The story of King Shantanu and his marriage to Goddess Ganga. Sage Vasishta's Curse and Devavratha is born.
King Shantanu was walking by the Ganges river when he saw this incredibly beautiful woman. She was goddess Ganga in human form, but Shantanu did not know that. The king was so enamored by her beauty that he at once asked Ganga to marry him. He put his heart, love, his entire kingdom and wealth at her feet and made this request.
Ganga – pleased with the King’s love replied to him. “O King. I shall accept to marry you on one condition. You must never ask me where I am from or the true nature of my origin. You must also never question me on any of my actions - good or bad. You must stand by me on all counts. If you act against any of these conditions, I shall leave you then and there.
The king was so much in love that he accepted Ganga’s conditions and they got married.
One may ask – why would Ganga make such a condition? Which guy in his senses would agree to something like this? As the reasons get revealed later in the story, I ask you to remember 2 things. One, that Ganga did not lie. She was upfront with her expectations. It was up to the King to either accept her as she was or walk away. This is a lesson that each one of us can take in the relationships that we face today. The second thing I ask you to remember is that this story will reveal, with clear examples, how the Law of Karma works. And what may seem as a ridiculous act at one time, will seem reasonable later on.
Shantanu and Ganga lived a life of serene happiness and love. It was a perfect marriage. Ganga was pure in her thoughts and this attracted Shantanu to her even more. Time passed and they were blessed with a new born son.
When the child was born, Ganga took to the child to the Ganges and cast it into river – immediately drowning and killing the newborn. She then walked back to her kingdom with a smile on her face. Shantanu was aghast with horror. He could not believe what he had just seen but he stopped himself from asking Ganga any question mindful of the promise he made to her. He wanted to. He didn’t ask.
As the years passed, Ganga gave birth to 6 more children and to each one, she did the same. Dropped the child in the river as soon as it was born and killed it. Shantanu, grieved as he was, asked no question and bore the pain with restraint.
When the 8th child was born and Ganga walked to the river with the same intention. Shantanu could hold himself no longer. He cried out “Stop! You heartless woman. Why do you do this wretched act? Why do you what no mother would? You are as insane as you are beautiful”.
I want to pause a moment here and reflect on how even the best of relationships can have misunderstandings and fights. Irrespective of right and wrong, when one person does something the other does not like, a fight is inevitable. It is how we deal with the fight that is important. Avoiding it is impractical.
Back to the story. As Shantanu restrained Ganga from doing this horrible act, Ganga replied, “Dear King, you have broken the promise you made to me and the time has come for me to leave you. However, before leaving, I shall answer your question and reveal my origin and the reasons for my actions.” “I am goddess Ganga and am in this human form as a result of Sage Vasishta’s curse on the 8 Vasus.” In Hinduism, the Vasus are attendant deities of Indra, and later Vishnu. They are eight elemental gods representing aspects of nature. The name Vasu means 'Dweller' or 'Dwelling'. They are eight among the Thirty-three gods. Here are the names of the 8 Vasus and their respective meanings.
Anala meaning “living” or “The Fire”
Dhara meaning “support” or “ The Earth”
Anila meaning “The Wind”
Aha meaning “Space”
Pratyusha meaning “light” or the “Sun”
Prabhasa meaning “The Sky”
Soma meaning “The Moon”
Dhruva meaning “The Stars”
Ganga continued - “These 8 Vasus were, one day, traveling on a holiday with their wives when they came across Sage Vasishta’s ashram. Outside the ashram, they saw “Nandini”, Vasishta’s divine cow. One of the wives was taken in so much by the beauty of the cow, that she requested her husband, Prabhasa, to bring the cow to her. Prabhasa replied “Dear, we are devas. What use do we have for cows or cow’s milk? Even though it is Nandini, whose milk gives everlasting life, we are already enjoying immortality on account of being Devas. Most importantly, Sage Vasishta is very fond of Nandini and it would be improper on our part to violate his integrity”. Despite many attempts by Prabhasa, his wife did not yield. She made imploring requests and melted Prabhasa ‘s heart. He agreed and thus, the 8 Vasus took Nandini and her calf by force and disappeared before Vasishta returned to the Ashram.
When Vasishta returned and found Nandini missing, he, through his divine vision, saw all that had happened and cursed the 8 Vasus to be born as Mortal Men in this world.
Remember - for a Deva, who enjoys all pleasures and immortal life in the heavens, to be born in this world and live the life of a man with the pain and suffering we go through in a life time is a horrible experience.
When the 8 Vasus came to know of this curse, they ran to Vasishta and fell at his feet asking for his forgiveness. Vasishta said that the curse cannot be lifted and has to follow its course. But the effect of the curse can be reduced. He said - Go request goddess Ganga to be your mother on earth and ask her to relieve you of your birth as soon as you are born so that you may return to the heavens without long years of suffering. This reduction in effect I grant to 7 of you who supported Prabhasa in his act of stealing. Since Prabhasa was the one who actually stole the cow, the curse will remain in full effect for him and he will have to live his full lifetime on earth like a man. But he will live a great life and be regarded as one of the best souls to have ever walked the earth. Saying this, Vasishta went back into meditation.
Relieved to hear this, the Vasus approached Ganga and requested her to be their mother on earth and throw them into the river as soon as they are born. Ganga agreed and came to earth and became Shantanu’s wife to carry out this task.
Now – having heard the reasons behind Ganga’s act, doesn’t it all make sense? Doesn’t everything seem to fit? Was it not proper for the Devas to go back to their place of abode as soon as possible and in order for that to happen, should they not die in this world – even though they were only a newborn? Could Shantanu have predicted this reason? You may ask why Ganga did not tell Shantanu all this ahead of time. Maybe she felt that Shantanu might try to convince her against her purpose or he may be filled with grief at the certainty of loss of his first 7 children. Imagine knowing ahead of time that your wife is going to through your first 7 sons into a river! Whatever the case may be, No amount of analysis will satisfy us. But it is important to understand that this was Destiny’s way and the way had a purpose. The purpose exists whether or not we are aware of it. This is our lesson in Karma and this is our lesson in accepting the Karma.
Now what happened to the 8th child? After telling this story, Ganga left Shantanu but took the infant with her. She brought him up for a few years and once the infant became a child, Ganga brought him back to Shantanu and said “Oh King. This is the 8th son I bore you. His name is Devavratha. He has learned the vedas from Vasishta and is well skilled in all forms of sciences and archery.”
Shantanu was overjoyed at getting his son back – who was glowing like a person of divine origin. He raised his son from thereon – full of love. This son, Devavratha goes on to become the famous Bhishma in the next chapter.