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Appendix 3: Bhīṣma’s Heavenly Origin

In ancient times there lived a king named Mahavisha. During his long life he performed great sacrifices and, as a result, ascended to Indra’s abode at the end of his life. Once in an assembly of the gods, with Brahmā present, Mahavisha saw the divinely beautiful Gaṅgā. As he looked at her, a gust of wind suddenly blew away her garments. All the celestials looked away, but Mahavisha continued to gaze at her, captivated by her beauty. For this rudeness, Brahmā cursed him as follows: “You will again be born on earth, but you will return here after one life.”

Mahavisha thought for a moment, remembering all the monarchs on earth. Among them all he considered a king named Pratipa to be the most pious. He therefore asked Brahmā if he might become Pratipa’s son, to which Brahmā agreed.

Gaṅgā, having seen Mahavisha’s unashamed attraction for her, left the assembly thinking of him. As she went away she came across the Vasus, who looked dejected. When she asked them the cause of their despondency, they replied, “We have been cursed by the powerful Ṛṣi Vasiṣṭa. Thus we must soon take birth as men on earth. For this we are sorry.”

Gaṅgā heard how the eight Vasus had tried to take from Vasiṣṭa his heavenly cow, Nandini. Their leader, Dyau, had been implored by his wife to seize the cow, which was able to give anything one desired. Dyau had assented to his wife’s request and, with his brothers’ assistance, had stolen the cow. When Vasiṣṭa discovered the theft, he was furious. Understanding by his mystic power that the Vasus were responsible, he touched holy water and uttered his curse.

The Vasus soon learned of the curse and went before the ṛṣi, remorsefully returning the cow and begging his forgiveness; but Vasiṣṭa said his words could not prove false. Repeatedly requested for mercy, he finally said, “You eight Vasus will all be born on earth, but you will be freed from the curse quickly. Only Dyau, the chief culprit, will have to remain on earth for a full lifetime. He will be virtuous, powerful and learned in the Vedas, but he will not beget offspring. Indeed, he will have to abstain from the pleasures of women.”

The Vasus asked Gaṅgā to go to earth as a woman and become their mother as they did not wish to enter the womb of any human woman. When Gaṅgā asked who they would choose as their father, they replied, “There is a king named Pratipa who will soon have a son named Śantanu. That prince is destined to become our father.”

Gaṅgā was delighted. Śantanu would be an incarnation of Mahavisha. She smiled. “I will surely become your mother. Go where you will. We will soon meet again.”

In due course, the Vasus fell from heaven and Gaṅgā left for earth. Soon after, Śantanu, while wandering along the banks of the Ganges, met the goddess. Struck by her beauty, he felt his hair stand on end. Her features were flawless and she was adorned with fine silk robes as beautiful as the filaments of lotus flowers. His mouth dropped open and he could not take his eyes from her.

Gaṅgā was also attracted to the handsome monarch, and she returned his gaze, her dark eyes meeting his and sending a thrill through his body. Moving closer to her, Śantanu said, “O beautiful one, whether you are a goddess, a Gandharvi, a Dānava, an Asura, or an Apsarā, I beg you to become my wife. You seem to have no protector. Allow me to become your shelter.”

Gaṅgā glanced down demurely. “O King, I will become your wife and obey your commands, but I will make one condition: you must not interfere with my acts, whether they are agreeable or not. You must also never address me in harsh words. If you act in this way, I will remain with you; but if you act otherwise, I will leave immediately.”

The king hardly gave any thought to her request. “Be it so,” he replied at once. He brought her back to Hastināpura and the marriage ceremony was performed that day.

Absorbed in Gaṅgā’s celestial beauty, Śantanu did not notice the passage of time. After a year together, which seemed to him like a few days, Gaṅgā gave birth to a son. But within days of the birth she threw the baby into the Ganges, where it was swept away by the waters. Although horrified, Śantanu remembered Gaṅgā’s conditions and kept silent, not wanting to lose her.

Each year for seven years a boy was born, and each time Gaṅgā took the child to the river and cast him into the water. The king managed to restrain himself, but when Gaṅgā was about to drown the eighth child, he could take no more. He ran after her, shouting, “Stop! O cruel woman, why are you killing our children? Murderess of your sons, you are earning great sins by your acts.”

Gaṅgā stopped by the river bank and turned toward Śantanu. “As you desire a child, I will not kill this one. O King, take the child and raise him as your son. He will doubtlessly bring glory to your line. But in accordance with our agreement, I must now leave.”

Gaṅgā then revealed her identity to the mystified king. She told him about Vasiṣṭha’s cursing of the Vasus. “I have thus released the gods from the ṛṣi’s curse. This eighth child is Dyau, who must remain on earth for a full lifetime.”

Understanding the situation, and realizing that everything had been ordained by destiny, Śantanu tried to change Gaṅgā’s mind, but she was resolute. The king then asked that she take the baby with her to the celestial regions. When the child became a young man, he could return to earth. Gaṅgā agreed. Holding the baby close to her breast, she vanished into the river.

Śantanu returned in sorrow to his capital, Hastināpura. He continued ruling the people, becoming famous for his virtue. He was loved by the citizens and ruled the world with justice and compassion. It was said that if he simply placed his hand on someone, that person would immediately be relieved of all material pains and anxiety.

One day, some years after Gaṅgā had left, the king was hunting near the Ganges. As he pursued a deer along the river bank he noticed that the river water, which had previously been deep and flowing, had become a trickle. Marveling, the king made his way upriver to find the cause. He soon came across a godlike youth who resembled Indra himself. The amiable-looking boy was holding a large bow. It seemed he had checked the river’s flow by damming it with arrows. The king was astonished at this remarkable feat and gazed at the youth, trying to ascertain his identity. The boy suddenly disappeared, and the king, suspecting that it was his son, said to the river, “O Gaṅgā, show me my child.”

As soon as he spoke, the goddess rose from the waters holding the boy by his hand. She approached the king and said, “Here is the eighth son whom we conceived together. O great king, take him now. I have reared him carefully. Instructed by ṛṣis such as Vasiṣṭa, Shukra and Paraśurāma, he has become proficient in all aspects of Vedic knowledge and is expert in arms and warfare.”

Gaṅgā then vanished, leaving the boy with Śantanu. The king took him back to the city, where he would later become famous as Bhīṣma.