Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa was a great Vedic scholar and a sage. He studied the Vedic literature that predated his period and classified this vast knowledge into Rik, Yajus, Sama and Atharva Vedas. Vyasa's own father Parasara and great grand father Vasistha had contributed to Vedic corpus with several hymns.
Vyasa was not satisfied with the study and classification of the Vedas, in which his forefathers played a role. He wanted to create something unique by himself. For this he studied the history of the Kuru kings and created the epic called Mahabharata. It contained all the knowledge ingrained in the Vedas and much more. It was a practical Dharma-sasthra or code of conduct for the society. Mahabharata grew in popularity and came to be known as the fifth Veda.
Authorship of the work called Jaya
Vyasa collected the war-songs sung by bards (Sutas) like Sanjaya in praise of the war-heroes participated in the Kurukshetra War. Based on all of them he created a work called Jaya of 8800 verses. He also created a framework so that others can contribute and add to this nucleus of the epic.
Vyasa's disciples like Vaisampayana, Jaimini, Lomaharshana, Lomaharshana's son Ugrasrava and Vyasa's sons like Suka contributed to the epic called Jaya and it grew into Bhaarata of 24,000 verses and Mahabharata of 100,000 versus. Thus Mahabharata, as we know it today was accumulated over a period spanning several centuaries. Several 'Vyasas' (meaning Vyasa's own disciples, sons, grandsons, disciple's sons and grandsons and other sages not related to Vyasa) contributed to the growth of the epic.
Some contributers added verses into Mahabharata to glorify Brahmanas (to establish the supremacy of the Brahmanas). Some others added content to glorify Vishnava and Saiva cults. Yet others added history of the Nagas and the Bhrigus and several other narratives. The followers of Skanda also added history of Skanda into Mahabharata. Skanda is mentioned as a Guhyaka and thus is a Yaksha. The 12th and 13th Paravas or books viz the Santi Parva and the Anusasana Parva has plenty of accumulated verses and they grew into huge size compared to other Parvas. These Parvas probably contains material accumulated over a millennium. Some parts of 3rd Parva ( Vana Parva) too is similar in nature to the 12th and 13th books.
Vyasa's knowledge of astronomy and geography
Vyasa had focused in his work called Jaya, not only the history of the Kuru kings. It also contains information about astronomical and geographical knowledge available in those period. This was because Vyasa's father Parasara was an astronomer, who had authored astronomical texts like Parasara Samhita. The Bhargavas including the Vasisthas and Agastyas were extensive travelers. Agastya and Bhargava Rama were mentioned as travelling to as far as southern tip of India then known as the Kumari region. Agastyas had extensively traveled in the southern regions beyond the south of Vidarbha kingdom. It is from Agastya that Rama of Ramayana learned much of the information about the southern regions around Panchavati and regions that lied to the south of it. The Agastyas were a famous figure in southern Indian literature.
Vyasa got all these knowledge probably from his father Parasara. He observed the positions of stars and planets and recorded the observable sky during crucial incidents of Mahabharata. It is this recordings that enable contemporary historians to date Mahabharata war and other incidents mentioned in the epic. (Valmiki too did the same in Ramayana, which enable one to date incidents in Ramayana too).
Vyasa had a whole chapter in his work called Jaya dedicated to astronomy as it was known in those periods.
He has dedicated many chapters, to narrate the geography of ancient India (see:- Bharatavarsha) . These chapters contained information about several kingdoms, provinces, rivers, lakes, mountains and sub-continental regions (Dwipas).
Vyasa, the Real Visionary behind the United India
The seeds of a united India (Bharatavarsha) was born in the minds of the visionary sages (Rishis) like Vyasa, several thousand years ago and not just in the midnight of 15-August-1947. Among them all, Rishi Vyasa was instrumental in visualizing the whole of India (Bharatavarsha) and in describing the whole geography and political entities in this vast land, complete with the history of its people and their kings known to him during his lifetime.
His work 'Mahabhaarata' has a geopolitical meaning. In geopolitical terms, the word 'Mahabhaarata' means 'the Great Empire of Bharata', ie the Bharatavarsha, 'the domain of the Bharatas (Emperor Bharata, his sons, descendants and his people). Thus the 'Mahabharata' is the same as the 'Bharatavarsha'. Through his monumental work, where he chose to described the whole of ancient India, with its kingdoms, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities and villages, complete with the history of its people and their rules, Vyasa had united the whole of India.
In describing the circuitous pilgrimage journeys of Arjuna and later Yudhisthira and in describing the journeys of Yudhisthira's brothers into four cardinal directions for Rajasuya, Vyasa has united the East, South, West and North of India.
Truly, Vyasa's Mahabharata is the soul of India (Bharatavarsha)! In it lies the sacred thread that unifies the whole of India.
Vyasa together with Valmiki are the forefathers of this nation called Bhaarata and emperor Bharata is its founder.
The Writing of Mahabharata
It is mentioned in Adi Parva of Mahabharata that Vyasa got assistance of Ganesa to write Mahabharata advised by lord Brahma. If we analyze all the people associated with the authorship of Mahabharata, we find that the names like Vaisampayana, Vyasa, Sauti, Ugrasrava etc were repeated more than 100 times and some times more than 500 times each in Mahabharata.
The name Ganesa is mentioned only 8 times in the whole of Mahabharata. Of this, two references are not related to writing of Mahabharata and are from Santi Parva and Anusasana Parva. In both of these references Ganesa-worship is mentioned as one among the different worships (worship of Surya, of Sakti, of Ganesa, of Siva, and of Vishnu or the worship of Hari or Hara or Ganesa or Arka or Agni or Wind). Other 6 references are about writing and were in Adi Parva. All these Parvas (1, 12 and 13) are later additions to Mahabharata.
So they represent a time several centuries after the core incidents of Mahabharata like the Kurukshetra war. Thus we can assume that at this time, Ganesa-worship was one among the modes of worship that prevailed. This was also the time period when Mahabharata which was transmitted as an oral tradition was written down for the first time. During this period a narrator will narrate Mahabharata verses committed in his memory while another person, a scribe, who can write very fast will write down what is recited. Often it is difficult for the narrator to stop, since he may not be able to start from where he stopped because of the way he had by-hearted all the several verses into his memory.
This will pose difficulty to the writer, who will want breaks in the narration as he cannot catch up with the pace of the narration. This was a reality. This difficulty of the scribe in writing what is narrated quickly and that of the narrator to stop or slow down his narration or recital is what is captured in the myth of Ganesa writing down the Mahabharata. Who was the real scribe of Mahabharata? Was he a Ghanapati? People who are capable of reciting or who can understand recitals in a particular mode of recital called Ghana are called Ghana-patis. Did the name Ghana-pati transformed into Gana-pati? Was he a chief of the Gana? The name Gana-pati was used to denote chiefs of Ganas (group of people following a republican rule). Such republican groups were common among the Kambojas and also during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (300 B).
Generation of Vyasas
Vyasa also probably initiated work on the Puranas, which continued development for many centuries even after his period. Thus the whole of Puranas accumulated over a period spanning more than two millennium. Puranas are by definition, narrations of incidents occurred in the remote past. The Itihasas (the epics) on the other hand, are by definition, narrations of incidents that occurred during the life time of the narrator. Thus Mahabharata and Ramayana are records of contemporary history where as all the Puranas like the Bhagavata_Purana, Matsya-Purana, Vishnu-Purana etc are records of pre-history. But this doesn't in any way mean that the Puranas are older than the Itihasas. For example some one in 12th century can author an Itihasa about an incident happened in 12th century and somebody else can author a Purana about an incident happened in 15th century in 21st century.
Thus the narrator of a Purana lives several centuries after the incidents mentioned in the Purana where as a narrator of an Itihasa (epic) lives contemporary to the people mentioned in the narration. Because of this the Vyasa who authored Mahabharata was contemporary to the incidents mentioned in Mahabharata, where as the Vyasa who authored Bhagavata Purana lived several centuries after the incidents mentioned in Bhagavata. Life of (Vasudeva) Krishna is mentioned both in Mahabharata and Bhagavata. But the Vyasa who narrated about Krishna in Mahabharata was a contemporary of Krishna, where as the Vyasa who narrated about Krishna in Bhagavata Purana lived several centuries after Krishna. The Vyasa who authored Bhagavata probably was a Vyasa in the lineage of original Vyasa who authored Mahabharata.
Vyasa's association with the Kurus
Vyasa's Mother Satyavati
Vyasa was born to a woman known as Satyavati who belonged to fishermen community, believed to be Sudras, the lowest of the four orders of society. His father was believed to be a Brahmana Parasara in the Vasistha clan of sages. Though low born, as a Sudra, Vyasa emerged into a great Vedic scholar and became a Brahmana by profession. This was possible in those days since caste was not very rigid as it became in the later stages of India's history. Satyavati was later married by the Kuru king Santanu. Thus Vyasa became associated with the Kuru kings who were believed to be the descendants of the famous Aila-Puru-Bharata lineage. The Ailas had their origin very close to Himalayas towards its northern side in Tibet. Pururavas was their founder. They came down to the Punjab, Himachal Uttaranchal regions during the period of Nahusha and Yayati (Pururavas > Ayu > Nahusha > Yayati). Yayati's son Puru born to an Asura princess Sarmishtha established the Puru royal lineage. In this lineage was born the famous emperor Bharata.
He ruled the whole of north India and had his sway over the southern regions of India too. Because of him and because of the numerous other Bharata kings who descended from emperor Bharata and established their kingdoms all over India, the whole of India became known as Bhaarata. Another speculation is that the clan of Bharadwajas who were a branch of the Angirasa clan took over the power from emperor Bharata and a Bharadwaja named Bhumanyu became the new emperor and that all of the Bharata kings who reigned after Bhumanyu were descended from Bhumanyu. There are two Variations of this theory. One is that Bharata adopted Bhumanyu as his son and himself made him his successor. Another is that a Bharadwaja fathered Bhumanyu upon the wife of Bharata. In any case the name Bharata is derived from Bharata kings who were descended from Bharata or Bharadwaja or both of them.
The Kuru's were a branch of the Bharata kings. Kuru prince Vichitravirya, the son of Satyavati and Kuru king Santanu, though a Sudra by birth became a Kshatriya by profession as he got established as the king of the Kurus after Santanu. But he died without producing a successor for the throne. Satyavati requested his son Vyasa to help perpetuate the Kuru race through the practice of Niyoga, by impregnating the wives of Vichitravirya. Thus was born the next generation of Kuru kings viz, Dhritarashtra, and Pandu as sons of Vichitravirya, but actually bearing the genes of Vyasa in them. The Mahabharata epic deals with the history and life of the Kauravas and Pandavas who were the sons of Dhritarashtra and Pandu.
Vyasa's Children and Grandchildren
Thus Vyasa's interest in the history of the Kauravas and the Pandavas was because of his association with the Kurus through his mother Satyavati and because of his blood relations with them. Kauravas and Pandavas were his grandchildren and their fathers viz. Dhritarashtra and Pandu were his children.
Interest in the History of Kurus
He also had extreme interest in the history of the Ailas, the Purus, the Bharatas and the Kurus and collected information about their history. Vyasa belonged to the Vasistha clan. Vasisthas and Agastyas were believed to be two branches of the Bhargava clan. The Angirasas and the Bhargavas were ideologically opposed to each other in those days. Bhargavas maintained a liberal interpretation of the Vedas and believed in a liberal form of the four orders of Varna (Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra) or caste. Angirasas on the other hand had a rigid interpretation of the Vedas and believed in strict form of Varna or caste. Vyasa's interaction with the Kuru clan paved the way for the decline of the rigid Angirasa-Bharadwaja-Gautama influence on the affairs of the state. It lead to the emergence of the liberal Bhargava-Vasistha influence.
Analysis of Vyasa's names
Vyasa's first name Krishna denotes his skin-color which is black. This doesn't mean Vyasa was pitch black in color. This is applied in comparison with others, probably with other sages. This is same for the case of Vasudeva-Krishna-Yadava. He too was not too dark or dark-blue or sky-blue like some modern artist would depict. Only that he was darker in hue compared to his brother Bala-Rama or his friend Arjuna (the white one). Needless to say, Panchali the wife of the five Pandavas too was darker in color only in comparison with other women, probably in comparison with other wives of the Pandavas or with other women in Panchala. Some others explain the name Krishna, as:- the one who make others joyful. This is just a fancy meaning used to deify Vasudeva Krishna or because somebody felt it objectionable to consider Krishna as a dark man.
Many people including some co-authors of Mahabharata define Vyasa's middle name viz Dwaipayana like this:- He was born in an island (dwipa) in Yamuna. Hence he was called Dwaipayana. But another meaning of the word is: Dwaipa (region or sub-continent)-Ayana(travel):- the one who travel to or travel from or travel across various sub-continents. Thus the name Dwaipana is indicative of Vyasa being an extensive traveler who travel across many regions (Dwipas). Several sages like Saindhavayana (meaning a traveler from or belonging to Sindhu region), Aswalayana (traveler of Aswalaya (Aswa-gana-stana or Af-gani-stan)) bear names similar to Dwaipayana and have the word ayana (travel) in their names. It could be customary in those days to name sages who were travelers thus.
The name Jambu-Dwipa was some times applied to the whole of Indian peninsula. It also translate to the Jambu region or the Jamvu region which can apply to modern day Jammu region belonging to Jammu-Kashmir. Tibet was considered as a region different from Jamvu-region in those days. Some times it was called Harivarsha. People like Narada belonged to this region. He too was an extensive traveler who traversed many regions. Assume that Vyasa is meeting Narada in one of their wanderings. For a person like Narada, Vyasa will be best described as a traveler coming from Jamvu Dwipa. So the word Dwipa in Dwaipayana can also denote a particular Dwipa or region like Jamvu-Dwipa (whether applied to the whole of India or to Jammu region of Kashmir alone). In any case (Dwipa denoting a specific region or any of the generic regions), the name Dwaipayana denote an extensive traveler who traverse vast regions ( who probably, will also narrates about these diverse regions, its people and its culture).
In later stages the term, the Vyasa who hails from the Jamvu Dwaipa region got reinterpreted as the Vyasa who was born in a Dwipa in the Jamvu river. In other words, the earlier meaning of Dwipa as region changed to the meaning of Dwipa as island. Similarly the name Jamvu was used as the name of the region south to mount Meru. At some period of time, this name denoted only the present day Jammu region, but later used to denote the whole of Indian peninsula that lied to the south of Himalayas. But when the meaning of Dwipa changed from region to island, the name Jamvu changed to denote Jamvu region and transformed into Jamuna (Yamuna), the river. The name Jamuna too seems to be the short form of the name Jamvu -Nadi (The Jamvu River). Thus the region of Jamvu transformed into an island in the Yamuna river.
Meaning of the last name viz Vyasa is straight forward. It was because Vyasa studied the Vedas, analyzed them and arranged them into four parts so that he can teach them to his disciples easily. The noun Vyasa means: the one who divides, or classify things. Since he divided and classified the Vedas into Rik, Yajus, Sama and Atharva, he became famous as Veda-Vyasa. He might have classified not only Vedes but many other bodies of knowledge including the Puranas that existed during his time. It is probable that this occupation of classifying Vedas continued to the subsequent generations of original Vyasa. Hence all the members of his generation were known as Vyasas. Vyasa and his generation were probably busy in analyzing the Vedas, the Itihasas and the Puranas, all forms of literature and all forms of information available on philosophy, religion, astronomy, history and geography of those periods. Thus they served as historians, geographers, astronomers and philosophers of an ancient period. We, in current age owe a lot to the original Vyasa, his disciples, his children and the generation of Vyasas for all this information that we have about the ancient world.