Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Poet Vyasa in the Mahabharata

Dr. S. S. Janaki

The poetic abilities of Vyasa are considerable, although he is well known as a sage (muni, rishi) as the redactor of the Vedas, the author/compiler of the Mahabharata and Puranas, etc. The poetic genius of Vyasa is a natural outcome of the great sage-scholar that he really was. Indeed the Kavi and Rishi are made of the same stuff. Especially Vyasa’s Mahabharata (M.Bh) although neither the greatest nor the richest masterpiece of the secular literature of India, is at the same time, its most considerable and important body of poetry.


The etymological equation of the words “Rishi” and “Kavi”, as also the similarity between the actual representatives of these two categories, have come down in India from remote times. The Vedic exegetist Yaska says that the Rishi is so called due to his unique vision (Rishir darsanant). In fact, in a late Rig Vedic hymn in the tenth Mandala (125th), the omnipotent Goddess of Speech, called here Aambhrinee (a daughter of sage Ambhrina), speaks as the knower of the Supreme Brahman and Herself as that Supreme Being. In one of these Suktas, She says, “Whomsoever I love him I make formidable, him a Brahman, a man of vision (tam rishim) and a man of excellent intellect (tam sumedhaam)”.

In later classical literature the converse process was operative as evident in the definition of “Kavi” as one endowed with all-­comprehensive transcendent vision (Kavih kraantadarsee). Bhatta Tota who hailed from Kashmir and who was one of the teachers of the versatile philosopher-critic Abhinavagupta, established the equation between a poet and a sage in his momentous statement that a poet is one endowed with eternal and many-sided vision, and that a poet is necessarily a sage (na anrishih kavir ityuktah). Following the footsteps of Tota his student Abhinavagupta (in his commentary on Bharata’s Natyasastra, 15th chapter) clearly and boldly brought Kalidasa, Bhattenduraja and such other classical writers in equation with Valmiki and Vyasa for, “all of them attained an all-round unique mastery in the various disciplines as a collective result of their great traditional ground, perspective, skill and samskara”.


Valmiki and Vyasa have been like the two eyes of the people, and their epics, the Ramayana and the M.Bh. have conditioned their mind and lives. The formation of national character, the norms of behaviour and moral standards which the people have striven to uphold, and the hopes and aspirations which have animated them through the centuries of their long history, all these they owe ultimately to these two epics.

Many are the Sanskrit literary compositions, printed and in manuscripts that praise Valmiki and Vyasa, singly or together in their introductory verses. For example, Kaviraja of the 12th century, who composed a Slesha Kavya ‘Raghavapandaviya’ (printed in Kavyamala Series) dealing simultaneously with the stories of the Ramayana and M.Bh, says in one of its introductory verses:

“If the ruby of the Ramayana is set in the gold of Mahabharata, the minds of the connoisseurs will certainly be excited”.

The “Bharata-carita” (Trivandrum Sanskrit Series) of the Keralite poet Krishna Kavi, describing the deeds of Bharata, the son of Dushyanta and Sakuntala, called Vyasa and Valmiki the first sage-poets who framed the path for composing poetry, who are the oceans rich with gems of well-turned expressions, and are like the luminaries sun and the moon in showing the was for learned scholars and critics.

aadesikau padyapathodyataanam
ratnaakardu sookti-mahaamaneenaam
vande kaveenaam prathamau muneendrau

It is noteworthy that one of the minor Sakta puranas, the Brihaddharma (13th-14th centuries), glorified Valmiki and the Ramayana as the source of poetry and all Itihasa-Purana literature at great detail in chapters 25 to 30 of its Purva Khanda. Valmiki was, according to this Purana, graced with poetic gifts by the Goddess Sarasvati herself, at the bidding of Brahma. After com­posing the Ramayana, Valmiki imparted to Vyasa the eternal seed, essence and matrix of poetry so that he can compose the M.Bh. as a sure means means of salvation and larger in conspectus than his own Ramayana.


Both the Ramayana and M.Bh. are the two Itihasas or epics, recording the history of the kingly race and political situations con­temporaneous with their authors in a poetic garb. Still Valmiki and Vyasa differ considerably in their comprehension of the theme and communicating it to their audience using the required stylistic devices. The M. Bh. is the work of a mind of wider range and more intellectual approach than that of Valmiki. The imagination of its author is more comprehensive and brilliant. According to Sri Aurobindo the M.Bh. is “a mass of poetry which bears the style and impress of a single, strong and original, even unusual mind, differing in his manner of expressions, tone of thought, and stamp of personality not only from every other Sanskrit poet we know but from every other great poet known to literature”.


The M.Bh. itself, at its very beginning, states that it is a beautiful poem set in charming structure, figurative expressions, and descriptions of natural scenery. It continues, “Poets cannot excel this epic. In fact they have to draw upon it for their own creative activity. The eternal lord is sung of here. It is indeed the Veda of Vyasa, and is called “Mahabharata” because it is great (mahat) and weighty (bhaaravat)”.

More than anything the M.Bh. satifies the requirements and criteria of a sublime and lofty poetical composition (mahaa-kaavya) in its form, language, content, and aesthetic distance. “Expressions are the most powerful media of communication” (vaacaam eva prasaadena lokayaatraa pravartate), says the early Alamkaarika Dandin. Vyasa is a great master in using minimal words and simple imagery, which at once communicate themselves to the hearer. As a random example of this, we may note the context in the Virata Parva where the pitiable Draupadi is seen under the guise of Sairandhri being molested by Kichaka. Desperately at night-time she goes to the kitchen where Bhima, sighing heavily, was fast asleep like a lordly lion. Describing this situation Vyasa says, “Draupadi approached Bhima like a white, three-year old cow, born and bred in the forest going to an excellent bull”.

Sarva-svetem maaheyee vane jaataa trihaayanee
upaatishthata paanchaalee vaasiteva vararshabham

The simple comparison of Draupadi to an all-white, forest cow of three years brings out her condition fully laden with emotion and being under an unseeemly coarse situation.

Awakening Bhima she says, “Get up, get up. Why are you still lying like a dead person?”

uttishthottishtha kim seshe Bhimasena yathaa mritah
naamritasya hi paapeeyaan bhaaryaam aalabhya jeevathi

One may note the simple language, as also the irony in “mritah”, “amritah”, and “jeevati”. Vyasa is specially fond of the naked beauty of a simple word or simple imagery. The highlight of M.Bh. however, is its suggestive mode (dhvani, vyanjana) through which the vanity of earthly glories, the inevitable fate and the triumph of Time are established, in and through the situations, descriptions, characterisations, etc., of the entire M.Bh. To put it in technical parlance, in the words of Anandavardhana, the greatest of Sanskrit literary critics, the chief Rasa in the M.Bh. is the Quietistic or Santa. Directly and primarily, no doubt the M.Bh. describes the vicissitudes of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, but this viewpoint is only the prima facie meaning (poorvapaksha). Ultimately, however, the greatness of the Lord (after whom the epic is called Naraya­nakatha), and of Dharma, Sama and Moksha are deduced. For example, war is the essential part of its theme, and there are naturally many occasions for its descriptions. In the Virata Parva Arjuna fights against his enemies in the context of seizing the cows (gograhana). Then there is the fight between the Kauravas and Pandavas as recounted in the Drona and other Parvas. A lesser poet than Vyasa could have made such descriptions stale, prosaic and monotonous. It is to be noted that Anandavardhana pays tribute to Vyasa’s imagination and descriptive powers for infusing novelty and freshness in the recurring war-descriptions (Sangraamaadayah punah punar abhihitaa api nava-navaah pra­kaasante). The reader too enjoys the powerful, significant and apt words used in them, balanced ideas, and effective comparisons. Besides providing a rich form Vyasa is able to connect all this with the major (angi) Rasa of Santa that M.Bh. delineates. This co-ordination is revealed in the description of the Rathas (chariots) and Mahaarathas (contingents), maces and blades, and all other emblems of royalty, sinking in the mire of war. The genius of Vyasa alone can accomplish such a difficult feat of providing sublime repose and absorption to cultivated audience with nobler instincts, deeper insight and mystic disposition even in and through these des­criptions.

Another important feature is that while delineating such lofty sentiments Vyasa stands aloof and disinterested, and never reveals himself through his lines. Indeed the universal mind of Vyasa has enlarged the boundaries of ethical and religious outlook through a unique poetic grab. Rightly does Anandavardhana call him a “Saastra-kavi”. The M.Bh. stands unrivalled until our times as the best Saanta–rasa–kaavya, and also as an Upanishad, an Aranyaka among Vedas, may even as the fifth Veda.

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