FIFTH VEDA AS THE INDIAN CANON

 

FIFTH VEDA AS THE INDIAN CANON

India has a single masterwork that can serve as the Canon. It is a library and Encyclopedia all by itself

Navaratna Rajaram

Background

Thinkers and educators in Europe and America have long labored to compile a body of literature produced by writers of the Western civilization that constitutes their most important works and have called it the Western Canon. such canonization may be described as:

The process of listmaking—defining the boundaries of the canon—is endless. The philosopher John Searle has said: “In my experience there never was, in fact, a fixed ‘canon’; there was rather a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality. Such judgments are always subject to revision, and in fact they were constantly being revised.

One of the notable attempts at compiling an authoritative canon in the English-speaking world was the Great Books of the Western World program. This program, developed in the middle third of the 20th century, grew out of the curriculum at the University of Chicago. University president Robert Maynard Hutchins and his collaborator Mortimer Adler developed a program that offered reading lists, books, and organizational strategies for reading clubs to the general public.

An earlier attempt, the Harvard Classics (1909), was promulgated by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot, whose thesis was the same as Carlyle’s: The greatest university of all is a collection of books.

So from Thomas Carlyle to the present educators in the West have agreed on the importance of recognizing the need for defining such a canon, even if they differed on its boundaries and content. It is a sad commentary on modern Indian thinkers that no such thinking has been displayed by modern Indian thinkers. Two possible exceptions to this charge are K.M. Munshi’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan with its Books University Program and the Gita Press (in Hindi) with its publication program of Sanskrit works with translations. But no such Indian canon is available in modern Indian languages.

Fortunately, India has produced a single work that constitutes a canon all by itself—The Mahabharata. This is the spirit—of the Mahabharata as the canon of Indian civilization—in which the present work has been undertaken. It seeks to fill a void in Indian education by presenting the Mahabharata as more than a great epic or even a historical epic.

At the same time, every canon must be recreated in each era or even generation for the simple reason, new works need to be included and those once thought to be important may have lost their relevance. This holds even for a timeless work like the Mahabharata or the Bible for the reason that in every generation the tastes and capacities of readers change. The canon must also change to remain relevant. In the case of the Mahabharata, which is rarely read in the original one needs to take into account changes in language and taste. Many young Indians today read mostly in English which was not the case even fifty years ago. Even in English, it is rarely read completely as given for example in Kesri Mohan Ganguli’s work (sometimes wrongly called Roy’s translation).

Above: Ugrasrava Sauti reciting the narrative at Shaunaka’s assembly in the Naimisha forest

Formidable work

Few can tackle this formidable work even when available in translation. Let there be no doubt on this count—the Mahabharata is a formidable work, not accessible to everyone, no matter what the language. Here is a description that gives an idea of the task.

A distinguished Western devotee of the Mahabharata (Haven O’More of the University of Chicago, which conceived the idea of the idea of the Western Canon) touched on this aspect of this supreme work by describing it in the following words:

Greater than any mountain, the Mahabharata sits supreme, its top veiled in clouds, with powerful winds and biting cold. Truly, it is said, the Mahabharata gives birth, and also gives death. For it contains an account of the life and acts of the Supreme Ruler Himself, Creator and Destroyer of the universe, who binds human beings and all manifestations “on a chain, of which one end is life, the other is death.” A great intellectual and spiritual mountain, it unveils itself only to the most passionate, intense, sincere, full of truth to themselves and others, athletic, death-defying climbers. Civilizations rise up and decay; the great mountain penetrates into the whole/holy possibility of Universal Manifestation — even, paradoxically, resting simultaneously in the Unmanifest Itself.

And Veda Vyasa himself, the poet of the Mahabharata, tells us:

yatha samudre bhagavan, yatha merurmahagirih;

ubhau khyatau ratnanidhi, tatha bharatamucyate.

 

Veda Vyasa dictating the epic to his scribe Ganesha

As is the ocean O Lord, and Mount Meru the mighty mountain peak,

Both renowned for the treasures they hold, so indeed is the Mahabharata.

            What then is the scope of this literary monument that towers over every other creation of man? On the surface it is the story of the dynasty of the Bharatas, known also as the Kurus. Bharatanam mahajjanma mahabharatamucyate — “The great life story of the Bharatas, that is called Mahabharata.” Its narrative portion is taken up by the story of the struggle for supremacy between the rival cousins of the Bharata dynasty known as the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the latter emerging victorious thanks to the guidance of Krishna. But this is only on a superficial reading. For the poet Vyasa uses this great historical epic as the vehicle for expounding the verities of life, for persons from all walks of life. With this in mind, the great 15th century South Indian poet Kumara-Vyasa (Son of Vyasa) introduced his masterwork as follows (translated from Kannada):

With tales of valor to inspire every prince,

For scholars to find in it the Vedas’ essence,

For thinkers the fount of philosophy, for statesmen, wisdom nonpareil;

For separated lovers full storied romance,

For critics — blessed with taste and grace,

Kumara-Vyasa wrote his Bharata— to be hailed the master of all.

In more direct if less ornate fashion, Veda Vyasa himself, the original master of the Mahabharata describes it as containing:

            dharmashastramidam puņyam, arthashastramimam param;

            mokshashastramidam proktam, vyasenamitabuddhina.

            dharme carthe ca kame ca, mokshe ca bharatasrhabha;

            yadihasti tadanyatra, yannehasti na tat kvacit.

 

Laws for righteous living, the best for acquiring wealth without sin;

Teachings to attain salvation, all proclaimed by Vyasa of boundless intellect.

Be it Law or profitable venture, objects to wish or transcendent wisdom;

O Bharata Prince! What’s here may be found elsewhere, but what’s not here is nowhere.

This brings us back to the beginning, of the Mahabharata as the eternal encyclopedia of perennial philosophy of life and death as taught and practiced by Lord Krishna, and preserved for eternity by another Krishna the Island-born, rightly known as Veda Vyasa who organized also the Vedas.       

What is not here is nowhere  

The Mahabharata, the national epic or the canon of Bharat — or the Land of the Bharatas — is the embodiment of the two eternal verities that have sustained the Indian civilization through its many vicissitudes. It is the practical wisdom distilled from the historical experience spanning untold millennia, and the application of the Vedic principle of ā no bharda kratavo yantu vishwataḥ —  “Let felicitous thoughts come to us from every source.” The result is an encyclopedia that combines history, philosophy and dharma — or code of conduct — in a manner unmatched in human experience. And this essence of life and afterlife is conveyed by Lord Krishna himself in both theory and practice, through the example of his own life.

The word ‘epic’, though commonly used, is a serious contraction when applied to the mighty Mahabharata. It is like calling Mount Everest a hill. The statement by Haven O’More previously quoted comes nearer to describing its true scope

And Veda Vyasa himself, the poet of the Mahabharata, tells us:

yatha samudre bhagavan, yatha merurmahagirih;

ubhau khyatau ratnanidhi, tatha bharatamucyate.

As is the ocean O Lord, and Mount Meru the mighty peak,

Renowned both for the treasures they hold, so indeed is the Mahabharata.

             What then is the scan and scope of this literary monument that towers over every other creation of man? On the surface it is the story of the dynasty of the Bharatas, known also as the Kurus. Bharatanam mahajjanma mahabharatamucyate — “The great life story of the Bharatas, that is called Mahabharata.” Its major portion is taken up by the story of the struggle for supremacy between the cousins of the Bharata dynasty known as the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the latter emerging victorious thanks to the help of Krishna. But this is only on a superficial reading. For the poet Vyasa uses this great historical epic as the vehicle for expounding the verities of life, for persons from all walks of life. With this in mind, the great 15th century South Indian poet Kumara-Vyasa introduced his Kannada version of the epic as previously described and worth recalling:

 

In direct if less ornate fashion, the Mahabharata describes its own scope as containing:

 

            dharmashastramidam punyam, arthashastramimam param;

            mokshashastramidam proktam, vyasenamitabuddhina.

 

            dharme carthe ca kame ca, mokshe ca bharatasrhabha;

            yadihasti tadanyatra, yannehasti na tat kvacit.

 

Laws for righteous living, the best for acquiring wealth without sin;

Teachings to attain salvation, all proclaimed by Vyasa of limitless intellect.

Be it Law or profitable venture, objects to wish or transcendent wisdom;

O Bharata Prince! What’s here may be found elsewhere, but what’s not here is nowhere.

 

It brings us back to the beginning, of the Mahabharata as the eternal encyclopedia of perennial philosophy of life and death as taught and practiced by Lord Krishna, and recorded by another Krisnha — Krishna-dvaipayana, or Krishna the Island-born known as Veda Vyasa. This brings me to the text of the Mahabharata as it exists today.

 

Versions of the Mahabharata

            Every Indian child knows — or should know — that the author of the Mahabharata is Veda Vyasa who wrote an eyewitness account of the events in epic form. Those who see themselves as traditionalists hold that the Mahabharata we have today has come down to us exactly as Vyasa wrote it more than five thousand years ago. The problem with this view is that we have today not one but several versions of the epic. There is the Southern edition, the Kashmir version, the Bengal version and a few more. All these have variant readings though they are substantially the same. The Gita Press edition is probably the most popular, but it is a combination of the Southern and the Northern editions. So which of these editions is Vyasa’s original? Does it really matter as long we have its message—in spirit and content.

Editions of the Mahabharata

The classic edition is the multi-volume (19  volumes) Critical edition by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune sometimes known as the Poona edition. It is exhaustive but hardly for the average reader. The one I use is the so-called Kumbhakonam (Southern edition) compiled by Vyasacharya and Krishnacharya. It is entirely in Sanskrit, including the footnotes which are excellent and highly informative. The Gita Press edition is inexpensive and comes with translation (mine in Hindi).

In English, the most popular is the Mahabharata by C. Rajagopalachari, published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (Bhavan). It is readable but brief, too brief for serious readers. Bhavan has also published a more comprehensive English version by Kamal Subramanyam (daughter of the famous Kannada playwright T.P. Kailasam). It is highly recommended. The English version by William Buck is easily available and highly readable but again very brief. There is at least one in every Indian language.

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