Knowledge as tool for Dalit emancipation
At a time when sages were stereotyped as introverts retreating to the Himalayas and the essence of Hinduism, the scriptures, fast losing relevance, a revolutionary reformer emerged to set right the fast decaying system.
He not only brought the house to order but presented knowledge in a most fascinating way that was relevant to the common man. This revolutionary reformer was none other than Sage Veda Vyasa, the master storyteller, a path-breaking poet, an institution, writer par excellence, brilliant editor and an inspirational sage who institutionalised teaching with passion.
It becomes imperative for us to remember the contributions of Sage Veda Vyasa on the auspicious occasion of Guru Purnima today. This year the nation also celebrated the 125th birth anniversary of Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
There is a fundamental similarity between the two great personalities. Both had a disadvantaged social origin; they were far ahead of their times in terms of vision and both produced several treatises which would positively influence the thoughts and actions for generations to come.
The Indian Constitution as formulated under the stewardship of Babasaheb proved to be a guiding light. Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita similarly turned the searchlight inwards for all seeking divinity.
Sage Veda Vyasa signifies that those who came from Dalit and lower-caste communities actually helped Hinduism revolutionise, reorganise, and reform. Veda Vyasa was a product of one of ancient India’s first inter-caste marriages. Born to a fisherwoman, Satyavati, and Maharishi Parashara, no one would have ever imagined Veda Vyasa to go on and represent Hinduism and its tenets.
But Vyasa did it in style. Right from the time he was a child, Vyasa developed a strong urge to transcend and venture into the unknown. He set out with a determination to present the ancient wisdom of the past in the most relevant way, which would be appreciated and absorbed by all.
During his adolescent years, there was none equal to Veda Vyasa, such was his unmatched intelligence. Vyasa was committed to the service of knowledge. Leading contemporary spiritual giants have attributed Sage Veda Vyasa to be the most daring religious revolutionary that ever appeared on the horizon of Hindu cultural history due to his relentless contribution to the Hindu renaissance of that critical era.
“Love your neighbour like you love yourself, why should I do that? The answer is not found in the Bible, but in the Vedas, namely in the great formula Tat Twam Asi which in three words communicates the underlying metaphysics: You should love your neighbour like yourself, because you yourself are your neighbour.
To see him as different is mere illusion.” remarked the famous Indologist Dr. Paul Deussen. Such was the impact that the Vedas and Indian philosophy had on scholars like Dr. Paul Deussen. It was Vyasa armed with an incomparable intellect, who decided to give humanity, the book of knowledge, the Vedas.
To remember and document all that was heard was an onerous task. Vyasa took it upon himself. He realised that there is a need to document the treatise as it would prove beneficial for many generations to come. Vyasa documented and edited Vedas into four sections, the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda.
He further classified each of these into chants, rituals, methods of subjective worship, and philosophical revelations also known as the Upanishads. Prof. Arthur Schopenhauer, a German scholar who was widely read before the Second World War and discussed in public newspapers and magazines saw in the Upanishads the “fruit of the highest human knowledge and wisdom” and in their introduction into the western world the “the greatest gift of the century”.
In his writings, Schopenhauer has often confessed that reading the Upanishads has been the joy of his life and his consolation at the hour of his death. According to Schopenhauer, Upanishads were such a great gift because they purify the mind.
Vyasa’s mind was a constant work in progress. His primary concern and question unto himself was if people actually benefited from the knowledge? Is he reaching out to his target audience in the way they wanted? For this, Vyasa brought to the fore the Brahmasutras. The Brahmasutras are analyses based on the essential thoughts of the Upanishads—reconciling the contradictions and explaining how the subject should be understood.
While the Upanishads tells us who we really are, the Brahmasutras analyse and clarify that. Brahmasutras are the substratum for the ancient Indian philosophy; Advaita Vedanta, which states that the divinity in one is the divinity in all. To Vyasa’s credit, Brahmasutra forms the umbrella of Vedantic knowledge and studies.
Vyasa’s quest to present the pristine knowledge in unique modes never stopped. He decided to travel extensively, engage and speak with various other sages, cutting across length and breadth, to write the Puranas (mystic stories based on ancient themes of India). Vyasa compiled and wrote all the 18 puranas.
One of Vyasa’s path-breaking moves was when the master storyteller in him came to the fore; he decided to write history in a poetic form which resulted in the legendary epic Mahabharata. If there is one epic which lies at the core of Indian national identity and culture, then it is the Mahabharata. It was written well before the days of printing, and the memory of the learned was the sole repository of books.
The legendary epic was written with the objective to help common man understand the importance of Dharma. In the Karna Parva of the Mahabharata, Dharma is aptly described in the following way: “The very purpose of Dharma is to ensure sustainability of living beings and all those that contribute fundamentally to the cause of sustainability.
Dharma is primarily intended for nourishment and development of the living beings.” Vyasa first taught the great epic to his son, Sage Shuka. Later, Sage Shuka expounded it to many other disciples. Had that not happened, the book might have been lost to future generations.
In the 80s, New York Times published a column on how the Mahabharata continued to permeate through Indian thought and spirit.
The column noted, “The themes of the Mahabharata continue in politics, arts, religious culture of today. It is said in India that there is nothing in human existence which does not have a place in the Mahabharata. It contains all the contradictions of life, and its legends and stories have been told and retold in every generation. The actual story, however, makes up only about a fourth of the work. The rest consists of digressions into ethics, philosophy, statecraft, cosmology, myth, and countless other subjects.”
Through the Mahabharata, Vyasa also produced India’s supreme FAQ handbook; the Bhagavad Gita, which taught human beings to practically live the subtle philosophies in everyday life. The Bhagavad Gita occurs in the Bhisma Parva of the Mahabharata, comprising of 18 chapters.
Swami Chinmayananda, who dedicated his life to take the message of the Gita to the masses, summed up the Bhagavad Gita in his commentary: “In the Song of the Lord, the Gita, the Poet-Seer Vyasa has brought the Vedic truths from the sequestered Himalayan caves into the active fields of political life and into the confusing tensions of an imminent fratricidal war.”
(The writers are Research Fellows at India Foundation. Views are strictly personal.)