For most part, Mahabharata is associated with the great 18-day Kurukshetra war that ended with the victory of the Pandavas and the defeat of the Kauravas. Yet, the war itself was the result of decades of infighting, bickering and power struggle between the two sets of cousins. And, if you really can trace the story back a generation or two, you’d realise that the roots of this bloody battle lie elsewhere altogether. To be precise, in the court of Brahma.
Long before the events of the Mahabharata unfolded, the land was ruled by a powerful king called Mahabhisha. He came from the same Ikshvaku dynasty to which Rama belonged too.
Mahabhisha was so powerful and pious that after his death, he was granted entry into the heavens and would be invited to participate in all divine assemblies.
He was at one such assembly that Brahma was hosting. Also attending the assembly was Ganga who had taken a human form. Due to a gust of wind, the robes covering Ganga flew off and all the beings present there averted their gaze. All, that is, except Mahabhisha who stared at her in a lustful manner. Ganga too seemed to enjoy this gaze, much to the chagrin of Brahma who then cursed them both to a life on earth as mortals since they had given into such base mortal instincts.
Brahma didn’t stop there, he cursed that in her mortal form, Ganga would break Mahabhisha’s heart and only then would she be allowed back into the heavens. Mahabhisha was offered the option of choosing his father on earth and accordingly chose the Kuru king Pratipa who ruled Hastinapur
Now, Pratipa already had two sons. However his eldest, Devapi suffered from leprosy and gave up the kingdom to become a hermit whereas his second son, Bahlika opted to rule his maternal uncle’s kingdom in Balkh. It was thus that Hastinapur fell into the laps of Shantanu, his third son, who was in fact Mahabhisha in his previous life.
Long before Shantanu’s birth, Ganga had approached Pratipa while he was in penance asking to be married to him. Pratipa who had promised to be faithful to his wife turned down Ganga and instead offered the hand of his yet-to-be born son to her. It was thus that Shantanu’s fate was sealed soon after he was born.
Unbeknownst of all of this, Shantanu was walking along the banks of the Ganga when he lays his eyes on a beautiful woman and is smitten by her. Immediately, he is smitten by her and asks her to marry him. That woman is, of course, Ganga who agrees to marry him on one condition: that he would never question any of her actions. Infatuated, Shantanu agrees to the condition not knowing what that would lead to.
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As they bear their first child, Ganga promptly takes it to the banks of the river and drowns it. Shantanu, who had promised to never question his wife watches in horror as his firstborn dies before his eyes but doesn’t question Ganga. She continues to do this for the next six children, much to Shantanu’s dismay and despair. Ultimately, he cannot stop himself from asking her why she was being so cruel at which point Ganga reveals the entire story: of who he was in his previous birth, what he did, and what it would cost him. She also reveals that the seven children she had drowned were, in fact, Vasus or divine beings who were cursed by a sage. The eighth vasu was cursed to live a long and virtuous but celibate life on earth. Saying so, she disappears into the waters along with the child promising that she’d bring him back when he’s older.
This child is Devavrata or Bhishma.
Several years pass and Shantanu goes back to ruling his kingdom justly. He earns the love and respect of his people but every night he returns to an empty chamber, his wife having abandoned him taking their son with her.
One evening as he’s walking along the banks of the river, he notices a young man who’s controlled the flow of the Ganga using his powers. Curious to know who he is, he walks towards him but the young man disappears. Soon enough, Ganga appears in human form, along with the young boy who she discloses is their eighth son, Devavrata, and then disappears into the waters. Even though, he’s heartbroken to have lost Ganga again, Shantanu is happy to have his son back. He takes Devavrata to Hastinapur where he names him his heir.
Life goes on smoothly for some years till Shantanu falls in love with Satyavati an adopted daughter of a local fisherman and asks for her hand in marriage. Satyavati agrees but places a condition on the nuptials: that her son should inherit the Hastinapur throne. Shantanu is heartbroken again, for he had already made Devavrata the crown prince. So he walks away from the union.
On learning that his father had sacrificed his love for his sake, Devavrata approaches the fisherman and takes a vow to never marry, produce any heirs, and forever be the regent who’d defend the king. It’s this terrible vow that earns Devavrata the name, Bhishma.
As per his vow, Bhishma doesn’t just marry, he chooses to be celibate. He also dedicates his life to the throne of Hastinapur, first serving his young stepbrother, Vichitravirya and then Dhritarashtra. He even goes to the extent of kidnapping three sisters – Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika – to marry Vichitravirya. Ambika and Ambalika marry the young prince who dies childless.
In order to continue her line, Satyavati summons Vyasa, her son from a previous liaison with a sage and asks him to impregnate Ambika and Ambalika. Ambika gives birth to Dhritarashtra whereas Ambalika gives birth to Pandu. However, since Dhritarashtra is blind, Bhishma places the younger brother Pandu on the throne. On Pandu’s passing, Dhritarashtra ascends the throne as the king of Hastinapur.
The fight for who should inherit the throne starts right about at this point, leading to a bloody war that costs millions of lives and occasionally leaves Bhishma wondering if it had been worth taking such a terrible vow after all.
For had it not been for Bhishma’s vow, the line of succession would’ve been clear and there would’ve been no war.