Wednesday, June 24, 2009

PDE Mahabharata: King Shantanu and Ganga

Reading Guide. As you will discover, the Mahabharata is an enormous epic, filled with many characters. In this episode, you will meet one of the most important characters of all: Devavrata, later called Bhishma, who is the son of King Shantanu and the goddess Ganga. As this story explains, he is a human being, but he possesses the powers of the eight gods known as the Vasus. This story explains just how Devavrata (Bhishma) came to have both a human and divine identity.

Image: The illustration depicts the scene when Ganga returns to King Shantanu, accompanied by their son, Devavrata.

Source. Indian Myth and Legend by Donald A. Mackenzie (1913). [600 words] You can find out more about Donald Mackenzie at this blog post: Donald Mackenzie.

Vyasa | 2. King Shantanu and Ganga | Satyavati

King Bharata was the sire of King Hastin, who built the great city of Hastinapura; King Hastin begot King Kuru, and King Kuru begot King Shantanu.

Be it told of the King Shantanu that he was pious and just and all-powerful, as was meet for the great-grandson of King Bharata. His first wife was the goddess Ganga of the Ganges river, and she was divinely beautiful like to her kind.

Before she assumed human form for a time, there came to her the eight Vasus, the attendants of Indra. It chanced that when the brahmin Vashishtha was engaged in his holy meditations, the Vasus flew between him and the sun, whereupon the angered sage cursed them, saying, "Be born among men!" Nor could they escape this fate, so great was the rishi's power over celestial beings.

So they hastened to Ganga, and she consented to become their human mother, promising that she would cast them one by one into the Ganges soon after birth so that they might return speedily to their celestial state. For this service Ganga made each of the Vasus promise to confer an eighth part of his power on her son, who, according to her desire, should remain among men for many years, but would never marry or have offspring.

A day came thereafter when King Shantanu walked beside the Ganges. Suddenly there appeared before him a maiden of surpassing beauty. She was Ganga in human form. Her celestial garments had the splendor of lotus blooms; she was adorned with rare ornaments, and her teeth were radiant as pearls. The king was silenced by her charms and gazed upon her steadfastly. In time he perceived that the maiden regarded him with lovelorn eyes, as if she sought to look upon him for ever, and he spoke to her, saying, "O slender-waisted and fair one, art thou one of the danavas, or art thou of the race of gandharvas, or art thou of the apsaras; art thou one of the yakshas or nagas, or art thou of human kind, O peerless and faultless one? Be thou my bride."

The goddess made answer that she would wed the king, but said she must needs at once depart from him if he spoke harshly to her at any time or attempted to thwart her in doing as she willed. Shantanu consented to her terms, and Ganga became his bride.

In time the goddess gave birth to a son, but soon afterwards she cast him into the Ganges, saying, "This for thy welfare."

The king was stricken with horror, but he spake not a word to his beautiful bride lest she should leave him.

So were seven babes, one after another, destroyed by their mother in like manner. When the eighth was born, the goddess sought to drown him also, but the king's pent-up wrath broke forth in a torrent of speech, and he upbraided his heartless wife. Thus was his marriage vow broken, and Ganga given power to depart unto her own place. But before she went, she revealed unto the king who she was, and also why she had cast the Vasus, her children, into the Ganges. Then she suddenly vanished from before his eyes, taking the last babe with her.

Before long the fair goddess returned to Shantanu for a brief space, and she brought with her for the king a fair and noble son, who was endowed with the virtues of the Vasus. Then she departed never to come again. The heart of Shantanu was moved towards the child, who became a comely and powerful youth, and was named Devavrata.

Vyasa | King Shantanu and Ganga | Satyavati

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