Vyasa – The Versatile Genius
By Swami Chinmayananda
The goal of life as declared by the discoverers of Truth was handed down from Guru to disciple in the distant days of known human history, and along the avenue of time the teaching descended from generation to generation. The torch-bearers of knowledge maintained the relay efficiently up to the time of Veda Vyasa, the poet-seer. Then, Vyasa’s acute intelligence detected a growing danger: a possible threat to the continuation of that sacred relay race.
Hinduism was then facing the danger of total annihilation. The Scriptures were fast fading away even among those who were supposed to be the custodians of the sacred lore. The mantras if the Vedas were being slowly forgotten by the people; in that general forgetfulness of the generation the entire subjective science of the Vedas would have been lost – had it not been for the great revolutionary reformer, the poet philosopher known as Vyasa.
Vyasa found that the members of this generation had come to live in an age of increased competition. In their pre-occupation with life, learning dwindled, because they suffered – as we do today- the consequences of their intemperate living and the natural sorrows of an age of growing population pressure on the land. These conclusions are all conjunctures since we have no data to substantiate any positive view. Vedic India is to us a land of no historical reports; it refuses to talk to us.
Whatever the reason – and certainly there must have been sufficient reason – Vyasa, who was at once a far-sighted visionary and close observer of the cultural trends of his time, found the heroism to blast the then existing tradition and for the first time gathered the vedic mantras and recorded them in written language. Until his time, every new edition of the Vedas had been composed in the mouth of the Guru and directly on the memory slabs of his pupils’ hearts. As Vyasa moved around the country, he soon realized the various versions of the same Vedas, such as the Benares version and the Deccan version, had slowly infiltrated the original texts. He, therefore, collected all the vedic passages and for the first time edited them into written volumes which constitute the four great Vedas as they are known today.
In compiling the vedic mantras, Vyasa edited them into four books, the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda and the Atharva-Veda. However, the systematic thinker in Vyasa was not satisfied with merely classifying the entire wealth of Vedic knowledge into four volumes; in each volume he aso brought about a harmonious rhythm, both in arrangement and the classification of the contents. He divided each book roughly into 4 sections; Mantras(chants or hymns), Brahmanas(rituals and rules of conduct), Aranyakas(methods of subjective worship) and the Upanishad(philosophical revelations). The Upanishads are thus found in the last section of each Veda, and therefore the philosophy of the Upanishads has come to be called Vedanta, “the end of the Veda”.
When Vyasa had finished, he must have sat back and thought, ‘What have I done? Who is going to benefit from these books? May be only a handful of people in the whole country.” How many teachers of the Vedas were there to read this literature? The public would not be benefitted in large numbers. And again, even among the pundits, the essences of the Vedanta or Upanishadic literature had been slowly getting atrophied and completely forgotten, although the ritualistic portion was being followed faithfully. The karmakandins(practitioners of rituals) had started believing that the Upanishads were only for mere repetiotion and that by repeating them the students would become purified and fit for the Karmakanda, the rituals.
Vedavyasa therefore crystallized the philosophic thought enshrined in the Upanishad and wrote the famous textbook called the Brahmasutras. After Vyasa’s time all philosophy in India came to be written in the sutra style(aphorism) – the style employed by Vyasa in the Brahmasutras. The Brahmasutra became the definitive text of the Advaita Vedanta. Since his time, all others have been writing commentaries on it. Vyasa’s work became the substratum, the very foundation for the entire Hindu culture that grew out of the Vedantic tradition.
When Vyasa had finished his entire exposition of Advaita Vedanta in the Brahmasutras, again he must have sat back and though, “Now what have I done? First I wrote a boo, and un-necessarily elaborate book, which might have been useful perhaps for only half a dozen people in the country. Now the Brahmasutras are written, may be for three dozen scholars in the country. How can I touch the average man, the lay man, the man behind the plough, the mason, the ordinary worker?” He, therefore, evolved a new literature called the Puranas.
The Puranas appeal to all. In the case of the average individual, readinf the Puranas generated devotion and the person feel elevated, with his or her weaknesses sublimated and the heart purified and exhilarated. To a student who is well read in the Upanishad an dthe BRahmasutras, the same Puranic literature becomes a demonstration of the subtle mystical thruths of the Upanisahds played out on a dynamic and massive stage.
Much controversy has surrounded the question of whether the Puranas are historically true. Vyasa was not a historian, and therefore did not write history. He was a great student of the Vedas and man of realization. All the stories must ultimately be indicative of the one Truth. It is a unique literature. It is not a literature that can fall under the category of philosophy or history, nor can it be approximated by the west as Mythology. The nearest kind of literature in the West that approximates our pauranic stories is the mythology of the Greeks and Romans. And as the west calls the pauranic literature as "Hindu Mythology". The Hindus have no mythology; no did Hindu rishis ever care for history. History is only a chronological accounted of the repeated stupidities of the past. Human beings have never learn from History. Besides, history is limited in time, and what the seeker is interested in is the Timeless, the Source from which all this springs.
So what is this Pauranic literature ? To those who have learn to listen (not just hear) and to those who have eyes to see, Vyasa has already announced what it is: Purana Purusha is the word used in the Vedas for the Highest Reality; therefore, the Highest Reality is obviously the theme of the Puranas.
The Bhagavad Geeta
Not only was Vyasa's intellect mighty, but he was completely tolerant, holding in his embrace of Love the entire universe of living beings. In the ''Song of the lord", the Bhagavad Geeta, the poet-seer Vyasa brought the Vedic truths from the sequestered Himalayan caves into the active field of politics and confusing tension of imminent hatriddal war. In Vyasa's depiction of the story of the Divine incarnation (Krishna, Lord Krishna is made to declare the message of the Geeta, which is nothing but a reinterpretation of the ancient wisdom of Upanishads with proper emphasis upon certain vital factors that seem to have been distorted and dried out of recognition in the parched mouths of the pundits. With the deification of Krishna, Hinduism entered its theistic era; it recognized the Lord as having descended in the form of a mortal in Order to reorient India's forgotten Dharma and to pull the decadent culture back again on its high pedestal.
This is the most daring and original thought of Vyasa in the whole Geeta; that the Supreme, in His unlimited freedom, by His own perfectly freewill, takes upon Himself the conditioning of matter and manifests Himself in a particular embodiment in the world for serving the deluded generation of the time. To the Lord, His ignorance is but a pose assumed, not a fad lived. A mortal becomes victimized by his Avidya (ignorance), whereas the Lord is the master of His maya.
Vyasa is a great poet-philosopher and has become an institution representing the Hindu heritage. No scriptural study or Vedic chanting has ever begun without prostrations unto this greatest of seers. If we must attribute Hinduism to any Single individual there is none else to Whom we can most appropriately attribute its present existence aid past glories except to Veda Vyasa.
It is believed that Vyasa was born as a son of Brahmin rishi and fisherwoman. The Story need not be taken as a literally historical incident, but it may be considered symbolically significant. The father, a brahmin, represents sattwa, the creative wisdom born out of a life of study and contemplation, while the fisherwoman represents a daring adventurousness with which she has to sail forth day by day in her frail craft into the deep sea, where she captures the unseen food and hauls it to the Shore, where dwellers can easily get their nourishment at their own door steps. Similarly, on the shore of Vedic knowledge, Vyasa sailed out to gather the best that it contained, and bring us the nutritive essence of Hinduism. In short, Vyasa was not merely a man of realization but was also one who had the spirit of adventure to serve his generation throughout his life. He was a revivalist who contributed the maximum to the Hindu Renaissance of that critical era. In fact, he was the most daring religious revolutionary that ever appeared on the horizon of Hindu cultural history.
Vyasa was one of the sages who had a vast vision of the past and the great imagination to see the future both of which he brought forth in order to tackle the problems of decadence in his immediate present. Had he declared these re-statements of Truth as his own original ideas, it would have been difficult for him to persuade his generation to follow them. It is the character of the Hindus that they will not readily accept a new idea or ideal unless those new ideas have the sanction of antiquity and the authority of the ancient rishies.
The versatile genius of Vyasa never left anything that he touched without raising it to the most sublime heights of perfection through his rare capacity of composing incomparable poetry and unique diction. Creating innovations both in thought and form, he was a brilliant philosopher, a man of consummate wisdom, and a genius in wordly knowledge. At one time in the palace, another time at the battle field, at still another time in Badrinath, and again among the snow peaks of Himalayas, Sri Vyasa is the embodiment of what is best in the Hindu tradition. Yet, Vyasa's philosophical thought is not sectarian or creedal. It is not a philosophy only for Hindus. It is universal in its application and is addressed to all mankind.