11. Amba’s Pledge for Vengeance

There are times when we change things our way and there are times when we go with the flow. Had Amba gone with the flow, she would have been one of Vichitraveerya’s queens. But the revelation of her love for the prince of Shalva changed things. It ended in nothing but misery for her!

When she reached Shalva, the prince of Shalva refused to marry her on the pretext that she was won over by Bheeshm during the swayamvar. His Kshatriya pride could not accept anything that was given away to him by another Kshatriya. Also, Bheeshm, who won over so many kings single-handed in the court had specifically defeated the prince of Shalva putting him to shame. At that time, Amba kept quiet and didn’t raise voice in protest. On what basis was she expecting Shalva to accept her back then?

Rejected by the love of his life, an exasperated Amba went back to Hastinapur and stormed into the court like Bheeshm had stormed into her swayamvar. She insisted that Bheeshm married her as he had abducted her from the swayamvar. She was certainly not attracted to Bheeshm; she was only finding a way to avenge her humiliation by making Bheeshm break his vow. For a man of honour, nothing is worse than taking back his word, let alone a vow! Of course, Bheeshm put down her request. Neither did his oath allow him to marry, nor did he feel he was responsible for Amba’s situation as he had already declared that he was only representing Vichitraveerya in the swayamvar! In fact, Amba’s participation in the swayamvar with a pre-decided groom was an act of insult for the other kings who were invited.  But Amba was too angry to realize her end of the mistake.

Rejected from all sides, she went to sage Parshuram to seek justice. Parshuram, on hearing Amba’s story ordered Bheeshm to marry her. Bheeshm, though unconditionally reverent towards his teacher, could not agree to this order as this would mean insult to his parents and Hastinapur. He could do anything for his teacher but break his vow.

The following conversation took place:

Parshuram: If you do not marry Amba, then you will have to fight me. If you lose, you marry her. Deal?

Bheeshm: Dear Sir. You know it very well why I am not obeying your orders. Still, if you want me to fight with you, I will. The world knows that you have depleted the earth of Kshatriyas 21 times; but even you know that none of those Kshatriyas were like this student of yours.  Anyway, since I have no option but to fight you, please shower me with blessings for victory.

Parshuram (with a melted heart): Bheeshm, my son! Your politeness has no parallels. Those who are put to fight their elders should always seek their approval according to Dharma. Had you not requested my approval, I would have cursed you for your irreverence. Be blessed my son! Now go and fight. And fight in a way that you make your guru proud.

A terrible fight followed for days in which both were undefeated. Ultimately, Bheeshm was about to release a terrible weapon when a cosmic voice stopped him from releasing it. Parshuram had no counter-weapon for it and its usage would have put Parshuram to shame. That would have been very unbecoming of someone like Bheeshm. Bheeshm politely stopped the fight and said sorry to his teacher. Even Parshuram could not bring justice to Amba.

11. Amba's pledge for vengeance

An indignant Amba took the pledge that if no warrior on earth could help her, then she herself would become the reason of Bheeshm’s death. She performed strict tapasya and invoked the destructive form of God, Shiva, and asked him for a boon to kill Bheeshm. Shiva revealed that for Amba it was impossible to kill Bheeshm in her present life. He gave her a boon that in her next life she would become the reason for Bheeshm’s death. Not wanting to wait for her vengeance, Amba jumped into a pit of fire only to be reborn later as Shikhandi in the kingdom of Panchala.

10. The three princesses of Kashi – Amba, Ambika and Ambalika

Three has always been a very interesting number. Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh are three. Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga are three. Three is more than two and less than four. It is just perfect. Even Abbas Mustan find it apt to keep three actors and three actresses in every Race movie. Three is just awesome!

So the king of Kashi too decided to have only three daughters. No one knows whether the three daughters were from the same queen or from different queens. Even I don’t. But yes, their names were extended repetitions of same consonants and that is why we are discussing them here. Maybe for a little bigger reason.

Amba, Ambika and Ambalika are the three daughters we are talking about. These princesses of Kashi were considered to be the most beautiful of women in the entire Indian mainland. So beautiful, that their father had to arrange a swayamvar where he invited the handsomest princes of India to participate. In today’s world, only Rakhi Sawant has this privilege. Credit goes to her unmatched beauty. Anyway, so the three princesses were supposed to select the prince of their choice and they were supposed to be married to them accordingly. At least, this is what was declared.

However, the king of Kashi made a terrible mistake. While he had extended an invitation to all the kingdoms of the Indian mainland, the invitation was not extended to the most prominent of all, Hastinapur. The king of Kashi thought that after Bheeshm taking the oath of celibacy, there was no worthy prince in Hastinapur left to deserve his daughters. Bheeshm could not bear this effrontery towards his kingdom and his king. He rode to Kashi and stormed into the hall uninvited. The princes gathered in the hall started mocking Bheeshm’s oath of celibacy claiming that the pulchritude of Kashi princesses had brought the downfall of the terrible oath. Bheeshm knew the art of zipping the lips with his arrows well. He displayed an example of it in the hall and that was enough for the remaining princes to shut up (to say the least). He declared that he was abducting the three princesses on behalf of Vichitraveerya and that the three princesses would be Vichitraveerya’s queens. Without delay, he left for Hastinapur with the three Kashi princesses in his chariot.10. Three princesses of Kashi

The eldest of the three sisters, Amba, was in love with the prince of Shalva kingdom and had decided to choose him as his husband at the swayamvar. But Bheeshm’s untimely arrival ruined her plans. She was too afraid to admit the truth in front of the gathered princes and the mighty Bheeshm but later on she regretted her decision. When the processions for Vichitraveerya’s wedding started in Hastinapur, she gathered courage and told Bheeshm and Satyavati the entire truth. Bheeshm, who was physically stronger than a rock was at the same time more compassionate than Mother Teresa. He told Amba that had she mentioned it in the swayamvar he would not have abducted her in the first place. He promised her that she would not be forced to marry Vichitraveerya and would be returned in Bheeshm’s chariot with due respect to the prince of Shalva.

In Hastinapur, the wedding of Vichitraveerya took place with both Ambika and Ambalika. With love for Shalva and respect for Bheeshm in her heart, Amba left in Bheeshm’s chariot for the kingdom of Shalva.

She wasn’t aware what was actually waiting for her!

9. Chitrangadha and Vichitraveerya – Undesired fruits of desire

Mahabharata constantly reminds us of one thing – we can wish for something, we can try for it and we can even take brutal steps to ensure that it happens. But what actually happens is never completely in our hands.

When the news reached Shantanu that his eldest son had taken a terrible oath, he was heartbroken. He wanted Bheeshm to take the oath back but it was no ordinary oath and Bheeshm was no ordinary man. Impressed with his son’s devotion towards his father, Shantanu gave Bheeshm the boon to decide the time of his death. Bheeshm promised that the oath was taken for the happiness of his father and the security of Hastinapur so he would not leave the world unless he saw Hastinapur in safe hands.

There was resentment in the people of Hastinapur that why a promise was made to make someone else the king when the most capable of all, Bheeshm was amidst. Bheeshm ensured that his oath would not prevent his service to the kingdom. He passionately argued and convinced the citizens of Hastinapur that he was not facing any injustice, it was his own will and that he would serve the king with utmost devotion and anybody sitting on the throne would be as respectable to him as his father.

Satyavati’s father had foreseen that his daughter would be a mother of kings but he probably didn’t see that how strong or how capable they would be. Had he seen that, probably the father and daughter would not have kept the condition in front of Shantanu that made Devavrata take that terrible oath.

The effects of the oath were terrible, both in the short and long term. As a result of this oath, Shantanu was able to marry Satyavati, but his guilt never stopped eating into his health. In due course, Shantanu and Satyavati were blessed with two sons. The elder one was named Chitrangadha (this has nothing to do with Chitrangadha Singh and I am glad about it.) and the younger one was named Vichitraveerya (this suggests strangely powerful. There are speculations that he was named so because of his doubted masculinity.) A few days later, consumed by guilt and grief for his eldest son, Shantanu breathed his last and left everything behind. Bheeshm was now an unmarried man handling the family of his father that included a mother and two sons. Bheeshm took the responsibility of educating and training Chitrangadha and Vichitraveerya.9. Chitrangadha and Vichitraveerya - Undesired fruits of desire

Chitrangadha grew up to be a powerful but extremely arrogant man.  Of course, when you are told from your childhood that the throne belongs only to you and you see the most powerful of all warrior like Bheeshm serving as a regent, you are bound to have the illusion of superiority. He was challenged for a duel by a gandharva of the same name for sharing the name and was killed by him. The throne then ultimately went to Vichitraveerya. As his veerta was vichitra, everyone knew that the so-called king is not good for nothing.

Hastinapur’s throne now had a weakling as its king as a result of an oath which was in turn the result of a condition. And we know what happens to the kingdoms with weaklings as kings. Right? They are doomed. And so was Hastinapur supposed to be.

8. Bheeshm Pratigya! – A Terrible Sacrifice of a Son

Devavrata was now an adult and had been declared the heir to the kingdom. Everyone had full trust in his capabilities and Shantanu also relaxed the reigns of Hastinapur into the hands of Devarata.

One day Shantanu thought of taking a break from the daily kingdom chores and go for what Kuru kings did best – hunt! During the hunt in the forest, he reached the banks of Ganga, where a gentle breeze brought to him a heavenly fragrance. The fragrance aroused in Shantanu the desires that he had been unaware of ever since his wife Ganga left him. Shantanu realized that the source of fragrance was a woman who was ferrying across the river; daughter of the leader of fishermen. This woman was Satyavati.

Shantanu ordered his charioteer to stop the chariot and alighted from it to proceed towards Satyavati. He told Satyavati that he had fallen in love with her (Love at first sight is the trend in our generation. In those days love happened at first sniff!)

Shantanu: Marry me and be my queen. The kingdom of Hastinapur has not had a queen in quite some time.

Satyavati: Maharaj, I am not the one who can decide this on my own. If you wish to marry me, you should ask my father for my hand in marriage.

Within an hour, Shantanu and Satyavati were in the cottage of the head of the fisher-folks, Daashraaj. Shantanu told Daashraaj that he wished to marry Satyavati. Daashraaj was more than happy at knowing this but he had to refuse Shantanu. On being questioned, he said that since his daughter was destined to become a mother of kings, marrying Shantanu who had already declared Devavrata his heir would be a hindrance to that prediction. The revelation infuriated Shantanu. Even though he was madly in love with Satyavati, he could not deprive his beloved Devavrata of his rights for anything.

Shantanu: Kurus are not famous for taking back their words and depriving the rightful people of what they deserve. If you have such a condition, then I shall not marry your daughter.

Shantanu left the cottage without looking in Satyavati’s direction for even an instant. On that day, and on the following days Shantanu again felt the void that had been created ever since Ganga left him. In his old age, the void seemed to hurt more and he was also losing his capability of hiding his sorrows.

Devavrata could not see his father sad and so he tried to investigate but Shantanu never told anything. He then went to Shantanu’s charioteer expecting that the charioteer might reveal to the prince what the father was not revealing to the son. The charioteer told the entire story to Devavrata.

On the very evening, when the thick clouds were eclipsing the moon desperate to shower themselves on the city of Hastinapur, the fisher community heard the sound of armies proceeding in their direction. The fisher-folks were convinced that the audacity of their chief had succeeded in incurring Devavrata’s wrath and that he had come to savage the entire village that dared to harm his prospects of inheriting the throne.

Powerful men are usually understood by the weak.

Devavrata summoned Daashraaj, who came along with his daughter and asked him what stopped him from giving his daughter’s hand to the king of Hastinapur. Daashraaj explained the foretelling and its implications.

Devavrata: It was not wise on your part to have asked from my father what is mine, Daashraaj. My father could not promise to your grandsons the throne of Hastinapur because he has already given it to me. And if this is what is keeping my father away from happiness then I promise you that I will never sit on that throne. You can now proceed with the arrangements of the wedding. Mother Satyavati shall marry my father with no further delay.

Daashraaj: That’s very kind and brave of you my prince! History will always remember your sacrifice. But I have a question. If your father had no right to promise on your behalf, then how come you have the right to promise on the behalf of your sons? What if your sons raise swords against my grandsons for this very throne. How can I be sure of their future?8. Bheeshma Pratigya - A terrible sacrifice of a son

Devavrata: You are right dude! I cannot decide and promise on behalf of my sons. But I can certainly decide something for myself. And so to remove all your doubt and apprehensions about future of your grandsons, I decide never to marry. May Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hear it today; may the devas and asuras hear it today; may all the directions hear it today; may all organic and inorganic forms of matter hear it today; may earth, fire, wind and water hear it today clearly – I, Devavrata, the son of Ganga and Shantanu, pledge never to marry and father children on any woman. I SHALL LIVE WITHOUT A WIFE AND A SON AND I SHALL DIE WITHOUT A WIFE AND A SON. THIS IS MY ULTIMATE PROMISE TO YOU!!!

The pledge disturbed the rhythm of the cosmos, the clouds burst into heavy rains and the devas descended on Earth to shower Devavrata with flowers and blessings. Time had never seen such a terrible oath being taken by anyone. Time would never see such a terrible oath being taken by anyone. There were tears in the eyes of every soldier that had accompanied Devavrata. Princes were known to slaughter the weak to show off their might and here they had the mightiest of their leaders sacrificing everything for the sake of his old father and his kingdom’s future. They felt blessed to have seen the most historical moment in time.

This terrible oath, also known as Bheeshm Pratigya in Hindi, earned Devavrata the title of Bheeshm. Though Bheeshm sacrificed everything to ensure that the king of Hastinapur stayed well and so did Hastinapur, he did not foresee the implications that this terrible oath would have and how his rigidity towards his oath would cost Kuru clan dearly. There were certain things only time could tell and this was one of those.

6. Devavrata – The Son of Ganga

Sixteen years later, after Ganga had left him, Shantanu was seated in his palace when a messenger informed that some warrior had dared to obstruct the flow of river Ganga near the capital of Hastinapur. This warrior, with his arrows, had created a barrier in the middle of the river and obstructed the flow of its waters. Shantanu was infuriated at this flagrant display of valour that was causing harm to the organisms inside the river as well as forcing the river-form of his beloved wife to be obstructed.

Shantanu immediately reached the river-bank where this nearly impossible feat was taking place. He witnessed that a young lad was practicing his archery skills on Ganga. An angry Shantanu sought clarification for this. The young lad revealed that he was just practicing his skills on the water of Ganga; by no way did he harm any organisms. But Shantanu was too impatient to listen to anything. He raised his bow and challenged the young lad to fight.

Suddenly, the waters of Ganga moved in a whirlpool, taking a human form and appearing in front of Shantanu. It was Ganga, his long-gone wife.

Maharaj, the young lad that you challenge is no enemy. He is your own son. The same son who I took away sixteen years back to return to you. He was just practicing his archery skills that he learnt from sage Parshuram. His name is Devavrata.”

“What? He’s my son? After sixteen years of isolation, today I am seeing my son. What an auspicious day this is!” Shantanu cried in happiness.

6.2 Bheeshm - The Son of Ganga“Yes Maharaj! He’s the same son for whom you broke your oath. Today I am returning him to you as my duty is over. Today, there is no one in Jambudweep (Indian Peninsula) who is more skilled and knowledgeable than Devavrata. He has learnt the scriptures from Sage Vashishta; Sage Brihaspati and Sage Shukracharya are his teachers in political science and Sage Markandeya is his spiritual guru. On my request, Sage Parshuram made an exception to teach martial arts and archery to this Kshatriya son of yours.  I hand over this son to you Maharaj!” said Ganga to Shantanu.

Turning over to her son, Ganga said, “Your father has seen a lot in his life. Make sure he is never sad with you around. You must live your life and direct your dharma towards your father and Hastinapur. It’s time for me to leave now. Whenever you feel like meeting me, just visit my banks. Your mother will always be there to guide you.” Saying this, Ganga disappeared in her own waters.

The void in Shantanu’s life was partly filled with the arrival of his capable son. Even though the love of his life was not there, at least the heir of Hastinapur was. (His new-found love is about to come in the next post though.) The father and son spent years together discussing the intricacies of kingship, politics, strategies, vedas and the history of ancestors and great kings and warriors. In due course, the young prince gained fame among the people of Hastinapur and considering his knowledge, wisdom and power, Shantanu declared Devavrata as his successor.

After seeing its king Shantanu lonely and depressed for years, the people of Hastinapur finally saw a ray of hope in the form of Devavrata – he who will become the new king and expand the boundaries of the kingdom, will begin a new family and fill the palace with new princes and princesses, the symbol of growth and happiness of the kingdom at large.

What one expects does not always come true! At times things take a different turn on their own; at times one turns them at one’s will. The destiny of Hastinapur and Devavrata were about to take a massive turn that would impact the generations. The impact of Vashishta’s curse would take its effect soon. Time, gritting its teeth in fear, was waiting for the day.

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.