Over the last several weeks we’ve been narrating for you, stories from the Mahabharata. If you’ve been following the series, you’ll likely know by now that the epic has been ascribed to sage Vyasa, which is to say it’s believed that Ved Vyasa is the author of the Mahabharata.
You also know the story of Vyasa, how he came to be born, and the role he played in the epic that he wrote. The sage is the grandfather of the Kauravas and Pandavas, the warring cousins around whom the story of Mahabharata revolves.
The epic itself is about 13,000 pages. Compiled by scholars at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, over a period of nearly 50 years, this Critical Edition of Mahabharata is a 19-volume tome with another two volumes of the Harivamsa, an appendix to the epic that is also said to have been written by Vyasa.
It is said that the first time that the Mahabharata was ever recited in its entirety was in the court of King Janamejaya, the great-grandson of Arjuna who inherited the throne from his father Parikshit who had succeeded the Pandavas after they left for their heavenly abode. Sage Vaisampayana, a disciple of Vyasa is said to have narrated this epic for the court.
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The Mahabharata, unlike most other holy texts, is rarely recited during auspicious occasions. In fact, several people are afraid to keep an edition of the epic in their homes even though they admire the work greatly since it is, at the end, the story of a family going to war. Even so, no one disputes the importance of the epic.
Even though Vyasa is said to be the author of the epic, the physical writing of this great work of literature is attributed to Ganesha. The story goes that Vyasa had the entire story planned out in his head but knew what a daunting task it could be to write it down. And so he prayed to Brahma to help him out. On Brahma’s suggestion Vyasa then sought out Ganesha, the god of wisdom and knowledge, to write out the epic.
Ganesha agreed but said that he had but one condition: that Vyasa shouldn’t dictate without interruption. Should Vyasa stop, Ganesha proposed, he’d drop the task right there and leave. Vyasa agreed but put his own counter-condition: that Ganesha should first understand what was being dictated to him before writing it out.
The elephant-headed god agreed and thus began the greatest literary collaboration. Vyasa narrated the story of the Mahabharata and Ganesha kept writing as furiously as Vyasa kept dictating. In fact at one point, the reed he was using to write broke and Ganesha was left without a writing instrument. To continue without interruption, Ganesha is believed to have broken one of his tusks, dipped it in ink and simply continued as if nothing had happened. This is the reason why Ganesha is depicted with a broken tusk today.
There were occasions when Ganesha had to pause for brief moments to understand the complex compositions of Vyasa before writing them down. This was the only time that Vyasa had a moment to breathe.
And so, after three long years of constant dictation, Vyasa completed the epic with Ganesha having written down every single word and verse after having understood its entire meaning.