Mahabharata Episode 1: Ganga Marries Shantanu

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In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a series of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 0: Why Did the Mahabharata Happen?)

The Mahabharata truly kicks off when Ganga marries Shantanu, the king of Hastinapur. Though her own involvement in the story is peripheral at best, she plays an important role by giving birth to Devavrata, who later becomes known as Bhishma.

Several discrete threads come together to cause Ganga to marry Shantanu. We will see what they are in this post.

The Curse of Mahabhisha

Shantanu, in a previous life, is known by the name of Mahabhisha. As a pious royal sage, he earns the favour of the gods and is regularly seen attending the court of Brahma.

One day, when the king and the gods are discussing matters of great import, Ganga the river maiden walks that way. While the rest of the celestials lower their heads in respect, Mahabhisha dares to look in her direction with desire.

Brahma notices this, and in a fit of anger curses the king. ‘For this sin,’ he says, ‘you will be born in the land of men once again.’

Mahabhisha accepts this with good enough grace, and asks Brahma when he will be freed from the curse. Brahma replies that it will happen when his ‘wrath is provoked’.

The Curse of Vasishtha

Meanwhile, there is another curse that is being laid in another part of the mountain. Angered by the theft of his cow Nandini, Sage Vasishtha places upon the perpetrators of the crime a curse that they, too, will take birth in the world of men.

The recipients of the curse in this case are the eight Vasus, or elemental gods. Of these, only Prabhasa, the god of dawn, was the actual culprit. The rest of them just went along with the deed.

Having come to know of this, Vasishtha softens the punishment on the seven accomplices, saying, ‘You will be born on Earth, but your lives will be mercifully short. Mere hours. But Prabhasa will have to endure a long life that will last a hundred years!’

Vasishtha also comes to know the motive for the crime: apparently Prabhasa steals Nandini as a prank in order to impress his wife. So Vasishtha makes an addition to the curse that during his long life on Earth, Prabhasa will not know the pleasure of a woman’s company.

So not only is Prabhasa cursed to live as a human, he is also destined to live as a celibate.

Ganga Acts as Conduit

The elemental gods ask Vasishtha for guidance on whom to approach regarding the mechanics of the curse, and the sage tells them to seek out Ganga.

The river goddess, meanwhile, is secretly smitten by Mahabhisha herself, and yearns to be united with him in love. While she is ruminating on what she might do, the Vasus approach her and tell her of all that had happened.

‘Who is going to be the father of you all?’ she asks.

‘We are informed,’ the Vasus reply, ‘that unto the virtuous king Pratipa will be born a son by name Shantanu, who is himself Mahabhisha of our world, preparing to descend upon Earth to serve another curse – for what sin, we do not know. We think that he will make a suitable father for our human forms if you accede to become our mother.’

At the mention of Mahabhisha’s name, Ganga becomes excited at the thought of meeting him again on Earth. This must be destiny indeed, she thinks, for how is it that events have transpired to place this opportunity at my feet? And with haste she agrees to carry the Vasus in her womb on Earth.

Conditions of the Curse

After having taken her consent, the Vasus give her instructions that she will have to follow in order to bring about Vasishtha’s words.

‘Remember, Lady Ganga,’ say the Vasus, ‘you must make certain that you kill the first seven of us within a few hours of our birth, by drowning us in your person so that we know no pain.

‘The eighth of us, though, you shall not kill, and he shall be reared as the son of Shantanu, and he might in the future become king to the land of Hastinapur. This is in accordance with Sage Vasishtha’s curse.’

So Ganga is given a bit of a Faustian bargain here: on one hand she gets to have children with the man she loves; but on the other, she must kill seven of her own children.

Ganga Meets Pratipa

A short while after these two curses have been given and received in Heaven, the focus shifts to Earth.

In the mountains, at the place of Ganga’s origin, a king named Pratipa is engaged in painful austerities in order to procure a son. Ganga visits him and – thinking him to be Mahabhisha – offers herself to him as wife.

Pratipa is virtuous enough to gently reject her advances. ‘I am already married, Fair Maiden,’ he says. ‘And you sat inadvertently on my right thigh, which is reserved for daughters and daughters-in-law. So I will accept you as wife to my son when I am blessed with one.’

At these words Ganga understands that she’d made her move early. Now she understands that the man she has been talking to is Pratipa, the father of her future husband.

So she says, ‘Instruct your son to wait for my arrival in his life. I shall be his first wife. Also tell him that he must not question the propriety of my acts at any time. This is the condition upon which I will marry him.’

Pratipa agrees, and in time, his son Shantanu meets Ganga on the banks of the river. He asks her to be his wife, and she readily accepts, closing the loop that had been opened several years ago with the abduction of Nandini.

Ganga Kills Seven

In accordance with what is required of her, Ganga bears seven sons to Shantanu, and kills each babe mere hours after its birth. In order to give them a quick passage to Heaven, she drowns them in the river.

Ganga makes no effort to keep this act of hers a secret, so Shantanu is roiled with perplexity and anger throughout this time. But since he had been asked by Pratipa not to question her under any circumstances, he swallows his rage and soldiers on.

At the end of her eighth pregnancy, Ganga gives birth to an incarnation of Prabhasa, whom they name Devavrata. Though she has no intentions of killing him, Shantanu – by now at the end of his tether – warns her that he would not allow her to harm their son.

An ugly confrontation takes place between king and wife on this night, and at the end of it all, Ganga leaves Shantanu with her young son in her arms.

With this departure of Ganga, the soul of Mahabhisha – that has been occupying the body of Shantanu – also ascends to heaven because Shantanu’s wrath has finally ‘been provoked’.

So at this juncture:

  • Ganga’s quest is finished: she has given birth to the Vasus and has killed them as required. She has also lived some happy years with her lover as she had desired.
  • Mahabhisha’s curse is fulfilled: he has taken birth as a mortal and has served his time.
  • The Vasus are liberated from Vasishtha’s curse as well.

The only thing that remains now is for the eighth Vasu, Prabhasa, to finish his part of the bargain. This, of course, causes him to oversee all the events of the Mahabharata as we know them.

Devavrata Returns

Sixteen years after the leaving of Ganga and Devavrata, one day, when Shantanu is on the bank of the river hunting, he sees that the river has become shallow. Surprised at this, for the Ganga is a perennial river, he rides upstream to investigate the cause.

He meets a young warrior with celestial markings upon his person, armed with a bow, building a bridge of arrows to check the flow of the river.

Shantanu fails to recognize his son, but the boy recognizes his father. And instead of disclosing himself, he clouds the king’s mind with his powers of illusion and disappears from sight.

Addressing the river, the king says, ‘Show me the child who was here just this very moment.’

Ganga appears to Shantanu, then, decked in all her finery, with Devavrata by her side. ‘Here is your son, O King,’ she says. ‘Endowed with the intelligence and mindfulness of the celestials themselves, he has studied the Vedas under none other than Vasishtha.

‘Whatever branches of knowledge reside within the minds of Shukracharya and Brihaspati, this child knows them all. Parashurama, the son of Jamadagni himself, has taught your son the skill and tact of using weapons.

‘He is a mighty bowman, as you have witnessed yourself, capable of stopping the flow of a river as great as I with just his arrows. He has read and interpreted the various codes of being a king, and he shall be the greatest yet of all the rulers in your illustrious line. Take him with you, and present him to your people as their ruler.’

Shantanu obeys the words of his once-wife, and having assembled his courtiers, installs Devavrata as crown prince to Hastinapur.

For a while things move smoothly, with Shantanu retreating bit by bit from the life of a king and Devavrata growing into his future role under the careful eye of his father.

Then on another hunting expedition, this time on the bank of the Yamuna, the king meets Satyavati, the daughter of a fisherman, and loses his heart to her.

A Note on Curses

As we have seen, the Mahabharata begins with two curses: one laid by Brahma on Mahabhisha for the crime of desiring Ganga, and the other laid by Vasishtha on the eight Vasus for the crime of stealing Nandini the cow.

On both occasions, it is interesting to note that the recipients of the curse do not react with anger or with disgust. They do not do anything in their power to prevent the curse from coming true.

Instead, they actively facilitate the fulfillment of their respective curses: the Vasus, for instance, seek out Ganga and set about designing the mechanics of how events will unfold in the future.

There are two ways in which one can view this. The first is that a curse is merely a wish expressed by a person who has accumulated much knowledge and wisdom. After he places the curse, it is the responsibility of the curse’s victims to do all within their power to make the curser’s words a reality.

Seen this way, there is no magic to a curse. Since a revered man has punished you, you accept it with good grace. If you don’t, there will be social sanctions from your fellow people.

The other explanation, of course, that does involve magic, is that the people who place curses (like Vasishtha) are so highly meritorious that the universe itself bends to make their words inevitable once they have uttered them.

Seen this way, the words will come true even if you flail and rant and rage against them. Might as well accept your lot humbly and work with the curse instead of against it.

Since the Vasus and Mahabhisha are both heaven-dwellers, they know that the curses that have been laid on them are inevitable, and that resisting them will only make it worse. So they choose to cooperate with the universe and help it bring about the future. Thus they retain some agency in their futures.

And overall, their punishments proceed smoothly without hitches.

Further Reading

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