Ganesha, pot-bellied, modak-loving, mouse-riding deity, has thousands of fables associated with his name. Unlike several other Gods whose stories tend to centre on the well-worn themes of boons granted and asuras killed, Ganesha stories are more like lovable folk-tales, many of them revolving around his prodigious appetite! But one of his roles is quite distinct from these; that as the scribe of Vyasa.
Amongst the various names he is known by – Lambodara, Vakratunda, Vignaharta, Gajanana – Lord Ganesha is also known as Vidyavaridhi, the God of Wisdom. It was in this capacity that he was called upon to act as Vyasa’s scribe when the sage recited the Mahabharata.
Now, consider the point: Given his stature in the Hindu pantheon, why should Ganesha, a God, have been selected to take dictation? Surely anyone else would have done as well. Why Ganesha?
Was it because, in Ganapati, Vyasa would find the perfect audience? A wise yet tolerant God, fond of excess in his culinary appetites; would he not have been indulgent towards an author’s flights of poetic fancy? Would he not have been tolerant towards the occasional superfluous adverb? And yet, not unduly so; the pre-set criteria (that Vyasa should narrate without pause) would ensure that the essential integrity of the work could never be at doubt. Ganesha's mere presence would illumine the storyteller’s mind, while his hand (later, his tusk) rendered the words. He would not interfere, nor add, nor subtract from the poet’s words – but by his presence, and participation, his removal of obstacles (writer’s block, perhaps?) he would bless it. The Mahabharata, a story which has so much blood and gore, and no real heroes, needed a companion no less magnanimous than Gajanana Himself, to participate in its genesis and sanctify it.
Surely the gods chose Ganesha to aid Vyasa and not plague him. Can you imagine a modern editor allowing a book to be a million-odd words long? Imagine the conversation.
Vyasa: "This story will need to be told in 18 volumes."
Editor: "No, no, no! Multi-volume books are OUT. Unless we publish one of them first and guage the public response to it; then the rest can be published as sequels."
Vyasa: "Part of the book will be a discourse on action and duty…."
Editor: "Make sure you use short sentences, and don't preach too much. The public's attention span is very short, after all. And do you think you could add some buzzwords in there?"
Faced with such as exacting editor, would Vyasa have been so fed up as to give up the effort entirely? Thank God – pun intended – he didn't! Ganesha, generous big-eared Ganesha, transcribed the Mahabharata in its unedited entirety, for future generations to enjoy as they would. Thus a great sage's narration was given the respect, and the space, that it deserved. Ganesha was no editor; he was a patient, appreciative listener and master scribe to a master storyteller.
As we look forward to the vibrant, noisy, colourful festival of Ganesha Chaturthi which marks the beginning of the festive season in India (rather appropriately, since everything ‘shubh’ should commence with Ganesha) let us pray that He, who was once so intimately associated with the birth of a book, will bless us book-lovers with an avalanche of great books this year too. Ganapati Bappa Morya!