मुनीनामप्यहं व्यासः "Of the Munis I am Vyasa" (Bhagavad Gita 10.37)
First among the Munis: such was the place given to the Rishi Vyasa by ancient India.
The name of Vyasa is common to many old authors and compiers, but it is especially applied to Veda-Vyasa or Krishna Dvaipayana.He was the son of Rishi Parashara and Satyavati. From his complex- ion (dark) he received the name Krishna, and from his birthplace (an island, dvip, in the Yamuna), the name Dvaipayana. He was a Rishi himself and is traditionally cited as the author of the Mahabharata and many other works, but he is best known as the compiler of the Vedas (Veda-Vyasa means "the one who arranged the Vedas").
No one knows exactly how many verses the Mahabharata originally contained. Some speak of 4400 verses, some others of 8800, still some others of 26400. What is certain is that over a period of time, the number of verses increased tremendously, many times its original size, and the epic as it is known today (110000 shlokas —or, as some people prefer to count, 220000 lines) contains a great number of later interpolations. Dayananda Saraswati remarked that it resembles a camel to whose burden people kept adding.* Thus the epic is seven-fold greater in bulk than the Iliad and Odyssey taken together.
Vyasa is said to have taught the poem to one of his pupils, Vaishampayana. Vaishampayana, in his turn, recited the epic to Janamejaya, grand-son of Abhimanyu.
It would be hazardous to assign a date to Vyasa's birth or to the.
* Dayananda Saraswati, Satyarthaprakash.
composing of the Mahabharata. According to Indian tradition the events described in the epic, the great war fought between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, took place around 3100 BC (the beginning of the Kali age, which is mentioned in the epic: praaptam kaliyugam viddhi). But the date at which the epic was composed varies considerably according to the critics. What can be said with certainty is that the Mahabharata belongs to the second period of the ancient history of India. After the Vedic age, also called the age of intuition, this period begins with the birth of the Buddha to the fall of the Mauryan empire. It marks the transition from the age of intuition to the age of reason. It is during this period that the great epic literature, the great philosophical systems, the codes of ethics, the codes of statecraft as well as the sciences and arts began to develop.
The story of Nala is supposed to be very ancient. It is said that the name of Nala, king of Nishada, goes back to Vedic antiquity. As Edwin Arnold (a poet who gave a rendition of Nalopakhyanam in verse) said: "I believe certain portions of the mighty poem which here appear, and many other episodes, to be of far greater antiquity than has been ascribed to the Mahabharata generally. Doubtless the 'two hundred and twenty thousand lines' of the entire compilation contain in many places little and large additions and corrections, ... and he who ever so slightly explores this poetical ocean will, indeed, perceive defects, excrescences, differences, and breaks of artistic style or structure. But in the simpler and nobler sections the Sanskrit verse (ofttimes as musical and highly wrought as Homer's own Greek) bears, as I think, testimony... to an origin anterior to writing, anterior to Puranic theology, anterior to Homer, perhaps even to Moses."
This story was told and retold many times after the composing of the original Mahabharata. M Krishnamachariar in his History of Classical Sanskrit Literature mentions at least thirteen poems and four dramas (in Sanskrit alone) based on the story. A poem called Nalodaya is sometimes attributed to Kalidasa.
It has been said that Vyasa was the most masculine of writers.What is meant by this statement is that tendencies usually associated, rightly or wrongly, with the feminine temperament such as love of ornament, great emotionalism, excessive sensitiveness to form and beauty, a certain lack of self-restraint and the primacy of imagination over reason, are absent from Vyasa's genius. His style is unadorned, we do not find in it many similes or metaphors. On the contrary, it is marked by an austere self-restraint. Vyasa's characteristics are the strength of his mind, the grandeur of his intellect. His art is the expression of a forceful mind in which the idea is sufficient to itself. He does not write to create something beautiful, but because he has certain ideas to impart, certain events to describe, certain characters to portray. He has an image of these in his mind and his business is to find a precise expression for it.
It could be rightly assumed that strength and a fine austerity are the two tests that give us safe guidance through the huge body of the Mahabharata. Where these two exist together, we can be sure that this is Vyasa's hand and not that of some interpolator.
And paradoxically, nowhere is this restrained art more visible than when he handles the miraculous, particularly in the story of Nala and Damayanti. As Sri Aurobindo says:
In such surroundings wonders might seem natural and deities as in Arcadia might peep from under every tree. Nala's messengers to Damayanti are a troop of golden winged swans that speak with a human voice; he is intercepted on his way by gods who make him their envoy to a mortal maiden; he receives from them gifts more than human, fire and water come to him at his bidding and flowers bloom in his hands; in his downfall the dice become birds who fly away with his remaining garment; when he wishes to cut in half the robe of Damayanti, a sword came ready to his hand in the desolate cabin; he meets the Serpent-King in the ring of fire and is turned by him into the deformed charioteer, Bahuka; the tiger in the forest turns away from Damayanti without injuring her and the lustful hunter falls consumed by the power of offended chastity. The destruction of the caravan by wild
elephants, the mighty driving of Nala, the counting of the leaves or the cleaving of the Vibhitaka tree; every incident almost is full of that sense of beauty and wonder which were awakened in Vyasa by his early surroundings. We ask whether this beautiful fairy-tale is the work of that stem and high poet with whom the actualities of life were everything and the flights of fancy counted for so little. Yet, if we look carefully, we shall see in the Nala abundant proof of the severe touch of Vyasa, just as in his share of the Mahabharata fleeting touches of wonder and strangeness, gone as soon as glimpsed, evidence a love of the supernatural, severely bitted and reined in. Especially do we see the poet of the Mahabharata in the artistic vigilance which limits each supernatural incident to a few light strokes, to the exact place and no other where it is wanted and the exact amount and no more than is necessary. (It is this sparing economy of touch almost unequalled in its beauty of just rejection, which makes the poem an epic instead of a fairy-tale in verse). There is, for instance, the incident of the swans; we all know to what prolixities of pathos and bathos vernacular poets like the Gujarati Premanand* have enlarged this feature of the story. But Vyasa introduced it to give a certain touch of beauty and strangeness and that touch once imparted, the swans disappear from the scene; for his fine taste felt that to prolong the incident by one touch more would have been to lower the form and run the risk of raising a smile.**
Vyasa's descriptions of nature are very few.And when he does describe a natural scene, he is more interested in rendering its essence and its atmosphere, clearly and briefly. But, these descriptions of nature are rare and, as Sri Aurobindo says,
He is far more in his element in the expression of the feelings, of the joy and sorrow that makes this life of men; his description of emotion far excels his description of things.
* Premanand: a Gujarati poet, 1636-1734.
** Sri Aurobindo, Centenary Edition, Vol III (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram,1972),p. 153.
When he says of Damayanti:
भर्तृशोकपरिताङ्गी शिलातलमथाश्रिता *
In grief she wailed
Erect upon a cliff, her body aching
With sorrow for her husband,
the clear figure of the abandoned woman lamenting on the cliff seizes indeed the imagination, but it has a lesser inspiration than the single puissant and convincing epithet hhartrsokapantangi, her whole body affected with grief for her husband. Damayanti's longer laments are also of the finest sweetness and strength; there is a rushing flow of stately and sorrowful verse, the wailing of a regal grief; then as some more exquisite pain, some more piercing gust of passion traverses the heart of the mourner, golden felicities of sorrow leap out on the imagination like lightning in their swift clear greatness.
हा वीर नल नामाहं नष्टा किल तवानघ।
अस्यामटव्यां घोरायां किं मां न प्रतिभाषसे ।।**
Still more strong, simple and perfect is the grief of Damayanti when she wakes to find herself alone in that desolate cabin. The restraint of phrase is perfect, the verse is clear, equable and unadorned, yet hardly has Valmiki himself written a truer utterance of emotion than this:
हा नाथ हा महाराज हा स्वामिन्किं जहासि माम् ।
हा हतास्मि विनष्टास्मि भीतास्मि विजने वने ।।
ननु नाम महाराज र्धमज्ञः सत्यवागसि ।
कथमुक्त्वा तथा सत्यं सुप्तामुत्सृज्य मां गतः ।
पर्याप्तः परिहासोऽयमेतावान्पुरुषर्षभ ।
भीताहमतिदुर्धर्ष दर्शयात्मानमीश्वर ।।
दृश्यसे दृश्यसे राजन्नेष दृष्टोऽसि नैषध ।
* The Mahabharata, Vanaparva, 64.12.
** The Mahabharata, Vanaparva, 64.19. "Ah Nala, my pure Lord! I am destroyed! Why dost thou not answer thy wife in this terrible forest?"
आवार्य गुल्मैरात्मानं किं मां न प्रतिभाषसे ।।
नृशंस बत राजेन्द्र यन्मामेवङ्गतामिह ।
विलपन्तीं समागम्य नाश्वासयसि पार्थिव ।
न शोचाम्यहमात्मानं न चान्यदपि किञ्चन ।
कथं नु भवितास्येक इति त्वां नृप रोदिमि ।।
कथं नु राजंस्तृषितः क्षुधितः श्रमकर्षितः ।
सायाने वृक्षमूलेषु मामपश्यन्भविष्यसि ।। *
"Ah my lord! Ah my king! Ah my husband! Why hast thou forsaken me? Alas, I am slain, I am undone, I am afraid in the lonely forest. Surely, O king, thou wert good and truthful, how then having sworn to me so, hast thou abandoned me in my sleep and fled? Long enough hast thou carried this jest of thine, O lion of men, I am frightened, O unconquerable; show thyself, my lord and prince. I see thee! I see thee! Thou art seen, O lord of the Nishadas, covering thyself there with the bushes; why dost thou not speak to me? Cruel king! that thou dost not come to me thus terrified here and wailing and comfort me! It is not for myself I grieve nor for aught else; it is for thee I weep thinking what will become of thee left all alone. How wilt thou fare under some tree at evening, hungry and thirsty and weary, not beholding me, O my king?"
The whole of this passage with its first pang of terror and the exquisite anticlimax, "I am slain, I am undone, I am afraid in the desert wood", passing quietly into sorrowful reproach, the despairing and pathetic attempt to delude herself by thinking the whole a practical jest, and the final outburst of that deep maternal love which is apart of every true woman's passion, is great in its truth and simplicity. Steep and unadorned is Vyasa's style, but at times it has far more power to move and to reach the heart than mere elaborate and ambitious poetry.**
* The Mahabharata, Vanaparva, 63, 3,4,8-12.
** Sri Aurobindo, Centenary Edition, Vol III (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972), p. 159-161.
Nalopakhyanam and the Ramayana
It has been suggested above that some passages in the story of Nala offer a great similarity with episodes of the Ramayana. We will mention two of them.
The first one is Damayanti's lament, the passage on which we have just quoted Sri Aurobindo. We present here its parallel in Valmiki's Ramayana: Rama's lament after he has discovered Sita's disappearance. As the reader can see, there is a striking similitude between the two monologues including that touch of delusion in which the lover's mind is so overwhelmed by pain that it wants to believe that the absence of the beloved is part of a game.
किं धावसि प्रिये नूनं दृष्टासि कमलेक्षणे।
वृक्षैरााच्छाद्य चात्मानं किं मां न प्रतिभाषसे ।
तिष्ठ तिष्ठ वरारोहे न तेऽस्ति करुणा मयि ।
नात्यर्थ हास्यशीलासि किमर्थं मामुपेक्षसे ।।
पीतकौशेयकेनासि सूचिता वरवर्णिनि ।
धावन्त्यपि मया दृष्टा तिष्ठ यद्यस्ति सौहृदम् ।।
नैव सा नूनमथवा हिंसिता चारुहासिनी ।
कृच्छ्रं प्राप्तं न मां नूनं यथोपेक्षितुमर्हति ।।
व्यक्तं सा भक्षिता वाला राक्षसैः पिशिताशनैः ।
विभज्याङ्गानि सर्वाणि मया विरहिता प्रिया ।।
"Why do you run my darling? I saw you, O lotus-eyed one! You hide yourself behind the trees, why do you not answer me? Stay, tarry a while, O Sita with excellent limbs! Is there no compassion in your heart for me? You are not excessively given to fun; why then do you disregard me? You stand disclosed by your yellow silk garment, O lady with an excellent complexion! You have been seen by me even while running. Halt if you have any affection for me. Or it was definitely not Sita of charming smiles, who has most probably been killed; surely she could not have ignored me, fallen in adversity. Bereft of me, my youthful darling has evidently been devoured by flesh-eating ogres, dividing all her limbs among themselves."*
Another episode in the Nalopakhyanam reminds us of the Ramayana. This is the moment when Damayanti searches for Nala
* Aranyakanda, 60, 26-30 in Srimad Valmiki-Ramayana, Part II (Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1992), p. 814.
in the forest and is so desperate and has such a burning desire speak about him that she asks the lion and the mountain whether they have seen her husband. Here she speaks to the lion:
पतिमन्वेषतीमेकां कृपणां शोककर्शिताम् ।
आश्वासय मृगेन्देह यदि दृष्टस्त्वया नलः ।। 64.34
"I am alone in this jungle searching for my husband, miserable sorrow stricken, o Lord of the beasts, if thou hast seen Nala, comfort me."
This passage is to be compared with many verses in the Aranyakanda of the Ramayana when Rama begs the whole forest, the trees and the animals to tell him whether they have seen Sita. Let quote the verse in which Rama asks the lion about his wife.
शार्दूल यदि सा दृष्टा प्रिया चन्द्रनिभानना ।
मैथिली मम विसव्धः कथयस्व न ते भयम् ।।
"O lion, if you have seen my beloved with a face luminous like the moon, the princess of Mithila, tell me freely, do not be afraid" *
The expression of anguish is very similar in the two quotes, the only difference being that Rama as a man and a warrior has to reassure the lion that he will not harm him (na te bhayam). In both quotes, the style is direct, unadorned, moving in its simplicity, j
It would be tempting to compare these passages, in Valmiki and in Vyasa, with yet another great piece of poetry, the lament of the king Pururavas in Kalidasa's play Vikramorvashiyam. When the nymph Urvashi in a spasm of jealousy leaves her mortal lover, she enters on proscribed ground and is transformed into a jasmine creeper. The king is desperately searching for her, and he addresses the elephant:
मदकल युवतिशशिकला गजयूथप यूथिकाशवलकेशी ।
स्थिरयौवना स्थिता ते दूरालोके सुखालोका ।।
"Lord of elephants, charming with the pride of youth, have you
* Aranyakanda, 60, 25, in Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Part II (Gorakhpur' Gita Press, 1992), p. 813.
beheld that beautiful one, blooming with eternal youth, like the crescent Moon among women, her hair decked with the Yuthika flowers?"*
From this short quote, the reader can measure the great distance that separates Kalidasa's play from the two epics. This verse is bursting with colours, images, epithets, similes, alliterations. The aesthetic possibilities contained in a king addressing an elephant are exploited to the full. So much so that one verse is not sufficient for Kalidasa to exhaust all this wealth. The address of the king to the elephant extends to several verses. There are descriptions of the elephant, the way he eats, the way he roars as if he were answering Urvashi's questions. Then the king compare's himself, lord of kings, with the elephant, lord of his herd; he compares his wealth with the frontal ichor oozing from the elephant's temple; Urvashi with the elephant's mate, etc. Of course, here we are far from the austere self restraint of Vyasa. If Vyasa was "a granite mind", Kalidasa was the "supreme poet of the senses". It mirrors the evolution of Indian civilisation and in a way, applied to literature, this is a very practical illustration of the different periods of India's development.
The tale of Nala and Damayanti as reproduced in this mono graph was written by Sister Nivedita in her small book Cradle Tales of Hinduism. The reader may be interested in knowing more about its author, an extraordinary woman who devoted her life to Mother India.
Sister Nivedita's original name was Margaret Elizabeth Noble. She was born in 1867 in Ireland. Margaret's grand father, John Noble, was one of the Irish fighters for freedom. Her father was a minister of the church who spent most of his time serving poor people. He died at 34 leaving his wife alone with three children. Margaret completed her education at the age of seventeen. Then in 1884, she went to England and became a teacher, first in a school at Keswick, and then at Wrexham and at Chester. She was very interested in new methods of teaching like those of Pestalozzi and Froebel. In 1892, she was invited to open a school of her own in
* Kalidasa, Vikramorvashiyam, IV, 24.
Wimbledon, a suburb of London. In this way Margaret spent ten years as a teacher, from 1884 to 1894. A vivid description of her at that time, as given by a friend of hers, shows her as a young woman of medium height with bright grey blue eyes, light golden brown hair, a radiant complexion and a charming smile. She was proud, generous and ardent. She knew how to inspire her students with enthusiasm. Within a short time she came to be known among the leaders of the intellectual society of London as a forward looking educationist.
At that time she happened to read the life of the Buddha For three years Margaret studied his teachings with reverence. Yet her thirst for Light and Truth was not quenched. Then something happened that was to change her whole life. A "Hindu Yogi" had arrived in London. His name was Swami Vivekananda.
In 1893 Vivekananda had gone to America to attend the Parliament of Religions. When the Parliament was over, Vivekananda lectured and taught in many parts of America. In 1895 he arrived in London where he had been invited by some English friends. He gave many lectures there and in a few days became well known.
A friend of Margaret, Lady Isabel Margesson one day invited Swami Vivekananda to her house. Margaret was present and was very impressed by the talk. Vivekananda left England and went back to America. About one year later, he came back to England and stayed there for eight months, giving many talks and classes. Margaret did not miss any of his lectures. She was deeply touched and learnt a lot from him. Yet she could not accept all his views. She argued with him, and fought with him. But Vivekananda had plans for her. One day during the question answer session, the Swami suddenly rose and thundered, "What the world wants today is twenty men and women who can dare to stand in the street yonder and say that they possess nothing but God. Who will go?"
Another day, he was talking about the women of India, and their lack of education. He turned to Margaret and said, "I have plans for the women of my own country in which you, I think, could be of great help to me."
These words had a strange effect on her. She felt that it was a call — the call for which she had been waiting for all these years. Her mind was made up. She would join Vivekananda's army.
The Swami let England in December 1896. He knew that in India,
Margaret would have to face many difficulties. The English would hate her for befriending Indians. And the Indians would doubt her good intentions. He made all this clear to her in a letter. But then he made her a promise: "I will stand by you unto death... the tusks of the elephant come out but never go back, so are the words of a man who never retracted."
Margaret arrived in Calcutta in January 1898. For some time she lived with two American ladies who were also Vivekananda's disciples. They stayed at Belur, a few miles from Calcutta, in a cottage belonging to the monks of the Ramakrishna order. The Swami came to the cottage every morning. He would speak to the three women about his ideals and his work. He would talk to them about India and her people. He told them stories about devotees and saints, about heroes and kings, and about the purity and sacrifices of noble women. Soon Margaret met Sri Sarada Devi, Sri Ramakrishna's companion. Vivekananda gave Margaret a new name:. Nivedita, which means "one who is dedicated or offered to God". In the summer of that year, they all travelled to Almora in the Himalayas. On the way the Swami would tell them of the hard life of the villagers and of their kindness to monks. From Almora they went to Kashmir, passing through the land of Punjab. Nivedita undertook the pilgrimage to Amarnath alone with her Guru. This was a pro found experience for her.
She would listen to Vivekananda, sometimes she would argue with him, sometimes she had doubts and was in deep anguish. Sometimes she wanted to break away from him. Slowly she learned to meditate; she learned to be humble.
In a house situated opposite of that of Sarada Devi, Nivedita opened a school for girls (November 1898). She started her work earnestly. She taught the little girls reading and writing and introduced painting, clay work and sewing. The following March, bubonic plague raged in Calcutta. Swami Vivekananda immediately set his monks and followers to work. They formed a plague service and Nivedita was in charge of it. She worked tirelessly day and night. The District Medical Officer will later write in his report, "During this calamity the compassionate figure of Sister Nivedita was seen in every slum of the Baghbazar locality. She helped others with money without giving a thought to her own condition. At one time when her own diet consisted only of milk and fruits, she gave up milk to meet the medical expenses of a patient."
In 1899 Nivedita travelled to England and then to America in an effort to raise funds for her school. Her guru travelled with her. In America and in England, Nivedita gave many lectures on India and Indian women.
She came back to India, this time as if she were returning to her own motherland. Now she called India "our country" and Indians "our people". Rabindranath Tagore would remark later, "When she uttered thewords our people, the tone of absolute kinship which struck the ear was not heard from any other among us."
She re-opened her school and could earn some desperately need ed money by writing books and giving lectures.
In 1902 Vivekananda passed away.
The death of the Swami had strengthened Nivedita's resolve to throw herself heart and soul into her work for India. Up till that time she had spent all her energy on her school work. She now decided to lend support to other causes as well, for the national movement in favour of political independence was rapidly growing. For this purpose she resigned from the Ramakrishna mission and plunged into the nationalist struggle. If an unjust law was passed by an Indian Council or Assembly, she was the first to speak against it. She was not afraid of the British Government and spoke what was in her mind. Soon she came to be a great influence in Bengal. She was one of those patriots for whom the youth had great respect. She told them once, "The good of your country should be your true aim... Think that the whole country is your country and your country needs work. Struggle for knowledge, for strength, for happiness and prosperity. Let all these be your aim in life. By no means, be found sleeping when the cry comes for battle." She fought for the ideal of a national education based on Indian culture, Indian values, Indian spirit. One of her great interest was in the revival of ancient Indian art. Among her friends were the great artists of the Bengal renaissance, Rabanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose. Another of her dreams was the blossoming of Indian science. She encouraged her friend, the great scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, to publish his important book Plant Response.
Sister Nivedita believed that India was the land of great women and she believed that once the women of India awoke the country would rise again. In this context, it is not surprising that she wanted to tell the story of one of the most heroic and purest of Indian women, Damayanti.
Sri Aurobindo had first met Sister Nivedita in Baroda when she came to give some lectures there. Sri Aurobido was then the secretary of the Maharaja of Baroda. When Sri Aurobindo started his revolutionary work in Bengal, they collaborated, trying to unite all the existing underground groups under a single organisation. When in 1910 Sri Aurobindo left Calcutta guided by an inner voice, he asked Sister Nivedita to take up the editing of the English weekly the Karmayogin in his absence. She consented and from that time onward she had the whole conduct of the paper till its closure.
She had known for some time that she was not to remain very long on this earth. On October 13, 1911, she passed away in Darjeelng.
Among her books, the best known is The Master as I saw Him, a book on Swami Vivekananda. She wrote also Kali the Mother, Shiva and Buddha, Cradle Tales of Hinduism and Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists.