Vyasa was a central and admired figure of the Hindu Tradition. He was a famous Rsi in the longest epic (Rodrigues 177), The Mahabharata, and was also credited for the Epic (Rodrigues, 145).
Vyasa’s Birth and Family
According to the mythic sources, Vyasa was the son of Satyavati, the Daughter of a fisherman and Parashara who was a wandering sage. Satyavati used to row boats for passengers from one end of the shore to another. That was where Parashara and Satyavati met. Since Satyavati was the daughter of a fisherman, she smelled of fish hence Parashara gave her a boon that she would never smell like she had been around fishes ever again, she then gave birth to Krishna Dvaipayana on the shore of River Yamuna. At birth, he was given the name Krishna Dvaipayana (Ramesh 1-2). The name Krishna Dvaipayana came from his dark complexion meaning Krishna and Dvaipayana-came from the place he was born. He was born on the shore of Yamuna (which is a river in India) Dvipa (meaning island). He was married to the daughter of Rsi Jabali, named Vaachika. After marriage, he entered the stage of Grahasthashram and then fathered a son named Shuka.
According to legends, Veda Vyasa was the type of character that always had full loyalty and faith for the Vedas meaning he had Veda Niṣṭha. We know that he had full faith on the Vedas since at a very young age he had mastered Vedas as well as the Sastras, literature, mythology, history and other branches of knowledge. Another meaning of Nistha is steadiness, we see that he had steadiness in his life, he was always successful in what he wanted to do, we don’t see many obstacles coming in the way of his success in his lifetime. Later, then went on to Badarikashrama to perform ‘tapas’ meaning meditation. According to Vyasa, the Veda was not stabilized, since there was only one Veda, they weren’t separate at the time, it was hard for people to understand it due to which not many people would be able to read them. This caused the essence of the Veda to go down in society therefore the Veda was not stable. Vyasa wanted to restore Vedic Saahitya (literature) by doing the punar uddhar (revival) of the Vedas. To stabilize the Vedas, he decided to divide the Vedas into four sections. The Vedas were divided in such a way that all the hymns were grouped based on their requirements in the sacrificial rites. Each of the four Vedas were given to four different Rsis. Vyasa taught these four Vedas to his four disciples. Rg Veda was given to Paila Rsi, Atharva Veda was given to Sumanthu Rsi, Sama Veda was given to Jaimini Rsi and lastly Yajur Veda was given to Vaishampayana Rsi. As the Vedas were divided, the respective Rsis taught their part of the Vedas to their disciples who then passed down the knowledge to the society, and restoring the values and information of the Vedas among the society. It was easier to pass on the knowledge of the Vedas now since they were all divided (Sullivan 11-15). Two events took place after Vyasa had divided the Vedas. First was when he got the name Veda Vyasa; until then he was known as Krishna Dvaipayana. Second even was when Vyasa decided to write the Puranas. The Puranas were a way to spread the thoughts of the Vedas in the form of stories to the general people. Puranas contain stories about the Vedas for easier understanding, since the Vedas are too complex to understand by general people. There is a total of 18 Puranas, Vyasa did Sansodhana (research) and Adhyayana (study) in detail to achieve his goal. It takes such immense knowledge for a person to achieve so many achievements in life, like writing such great Epics that are still known till date. After writing the Puranas, he started writing the Brahma Sutra. The Brahma Sutra consists of four chapters, 16 Padas, and 555 Sutras. The Brahma Sutras are part of the Vedantas, which include Sankara’s Radical Non-dualism, Ramanujan’s Qualified Non-Dualism and Madhava’s dualism (Rodrigues 155-159).
It is said that Vyasa first composed the entire story of The Mahabharata in his head for years, after which he was encouraged by Lord Brahma that Vyasa should now write the story (Rodrigues 2016, 177). Vyasa asks Ganesha to aid him in writing the text, but Ganesha imposed a condition that he would do so only if Vyasa narrated the story without pause. Vyasa replied with a counter-condition, that Ganesha must understand the verse before he wrote it. Thus, Vyasa narrated the entire Mahabharata and all the Upanishads and the 18 Puranas, while Lord Ganesha wrote. At one point while writing, Ganesa ran out of ink, therefore he broke one of his tusk and continued writing The Mahabharata (Rodrigues 224). He had also composed the Great Bharata, which tells the story of Janamejaya’s, Pariksit’s son and Arjuna’s grandson. The book talked about Janamejaya’s ancestors, the descendants of King Bharata (Rodrigues 182).
What is The Mahabharata about?
The reason that The Mahabharata is a great epic is that it enlightens the 5 main aspects of human life, namely: psychology, sociology, economics, politics and philosophy. It also offers a vision on the four goals of life: Righteousness (Dharma), Wealth (Artha), Enjoyment (Kama) and Salvation (Moksa) (Ramesh 1). Vyasas way of representing these qualities to the society was through the characters of the Epic. The Mahabharata has characters such as Bhiṣma, Krṣṇa, Draupadi, The Paṇḍava and The Kaurava. Rsi Vyasa’s characters are said to be Padachyuta and Dhyeyachyuta. This means that none of them lost their focus from their goals. If we look at The Paṇḍava’s, their goal was to keep the kingdom of Hastinapura with the help of Dharma in place, whereas The Kaurava’s goal was to keep the kingdom of Hastinapura using Adharma. Even if all these characters were on opposite sides, they all stuck to their goals, no matter the situation and stayed focused on that goal. These characters teach us that we should stay focused to achieve our goal. They are the types of characters that even if death was headed their way, they stay focused and loyal to their beliefs. An example can be Abhimanyu (son of Arjuna). During the big Kurukṣetra war, there was a point that the Kauravas were planning an evil game to hurt the Paṇḍava’s, but despite no proper knowledge of how to escape the trap known as the ‘Chakra-Vyooha’ (Chaturvedi 5-6) which the Kauravas had set, he went into that trap and fought against all the evil until his last breath. He knew he was not coming out alive, before going in, but he still went in and fought for Dharma. All these characters make us feel like we can achieve something in life if we stay focused. They also show us the true meaning of Tyaga (sacrifice). The characters that were on the side of Dharma made many sacrifices to do the establishment of Dharma, no matter what the situation. These are the types of character that Vyasa gave us and through them we can learn many lessons in life. There is something to learn from every character despite them being evil or good and Dharmic (Righteous) or Adharmic (Non-Righteous), all characters were able to keep their goals through the Epic, this shows us their loyalty towards their goals and that they can go to any level to stay focused on their goals.
Vyasa’s involvement in Politics
In Ancient Indian Culture Legislation was in the hands of Rsi, and the execution was with the king. There are some examples from Vyasa’s life where we can see how he was related to politics.
One example was about the almost extinct Hastinapura kingdom. Satyavati (Vyasa’s mother) had two other sons Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Vichitravirya was married to Ambika (had a maid named Parishrama) and Ambalika. Vichitravirya dies leaving the kingdom of Hastinapura without a heir. This was when Vyasa was called by Satyavati because at that time, if anyone other than the Rsi wife had a child with a Rsi, it was considered big. Vyasa decided to surrogately father the heirs of Hastinapura (Rodrigues 177). Vyasa visits the three queens of Vichitravirya. Since he was a Rsi, he had a beard, long hair with a bun on top. He was there to grant the three queens a boon so they can have children, and the boon was dependent on how the queens react when they see Vyasa. When the first queen Ambika saw Vyasa, she closed her eyes, which meant that her son was going to be born blind who came to be known as Dhritarastra, father of the Kauravas. Then, when the second queen Ambalika saw Vyasa, she got sick meaning her son would stay unfit for life; her son was Pandu, father of the Pandavas (Rodrigues 177). Since the two queens were not able to give birth to kids that will be very suitable for the throne, due to their disabilities, he decided to give a boon to Ambika’s maid as well. When Parishrama (the maid of Ambika) saw Vyasa, she didn’t react in a bad way, she was herself and gave birth to a son, Vidura, who was normal and was brilliant. However, he would never be considered to rule the throne since he was the son of a maid. This was the political step taken by Vyasa to save a dynasty from becoming extinct (Ramesh 3). With no descendant, there will be no king therefore Satyavati called Vyasa, even though he was a Rsi. Vidura, despite being a maid’s son, was honest and was against injustice. Therefore, according to Vyasa’s ‘political move’, Vidura was one of the ministers in the kingdom so he can give honest advice to the king. This shows his involvement in politics and since the legislation was in the hand of Vyasa he was authorized to punish the king, if king made any mistakes.
Another story about his involvement in politics was that when the Paṇḍava’s had grown up, he sent them to Drupada’s kingdom, where the swayamwara of Draupadi was going on (Rodrigues 179). His intention was that the Pandavas should have a wife like Draupadi who would be a great strength for the Paṇḍavas. He always wanted a powerful woman like Draupadi behind the Paṇḍavas, because she was the type of person who could stand up against injustice, as well as she was the daughter of the Agni. Draupadi was said to be the daughter of Lord Agni, since she came out of the fire pit. After Arjuna had won Draupadi in the swayamwara, Vyasa’s wanted Draupadi to be the wife of all five Paṇḍava’s, not just Arjuna’s wife. At a time when The Mahabharata took place, people thought what a female could not have more than one husband. But once Vyasa made the decision that Draupadi will have five husbands, no one had the audacity to say anything against Vyasa. He also wanted to keep all the brothers together, and so his strategy to make Draupadi the wife of the Pandavas was so that there will be no rift between them in the future. This incident shows us that Vyasa was given great respect from the people of the villages that they did not say anything about what he had done. Their culture did not allow such a practice, but their trust in Vyasa was so deep that they did not utter a word against him. This incident also shows Vyasa’s vision in favor of Dharma and the Pandavas, because if Draupadi was married to Pandavas her father kingdom will support Pandavas in the final battle for Dharma. Thus, by sending the Pandavas to the swayamwara, he had already played his ‘political move’ for the betterment of the Hastinapura kingdom, and the fact that he made Draupadi the wife of all the Pandavas would bring positive changes to the society where women will be given respect, not just considered lower than men, which is the M-1B state (Rodrigues 90).
The third example can be seen when the Pandavas were in exile for thirteen years, and in disguise for one year (Rodrigues 180). This was when Vyasa goes to give them a visit in the forest. When Vyasa paid the Pandavas a visit, he was furious at them for just sitting around, and not preparing for the future war of The Mahabharata in advance. Vyasa already knew there was going to be a war and to prepare the Pandavas he sent Arjuna to do Tapa (tenacity). This was his ‘political move’, by sending Arjuna to sit in meditation for Lord Siva, and by doing the meditation Arjuna would be able to impress Lord Siva, so when Arjuna impressed Siva, Siva gave Arjuna some Celestial weapons that would be useful for the war (Rodrigues 180).
What is the importance Guru Purnima and why is it celebrated?
This day dedicated to the great Sage Vyasa. A Guru is someone who removes our ignorance. The meaning of Guru comes from ‘Gu’ meaning ignorance and ‘Ru’ meaning remover of ignorance. Guru (teacher) Purṇima (full moon day) is also known as Vyasa Purnima because on that day Vyasa was born as well as he started writing the Brahma Sutras. Vyasa is considered as the original Guru of the Hindus. This festival is a symbol of the Guru and Sisya (student) relationship. Gurus are considered a link between the individual and the immortal. This festival falls in the Hindu month of Ashad (July-August). This is the day for the disciples to pay respect to their Gurus, since Gurus are given great importance in Hinduism. On this day, the disciples or devotees provide seva (service) to their Gurus which grants the disciples their Guru’s grace for their spiritual progress. If the Guru has passed away, then their portrait is worshipped instead. We pick our Guru based on their Gyan (knowledge) and Shraddha (faith) not the age. The word Upanishad also means sitting down with a Guru to gain knowledge. A famous philosopher Adi Sankaracharya has said that “If a person, despite possessing a disease-free body, fame, wealth, and studied the Vedas and Scriptures, and even if he wrote many scriptures, but has not surrendered himself to a Guru, then he would have achieved nothing” (Tumuluru 17-20). A Guru is someone who guides his disciple on the path of self-realization and strengthens their faith. On this day, Bhajans (songs for festivals and special occasions) and performances are organized by ashrams (hermitage). Kabir (Indian poet) said that “If we put God and Guru side by side, we have to pray the Guru first because he is the one through who you can realize God” (Tumuluru 17-20).
The study of the text the Guru Gita (Tumuluru 17-20) is recommended on this day as well as meditation at the Guru’s feet by waking up at 4am to obtain God’s grace. After waking up to do the meditation the devotees place flowers by the Guru’s picture and light a lamp, some may even keep moun (silence).
This day is observed by Monks when they give offerings to the Guru, they also start a four-month seclusion period (a four-month rainy season period) known as the Chatur Masa where they stay at a selected spot and have discourses. This is also an important day for Farmers because it marks the start of rainy season. This festival is also celebrated by Buddhists because it is the day that the Buddha gave his first sermon.
The best way to worship a Guru is to follow their teachings and do their seva by helping the Guru achieving their mission, by spreading the message of their teachings.
Chaturvedi, B.K. (2002) Abhimanyu. New Delhi: Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd.
Ramesh, Sri B.G. (2012) Vyasa: Volume 3. Karnataka: Sapna Book House (P) Ltd.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism—The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Sullivan, Bruce (1990) Krsna Dvaipayana Vyasa and the Mahabharata: A New Interpretation. Leiden: E.J.Brill.
Tumuluru, Kamal Kumar (2015) Hindu Prayers, Gods and Festivals. Haryana:Partridge Publishing India.
Related Research Topics for Veda Vyasa:
History and Family
Involvement in the Mahabharata
The types of characters he wrote about compared to Shakespeare
What kind of politics did Vyasa play throughout Mahabharata
His Achievements- Vedas, Puranas, and Brahma Sutras
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This article is written by: Aastha Patel (Spring 2017), and I am entirely responsible for the content.