Thursday, February 3, 2022

Vyasa, The Homer Of India

Homer is credited with being the father of Western literature. We aren’t sure whether he actually lived or not but what has been recorded is that he was a bard who recited great tales based on events of the Trojan War which became known as the Iliad. So important was this and his other tale, the Odyssey, that some historians believe the Greeks adapted the Phoenecian alphabet to create their own for the purpose of preserving these tales in written form. When a people set out to create high civilization, they ultimately require books and records to preserve their identity and pass it on to posterity. 

This occurred in most civilizations, the preserving of those narratives considered important for any particular culture. In India there supposedly lived a rishi or sage named Vyasa who dwelled at the edge of a great forest. From there he was a witness to the battles and events between the powerful Pandava and Kausara clans who fought each other on the great plain of Kurukshetra. These battles and wars as well as the evens surrounding the many characters in this epic became the very foundation of Indian literature, the myth that was at the heart of India’s civilization. Viyasa is said to have witnessed the battles and the events himself and as a consequence, he recorded the events in writing, which one day would become the great Mahabharata, a lengthy epic which still holds mass appeal for all Indians.

Vyasa is considered an important figure as he also divided the rather sumptuous religious text known as the Veda into four books, breaking it down so people can further study and research the teachings contained within and come to understand more intimately the meanings of the 'suktas' or verses, as the corpus of the Veda in one book would be far too huge to consume as one text. The four Vedas are the Rig Veda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and the Atharveda. Thus Vyasa earned his name because vyasa in Sanskrit refers to dividing, splitting, organizing. It is obvious that someone or perhaps a group of people decided to compile and organize the various sacred texts in this manner. Vyasa is also credited with compiling other religious books such as the 18 Puranas and the Brahma Sutras, important in the study of the Sanatan Dharma path which non Indians know as a general term, Hinduism. Like the Greeks, the Indians gave the idea/person/group collaboration an identity, and named it as an individual, Vyasa. This is how the figure we can claim to be the father of Indian literature came to be known. We would have to search and investigate to find out if a person named Vyasa was an actual person, just as historians have been trying to prove the actuality of Homer or for that matter the existence of those who inspired several figures of the great religions of the world; Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster, Mohammed and Arjun are not necessarily proven historical figures though they are accepted and agreed upon as having been ‘real’ by masses of humanity and those scholars who argue their existence. These figures, real or imagined, have been influential enough for the communities who embraced them, and because of that embracing we must accept them as pertinent, regardless of our own personal opinion about their veracity. The same can be said of Homer and certainly, for Vyasa. Such ancient literary bards, like the prophets and spiritual teachers mentioned, mean much to people and communities, so much that we are forced to focus our thought and discussion around them and we do so to this day. Time, events, the scope of history has been and to an extent still is viewed through the lens of such beings. They are larger than life and therefore we can say they are multidimensional. Such figures lend support like a necessary pillar to the temple of human civilization that upholds tradition and withstands the scrutiny of the consecutive centuries. 

India was aptly termed by historian Michael Wood as ‘the Empire of The Spirit’. Every aspect of Indian life and thought revolves around the seeking of divinity and the place (or places?) of humanity, the gods and the celestial beings in the universe, which is understood in a cyclical concept rather than the linear concept of time associated with Zoroastrianism or the Abrahamic faiths. Wherever one travels in India, the sense of the otherworld is ever present, based on the concept of maya, that all we see, hear and touch in this dimension is but an illusion because what we see and experience now was experienced before and will be visible to future generations, as everything comes round over and over. Indian civilizations have built great temples and architectural palaces, kingdoms went to war and seized land and wealth as anywhere and the kings of these many entities have known wealth beyond imagination. Yet Indian kings all understood that possessions are trivial compared to attaining enlightenment and divinity. The pursuit of divine knowledge permeates every aspect of Indian life and history. Therefore it is no surprise that this poet/bard Vyasa and his compilation of the great epic would be wrapped in a coating of Indian mysticism and otherworldly, celestial overtones. One of Vyasa's disciples, Ugrashravas, is credited with being a great narrator of the Mahabharata who became a great teacher himself by explaining the various lessons that are taught and described in the epic. Ugrashravas can be said to have set the example for future sages to follow, his commentary further expounded upon century after century like the great rabbis and sages of Judaism who maintained a tradition of theological debate that continues to this day. 

As in the narratives of most ancient civilizations there is an element of the otherworldly at play, for is said that Vyasa had some assistance from an apsara named Adrika. Apsaras are female celestial beings who inspire poets, dancers, musicians and artists, similar to the muses in ancient Greek mythology. Because the text of the Mahabharata was so long and there were so many events and personalities to keep track of, the apsara Adrika reminded Vyasa and assisted him in writing and preserving the epic, influencing even the language and the style of the verse. It was said that the verses are so bold and poignant, it could not have been written by a mere mortal. For example, the text is quite varied, as it has some beautiful and tender passages of love and longing, laughter and comedy but also visceral descriptions of the terrible battles that could compete with anything in the Iliad for bloodshed and slaughter. Yet it is all contained in the book, and in Indian  literary legend it is Adrika who is given the credit for bringing this all together and assisting Vyasa in preserving it all in text form. Perhaps the Mahabharata is the work of several authors, as is believed are the religious texts of the world, and the likelihood that it is the work of several authors is all the more evident in the days of yore when most people were illiterate and writing was the special reserve of the elite. The connection with other dimensions and realms was a common feature, heaven having a hand in the creation of such important texts. Vyasa supposedly received visions and inspiration from Adrika, just as Arjuna sought guidance from Krishna. We have to wonder if a single male rishi or a group of men of ancient India would have willingly composed the verses about the strong women of the Mahabharata such as Chitrangada, who defeats Arjuna in hand to hand combat then takes him in and restores him to health, falls in love and bears him a son, who in time teaches this seeker of truth a lesson in karma and commitment- without giving a nod to the female apsara Adrika herself, who seemingly inspired Viyasa to write a few lines about women in a strong and powerful light. Or was Vyasa, or the more likely numerous authors of the text...just getting in touch with their feminine side? In Greek and Roman mythology, strong women are given their due mention but must be defeated, and are. In Indian epics, they are teachers in their own right, though they too must eventually take their seat in the shadow of men. 

Vyasa may represent an example of the scholars of early India, at the commencement of the Vedic period when Indian culture and civilization was coming about. He may have been one person or a group of people the culture needed to identify so as to explain how their civilization and its thought developed. In what became a patriarchal society, of course a man had to be the one to be remembered as the compiler of that society’s texts and scriptures. Yet India is amazing in that these narratives always include the feminine aspect. If the apsara Adrika is a fictional character, then she represents the balance of male/female in the creative mind, much like the duality of gender associated with the god Shiva or even more importantly, as we read in the Rig Veda which explains that Shakti, the feminine essence of the universe, is responsible for organizing it all into both material and spiritual form. With that passage in the Rig Veda known as the Diva Sukta which describes the primordial source of the universe as the powerful and complete female, we understand why even in this patriarchal society the apsara Adrika is given her due in the history of the compiling of India’s great epic, which is as popular today as it was in the glory days of ancient India’s courts and kingdoms. As a mother is necessary to bring forth and nurture life, the apsara nurtures the poet and the artist, guiding them to create beauty so as to solidify the very foundations of civilization. The apsara Adrika is acknowledged in sculpture and art as well as in the narration and the recounting of the history of the epic and for being a guide to Vyasa that great bard and poet, the equivalent of Homer in ancient India. 

Ismail Butera, 2022

Vyasa, The Homer Of India

Homer is credited with being the father of Western literature. We aren’t sure whether he actually lived or not but what has been recorded is...