Who Wrote Bhagavad Gita?
Who wrote the Bhagavad Gita? (or the great epic Mahabharatha?).
If you answered, “Krishna(1) or Sanjaya or Krishna(2)(another Krishna)”, congratulations, you have peeled the first three layers. There are at least three more levels. 🙂
Bhagavad Gita (literally meaning “The Song of God”) is a set of 18 chapters consisting in total 700 (or 701) verses. These in turn are part of the Sixth book (Bhishma parva) as part of the great epic Mahabharatha which consists of 18 books - comprising a total of ~100,000 verses. [each verse, most commonly, is a couplet of lines].
To take it at the outset, it is a dialogue between Lord Krishna and his friend/cousin Arjuna. Though this dialogue is supposed to have happened before the war began, the actual story (in Bhishma parva) states that only on the tenth day of (the 18 day great war), that this whole (recent past) story is narrated by Sanjaya to King Dhirtharashtra. (so this is not a live telling .. Sanjaya had done a video recording .. and only when king D asks for a replay on-demand, does he narrate this).
King D is blind. But his son Junior D (Duryodhana) is fighting the Pandavas (five princes -> chief warrior among them being Arjuna). Sage Vyasa says that he can grant vision to King D. But King D has been blind all his life and says that he does not want vision in so late in his life just to witness a terrible war. So Sage V bestows the magic power to the trusted minister Sanjaya - such that he will not get tired and that he will be able to see and hear everything that happens on the battlefield. The battle starts. On the tenth day, Bhishma, the Commander in Chief of Junior D (/King D) is slain and is now going to wait it out on a bed of arrows to leave his mortal body at an opportune time. Somehow the word of this reaches King D and he can’t take it anymore since this marks the first big fall to his army and hence asks Sanjaya to narrate from the beginning.
Sanjaya narrates how just when the war was to begin that Arjuna is not able to bring himself to fight his own cousins / family and friends. At that time, his friend / cousin / Charioteer Krishna, gives him counsel and wise advice. Which is codified as Bhagavad Gita.
So we have level 1: Krishna to Arjuna.
Then, we have level 2 in which level 1 is narrated by Sanjay to Dhirtharashtra.
Then we have level 3, in which Sage Vyasa the supposed author of this magnificent epic. Vyasa’s name as given by his mother (Sathyavathi) is Krishna Dwaipayana. (krishna meaning dark, or the one who attracts, and dwaipayana meaning island as he was born in an island). Hence my suffixing Krishna with (1) and (2) in my first para above.
Heard the kids song “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, his name is my name too .. “ - so there, an extra fascination for me to all Krishnas. 🙂
But is this the form in which it existed? Not as we know it.
Apparently, Sage Vyasa taught all this to his disciples. One of his disciples is Sage Vaishampayana.
[level 4] Sage Vaishampayana once visited the court of King Janamejaya and there was a big prayer/yagnya in progress and when the king asks the sage to bestow good words / share stories, the sage tells the story of Mahabharatha that he learnt from Sage Vyasa.
Those who read Vishnu Sahasaranamam (1000 (actually 1016) names of Lord Vishnu and Krishna is an avatar of Lord Vishnu), will note the “Vaishampayana uvacha” (uvacha -> means “said”). Who did he say to? He was talking to King Janamejaya.
Vishnu Sahasaranamam is also part of the epic Mahabharatha where it is primarily a conversation between King Yuddishtra (Arjuna’s brother) and Bhishma (who is still on his bed of arrows) and it is about Bhishma praising Lord Vishnu (and Krishna). You will note this in the context of “Shruthva dharmena asheysheyna…”.
Good to note here that King Janamejaya was the son of King Prakshit who is the son of Abhimanyu who is the son of Arjuna. How is that for a loopback?
So did Sage Vaishampayana write it? Nah, not that easy.
[level 5] Turns out, one of the sages who was in King Janamejaya’s court is Ugrashravas. And he listens to this whole story and he goes about wandering the regions and he comes across a group of sages performing rituals. They welcome him and ask him for inspiring devotional stories / teachings and Sage Ugrashravas tells them the story of Mahabharatha.
So did Sage Ugrashravas write it? Nah, not yet …
[level 6] It is written by an anonymous author who heard Sage Ugrashravas.
So there we have it : the matryoshka structure:
We all read Mahabharatha/Bhagavad Gita, the longest and one of the greatest epics, as told/written by
An anonymous author who heard
Sage Ugrashravas narrating to a group of sages, who heard
Sage Vaishampayana narrating in the court of King Janamejaya, who learnt it from
Sage Vyasa who narrates what
Sanjaya told Dhirtharasthra, who (by power of Vyasa) heard
Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the battlefield.
Then there is one more literal level if we follow the story that Veda Vyasa needed a scribe and Lord Vinayaka broke his Tusk (Dhantham .. hence called Eka-Dhantham - one-tusked) and wrote the epic while Vyasa narrated it.
The endless redirection and self-reference and story within story within story and side-story, prequels sequels does not just end there.
Sage Vyasa is the grandfather of the two main parties : Pandavas and Kauravas.
Sage Vyasa is also the step-brother of Bhishma.
To give these connections a short backstory.
There is King Shantanu who marries (river) Ganga and they have a son : Bhishma. Due to some anticipated curse/misunderstanding, Ganga goes away.
Later, Shantanu falls in love with a fisherwoman Satyavathi.
But Satyavathi in her younger days has a one-night(?) stand with Sage Paraashara. And their son is Krishna Dwaipayana / Sage Vyasa.
Now Shantanu marries Satyavathi and they have two kids : Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. One of them dies in a battle. The other has two wives, Ambika and Ambalika (out of the three kidnapped by Bhishma. The other being Amba - who actually kills herself and vows to take a rebirth and kill Bhishma - which she does). He dies childless. So Vyasa is called to impregnate the two - the former begets Dhirtharashtra born blind and the latter begets Pandu who is born with a skin-condition. Pandu rules the kingdom since his brother is blind. It is the progenies of these two brothers that fight the great war.
Now, think about it : Vyasa is the grandfather and also stays separate as a sage and writes the whole epic and outlives all of them.
But that’s not all,
Vyasa is the son of Sage Parashara,
who is the son of Sage Shakthi,
who is the son of Sage Vashishta,
who is the son of Lord Brahma,
who is the son of Lord Vishnu himself.
Again those who read Vishnu Sahasaranamam will remember the shloka:
Vashishta napthaaram (great grandson),
Shakthey pouthram (grandson) akalmasham,
Paraashara athmajam (son) vande,
Sukha thaatham (Sage Sukha’s father),
Vyasaya Vishnu Roopaya
And of course, Vyasa is also considered an avatar / form of Lord Vishnu too - again Vishnu Sahasaranamam says “Vyasaya Vishnu roopaya, Vyasa roopaya Vishnave” (roughly translated as “Vyasa is Vishnu and Vishnu is Vyasa”).
Just an amazing intricate weaving of characters. Hope you enjoyed this as much as I did/do.
PS: Apologies for mistakes if any. Happy to learn the corrections.