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“The Mahabharata of Vyasa, originally an epic of 24,000 verses, afterwards enlarged by a redacting poet, was finally submerged in a vast mass of inferior accretions, the work often of a tasteless age and unskilful hands. It is in this surface mass that the majority of the Hindu legends have floated down to our century. So preserved, it is not surprising that the old simple beauty of the ancient tales should have come to us marred and disfigured, as well as debased by association with later inventions which have no kernel of sweetness. And yet very simple and beautiful, in their peculiar Hindu type, were these old legends with infinite possibilities of sweetness and feeling, and in the hands of great artists have blossomed into dramas and epics of the most delicate tenderness or the most noble sublimity. One who glances at the dead and clumsy narrative of the Shacountala legend in the Mahabharata and reads after it Kalidasa’s masterpiece in which delicate dramatic art and gracious tenderness of feeling reach their climax, at once perceives how they vary with the hands which touch them.”[1]

“Did it exist, Mother, the Mahabharata?

I suppose something did exist. In all these things, there is “something” that’s true and then what has been made of it. These are two very different things. But in all religions, everywhere, it is the same thing: there is something which is there, something exists, and then one makes quite a different thing of it. That’s the difference between history and legend — but history itself is a legend.
         The same story, even taken quite objectively, when it is repeated several times, changes; and so after thousands of years it is altogether deformed. Which are the original texts — I mean the first recognised original texts — of the Mahabharata? It was related orally for a very long time, wasn’t it? So you can imagine how it could have changed. These were oral traditions for a very long time. But who wrote the first version?

(Nolini) Vyasa.


(Nolini) At first there were 36,000 verses. Now it is more than a lakh or two.

Oh! Oh! it has grown: from 36,000 it has become quite inflated! But the Gita — are there several versions?

(Nolini) No.

But the Gita is a part of the Mahabharata.

(Nolini) Yes.

Is the Ramayana more recent?

(Nolini) No.

Is it of the same period? And is the author known?

(Nolini) Valmiki.

Yes, and this has not changed so much.

(Nolini) Not as much as the other. Not so much as the Mahabharata.[2]

See also