Vyāsa, Vālmīki and Kālidāsa

Interview with Dr. R Ganesh –Dr. Arundhati Sundar and Arjun Bharadwaj

Arjun Bharadwaj interviewed Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh on the upcoming Summer School at Chinmaya International Foundation on the Theme of Vyāsa - Vālmīki - Kālidāsa: Realizing the Spirit of Indian Culture through their Creations – A Ten-day intensive residential course. http://summerschool2017.chinfo.org/#


Arjun Bharadwaj (AB) – Many cultures of the world have given birth to epics. What is unique about the Indian epics?

Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh (RG) – Indian epics are unique for many reasons. In India, our epics – Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata – are part of a living tradition. They retain their relevance for our socio-cultural life and ethos even today. Several of our cultural values, both religious and artistic, are deeply influenced by these epics. Our epics teach us the calm and composed manner of leading one’s life. In contrast to this, in the Greek epics, the emphasis is on a life tied to war and uncertainties, while our epics are based on the pious lives of hermits.

There is an equal emphasis in our epics on women characters, saints and hermits. There are also portions that give a message to society, such as the śānti parva, anuśāsana parva, and tīrthayātrā upaparva of Mahābhārata. We have several references to life in general and the life of common man.

The focus of our epics is not just on artha (material needs for one’s life) but also on dharma (sustainability, human values), kāma (desires- physical, emotional and artistic), and mokṣa (spiritual liberation). The epics deal with all these puruṣārthas (the four basic human values). The epics also have great lyrical value. They are filled with poetic imagery and provide raw-material to different forms of art like music, dance, and visual arts.

The epics have contributed much to Sanātama Dharma in many ways. They have helped bolster the karma kāṇḍa and the bhakti kāṇḍā, the aspects related to rituals and devotion, respectively.

Indian languages – be it Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Hindi, Marathi, or Bengali – have produced imitations and creative elaborations of these epics, thereby reflecting the content and the spirit of the epics. This is not true of the epics of Homer or Virgil. Their works have not been retold in the European languages to the extent in which Indian epics have been retold in Indian languages.
Taking Kannada literature as an example, Mahābhārata has been retold in different lyrical and prose forms – campū, ṣaṭpadi, sāngatya, songs, and novels. Such variety of literary expression, having been inspired by the epics, is virtually absent in other cultures.

Thus, in all these sense, these epics and their culture are unique and relevant even to this day.


AB – Should Vālmīki and Vyāsa be seen as having more influence in the religious domain and Kālidāsa in the literary domain?

RG – As far as my knowledge goes, we cannot classify their influence to be exclusive to a single domain. Vālmīki, Vyāsa, and Kālidāsa – each one has had a great influence on Indian culture. Kālidāsa’s influence on religion is lesser since all the religious aspects that he speaks about have been taken from Vālmīki and Vyāsa. What Sanātana Dharma can offer has been wonderfully reflected in Kālidāsa’s works. Kālidāsa does not have an exclusive bearing on religion. In one sense, whenever he speaks of the puruṣārthas, the ṣoḍaśa samskāras, sāmānya dharma, and the aesthetic nature of life, they are just reflecting the tenets of Sanātana Dharma. To be more precise, there is nothing exclusively ‘religious’ in Sanātana Dharma, which is not a part of our day-to-day life. Anything that Kālidāsa says has a ‘religious’ perspective in this sense and it is ‘secular’ too, in the true sense of the word.

AB – What aspect of today’s life have these poets influenced?

RG – Even to this day, Indian psyche and culture – politics, society, arts – have been influenced by the epics, both directly and indirectly. These three poets deal with the innate nature of human beings. Emotions, in their fundamental aspect are profound, sublime, intense, and natural. As long as the human race exists, there will be the influence of Vyāsa and Vālmīki. We can see our own emotions – good and bad, ugly and beautiful – being reflected in these epics. As our own emotions are relevant to us at all times, these epics too, are therefore, relevant for all times.

AB – Was there no poetry or art before Vyāsa and Vālmīki?  How is it that they realized rasa for the first time?

RG – We should not ignore the role played by the Vedas. The Vedas have many poetic passages. Vedic culture and Vedic poetry is artistic. Though the Vedas are God-centric, they reveal a lot of human emotions. The deities have their own worlds and their own emotions – all these have created a niche in the minds of the Indian people. The cultivation of thought and emotions have their seeds in the Vedas. Vyāsa and Vālmīki stood on the foundation of the Vedas. Kālidāsa draws his inspiration from Vyāsa and Vālmīki.

Vyāsa and Vālmīki have never been credited with having realized Vedic passages but they have realized the epics – each known independently as the ‘pañcama veda’. As the saying goes “Vedaḥ prācetasādāsīd sākṣādrāmāyaṇātmanā” – Vālmīki is the poet who created the fifth Veda. Vyāsa was the compiler and editor of the four Vedas. He also composed the Mahābhārata, which has also been hailed as the fifth Veda.  In this sense, the Vedas served as the background for both Vyāsa and Vālmīki.

The Vedas have several cultural elements. The saṃhitas, the brāhmaṇas, and the āraṇyakas have a lot related to the four puruṣārthas. As the Vedas cater to puruṣārthas, it implies that the Vedas are connected to life and life itself is the raw material for all arts.


(AB) Aren’t the works of these poets tied to the cultural context of India? What is their relevance outside India?

RG –These poets transcend all the barriers of cultural connotations, because of their innate emotional richness. To appreciate them in detail, we certainly need to develop some amount of cultural sensitivity. However, even when the names of characters or places are changed, we can connect with the story and the characters. We feel the relevance and naturalness of these classical structures and perceive the characters as our own selves. As long as we can realize a Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa, Rāvaṇa,  Śūrpaṇaka, Śakuni, Subhadra, Kaikeyi, or Kunti in our hearts, these epics remain relevant.


(AB) What are the contributions of Guṇāḍya and what is his relevance for today?

RG –Vyāsa and Vālmīki emphasize dharma and mokṣa, while Guṇāḍya deals a lot with kāma (and artha, which is the means to kāma.) Vyāsa and Vālmīki focus on the best or the worst aspect of human nature revealed in the most influential characters, the uber-natural or heroic personalities. Most of them were the descendents of deities or at least had super-human qualities. Guṇāḍya focuses on a life that is down to earth and realistic. He not only deals with common men and women in the society, but also with animals, birds, plants, and trees. The ordinary life of human beings is immortalized in a sublime manner in his Bṛhatkathā.


(AB) A few words about the proposed workshop....

RG –In the proposed workshop, we are going to discuss the works of Vyāsa, Vālmīki, Kālidāsa, and Guṇāḍya as well as the means to appreciate their structure. Structure is a means to connect ourselves with the substance, which is abstract in nature. Only by a direct exposure to the works of these poets, can the audience develop a feel and connectivity to anything uniquely Indian. This will be done through different art forms and listening to the words that the poets have used. We will be profusely employing the realms of performing, visual, plastic, and literary arts. These poets are, after all, the artists of the highest order and it makes sense to use art to understand them. Indian art is essentially spiritual and rooted in the real credentials of secularism. Thus, the workshop is a path that we are going to pave for the appreciation of these master poets.


Vyāsa - Vālmīki - Kālidāsa  a, summer school course is organized in joint collaboration of Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth and Chinmaya International Foundation from 17-26 June 2017 at Adi Sankara Nilayam, Veliyanad, Kerala. Details: http://summerschool2017.chinfo.org/ Arjun Bharadwaj can be contacted at +91 9845101718



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The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

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