Vyāsa (Devanāgarī: व्यास) is a central and much revered figure in the majority of Hindu traditions. He is also sometimes called Krishna Dwaipayana, (the island-born) or Veda Vyasa '(वेद व्यास, veda vyāsa), meaning - 'the one who divied the Vedas'. He is acredited as the scribe of both the Vedas, and the supplementary texts such as the Puranas. A number of Vaishnava traditions regard him as an avatar of Vishnu. Vyasa is also considered to be one of the seven Chiranjeevin (immortals), who are still in existence according to general Hindu belief.
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Vyasa appears for the first time as the author of and an important character in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Whilst many believe the epic has its roots in actual historical events occurring centuries before the common era it is an extraordinarily long 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 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(mukkuvan) daughter, and the wandering sage Parashara. He was born on an island in the river Yamuna. The place is near a town Kalpi in Jalaun district in Uttar Pradesh. He was dark in colour and hence was given the name Krishna, as in Krishna-Dwaipayana. 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 Rishi (Sages).
It is traditionally held by Hindus that Vyasa categorised the primordial single Veda into four. Hence he was called Veda Vyasa, or "Splitter of the Vedas," the splitting being a feat that allowed the populous of the Kali yuga to understand the divine knowledge of the Veda. He was the editor of the Vedic literature. The word vyasa means split, differentiate, or describe; it means an editor. This title is the most popular way of referring to him.
It has been debated whether Vyasa was a single person or a class of scholars who did the splitting. The Vishnu-Purana has an interesting theory about Vyasa. The Hindu view of the universe is that of a cyclic phenomenon that comes into existence and dissolves repeatedly. Each cycle is presided over by a number of Manus, one for each Manvantara, that has four ages, Yugas of declining virtues. The Dvapara Yuga is the third Yuga. 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 four-fold, 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).
Vyasa is traditionally known as author of this epic. But he also features as an important character in it. His mother later married the king of Hastinapura, and had two sons. Both sons died without an issue and taking recourse to an ancient practice called Niyoga where a chosen man can father sons with the widow of a person who dies issueless, she requests Vyasa to produce sons on behalf of her dead son Vichitravirya. Vyasa fathers the princes Dhritarashtra and Pandu (by Ambika and Ambalika, the wives of dead king. The sequence of events also leads to a third son, Vidura, by a serving maid to the queens. While these are 'legally' not his sons, another son Shuka, born of a celestial nymph, is considered his true spiritual heir. He was thus the grandfather of both the warring parties of the Mahabharata, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. He makes occasional appearances in the story as a spiritual guide to the young princes.
In the first book the Mahabharata, and is said that he asked Ganesha to aid him in writing the text, however Ganesha imposed a condition that Vyasa narrate the story without pause. To which Vyasa then made a counter-condition that Ganesh must understand the verse before he transcribed it. This is supposed to explain the complicated Sanskrit used in some sections of the Mahabharata, recited by Vyasa when he wanted a break.
Vyasa's Jaya, the core of Mahabharata is structured in the form of a dialogue between Dhritarashtra (the Kuru king and the father of the Kauravas, who opposed the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra War) and Sanjaya his minister and well-wisher. Sanjaya narrates each incident of the Kurukshetra War, fought in 18 days, as and when it happened. Dhritarashtra sometimes asks questions and doubts and sometimes laments, knowing about the destruction caused by the war, to his sons, friends and kinsmen. He also feels guilty, due to his own role, that lead to this war, destructive to the entire Indian subcontinent.
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, forests etc 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-racings. Some 18 chapters of Vyasa's Jaya constitutes the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred text or Bible of the Hindus. Thus, this work of Vyasa, called Jaya deals with diverse subjects like geography, history, warfare, religion and morality.
The growth of Jaya into Bharata, was probably the work of Vyasa's disciple Vaisampayana, along with many unknown authors. It is structured as a narration of the history of kings of the Bharata dynasty by Vaisampayana to Janamejaya the grand-grandson of the Pandava, Arjuna. Jaya is embedded within it.
The final phase of Vyasa's work culminated as Mahabharata, structured as a narration by Ugrasrava Sauti, who was a professional story teller, to an assembly of sages like Saunaka. Bharata is embedded inside it, and within it Jaya.
Within the Mahabharata, there is a tradition in which Vyasa wishes to write down or inscribe his work:
During the time of Vyasa however, it is not certain whether writing was known. This tradition may have originated during a later period, when people found missing words and stanzas in the Mahabharata, as it was passed down for generations through oral traditions until it was written down centuries later. The epic in its final form was written around the first century in the Brāhmī script, and later the Devanagari script, though it's possible earlier versions were written down centuries earlier. The epic is believed to have suffered only minimum information loss, during its earlier existence as an oral recitation, because of sophisticated preservation techniques employed by ancient Indian authors. The phonetic-letters of the recitation is binary coded (called Guru (1), Laghu (0) Maatra system of binary coding) which is known to the reciters. Thus it's likely that the information content in the Mahabharata is well preserved, with only minimum deteriorations and additions. (The earlier Vedas were also preserved through oral traditions using similar techniques but they were much smaller in size than the Mahabharata.)
There is some evidence however that writing may have been known to Vyasa based on archeological findings of styli in the Painted Grey Ware culture, dated between 1100 BC and 700 BC. and archeological evidence of the Brahmi script being used from at least 600 BC.
The difficulty faced by Ganapati (Ganesh) in writing down Mahabharata as described in the tradition, could be real, and was most probably faced by those people who first attempted to write it down as some reciter recited it continuously. This is because, the reciter, will not be able to stop the recitation, in the middle and resume it, as the lines are committed to his memory as a continuous recording.
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 were a republic. To some extend Dwaraka had republican style of rule. Ganapati who wrote down Mahabharata, probably was one this republic chiefs, well educated in the art of writing or inscription.
Vyasa is also credited with the writing of the eighteen 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 Visv‚mitra, Asita, Kanva, Durv‚s‚, Bhrigu, Angir‚, Kas'yapa, V‚madeva, Atri, Vasishthha, along with N‚rada 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 S‚mba the son of J‚mbavati 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!
Within Buddhism Vyasa appears as Kanha-dipayana(the Pali version of his name) in two Jataka tales: the Kanha-dipayana Jataka and Ghata Jataka. Whilst the former in which he appers as the Bodhisattva has no relation to his tales from the Hindu works, his role in the latter one has parallels in an important event in the Mahabhrata.
In the 16th book of the epic, Mausala Parva, the end of the Vrishnis, clansmen of Vyasa's namesake and Vishnu incarnate Krishna is narrated. The epic says: One day, the Vrishni heroes .. saw Vishvamitra, Kanwa and Narada arrived 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, attempted to be thus deceived, 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 Ghata Jataka has a different spin on it: 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 VŠsudeva. The youths thereupon fell on him and killed him, but his prophecy came true .
Notably, he is not the Bodhisattva in the Ghata Jataka.
The only non-religious book in which Vyasa has an interesting entry 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, DŠndakya, making a lascivious attempt on a BrŠhman maiden, perished along with his kingdom and relations; so also KarŠla, the Vaideha... VŠtŠpi in his attempt under the influence of overjoy to attack Agastya, as well as the corporation of the Vrishnis in their attempt against DvaipŠyana.'
This reference matches the Jataka version and has lead some scholars to speculate that in the older versions Vyasa died in this attack, though the Arthashastra is actually speaking about the destruction of the attackers.
The Brahma Sutra is attributed to Badarayana — which makes him the proponent of the crest-jewel school of Hindu philosophy, i.e., 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 the Badarayana who wrote the Sutras, many historians think these were two different personalities.
This text is a commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Vyasa is credited with this work also, though this is impossible, if Vyasa's immortality is not considered, as it is a later text.
Vyasa was born to Satyavati, a member of the fishermen community, before her marriage with the Kuru king Santanu. Vyasa's father was a Brahmin, by the name Parashara, a sage in the lineage of Vasistha.
Vyasa was closely related to the Kauravas and Pandavas, so much as that he perpetuated their race in the line of the Kuru king Vichitravirya. Both Dhritarashtra and Pandu, adopted as the sons of Vichitravirya by the royal family, were born from him. Thus he was the grandfather of the Pandavas and Kauravas. This kinship enabled him to know much about the happenings in the royal family, ultimately enabling him to author their history in the form of Jaya.
He lived in Kurukshetra, in a forest, very near to the battle field, enabling him to know considerable details about the Kurukshetra War, as it took place in front of his eyes.