Ishta – Swami Vivekananda on why Hindu sects don’t quarrel

Street Corner Missionaries

Wherever I go in the world, I see Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on the roadside with pamphlets in various languages. I have seen this both in United States and Europe. Every year the church sends crores of rupees to India to convert Hindus and Love Jihadis target Hindu girls. To Hindus, who are used to multiple sects living together, multiple darshanas accepted as scripture and being followers of various gurus with radically different styles, this intolerance is an alien concept. Swami Vivekananda, using the concept of Ishta, explains why various sects never quarreled in India.

In a speech given in Jaffna, following his address at the Parliament of Nations, Swamiji noted

“The Shaivite does not say that every Vaishnavite is going to be damned, nor the Vaishnavite that every Shaivite will be damned. The Shaivite says, this is my path, and you have yours; at the end we must come together. They all know that in India. This is the theory of Ishta. It has been recognised in the most ancient times that there are various forms of worshipping God. It is also recognised that different natures require different methods.”

According to Hindu tradition, based on various proportions of sattva, rajas and tamas, we all have different nature. Based on that nature, there are different method of worship and hence what works for you may not work for me. Most of us understand this innately, without understanding the yogic aspects behind this. Swamiji warns that the idea that there is only one way for everyone is “injurious, meaningless, and entirely to be avoided.”

Woe unto the world when everyone is of the same religious opinion and takes to the same path. Then all religions and all thought will be destroyed. Variety is the very soul of life. When it dies out entirely, creation will die.


Swamiji then introduces the Sanskrit word “Ishta”. He calls it my way. Now my way is good for me, but probably not for you. Similarly your way is good for you, but not for me. Missionaries hate this. For them, your way is the highway to hell and my way is the only way. Hence the Hindus have to be converted either by force, by incentives or through educational institutions. They talk of love, but the goal is the destruction of our way of live, because it is different.

You see extreme versions of this even now. A missionary was killed in Andaman on an adventure to convert the natives. They are found in crossfire in war zones. They have served as spies. They show up in hostile countries with the Bible speaking of love. Mother Theresa fooled an entire generation with her story of compassion. Swamiji counters:

Their love does not count for much. How can they preach of love who cannot bean another man to follow a different path from their own? If that is love, what is hatred? We have no quarrel with any religion in the world, whether it teaches men to worship Christ, Buddha, or Mohammed, or any other prophet. “Welcome, my brother,” the Hindu says, “I am going to help you; but you must allow me to follow my way too. That is my Ishta. Your way is very good, no doubt; but it may be dangerous for me. My own experience tells me what food is good for me, and no army of doctors can tell me that.

In India, we have the freedom to worship the formless or a thousand forms., go to temples or perform pujas, do kriya or yoga. But “the moment you quarrel, you are not going Godward, you are going backward, towards the brutes.”


After death

Photo by Pascal Meier on Unsplash

Discover Magazine writes on an interesting phenomena, that happens after we die. Usually, we expect the body to stop working. But instead,

Noble and colleagues at the University of Washington were testing a technique for measuring gene activity. As a control, they analyzed tissues from recently-dead zebrafish, expecting to see a steady decrease in new copies of genes as cellular activity tapered off. And that’s what they found — with some notable exceptions. After the zebrafish were dead, around one percent of their genes sprang to life, as though the cells were preparing to build something.

The idea that genes would activate after an organism’s death was unheard of, so the researchers wrote it off as a mistake with their instrumentation. But repeated tests, in fish and then in mice, continued to bear out the impossible: genes activating hours, or even days, after an organism died.[ After You Die, These Genes Come to Life ]

This reminded me of a recent lecture on the various pranas in our body and what they do. Out of all the pranas, one of them is activated after we die.

Speaking of pranas, there are five that requires mention. The prana above the throat is called prana. The one below the belly button is called apanan and is responsible for the excretion function. Samanan stays between these two — below the throat and above the belly button — and is responsible for digestion. Imagine our stomach as an engine generating energy by burning fuel. Like how the fire burns strongly in our traditional hearth, when air is blown, samanan helps with digestion. Vyanan is a prana which is spread all over the body, across all our naadis. The last — Udana — sits in the sushumna. At the time of death, it gathers all your accumulated karmas and leaves. Sometimes this prana gets attached to the body and will refuse to leave. That’s why Hindus cremate quickly. [ Why pranayama can control the mind ]

Why pranayama can control the mind

Pranayama Photo by Indian Yogi (Yogi Madhav) on Unsplash

Once a man went on a safari with his pet poodle. During the tour, the poodle got separated from the owner and wandered off into the forest. As it was searching for the path back, it reached a lake. In the stillness of the forest, the poodle heard a rustling sound in the bushes and through the corner of it’s eye, saw a leopard sneaking in. This is probably the end of my life, thought the poodle. Quickly, he came up with a plan. He found some bones lying around and started licking it. Then at the top of his voice, he said, “This leopard is so tasty. Hope I find some more.” The leopard, worried for his life, ran away.

A monkey, who was sitting on the tree, saw what was happening. He ran behind the leopard and told how the poodle had tricked him. The angry leopard decided to return and finish off the poodle. Sitting on the back of the leopard, the monkey also decided to go and see the fun. The poodle meanwhile saw both of them coming and sat with his back facing them. He had guessed what the monkey had done. When the pair were close, the poodle, yelled at the top of his voice, “Where’s that damn monkey. I told him to fetch me a leopard”

The mind, like the poodle, is always scheming, planning and thinking. When the mind is angry and agitated, you can notice that your breath is rapid and shallow. At the same time when you are happy, the breath is deeper and relaxed. Once your observe this, you need to wonder if the reverse is true. Can altering your breath, change your mood?

Anyone who does pranayama knows that it can be done. To understand the yogic explanation for this phenomena, we have to understand the relation between breath, prana and the mind.

Prana is the life-force that sustains the functions of the body and it supplies energy to all parts of our body. It is present all over the universe and it pervades our body as well. The breath and prana are closely related and inter-dependent; through breath, you can control prana. By controlling the act of breathing you can efficiently control all the various motions in the body and the different pranas that are running through the body.

The five pranas

Speaking of pranas, there are five that requires mention. The prana above the throat is called prana. The one below the belly button is called apanan and is responsible for the excretion function. Samanan stays between these two — below the throat and above the belly button — and is responsible for digestion. Imagine our stomach as an engine generating energy by burning fuel. Like how the fire burns strongly in our traditional hearth, when air is blown, samanan helps with digestion. Vyanan is a prana which is spread all over the body, across all our naadis. The last — Udana — sits in the sushumna. At the time of death, it gathers all your accumulated karmas and leaves. Sometimes this prana gets attached to the body and will refuse to leave. That’s why Hindus cremate quickly.

Next we need to understand the relation between prana and the mind and how they are connected. At one level, they look different. The mind is an instrument of thought and perception. It has bodha shakti. The prana, meanwhile, is connected with action with constant movement. Prana has kriya shakti. But both mind and prana originate in the pancha bhootas. The mind, which is a jnana indriya, is formed from the sattvik aspects of the panchabootas. The prana, which is a karma indriya, is formed from the rajasik aspects of the pancha bhootams. Thus the source of these two are the same. They are expressions of the same base. If you imagine two branches coming out of a trunk, the mind and prana are two branches coming out of the pancha bhootas. Since they are coming from the same trunk, influencing one, affects the other.


Going from sthula to sukshma

silhouette of man meditating on rock cliff during golden hour

Photo by Indian Yogi (Yogi Madhav) on Unsplash

There are such varied types of religious practices, but not all may suit you. Based on the level of sattva, rajas, and tamas, your affinity towards a practice may vary. I like to think of each of us as

α * sattva + β * rajas + γ * tamas

Based on the values of α, β and γ, you may like going to temples, but may not like sitting for meditation. You may like reading the Upanishads, but you may not like chanting. Whatever be the practice, the goal is to increase the value of α and lower β and γ.

Unfortunately you cannot increase the value of α by swiping right on your screen. It is a journey with many intermediary states, starting with focus on the gross and going subtle. At all times, our indriyas are showing attractive sights and triggering thoughts on what’s next. The goal of practices in Sanatata Dharma is to take you from the sthula to the sukshma. Let’s take a look at two concrete examples from the field of meditation and japa.

In Raja Yoga, the goal is to awaken the coiled up energy dormant in your body and make it rise from the base of the spine to the crown of the head along the sushumna nadi, which can be imagined as running parallel to the spinal cord.

Yogic anatomy defines seven chakras — whirlpools of energy, whirling constantly and exhibitng myriard colors — at different parts of the sushumna nadi. The seven chakras are the muladhara, at the end of the spine, swadishtana, just above the reproductive organs, manipura at the navel, anahata at the center of the chest, visudha at the throat and sahasra at the crown of the head. There are different colors, symbols and sounds assigned to each of these chakras.

What’s interesting is the symbol assigned to each of these chakras and what it represents. The muladhara is represented by a square and means gross matter. The swadhistana, represented as a crescent, means liquid state. The next three are triangle (fire), a star, like the one on Israeli flag (vayu) and oval (akasha). The last two are of a different league. Thus as the Kudalini rises, it goes from gross to subtle.

Some people cannot meditate and find japa more conducive to their nature. While Kundalini goes from gross to the subtle, in a practice like japa too there are variations. Ideally you want to do a silent japa, because only one indriya is involved. Some people who start doing silent japa are usually seen snoring or lost in deep thoughts after a while. This usually means that the person has not developed enough concentration to do silent japa. Such people are asked to do the japa a bit louder so that multiple indriyas are now involved. For people who cannot focus on one single mantra like “Om Namah Sivaya“, they are asked to do chant something more involved like the sahasranama. For whom even that is hard, they are asked to do bhajans with musical instruments so that the jnana and karmendriyas are all involved and the chances of mind moving away to other thoughts are less.

Attention is beginning of the spiritual journey. As the practice becomes perfect, you go into higher planes where realization is possible. This one-pointedness comes through regular and incessant practice: as Patanjali has said, ‘Nairantarya abhyase. There are no shortcuts. As the influence of indriyas are diminished, deep mental states are achieved. Finally, from a state which language cannot describe, realization is achieved.


The Aryabhata Number System

Photo by Alex Chambers on Unsplash

In Computer Science, there are computations using binary or hexadecimal system, but for most people, the common system is the decimal system. Indian mathematicians did not restrict themselves to one system for computation. During the time of Aryabhatta, there were at least three methods of writing numbers. The most popular way of writing was using the Samskritam number system. Mathematicians like Varahamihira and Bhaskaracharya used a different system called the bhooth sankhya. Aryabhatta, though, invented his own system which was a new contribution.

In the Aryabhatta number system, the Samskritam letters from क to म carry values from 1 to 25. Letters from य to ह carry values 30, 40, 50… 80. Whenever an इ-kaara is used, the value is multiplied by 100. When an उ-kaara is used, the multiplier is 10,000, ऋ-kaara multiplies it by 1,000,000. To illustrate with example

  • च = 6
  • चि = 600
  • चु = 60,000
  • च्र = 6,000,000
  • कुचि = कु + चि = 10,000 + 600 = 10, 600

Reference: Aryabhateeya by Aryabhata (by Prof K S Sukla & Prof. K V Sarma. Commentary by Dr. N. Gopalakrishnan), Published by Indian Institute of Scientific Heritage, Thiruvananthapuram

The 2019 Kumbh Mela – A Travelogue

Sunset on Yamuna at Kumbha Mela

When I told people I was going for Kumbh Mela, the most common questions besides, “Why”, were, “Isn’t it so dirty?”, “Aren’t you afraid of stampedes?”, “What happens at Kumbh Mela?”, “Why is it called Kumbh?”. What made all these questions interesting was that, they were not asked by secular people, but by Hindus.

But the best question I was asked was, “What is the Kumbh Mela?”

On an impulse, I attended the 2019 Ardh Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj and found answers to the above questions. This was not my first trip to Uttar Pradesh, but my first Kumbh Mela. Since I had been to UP before, I was not surprised by the questions of cleanliness. But, the Uttar Pradesh of 2019 is not the same as Uttar Pradesh of the 1990s. What shocked me was the cleanliness at the Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of people in the planet.

We will get to the cleanliness at the Kumbh Mela. Before that, it is important to answer the question: What is the Kumbh Mela?

The Origins

The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering of people in the world. No other religion or country has anything of this magnitude. Do a search and you can read the statistics yourself. It is larger than the population of many countries. Once in twelve years, the Kumbh Mela is held at four places — Prayagraj, Haridwar, Nashik-Trayambakeshwar, and Ujjain. In the middle of the twelve year period, the Ardh Kumbh Mela occurs at Haridwar and Prayagraj. This year, the Ardh Kumbh Mela ran from Makar Sankranti to Maha Shivarathri day.

There is a reason why the Kumbh Mela occurs every twelve years. The Mela occurs when the Sun, Moon and Jupiter are in certain zodiac signs. The moon takes one month to go through all the signs, the sun takes a year and Jupiter, 12 years. The Kumbha Mela occurs when Jupiter enters the same sign again and that is once is twelve years.

Nityananda Misra’s book on Kumbha

A good book to read about Kumbh Mela is Nityananda Misra’s Kumbha. In the book, he cites the many origin stories. According to one, the origin of Kumbh Mela is connected to the Samudra Manthan. When the Kumbh containing amrit came out, the drops of nectar fell into the locations where the Mela is held currently. Two other traditional accounts are also popular about the origin of the Kumbha Mela. As per the first, Garuda was assigned the task of carrying the amrita-kumbha to the abode of Vishnu. While flying to Vishnu’s abode, Garuda stopped at four places—Haridwar, Prayaga, Ujjain, and Nashik—putting down the kumbha on the earth for some time. As a result, these places became sacred and the tradition of the Kumbha Mela started. As per the second account, once Kadru enslaved Vinata, the mother of Garuda. To release Vinata from bondage, Garuda brought the amrita-kumbha from the Nagaloka. As he was flying to the ashram of his father Kashyapa, Indra attacked Garuda four times. The amrita from the kumbha spilled at the four places and the tradition of the Kumbha Mela started.

Another version I heard goes like this: our rishis observed that the confluence of rivers at certain latitudes during certain times had forces which affected people. This secret, known only to a few, soon became part of Hindu social consciousness. Now crores of people comes to partake in that royal bath and attain mukti. No one is inviting them to come. None of the people coming there are asking for any scientific proof for any of these origins. It does not matter what any text book says or if anyone rewrites them.

The Experience

Now with crores of people visiting the Kumbh Mela, the question on cleanliness was legit. What I saw though, surprised me.

Kumbh Mela 2019 The view from Triveni Sangam bus stop
The view from Triveni Sangam bus stop

This is what I saw when I got off at the Triveni Sangam, bus stop, along the banks of Yamuna at Prayagraj. What you see is the vast area of the Kumbh with the Yamuna, deep far inside. As you walk towards the Yamuna, there are numerous temporary shelters all around.

Kumbh Mela Changing rooms for women all around
Changing rooms for women all around

These are changing rooms for women after they take bath in the holy rivers. This is the view of the banks of Yamuna at the Sangam. For the amount of the people who were at that place, it is clean.

Kumbh Mela The shores of Yamuna.
The shores of Yamuna.

What about toilets and human waste for an event that handles so much people. Dhananjay Joshi, who attended the 2019 Kumbh Mela writes

I saw the bogey of hygiene busted. Uniquely designed penta-urinals for men dotted every walkway. At a discreet distance were arrangements for women. I saw safai-karmacharis equipped with pressurised water hoses involved with their work. Thoughtfully named as ‘swachchagrahi’, they had a place they could call their own. For all 2,000 of them, massive, clean, brightly lit and well-insulated dormitories ensured that these health workers took responsibility for their tasks with missionary zeal. Their decentralised teams toiled under a distributed leadership model working round the clock in geographically dispersed teams to keep the 2,00,000 toilets squeaky clean.

And no, human waste does not flow into the holy waters. The Kumbh I had read about scared me into being wary of wading the filthy e-coli infested water. The Kumbh I saw was equipped with massive sump pits that collected human waste. Automated trucks sucked this sludge into tankers that would ferry it to the nearest sewage treatment plant. At the Kumbh, I missed seeing the rodents and the roaches entirely.

The main attendees of Kumbh Mela are the Sadhus. These sadhus, who live in various places around the country, come to the Kumbh to meet each other, share their experiences, and meet common people. Nag Sadhus, who are completely naked, even in the coldest of winters are an important part of the Kumbh Mela. Besides the sadhus, there are lakhs of kalpavasis — people who spend time at the Kumbh living an austere life — and much more amounts of ordinary people like me who visit for having the religious experience.

The main event of the Kumbh is taking a bath in the river. This year, the royal baths were on Makar Sankranti, Mauni Amavasya and Vasant Panchami. Among all these days, the bath on Mauni Amavasya is considered the most sacred. The baths in these sacred rivers connects a Hindu with the divine. Many millennia back, my ancestors would taken this holy bath, at the same location. By taking that bath, the connection between nature, humans, their ancestors, and the divine becomes real. The effect that it has on you cannot be described.

Kumbh Mela The boat from the shores of Yamuna to Triveni Sangam
The boat from the shores of Yamuna to Triveni Sangam

To get to the Triveni Sangam, you have to take a boat from the shores of Yamuna. There are many boatmen offering that trip for a price. This short boat ride, where you are escorted by gulls, take you to a set of parked boats around the Sangam area. This is where Yamuna meets Ganga and the invisible Saraswati. This is the point where you take a bath,

Kumbh Mela - Triveni Sangam
Triveni Sangam

Behind the Scenes

Kumbh Mela - the tent city
Tents at the Kumbh Nagari

The scale of Kumbh Mela is of Indian magnitude. Also, the problem of building facilities to handle vast amounts of people is not simple. There are other problems too. Most of the land where the Kumbh city is built is under water due to the monsoons. Once the monsoon drops off, there are two months to arrange the facilities for the crores of visitors. With our usual chalta-hai attitude, you expect a sloppy job. It is no ordinary task; but what amazed me was the perfection with which it was done. A 32 sq km area was organized as a city with 20 sectors with all the facilities you expect from a city.— police, hospitals, fire stations, clean water supply. Once the Kumbh Mela is done, the city is dismantled.

Crowd control is an important part of the event. To avoid stampedes and other disasters, the entire Kumbh Nagari and the bridges are monitored using CCTVs and drones. Misra writes, “If they concluded it was indeed overcrowded, they instantly relayed this information to the police personnel on the ground who would then divert the crowd to other bridges to balance the load. Sharma told Diego Buñuel of the National Geographic that it was crucial to keep the crowds moving, even if they were being sent the wrong way, as stopping the crowds would amount to hara-kiri.”

Kumbh Mela Kirtan at the Kumbha Nagari
Kirtan at the Kumbha Nagari

One of the common tropes about Kumbh Mela was about people getting separated, never to be found again. Or they discover each other after one child becomes a dacoit and the other a police officer. The arrangements that are done to prevent this at the Kumbh Mela is just phenomenal. As Misra writes, “At the 2013 Prayaga Kumbha, there were 17 lost and found centers (Bhule Bhatke Kendras) where people separated from their families could report themselves. The kendra would then make repeated announcements on loudspeakers and also put up the picture of the lost person on display screens and a website. On average, around 1,000 children were lost every day at the Mela and most of them were reunited with their families”. Also, “besides using CCTV cameras and public announcement systems, the administration also engaged as many as 160 volunteers who between them could speak sixteen languages and communicate with each other using a mobile application. It helped Bharat Bharati share photos of missing persons with the volunteers.”

Final Thoughts

Kumbha Mela The Divine Kumbh Mela
The Divine Kumbh Mela

What is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors? The Kumbh Mela is an experience that affects you both on the inside and outside. While walking in the Mela grounds, I knew I was part of a tradition that has continued for millennia. People of all age groups and gender belonging to various economic strata have walked these sacred grounds connected with a single purpose. The people on our boat were from Rajasthan. All of us reached the sangam and took the dip together. We spoke different languages, dressed differently, but there was a unity in our intent.

While I was leaving back to Kerala, the meta thought I had was about how Hindus preserve their memories. First, there is the story of the samudra manthan and how the nectar fell in various spots. The second one is about the triveni sangam. This is the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati. An invisible Saraswati, you say. The river, during it’s peak, did not even flow through that region. It flowed via Rajasthan, till natural events caused it to disappear. In 2019, we are still preserving these memories.

Madhubani Art from Mithila

Madhubani Art – Radha and Krishna under a kadamba tree by Karpoori Devi

The above is a painting of Radha and Krishna under a kadamba tree. It was painted on paper by Karpoori Devi in 1995 in the Madhubani style of the Mithila region of Bihar. The picture was taken at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. In this picture, the divine couple is seen in a lush forest setting. Also important is the auspicious kadamba tree with round yellow flowers.

Hindu gods and goddesses are the popular topic of Madhubani art, which you can identify by the vibrant colors, distinctive lines and elaborate details. Notice the borders of the paintings to see what I mean. For centuries, women have painted the walls of homes with festive imagery. In the memory of the locals, this tradition has been around since the time of Raja Janak. These paintings adorned private spaces with images of gods and other festivities.

The pigments for the painting come from flowers, berries, tree bark etc and traditionally produced twenty-two colors. Brushes were made from frayed straws and sticks of bamboo wrapped in cotton. Nowadays modern pigments are used for color and for fine lines nib-pen are used. As you see a sample of these paintings, you will see bountiful representation of nature, the birds and animals. There is detailed line work and rich patterns on the border.

If you want to see the richness of these paintings, this is the perfect one. The large tree is filled with birds. Krishna along with a cow and calf are standing next to him.

Madhubani Art -Tree of Life with Krishna

This one shows Shiva riding Nandi among the mountains in Kailash. All of Shiva’s attributes — matted hair, trishul, and moon — are present. The rocks in the backdrop resemble the linga.

Madhubani Art – Shiva in the mountains mourning Parvati

Ganesha is another popular subject. It is a bit different from the usual representations of Ganesha that we are used to.

Madhubani Art – Ganesha

These are ordinary people doing these paintings. But here is a technical one showing the seven chakras on a meditating ascetic. His eyes are wide open, in a state of heightened awareness and there is a halo around his head.

Madhubani Art – Khatchakra

Cows were worshipped by these artists. The picture of the pregnant cow, shows fertility, and is surrounded by flowers, buds and bees.

Madhubani Art – A pregnant cow

Finally, these artists were not just looking at representing their gods, but also important contemporary events. So here is the Narendra Modi arriving in a village to cheering woman supporters.

Madhubani Art – Prime Minister Modi arriving in a village via helicopter

Brahma and Indra in Japan

Indra and Brahma, 8th century Japan, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
Indra and Brahma, 8th century Japan, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

Buddhism reached Japan in the 5th century when the monarch of the Korean kingdom of Baekje sent a mission with gifts, image of Buddha and sacred objects. The arrival of Buddhism disrupted the existing system of kami worship and eventually prevailed. Today, there are thirteen schools of Buddhism, 80,000 temples and 150,000 monks. Indra and Brahma reached Japan with the spread of Buddhism. They are part of the Buddhist world and Buddha is often represented with Indra and Brahma flanking him. There is also another representation of Buddha descending from Indra’s heaven.

These two statues are made using hollow dry lacquer and come from the Nara period (710 – 794 CE). Brahma is wearing a Chinese style robe, while Indra wears a monk’s robe over Chinese style breastplates as the protector of Buddha.

These two statues were created for the Kofukuji Buddhist temple in Nara Japan in the 8th century. Empress Komyo sponsored the construction. A fire in 1180 CE destroyed the Golden Hall where they were placed, but these statues survived. In 1906, the temple was in dire financial situation and such treasures were sold to raise funds. Eventually, it ended up in an American museum.

Sanskrit Notes: Order of Words

Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr
Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr)

One of the interesting features of Sanskrit is that, in a sentence, the order of the words don’t matter. You can switch them around and the meaning remains the same.
Take for example a sentence like, Rama is going to the forest. You can’t say, “Rama going forest.” You need the “is” and “to the” to make sense of the sentence. The “is going” indicates that it is one person who is doing the action. Now, “to the forest” indicates that the forest is the object of the action.
In simple Sanskrit, you would write it like this
रामः वानमं गाच्छति
It reads, “Ramah vanam gachati”,  When you say “Ramah”, it indicates one Rama. A forest is “vana”, but in the sentence, we wrote it as “vanam”. That indicates, it is the object of Rama’s destination. The “ti” at the end of “gacchati” indicates that it is one Rama who is going (not two)”. If there were many Ramas, it would have become “gacchanti”. Thus the “is going” and “to the” are built into the words themselves.
This makes it interesting. Now you can write

  • गाच्छति रामः वानमं
  • गाच्छति वानमं रामः
  • वानमं गाच्छति रामः

All these sentences mean the same even though the order of words are switched around. Since each word has the part which maintains its relationship to the verb, the order does not matter. Due to this, in poetry, you can switch words around to fit the meter. In Hindu tradition, almost everything is written in poetry form and this made it easier for an oral society to remember anything forever.
Here is a complicated sentence
भारत ! यदा यदा धर्मस्य ग्लानिः अधर्मस्य अब्युधानं च भवति तदा अहम् आत्मानं सृजामि
Take those words and resequence them and apply the sandhi rules, and you get the following verse from chapter 4 of Gita

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।
अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

Here is an exercise. Try the “Rama is going to the forest” in your mother tongue and see how it behaves. Does it work the same in Dravidian languages and Indo-European languages? In Malayalam, it behaves exactly the same as in Sanskrit. In Hindi, it does not.

  • Based on the lectures of Varun Khanna at Chinmaya International Foundation
  • Gitapravesha by Samskrita Bharati

Three Stage Evolution of Mahabharata – jayam, bharatam, mahabharatam

Mahabharata (via Wikipedia)
Mahabharata (via Wikipedia)

There are clues in Mahabharata which tells us about how the itihaas grew to become the longest poem with over a lakh verses. Mahabharata is divided into 18 parvas with Harivamsha as the 19th. The core of it — around 24, 000 — verses are about the war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. Besides this, there are tales of gods, kings, sages, discourses on philosophy, religion, law and various asramas of life. We know that Vyasa was the composer who taught it to Vaisampayana who then narrated it to Janamejaya at his sarpa yagna. Ugrasravas, the suta, then narrated it to others at Namisharanyam. Recently I read a book — A short history of Sanskrit Literature — which elaborates on a theory on how Mahabaharatam came to be.
Here are three verses from Mahabharata which refers to three different lengths

  • This verse refers to the first stage that has over 8000 verses
    Mahabharata - Reference to ashtau shloka sahasrani or 8000 shlokas
    Mahabharata – Reference to ashtau shloka sahasrani or 8000 shlokas
  • This is the reference to the 24,000 verses
    Mahabharata - chatur vimshati sahasrim - or 24,000 verses
    Mahabharata – chatur vimshati sahasrim – or 24,000 verses
  • This is the reference to the third stage that has over a lakh verses.
    Mahabharata - shata sahasram or 100, 000 shlokas
    Mahabharata – shata sahasram or 100, 000 shlokas

It is not just that the number of verses increased; the name of the itihaas changed as well. The very first line in adi parvam refers to it as jayam.

नारायणं नमस्कृत्य नरं चैव नरॊत्तमम
देवीं सरस्वतीं चैव ततॊ जयम उदीरयेत

Then it became bharatam and finally mahabharatam. Was it because it passed through three people — Vyasa, Vaisampayana, and Ugrasravas?

A short history of Sanskrit Literature, by TK Ramachandra Aiyar
A short history of Sanskrit Literature, by TK Ramachandra Aiyar

The author of the book, T. K. Ramachandra Aiyar, thinks that the core of Mahabharata is the rivalry of Kurus and Panchalas. Their enemosity is historic. They quaralled for a long time and finally there was a union. The Yajurveda — which was composed in a nearby region — mentions this. The Kathaka Samhita, though speaks of a dispute between Vaka Dalbhya from Panchala and a Dritharashtra who is the son of a Vichitravirya, a Kuru. Over time, the kingdoms split again and engaged in constant rivalry. By the time of Mahabharata, the Kuru and Panchala kingdom were separate.
Prior to the war, there was a turn of events which caused the annexation of Northern Panchala by the Kurus. This is the incident, where Drona defeats Drupada using Arjuna. This event upset the balance of poweer between the two kingdoms. The Kurus were defeated in the war and the Panchalas won along with the Pandavas. (Here is an interesting explanation about the Mahabharata war, not as a rivalry between Kauravas and Pandavas, but as a war between Kurus and Panchalas).
With this background, here is the theory on what might have happened. The defeat of the Kurus would have resulted in various songs glorifying the victory of the Pandavas and their allies. Sutas would have sung this in various assemblies. This would have been Jayam. By the second stage, when it reaches 24,000 verses, the life of Pandavas was elaborated. Krishna was represented as an incarnation of Vishnu and Shiva and Vishnu become more prominent than Brahma. The epic became popular all over bharatavarsha and other additions like the stories of gods and sages were added and it became a treatise on dharmashastra. This was the third stage.
The book became an authority on dharma dealing with religion, law and morality. It was accorded the status of the 5th veda. There are land grants dating between 462 CE and 532 CE, which talks about the one-lakh verse Mahabharatam compiled by Vyasa. There are numerous literary evidence from Sanskrit authors on the stature of Mahabharata. From Ujjayini to Khamboja, the ithihaas was read in temples. It became a national epic.