Ganga flies away with baby Devavrata

Shantanu: The Beginning of the Mahabharata

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The great epic of the Mahabharata spans many generations and dozens of kings. However, the king that started it all was Shantanu. Shantanu is one of the most important figures in the Mahabharata. He was the father of Bhishma, andthe grandfather of Dhritarashtra and Pandu. As you will read in this article, Shantanu wasn’t even supposed to be the king of Hastinapura, but due to unusual circumstances, he became the king. Afterwards, he would marry two very different woman: a goddess and an ordinary fisherwoman.


  • Father: Pratipa
  • Mother: Sunanda
  • Brothers: Devapi, Bahlika
  • Wife: Ganga, Satyavati
  • Sons: Bhishma, Chitrangada, Vichitravirya

King Mahabhisha: Reborn as Shantanu

This story is in the Mahabharata, Adi Parva, Chapter 91 and 93

There was once a king named Mahabhisha. He was born in the Suryanvasha dynasty of kings. A very powerful and righteous king, he had performed one thousand Ashwamedha sacrifices and one hundred vajapeya sacrifices. As a result of his good deeds, he attained heaven when he passed away.

One day, the gods all went to worship Lord Brahma. Mahabhisha was also present. The goddess of the river Ganga had also come to worship Brahma. Suddenly, there was a gust of wind that momentarily lifted Ganga’s clothing. All the gods lowered their heads to avoid looking at Ganga, but Mahabhisha lustfully stared at her.

Angered by Mahabhisha’s conduct, Brahma cursed, “Mahabhisha, you shall be reborn on Earth! Only then will you obtain Swarga again!” Mahabhisha prayed that he be born as the son of King Pratipa, the ruler of the Kuru Kingdom.

The Wish-Fulfilling Cow

While returning home from the gathering, Ganga met the Vasus, eight elemental gods who are the attendants of Indra. The Vasus looked crestfallen with despair, so Ganga asked them what had happened.

The eight Vasus narrated:

Once, we were strolling in the forest near Mount Meru with our wives. As we were enjoying ourselves, the wife of Dyaus (one of the Vasus) saw a beautiful cow. Enamored with the cow, she showed the cow to her husband.
Dyaus explained, “This cow is the daughter of Sage Kashyapa and his wife Surabhi. It belongs to Sage Apava Vashishta, the son of Mitra-Varuna. He obtained it to perform different sacrifices. It is said that a person who drinks this cow’s milk will live as a youth for 10,000 years.”
Dyaus’s wife replied, “I have a friend named Jinavati, the daughter of King Usinara. She is young and famed for her beauty. I want to give this cow and its calf to my friend. When she drinks it, she will be the only human freed from age and disease. Please!”

Not considering the consequences, we all decided to steal the cow and the calf. When Apava Rishi returned to his hermitage in the evening, he couldn’t find his cow nor the calf. Through his spiritual powers, he learned that we had stolen the cow. He cursed us, saying, “Let the Vasus be born on Earth as men!”
When we learned about his curse, we rushed to his hermitage and tried to pacify him. Rishi Apava said, “I cannot take back my curse. But you will be freed from Earth within a year of your birth. However, Dyaus, who is the reason for all of this, will have to dwell on Earth for a long time. During his time on Earth, he won’t beget any children, but he will be very virtuous and will always obey his father.”

The Request of the Vasus

“Please be our mother when we are born on Earth,” the Vasus requested.

Ganga agreed and then asked, “Who will be your father?”

“King Pratipa will soon have a son named Shantanu. We would like Shantanu to be our father. Also, please throw us into the water as soon as we are born so that we can quickly go back to heaven,” the Vasus requested.

“I will do as you say, but I must let Dyaus live as per the curse,” Ganga said.

“Yes, we will each contribute one-eight of our respective energies to this son. Thus, this valorous son will be born to you,” the Vasus responded.

Birth of Shantanu

This story is in the Mahabharata, Adi Parva, Chapter 92 and Udyoga Parva, Chapter 147 and the Matsya Purana, Part 2, Chapter 50

There was a great king named Pratipa. He was the king of the Kuru kingdom. He was married to Sunanda, the daughter of the king of Sivi. Pratipa spent many years performing penance on the banks of the Ganga river. One day, the goddess Ganga appeared before him in the form of a beautiful woman. She approached him and sat on his right thigh. Pratipa asked the woman what she wanted.

“I want you, great king! Accept my desire and love me,” Ganga said.

“I have taken a vow that I will not be swayed by other woman. So I cannot accept you,” Pratipa said. Ganga tried to convince Pratipa to change his mind, but Pratipa did not budge. Eventually, he said, “You have sat on my right thigh, which is meant for daughters and daughter-in-laws. The left thigh is meant for a desirable woman. But you rejected it. Because you sat on my right thigh, you shall be my daughter-in-law. When I have a son, you will be his wife.”

Ganga agreed to this and then disappeared. Meanwhile, King Pratipa waited for a son.

The Tragic Story of Devapi

Soon, a son named Devapi was born to Pratipa and Sunanda. He was very virtuous, honest, and generous. Everyone in the kingdom, including his father, dearly loved him. However, he suffered from leprosy: a severe skin deisease. Pratipa and Sunanda then had a second son named Bahlika. Several years later, when they were very old, Pratipa and Sunanda had a third son named Shantanu, who was very virtuous from a young age. Shantanu was Mahabhisha reborn.

In course of time, Pratipa became old and prepared for Devapi to become the next king. However, the Brahmins and elderly citizens restricted the coronation of Devapi. They said that the a diseased king would be considered inauspicious. When King Pratipa heard about this, he was crushed by the news and burst into tears. On the other hand, Devapi became despondent and went to the forest, where he spent his life in penance.

After Devapi left, Bahlika left for Sivi, his maternal grandfather’s kingdom. There he acquired a lot of wealth and eventually succeeded his maternal grandfather as the king of Sivi.

Thus, Pratipa appointed his youngest son Shantanu as the king and prepared to retire to the forest. Before leaving for the forest, Pratipa told Shantanu, “Many years ago, I promised a celestial damsel that my son would marry her. If she approaches you with the desire to marry and have children, accept her as your wife.” After saying this, Pratipa left to pursue the path of spirituality in the forest.

The Drought of Hastinapura

This story is in the Vishnu Purana, Book 4, Chapter 20

Shantanu was a great king and was loved by his people. He was also an extraordinary physician. It is said in ancient medical books that if he touched anyone, even someone with the deadliest disease, he could instantly cure them. However, during the first year of his rule, there was no rain the entirety of the Kuru kingdom. More years passed, and still, there was no rain. Shantanu became very agitated. Without rain, the harvests were failing and the kingdom was running out of food.

He gathered the learned Brahmins and asked them why there was no rain. The Brahmins responded, “The gods are unhappy with you. You are enjoying the throne of Hastinapura, but it rightfully belongs to your elder brother, even though he has leprosy. You have thus become a parivetta, a usurper. Unless Devapi becomes unrighteous, the kingdom is technically his. You need to give him the kingdom for there to be rain.”

Shatanu decided to approach Devapi and request him to take the throne. However, a minister named Asmarisarin overheard this conversation. Like others, he wanted Shantanu to remain the king. They did not want to have a diseased man as the king. So Asmarisarin found some men who taught unrighteous doctrines that contradicted the Vedas. He secretly sent these men to Devapi to convert Devapi into an unrighteous man. He knew that if Devapi became unrighteous, Shantanu’s rule of the kingdom would become justified.

Shantanu and Devapi Meet Again

A couple of days later, Shantanu and the Brahmins set out to find Devapi and persuade him to become the king. When they arrived at Devapi’s hermitage, Shantanu said, “Brother, you must become the king. It is said in the Vedas that the kingdom is the right of the eldest brother.”

But Devapi started saying things against the Vedas. Shantanu was shocked. The Brahmins turned to Shantanu and said, “Devapi has become unrighteous. He has disrespected the Vedas. Since Devapi is unrighteous, your rule is now justified.”

Shantanu listened to the Brahmins and returned to Hastinapura. Soon enough, Indra sent down torrents of rain in the Kuru kingdom. Farmers rejoiced as their harvests became successful after years of futile work.

Shantanu and Ganga

This story is in the Mahabharata, Adi Parva, Chapter 92

Shantanu enjoyed hunting in his free time. One time, he had gone on a hunting expedition and killed many deer and buffaloes. He reached the banks of the Ganga River and he saw a beautiful woman. She was dressed in beautiful garments and divine jewelry. Shantanu was in awe as he gawked at her beauty. Shantanu asked her, “Oh beautiful one, who are you? Are you a goddess, an Apsara, or a human? Whoever you are, please be my wife.”

The beautiful woman was none other than Ganga. She remembered her promise to the Vasus and said, “Yes, I will be your queen, but on one condition. You must never question my actions or my identity. If you try to stop me from doing anything, I will certainly leave.”

Shantanu meets a beautiful woman who is Ganga

Shantanu willingly agreed and took her back to his palace. Shantanu quickly fell in love with Ganga. Months passed, and Shantanu spent all of his free time with Ganga. Soon, a son was born to them. However, as soon as he was born, Ganga took him and threw him into the Ganga River. Shantanu was shocked. How could she do this to their own son! But he restrained himself. He knew that if he questioned her actions, Ganga would leave him and he would be devastated. Months later, another son was born, but the same fate awaited him. This happened again and again, and soon, seven sons had been drowned and killed. Shantanu watched helplessly as his children died.

Shantanu’s Sons Drown

Soon, Ganga became pregnant again. By this point, Shantanu couldn’t tolerate it anymore. Seven of his sons had been killed in front of him. When the eighth son was born, he yelled, “Don’t kill him! Who are you! What type of a person kills their own children! You’re evil. Please, don’t kill him!”

Ganga carries a baby into the water and Shantanu tries to stop her

“Since you want to keep him, I won’t kill him. However, as per our agreement, I will now leave. I am the goddess Ganga. I married you to fulfill the wishes of the eight Vasus,” Ganga explained, and then narrated the story of how the Vasus had been cursed to be reborn on Earth. After explaining this, she vanished, taking the son with her.

Shantanu stood, depressed and helpless, as both his wife and his only son disappeared from his sight. In sorrow, he went back to his palace.

Ganga flies into the sky carrying baby Devavrata

Shantanu Meets His Only Son

This story is in the Mahabharata, Adi Parva, Chapter 94

Years passed, and one day, Shantanu was hunting a deer along the banks of the Ganga River. He observed that the waters of the Ganga River had become shallow. As he wondered why the river had become shallow, he saw a large youth standing nearby. He had blocked the flow of the river using his arrows. Seeing this incredible feat, Shantanu was astounded. However, suddenly the youth used his powers and disappeared. Shantanu had only seen his son once before, but he suspected the youth to be his own son.

“Show him to me,” he prayed to the river Ganga.

Ganga appeared before him with the handsome youth. “This is our eighth son, Devavrata. Take him home with you. He has studied the Vedas and the Vedangas from Vashishta himself. He has obtained the knowledge of weapons from Parashuram. Devavrata is revered by both the gods and the Asuras,” she explained.

Shantanu accepted his son and returned to Hastinapura with his son. Shantanu instated Devavrata as the crown prince of the Kuru kingdom. Devavrata quickly won the hearts of his father and all the citizens of the kingdom.

Ganga presents

Shantanu and Satyavati

This story is in the Mahabharata, Adi Parva, Chapter 94

Fours years had passed away when one day, Shantanu was in the woods on the banks of the Yamuna River. He detected a sweet scent and followed it. While wandering around, he came across a beautiful woman.

“Who are you and whose daughter are you? What are you doing here?” Shantanu asked.

“My name is Satyavati. I am part of the fisherman tribe. My father is the king of the fishermen,” the woman responded.

Shantanu was dazed by the beauty of Satyavati. He asked her father for his hand in marriage. Her father replied, “I am ready to give you my daughter, but on one condition: the son born from my daughter will become your successor.” When Shantanu heard this, he was in a dilemma. He had already made his son Devavrata the Crown Prince, but he desperately wanted to marry the beautiful fisherwoman. Sorrowfully, he returned to Hastinapura.

Shantanu started spending a lot of time in sorrowful meditation. Devavrata wondered why his father was suddenly acting so dejected.

“Everything is peaceful. Everyone obeys you. Why then are you acting so melancholy?” Devavrata asked.

“You are my only son. If anything happens to you, our entire lineage will cease to exist. I was just thinking about that,” Shantanu replied.

Devavrata was confused by his father’s vague response. He approached an old advisor of his father and asked why Shantanu was so sad. The old minister told Devavrata about the king of fishermen’s marriage condition.

Devavrata’s Vow

Devavrata took a group of ministers and approached the fisherman. He hospitably welcomed them.

The fisherman then said, “Devavrata, you and your father are great men. Everyone praises your father. But whoever the suitor is, even if it is Indra himself, the other sons of a king are always an obstacle. That’s all I ask in this marriage: that my daughter’s son receives the throne.”

In one of the most important decisions of his life, Devavrata said, “I will not ascend the throne of Hastinapura. The son born from Satyavati will be the king!”

“I have no doubt that you will fulfill this promise. However, I have another worry. When you have sons, what about them? Will they take the throne from Satyavati’s lineage?” the fisherman expressed.

“O king of fishermen! Listen to me. I have already relinquished my right to the kingdom. From today, I also the vow of brahmacharya. I will not marry and I will not have children!” Devavrata declared. Devavrata thus became one of the greatest figures in Hinduism. He renounced everything, including his rights to his kingdom, marriage, and having children, just for the sake of his father’s happiness.

Devavrata takes a vow in front of the fisherman and his family

When the fishermen heard this, he was overjoyed. He instantly told Devavrata that he was prepared to give Satyavati to Shantanu. Apsaras, gods, and rishis appeared in the sky and showered flowers on Devavrata. They said, “He is Bhishma!” (The word bhishma means “the fearsome one”, because of the vow he took). From then on, Devavrata became known as Bhishma. When Bhishma returned home, he told Shantanu about what he had done. Everyone praised him, and Shantanu was overjoyed. He gave Bhishma the boon of icchamrutyu, which means that he would only die when he chose to.

The Death of Shantanu

This story is in the Mahabharata, Adi Parva, Chapter 95

Shantanu and Satyavati were married in a grand ceremony in Hastinapura. Satyavati then became the queen of the kingdom. They soon had a son named Chitrangada. He was extremely brave and valiant. They also had a second son named Vichtravirya, who became a mighty bowman.

By this point, Shantanu was nearing the end of his lifetime. He wasn’t very old, but he soon passed away and was cremated.

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