Vyasa’s Recitation

Ugrasrava, the son of Lomaharshana, surnamed Sauti, well-versed in the Puranas, bending with humility, one day approached the great sages of rigid vows, sitting at their ease, who had attended the twelve years’ sacrifice of Saunaka, surnamed Kulapati, in the forest of Naimisha. Those ascetics, wishing to hear his wonderful narrations, presently began to address him. Having been entertained with due respect by those holy men, he saluted those Munis with joined palms, and inquired about the progress of their asceticism. Then all the ascetics being again seated, the son of Lomaharshana humbly occupied the seat that was assigned to him. Seeing that he was comfortably seated, and recovered from fatigue, one of the Rishis beginning the conversation, asked him, “Whence comest thou, O lotus-eyed Sauti, and where hast thou spent the time?”

Sauti said, “Having heard the diverse sacred and wonderful stories which were composed in his Mahabharata by Krishna-Dwaipayana, and which were recited in full by Vaisampayana at the Snake-sacrifice of the high-souled royal sage Janamejaya and in the presence also of that chief of Princes, the son of Parikshit, and having wandered about, visiting many sacred waters and holy shrines, I journeyed to the country venerated by the Dwijas and called Samantapanchaka where formerly was fought the battle between the children of Kuru and Pandu, and all the chiefs of the land ranged on either side. Thence, anxious to see you, I am come into your presence. O ye Dwijas, shall I repeat, shall I recount the sacred stories collected in the Puranas containing precepts of religious duty and of worldly profit?”

The Rishi replied, “The Purana, first promulgated by the great Rishi Dwaipayana Vyasa, and which after having been heard both by the gods and the Brahmarshis was highly esteemed, being the most eminent narrative that exists, diversified both in diction and division, possessing subtle meanings logically combined, and gleaned from the Vedas, is a sacred work. Composed in elegant language, it includes the subjects of other books. It is elucidated by other Shastras, and comprehends the sense of the four Vedas. We are desirous of hearing that history also called Bharata, the holy composition of the wonderful Vyasa, which dispelleth the fear of evil, just as it was cheerfully recited by the Rishi Vaisampayana, under the direction of Vyasa himself, at the snake-sacrifice of Raja Janamejaya.”

Sauti then said, “When that learned Brahmarshi of strict vows, the noble Dwaipayana Vyasa, offspring of Parasara, had finished this greatest of narrations, he began to consider how he might teach it to his disciples. And the possessor of the six attributes, Brahma, the world’s preceptor, knowing of the anxiety of the Rishi, came in person to the place where the latter was. Vyasa was surprised and said, ‘O divine Brahma, by me a poem hath been composed which is greatly respected. But no writer of this work is to be found on earth.’ Brahma said, ‘I esteem thee for thy knowledge of divine mysteries. Thou hast called thy present work a poem, wherefore it shall be a poem. There shall be no poets whose works may equal the descriptions of this poem. Let Ganesa be thought of, O Muni, for the purpose of writing it.’ Brahma having thus spoken to Vyasa, retired to his own abode.”

“Then Vyasa began to call to mind Ganesa. And Ganesa, obviator of obstacles, ready to fulfill the desires of his votaries, was no sooner thought of, than he repaired to the place where Vyasa was seated. And when he had been saluted, and was seated, Vyasa addressed him thus, ‘O guide of the Ganas! be thou the writer of the Bharata which I have formed in my imagination, and which I am about to repeat.’ Ganesa, upon hearing this address, thus answered, ‘I will become the writer of thy work, provided my pen does not for a moment cease writing.’ And Vyasa said unto that divinity, ‘Wherever there be anything thou dost not comprehend, cease to continue writing.’ Ganesa having signified his assent, proceeded to write and Vyasa began; and by way of diversion, he knit the knots of composition exceeding close; by doing which, he dictated this work according to his engagement.”

Sauti continued, “I am acquainted with eight thousand and eight hundred verses. As the sun dispels the darkness, so does the Bharata by its discourses on religion, profit, pleasure and final release, dispel the ignorance of men. As the full-moon by its mild light expands the buds of the water-lily, so this Purana, by exposing the light of the Sruti expands the human intellect. By the lamp of history, which destroys the darkness of ignorance, the whole mansion of nature is properly and completely illuminated. The spirited and virtuous Vyasa became the father of three boys; and having thus raised up Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura, he returned to his abode to prosecute his religious exercise. It was not till after these were born, grown up, and departed on the supreme journey, that Vyasa published the Bharata; when being solicited by Janamejaya and thousands of Brahmanas, he instructed his disciple Vaisampayana, who was seated near him; and he, sitting together with the Sadasyas, recited the Bharata, during the intervals of the ceremonies of the sacrifice, being repeatedly urged to proceed.”

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows Sauti, narrating the story of the Mahabharata’s composition to Saunaka, a sage living in the forest of Naimisha. The forest lay to the west of the kingdom of Panchala in the Valley of the Ganges (Ganga). Saunaka, along with other sages had assembled there for the performance of a great sacrifice. When they met Sauti, they requested him to narrate the epic of Mahabaharata (authored by the sage Vyasa). The Mahabharata, also known as the Bharata or the Jaya, is the principal epic of Hinduism. At its core lie the events constituting the Kurukshetra War, fought between two royal clans, the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) and the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra). Pandu and Dhritarashtra were stepbrothers, born to Vichitravirya, ruler of the Kuru principality. As he died without children, Vichitravirya’s mother Satyawati persuaded her other son, Vyasa (half-brother to Vichitravirya, as he was born out of wedlock, prior to Satyawati’s marriage with the Kuru monarch Shantanu) to beget the next generation of Kuru princes (by a practice known as Niyoga) upon his queens. Vyasa fathered Dhritarashtra with queen Ambika, and Pandu with queen Ambalika. The blindness of Dhritarashtra and early demise of Pandu triggered a series of events culminating in the terrible Kurukshetra War, fought over the patrimony of the Kuru kingdom. The events of the War were narrated by Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra’s charioteer, to the blind Kuru patriarch. This portion, known as ‘Jaya’, is placed within the history of the Bharata clan (an ancient lineage claiming descent from the deity Soma; they in turn were the ancestors of the Kauravas and the Pandavas), known as ‘Bharata’, and narrated to the king Janamejaya (a descendant of the Pandavas) by the sage Vaisampayana (a pupil of Vyasa). The ‘Bharata’ was in turn placed within the ‘Mahabharata’ as narrated by Sauti, in the forest of Naimisha. This demonstrates the ‘story-within-a-story’ structure of the Mahabharata, a literary device extremely popular in South Asia. The illustration of Sauti (seated on a throne) narrating the epic to Saunaka (seated on a deerskin) is from a folio of the Birla Razmanama. The Razmanama (‘Book of War’ in Persian) was a beautifully illustrated Persian translation of the Mahabharata, ordered by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The Mughals, Muslim by faith and Turko-Mongol by ethnicity were great patrons of art and literature. They inaugurated a new syncretic tradition in North India, infusing it with elements of Persian high culture. The Razmanama is one among the many products of this tradition.