I have been listening to the Mahabharata as narrated by Sri Krishna Premi. As part of my attempt to remember details of what I listen to, I have been making blog posts out of my notes. This is the second of such posts. In the the first part, we talked about WHY one has to read or listen to the Mahabharata. It is to understand Dharma from the lives of people who followed it. We also understood a little about the different parts of the Vedas that teach us these values – Shruthi and Smruthi. Now let us move on to the very beginning of the Mahabharata. It is only fitting that we start with the introduction of Sage Veda Vyasa. The Mahabharata has been written by Sage Veda Vyasa, who is also an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Now here is something I found interesting: the narrator says, in order for someone to introduce Lord Krishna to us, this “someone” has to be an equal. Technically, only an incarnation of Vishnu can equal another incarnation. There is no one equal to Lord Vishnu but Himself; so enters Sage Veda Vyasa, another of His incarnations to write the Mahabharata. This is all said to be part of “the plan”. 😉 (Refer: “Vyasaya Vishnu Roopaya, Vyasa Roopaya Vishnave”, from Vishnu Sahasranaamam) Also, this incarnation of Lord Vishnu’s has much more significance attached to it than any other, for this is more useful to us. If not for Veda Vyasa, we may not have known Lord Krishna at all. It is also Sage Vyasa that has authored the Vedas and Shastras. So Veda Vyasa has to be regarded with much more reverence and significance. Once upon a time there was a king called Uparichara Vasu. “Uparichara” translates to “going upwards” – meaning someone who travels by air. Krishna Premi notes that there have been mentions of things such as an aircraft in a lot of stories dating so many years back. Uparichara Vasu was a great Krishna devotee. One day, as he was flying over a place called Therizhandhur, near Mayavaram, Tamil Nadu (also the place where Thirumangai Azhvaar hails from), his spacecraft happened to just drop. When he tried to find out what caused the spacecraft to fall down, he discovered that Lord Krishna Himself appeared in all His glory (with his conch and shell). Uparichara Vasu immediately bowed down low to the Lord, arranged a shrine to be built there and only then did he leave the place. A lot of temples such as this are said to have been built by Uparichara Vasu. Now this Uparichara Vasu had a daughter called Sathyavati or Mathsyagandhi AKA Vasavi. This daughter of his grew up in the forests near river Yamuna as the adopted daughter of a hunter king. Sathyavati used to help with ferrying people across the river – from one bank to another. She made her living doing this. As she was at her job one evening, Sage Parasarar, who happened ferry across the river, was instantly attracted to her. Now we are talking about a Rishi here. He got angry with himself for, a Rishi like him cannot give in to such attractions and pleasures. As he tried to understand what happened to him, it dawned on him that it was the Lord’s way of telling him that He had chosen this place and time to appear in this world as one of His incarnations through him and Sathyavati. Once he understood this, Sage Parasarar inclined to the Lord’s wishes and blessed Sathyavati with his child, Sage Veda Vyasa. It is to be noted here that this child simply “appeared” and was not borne by Sathyavati like any other human being is borne by the mother. Apparently sages had the power to bless a woman with a child – there was no need for intercourse. So, though Sage Parasarar and Sathyavati are known as the father and mother of Sage Veda Vyasa, it is not to be treated as “birth”. For it is an “incarnation”. As the story goes, Sage Veda Vyasa “appeared” as a 16-year old boy, received the blessings of his parents, informed Sathyavati that she only had to think of him when she needed him and he would appear the next moment. Saying thus, he disappeared. As this incarnation appeared in an island inYamuna, Sage Vyasa is also known as Krisna Dwipayanar. (Dwaipam means island) Mahabharata – a story to be narrated and listened to: The Mahabharata is said to have lakhs of verses. It is so huge that people have trouble believing that it could have been written by one person. There is a story behind how this was written, as well. I am sure you would have heard, but here goes. The Mahabharata is so huge that Sage Vyasa was actually concerned about how he was going to write all of this down. As he was thinking thus Lord Ganesha came to his rescue. Sage Vyasa requested Ganesha to write down the verses as he dictated them. But where would they write this? All the papers (or read: “palm leaves”) in the world would not suffice. What do they write it with? They would certainly run out of ink. And so it turned out that Lord Ganesha broke one of his tusks and used it to write the Mahabharata. This is the reason why he is also known by the name “Ekadhantan” (one tusked). There is a nice little piece of info here: It seems that there was a cute “competition” between Vyasa and Ganesha as to who could be faster – whether Vyasa would be faster in dictating the verses or Ganesha would beat him in writing them down. Ganesha wrote so fast that Vyasa sometimes didn’t have the time to breathe. So he told Ganesha that he should not simply “write the verses” down but write them after understanding what they meant. When Vyasa wanted to catch his breath, he would narrate a long verse – Ganesha would pause a while to understand its meaning and then write it down. This gave Sage Vyasa just enough time to swallow and take a breath! It is for these little nuances that you have to listen to the narration. And so the verses were written all over the caves of the Himalayas. Today, there is apparently a place called Vyasa Guha in Mana, a small village situated in the Indo-Tibetean border. Here are some pictures: So that’s how the Epic was written. Now for a story to live beyond years and eras, it has to have been narrated by people. Of course, there are the books but how many of us really read the entire thing? We listen to stories and repeat them to anybody who would hear. Similarly the entire Mahabharata is a story that was first narrated by Sage Vyshampayanar to King Janamejayan. Who’s who? Vyshampayanar was a disciple of Sage Vyasa. Janamejayan was the son of Parikshit, who was in turn the son of Abhimanyu. Abhimanyu, as we all know, was the son of Arjuna. When Uttara, wife of Abhimanyu was pregnant with his child, Ashwttama sent the Brahma Astra to her womb to kill the child. At this point, Abhimanyu’s child would be the only heir to the kingdom, the last of the Pandavas’ family to carry on their lineage. Such was Aswattama’s rage and the enmity he felt towards the Pandavas that he wanted the unborn child dead as well so there would be no one left to carry on their lineage, no heir to the kingdom. Uttara prayed to the Lord to rescue her child – she was prepared to die for the child. Immediately Lord Krishna appeared, transformed into a miniature form of Himself, entered Uttara’s womb and saved the child from the clutches of the Astra. He presented Himself in his divine form to the child. The child, the fetus, counted itself lucky to have seen the Lord in all His glory when he was only inside its mother’s womb. After the child was born, he is said to have “examined” each and every person that visited him to check if it was in fact this person or that, who saved him when he was in his mother’s womb. The child yearned to see Lord Krishna again. And hence he was named “Parikshit” – one who examines! Interesting. Note: Lord Krishna came to the child’s rescue not just because Uttara called for help. It was because he considered Himself indebted to Draupathi and was obliged to protect her entire family. That is also one of the reasons why Krishna stood by the Pandavas during the Kurukshetra war. The origin of this: we all know the court scene where Duryodana is said to have insulted her in front of everyone, her very own husbands included. Even then, she did not call Arjuna or any of the other Pandavas for help. She did not cry out to Kunti, her mother-in-law. Instead, she cried out to Lord Krishna for help, someone who was not even within earshot, someone who resided in Dwaraka. This was due to the complete faith she had in Him and Krishna respected her for that. He immediately appeared and we know what happened next. We have all seen the famous scene where a never-ending saree rolls out of his palm and covers Draupati, as Duryodana keeps pulling it from the other end! So it’s only because Draupathi trusted Krishna completely to help her when she needed Him, that He holds himself indebted to her. It is not just to her that He is indebted but to her entire family. Uttara happens to be Draupati’s daughter-in-law and Parikshit, her grandson. So Krishna is obliged to protect them. That is why he is called “Abathbandhavan” – one who rescues you in times of danger. And thus the narrator brings in the importance of “Govinda Nama sankeetrthanam” – the benefits of singing the praise of “Govinda”. He also stresses on the specialty of Vishnu Sahansranamam on these lines. All you have to do is think of Him and “utter” his name and he is there to help you! And with that I end this post. Details of the context in which the epic was narrated will be mentioned in the following post.
The Mahabharata – An introduction (Part 2)