the emperor of Hastināpura; Śantanu’s son Devavrata (from Gaṅgā), for the sake of fulfilling his father’s desire, takes a terrible oath [thus earning the name ‘Bhīṣma’] that Satyavatī’s children would become the rulers of the kingdom and that he would remain a brahmacārī for life; Satyavatī’s sons Citrāṅgada and Vicitravīrya both die young; even when the future of the royal lineage was at stake, Bhīṣma refuses to break his vow and get married; as an āpad-dharma, Satyavatī invites Vyāsa and he prays for the birth of progeny to her daughters-in-law, Ambikā and Ambālikā; as per his mother’s orders, Vyāsa performs niyoga and Ambikā gives birth to Dhṛtarāṣṭra while Ambālikā gives birth to Pāṇḍu; and so forth.

After Vyāsa arranged the Vedas and composed the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas, in order to preserve the wisdom for the future generations, he divided that vast body of knowledge into parts and taught his disciples – Sumantu, Jaimini, Paila, Vaiśampāyana, Asita, Devala, and Śukadeva. Of these, Śukadeva was his own son.

We symbolically celebrate the birthday of this wealth of wisdom, Veda-vyāsa, on the full moon day (pūrṇimā) in the bright-half (śukla-pakṣa) of the lunar month of Āṣāḍha as ‘Vyāsa-pūrṇimā’ or ‘Guru-pūrṇimā.’ That the roots of this practice lie in the Brahmāṇda-purāṇa is mentioned in the anthology Sva-dharmāmṛta-sindhu.

To be concluded in the next part.

This is the first part of a two-part translation of the essay ವ್ಯಾಸ ನಮನ written for a booklet published on the occasion of the inauguration of the Bangalore chapter of Akhila Bhāratīya Sāhitya Pariṣat (Gurupūṇimā, July 2014).

 

Footnotes

[1] The word ‘vyāsa’ itself means ‘distribution,’ ‘separation into parts,’ ‘diffusion,’ ‘extension,’ ‘width,’ ‘breadth,’ ‘arrangement,’ ‘compilation,’ etc. It can also refer to ‘an arranger’ or ‘a compiler.’ Yet another meaning of the word is ‘a brāhmaṇa who recites or expounds the Purāṇas in public’

Apte, Vaman Shivaram. The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Revised and Enlarged Edition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1965. p. 900

[2] स होवाच व्यासः पाराशर्यः। – Taittirīya-āraṇyaka 1.9

[3] पाराशर्यशिलालिभ्यां भिक्षुनटसूत्रयोः। – Aṣṭādhyāyī 4.3.110

[4] See the Kaṇhadīpāyana-Jātaka (#444 / Daśa-nipāta), which appears in the Khuddaka-nikāya of the Sutta-piṭaka

[5] ...द्वैपायनो वेदविभागकर्ता॥ – Saundarananda 7.29

 

Author(s)

About:

Dr. S R Ramaswamy is a renowned journalist, writer, art critic, environmentalist, and social activist. He has authored over fifty books and thousands of articles. He was a close associate of greats like D. V. Gundappa and Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sharma. He is currently the honorary Editor-in-Chief of Utthana and the Honorary Secretary of the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs.

Translator(s)

About:

Hari is a writer, translator, musician, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has (co-)written more than ten books, mostly related to Indian culture and philosophy.

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