And so it came to pass that King Mahabhisa of the Ikshvaku line became a Rishi after much penance and sacrifice. One day, as all the gods and the Rishis were worshipping Brahma, the river Ganga approached the Grandfather (Brahma) in her robes which were as radiant as the moon. But the celestial Parivaha wind stirred her clothing and her limbs were bared to the eyes of all present. The gods of course lowered their eyes but Brahma noticed that Mahabhisa remained transfixed by the lovely vision. Angry at his lack of respect, Brahma cursed the ‘hritomona’ (one whose mind has been captured) Rishi with an earthly birth. Brahma had also noted that Ganga herself did not seem very distressed at Mahabhisa’s look of intent. She was cursed too with a lifetime on earth.
As the two made their way to the mortal sphere, the eight Vasus or the Ashtavasu asked her to be their mother on earth as they had been cursed by Vasishtha, one of the Rishis in the Saptarshi constellation for coming too close to him as he traversed the heavens. But the Vasus did not wish to live on earth for too long and asked Ganga to kill them as soon as they were born. To this she agreed but asked for one to agree to a lifetime on earth so that Mahabhisa could have a son to carry on his name.
When Mahabhisa was born he chose Pratip as his father and thus moved to a Lunar dynasty. His name was now Santanu, the one who could sooth people by his touch. As a king in Hastinapur, he came upon a beautiful ‘jajwalyamana’ or glowing girl bathing in the river. He fell in love with her and soon made her his queen. This was the earthly form of Ganga. Before agreeing to marriage, she made Santanu promise that he would never harshly question her actions. Any question would mean that she would leave him immediately. Smitten, the king agreed. Soon the queen was with child. The king was happy at the prospect but when the baby was born, she took it away without a word and set it afloat, saying ‘I fulfill your wish’. The king’s heart broke but he was bound both by his promise as a king and his desire for his beautiful queen. This happened seven times.
When the queen was about to drown the eighth prince, King Santanu was angered enough to ask her why she had done such cruel things to her own babies, addressing her as ‘son-killer’. Ganga smiled, relieved at being freed from the curse of an earthly existence and granted the child its life.
Years later, Santanu would find a youth damming the flow of the river Bhagirathi with an arrow. He invoked his wife Ganga and she appeared, to introduce him to their son, the Prince Devavrata, later known as Bhisma. He would never marry or have sons of his own as he made a promise to his step mother, Santanu’s second wife Satyavati that only her sons would rule the kingdom down the ages. He was punished by a longer earthly existence than his fellow Vasus and indeed could not die unless he wished for it himself as he was the incarnation of Dyaus (Sky) who had been guided by his wife to steal Vasishtha’s divine cow Kamdhenu.
There, I have the story off my chest!
There is much that I left unsaid, it was starting to look just a little too long..
Ganga and Devavrata, Raja Ravi Verma