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The story of Bhishma: Son of Ganga
Bhishma, the ruler of Hastinapur, the son of goddess Ganga was the finest archer and master statecraft. Here is the story, which reveals to us, who Bhishma was and sets the pace for a great epic, 'Mahabharata'

THE STORY adds a new dimension to the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata: The beginning...

Once in the days of yore, King Santanu, upon opening his eyes after offering an evening prayer to the sacred river Ganga (the Ganges), found himself to be helplessly blurting forth these words: "You must marry me whoever you may be", his senses were hijacked by the iridescent beauty of a female form that stood before him. He staked his all, including his life, that she must accede to his earnest imploring.

"O king", she replied: "I shall but become your consort on certain conditions, to which you must agree first." "Pray, what those may be, the fairest one?" asked the king. This is what he heard: "No one, including yourself, should ever ask who I am, whence I come, or whatever I do, good or bad, nor must you ever be wroth with me on any account whatsoever. You must not say anything displeasing to me. If you act otherwise, I shall leave you then and there. Do you agree?" The infatuated king vowed his assent, and she became his wife.

Her modesty and grace and the steady love that she bore him were captivating, and they lived a life of perfect happiness oblivious of the passage of time. Many children were born to them, and as soon as a new-born arrived, she would take the infant to the Ganges and cast it away into the river. Santanu, filled with horror and anguish at such fiendish deed, suffered it all in silence, mindful of the promise he had made. Thus, she killed seven children. When the same fate was to be met to the eighth born, Santanu could not bear it any longer, and cried: "Stop, stop, how can you as mother, be bent on murdering your own innocent babies?"

"O great king," she replied, "you have forgotten your promise, for your heart is set on your child, and you do not need me any more, so I must now beg your leave. I shall not kill this child, but listen to my story before you judge me. I, who am constrained to play this hateful role by the curse of sage Vasishtha, am the goddess Ganga, adored of the gods and revered by men. Vasishtha cursed the eight Vasus to be born into the world of mortals, and moved by their supplications said that I was to be their mother. I bore them to you, so do not be aggrieved at their loss, for they went to the abode of their mother, and the service you have rendered to the Vasus will earn you higher regions". With these words she disappeared with the child who was to later become famous as Bhishma, the grandsire of the Kaurava dynasty that fought the unforgettable battle of the Mahabharata.

Ashta Vasus are the eight demigods - deities of material elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, Sky, Sun, Stars, Moon) who, while frolicking in the woods with their wives, came upon the hermitage of rishi Vasishtha, and one of the ladies saw the beautiful cow, Nandini, at the hermitage, and started making entreaties of her husband to fetch the cow. The husband was reluctant at first, saying, "what need have we, the devas (demigods), for the milk of cows? We are immortals already; it is for men to drink its milk to become immortal (in India, everything about cows is considered sacred). She lied saying that she had a dear mortal friend on earth whom she wanted to become immortal and that is why she needed to have the cow. Finally, all the eight were persuaded into committing thievery while the rishi was away.

Upon returning to find Nandini missing, the sage, through his yogic powers of meditation came to learn as to whose handiwork this was, and laid a curse upon the Vasus to take birth as mortals. At this, the Vasus prostrated themselves before the rishi for forgiveness. Vasishtha said: "The curse must take its course. My words cannot prove ineffective, but I will soften the curse to the extent that Prabhasa (meaning light, that is, the Sun), the one who seized the cow, will have to spend an entire lifetime on earth, glorious as it will be, while others, as his accomplice, will live only a few hours before they come back".

We must understand the allegorical significance here: Such was the fate of Bhishma, just as the Sun burns all its life of four billion years, in utter agony, giving all, desiring nothing – the immortalised teaching in karma yoga, ie, work in selflessness without any expectation of reward -- to bring the light of life to the earth. Working thus, liberation is attained. This is the message as propounded in the Bhagavad Gita. Incidentally, the eighteen chapters of the Gita are just a part of the Mahabharata.

Afterwards, Vasishtha set his mind again on his austerities, the effect, of which had been somewhat impaired by his anger. Sages who perform austerities acquire the power to curse, but every exercise of his power reduces their store of merit.

The Vasus then approached the goddess Ganga and beseeched her to descend to the earth and become their mother for their sake, marrying a worthy man. Throw us into the water as soon as we are born and liberate us from the curse, and the goddess granted their prayer.

After the disappearance of his queen with their eighth child, King Santanu gave up all sensual pleasures and ruled the kingdom in a spirit of asceticism. One day as the winds blew hard and the waters of the Ganges rose in great waves, Santanu, walking along its banks saw a small boy with the beauty and form of Devendra (the king of gods), amusing himself by building a dam across the flooding Ganges with his arrows. He watched stupefied as each arrow cast, turned into a thousand others creating a barrier in the mighty river. The scene of fury and jollity appeared to his eyes to be that of an indulgent mother playing with her child.

Indeed it was so, because as the king stood transfixed with amazement at the sight, the goddess Ganga revealed herself and presented the child as Santanu’s own, saying: "O king, here is the eighth child I bore you, known by the name of Devavrata. He has mastered the art of arms, and is unparalleled on earth equalling sage Parasurama’s skills, adept also, as he is, with the knowledge of the Vedas and the Vedanta, tutored by Vasishtha, and in arts and sciences, no less than Sukra himself. Take back your child, the finest archer and master statecraft, for he will bring immortal fame to his father’s name, and will be a great boon to posterity". With these words, she entrusted the child to his father, blessed the boy, before disappearing into the river.

And here the story does not end, but begins.

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