In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence 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 1: Ganga Marries Shantanu)
The marriage of Satyavati to Shantanu is a pivotal incident in the Mahabharata, not least because it brings about the transformation of Devavrata into Bhishma.
The sons that she bears Shantanu – Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya – both die childless, but Dwaipayana, another son that she has with Sage Parashara, ends up carrying forward the Kuru dynasty.
Therefore, while Ganga brings forth the longest-living character of the story, Satyavati gives us its author and spiritual guide.
Who is Satyavati?
At the time of Shantanu’s arrival on the bank of the Yamuna, Satyavati is the daughter of a chief of a local fishing settlement. However, she is not his real daughter.
Many years ago, a king by name Uparichara – while out hunting for deer – finds himself consumed by desire for his wife Girika, whom he had left behind in his palace. His seed leaves his body, and since the genital fluid of great men is considered too valuable to waste, he gives it to a nearby hawk with instructions on how to carry it back to his wife.
The hawk, however, has adventures of his own. He gets into a mid-air fight with another hawk, and amid the altercation the seed of Uparichara falls into the Yamuna.
Now, in the river is living an apsara who had been cursed to live inside the body of a fish. She swallows the king’s seed, and in due course of time gives birth to two human babies: one boy and one girl.
Fishermen on the riverbank take the two children to the king. Uparichara adopts the boy, and raises him to be the founder of the Matsya Empire. The girl, on the other hand, is fostered at the fishing settlement.
This girl grows up to be Satyavati.
At the time of her meeting with Shantanu, Satyavati is known by the name of Yojanagandhi, owing to the sweet fragrance emanating from her body and overwhelming the senses of anyone present within a yojana of her.
This sweet smell of her person too – as it turns out – has a story behind it.
The Birth of Vyasa
As a maiden growing up at her father’s fishing settlement, rowing passengers across the Yamuna to and fro, Satyavati smells of rotting fish and is known by the name of Matsyagandhi (‘she who smells of fish’).
But one day, a sage by name Parashara lays eyes on her and is smitten. He contrives it so that he is the only passenger on her boat for a particular trip, and as soon as they leave the shores, he approaches her and confesses his desire.
Satyavati’s first response, of course, is to demur. ‘A number of people can watch us from the riverbank, O Sage,’ she says. ‘How can I fulfill your wish?’
In response, Parashara raises his arms and causes a dense fog to settle upon the river’s surface. ‘Now no one can see us, Fair one,’ he says.
But Satyavati wonders out loud if society would accept her if she loses her virginity to a sage. To which Parashara replies, ‘I shall see to it that our virginity will be restored right after our union.’
The final boon that Satyavati requests from Parashara is to replace the foul stench of her body with something pleasant. The sage acquiesces, and Satyavati rows the boat to an island on the Yamuna where she brings forth a boy on that very day.
This boy gets the name of Dwaipayana (‘he who is born on an island’). Immediately after his birth he grows into a young man and goes away with his father, leaving Satyavati alone. In time, he synthesizes the Veda into four parts, earning the name Veda Vyasa (‘divider of the Veda’).
Meeting with Shantanu
By the time Shantanu seeks her out on the Yamuna’s bank, therefore, Satyavati is already well-versed in the ways of men. She does not reject Shantanu’s advances in any way, but she also does not commit herself. ‘If you want to marry me, O King,’ she says, ‘come to my house and speak to my father.’
The fisher-king, one must remember, knows that Satyavati was born of the union between a king and an apsara. So he understandably thinks that she is deserving of being no less than a queen.
So he says to Shantanu, ‘The only condition under which I will give you my daughter’s hand, Your Majesty, is if you promise that her sons will be the first in line to the throne of Hastinapur.’
At this time, Shantanu has already relinquished his kingdom to his son Devavrata. Not wishing to disrupt the future of the kingdom just to feed his own desire for another wife, he returns back to his palace empty-handed.
However, Devavrata notices his father’s dejection, and makes some enquiries to find out what has happened. When he discovers the entire story, he decides to do something about it – without his father’s permission.
Devavrata Becomes Bhishma
Devavrata’s plan is to talk to Satyavati’s father on his own. The conversation goes about the same as it did with Shantanu. The fisher-king reiterates the condition: if Satyavati is to get married to Shantanu, a promise has to be given that her sons will become kings of Hastinapur ahead of any other claimant.
Devavrata agrees to this. ‘I hereby renounce my right to the throne,’ he declares. ‘In the presence of all priests and officials of court, I shall step aside before the wedding. I will dedicate myself to the service of your daughter’s sons.’
But the fisher-king is not completely convinced. ‘Your future family, Prince,’ he says, ‘may not have your generosity. You will one day get married. You will have children of your own. Regardless of your intentions, they will feel they have a right to your father’s kingdom.’
This is a logical point, and Devavrata takes a moment to consider it. Then he says, ‘In that case, I take the oath of permanent Brahmacharya, so that the possibility of my fathering a child will never arise.’
One must take a minute to appreciate the true meaning of Devavrata’s words: not only is he abstaining from marriage – so that Satyavati will never face competition as queen – he is also abstaining from sex altogether so that Satyavati’s children will never face competition as prospective kings.
At this point, the gods from the firmament descend and shower flowers upon Devavrata. ‘He is Bhishma,’ they declare. ‘No man has ever taken a more terrible oath for his father’s welfare.’
Consequences of Bhishma’s Oath
The immediate consequences of Bhishma’s oath are all pleasant. The fisher-king is glad that his daughter is assured the status of queen and queen mother. He agrees to her marriage with Shantanu.
Shantanu is grateful for what his son has done for him. He gives Bhishma a boon by which he can choose the moment of his death. Later, Bhishma would delay his death while lying on a bed of arrows, and pass away only after having instructed Yudhishthir on how to run his newly-won kingdom.
But the long-term consequences are more serious. Because of Bhishma’s oath, Hastinapur is left without an official ruler until Chitrangada, Satyavati’s first son, comes of age. Even then, both Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya die young, leaving the kingdom bereft of a king once more.
Not until Dhritarashtra ascends the throne after the self-imposed exile of Pandu – many years later – does Hastinapur finally get a permanent king. Even in this case, a feud begins to develop between the sons of Pandu and the sons of Dhritarashtra, which eventually leads to the Mahabharata war.
On numerous occasions around the time of Vichitraveerya’s death, Bhishma is begged by Satyavati to marry and accept the role of Hastinapur’s king. But Bhishma refuses.
So an argument can be made that had Bhishma been less obstinate about his vow, the Mahabharata as we know it may not have come to pass at all.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story
- 300+ Mahabharata Stories to Thrill, Delight and Enchant You
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered