The Curse of the Eight Vasus

The eight vasus are the eight demi-gods Anala, Anila, Soma, Ahas, Dhara, Dhruva, Pratyoosha and Prabhasa. Together, they represent the very elements of the Mother Nature.

Once, the wife of Prabhasa persuaded her husband to get her a cow which actually belonged to Rishi Vashisht. Prabhasa was initially reluctant to ask for anything from a Brahmin but disarmed by the usual weakness of a man towards his wife, he agreed to steal the cow for her. With the help of his seven brothers, the eight vasus purloined away Vashisht’s cow for Prabhasa’s wife. Rishi Vashisht, through his ascetic powers, figured out that the stealth was an act of the vasus. He cursed the eight vasus to be born on earth as mortals and suffer the pain like all mortals do.

The eight vasus begged Rishi Vashisht for mercy, but as I mentioned here, a curse could not be taken back. It could, at best, be modified. Rishi Vashisht granted some relief to the seven vasus that their lifetime on earth would be short and after that they could ascend to paradise. But the eighth vasu, Prabhasa, who instigated the other seven to steal the cow out of his passion for his wife would suffer the pain of the account of all the seven vasus.

He who committed a crime out of desire for his wife will never know the pleasure of a woman. Even without a wife and sons, he will spend his entire life struggling to serve his household. And in the end he will die at the hands of a woman, for his desire for a woman made him turn vasus into criminals.

The Eight Vasus

The eight vasus then went to the Mother of all beings, Ganga to help them keep their stay on earth short. Ganga, who too was cursed by Brahma to suffer as a mortal on earth promised them that she would give them birth through her own womb and will drown them in the waters of Ganga to set them free from the curse the moment they would be born. Ganga drowned the seven vasus immediately on their birth, but Rishi Vashisht’s curse came true when she was about to drown Prabhasa and she was stopped by Shantanu. It was Prabhasa who grew up as Devavrata, later to be known as Bheeshma for his terrible oath, the oath that will be the cause of all his suffering and also, in a way, the cause of the Kurukshetra war.

5. Shantanu and Ganga – A Love Story based on a Promise

There are certain things in life that are preordained, either due to our destiny or due to our karma. The sagacious ones, thus, often say that destiny is nothing but our karma yielding its consequences. On top of that, our ignorance coupled by our momentary passions blended in our ego, ends in cul-de-sac. The greatest human folly does lie in the fact that we don’t learn from History, we repeat it.

The kings who inherited the throne of Hastinapur after Bharata repeated the mistakes of their ancestors not once but multiple times, sometimes due to innocence and sometimes due to ignorance.

Once Pratipa, a descendant of the Kuru bloodline, was meditating under a tree when he was approached by the river-goddess Ganga. She requested Pratipa to make her his daughter-in-law for reasons unstated. Not wanting to turn away the beauty who was considered a goddess and had approached to be a part of his family line, Pratipa agreed to it and assured her that his son, Shantanu, would marry her one day. Pratipa addressed Shantanu and made his intentions clear. Shantanu, being an obedient son, agreed to his father’s will without even trying to know the reason.

5.1 Ganga and Shantanu

Years later, the young and handsome Shantanu (if you do not remember what I mean by an italicized “young and handsome” then click here) was out on a hunt near the banks of Ganga when he saw a young beautiful woman. A face as serene as the Gangotri glacier and a complexion as flawless as the pure river Ganga (of those times, not today) captivated Shantanu in an instant. On inquiry, Ganga revealed that she was none other than goddess Ganga in a human form. Driven both by his promise to his father and the uncontrollable desire that was a result of Ganga’s exquisiteness (majorly because of the latter), Shantanu put forward the proposal for Ganga to be his queen. Ganga who was already willing for this readily accepted to the proposal putting forward a condition, much in the way Urvashi had put forward a condition for Pururava (click here to see how).

***

Ganga: Promise me, that you will never ask me any question.

Shantanu: I promise! Neither will I ask a question nor will I ever stop you from doing what you want to.

Ganga: If you ever ask me a question, I will still answer it but will be gone from your life forever.

Shantanu: Such a day will never come. I promise.

***

As you might have guessed, such a day did come but after years and with revelations far beyond Shantanu’s wits.

Shantanu was busy enjoying his married life with Ganga, neglecting his kingdom and focusing only on giving an heir to Hastinapur. The king succeeded and the news spread out in the kingdom that Ganga was ready to conceive Shantanu’s first child. The entire kingdom and Shantanu waited for the maids to bring the news of the birth of a prince/princess. Ganga gave birth to a child and before anyone could have a glance, she was seen to be leaving for the banks of Ganga, with her new-born in her hands.

5.2 Shantanu and Ganga

Ganga, being a goddess wasn’t as weak as usual women get after delivery. The delivery had not had any impact on her appearance or her strength and she moved towards the banks of Ganga without any assistance. Shantanu followed her but didn’t ask her anything keeping with the promise he had made – the promise that was the basis of their marriage. What he saw next horrified him and burnt his heart with agony. Ganga drowned her new-born into the waters of river Ganga and Shantanu could only see and do nothing. Ganga replied to the glaring anger on Shantanu’s brow with her enchanting yet cold smile, the one that had seduced Shantanu in their very first meeting.

Since there was no question to be asked and no answer to be given, Shantanu finally submitted to the queen again and their lives continued like before with thousand questions in his heart but not one on his lips. 

A few weeks later there was news of Ganga being pregnant again and the entire kingdom again became hopeful waiting for an heir while at the same time fearing that the second child would suffer the same fate as the first. The fears did come true. The very next moment Ganga drowned her second child too. Shantanu was aghast to see how a mother could drown her new-born into a river with such ease. He was aghast to see how a wife could deprive her husband of his sons. He was aghast to see how a queen could deprive a kingdom of its heir. Was the woman he married a heartless witch or a demoness seeking some revenge? The Kshatriya, Chakravarti king of kings of the Kuru clan could only ponder upon and do nothing.

One after the other, Ganga drowned seven of her new-born babies in the river not being stopped or questioned by anyone. The entire kingdom was flabbergasted with the queen and deeply annoyed with the king who did nothing out of his promise (many suspected it was his lust that was a slave of Ganga’s pulchritude) to stop her. Shantanu himself lost all hopes of having any heir as he had grown old and he knew that with Ganga as his wife hopes will remain only hopes, never turn into reality.

And then, there was the news that Ganga is pregnant again. With the eighth child in his wife’s womb, Shantanu was determined to have his heir this time whatever it might cost him. On delivery, Ganga proceeded towards the river in the same fashion, but this time Shantanu was not like the earlier one.

“STOP!”, he cried. “What kind of woman are you to have drowned your seven children in the river on their very birth. Even a nagin is better than you to leave its child alive. What have these harmless souls done to deserve this fate? You have already deprived me of my seven sons, I will not allow you take this one from me.” said Shantanu with a voice filled with anger that Ganga had never seen before.

Ganga stopped herself and turned. She saw Shantanu standing there with a pitiable face, not at all characteristic of a Kshatriya, and eyes full of disgust for Ganga. She went to Shantanu with that forever enchanting smile.

Ganga: Today you have broken your promise by asking me a question. I knew this would happen one day. You have suffered enough to see what all you had to.

Shantanu: Why did you do all this? Why did you kill seven of our innocent sons?

Ganga: I did not kill them Maharaj. I just set them free from this world, Mrityulok, where there is so much suffering. It was a curse that I was living, you are living and a curse that your sons were living.

Shantanu: Which curse?

Ganga: In your previous life as king Mahabhishak, you were a great warrior and a friend of the lord of the devas, Indra. You were a more than occasional visitor to his court that is famous for its wine and damsels. One day, I, accompanied by my father Brahma, visited that court where you were already present. In our very first encounter you kept gazing at me and so did I. A wind blew that caused my upper garment to slip from my shoulders that I did not realize. The court full of devas lowered their eyes out of respect but you kept glaring at me unabashedly. I too could not take my eyes off you. This public display of desire angered my father Brahma and he cursed you to be born on earth as a mortal and suffer the pain that mortals do. I too was cursed to descend on earth as a mortal and return only after breaking your heart. Today, after asking me this question you have set me free from my curse, just like I set seven of your sons from their curse.

Shantanu: Which curse were my sons living? Were they too pawns at the hands of the devas?

Ganga: These sons of yours are the eight vasus who were cursed by Rishi Vashisht to be born on earth as mortals and suffer the pain like them. (To read the details of the curse, click here). The eight vasus approached me, the mother of all beings, to save them from this. I promised to give them birth through my own womb and set them free as soon as they were born. That is what you had been seeing all this while, shocked, as you had no idea about your previous life and the curses. The cause of all sufferings is rooted in our past karma.

Shantanu: But at least, I have my one son alive now who will be my heir and three of us can live together happily, now that everything is revealed.

Ganga: I apologize but I do not see that happening, my king. You have broken your promise and this means I will have to leave you now. By obstructing the flow of destiny, you have managed to save your eighth child but happiness is not something that he will know for long. He is a great soul but not destined to be an heir nor to see his progeny inheriting the throne.

Shantanu: That’s not true! I will not let this happen. He is my son and I will ensure that he inherits my throne.

Ganga: Try as you will. What’s written in the destiny cannot be changed. All I can do for you is to take him away and impart him education from the best teachers in the world. He will be a master at politics, philosophy, religion and martial arts. He will follow the code of conduct of a Kshatriya like no other man has ever followed, no other man ever will. After he graduates, I will send him back to his father well prepared. Time will tell the rest of the story. 5-3 Shantanu and Ganga

***

Saying this, Ganga left with her eighth born to return later, leaving Shantanu alone. Shantanu wondered what life had for him ahead and how much of it was now dependent on his past karma that he was still unaware of.

4. Bharata’s Decision – The Unbiased Meritocracy

The throne of Pururava was later inherited by many able candidates from among the progeny and the royal bloodline continued to rule for centuries. There list included great kings like Yayati, Puru, Dushyanta and Bharata.

Of all the above mentioned kings, Bharata, the son of Dushyanta and Shakuntala was a king par excellence. His reign did not only see impeccable governance and enhanced improvement of the society, but also an unimaginable expansion of the already vast Kuru kingdom. His borders extended from Kanyakumari in the south to Himalayas in the north (even up to China according to some texts) and so huge was his popularity among the citizens that Indian sub-continent got from him the name – Bhaarat.

Like every king, Bharata too reached a stage when the time came for him to choose his heir. Who would be the successor to the throne of Hastinapur after one such as the great Bharata? Everyone wondered and eagerly waited for the wise king to make his decision.

Bharata was undecided among his sons. No son of his from any of his wives was worthy enough in his eyes. But the heir still had to be chosen. So his mother, Shakuntala and his advisors told Bharata to select his eldest son as the heir. Bharata, of course, didn’t follow their advice, or else, we would not have been discussing him under this title.

After much thought, Bharata finally declared his adopted son, Vitatha as his heir. He was presented to Bharata by the Devas after his parents had rejected him. Under the care of Bharata, Vitatha had grown up to be a wise and powerful man and he possessed all the qualities of a great king.

“Law states that the eldest son should be the king’s heir. How can you be succeeded by an outsider?” said one of the advisors.

“Should a kingdom be entirely left at the hands of a son whose only achievement is the similarity with the king’s DNA? Is it not my responsibility to ensure that the most worthy man becomes the king? To me, all the citizens of Hastinapur are like sons and it’s my duty to choose the most worthy one. Vitatha is better than any of my biological sons and so I choose him”, said Bharata with gleaming pride.

Surprised by her son’s decision, Shakuntala went to Bharata and said, “In the history of mankind, you are probably the first king to have deprived his sons of their rights for some outsider.” Bharata politely replied, “Mother! A father lives for his sons, but a king lives for his kingdom. In the choice between being a father and being a king, I choose the latter. The day when a king will prefer his personal interests over the interests of the kingdom will be the day when the downfall of governance will begin. Such kings and kingdoms would end up only in battlefields to see terrible consequences.”

Bharata’s decision is the most classic example of an unbiased meritocracy. Even though his progenitors had set examples of selecting more worthy younger sons as the heirs while rejecting the older ones, Bharata’s decision surprises more because he goes out of the bloodline to ensure the wellness of the kingdom. However, the wisdom of Bharata will be forgotten by the following generations and Hastinapur will end up with Dhritarashtra, who clearly kept his son’s interests over that of the kingdoms’. As Bharata had said, such kings and kingdoms did end up in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, not paying the prices alone but involving almost the entire mainland to pay for their mistakes.

3. Pururava and Urvashi – A Tragic Love Story

Indian Cinema has, for long, been portraying obsessed lovers. Some of them possess an extra-ordinary verbal communication style (K-K-K-K-Kiran). Others possess supposedly cool hairstyles. And some have a story where they leave the world for somebody and then that ‘somebody’ leaves them. When you go back in time, you see the same happening in Mahabharata too and the victims such tragedies are mostly the kings. Would you really be that interested if it were to happen to a commoner anyway?!

Pururava was a young and handsome king. When I say young and handsome, it means that practicing warrior-skills, hunting and partying were his major hobbies. Administration of kingdom, for such kings, was usually the second priority. There are a very few examples of kings who were young and handsome and capable at the same time. Unfortunately, Pururava was not. And before he could make his transition from young and handsome to capable, something happened!

Once when he was out hunting in a forest, he came across the apsara (river-nymph) Urvashi. The sight of the scantily dressed apsara, who was a favourite even among the Devas, was definitely the most enthralling sight of Pururava’s youth.

With the confidence characteristic of kings and attitude characteristic of self-proclaimed handsome men, Pururava went to Urvashi and asked her out.

***

Pururava: The Almighty must have exhausted all his creativity in carving a beauty like you. What would it take of me to make you mine? I want you to marry me and be my queen.

Urvashi: No ordinary man can ask me out in this fashion. Your confidence and your flashy attire indicate that you are from the royal bloodline. But are you worthy enough for the beautiful creation of the Almighty like you just said?

Pururava: There is no feat in this world impossible for me to perform as long as I possess my bow and arrows. You can be sure about me.

Urvashi: I would rather marry a lover than a warrior. I don’t seek the power of your weapons, I only seek the power of your words. You will have to promise me that you will take care of my pet goats. They are very dear to me. Also, promise me that except for me you will never appear naked in front of anybody. If you are willing to make these two promises, I will marry you.

Pururava: I am a Kshatriya, to protect the helpless is my Dharma. Will I not protect your goats? I promise I will. And I will protect your second promise too. My Kshatriya instincts are not limited to people alone!

***

These promises were perhaps Urvashi’s ways of ensuring that her husband remains loyal to her concerns and never brings in a second wife that decreases her importance. Pururava didn’t think much before making the promises either. The Kshatriya factor often deluded the decision making powers of the kings. Anyway, they both got married and lived happily for some time, increasing the prospective candidates for the royal inheritance and inspiring stories that would be carved out later in Indian temples meant for selective visitors.

Indra, the original boss of apsaras, could not bear this long separation from the apple of his eye, Urvashi. He wanted her back at any cost, so he ordered the gandharvas to bring Urvashi back. The gandharvas stole the pet goats of Urvashi one day when Pururava was busy making love to her. Urvashi, on realizing that her goats had been stolen, requested Pururava to rescue them. He hurried out without bothering to cover himself keen to keep the first promise he made to his wife while forgetting the second one. At that moment, Indra launched a thunder in the sky causing a public display of the king’s private properties.

In spite of his best efforts, Pururava could not keep both his promises. Urvashi decided to leave Pururava the way he was, not continuing her stay with the husband king since the promises that were the basis of their marriage were broken.

Pururava and Urvashi

Pururava and Urvashi

The separation left Pururava devastated and he lost all sense. He isolated himself from his kingdom and became mad, not being able to rule the kingdom anymore. Had India had access to Italian Marble in those days, a Taj Mahal would have come into existence much before in Indian History than when it actually did. Pururava was replaced by one of his more capable sons.

The story of Pururava and Urvashi holds relevance for two major reasons in the Mahabharata:

1. Generations later, much like Pururava, Shantanu was also smitten by beautiful nymphs/ladies. First, it was Ganga to whom he made promises without giving any thought and then Satyavati, to whom he did not make any promises but somehow the situation was quite similar (wait for the related post).

2. When Arjuna visited Amravati during the exile, he was approached by Urvashi with amorous intents. He politely declined the tempting offer of the celestial beauty following the code of conduct of his civilization which ended in his being cursed by her.

Numerous incidents of previous generations keep on influencing the course of lives and decisions of characters throughout the Mahabharata.

2. Budh and Ila – Made for Each Other

How many women would be glad to have a child who is neither male nor female? Tara was one unfortunate woman who had this destiny. She wondered whether the curse of Brihaspati was a punishment for her or her child? How would her child of neutral gender get married and enjoy the pleasures of household? Had there been no curse, her son would have had a normal happy life. Was her son being punished for her karma or was it some blessing in disguise.

It was, indeed, blessing in disguise. But for Ila, who was a king named Sudyumna and had actually been turned into a woman.

(Once Sudyumna had accidentally entered a forest that was under the spell of Shiva. The spell would turn every male in the forest (except for Shiva) into a female. Shiva had caste the spell on the forest upon Shakti’s request as the Goddess of Power wanted no male creature to witness her union with her Lord.

Sudyumna, deeply horrified by the realization of a masculine soul in a feminine body, requested Shakti to free him from the spell. Shakti modified the spell in a way that Sudyumna would experience both masculinity and femininity in sync with the waxing and waning of the moon.)

A human being with such unique sexual characteristics would definitely have been left alone had the world not complemented him/(her) with an equally unfortunate Budh.

Budh and Ila

Budh and Ila

The equation finally became:

Unfortunate + Unfortunate = Super-Fortunate

Budh and Ila got married and not much to the reader’s surprise ended with a proud list of progeny. It was the progeny of this unique pair that would later rule the Indian Mainland for many generations.

This story enhances a modern Indian’s belief in Madhuri’s dialogue from “Dil Toh Pagal Hai” – Someone somewhere is made for you.

Vishnu and Bhudevi – The Preserver and the Earth Goddess

Now “Sustainability” is not just an MBA buzz word. It is a serious concept. A damn serious one. So serious that ignoring it and not trying to work in its direction can land you into battlefields (and mind you, here I am not being metaphorical).

Much before the Kurukshetra War (and probably after the menace caused by Parshuram), the Earth Goddess (aka Bhudevi) went to the Preserver of the Universe, Vishnu, in the form of a cow and begged for help. The following conversation took place (probably in Sanskrit).

***

Bhudevi: I am replete with warriors, and these warriors think no end to themselves. In the quest of creating culture, cities, dams and armies they have mindlessly destructed all that I had for them. They have cut the forests, polluted the water and land. But their lust knows no limits. Moreover, a few rich and powerful are doing this in abundance while depriving the weaker of their rightful share. They have so recklessly squeezed milk out of my udders that they are sore.

(Vishnu was furious at this discovery. He tried to comfort the Earth Goddess and made a declaration.)

Vishnu: These homo sapiens of the warrior community are indeed a bunch of maniacs. They have forgotten their place, and they have forgotten yours. They do not see you, the provider of all resources, as their mother but they regard you as their property. Their greed has made them stoop down to this level that they have lost all sense of Dharma. They will certainly learn a lesson and that too the hard way. That’s a promise!

(Then looking towards the tragic face of the cow)

Do not worry! I will descend on Earth as a cowherd to protect you. I promise you that the greedy and unrighteous Kshatriyas will pay for your milk with their blood.

Krishna and Cow

***

Thus Vishnu declared his arrival as Krishna, the cowherd, determined to teach unrighteous Kshatriyas a lesson and re-establish Dharma. Thus, one can say the war was, in a way, inevitable. The uncompromising Kuru princes were but the catalysts.