In April 2016, I took the AtoZChallenge of doing one post per day on a favourite author in alphabetical order of their name or surname. I had some self-imposed rules, like posting an author who was a personal favourite in some way, preferably one whose oeuvre I have completely read through. I had paused at U (Umberto Eco). Now seems a good time as any other to complete this fun challenge.
I wrote half an essay on Kurt Vonnegut whom I had picked for the letter V, and then started one on Voltaire before I realised that my favourite author with this initial had to be the head of my profession, the author of The Mahabharata, the longest epic that was ever composed – Krishna Dvaipāyana Vyasa or Veda Vyasa as he is usually called.
This post will focus on Vyasa as a writer of historic metafiction and will not focus on the rest of his body of work including the compilation of the Vedas and its subclassifications and the eighteen volumes of myths or Puranas that are attributed to him among others.
The Mahabharata is a labyrinth of stories set in circa 3500 BC with backstories that go back 40 generations from there. Vyasa is alleged to have sired two key characters of his epic — a blind prince and his pale-skinned brother whose children’s altercations over the throne would blow up into the first world war of prehistory. For according to Vyasa, The Mahabharata was a historical narrative and the characters who came alive in his verse were impressions of real people.
We will never know if those characters really walked the earth. But they did turn immortal with time as their stories percolated across hundreds of centuries, warped through the filters of thousands of scribes who rewrote them afresh. Characters whose throbbing egos led them to struggle relentlessly for pleasure, power, and one-upmanship above their peers. Who loved and hated, fought and forgave, reconciled and secretly sought revenge, schemed and lusted, mocked and rejoiced, rued and sacrificed. They were just like the characters in the stories written today, and the writers who create them, and the readers who relate to them. Five thousand years after their stories were first written down, they continue to remind us that we are still the same.
The Mahabharata was one of the subjects of discussion at more than one formal dinner I had at Oxford, and often the comparisons with The Iliad and The Odyssey would come up. One of my friends O mentioned a seminar he had attended in his undergraduate days in which a Professor had established a clear study of the similarities between the epics of Vyasa and Homer. The parallels are too many – Bhishma and Achilles are both born of river goddesses, Achilles was shot on his heel just like Krishna, and so on. The importance of adhering to the right code of conduct or dharma is stressed again and again in The Mahabharata, with the conflicts in the story arising from deviations to the prescribed code of conduct, and the way everyone gets their just desserts based on their individual karma, including Krishna.
It’s a testimony to the genius of Vyasa as a storyteller that every single character comes alive to the reader. This is much more than a simple story which can fit into a hero’s journey template, though some people suggest that Arjuna is the most likely character who can be considered the hero of the epic. The strength of the epic lies in the fact that countless writers have churned out novels from the points of view of different characters from the story, examining the incidents through different dimensions and varied viewpoints that enriches the reader’s understanding of the complex story and adds to their enjoyment.
Relics of The Mahabharata are spread across the length and breadth of India, such as the five chariots of the Pandavas in Mahabalipuram, temples commemorating Duryodhan and Shakuni in Kerala and a number of ancient temples alleged to have been built by the Pandavas and their descendants in Uttarakhand among others. Among these is Vyasa’s cave in the village of Mana near Badrinath where Vyasa is said to have composed the epic. It is on my bucket list to go there the next time I am in the Himalayas, and pay my respects to the great author who is revered as the first teacher on his birthday every year in India.