When Sperm Could Fly! -Vyasa & The Mahabharata*

Before we embark upon the Myth of Yoga, since it is the height of Spring in the Pacific Northwest, let us take a pastoral interlude and enjoy one of the most incredible stories ever told. The flowers are bursting open, the birds and the bees are flying with palpable frenzy as they sense the nectar all around.

Winter has fled, and the Resurrection is upon us.

In the Golden Age of India there was written one of humanity’s masterpiece epic tales, that of the Mahabharata. 8 times the length of the Illiad and Odyssey combined, the stories span generations, culminating in the classic recounting of Lord Krishna and the battle of Kurukshetra.

I remember the first time I read the opening chapters of Vyasa’s work, and my reaction was that of complete disbelief. I had to read the tale again and again, to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, and also to comprehend the subtlety and symbolism.

For you see, as a Westerner I was approaching the Mahabharata as a somewhat factual history of India, with appreciation for its religious teachings regarding Hinduism’s most beloved avatar, Bhagavan Sri Krishna. My reference point was the same as opening the Holy Bible, where I would read the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, to gain understanding of the religious history of the Judeo-Christian faith.

But you must realize that Myths are properly understood and experienced as metaphors which relate to your own psyche, and do not primarily refer to something that happened someplace a long time ago. The surest way to destroy the spiritual import of religion is to insist that the myth stories are to be interpreted as historical facts. When you force yourself to believe that the Bible, Gita or Koran is to be interpreted literally, and then you are faced with the impossibility of the stories having occurred as historical facts, the result is often doubt, loss of faith and alienation.

Aaahh, but I get ahead of myself. Here is the tale, as told by Joseph Campbell:

When Sperm Could Fly! -Vyasa and the Mahabharata

The chief mythological document of the Indian Golden Age is the epic Mahabharata, much of the material of which is indefinitely old, perhaps ante 400 B.C., but of which the final style and tone are rather of c. 400 A.D and thereafter.

The great rishi Vyasa has been termed the Homer of India, but is in fact far more than that. He is what Homer would have been had he, besides singing of the Trojan War, also sired all its characters on both sides. The name itself, vy-asa, means “distributing or letting go in all directions (v/-)”—which could hardly be more apt. For this man was not only the author of the prodigious work itself and progenitor of all of its chief characters on both sides, but also the author of all eighteen or more of the Puranas (which are a series of lesser epics, dating from about the fourth to sixteenth centuries A.D.), collector and arranger of the four Vedas, creator of Vedantic philosophy, and a perfect forest recluse besides.


For there was in that fabulous time a king, Vasu by name, who was devoted to virtue (dharma) but no less to the hunt; and of a time when a certain great mountain near his capital, having become maddened with desire for the river that was flowing at its foot, embraced and so enclosed that river that its waters no longer flowed past the city, the king went and gave that mountain a kick. The river came flowing from the indentation, but was now pregnant and, giving birth to a boy and girl, presented them in gratitude to the king, who made the boy his general and the girl his wife. She was called Girika, “Daughter of the Mountain.” And when the season of her impurity came and passed, she told her husband of her state and went to the river to purify herself.

Now it is a principle of the dharma of all husbands that they must have intercourse with their wives immediately following the menstrual period, because—according to the infallible truth of Vedic revelation—this is the auspicious time for the begetting of a child. And so that king, having knowledge of the readiness of Girika, had knowledge also of his duty, to which he was devoted.

But he was devoted equally, as we have heard, to the pleasures of the hunt; and so, when it came to pass, even while his wife was at the river, that a number of his elder relatives arrived to invite him to hunt deer, reasoning that an ancestor should be obeyed and heeding the filial, not the marital, dharma, he departed.

There were numerous flowering trees in the country that he entered. Moreover, the whole forest at that time was maddened with the cooing of birds and hum of intoxicated bees; for the season was spring, and the groves through which he moved were as fair as the gardens of the genii of the earth. He was put in mind of his marital dharma, and, overcome by desire, sat him down beneath a beautifully blossoming, heavily scented tree, where, when his mind had dissolved to madness, he was overcome by a crisis; following which he mused that his seed should not be lost and, gathering it up in a large leaf, he called to a hawk soaring above: “O my friend, do thou bear this to my wife, who is in her season.”


The bird assumed the charge, but on the way a second hawk, supposing the burden to be meat, dove at it and it fell into the river Jumna, where it was immediately swallowed by a fish, who was actually a nymph under enchantment; and in the tenth month that unfortunate fish was taken by a fisherman, who, when he found a boy and girl within, was amazed. The boy presented to the king, became, presently, himself a king; but the girl, because of a perceptibly fishy smell with which she was endowed, was consigned to the fisherman to be his daughter. And the nymph, released, ascended to the sky. Thus the first part of this tale of the lineage of the author of the Mahabharata.


The second now tells of the girl. She was blessed with extraordinary beauty and gifted with all virtue. Satyavati, “Truth,” was her name, but she was known as Fishy Smell. And, serving her foster father, she plied a boat on the waters of the river Jumna, to which, one day, a great, a very great, yogi named Parashara came to be ferried to the other shore. And when he saw that girl with her tapering thighs smiling at him in that boat, he was suddenly mastered by desire. But she said: “O blessed saint, those other saints along the shores, waiting to be ferried: they would see.”


The yogi thereupon brought down a fog by which they were obscured; seeing which, the girl was confused. “Know me to be a maid in her father’s keep,” she said. “O sinless saint without match, consider and behave.”

Delighted by her character, the saint reassured her. “Timid girl, your virginity can be restored,” he said. “Moreover, no wish of mine is ever without fruit. Ask of me anything you desire.” She begged that her body should have a sweet smell; and so, their desires, mutually, were granted. Virginity returned; and the maid was known thereafter as Gandhavati, “Sweetly Scented,” for men could smell the scent of her body from the distance of a league.

The yogi, on the yonder shore, departed for his hermitage, and the girl, in time, in secrecy, on a wooded isle in the middle of the holy river Jumna, whence she herself had come, gave birth to a boy. Once again virginity returned. And the infant, getting to his feet, walked away into the forest, saying as he left: “When you need me, think of me, Mother, and I shall appear.”


The reader will perhaps not be able to believe that this tale is quite precise as to fact. However, the son thus born was Vyasa; and we are reading his own account of these holy matters in his own great book—which goes on, now, with the adventure of the mother, still a virgin, to whose ferry there came, attracted by the scent, a certain great, a certain very great, king.


And this goodly man, no longer young, Santanu by name, had just bestowed the right of succession upon his excellent son Bhishma, born some years before of a lovely personage who had proved, to the king’s amazement, to have been the goddess-river Ganges. Approaching now the holy river Jumna, and perceiving that extraordinary scent, the king, scouting for its source, arrived at the boat of this beautiful maid of the fisherman caste. “O timid, lovely maid,” he said, “who can you be?” She answered: “I am the daughter, good sir, of the chief fisherman of this place, and in the service of my father I ferry pilgrims to the yonder shore.”


The king went directly to the father; but the fisherman said to him: “If your desire is for my daughter lawfully, you must pledge to me that the son born to you of her shall be the sole successor to your throne.” And when he heard that, the old king was unstrung. He returned to Hastinapur, his capital, and in sorrow, thinking only of that girl, began to waste away. Then his excellent son, Bhishma, discovering the cause of his father’s illness, went to that fisherman with a company of princes, saying, “My good man, I hereby vow before these princes that the son born to my father of your daughter shall be our king.”

But the fisherman answered: “I have no doubt, sir, of your vow. What, however, of the claims of your possible sons?” And the prince said, “I shall assume, then, a second vow: to live celibate for life.” Whereupon the hair of that fisherman stood on end. He bowed. And the virgin of the river was bestowed.

tumblr_lzgo0866Xe1rnm60yo1_1280  bhisma

Thus we come to the tale of the ferry-maid’s further sons; for the good king Santanu begot two. The elder succeeded to his throne, but was slain in battle, very young; and since the younger died of consumption, also very young, there were left two childless royal widows, beautifully tall, with flowing glossy hair, red nails, swelling breasts and mighty hips. And the widowed queen-mother, Satyavati, said to Bhishma, “The line is without issue.”

“But you are learned in the Vedas, powerful, virtuous, and, I am sure, concerned for the preservation of this line; so I shall appoint you to a certain act. Ascend in majesty our throne, marry the girls according to our rites, and beget sons.” Bhishma simply recalled to her the vow that her father had extracted, and she thought, next, in her strait, of the infant who had walked away.

Vyasa now was a great sage, at work interpreting the Vedas, yet he appeared, as promised, when his mother addressed her mind to him. “I shall produce sons like Yama and Varuna,” he said, when she had bathed him with her tears and confronted him with her charge. “Only first, let the two young ladies keep for a year certain vows that I shall assign.” She answered, “But our kingdom is in danger. The work is to be done today.”

“Well then,” said he, “let them tolerate my ugliness, grim visage, foul body, terrible odor, and frightening garb. If they can do that they will bear sturdy sons. Let the elder be adorned. Let her wait for me in a bed in pure attire.” And he disappeared. The girl having been tactfully persuaded, bathed, and beautifully adorned, Satyavati led her to a large bed.

“Here you will lie,” she said, “and await the elder brother of your spouse.” And the young widow, happily supposing Bhishma to be the elder brother meant, lay thoughtfully awake. The lamp burned. The door opened. A form entered. And what she saw, with a start, was an ascetic with black glowering face, blazing eyes, coppery piled-up matted hair, grim beard, and such an odor when he approached as she could hardly bear. She shut her eyes. And when he returned to Satyavati, “The boy,” he said, “will be as strong as ten thousand elephants, father of a thousand sons; however, because of the failure of the mother, who at the moment of conception shut her eyes, he will be blind.”


And the child was indeed blind. He became the great king Dhritarashtra (“He who supports,” dhrta, “the kingdom” rastra), father of the Kauravas, the enemy party in the plot of the Mahabharata.

But Satyavati, when she saw that child, once again thought of Vyasa, and when he appeared, bade him try again. The second lovely widow was committed, unsuspecting, to the bed. The lamp in the large room burned. The door opened. A figure entered and her eyes stood wide; she went pale. The saint approached, and when he had done with her, he said, “Since you are pale, your son also will be pale. So you shall call him Pandu” (pandu: “white, yellow-white, pale”).

And indeed, the son born was very pale. Yet he was the father of the Pandavas, the five hero brothers of the Mahabharata: Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva. In other words, the epic war was to be in essence a conflict between the Sons of Darkness (a king who had been conceived with the eyes closed) and the Sons of Light (one conceived with the eyes open).

Something considerably more complex appears in the highly developed, apparently ridiculous, but actually extremely sophisticated symbolic game of the Brahmins by whom the physically impossible biography of Vyasa was devised.


*This story is taken in its entirety from Joseph Campbell’s “The Masks of God-Oriental Mythology” pp 328-333 in the chapter titled “The Golden Age of India”.

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