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Review of Dr L.Prakash’s Mahabharatha
Reviewed by Dr Santosh Vishwanathan M.S., MCh.
Retired Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery
Book title Mahabharatha in four volumes
Author Dr L.Prakash
ISBN 978-81-906981-3-9, 978-81-906981-4-6, 978-81-906981-5-3, 978-81-906981-6-0
Publisher Banana Books Madras India
Price Rs 600 for four volumes ( approx 15$ US; 10 € )
Rating ***** (five stars) [outstanding]
My first exposure to this wonderful epic was when I was seven or eight years old. We could not wait for our summer vacations, which we would spend in our ancestral village, and the chief attraction was the magnificent and awesome rendering of this timeless classic by my octogenarian grandmother. Each evening after dinner, we children; and some adults too, would gather around her, and she would narrate stories from Ramayana and Mahabharatha. I have never waited more anxiously for my summer holidays than in those times. Even today, I have to just close my eyes, and despite the passage of many decades, the intense face of my granny, with her hollow cheeks and thousand wrinkles, describing the emotional scene where Karna peels off his golden armor and rips off the sun-crested earrings from his body, unmindful of the dripping blood, and hands over the same to Indra, whose face bears features of victory admixtured with guilt; flashes before my eyes.
My next exposure to Mahabharatha was during my college days, when I had an opportunity of reading C. Rajagopalachari’s rendition in simple English. I was transported to Hastinapura, Indraprastha and Kurukshetra. Much later, I had an opportunity of reading the magnum opus by Kishori Mohan Ganguly, and a Tamil version by Cho Ramaswamy. Each time I marveled and wondered on the writing genius of Veda Vyasa who had penned such a magnificent story so long ago. What I had read and heard was reinforced by Peer Brook’s movie and the serialization of the epic by our own Doordarshan.
Around two months ago, I received an email from a friend waxing eloquently about a new version of Mahabharatha by Dr L.Prakash. He also sent me the URL ( www.bananabooks.in) of the web page, which I visited. Nevertheless I was shocked to find that the author was a convicted pornographer, currently spending time in prison. What would such a person know about Mahabharatha? This was the question in my mind, as I clicked the close window button and switched off the computer.
At that time I was reading a self help book, and by coincidence the chapter I read that night was about not being judgmental, and not trusting things unless I had access to both sides of the story. I felt a little guilty, and it was probably to assuage my own guilt that I decided to buy Mahabharatha by Dr L.Prakash. I could not find the book in the local Landmark bookstore, but a smaller bookshop in Anna Nagar had stocks. I shelled out six hundred rupees, and was not too disappointed, because the four volumes in a neat box, represented quite a lot of reading material. This set appeared to be almost four times in bulk as the Rajagopalachari Mahabharatha that I remembered reading.
Once I started reading, I had to revise my opinion both about the epic and its author.
Being a retired, non practicing surgeon gives me ample time and I started reading straightaway. The first two volumes took four days each to complete, the third, three days, and the last volume I devoured over a weekend. Having completed reading, I am beginning from the first volume once again, and this time I plan to read it slowly. In a single word, it is an awesome story, and I could not suppress my admiration at both Veda Vyasa the original author, and Dr L.Prakash who has done this wonderful rendition in modern simple English and contemporary idiom.
This is not exactly a translation of the Sanskrit original. The author has introduced many additional characters, twists, and sub plots. Though the original Vyasa skeleton remains intact, Dr Prakash has added his own muscle, sinew, and skin to tell a wonderful tale wonderfully. The language is simple; and we all know that it is difficult to write simple English! The narration is brisk and the author has rearranged the sequence of events in such a unique and gripping manner, that once you begin, it is almost impossible to put the book down. Shorn of religion, Hinduism, and preaching, Dr Prakash has presented the epic as an adventure, reminiscent of the narrative style of Alistair McLain or Desmond Bagley.
There are a couple of spelling and typographical errors, and I only wish that the editors had been a little more careful. The small errors jar the reader, and break his otherwise excellent narrative. Not a big problem and I am certain that the same can be corrected in the subsequent editions. However the story is narrated with such passion, that I completely forgave all these small errors.
It is indeed a pity that the current generation of children and youth, rather than enrich enlighten and enjoy themselves with such a wonderful epic, are seen intensely discussing the magic in Harry Potter books or the adventure in Twilight Series and vampire books! I pity their ignorance and lack of interest in the wonderful magic of our ancient stories, more thrilling than even the Hollywood movie Avtar! Buy the book, read it and make sure that all your children read it as well. I am certain that these volumes will find a pride of place in your home library and you will be reading these volumes again and again.
Rating: Five Stars
Mahabharatha is undoubtedly greatest story ever documented. Written by Parasharaputra Krishnadwapayna, also popularly known as Veda Vyasa, about four thousand years ago, this is considered by many to be the greatest historical romance ever written. More than double the combined length of Iliad and Odyssey, the thousand stories of this grand epic have been told and re told by grand mothers all over the country.
Children of the present generation, and adults too; without such grand mothers, have been denied reading and savoring this delectable literary dish and had to do with second hand experiences of movies, cartoons or television serials.
The Magnificent rendering by Dr. L. Prakash gives you a first hand experience of this awesome epic, and it is guaranteed that the instant you start with the first chapter, you will not put it down till you have reached the last page.
Dr. L. Prakash’s Mahabharatha in four volumes, published by Banana Books.
More than half a million words
Two hundred and sixty chapters
Four volumes of approximately five hundred pages each
Available in two editions
Deluxe hard cover library edition and Commercial paperback edition.
Herewith, we give you excerpts from this brilliant rendering by Dr. L. Prakash by including the first five chapters. Please note that the matter is copyrighted. (C) Dr L.Prakash. Email to [email protected] for permission to copy excerpts.
1 SHIVA AND PARVATHI
“Stop! STOP! You scoundrel! Who are you? And how dare you barge in like this? You sure look a dangerous and obnoxious person. It is for guarding against scum like you, that my mother has asked me to stay here”
Though the boy was young, his face shone with intelligence and eyes blazed with anger as he challenged the intruder. One look at the intruder would clearly indicate that the young fellow was correct in his apprehensions. He was unclean, shaggy and dirty. His long hair was coiled into sticky knots. His neck was blue. Snakes dangled around his neck hissing and slithering. The animal skins that he wore were tatty, torn and moth eaten. Scorpions and other poisonous creatures slithered over his body. His body was smeared with ash from the burial ground and eyes were aglow with anger and intoxicants.
Despite his horrible appearance, the intruder did not seem to scare the young lad who faced him defiantly and glowered at him bravely. The snakes hissed. The spiders crawled. The intruder’s body shivered. He looked at the young fellow with disbelief. How can any one be so careless and arrogant to defy him? For, was he not Shiva or Parameshwara the ultimate God? (Param = Ultimate. Eshwara = Lord of God)
Everything in this universe has three phases to it. The phase of creation, the phase of perpetration, and the phase of destruction. Hindu mythology propounds that a holy trinity controls the above phases. The four headed Brahma with eyes facing all the four directions is the creator. The blue skinned Vishnu reclining on an immense lotus bed atop the spread hood of a dinosaur snake Adishesha is the perpetrator. And Parameshwara, or the god with a third eye, Lord Shiva is the destroyer.
Between them, the three gods of the holy trinity controlled the lives and fates of all the beings in this universe. And these beings included the demigods and mortals. The demigods who occupied the heavens were Devas, Asuras, Gandharvas and Yakshas. The mortals who occupied the earth were the humans. It was only natural that both the humans and celestials owed their being and existence to the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Of the three, lord Shiva was the most respected and feared because of his fiery temper. The third eye in the middle of his forehead remained closed all the time, but the instant it opened, everything in sight would be burnt to cinders. Thus Shiva was shocked that some one, and that too a young boy had the courage to defy him. He simply could not believe his eyes.
Lord Shiva, the destroyer, lived on Mount Kailasha, the tallest mountains in the world with his wife-consort Parvathi. Though Maheshwara, or Parameshwara, as he was otherwise called, had a fiery and foul temper, he was also known to be a benevolent and large hearted God. He was a destroyer no doubt, but did not destroy things till their time came to an end.
Once in the past when Devas and Asuras had landed into deep trouble, it was none else but Shiva who had come to their rescue. This was the event that had produced his blue neck and attracted poisonous snakes, who now permanently resided as his live garlands. It had all happened thus.
Devas and Asuras fought perpetually. It was more or less a well matched battle and neither team could score a permanent victory. While Devas with their fair skin, handsome faces, blazing intelligence, cunning, and sheer devotion to the gods were the favorites, Asuras with their coal black oily skin, curly hair, sharp pointed teeth, low intellect, and lack of devotion ended up second best. Thus Devas were victorious more often than Asuras and at that time controlled the heavens. The Asuras or Rakshasas however were a resilient and persistent lot who bounced back after each defeat!
The Devas were then advised by their Guru Brihaspati that the only way in which they could gain supremacy over Asuras would be by drinking Amritha or the Elixir of life. This Amritha was a part of nine gems or Navarathnas that lay deep in the belly of the oceans. However Guru Brihaspati also told the Devas that to extract the gems from the sea belly was not quite an easy job. It was certainly not within the capabilities of the Devas alone to do it.
Only by uprooting an immense mountain and using the celestial dinosaur serpent Vasuki as a rope to churn the ocean, could the nine gems be extracted. And Devas could certainly not churn the seas alone. They would have to temporarily forget their enmity with Asuras and join hands, with their foes if they wanted the Nava Rathnas.
It is an interesting story as to how the Devas called for a temporary truce and jointly conducted a Samudra-Manthana (Sea churning operations) to extract the nine gems. It is also interesting, the clever way in which the Devas cheated the Asuras out of Amritha. But that story would be narrated at a later stage. It was the third gem which emerged during the sea churning that caused serious problems, for solving which the Devas and Asuras had rushed to Shiva!
The third gem to emerge out of the oceans, churned out by the mighty dinosaur serpent Vasuki, was the pot of Visha, the most potent poison in the universe. So toxic was it, that the moment the sizzling pot emerged from the frothy waters, the atmosphere clouded over and a chill darkness, descended all around. Plants scorched up, lands dried, rivers disappeared and people started dying. It was clear that if something was not done soon, the whole universe would succumb to the toxic Visha.
The Devas and Asuras rushed to Vishnu the God perpetrator, who directed them to Shiva. Shiva was possibly the only one in the universe who could handle the stuff. However the Visha was too toxic for even Shiva who would surely die if he drank it. Nevertheless it could not be left exposed and something had to be done, and that to rather quickly. Maheshwara thus picked up the Visha pot, took it to his lips and swallowed it whole. However he did not allow the poison too dribble to his stomach but retained it in his throat. This imparted a deep blue color to his neck which earned him the name of Neelakantha.
So powerful was the poison that it attracted poisonous cobras and vipers who took up a permanent residence around his neck. The poison, retained in the neck, spread out a constant ache and pain, to forget which, lord Shiva partook intoxicants and alcohol in large quantities. He would occasionally wander away on walkabouts and remain missing for days, weeks and months together.
During his prolonged absences, goddess Parvathi was left alone and had to bear the boredom and solitude. However since the arrival of her son Vinayaka, Parvathi became busy and life was back to normal. This time Shiva had left for a fairly prolonged period. Vinayaka was a tiny babe in arms when he had departed.
When Shiva returned, the child had blossomed to a young lad of about eight or nine. It was only natural that Shiva did not recognize his son Vinayaka who once again challenged the intruder.
“Who are you? You look like a dangerous beggar with poisonous creatures dangling all over your body. Dare not enter, for my mother is having her bath”.
Shiva in his dazed state could not recognize his son. He was a God, and considered himself to be the most powerful of the holy trinity. He could hardly tolerate such nonsense from a tiny lad. In a fit of anger he pulled out his sword and in a single clean sweep, clearly severed the young boy’s head that flew out and fell down the deep depths of the ravines to be lost irrecoverably. He kicked the body aside which was spurting large springs of blood staining the White Mountain snow into sticky red. With a bellow of satisfaction he charged into the cave.
Parvathi who had just finished her bath was coming out; when she saw her lord & master enter. It had been so long since his departure that Parvathi was longing for him. Through his glazed and unfocussed eyes, Shiva looked at Parvathi, as she rushed forward with tears of joy streaking her cheeks, as she fell on her master’s feet, and started describing how much she had missed him. Shiva raised Parvathi to her feet and gave her a tight embrace. She tearfully told her husband that if it were not the company, love and compassion, provided by their son Vinayaka; the loneliness would have made her crazy. As she described her son as the boldest, bravest and the most intelligent young boy in the three worlds, Shiva’s drug deluded mind registered something. Something in the back of his mind told him that all was not well.
Parvathi said “Oh my lord and master! I am so happy that you have come back. Come with me and I will show you our son Vinayaka. Come with me and feel the pleasure of embracing your own son. Feel his tiny heart beating against your chest as you hug him. Look at his sparkling eyes shine with intelligence. And feel the flowers blooming in your heart as you look at his lovely pink lips part in a dazzling smile as he displays his white and even teeth”.
She grabbed Shiva’s wrist and rushed out of the cave calling out aloud to her beloved son, without bothering to look down on the snow covered floor where his dead and decapitated body lay. With the coiled snakes hissing aloud and the scorpions clinging to his tatty animal skins, Shiva followed his wife out in a daze. His mind was telling him that he had committed a grave error, but at that moment he was not able to exactly pinpoint what he had done.
Parvathi’s shouts echoed in the mountains but the young boy did not come running into her arms as she had expected. At first she was confused. As a few more cries did not produce her son, she grew anxious and worried. In a hurry she started searching and then stumbled on the slain body of Vinayaka. She took in the rumpled life-less form, the smooth white skin, the almost warm hands and legs, and the missing head beyond the clearly severed neck. The blood had congealed to a dull brown puddle that had attracted a few buzzing flies. It took her a few moments to recognize that the tiny form lying dead and helpless was that of her son Vinayaka. The shock kept her dazed for a few seconds. She then sat down on the floor, pulled up the small body and kept it on her lap. It took her a few moments and then her ear shattering wail of agony echoed through the mountains.
In between her uncontrollable sobs of anguish, Parvathi informed Shiva that the dead child lying headless on the ground was their son. It did not take her long to understand that it was her husband who in his state of confusion had decapitated his own son. Through her sobs and tears she said
“Oh Lord and master! What have you done? Agreed that you are the supreme lord. Agreed that you are the destroyer of everything that has lived its time. But what sin has your innocent son committed to deserve a fate as cruel as this? You have killed him, before his time for no fault of his!”
And as she was wailing thus, the effects of the intoxicants that had befuddled Shiva’s mind and brains started coming down. He realized the gravity of the blunder. He bent down and touched the body which was still warm. Shiva was an excellent surgeon and to re-implant a severed extremity was not too difficult a job for him. All he had to do was to collect the head before it was too late and sew it back onto Vinayaka’s body. Hastily he walked to the edge of the mountain where he had kicked his son’s head. He bent down to look at the bottomless chasm covered with ice and snow. In the wide expanse, he could only see the whiteness of the snow. Of his son’s decapitated head, he saw no sign. Shiva was worried because the body was getting cold and without the head, he was helpless to do anything.
Just then his ears picked up the noise of a trumpeting elephant. Both Parvathi and Shiva looked up and saw a small herd of mountain elephants walking in a single file. In the lead was an immense bull elephant with huge tuskers. Its large ears were almost torn to shreds and flapped gently as the huge and heavy pachyderm thundered its way in the snow as its hoofs carved cylindrical indentations. A cow elephant was walking a few steps behind the bull, its trunk occasionally touching the hind limbs of the tusker in the lead. And just behind her, was a baby elephant calf that had its tiny trunk twisted around the tail of the mother, walking in quick steps to keep up with the widely spaced steps of the bull in the lead.
The moment lord Shiva saw the tiny elephant he had an idea. He told Parvathi not to worry. He assured her that quite soon he will set things right. Getting up, he walked quickly to the elephant herd, and addressed the father elephant in the lead
“Oh king of the Jungle! Oh bearer of large white tuskers! Oh owner of a magnificent trunk! I Lord Shiva, the God of Gods stand before you with folded hands, to ask a great favor”
The father elephant raised his trunk and let out a trumpet. He then bowed his head, flapped his ears and raised his trunk to salute the God. He said
“Oh Lord of Lords, Oh Parameshwara! I am at your service. I shall give you whatever is there in my power”
God Shiva spoke softly.
“I have lost my son and would like to adopt your son. Give me the baby elephant and I assure you that not only will he get the best up-bringing, but will also be revered and prayed as a god for all the times to come. Forever and till eternity! This is my promise to you”.
The mother and father elephant had a small discussion. They decided that they could not refuse the lord. Pleased with the promise that their son would be revered and respected for eternity, they tearfully handed over the baby elephant to Shiva who carried the wriggling heavy form to the top of the mountains, where a distraught and wailing Parvathi waited for him.
By now all his intoxication had disappeared. Shiva’s sober mind was working in top gear planning the extensive and delicate surgical procedure. With great and profound surgical skills, he removed the baby elephant’s head from its body and with care and precision, implanted it over the neck of his dead son Vinayaka. It was a complicated procedure, which only Shiva was capable of, but he did it with extreme care and total precision. He then breathed a whiff of life into the body.
With a slight lift to the trunk and a minimal flap to the ears, the young boy with elephant’s head came to life. He opened his eyes to focus on his surroundings and as the images became sharper, saw the tear stained eyes of Parvathi first. Close to her, he saw the tired and sweat drenched form of Shiva, with a couple of cobras dangling round his neck. The moment Parvathi saw her son open his elephant eyes; she rushed to him and picked him up in her arms. She gave a loud squeal of joy while she hugged the elephant headed boy. To her it did not matter that it was a half human, half elephant. She wanted her son alive and here he was, gently wiping her tears with his tiny and soft trunk.
Shiva saw his wife and son in tight embrace and said, “He will be called Ganesha. With his large brains, he will be the most brainy and intelligent person in the three worlds. His name and fame will grow by leaps and bounds”.
The young Ganesha gave a smile and flapped his ears, though he could not understand most of what his father was saying. With his trunk, he pulled out a banana and fed it into his mouth, while Shiva continued
“When the great sage Veda Vyasa conceives and narrates the greatest story of all times, the only person in the three worlds who would have retentive memory to grasp and write the epic would be Ganesha. With time, this epic of Mahabharata will become immortal and so will the writer Ganesha. My son! You will make us all very proud of you”.
And thus when the sage Veda Vyasa dictated the epic of Mahabharata, it was Ganesha the scribe, who wrote the text.
2 THE EIGHTH MIRACLE
Lord Vishnu, the perpetrator of our universe was unique among the members of the holy trinity because he alone periodically visited the earth, took a human form and spent some time as a mortal with his creations. This was in the form of Avataras or divine reincarnations. The most popular of his Avatara is that of Sree Krishna who is also an important character in Mahabharatha.
Lord Krishna is a wonderful character in the immortal Saga of Mahabharatha and he started his life with miracles. His childhood miracles, consisting of sixty four unique unusual and unbelievable wonders, are called the Bala Leela. (Childhood-adventures). The immortal epic of Mahabharatha was his eighth miracle.
The full story of Lord Krishna would be narrated at the appropriate time, but here is how the eighth miracle and the conception of Mahabharatha the epic, came about. Krishna was the eighth child of the couple Devaki and Vasudeva and was born deep down in the basement prison of his uncle’s palace. Kamsa was the wicked king who had been warned by a prophesy that the last child born to his sister would slay him. He had thus imprisoned her and Vasudeva so that he could collect the children as they were born and slay them by splattering their heads against a huge granite boulder. He had already killed seven children and awaited the birth of the eighth.
Lord Vishnu took the avatara of Krishna and descended on the earth to vanquish evil and fight for righteousness. It was the eighth day of the eighth month of the year. At eight in the evening the miracles began. They were all a part of Krishna’s Bala Leela.
The clouds suddenly gathered and soon it was raining so terribly that the city roads got quickly flooded. This was the first miracle. Devaki was in labor pains and Vasudeva waited anxiously beside her. Kansa was anxious too, for this would be the birth of the child who would kill him. But on that night he suddenly felt drowsy and despite the raging thunder storms and crashing lightening, slept like a log of wood or a fallen tree. This was the second miracle.
And then the miracles started happening in quick succession. Krishna was born and filled the prison with his glow and charm. The locks automatically fell open. The third miracle. The guards were all seized by a sudden attack of deep sleep producing the fourth miracle. The fifth miracle was the spontaneous opening of the massive prison doors which slid out noiselessly. Vasudeva knew that the only way to ensure Krishna’s survival was to quickly shift him to safety to Brindavan, which was beyond river Yamuna. The anxious father procured a wicker basket from the kitchen store, placed the new born Krishna in it and walked out of the prison in the thunderous rain. He walked quickly to river Yamuna but could not move further because the swollen river was turbulent agitating and throwing up immense waves. Then happened the sixth miracle when the waters suddenly receded to knee length and produced a clear passage for Vasudeva to wade across.
Basket on his head, Vasudeva entered the water as the rain continued to lash incessantly and thunder clapped at periodic intervals. Then happened the seventh miracle. A gigantic snake named Adishesha made its appearance in the water and started swimming behind Vasudeva. It then rose up its hood to form a protective umbrella over the basket. This was the seventh miracle.
And then happened the eighth miracle that led to the conception and narration of this wonderful epic of Mahabharatha. A pipal leaf floated in the turbulent water and the infant in the basket picked it up. With his tiny hands he crushed it into a ball and tossed it into the churning river. Vasudeva was so intent on crossing the river, that he did not pay any particular attention to this. Soon father and son had reached the opposite bank while the snake had slithered away. Father and son had finally reached the city of Brindavan where Krishna would spend his childhood and perform numerous additional miracles. All these would be narrated at an appropriate stage. For the moment let us follow the crumpled leaf that had straightened itself and was flowing down stream with the river.
The leaf traveled a great distance and the next morning caught the attention of a young sage who was performing his morning rituals in Yamuna. He bent down and picked up the floating leaf. The crumples had produced a pattern which appeared very much like the Sanskrit Devanagari alphabet “Ka’. This young sage was named Krishna Dwapayana. Krishna because he was dark. Dwapayana because he was born on an island or Dweepa. He later became famous as Vyasa or Veda Vyasa.
When the young Sage picked up the leaf, he was seized by sudden and complex emotions. First he only saw the letter ‘Ka’. But then it appeared as if a string of words, phrases, couplets and slokas were streaming out of this single letter. This leaf with a single alphabet appeared to be the beginning of everything. Nevertheless it was all too much for the young sage.
He realized that he could not continue to stare at the leaf because it would certainly befuddle his mind. He quickly folded it into two and tucked it into his clothes. Later when Krishna Dwapayana returned to his hermitage ashrama he unfolded the leaf yet once again, and exactly similar things happened. First was the word. Then the streaming alphabets. Finally the fountainhead of an epic, flowing from the single alphabet on the leaf.
Dwapayana was confused. He folded the leaf once again because he was certain that he would go mad if he kept staring at the flowing letters. He was unaware that this was lord Krishna’s eighth miracle. He decided to consult his father in this regard.
The young sage’s father was saint Parashara, a sage of great repute. The son had to travel many days to reach his fathers hermitage in the jungle. After salutation, prostrations and fond huggings, the son confided his problem to his father. He also handed over the dried up, folded pipal leaf. Parashara was an all knowing sage, but he too was perplexed when he unfolded the leaf. Like his son he saw the flowing words, but this was not all. He also saw vivid and flashing images. He saw a great war being fought. He heard the battle cries and elephant trumpets. He heard the clang of swords and shrieks of the dead and wounded. Parashara also smelt the blood, and death. He quickly refolded the leaf. A curious Dwapayana asked
“Oh venerated father! What is this? What message does this pipal leaf convey? What is the meaning of the words that flow out endlessly? And why do I hallucinate and see images on the leaf?”
By now Parashara had solved the problem and his lips broke out into a wide smile. He was able to identify the leaf as one of Vishnu’s miracles and a Bala Leela of Lord Krishna. He also understood that his son was unique and had an important place in world history as a chronicler of the world’s greatest epic. He explained to his son thus
“Oh Krishna! Knowledge deteriorates over a period of time if it is not properly evaluated, documented and catalogued. Thus for every era there would be a librarian whose job would be to collect, collate, catalogue and arrange all the knowledge known to mankind. This librarian is called a Vyasa. I am the twenty sixth Vyasa and this leaf is the oracle that you are the next in line!”
Dwapayana was both scared and excited. Excited; because he was being entrusted with such a great responsibility which would make his name immortal for eons and centuries. Scared; because he was not sure if he would be able to discharge his responsibilities properly. For being a Vyasa was an onerous and immense responsibility indeed.
Lord Brahma himself had been first Vyasa followed by Prajapathi, Shukra, Brithaspati and Surya.
The illustrious line descended down to Tomabindu and then to Valmeeki who was the twenty fifth Vyasa. Parashara was the twenty sixth and now Dwapayana was being told that he was next in line.
“Well Son! It is an onerous responsibility indeed. First you would have to catalogue, arrange and copy all the four Vedas. Then you would have to do the same thing with the puranas and ardha-puranas. It is not an easy job but I assure you that the satisfaction of a job well completed, would be like nothing else that you would have experienced in your life”.
Dwapayana had been able to overcome his shock and surprise. As he collected the folded leaf from his father he asked his question.
“But honorable father. What about this leaf? What does it signify? What is it trying to convey?”
Sage Parashara had an enigmatic smile on his face.
“Well Son! Forget about this leaf for the moment. You don’t have either the physical maturity or intellectual capacity, to grasp its meaning. You are too young. However a time would come when you would be old and wise to understand it!”
“But father! What exactly is it?”
“Well Son! It is the beginning of the greatest story ever told and you are destined to chronicle it!”
Parashara was not willing to explain further and Krishna Dwapayana returned back to his hermitage with the folded leaf. Years passed and Krishna Dwapayana did all that was expected of him as a librarian and a cataloguer of knowledge. Soon he was famous and popular as Veda Vyasa. It was this Veda Vyasa who eventually wrote the wonderful epic of Mahabharata which is considered by many as the longest and most complex story ever told. And it all began with a floating pipal leaf which Lord Vishnu had used as Krishna’s eighth miracle.
3 VYASA THE WRITER
Parashara was a famous sage of great repute. His knowledge of the Vedas and scriptures was unparalleled. There was no greater scholar than him in his times. And it was only natural that his son Vyasa would follow the father’s foot steps. Over the years, young Vyasa became so proficient in scriptures and knowledge that he came to be known as Veda Vyasa. This meant Vyasa who had mastered the Vedas. As time passed Vyasa developed into an incomparable teacher and an unparalleled writer. His description and narration was so well appreciated by the disciples and people around him that he came to be known as Bhagwan Vyasa.
It was the genius of Vyasa that gave the world the immortal epic of Mahabharata. Mahabharata is not only a story of epic proportions, but it is also an expression of the philosophy of right and wrong. Bhagwad Gita, which is a small part of Mahabharata, is universally famous as a book of knowledge and a doctrine of philosophy. After Vyasa had completed the Vedas and Puranas, he took a spell of rest. By now he was past middle age and had almost forgotten about the folded pipal leaf tucked beneath his stack of Palmyra leaves. And then one fine day, when he was tidying up his ashrama, he stumbled on the leaf. It was now old and dry but by lord Krishna’s miracle still looked fresh and supple. This time when Vyasa unfolded it, his mind was suddenly filled with knowledge and wisdom. His lips spontaneously broke out into slokas which flowed out of his mouth like water from a high fall. It was then that the story of the great epic crystallized in Vyasa mind. When Vyasa conceived Mahabharata, he realized that it was an epic of phenomenal proportions. It was an era before the advent of laptops and computers. It was even before the age of pen and paper. Writings used to be painstakingly carved on Palmyra leaves with a sharp stylus. As Vyasa conceived the epic, he realized that he needed an efficient stenographer to take down his dictation. Vyasa sought the help of sage Narada, the sage of Gods, in locating someone who would be able to write correctly and flawlessly. After a bit of thought, Narada advised Vyasa to meditate to Lord Brahma the creator.
Agreeing with Narada, Vyasa sat in meditation invoking the blessings of Brahma. After a prolonged meditation, the creator appeared before him and said
“Oh wise sage, I am pleased by your dedication and devotion. Tell me why you meditate thinking of me?
“Oh great lord, I have conceived a big epic which encompasses a few generations and thousands of events. I find that though the ideas fill my mind threatening to bubble over, yet I cannot write it down as fast as my mind can think. I seek an appropriate person to help me in this work. As a creator, there is nothing in the three worlds that you are not aware of. Oh great lord, please help me in locating a scribe!”
Lord Brahma thought for a moment and said
“Oh Vyasa you have indeed come to the right place. Of the inhabitants of the three worlds, amongst Gods, Devas, Asuras, Gandharvas, Yakshas and Man, I cannot think of anyone with brains and intelligence greater than Ganesha. He is the son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvathi. In my opinion it is only he, who has the intellect and grey matter to do your bidding”
Vyasa replied, “Oh lord Brahma, as per your advice I will offer prayers and request Ganapathy to be my steno and scribe. However; will a person of his stature be willing to undertake such a task? What incentive should I offer him?”
With a smile lord Brahma answered Vyasa.
“Ganesha is the son of Shiva and Parvathi. Being a child of God, he is never in any material needs. Thus you cannot tempt him with any material stimulus. However Ganesha too has his weak points. He is proud of his brains and intellect and he is still a child at heart. If you are able to convince him that he is the only person with the capacity to understand and write your epic, then his ego will surely make him to agree with you”
Vyasa understood Brahma and thanked the creator for his valuable advice. Having satisfied his devotee, Brahma disappeared into the heavens. Vyasa sat about invoking the blessings and presence of lord Ganesha. After an appropriate prayer and meditation, lord Ganesha appeared before Parashara’s son Vyasa. Ganesha flapped his ears, and lifted his trunk. With a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes he addressed Vyasa thus
“Oh great sage Veda Vyasa, I salute you. Impressed by your prayers and meditation, I present myself before you. Please tell me what I, Ganesha, the son of God Shiva and Goddess Parvathi can do for you?”
Vyasa saluted with a great devotion and said
“Oh great one, I salute you. Of all the beings in all the three worlds, amongst Devas, Gods, Asuras, Yakshas, Gandharvas and man, I do not find any one with as much brains or intellect as you. I need a favor which only you can perform.” Ganesha gave a smile as his trunk twisted and ears flapped. He said
“What you say about my brains is quite true. Please feel free and tell me what you want”
Vyasa said “Oh great god, I have conceived a vast epic Mahabharata! It is a long narrative with complex characters and thousands of inter linked events. I find that my brains and hands cannot work at the same time with the same speed. I can think fast but my limbs do not follow the speed of my thought. I need some one with brains and skills like you to write down the epic as I dictate it”
Ganesha had a naughty twinkle in his eyes as he addressed sage Vyasa
“So you really think that your brain has speed and your intellect a tempo, which is faster than your fingers? If that is really true, it stands to reason that the only person with intellect and co-ordination better than yours is me, Ganesha. And if what you say about your brains and intellect is true, then I shall surely help you”
Vyasa was quite clever and could realize that Ganesha was trying to get him into a trap. His answer attempted to avoid the trap and assuage Ganesha’s ego. He said
“Oh mighty Vinayaka, I would be telling a blatant lie if I claim that either my thinking speed or intellect approaches yours even closely. What I want to convey is that, among the people in the three worlds I have not been able to find anyone at all, with brains approaching yours”.
This seemed to please Vinayaka. He replied “So what do you suggest that I do for you?”
Veda Vyasa replied, “I will compose the epic mentally and sing it aloud for you in a sequence. All I want from you, is to take a dictation and write it on the palm leaves so that it remains intact for posterity and our future generation”
As Brahma had forewarned Vyasa, Ganesha was too smart to accept Vyasa’s request without any conditions. He gave a mischievous smile, and his large ears flapped as he said
“Well sage Vyasa, I agree to give it a try but on one condition. Once I start writing, I shall continue non stop without a pause. You have to continue dictating without stopping. The moment you stop, I shall also stop. If you are willing to agree to this, I shall accept to be your scribe”
Veda Vyasa was in a predicament. He could simply not fulfill the stipulations of Ganesha. The epic was too long and could take days, weeks or even months to complete. How could he continue to dictate non stop for such a long period? Fortunately Vyasa was endowed with a great wisdom and it did not take him long to find an appropriate solution. He said
“Oh lord Vinayaka, I agree to you but with two conditions. Firstly you must not put your stylus to the palm leaf to start writing a sloka, unless you have grasped its meaning fully. And once you have grasped the meaning of a particular sloka, you must not hesitate or pause until you have finished writing it”
This challenge intrigued and impressed Ganesha and he agreed to both the conditions immediately. Veda Vyasa took a deep breath and started singing the stanzas and slokas one after another. Ganesha picked up the stylus and started carving the words. Such was the wonderful co-ordination between Vyasa’s utterances and Ganesha’s speed of writing that Gods and Goddesses from the three worlds paused to look at the masterpiece. Sage Vyasa was quite clever. When ever he had to take sometime off for his personal and private works; he composed a stanza which was very complicated and difficult to understand. By the time Ganesha could comprehend the meaning and carve it on the Palmyra leaves, Vyasa would be back to continue with his dictations. And in this manner Vyasa dictated and Ganesha wrote. Bit by bit the slokas accumulated, telling in detail this wonderful story and a divine epic. While Ganesha was furiously writing a sloka, his stylus broke halfway through. Remembering his promise to write nonstop, Ganesha immediately broke off his left tusk snapping it at its root. He used the sharp point of his broken tusk to continue the rest of the epic. And it is because of this that we find all the idols and icons of Lord Ganesha with a broken tusk.
And thus over days, weeks and months, Mahabharata came to be written. It was written in Devanagari script. Devanagari means the language of Gods. The language used by sage Vyasa was Sanskrit and it was written down in slokas. Each sloka or a couplet is composed of two lines and contains between six and sixteen words. The language was flawless and expressions lucid. And towards the end while Vyasa was narrating a sloka about lord Yama’s discussion with Yudhishtra, while the latter was about to die, Veda Vyasa paused. At that moment Ganesha stopped writing.
Thus with the combined efforts of Vyasa’s voice and Ganesha’s writing, this immemorial epic came into existence. Once it was completed, Vyasa started teaching and expounding it to his disciples. His son Suka was his first disciple who read and memorized the epic. Over a period of time the fame of Mahabharata spread far and wide. Sage Narada told it to the Devas in heavens. Suka narrated the epic to Gandharvas, Rakshasas and Yakshas. And it was Vaishampaya, the chief disciple of Veda Vyasa who narrated the epic to the benefit of human beings.
King Parikshit was the grand son of the Pandavas and a grand nephew of Lord Krishna. It was in his crowded court amongst hundreds of devout spectators and listeners, that Vaishampaya told the entire story that stretched over many generations. It is said that our times are divided into four stages or durations. Satyuga was the time of truth. This was followed by Dwapara when lord Vishnu came to this earth as Rama. This was followed by Treta, where lord Vishnu was born as a human in the form of Krishna. When Parikshit ascended the throne to Hastinapura, the Yuga of Treta had ended and Kaliyuga or the age of adharma and low morals had made its appearance. To the assembled courtiers of king Parikshit’s court, Vaishampaya spoke thus
“Of the holy trinity, Brahma is our creator, Vishnu our perpetrator and Shiva our destroyer. Of the three, Vishnu is the most important because he is responsible for our day-to-day living and sustenance. To help the humans and to keep an eye on the happenings on this world, lord Vishnu has been coming down to earth, from time immemorial. Each time he comes to visit us, he comes in a special form called an Avatara”
He continued “Scriptures tell us that there are ten such situations when lord would come down to earth. The eighth avatara is that of lord Krishna who is a pivotal character in the epic of Mahabharata that I am going to narrate to you now. Lord Vishnu being the perpetrator of life was always curious about happenings on his beloved earth and has come here many times!
“In Krishna, lord Vishnu was a poorna avatara in a total embodiment of God. His advices and discourses to Arjuna prior to the Mahabharata war has been documented by Ganesha as dictated by sage Veda Vyasa. This forms the immortal classic of Bhagwad Gita which lays down the principles and doctrines of life. It tells us mortals, the difference between right and wrong, fair and foul, and Dharma and Adharma.”
“The story of Mahabharata tells as about the ways of righteousness and the ways of Dharma. It is a complex story of emotions and actions that men and women commit in moments of passion. It tells of mortals who behaved like Gods, and wise men who behaved foolishly. From this great epic we can learn lessons that would teach us to lead a correct and proper life. From Mahabharata flows a source of knowledge, a single dip in which would cleanse a mortal of all sins and make him pure and sublime.”
Vaishampaya concluded his statements to the assembled crowd “I take this opportunity of narrating to you the immortal epic of Mahabharata.”
4 GANGA AND SHANTANU
Hastinapura means an empire of elephants. And young Shantanu was the king of this empire. He was young and bold. He was brave and intelligent. He was courageous and victorious. Under his glorious rule, the kingdom of Hastinapura lived in peace and tranquility. The subjects adored their king and wished that all kingdoms should be ruled by kings like Shantanu. In his kingdom, the taxes were just right to run the country, but not too much for the subject to feel a pinch. Law and order was well under control. Dacoity and thievery were practically extinct and it was said that a maiden decked in gold jewellery could walk through a street in moonlight and yet remain unmolested.
Shantanu’s interests like those of other kings during his times included a keen passion for hunting. Armed with his powerful bow, and a quiver full of the sharpest arrows, he would set out on his horse in search of a prey which could be a nimble fast running deer, or an aggressive charging wild boar. He hunted for sport and avoided reckless killings and rash slaying of animals. Once his passion for hunting got him to the dense forests in search of a spotted deer which disappeared into the bushes. Shantanu was in the lead, while his courtiers and hunting team was following close behind.
The deer was cunning and disappeared and reappeared from his view with a great regularity, leading him to the dense and dangerous areas of the deepest woods. And suddenly Shantanu heard the sound of a flowing river followed by a splashing noise. Thinking that his deer had jumped into the water, he galloped through the bushes that brought him to a clearing from where he could see the river Ganges, flowing majestically in a very wide stream of crystal clear water that appeared to be as pure as nectar.
He saw the swirling waters of the river Ganga as his eyes continued to search for the elusive deer, when he heard the splashing noise once again. He walked quickly to the shore after dismounting from the horse. As he came close, he saw a spectacle that dazzled him and left him bewitched. Bathing in the water, was a female form that was nubile like a nymphet. Dressed in white clothes with flowing black hair, a young girl was swimming, splashing and playing in the water. For a moment Shantanu just stood and stared.
The girl lifted her head out of water and shook it, swirling a fine spray of water droplets that fell on the turbulent surface of water. In that instant, Shantanu saw her face and could feel his beating heart pause, because he had not seen such a pretty and a bewitching face in his entire life. By then the nymph splayed her limbs and started swimming in masterly strokes over the river. As she swam, she and the river appeared almost one. At that time Shantanu was not to know that the lovely lady swimming in the water was none other than the river goddess Ganga herself. It would be much later that she would tell her true name and purpose.
For the moment Shantanu was too dazed and confused. Never in his life had he experienced such feelings and emotions. And so stunned was he, that his left hand which was holding his heavy metal bow automatically loosened its grip, dropping it on the hard rock of the river bed. The high pitched metallic noise of the heavy metal bow falling on the rocks reverberated over the low pitched hum of the flowing river and startled the girl who was half way in her swim. Ganga immediately turned her head towards the sound and saw Shantanu staring at her from the riverbank with a dumb and glazed expression on his face.
Seeing his predicament, Ganga gave a soft laugh, and the sounds echoed like a tiny silver bell tinkling in the temple as it cut across the silence and pierced Shantanu’s heart. She swam in a few deft strokes to the bank where Shantanu stood. Without waiting for Shantanu to assist her, she carelessly climbed out of the river bank, her nimble feet unusually firm on the slippery boulders that banked the river. She shook her hair, which sent fine droplets of water, flying in the air, a few of which delicately caressed Shantanu’s cheek, bringing him abruptly to his senses. The evening sun cast its golden yellow rays on Ganga illuminating her as if she was made up of gold.
In those times the king was the first citizen and enjoyed almost unlimited rights and powers. He could marry any girl and marry any number of girls. He could practice viloma, which meant marrying a woman of his own or higher caste, or partiloma which would mean marrying a person of low caste. He could practice Gandharva Vivaha or a non-ritual marriage that dispensed with all ceremonies. Thus any female that caught the fancy of the king was his for asking. But Shantanu was so impressed with the poise and beauty of Ganga that he felt tongue tied and unable to speak to her.
She looked so divine, that she almost looked like a Deva Kanya from heaven. Her manner was regal and poise royal. “How lucky I would be if she would become my queen and rule Hastinapura by my side” thought Shantanu. Unlike other women who would get scared and run away on seeing a king dressed in his regal finery, Ganga stood firm with a mischievous smile on her lips and a slight mock in her twinkling eyes. Shantanu decided to address her with respect due to any princess or queen and said “Oh lovely maiden, I am Shantanu the king of Hastinapura and the sole ruler of all the lands around you. My kingdom stretches to as far as your eyes can see in the four directions and then way beyond this. I am very happy and pleased to see you”.
He had expected a change in her attitude. He had also expected to hear her reply, which in normal course would be a humble statement narrating her name, father’s name and place of residence. But her behavior was totally unexpected. Instead of being scared and telling about herself in a low and subservient tone, she continued to look straight at Shantanu and said
“Oh! So this is the great prince Shantanu about whom I am hearing so much from everyone? The brave, handsome, intelligent and yet unmarried prince!”
Her voice was sweet as honey, her language and tongue had a touch of royalty and her manner divine. It almost appeared as it she was teasing him, without actually making fun of him. His curiosity about her was piqued. He smiled at her and said “A maiden as pretty as you would decidedly have a name that is prettier. Who is the fortunate father who has planted the seed that has borne a fruit as detectable as you? And who is the divine lady who has been fortunate enough to give birth to someone as royal and divine as you?”
It seemed that Ganga had a penchant of answering a question with a question. In the same voice and an exactly similar manner as before she said, “Why does the handsome king Shantanu require this information? Why does he want to know about the name of my honorable father and mother?”
Shantanu decided that it was the time to tell her about his feelings. He realized he may not find any one else as suitable as Ganga to be his queen. He summoned a smile to his face and said
“Oh heavenly maiden! I desire to meet your parents as soon as possible. I want to explain to them my origins and credentials. I would then like to ask your hand in marriage from them”.
Ganga did not seem to be surprised at this statement. It almost appeared as if she was expecting this from Shantanu. She gave a dazzling smile and said
“Oh! That is quite impossible!”
Shantanu was totally taken aback by this unexpected answer. But he persisted and asked again “What is impossible? Meeting your parents or marrying you?”
Ganga smiled and said. “I think that it is simply not possible” By now, Shantanu realized that he was totally and madly in love with her and that it would be impossible for him to lead a normal life without her besides him. He persisted “But why? Are you already married? Or is it that I am an unsuitable bridegroom? What do you want? My kingdom? My palace? My riches? I am willing to lay everything at your lovely feet if you agree to be my wife”.
On hearing this, the expression on Ganga’s face became a bit serious and thoughtful. As her brows knitted together in a frown of intense concentration, her face assumed a much more beautiful expression. She seemed to think for sometime before answering.
“I am not married. The only person who can decide whether to marry you or not is I alone. I might consider marrying you and becoming your wife but subject to certain conditions”
Shantanu replied with a baited breath “Any condition, absolutely any condition. You name it and I shall fulfill it”.
Ganga cautioned him “Think again before promising. What I ask of you might be too difficult for you to fulfill.”
Shantanu said “Oh pretty maiden, even if you wanted my life, I would immediately offer it to you”.
Ganga replied “Oh brave and handsome king, it is not your life that I want. If you want me to be yours, then you must agree to two conditions. You must never ask me who I am and where I come from. And once we are married, you must never question any of my action, or hinder me from doing any thing! I warn you that the moment you violate any of these conditions, I shall leave you and go away. If you agree to these conditions I shall agree to be your wife!”
Shantanu was filled with joy. At that moment the conditions seemed to be quite insignificant and trivial. He was willing to give her his entire kingdom, but all she was asking was anonymity and freedom of action. When Shantanu returned to his palace with the lovely maiden sitting beside him, the two of them looked like Indra and Devyani. The entire population came out of their houses to greet the couple as they rode joyously to the palace.
Shantanu married Ganga with a great pomp and show. If he had any fears or doubts about Ganga’s attitude or behavior after marriage, they were soon dispelled, when they started living together. Not only was she a pretty and devout wife, who gave him pleasure in every way, she also had great brains and intelligence, which allowed her to participate in running the kingdom. Sitting on the thrones besides each other, Shantanu and Ganga looked like lord Vishnu and Goddess Mahalakshmi. In the ripeness of time their love bore fruit and Ganga became pregnant. And exactly one year after their meeting in the jungle she gave birth to a lovely young boy.
When Shantanu saw his first born, he was overcome with joy. The boy was fair, well formed and had a gleam in his eyes. Even at birth he looked like a prince. The king and the capital city were agog with joy that Hastinapura had got its crown prince. But the situations took such a dramatic turn that it took Shantanu by shock and surprise. That evening, tired from the celebrations and activities as he entered his palace, he saw Ganga looking at and playing with the young lad. And then as Shantanu watched, Ganga wrapped the baby in a cloth bundle and hugged him to her chest. There was a curious look to her face as she got out of the palace hugging the child to her bosom.
Her unexpected and strange behavior surprised Shantanu. He did not want her to be aware of his presence and thus slowly followed without her knowledge. It was a moonlit night and Shantanu saw Ganga carry the baby with her and get into a chariot. Ganga elected to ride the chariot herself and it started with a clicking of the hoofs of the six horses, spraying dust in the moonlit night. Shantanu used the clatter of the chariots hoofs to camouflage his horse’s hoofs as he mounted and followed her at a discreet distance.
The reason why his wife was taking away his one day old child in a chariot at the middle of the night was plaguing him. Overwhelmed with curiosity and fear for his son’s safety, he followed her at a safe distance. He was surprised to see the chariot leave the capital city and ride towards the jungle. It drove deep into the thick jungles and stopped near the river Ganges. Leaving the charriot parked at the bank, Ganga got down with the baby still clutched to her bosom. She walked close to the river. The full moon was illuminating the river Ganges so that its surface appeared to be coated with thin film of silver. Its water was churning and agitating quite violently.
Shantanu hid behind the shade of a tree so that he could see Ganga quite clearly, without her being able to see him. Then Shantanu saw something that he thought was impossible. The full moon clearly illuminated the round face of the tiny child who looked as pretty as his mother. Ganga lifted the baby to her lips and very gently kissed his forehead. The noise of the child’s happy giggles, and coos could be heard clearly over the low pitch continuous drone of the river. She looked soulfully at her son once more and then tossed the bundle into the river.
The silent night was punctuated by the sudden sound of a splash as the bundle traveled the distance and hit the chill and violent waters of river Ganges. A sharp scream of terror from the tiny mouth was quickly cut off by the churning waters. As Ganga turned around, the moon light sharply illuminated her features and Shantanu saw a distinct smile on the young mother’s face which appeared quite sinister. Shantanu felt his tongue and throat become dry and parched as the desert sand. He could hear his heart thumping against his ribcage. He stood petrified and shocked, afraid to move even an inch least the rustle of the leaves make Ganga aware of his presence. He stood rooted to one spot as he saw Ganga quickly sprint to the chariot and drive towards the capital. He waited for the sounds of the horse hoofs to recede before he moved from his hiding. With leaden steps, he walked slowly, towards the edge of river Ganges. The moonlight still illuminated the surface of the river that churned and agitated like milk, as it roared its way roughly down hill.
Shantanu kept looking at the water for a long time but could not see either the cloth bundle or his child. With tears in his eyes and sorrow in his heart he walked towards the horse and mounted it. He was the most miserable and unhappy father in the whole world as he rode slowly towards his palace.
As he entered the royal chambers, he saw the smiling face of Ganga welcoming him as if nothing had happened. Her nature, activities and behavior was definitely not like that of a murderess. Nor was it like a mother who had lost her son. If anything, she seemed to be happy and contented as she hummed a melody and readied the bed in the royal chamber. Shantanu was so overcome with anger and grief that he wanted to scream at her and ask her why she had killed an innocent child. He was about to open his mouth when he remembered his promise. He would not ask her any questions and he would not object to anything that she did. With a heavy heart he walked to the royal bed and lay down. Despite Ganga’s ministrations, he found that sleep deluded him as he tossed and turned for the whole night thinking about the lovely round face of the son he had lost. He was upset and depressed for a long time. But Ganga was so loving and caring that slowly and gradually he came out of depression. Each time he looked at Ganga’s lovely face, he could hardly believe that it was this same divine and lovely lady who had so carelessly tossed her own son into the swirling waters of Ganges.
With a passage of time he got out of his depression and Ganga once again soothed and eased away all his physical and mental discomforts. Time heals the most serious of the wounds, and it healed the deep lacerations in Shantanu’s heart too. And after some time when he got the happy news that Ganga was pregnant again, his joy knew no bounds. In due course Ganga gave birth to another young boy, more handsome and pretty than her first.
Shantanu was pleased to hear about the birth of his son. But there was a nagging fear in the bottom of his heart for the safety of his newborn child. He waited for nightfall with a heart beating with anxiety. He prayed that Ganga should not act as she had done previously. But as the night fell, the same pattern was repeated. The child was bundled, hugged to her bosom and getting into the six horsed chariot she drove into the jungles, straight to the river.
Shantanu followed at a safe distance and watched with horror a repeat performance of what had happened the previous time. This time it was a moonless night and Shantanu’s gloom and despondency matched that of the dark night. He was so angry and upset that he did not go into the royal bed chamber that night.
The next day he was not surprised when he saw Ganga behave as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Despite his misgivings, her love, compassion and care for him remained undiminished, but this time it look a lot longer to regain his composure and frame of mind. Remembering his promise to the maiden, and not wanting to lose her at any cost, kept Shantanu quiet
But this was definitely not the end of his troubles, because the same thing happened again and again and yet again. Each year she gave birth to a child. And for seven consecutive years she continued to dump her newborn children into the river Ganges and killed them the very same night that they were born. In the ripeness of time she gave birth to her eighth child. Shantanu, who was present at the time of the child birth, was overwhelmed with joy when he saw this son. He was the prettiest and handsomest child that Ganga had borne. He was large in size for his age and his limbs were soft as butter. His eyes shone with a fierce energy of a Kshatriya and unlike other weeping children of his age, he gave a wide toothless smile, the first time he saw his father. As Shantanu picked up the tiny child and hugged him to his chest, he felt such a massive surge of paternal emotion flow through his veins that he promised to himself that he would never be separated from this child.
He told himself that he would guard this child. He would protect this young lad. He would play with him and watch him grow into a dashing and youthful prince who would take over the reigns of his kingdom after him. He would do all that was in his power to stop his anonymous wife from sacrificing this child too.
That night he waited patiently for the night fall. He was prepared with his horse as Ganga bundled the baby and carried him to the chariot. By now Shantanu had become quite bold and had stopped all attempts to hide that he was following her. He wanted to be close to her to stop her from doing anything cruel or tragic. Ganga followed exactly the same route and parked the chariot close to the banks of river Ganges. Carrying the baby bundled to her bosom she walked close to the river and was about to toss it in the river when Shantanu jumped down from his horse and rushed to her. He gave out a scream.
“Stop you witch. Are you a mother or a devil? Don’t you have an ounce of love and compassion in your heart? How can you murder your own children?”
Ganga stopped and turned around. She addressed the king.
“Oh king Shantanu, it is quite unfortunate that you have broken your promise. I have no option but to leave you and go. Actually I am Ganga, the river goddess Ganges. I am not a witch or devil that you abuse me to be. I have taken birth as a human being and given birth to your sons to fulfill a curse by sage Vashista”.
Shantanu was dumbfounded as he heard this. Ganga walked slowly towards him carrying his son. She addressed Shantanu
“This is your son Devavrata. He will be a great warrior and a famous Kshatriya. Generations will sing his praises. I am taking him away with me and will return him to you when the time is right.”
Shantanu was too shocked to do anything. She continued
“I will now tell you the story of sage Vashista, his cow Nandhini, and the eight Vasus, who stole the cow and got cursed in the bargain. Once you listen to the story, you will never again call me a demon or a witch.”
5 THE VASU BROTHERS AND SAGE VASHISTA
The Vasu brothers were Devas. Devas are the Gods who inhabit the heavens. The eight Vasu brothers with their wives once came to the earth for a holiday. And while they were roaming the earth, they climbed on the foothills of the Vindhya Range of mountains that contained the Ashrama of sage Vashishta. Vashishta was a Brahmin sage of great repute. He lived a simple and austere life devoted to prayers, meditations and yoga. An Ashrama is a place where Brahmin priests stay and perform their prayers and rituals.
The life of sage Vashishta was well disciplined and formed a strict routine. He had a cow gifted to him by Gods. This was a white cow which looked majestic and divine. She was called Nandhini and it was said that Nandhini’s milk contained the elixir of life. Each morning one of Vashishta’s disciples would milk Nandhini. This milk would be used for the sage’s daily prayers and rituals. The butter and ghee contributed to the fuel that burned the fires of the yagna that the sage and his disciples performed with great regularity and ritual perfection. Each morning the sage and his disciples would join together to start their prayers and pooja. By early morning they would disburse to the neighboring villages to beg for alms. It was a tradition in those times that a Brahmin sustained only on alms. They would spend the rest of the day in meditation, yogic practices and austerities. Vashishta and his disciples lead a spartan life, wore minimal clothes, and slept on the bare floor devoid of any comforts.
But a life of this form gave the sages a lot of power. If a sage was upset or unhappy, he could utter a curse and the same would distinctly follow its full course. And thus the sages like Vashishta were revered, respected and feared by all, including the kings. Devas who lived in the heavens however were a bit different. They had a chance of consuming amrita that was churned from the sea during samudra-manthan.
Devas thus were saved the ordeal of repeated births and deaths that a mortal has to undergo. The texts of our puranas tell us that a soul is eternal and undying. However the body that it inhabits is mortal and dies after its time. To be born as a mortal is to undergo the torture and troubles of repeated births and repeated deaths. Once the Devas consumed the amrita or elixir of life, they could get rid of the problem of being born again and again.
Thus though the mortals on earth, including the mightiest Kshatriya prince, would fear a sage of the level of Vashishta, the Devas considered themselves immune from his wrath and curses. Ashta Vasu were eight brothers. Ashta in Sanskrit is eight; the eight of them were wed to eight sisters. The sixteen of them were very close to each other. And thus when they came to the earth for a short picnic, the eight Vasus were accompanied by their wives. It was mid morning and sage Vashista and his disciples had gone out to the village to beg for their morning alms. Nandhini the divine cow, having contributed the morning milk was grazing in the grassy meadows of the mountain range. And one of the Vasus wives saw the cow. The moment her eyes befell Nandhini, she was over-awed. She had never seen such a majestic and good looking cow. The white lustrous skin, the tawny musculature and the ripe, full udders presented a spectacle to behold. The curious Vasu wife approached her husband, pointed to the cow and said
“What a divine and good looking animal. Wish that we take her with us to heavens”. The Vasu was shocked and aghast. He knew that Nandhini belonged to the renowned Sage Vashista. He spoke to his wife thus
“Oh beloved one, I do agree with you that this cow is really beautiful and divine looking. But she belongs to sage Vashista A cow is only useful for the mortals. Especially for sages like Vashishta. We are Devas. What use do we have of a cow?”
“See the magnificent udders. I am quite sure that her milk would taste sweeter than nectar!” said the wife once again.
The Vasu again tried to caution his wife “No doubt Nandhini’s milk is like amrita. I have even heard that gods have blessed this cow that her milk would be blessed with the properties of the elixir of life. But we are Devas. We are already immortal. What use do we have of Nandhini’s milk? And furthermore, it is unwise to take away a belonging of a pious man. His curse might harm us!”
But the wife was adamant. She said “My dear husband! I do not ask you the impossible. I do not ask something beyond your capabilities. All I ask you is a simple gift of the cow and calf. You are eight brothers. And all of you are Devas. Between eight such able bodied people, if you can’t even fulfill this small wish, then shame on you!”
So saying she started sobbing aloud. Vasu was swayed by the crocodile tears of his wife and addressed his brothers
“Oh brave brothers, let us encircle the cow and capture Nandhini and her calf. Before the sage and his disciples come back from their alms collection, we would be quite far away”.
Thus seven Vasus surrounded Nandhini while the last one snared, and sprinted her away to heavens. This act, done under the emotional blackmail of the women, proved to be a very costly mistake for the Vasus. When sage Vashista returned that evening, he needed milk for his nevaidyam and other rituals. His disciples searched high and low for Nandhini and the calf but in vain. Finally they came back to their Acharya and told him that the cow and calf were missing. Vashista could use his divine powers and find out how and where Nandhini was taken away.
He was so annoyed and angry with the Ashta Vasus that he gave them a curse. He cursed them that they should be born on earth like mortals and suffer the tortures of human life. So powerful was the sage’s curse that the Devas became instantly aware of its effect. When the news reached the eight Vasus they were very perturbed and worried. Sages say that there is no mistake that cannot be remedied by an apology. The eight Vasus quickly rushed to Vashista and prostrated on his feet. They apologized to the sage profusely. Vashista was a man who was good at heart and relented quickly. But a curse once given cannot be withdrawn. Only its effects can be minimized. Vashishta modified the curse thus.
“Once I give a curse, I cannot stop it from running its course, but as you have apologized with all your hearts and with total sincerity, I not only pardon you but lessen your curse as well. The seven of you who chased my cow and calf and surrounded them will be born as humans. But you will only have to live for a single day in the human form. After this one day ordeal, you will return back to your form of Devas. The eighth Vasu who actually caught Nandhini will have to suffer the full curse”.
“This eighth Vasu however will be born in a famous house hold, live a virtuous life and be a superman among all men. And even in his life as a human he will achieve great things.”
So saying Vashista departed to his Ashrama. He was feeling ashamed that he had uttered a curse in his anger. He assembled all his devotees and lectured them about the ills of anger and loosing one’s temper. Thereafter he continued his life of penance and austerities in his Ashrama.
The Vasus went back to their wives and told them about the sages pardon. The wife, whose tears had moved the Vasu to mastermind the stealing was quite upset and wailed and moaned at the mistake committed by her. The Vasus next job was to invoke the blessings of someone who would agree to be their mother and agree to give birth to their human forms. They prayed to Goddess Ganga and when she appeared before them, addressed her thus
“Oh mother Ganges! We have been cursed by the sage Vashista to be born as mortals. We request you to take the form of a mortal and descend down to the earth. There, we would request you to marry a deserving man. As his wife you should beget us as your children. Kill us the same day as we are born so that we can return to our original selves. You can leave the eighth Vasu on the earth to fulfill the prophecy of the sage”.
Ganga was a compassionate Goddess, and thus was easily persuaded by the Vasus pleadings. She agreed to descend to the earth as a human being. Shantanu was chosen as her husband, and the seven children that she had thrown into the Ganges were the seven Vasus.
Ganga finished her story and looked at Shantanu as she held the child in her hands and said
“Oh valiant prince! Do not despair. I am thus neither evil nor a killer as you think me of”.
Shantanu nodded his head as realization dawned on him that the person who had spent the last nine years with him as a wife was none other than Goddess Ganges. Ganga continued
“Do not feel bad, because I have to leave you now. We were only destined to spend nine years with each other. I am taking Devavrata with me and in due course I shall return him to you after he is fully trained to assume the responsibilities of a crown prince.”
Shantanu folded his hands and bowed his head with respect to the goddess who bore him his last son Devavrata. And then mother and child disappeared in the Ganges. Ganga was known as a universal mother because she was a mother to all, without distinction. But for Devavrata, she was a special mother because she had given birth to him. She thus brought him up with all love and compassion, which only a mother like Ganges could do. She sent her son to sage Vashista to learn the Vedas and puranas. The period that young Devavrata spent in the Gurukula, taught him sacrifice, austerity and simplicity. And the teachings of sage Vashista made him proficient in the Vedas and puranas.
From there, he was sent to Sukra to be taught the various arts and sciences. In the older times it was essential for the princes and royal descendants to first complete a study of theory of physical sciences and life sciences, before they could start training in weaponry and warfare. It was thought that a mastery of the theoretical sciences sharpened the intellect and made it more receptive to practical training.
From Sukra, Ganga sent Devavrata to Parashurama. Parashurama was a Brahmin, but an expert in arms & ammunitions. So great were his powers in the arts of weaponry and combat that even great Kshatriya kings and princess were afraid of him. From Parashurama, Devavrata learned the skills of weaponry and combat that made him equal to his master.
In the meanwhile Shantanu returned to the palace. He was saddened at the loss of his wife but glad to have got a son like Devavrata. He was impatient for the stipulated time of training to pass so that Ganga would unite Devavrata with him.
Many years later, Shantanu was in the jungles. As he passed by the Ganges he saw a young lad building a dam with arrows across the mighty river with a great skill. He was shooting the arrows which were bonding together and forming a dam. Even the mighty river was playing with the arrows as an indulgent mother with her child’s toys.
Shantanu stood to one side and examined the lad. His face had a tejas and glow that spoke of royal ancestors. His body was in a peak physical condition and his exemplary skills in archery were quite unbeatable. He sighed and told himself,
“My son too would be of this age now! I wish I knew how and where he was!’
And then suddenly Goddess Ganga appeared out of the river. As if reading Shantanu’s thoughts she gave him a smile and said
“Oh mighty king, the young lad you see is your son Devavrata! He has learnt the Vedas from Vashista, the arms and warfare from Parashurama, and arts and sciences from Sukra. Take him with you. He will bring you a great fame and popularity.”
So saying Ganga disappeared, leaving the father and son facing each other. It took just a moment for both of them to rush and hold the other in a tight embrace. Shantanu could not believe that the tiny child that Ganga had taken away had grown up so big and handsome. He addressed his son
“Oh Devavrata! Come with me to the capital. Tomorrow I shall crown you as yuvaraj (young king) or the crown prince. You will be the rightful ruler of Hastinapura after my time.” Father and son returned happily to the capital where Devavrata was crowned as the heir apparent with a great pomp and show. The citizens of Hasthinapura were very happy in having such a noble prince as Devavrata.
6. SATYAVATI - THE LADY WITH A DIVINE SMELL
Shantanu’s Hasthinapura was a fertile land and two massive rivers flowed through it. Through its northern regions flowed Ganga or Ganges. It was from this riverbank that Shantanu found Ganga and later his son Devavrata. The other large river that flowed majestically through the kingdom was Yamuna.
The river Yamuna flowed south of Ganga. It was a huge river which provided an abundant supply of water to irrigate the lush fields that lay on its bank. In addition it was teeming with fish. And thus it was only natural that its bank would teem with a number of fishing villages that dotted both the sides. The largest fishing village was south of the capital city and Matsya Guru was its chief and head fisherman.
Matsya means fish and Guru means a teacher. The fishing chief had got his name because he could teach the fish a thing or two. There was none in his entire community who had as much knowledge of fish as Matsya Guru. The spawning habits, the breeding times and the routes that the fish swam along, were all too well known to him. While other fishermen returned home with empty nets despite a whole days toil, Matsya Guru always managed to load his boat till it became dangerously over stuffed.
He knew exactly where to put the nets and where to cast the bait. And thus it was no wonder that he was the most efficient fisherman and also the leader of their community. He looked after his community and collected a share of their catch as the taxes for the King. His only love in life was his daughter Satyavathi. Matsya Guru’s wife had died in childbirth leaving a lovely and cute baby girl behind her. After her death, Matsya Guru was both her father and mother. He doted on her, loved her and ensured that every single wish of hers was fulfilled.
Satyavathi was also a pretty and intelligent girl. She shared her fathers love and was an affectionate and devoted daughter. She helped him in all his chores and by the time she was thirteen, had taken charge of the household. Each day she would be anxiously waiting at the shores of river Yamuna to receive her father returning with a boat full of fish. She would then help him to separate the fish and bundle them into appropriate groups for sales. The fish that did not get sold would be carried back to be salted and dried. She cooked meals and looked after the other household responsibilities. And despite being only thirteen years old, she had developed wisdom and maturity way beyond her years.
Yamuna was a fairly wide river. During rainy seasons it carried massive volumes of water with such tremendous force that it was impossible to row a boat across. Even in other seasons, Yamuna had a fairly fast current. Lot of people traveling to the south passed by the fishing village and the local fishermen were kind enough to provide boats to transport the people across.
One evening Satyavathi returned to the riverbank with an empty basket to collect the last catch which was dumped in a big heap on the bank. Her father had already taken away the first batch. Satyavathi had to make a few trips with her basket to collect the smaller fish that would be salted and dried in the sun. She had completed a few trips and only one trip remained. It was late afternoon and the sun was on its way to the west. The sky was getting cloudy and the breeze was blowing powerfully. Most of the fishermen had finished their work and returned to their hamlets, leaving their row boats tied to the shore. When Satyavathi reached the banks to collect the last lot of fish she was alone.
Satyavathi had all the curiosity and playfulness of a thirteen year old. And as she approached the riverbank, she saw a Brahmin sage looking expectantly at the opposite bank. Waves lashed and the turbulent river flowed downwards to the east. Approaching the mound of fish with her empty basket, as she bent down to gather them, she saw him dressed in dearskins, with the thick mane of white beard and over flowing tresses of white hair bellowing in the breeze. The closely knit wrinkles on the Rishi’s face gave him a look of an aged lion. He was looking impatiently and agitatedly at the river and the opposite bank. Satyavathi was filled with a curiosity normal for a young girl of thirteen. She gently placed her basket close to the mound of fish and walked to the sage. With folded hands, she offered him her respects and addressed him thus.
“Oh wise Sage! Oh knowledgeable Brahmana, I see that you stand vaguely on the shores of Yamuna. The winds are raging and the clouds are gathering. In a short while the river will get too rough. Is there anything that you want? Is there anything that I can do for you?”
The sage turned to look towards the dark complexioned fishing girl, whose body was emitting the noxious odor of stale fish. The little girl was growing up to be a woman, but at that moment was in an awkward stage of her development. Her face was large and round like that of an adult. But her limbs were thin and stick like. Her skin was oily, smooth and lustrous, but complexion dusky. Her untidy hair was oiled with fish liver oil which was emanating another form of noxious smell. But her smile was quite sincere! She had well-formed lips and perfect white uniform teeth that glittered like a lightening from thick dark clouds.
The sage looked at her for a moment and said “Oh little one! It is essential that I get to the opposite bank before sunset. I have to perform some prayers and poojas in the evening and also tomorrow morning. As my ashrama is on the opposite bank, and all the ingredients and samagri for my prayers and ceremonies are at my ashrama, I am desperate to get across this turbulent river now. But unfortunately, though I see a lot of boats moored to this side of the bank, I do not see a single boatman who can row me across.”
Satyavathi started thinking. Brahmins were the wise sages who looked after the Dharma and morality of the people. Scriptures said that it was only the good deed of the Brahmana that kept the society progressive and affluent. It was the sacred duty of every citizen to offer all forms of help to Brahmanas and sages without expecting a reward. Satyavathi made the decision and addressed the sage.
“Oh great one, it would indeed be my good fortune if I get an opportunity to be of some assistance to you. That big curved boat in the middle belongs to my father. Please board it, and I shall row you to the opposite bank. If we start now, we can make it before the river gets too rough”. The old sage saw the little girl. He inspected the slim frame and thin stick like hands. He doubted if this thirteen year old teenager would be able to take him across. But then looking at the setting sun and the increasing flow of the Yamuna, he decided to accept her offer. He said ‘Young fisher maiden, I am overwhelmed by your offer of help. I shall be extremely grateful to you if you row me to the opposite bank”
Satyavati’s joy knew no bounds. The fact that the wise man accepted her offer was reward in itself. Very quickly, she collected the fish and packed them closely into the basket. She then pointed to the big boat in the middle, onto which the sage boarded. Untying the boat from its moorings, she pushed it into the river, quickly jumped in and started rowing towards the opposite bank.
The river was rough and the current extremely rapid. She had to struggle very hard to row across. Despite her sustained efforts, the boat did not go straight but traveled in a diagonal as the powerful current tried to drag it down stream. Despite the clouds and the chill in the breeze, the effort of rowing was so great, that Satyavathi soon broke into a sweat. Being born of a fisherman, sweat and toil were not alien to her and unmindful of her sweaty forehead and sweat-drenched armpits, Satyavathi rowed hard to take the sage across.
The wind was blowing from the direction of the fishing girl towards the sage, and each time the breeze hit the Rishi’s’ nose, he smelt a strong and noxious odor of stale fish. Eating fish, working constantly with fish, handling fish the whole day and even using fish oil for her hair had imbibed a fish odor into her. The smell of her sweat blended with that of fish produced such a repugnant odor that the sage was forced to keep his hand on his nose...
In the ancient times, food was classified into three types. Satvik Bhojana, Rajasik Bhojana, and Tamasic Bhojana. Translated into a language that we can understand, a Satvik Bhojana is clean and uncontaminated food suitable for offering to gods and consumption by Brahmins. This included milk, nectar, honey, ghee, and perfumed herbs. This also included rice, wheat and vegetables cooked not more than three hours earlier.
Rajasik Bhojana, or the food of Kshatriyas, was rich in oil and spices. It was laced with pungent additives like onions and garlic, green and red chilies, pepper lime and tamarind. This also included fresh meat cooked not earlier than six hours. A Tamasic Bhojana was meant for the Shudras and people of low castes. And this included fish, stale vegetables and grain, and old meat, cooked more than eight hours ago.
Sage Vyasa says that each human body smells differently. He gives an example of a small child fed on only milk smelling like a bouquet of Jasmine flowers. He then goes on to describe a king used to all kinds of Rajasikk foods, developing boils and blisters, with his diabetic body emitting an odor of stale and worm ridden fruit. And finally he talks about low caste Shudras who eat Tamasic food, whose body, sweat and secretions emit a foul odor. The rishi used to Satvik food alone, was flustered by the noxious odors that wafted out of Satyavati’s body. As the boat struggled its way across the rapid flow of Yamuna, the young girl had to redouble her efforts at the oar. That made her sweat a lot more. And each time the smell of fish and rancid sweat hit the rishi, he felt uncomfortable and nauseous.
The next instant the mind of the sage was seized with feelings of guilt and sorrow. He addressed himself thus “What is the use of your being a wise rishi? What is use of doing rituals and prayers? Here is a young girl who is struggling with all her might to take you across the wild and turbulent river. And all you are thinking about is the obnoxious smell!”
He then mentally answered his own question “Oh! But I am so helpless. My Satvik and religious ways of life leave my body unprepared to tolerate the noxious and toxic smells. I may be able to live without food. I may be able to starve and torture my body. I may have trained my body in ways of austerity and sacrifice. And yet I have not mastered my sense to disregard the smell”.
He could not continue to remain in the boat any longer. He was tempted to jump down, but the swirling waters and the fact that he was a poor swimmer prevented him from doing that. Suddenly an idea came to his head. Invoking his divine powers he cast a spell of boon on Satyavathi. He said thus “Oh Satyavathi you have impressed me by yourselfless service and dedication. I give you a very special boon and blessing. From this moment the noxious odors emanating from your body will disappear. Instead, your body will emit a lovely and divine perfume. It will smell like an equal mix of jasmine, sandalwood, lavender, eucalyptus, rose and camphor. The six lovely smells would be emitted from your body for the rest of your life”.
Lord Vyasa says that a pig does not know that it is dirty. And a rubbish heap smells like incense to the nose of a pig. Likewise Satyavathi, who never considered her body odor to be noxious in anyway, was not quite impressed. As the boat reached the other end, the sage got down. He was no longer bothered with the smell, because Satyavathi was emitting a lovely aroma of perfumes. He then blessed her
“Oh young fisher maiden! You have taken a great trouble to ferry me across the turbulent and wild waters of the river. I would like to bless you. I hereby bless you that you will marry a King and that your son will be a ruler.” So saying, the rishi gave a smile and walked away. On her return journey the wind was favorable and Satyavathi could row back before dark.
With a fish loaded basket on her head, Satyavathi walked to her hut where Matsya Guru was anxiously awaiting for her return. Night had started to fall and the father was worried and anxious. Suddenly the father’s nose smelt a fragrance which was unknown in the fishing hamlet. The old fisherman almost recollected the pleasant smell emanating from the royal chariots of the queens. The queens and princes anointed their bodies with such scents. The anxious fisherman asked the budding teenager.
“What kept you so long? Don’t you realize that after your mother’s death, I have been your father and mother too! Don’t you realize that it was a mother’s heart beating anxiously that awaited your arrival?” With a smile Satyavathi told her father about the rishi. She explained how the great sage had blessed her body with some sort of a perfume. She was also blessed with a royal wedding and a son who would rule a kingdom. With great joy, Matsya Guru embraced and blessed his daughter.
His happiness and joy knew no bounds. With a big smile he told his daughter that her days of a fisher woman were over. She had been blessed to wed a king and so she would start being groomed for a royal household.
Matsya Guru was not a rich man. But he had accumulated substantial savings over the years. He arranged for the best education for his daughter. He hired teachers to teach her the ways and manner of a royal household. Trained teachers taught her how to walk, how to talk and how to express and behave herself in the company of the educated and rich. He bought her the best clothes he could afford and the finest jewellery that his meager savings could procure. A few of the fishermen started ridiculing him for treating his daughter like a queen while he lived in the dirty fishing hamlet. But Matsya Guru remained unperturbed by these comments and criticisms.
With age, Satyavathi blossomed into a lovely young lady of exceptional beauty. She received her training in dance, arts, literature, language, phonetics, diction and manners from the experts. And thus with time she looked and behaved like a queen and royalty though she lived in the fishing hamlet.
Matsya Guru was a clever man. He understood that his daughter would not be a queen until she married a king. He thus made discreet enquiries about the kings and princes of his neighboring kingdoms to identify the right choice for Satyavathi. He had a provisional list but his final choice was Devavrata.
Devavrata, the dashing and charming prince of Hasthinapura was the heir apparent. He was the only son of his widowed father and thus fortunate in not having brothers who might vie for the crown. He was the son of the mighty emperor Shantanu who was getting old in age and quite soon Devavrata would ascend to the throne of Hasthinapura. Matsya Guru dreamed that Devavrata and Satyavathi would produce children who would rule the kingdom.
As his daughter grew older he started devising plans that would get her to the close proximity of the prince. Satyavathi had grown into an exceptionally pretty young lady, and with the boon that made her perfumed, she would be an irrefusable attraction to the young prince. While the old man was planning thus, he did not have the faintest idea that fate was writing a different story altogether for Satyavathi. As the passage of time would reveal, Satyavathi ended up marrying Devavrata’s father. She thus became Devavrata’s stepmother, rather than a Wife as planned by the leader of the fishing community.
Mahabharatha is not only a wonderful epic but also probably the most complicated story ever told. Veda Vyasa the writer thus employs special techniques and methods. For example, at this moment, he doesn’t tell us that the sage who crossed the river was none else but Parashara, Vyasa’s father. He also avoids telling us about other things that happened during the boat ride, including a detour to a small island. I too would follow Vyasa’s technique and keep you in suspense till we reach the appropriate point in the Saga!
7. SHANTANU AND SATYAVATI
Shantanu was fifty-four years old, and Devavrata was a fine young man of twenty. Deva means God and Vrata means a promise or a sacrifice. With a passage of time, while Shantanu did the actual ruling of his kingdom, he included Devavrata in all administrative matters so that his son could gain experience and expertise in royal duties and administrative responsibilities. After Ganga had left him, Shantanu had relinquished all the worldly pleasures and was leading a life of simplicity and austerity. He looked after his subjects well and looked up to his son with a great pride and pleasure. He occupied himself with religious and pious activity.
One day Shantanu sat in the palace, looking at the full moon and musing about his past. He was just twenty five when he had met and married Goddess Ganges. The nine years he spent in her company were the most blissful and happy times in his entire life. And once Ganga had left with Devavrata, he was plunged into deep anguish and sorrow that had lasted until Devavrata’s return. Now that his son had come back to him, his loneliness had disappeared and he felt a sense of contentment and pleasure that only fathers of ideal sons feel. He told himself that Devavrata was turning into a handsome youth. He should soon start searching an ideal royal consort and bride for his son. And once Devavrata sired a son, the old man could relinquish his kingdom to the crown prince and spend his time with his grandson on his lap. Thinking thus; he made plans about sending emissaries to the neighboring kingdoms to locate a princess of true royal lineage who would be his daughter in law.
As Shantanu was looking at the moon and thinking thus, his palace servant came and announced that the coach was ready to take him to the Shiva temple before day break, the next day. As a part of his prayers and religious rituals, Shantanu used to visit all the famous temples in his kingdom. The next morning, he was scheduled to visit a Shiva temple on the banks of the Yamuna. A chariot had been arranged to leave the palace before dawn to reach the temple early in the morning. Arrangements had been made for a special prayer. The king was ready the next morning before sunrise. A big chariot drawn by eight horses took him to the temple. It was a custom in those days that kings did not wear their flashy royal clothes and gold jewellery when they went to offer prayers. And so Shantanu was dressed in a simple white silk dress! He got down from his chariot at the banks of river Yamuna and had a bath in the clear cool waters of the river. In wet clothes with feelings of piety and religious fervor, he went inside the Shiva temple to offer his prayers.
The temple was an ancient structure and renowned for its powers. The deity was a black stone Shivalingam that stood majestically on its granite pedestal. Three white stripes of vibhooti or sacred ash were applied to the lingam and the white of the ash contrasted brilliantly with the black granite of the Shiva lingam. The priests had made all the preparations for a special pooja to be performed by the king. Incense and camphor were lit and Shantanu sat cross legged in front of the icon with closed eyes, and started his meditation and prayers.
The Vedas and Puranas lay down the rules of an ideal code of conduct. They tell us that a Bhakta or devotee should devote his entire attention and total concentration while offering prayers. He should not allow outside influences to distract him. But at this point Veda Vyasa tells us that devotees are after all mortal and human. They are not expert Rishis or yogis who would be able to control their minds on all occasions. As Shantanu was sitting cross legged in deep concentration, chanting the mantras in Sanskrit showering praises on our Lord Shiva, his nose was suddenly assailed by a fragrance of the type he had not experienced before. Whether the perfume was from flowers, or sandal wood or incense, he could not say. This divine fragrance was accompanied by a jangling of anklets and a tinkle of bangles. He slowly opened his eyes and looked around. And Shantanu was stunned by what he saw.
A little away from him, offering prayers was the most magnificent woman that he had seen. The young woman even surpassed Ganga in beauty and form. This lady stood before the deity with folded hands and closed eyes, her lips moving silently while she offered her prayers. A string of gold bangles on her wrists and a pair of silver anklets around her ankle made a characteristic tingling noise as she turned to one side or bent down in prostration. The strange divine blend of exotic perfume was emanating from the body of this young woman. Her face showed a look of divinity or royalty. Her tone, manner and body language spoke of a lineage and a thorough upbringing. As Shantanu saw her, he felt Kama Deva (God of Love or cupid) strike his arrows in his heart.
At this juncture VedaVyasa expounds his philosophy of love. He writes that love is for the youth and not for middle aged man. A middle aged man struck with love bug will behave strangely and irresponsibily
Our scriptures tell us that a man’s average life span is hundred years. This is divided into four equal parts of twenty five years each. The first twenty five years is to be spent as a Brahmachari. A Brahmachari is a bachelor who spends his time in prayers, meditations and the study of scriptures. The pursuit of knowledge and education are his primary goals. On crossing twenty five years he enters the next stage, that of Grahasta. A Grahasta is a stage of conjugality. It is in this period that he takes a wife and enjoys the pleasures of flesh, sires his children, and fulfills the responsibilities of bringing up his family and children. At the age of fifty, he passes from the phase of Grahasta to Vanaprastha. This is the stage of maturity, where the academics of the childhood, and experiences as a youth, make a man mature. He spends his time fruitfully listening to wise men, participating in discourses and religious discussions and visiting temples and shrines to offer prayers and poojas. At seventy five a man enters the stage of Sanyasa. A Sanyasi relinquishes the worldly pleasures and renounces all material objects. At this age he goes to the forests and lives the life of an ascetic and nomad till his death.
Thus sage Vyasa writes that love, marriage carnal pleasures and sensual activities should be limited to the years of twenty five to fifty. Once a man reaches fifty he should become a Vanaprasta. If he defies the ethics of our scriptures and falls in love at this age, or succumbs to the temptations of lust, he would surely fall into a deep trap, causing great harm to himself and those around him.
It was thus unfortunate that Shantanu succumbed to feelings of lust at the age of fifty four. Satyavathi, the perfumed lady whom he had just seen, bewitched him to such an extent that he lost all concentration in his prayers.
Satyavathi was oblivious to the king’s presence. As usual she had got up early, had a dip in the Yamuna and with her wet white clothes, entered the temple to offer her prayers. The wet clothes sticking to her body and her lovely black tresses, moist with the river water accentuated her beauty and innocence. With the smell she was emanating she was totally bewitching and attractive to the middle aged Shantanu who stared at her without blinking his eyes. He watched with a dumb gaze as the nubile nymphet finished her prayers and walked out of the temple.
Her long wet hair, her wet clothes sticking to her shapely body, the tinkling silver anklets and the resonating gold bangles stirred the feelings of lust and desire in his heart. Shantanu gestured to his charioteer to follow her to find out who she was, and where she went. As the charioteer followed Satyavathi, Shantanu turned back towards the deity of lord Shiva and closed his eyes. But his efforts at concentrations and rituals were in vain. He could not remember his prayers!
The moment the charioteer saw the king gesture to him, the first thought that came to his mind was that the king was sending him to ascertain the antecedents of the pretty girl to choose her for his son Devavrata. He nodded his head in agreement, because he too felt that the lady had manner, poise and an attitude befitting a queen, and that she would make an ideal princess for Devavrata. And with these thoughts in mind, he slowly followed her.
Satyavathi in the meanwhile left the temple and walked to Yamuna Vatika. A Vatika in Sanskrit is a flower garden. This was a lovely park and garden on the shore of the river. Her daily routine took her to the temple after her morning bath, after which she spent sometime in the Vatika. Her smell attracted a lot of fauna like doves, bucks, parrots and peacocks. Satyavathi would usually spend sometime in the park before returning home to start her singing and dancing lessons.
Thus, when the charioteer walked into the Vatika, he found her sitting on the soft green grass surrounded by peacocks, black bucks and two young spotted deer. The animals seemed to be attracted to her like flies and moth to a flame and hovered around her constantly. The poor charioteer lost his confidence as he saw this spectacle. If she were a commoner, he would have walked to her and asked her name, father’s name and address. However seated on the green grass and feeding the deer, she looked like Oorvashi of the Indra’s court. She looked either like a Deva Kanya or someone belonging to a royal household. A charioteer who belonged to a low caste could not summon courage to talk to her. He stood for a few seconds admiring her and then walked back to his king to convey the news. As he walked back, his mind told him that this lady would surely be an ideal princess and a wife for Devavrata.
He saw the king outside the temple, standing besides his chariot. He was a bit surprised to see that the king had finished his prayers so soon. He was not to know that Shantanu had abandoned the prayers half way through. He walked close to the king and addressed him respectfully
“Your majesty, I followed the damsel. From here, she went straight to the Vatika. She looks like Menaka of the heavens. The whole garden is permeated by the perfume that emanates from her body. Her divine smell surpasses that of the best rose or the biggest jasmine. Attracted by her smell, birds and beasts surround her. The last I saw her, she was feeding blades of grass to a spotted deer that was eating it off her hands.” Shantanu could not contain his impatience as he spoke desperately.
“Forget about the gardens and deer. Tell me about her. What is her name? Where does she come from? What is her family background? Who is her father?” On hearing the king’s impatient tone and excited voice, the charioteer had a deep sense of forbearing in his heart. He suddenly realized that the king had himself fallen in love. It was not for Devavrata’s sake that he was enquiring about her. The king lusted for her himself. With a sense of gloom and despondency he said.
“Sir I observed her from a distance. Her appearance is divine and poise regal. I could not summon courage to talk to her directly, lest I would be committing a breach of protocol!”
Shantanu gave a big smile and said “In that case, lead me to her. I will ask her myself”.
And led by the charioteer, Shantanu walked the short distance to the Vatika. On reaching the park, he realized that his charioteer had not exaggerated. Satyavathi was indeed looking like an apsara from heaven. In her dazzling white dress which had now dried in the sun, and surrounded by the deers and bucks, she looked like a princess. He approached her and in his royal tone and language addressed her thus.
“Oh lovely maiden, my name is Shantanu. I am the king of Hasthinapura. My kingdom extends from the Yamuna River here to the Ganges in the north. To the huge deserts in the west and to the blue seas in the east! I am highly impressed on seeing you. Who are you?”
The change in Satyavathi was dramatic. She immediately rose and gave a bow to the king. With a cultured voice, dribbling with reverence and respect she said.
“Oh mighty king! I am called Satyavathi. Because of the perfume that emanates from my body, I am also called Sugandhavati. I am the only daughter of Matsya Guru, the leader of the fishing community. I live in a fishing hamlet with my father. Our house is situated on the banks of Yamuna, not too far from here. I am extremely fortunate to be graced by your royal presence. And now if you would excuse me, I shall go back to my father and tell him about my good fortune in having met the emperor himself.”
So saying she demurely got up and very gracefully walked out of the Vatika. The deers and bucks and peacocks disappeared in various directions and Shantanu was left alone staring at the green grass where she had been seated. He came out of his dazed reverie only when the charioteer addressed him.
“Oh great king, the horses are fed and rested. The chariot is ready to depart to the capital whenever you are ready to start”.
But returning to the capital was the last thing on Shantanu’s mind. So bewitched and captivated was he, that he told his charioteer.
“We are not going to the capital. Go to the fishing hamlet on the banks of river Yamuna and locate the hamlet of their chief. His name is Matsya Guru. Once you meet him, tell him that you are my emissary and bring him my message. Tell him that I Shantanu, the king of Hastinapura would be visiting within the next hour. Having made this announcement come back here to fetch me. I am sure that they can use the one hour interval to make preparations to welcome and receive me”.
8. SATYAVATI’S FATHER
The charioteer had mixed emotions as he walked towards the fishing hamlet. That the maiden was not of royal blood became quite clear. Not withstanding that, he was willing to accept her as Devavrata’s consort. The young prince could always take a second wife from the royal family. But the love sick expressions on the old man’s face really troubled him. There is no fool like an old fool and he was quite sure that Shantanu was making a fool of himself. The charioteer himself was about fifty five years of age and a proud grand father of a two year old girl. He had been in the king’s service from his childhood. He had accompanied Shantanu on his hunts. He had been proud and happy when Ganga had come as his wife. He had shared the king’s sorrow at his seven still born children. And he had rejoiced Devavratas return after his education.
The village was located on the banks of Yamuna. The houses were poorly constructed thatched huts. The whole place was littered with dirt and garbage. Smell of stale fish was prevailing in the atmosphere. He saw a small boy playing in the streets. He walked close to him and said.
“Hello young man! Can you do me a small help? I am looking for the house of the chief fisherman. His name is Matsya Guru. Can you please direct me to it?” The urchin was quite smart. He looked at the charioteer and said “Close your eyes and take a deep breath” The charioteer was a bit surprised. But to humor the child he took a deep breath. His nose was assailed by the smell of dry fish, rotten fish, fresh fish and garbage. He opened his eyes and said
“Yes I have taken a breath, now what?” The young boy smiled at him and said “What do you smell?” The charioteer gave a smile and replied “I smell fish and all sorts of garbage. What is so special about it? You could smell only fish in a fishing village. If you remember, I asked you for the location of Matsya Guru’s house. Can you please direct me to it?” The boy smiled again and replied
“If you smell with a discerning nose, amongst the fish smell, you will also smell the perfumes of jasmine and lavender. Follow the smell and it will lead you to the village chief’s house”
The charioteer pretended ignorance about the smell and asked “Why? Does the fishing village chief’s house run a business of selling lavender and Jasmine flowers?” The urchin laughed aloud and said “No! His daughter Satyavathi has been blessed by a sage, that she will emit a divine fragrance. I have just seen her walk back to her home. Follow your nose in the direction of the fragrance, and you will reach the correct house”
As advised, he took a deep breath and followed his nose. There was indeed a faint but fragrant smell rising above the fish odor. He followed the perfume that took him through streets lined by huts and hamlets on both sides. Fishing nets were being repaired and dry fish was laid down in sun. As he got closer, the perfume increased in intensity till he was able to identify the house at the end of a narrow street from which it was coming. He walked straight to the door and knocked. The door was opened by Satyavathi. Now that he had come to know that she was a commoner like himself, he was no longer diffident as he addressed her. He said.
“Oh young lady, I want to talk to your father who is also known as Matsya Guru, and who is the leader of this fishing community”. The girl invited him inside the house and went in to summon her father. After a few minutes wait, the old fisherman arrived. The charioteer said “Oh fisherman! I am the charioteer and emissary of king Shantanu, the emperor of Hasthinapura. He desires to meet you. Rather than summon you to the palace, he has desired to grace your humble abode by visiting it personally. I am fetching him in a chariot which will bring him here in exactly one hour’s time. I request you to be ready and prepared for welcoming and receiving him”.
This news would have shocked any other person. But Matsya Guru had been preparing for this very moment for many many years. He knew that his daughter was so unique and attractive that she was like a pink lotus rising out of a dirty pond. It did not matter how dirty the pond was. The lotus was always divine. He praised his good fortune that the word about his daughter had somehow reached the king. He was almost certain that the king was coming to his house to ask the hand of his daughter for prince Devavrata. He looked up to the charioteer and said “Our king Shantanu is our royal benefactor. It is my good fortune that he has elected to visit me. A one hour notice is too short to make adequate preparations to welcome the king. However once the king has conveyed his wish, his desire becomes our command. Go and fetch your king, we shall welcome and receive him to the best of our abilities”
The king’s chariot was too massive to enter the narrow lane and thus it had to be parked at the end of the street while the king got down and walked majestically towards the chieftain’s hamlet. As he got down, Shantanu was feeling a bit concerned that he was attired in a simple dress and not in his regal and royal attire. Sage Vyasa writes that a man blindly in love becomes so vain, that he fails to realize that dressing in silk robes and decking up in extensive jewellery does not make him young. Considering himself still youthful and virile, Shantanu walked towards the fisherman’s house in search of his lady love.
Matsya Guru was waiting and welcomed him with folded hands. Shantanu was pleasantly surprised to find that the fisherman’s house was clean and well furnished. He took his seat on the cushioned asana that Matsya Guru offered him. He then started speaking “I am sure you know who I am, and thus I will just introduce myself as Shantanu, the king of Hasthinapura. I have had the good fortune of seeing your daughter in the Shiva temple. She has impressed me so much that I have decided to come to your house and talk to you about her.”
The fisherman was not too surprised. He had been awaiting this moment for many many years. He bowed to the king respectfully and said “Indeed oh king, your visit has honored me. My humble and worthless abode has been purified by your royal feet” Matsya Guru was under the impression that the king was visiting him to ask the hand of Satyavathi for his son Devavrata. He thus continued.
“I knew that my daughter was fit to be a queen since she was thirteen years of age. At that time she was blessed by a rishi that she would emit a heavenly perfume and that she would marry a king. Since that day I have treated her like a princess. I have lost my wife at childbirth. I have been both a mother and father to Satyavathi”. He continued “From that time I have hired the best teachers to train her in all aspects of life that may be required of her in a royal household. She is an expert in music, dance, Vedas, puranas and literature. She has been taught to walk like a queen, behave like a queen and speak like a queen. Her culinary teacher has imparted her with such knowledge, that there is none who can cook as deliciously as Satyavathi for many many miles around. Anticipating your arrival I have asked her to make same special dishes for you”
As the father finished his statement, Satyavathi walked in with a silver salver containing delicious food, cooked exactly in the manner in which they were prepared in the royal household. As she entered the room, the delectable aroma from her food blended with the perfume emanating from her body and made Shantanu crazy with lust. As the king slowly ate, he could not keep his eyes away from her pretty face.
The fisherman continued to extol the virtues of his daughter. He said “Though a few offers for her marriage have come to me from the neighboring kingdoms, I have not given them a serious consideration, because I always desired that she becomes the queen of Hasthinapura. And it is indeed my good fortune that you have come to my abode for this purpose”
As Shantanu heard Matsya Guru speak, he was overcome with joy. In his mind, he was thanking his good fortune that despite his age, both the old man and his daughter were happy to have an alliance with him. Looking to Satyavathi, he addressed her father thus
“Oh chief of fisher folk, I totally agree with you. Your daughter is indeed fit to be the queen of Hasthinapura. It is a good fortune that you have trained her in the ways of royalty that will make her an ideal queen. We must consult the royal astrologer to choose an appropriate time. I am quite anxious and do not want to delay the wedding unnecessarily”
And in this manner the conversation continued for the next hour while both Shantanu and Matsya Guru discussed the wedding plans in great detail. The only point that escaped discussion was the groom’s name. Sage Veda Vyasa introduces a little bit of comedy in his narration at this juncture. He says that it appeared as if the conversation was happening between two deaf men. Each person knew only what he was speaking, while he only saw the lip movements of the other and presumed that their talks concerned the same topic. This state of affairs continued for sometime. Finally looking towards Satyavathi, King Shantanu said “There is no denying in the fact that I am fifty four years old. But the fact remains that all my life I have not had a consort or queen other than Ganga. And since I lost her over twenty year’s ago, I have been leading a pious and religious life. I have exercised well and looked after my physical health. I am mentally as alert as I was, two decades ago. I would like to take this opportunity of assuring you that age has not diminished either my youth or virility. I am absolutely sure that I can provide a physical companionship to your daughter to her utmost satisfaction despite this difference in our ages. And she will be a proud and regal queen who will occupy the throne beside me, while I rule Hasthinapura”
Only now Matsya Guru understood the king’s true intention. Like a piece of stick shaking away the cobwebs, everything became clear. The old man was momentarily shocked but recovered his composure quickly. He was extremely clever and a quick thinker. He told himself that it did not matter too much which king Satyavathi married so long as she married a king. But he could see some problems too. Devavrata was already crowned as the Yuvaraj. The people knew that he would succeed Shantanu as a king. Thus Satyavathi would not only be pushed to a position of Devavrata’s step mother, but also her children as Devavrata’s step brothers would receive a much less honor.
And finally when Devavrata married a suitable Kshatriya princess, then his children would form the direct lineage with the right to occupy the throne after him. Satyavati’s children would end up occupying a dummy post in the royal court. The old man came to a conclusion that so long as Devavrata remained the crown prince, his daughter had no future as the king’s wife. But he could not put it so bluntly, lest he annoy Shantanu. Choosing his words with extreme care and caution he said “Oh king, I am quite overwhelmed by your offer. But I have a small problem. My daughter Satyavathi is blessed by a wise sage and a rishi who has said that she will marry a king and give birth to children who will be rulers of their kingdom. In your case, the kingdom of Hasthinapura has already been promised to Devavrata. And so children born out of Satyavathi and you, will not become rulers of Hasthinapura.” He paused for a whole minute to allow the meaning as his words to sink in. He then continued “I am a religious man. I believe in blessings and curses. Knowing very well that by marrying you, the blessing of my daughter will get falsified, I do not wish to invite the wrath of Gods”
The old man used words in such a manner that he had conveyed everything without actually asking for anything. He expected Shantanu to make an announcement that he would confer the throne to Satyavati’s sons. But to Shantanu, the thought did not even occur! He imagined his son with features like Indra and intelligence of Devas. To think of snatching the crown away from him was so abhorrent that it threw cold water on his lust. He did not wait for the fisherman to continue further. He said
“Oh Matsya Guru! I know what you desire. You want me to make a promise that I will assign the crown and throne to my sons born out of Satyavathi, snatching it away from the brave and noble Devavrata. But such a thing can never happen. I can forsake even my life for my son Devavrata. Thus forsaking my love is trivial for me”
Having said thus, Shantanu walked out without saying a farewell. Almost as if he was a zombie, he walked mechanically to his chariot. As the chariot drove away to the capital, the entire fishing hamlet was agog with whispers about the king’s visit to Matsya Guru. And in the chariot, the charioteer was thanking the gods of fortune, that the king had not succumbed to his temptations and done injustice to Devavrata.
Devavrata in the meanwhile was spending his time profitably and productively in running the kingdom and learning the ropes. He was very close to his father and used to spend time with Shantanu, every day without fail. Father and son would either join together in the morning for archery practice or go to the temple together to offer prayers. And on most evenings, before Devavrata retired to bed, he would go to his father’s bed chamber and spend time with him discussing the affairs of the state or playing a game of dice. The day after Shantanu returned from his visit to the Shiva temple, he did not appear in the morning for his scheduled archery practice. He sent word to his son that he was not feeling well.
A worried Devavrata rushed up to his father and found him pacing anxiously. Devavrata enquired about his health, spent some time with him and promised to send the royal physician. But the physician could find nothing wrong. He reported this to Devavrata who was reassured. But with the passage of days, he found that his father appeared sicker. He had a vague look on his eyes and a forlorn expression on his face. The royal physicians, despite best efforts, were unable to either diagnose or cure him. On seeing his father’s state, Devavrata addressed him.
“Oh venerable father! What ails you? You, who are endowed with every thing a man could desire, are still sick and unhappy about something. Please tell me what worries you?”
Shantanu was very impressed by the concern shown by his son. He was however unable to bring himself to tell the truth. He said.
‘Oh son! I am worried about you and our lineage. I know you are alive and healthy. But a Kshatriya always faces danger. I am anxious and worried that if something happens to you, what would happen to our lineage?”
Devavrata could not realize that his father was indirectly referring to his marriage. He misunderstood it as Shantanu’s desire to see Devavrata married soon, and father children so that his lineage would continue. He replied.
“Oh venerable father! Do not worry! I have not married and given you grand children to continue your lineage. It is indeed my fault for which I apologize. Please find any suitable Kshatriya maiden and I will marry her and give you grand children.”
Shantanu could realize his sons misunderstanding but this only made him ashamed further. He told his son that he had already sent emissaries for an appropriate bride for him. Thinking that his father was pacified, Devavrata returned to his chamber hoping that his father would get better soon. But a passage of time made his condition deteriorate rather than improve. Shantanu lost weight, and had a perpetual expression of anguish and loss on his face.
Devavrata could realize that his father’s troubles started from the day he returned from the banks of the Yamuna. He reasoned that something would have happened to him on that day which would have resulted in his sickness. He made discreet enquiries and found that his father had gone alone to the temple. The only person who had accompanied was the charioteer. Devavrata summoned the charioteer to ask him if anything out of the ordinary had happened. The charioteer shook his head and denied that anything special or different happened on that day. But the expression on his face told Devavrata that the charioteer was lying. He called him closer and addressed him in a very soft voice.
“You are as old as my father. You are thus as venerable and respectable as him. My father is very dear to me and there is nothing in this world that I would not do to make him happy. Please look back and tell me what happened. It is only for the good of my father that I ask!”
He was a bit reluctant at first but as Devavrata coaxed him gradually, he came out with the truth. He spoke thus
“Oh valiant prince! Oh Yuvaraj of Hasthinapura, it is all the doings of an imposter which has caused this situation to your father. She acts and behaves as though she is a princess. But in actual fact she is only a pretender and a hoax. She is neither of royal lineage nor of untainted blood. She is the daughter of a fisherman living in a filthy fishing hamlet. With some boon from a sage or may be some trickery of anointing perfumes, this seductress wrecks havoc on the minds of innocent people”.
Devavrata was a bit confused on hearing these disjointed ramblings. He urged the charioteer to tell the entire details of what happened on that day. He said.
“Don’t hurry, don’t fear. Tell me all that happened on the day you had gone to the temple. Do not omit a single event. Tell me everything in detail and chronologically.”
The charioteer slowly started the story and spoke about Matsyaguru’s stand and his conditions!
“What conditions?” asked Devavrata. The charioteer said “It pained my ears to hear it. And it pains my lips to utter it too. The crafty and cunning old man wanted the King to snatch the crown away from you and promise it to the sons born to that imposter. However love sick our king Shantanu might be, I admire him for his sense of Dharma. He very curtly refused to even consider the proposal and coolly walked out of their house”
Hearing this, Devavrata was immersed in deep thought. The charioteer continued.
“Oh valiant prince, it is not for me to advice the King, because I am a lowly charioteer. However I am elder to you and thus can take the liberty of expressing my opinions to you. After fifty years of age, a man should enter Vanaprastha. Our scriptures prescribe thus. I was very upset and unhappy that rather than trying to find a bride for you and await the arrival of his grandsons, the king wants to find a wife for himself”
Devavrata said “Is there no solution for this?”
The charioteer said
“Time is the only solution. She is a pretty girl. She has a cunning and resourceful father. He will not keep her as a maiden in his house for long. In the near future he will surely get her married off to some King or Prince. Once King Shantanu realizes that she has become unobtainable, he will, surely forget her.”
But the coachman had completely missed the degree of love and affection that Devavrata had for his father. “Tell me where she lives? Tell me about the direction of travel that would take me to her. I will find a proper solution for this problem”.
The coachman looked at Devavrata’s face for a few moments and then broke out into a big smile. He said
“Oh wise Yuvaraj I knew that you would find an ideal solution. I think I understand your idea. You want to marry her yourself. And once you marry her, your father will see her as his daughter in law. The moment he sees the fisher girl as a daughter in law, he will automatically loose interest in her and the problem would be easily solved.”
The charioteer gave the directions to the fishing hamlet and Matsya Guru’s house. Before he departed, Devavrata made the charioteer promise that he would keep the prince’s mission a secret.
He drove fast towards the river Yamuna and the fishing hamlet. His chariot was smaller and thus he could negotiate it into the narrow street and drive straight in. The door was opened by Satyavathi, but Devavrata had no special feelings towards her. The old fisherman rushed to welcome him and offered him a seat. The sly and cunning old man asked Satyavathi to quickly prepare some nice dishes for Devavrata. He then addressed the crown prince and said.
“Welcome oh valiant prince. My house is blessed to have been touched by your feet. My joy knows no bounds on seeing you. I am sure that you have come for Satyavathi. I can assure you that there is no other maiden in this kingdom who is as accomplished, gifted or blessed as her. She should make an ideal queen for you. It will be my good fortune, if you take her as your wife”
Devavrata answered him with dignity.
“There is none else in this whole world that is as dear to me as my father. The moment my father has liked your daughter; she assumes the status of my mother. Thus I can look at her only in the manner in which I look at my mother Ganga. I would request you not to insult my father or delude yourself by offering her hand to me in marriage”
The old fisherman was taken aback. Devavrata continued.
“I only desire that my father be happy. And it appears that he will be happy only when he marries Satyavathi. I also realize that you will not allow this union, so long as I remain the crown prince. I do not wish to stand in the way of my father’s happiness. I am willing to give a promise that my father was unwilling to give you.”
At this moment, Satyavathi entered carrying some delicacies. In a loud and clear voice so that there may be no confusion at a later stage, Devavrata made his promise
“Oh Matsya Guru, the leader of fishermen, hear me; On the Gods and Goddess, on the sun, moon and stars, the earth that sustains us and the water that gives us life, I promise that, I hereby relinquish the throne of Hastinapura. The children born of Shantanu and Satyavathi will reign as Kings of Hasthinapura. I shall always remain by their side, act as their guide, and protect them from their enemies”
His loud words echoed through the entire fishing community. A sudden sigh went through the crowd as they realized that their valiant and brave prince had relinquished his crown for the sake of his father’s love. A few Devas and goddesses peeked out of heavens to look at this sacrifice. Seeing the love of the son for his father and appreciating his sacrifice, the Devas from the heavens cheered Devavrata with sounds and echoes of Bravo! Bravo!
But the old man was not so easily pacified. Matsya Guru was a clever and sly fellow. He addressed Devavrata and said.
“Oh prince I believe you and I am very impressed by the supreme sacrifice that you have done. But I still have a small problem. You being a Kshatriya Prince, will eventually marry a Kshatriya Princess of thorough breed and blue blood. And your progeny will be strong and valiant like you. My daughter belongs to a fisherman community which is genetically a lot weaker than Kshatriyas. And thus the children born out of the union of your father and my daughter will not be as brave or as valiant as yours”
“A promise made by a father is never binding on his sons. You may have given up and relinquished your throne. But what is to stop your bold children to seize power from my weak grand children during the next generation?”
This was a knotty problem that really confused Devavrata. He did not find an immediate solution. After some thought, the young crown prince again spoke in a loud and clear voice.
“Oh Matsya Guru, I understand your logic. However for me it is very important that my father gets united with his lady love. Thus I make another vow or promise”.
“On sun, moon, stars, the earth, the life giving air and water and on my own mother Ganga, I swear an oath that I shall never marry and remain a bachelor all my life. To avoid the accidental possibility of me impregnating any woman and a child born thus, claiming a right to the throne, from this moment onwards I renounce the pleasures of flesh. From this moment I take a vow of chasticity. I promise to remain celibate for the rest of my life”
Such was the supreme sacrifice and so great was the vow that the skies parted and Devas and Gandharvas showered flowers on him shouting ‘Bhishma’ ‘Bhishma’. Bhishma in Sanskrit means awesome. Indeed the vow taken by Devavrata was so awesome that he was henceforth known as Bhishma.
He remained unmarried and remained a godfather to Shantanu’s sons through Satyavathi. Taking Satyavathi by her hand Devavrata, now known as Bhishma, took her to his chariot and rode towards the capital city to convey the good news to his father.
10. THE FAMILY TREE
With Satyavathi sitting besides him, Bhishma drove towards Hastinapura in his chariot which was proudly drawn by the two horses.
Dressed in his royal finery, Bhishma with muscles rippling and his royal silk robes fluttering in the breeze, looked more handsome than Indra, the king of Gods. And sitting in the back, dressed in white with a huge smile of contentment playing on her lips, Satyavathi looked like the apsara Menaka descended from the heavens. The horses tore through the winds. The breeze blew Bhishma's robes and Satyavati’s lovely black hair. And the chariot rode through the streets of Hastinapura as an arrow travelling at a great speed when it exits from the bow.
As the chariot crossed the streets, a large crowd gathered on both sides and started cheering aloud. At the first glance it appeared that their crown prince Bhishma was carrying home his bride who looked royal and devi like. They cheered loudly as the chariot passed. But a guard behind the chariot followed with the news of the great sacrifice done by Bhishma and the terribly awesome vow that he had taken. As the news reached the buoyant and joyous spectators, their happiness turned into sorrow.
“Oh what a great shame” they commented. “Such a dashing young prince. An epitome of manhood. A pinnacle of virility. And yet he is forced to live a life of chasticity and celibacy”. The whispered murmurs continued in a tragic tone. “Shame on his father, our king Shantanu whose lust has deprived the world of the seed of Bhishma. The seed that would have otherwise fertilized a few Kshatriya wombs and produced progeny like him. It is not only a loss to our kingdom but a loss to Dharma as well”.
They commented thus, as the chariot carrying the prince and his prospective step-mother rode at top speed into the capital towards the palace. Seeing the commotion, King Shantanu came out of the palace. The lovely smell of jasmine, lavender, sandal wood and others preceded the chariot and once the king smelt the perfume, he was reminded of his love and Satyavathi. As he got down from the palace steps, Shantanu saw Bhishma followed by the lovely Satyavathi dressed in white flowing silk robes. The moment the king saw them together walking towards him, hand in hand, strange feelings assuaged his heart.
The great sage Vyasa describes this scenario with great details. When Shantanu first saw Devavrata get down with Satyavathi, he felt a strange sensation of comfort because Bhishma and Satyavathi looked like Vishnu and Mahalakshmi walking together. Their physical forms, their bubbling youth, and their lustrous skins matched each other and the two looked like a couple who were made for each other. Paternal feelings overwhelmed the heart of Shantanu, who looked at them as his son and daughter in law.
But these feelings were suddenly replaced by a complex mix of emotions. These emotions contained a sense of loss and an uncontrollable feeling of jealousy towards his own son. And then he saw the huge crowd of people following the chariot enter the palace grounds.
Bhishma walked to his father holding Satyavathi in toe. Once he reached Shantanu. He made her stand near his father and joined his father’s hand with that of the perfumed lady. He walked back a few steps and prostrated of the feet of his father and mother in an attribute of sashtanga namaskara. Our scriptures tell us that bowing before our elders or Gods is Namaskara. And the act of falling prone in front of an elder or a god, touching six parts of the body to the ground forms the posture of total surrender and respect. Shasta in Sanskrit means six and anga refers to body parts. Thus a prostration in which both hands, both knees, the belly and the nose touch the ground is called a total namaskaram or Shastanga Namaskaram.
Having offered his respect to his parents, Bhishma stood up and spoke thus
“Oh brave Shantanu, whom I am fortunate to have as my father and Oh perfumed Satyavathi who from this day is my mother, I feel that the purpose of my birth has been fulfilled because in a very small way I have been instrumental in bringing you together. Please bless me” With tears in his eyes, the king blessed his son. The crowd that had gathered in the palace grounds started chanting ‘Bhishma’ ‘Bhishma’ repeatedly so that the rhythmic sounds reverberated through the kingdom.
Bhishma kept up his promise and stayed a celibate bachelor throughout his life. The descendents of Shantanu and Satyavathi ruled Hastinapura. Unlike what the fishing chief had feared and prevented, it was not a war between Bhishma’s children and Matsya Guru’s grand children! The major war of Mahabharatha was fought between his own great grand children, all of whom were direct descendents of Satyavathi.
Satyavathi had two children Chitrangadha and Vichitrivirya. Chitrangadha ascended the throne because he was the eldest son. Bhishma acted as the Godfather or a “pitamah” for both the sons. Before Chitrangadha could marry and produce children to procreate his progeny, he was killed in a fight with a Gandharva. On his death, the line of ascendancy fell on Vichitravirya who ruled under the guidance of Bhishma. In due course, Vichitravirya married two daughters of the king of Kashi, Ambika and Ambalika. From Ambika was born Drithrashtra and from Ambalika, Pandu.
Drithrashtra was blind at birth and could not ascend the throne because of his visual handicap. He married Gandhari and begot a hundred sons who were called the Kauravas. Pandu married two wives Kunti and Madri. Kunti gave birth to three sons Yudhishtra, Bhima and Arjuna. Madri gave birth to two sons Nakula and Sahadeva. It was a curious mix of situations that each of these sons was sired by a different father. Kunti also sired a son before her marriage to Pandu. This son, was a valiant warrior named Karna. The war which was fought on the battle grounds of Kurukshetra in North India was the largest war of ancient times.
Sage Vyasa writes that it was a war between right and wrong, between correct and incorrect and Dharma and Adharma. Brothers fought against brothers, fathers fought against sons, and uncles fought against nephews. In this war, all relations disappeared leaving only one relationship and that of either being a friend or a foe. Thousands died, thousands of women were widowed, and mothers lost their sons while sons and daughters lost their parents.
The two armies that fought against each other belonged to Pandavas and their supporters on the side of Dharma and Kauravas and their supporters on the side of Adharma. But the two armies which fought with each other were all the great grand children who shared a common ancestry with Shantanu and Satyavathi.
Bhishma had to fight with the Kauravas. But Pandavas had Lord Krishna, the avatara of God Maha Vishnu on their side. The sage says that there is no absolute black and white. Thus our scriptures also say that there is nothing called the absolute right or the absolute wrong. Every right has some wrong in it exactly as each wrong has some right to it. Thus it would be quite incorrect to say that all that the Kauravas did was wrong and what was done by the Pandavas was always correct. We all know that history is written by the victors. And when the history is actually written, it is the winners who are always portrayed as virtuous and Dharmic while the losers are often described as people lacking virtue and dharma.
But we must appreciate sage Veda Vyasa for his honest and detailed description of each event and character in the epic that allows the readers to make their own conclusions about good and bad, and right and wrong. Vyasa does not call any person bad or good. He describes the actions and deeds done by each and every character in the epic, allowing the intelligent readers to draw their own conclusion.
I have drawn a simple family tree of the Kuru dynasty from the time of Shantanu. I have stopped at Pandavas and Kauravas, and have not gone on to enumerate their children or grand children. That would come in the subsequent volumes of the epic.
The great sage Vyasa obliviously did not draw the family tree in the original epic. As I started writing the epic in English, I realized that the numerous characters were so closely interlinked that a simple prose would be too complicated to describe the relationships. I have thus taken the liberty of detailing and drawing a family tree, by referring to which the reader can familiarize himself with the relationship between various characters in the epic.
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