Who wrote the Mahabharata epic?

·4-min read

Vyasa, the sage who is said to have classified the vedas, is popularly believed to have written the Mahabharata. Interestingly, even though Vyasa was the author of the epic, he also played a small role in the story.

The sage Vyasa was born out of wedlock between Satyavati and Parashara. Satyavati was the adopted daughter of a fisherman. However, her biological parents were a king and an apsara or a celestial nymph called Adrika. Due to a curse, Adrika had turned into a fish and hence Satyavati too smelled like one. Which is why she was also called Matryagandha (or one who smells like fish).

Murudeshwar, Karnataka, India - January 6, 2015:  Golden sculpture of Vyasa the sage sitting and meditating on the rock in Murudeshwar Temple complex.
Murudeshwar, Karnataka, India - January 6, 2015: Golden sculpture of Vyasa the sage sitting and meditating on the rock in Murudeshwar Temple complex.

In any case, as a young woman, Satyavati meets the wandering sage Parashara who she helps cross the river Yamuna. Parashara, enchanted by her beauty, asks her to bear him a son. A hesitant Satyavati refuses at first but gives into the charms of the sage who also creates a secret place in the bushes on a river island and envelopes it with a thick blacket of fog. They consummate their desire there and a child is born and named Krishna Dvaipayana which is a reference to his dark complexion and the place where he’s born. This young boy becomes so learned that he goes on to classify the vedas thus becoming known as Ved Vyas, literally the one who classified the vedas.

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In return for granting him a son, Parashara grants Satyavati a boon that her body would always smell of musk. Due to this musky fragrance emanating from her body, Satyavati also comes to be known as Yojanagandha and Gandhavati.

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Years later she catches the eye of King Shantanu who is so smitten by her that he proposes marriage. She agrees on the condition that her son would inherit the Hastinapur throne and no one would ever contest it. Shantanu, who in the meanwhile had already made Devavrata, his son from Ganga, his heir and crown prince is heartbroken and withdraws into his chambers.

On learning the cause behind his father’s despair, Devavrata goes over to Satyavati’s hut and promises that he would step aside to make way for her son from Shantanu whenever he’d be born. And to ensure that no one would ever stake claim on the throne, he vows that he’d never marry and would always remain celibate. He also promises to serve the throne of Hastinapur till his dying breath and continues to live his life as a regent, always a step away from the throne. In making this vow, Devavrata becomes Bhishma or one who’s made a terrible vow.

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Stayvati and Shantanu are married and they bear two sons: Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. The first son dies in a battle with a Gandharva (or a celestial being), also called Chitrangada and a young Vichitravirya is installed on the throne. As per his promise Bhishma continues to run the kingdom in the name of the young king who he also simultaneously grooms. When time comes, Bhishma also gets him married to two princesses: Ambika and Ambalika.

Unfortunately, Vichitravirya dies without an heir leaving the throne vacant. Due to his vow, Bhishma is unable to ascend and rule as a king and this becomes a cause for concern. It is at this time that Satyavati reveals the presence of her firstborn son: Vyasa, who was now an ascetic living in the woods.

The sage is sent for and presented before Ambika and Ambalika with whom he is to bear a child each. Because Vyasa has been in the forest for a long time, he’s unkempt and therefore Ambika shuts her eyes as he proceeds to impregnate her. Similarly, Ambalika turns pale at his sight. As a result, Ambika gives birth to a blind Dhritarashtra whereas Ambalika bears a pale Pandu.

As we know, Dhritarashtra bears a hundred sons from Gandhari and one from her handmaid whereas Pandu bears five from his two wives Madri and Kunti. The clan goes on to spread its influence throughout the subcontinent and all of them owe their origins to one man: Vyasa.

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