who wrote and how?

Researchers and scholars are divided in opinion by wide margins when it comes to the period of the composition of most of the ancient Indic texts. In an earlier post I have addressed it. Similarly opinions vary about their authorship. In some posts I have brought out this issue. But there being so many sides, I thought a separate post is needed.

When devotees go to Badrinath in Uttarakhand, they do not miss the cave where the composition of Mahabharata is said to have taken place. You might have heard about the legend related to the writing of Mahabharata. Sage Vedavyasa needed a scribe. He was recommended with the name of Lord Ganesha. The later agreed but with a condition that the dictation should be without any break. Vedavyasa too agreed, but he too put a condition that Lord Ganesha should write only after understanding each stanza. Occasionally Vedavyasa would dictate a very difficult sloka and Ganeshji would take some time to understand it. That allowed Vedavyasa the much needed break to compose the next slokas.

In addition to Mahabharata, Vedavyasa is said to have compiled all the four Vedas and the eighteen major Puranas. Some believe that there indeed was a sage named Vedavyasa who was endowed with super yogic powers and was able to accomplish all these. According to some, there were a group of Rishis and collectively they were known as Vedavyasa. Then there are others who believe that these were written by different Rishis or group of Rishis who later dedicated their work in the name of Vedavyasa. The same thing is sometimes said about Kalidasa about a few portions of his works that have different styles of composition from his usual style.

It is this writing style that has helped to find out the author of many ancient texts which were rediscovered. The works of famous playwright Bhasha were almost lost and a chance discovery led to further investigation which resulted in the retrieval of his works from different parts of India, majority of them being from Kerala. Bhasha’s works are considered at par with those of Kalidasa. But there was no mention of the author’s name in most of the retrieved works. It was only through careful analysis of the style of composition that the experts could trace the authorship to Bhasha.

Some works seem to have been composed in the manner of today’s Wikipedia. A large number of composers were involved. But the difference between today’s Wikipedia and the ancient texts is that Wikipedia just gives a surface knowledge where as the ancient texts have amazing depth. Secondly, subsequent authors of indic texts usually did not disturb the earlier versions, but went on adding to it. Of course, this stopped at some point of time and the texts achieved a finality. This minor revisions and additions went on for a log period of time, sometimes extending over millennia. As I have already mentioned in my post about the period of writing, this factor has allowed different researchers to allot different dates to the same text without being logically incorrect.

I hope you have watched Mira Nair’s movie Kamasutra and realized that the title is totally deceptive. It has hardly anything to do with Sage Vatsatayana’s Kamasutra. The script writer has put a few thin threads forcefully to connect it with Vatsyayana’s work and justify its title. For example there is a character named Vatsyayana who goes around the public houses of the city, behaving like a peeping tom and noting down the proceedings inside. According to the movie this was how Kamasutra was written. But let us listen to what Vatsyayana himself says about who should take credit for the contents of his book:

In the beginning, the Lord of Beings created men and women, and in the form of commandments in one hundred thousand chapters laid down rules for regulating their existence with regard to Dharma, Artha, and Kama. Some of these commandments, namely those which treated of Dharma, were separately written by Swayambhu Manu; those that related to Artha were compiled by Brihaspati; and those that referred to Kama were expounded by Nandi, the follower of Mahadeva, in one thousand chapters.

Vatsyayana further narrates how the knowledge got transmitted further and it reached him. He states that he was only putting together the knowledge that had got scattered due to the passage of time.

Like Vatsyayana many authors attributed the knowledge to previous Rishis or to God. They never took credit that they were the original authors. Some even shied away from mentioning their names altogether. In the context of my blog post on Narada Bhakti Sutras I have briefly mentioned this.

We also come across texts whose authorship credits are given to kings. King Bhartruhari’s Vairagya Shataka is one such example. Some say such works were written by someone else but were dedicated in the name of the kings. It seems ghost writing has been in vogue since ancient times.

So, there are conflicting opinions about the authorship of the texts. But is it really something that should deter us from exploring the beautiful world of ancient texts?

An author is sometimes important to distinguish it from other works of similar nature, as in the case of Ramayana that has many versions. But, we should not get so lost in debates about the authorship that we miss the wisdom of its contents. I found that the ancient text Yogavashistha has something in similar lines. It advises – “If the knowledge is helpful to you in improving your wisdom and broadening your vision, how does it matter whether it is of divine origin or human origin?”


This is the alphabet W post of Blogchatter AtoZ Challenge 2021. My theme this year is ‘The beauty of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts’, where in I explore selected compositions in Sanskrit and also some unique aspects of Sanskrit language and texts. Join with me in my journey to understand India’s spiritual and intellectual heritage. All the posts of AtoZ Challenge 2021 can be accessed here.

20 thoughts on “who wrote and how?

  1. Simply loved reading and enjoying this lovely post with an easy flow! Thanks a lot for all the information you are sharing from the past.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is a phrase in Hindi- आम खाओ, गुठलियाँ मत गिनो। As long as it serves the purpose of enlightening you with the knowledge you strive to gain, why to bother about ‘where did it come from’? But again, it would be unfair if the writer is not given the due credit he/she deserves. As you said- their style had been the only way to reach the original writer of the text, I wonder had it been in the contemporary scenario, how would it be possible to trace the original writer when every other writer tends to copy the style of someone or the other.

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    1. That proverb sums it up. Some of the ancient authors were more interested to see that their contents became popular and outlived than their own name. Yes it would be difficult in the contemporary scenario.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The last quote sums it up for me.
    My mother used to use a quote often which meant ‘a student should be like a bumblebee–picking knowledge nectar from different sources to enrich herself.’

    I was fortunate to visit the cave temple in Mana village near Badrinath where they say the Mahabharata was scribed by Lord Ganesha, a few years ago.

    I’m sharing the link to that post, just in case you’d like to visit:)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There was no concept of “Copyright” then!
    Thankfully, many writers are still remembered even after so many centuries.

    However, I have often wondered about the vast wealth of knowledge written by writers whose names we will never know- as only the names of those ancient Sanskrit works are known – and not the names of the individual writers who have composed…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. True, if the knowledge is useful to you, how does it matter who wrote it! Being curious souls, humans sometimes explore the origin of the ancient texts but ultimately it’s the knowledge that matters the most.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Maybe the crave to hog limelight or visibility was not prevalent then. People were more contended just be seeing their wisdom and knowledge being passed. But we must have lost many of the writings too let alone the names of the authors I guess and that’s a big loss.

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