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Prelude to the Great Bharata War

Dushyanta and Shakuntala--Romantic Wooing--Birth of Bharata--Shakuntala's Appeal--Her Claim vindicated--King Bharata's Reign--King Hastin and King Kuru--King Shantanu's Bride a Goddess--Seven Babes drowned--Story of Satyavati--Vyasa, Poet and Sage--Bhishma's Terrible Vow--Fisher Girl becomes Queen--Marriage by Capture--A Childless King--Origin of Dhritarashtra, Pandu, and Vidura.

Now the sire of the great King Bharata 1 was royal Dushyanta of the lunar race, the descendant of Atri, the Deva-rishi, and of Soma, the moon; his mother was beautiful Shakuntala, the hermit maiden, and daughter of a nymph from the celestial regions. And first be it told of the wooing of Shakuntala and the strange childhood of her mighty son.

One day King Dushyanta, that tiger among men, went forth from his stately palace to go a-hunting with a great host and many horses and elephants. He entered a deep jungle and there slew numerous wild animals; his arrows wounded tigers at a distance; he felled those that came near with his great sword. Lions fled from before him, wild elephants stampeded in terror, deer sought to escape hastily, and birds rose in the air uttering cries of distress.

The king, attended by a single follower, pursued a deer across a desert plain, and entered a beautiful forest

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which delighted his heart, for it was deep and shady, and was cooled by soft winds; sweet-throated birds sang in the branches, and all round about there were blossoming trees and blushing flowers; he heard the soft notes of the kokila 1, and beheld many a green bower carpeted with grass and canopied by many-coloured creepers.

Dushyanta, abandoning the chase, wandered on until he came to a delightful and secluded hermitage, where he saw the sacred fire of that austere and high-souled Brahman, the saintly Kanva. It was a scene of peace and beauty. Blossoms from the trees covered the ground; tall were the trunks, and the branches were far-sweeping. A silvery stream went past, breaking on the banks in milk-white foam; it was the sacred River Malini, studded with green islands, loved by water fowl, and abounding with fish.

Then the king was taken with desire to visit the holy sage, Kanva, he who is without darkness. So he divested himself of his royal insignia and entered the sacred grove alone. Bees were humming; birds trilled their many melodies; he heard the low chanting voices of Brahmans among the trees--those holy men who can take captive all human hearts. . . .

When he reached the abode of Kanva, he wondered to find that it was empty, and called out: "Who is here?" and the forest echoed his voice.

Then came towards him a beautiful black-eyed virgin, clad in a robe of bark. She reverenced the king and said: "What seekest thou? I am thy servant."

Said the royal Dushyanta to the maiden of faultless form and gentle voice: "I have come to honour the wise and blessed Kanva. Tell me, O fair and amiable one, whither he hath gone?"

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The maiden answered: "My illustrious sire is gathering herbs, but if thou wilt tarry he will return ere long."

Dushyanta was entranced by the beauty and sweet smiles of the gentle girl, and his heart was moved towards her, for she was in the bloom of youth. So he spake, saying: "Who art thou, O fairest one? Whence comest thou, and why dost thou wander alone in the woods? O comely maiden, thou hast taken captive my heart."

The bright-eyed one made answer: "I am the daughter of the holy and high-souled Kanva, the ever-wise and ever-constant."

Said the king: "But Kanva is chaste and austere and hath ever been a celibate, nor can he have broken his rigid vow. How came it that thou wert born the daughter of such a one?"

Then the maiden, who was named Shakuntala, because that the birds (shakunta) had nursed her, revealed unto the king the secret of her birth. Her real sire was Vishwamitra 1, the holy sage who had been a Kshatriya and was made a Brahman in reward for his austerities. It came to pass that Indra became alarmed at his growing power, and he feared that the mighty sage of blazing energy would, by reason of his penances, cast down even him, the king of the gods, from his heavenly seat. So Indra commanded Menaka, the beauteous Ap’sara, to disturb the holy meditations of the sage, for he had already achieved such power that he created a second world and many stars. The nymph called on the wind god and on the god of love, and they went with her towards Vishwamitra.

Menaka danced before the brooding sage; then the

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wind god snatched away her moon-white garments, and the love god shot his arrows at Vishwamitra, whereupon that saintly man was stricken with love for the nymph of peerless beauty, and he wooed her and won her as his bride. So was he diverted from his austerities. In time Menaka became the mother of a girl babe, whom she cast away on the river bank.

Now the forest was full of lions and tigers, but vultures gathered round the infant and protected her from harm. Then Kanva found and took pity on the child; he said: "She will be mine own daughter."

Said Shakuntala: "O king, I was that child who was abandoned by the nymph, and now thou dost know how Kanva came to be my sire."

The king said: "Blessed are thy words, O princess. Thou art of royal birth. Be thou my bride, O beautiful maid, and thou wilt have garlands of gold and golden ear-rings and white pearls and rich robes; my kingdom also will be thine, O timid one; wed thou me in Gandharva mode, which of all marriages is the best." 1

Then Shakuntala promised to be the king's bride, on condition that he would choose her son as the heir to his throne.

"As thou desirest, so let it be," said Dushyanta. And the fair one became his bride.

Ere Dushyanta went away he promised Shakuntala that he would send a mighty host to escort her to his palace.

When Kanva returned, the maiden did not leave her hiding-place to greet him; but he searched out and found her, and he read her heart. "Thou hast not broken the law," he said. "Dushyanta, thine husband, is noble and

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true, and a son will be born unto thee who will achieve great renown."

In time fair Shakuntala became the mother of a comely boy, and the wheel mark 1 was on his hands. He grew to be strong and brave, and when but six years old he sported with young lions, for he was suckled by a lioness; he rode on the backs of lions and tigers and wild boars in the midst of the forest. He was called All-tamer, because that he tamed everything.

Now when Kanva perceived that the boy was of unequalled prowess, he spake to Shakuntala and said: "The time hath come when he must be anointed as heir to the throne." So he bade his disciples to escort mother and son unto the city of Gajasahvaya 2, where Dushyanta had his royal palace.

So it came that Shakuntala once again stood before the king, and she said unto him: "Lo! I have brought unto thee this thy son, O Dushyanta. Fulfil the promise thou didst make aforetime, and let him be anointed as thine heir."

Dushyanta had no pleasure in her words, and made answer: "I have no memory of thee. Who are thou and whence cometh thou, O wicked hermit woman? I never took thee for wife, nor care I whether thou art to linger here or to depart speedily."

Stunned by his cold answer, the sorrowing Shakuntala stood there like a log. . . . Soon her eyes became red as copper and her lips trembled; she cast burning glances at the monarch. For a time she was silent; then she exclaimed with fervour: "O king without shame, well dost thou know who I am. Why wilt thou deny knowledge of me as if thou wert but an inferior person? Thy heart is a witness against thee. Be not a robber of thine

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own affections. . . . The gods behold everything: naught is hidden from them; verily, they will not bless one who doth degrade himself by speaking falsely regarding himself. Spurn not the mother of thy son; spurn not thy faithful wife. A true wife beareth a son; she is the first of friends and the source of salvation; she enables her husband to perform religious acts, her sweet speeches bring him joy; she is a solace and a comforter in sickness and in sorrow; she is a companion in this world and the next. If a husband dies, a wife follows soon afterwards; if she is gone before, she waiteth for her husband in heaven. She is the mother of the son who performs the funeral rite to secure everlasting bliss for his sire, rescuing him from the hell called Put. Therefore a man should reverence the mother of his son, and look upon his son as if he beheld his own self in a mirror, rejoicing the while as if he had found heaven. . . . Why, O king, dost thou spurn thine own child? Even the ants will protect their eggs; strangers far from home take the children of others on their knees to be made happy, but thou hast no compassion for this child, although he is thy son, thine own image. . . . Alas! what sin did I commit in my former state that I should have been deserted by my parents and now by thee! . . . If I must go hence, take thou thy son to thy bosom, O king."

Said Dushyanta: "It has been well said that all women are liars. Who will believe thee? I know naught regarding thee or thy son. . . . Begone! O wicked woman, for thou art without shame."

Shakuntala made answer, speaking boldly and without fear: "O king, thou canst perceive the shortcomings of others, although they may be as small as mustard seeds; thou art blind to thine own sins, although they may be big as Vilwa fruit. As the swine loveth dirt even in a

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flower garden, so do the wicked perceive evil in all that the good relate. Honest men refrain from speaking ill of others: the wicked rejoice in scandal. O king! truth is the chief of all virtues. Truth is God himself. Do not break thy vow of truth: let truth be ever a part of thee. But if thou wouldst rather be false, I must needs depart, for, verily, such a one as thee should be avoided. . . . Yet know now, O Dushyanta, that when thou art gone, my son will be king of this world, which is surrounded by the four seas and adorned by the monarch of mountains."

Shakuntala then turned from the king, but a voice out of heaven spoke softly down the wind, saying:

"Shakuntala hath uttered what is true. Therefore, O Dushyanta, cherish thy son, and because thou wilt cherish him by command of the gods, let his name be Bharata ('the cherished')."

When the king heard these words, he spoke to his counsellors and said: "The celestial messenger hath spoken. . . . Had I welcomed this my son by pledge of Shakuntala alone, men would suspect the truth of her words and doubt his royal birth."

Thereafter Dushyanta embraced his son and kissed him, and he honoured Shakuntala as his chief rani 1; he said to her, soothingly: "From all men have I concealed our union; and for the sake of thine own good name I hesitated to acknowledge thee. Forgive my harsh words, as I forgive thine. Thou didst speak passionately because thou lovest me well, O great-eyed and fair one, whom I love also."

The son of Shakuntala was then anointed as heir to the throne, and he was named Bharata. 2

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When Dushyanta died, Bharata became king. Great was his fame, as befitted a descendant of Chandra. 1 He was a mighty warrior, and none could withstand him in battle; he made great conquests, and extended his kingdom all over Hindustan, which was called Bharatavarsha. 2

King Bharata was the sire of King Hastin, who built the great city of Hastinapur; King Hastin begot King Kuru, and King Kuru begot King Shantanu.

Be it told of the King Shantanu that he was pious and just and all-powerful, as was meet for the great grandson of King Bharata. His first wife was the goddess Ganga of the Ganges river, and she was divinely beautiful like to her kind. Ere she assumed human form for a time, there came to her the eight Vasus, the attendants of Indra. It chanced that when the Brahman Vasishtha was engaged in his holy meditations the Vasus flew between him and the sun, whereupon the angered sage cursed them, saying: "Be born among men!" Nor could they escape this fate, so great was the Rishi's power over celestial beings. So they hastened to Ganga, and she consented to become their human mother, promising that she would cast them one by one into the Ganges soon after birth, so that they might return speedily to their celestial state. For this service Ganga made each of the Vasus promise to confer an eighth part of his power on her son, who, according to her desire, should remain among men for many years, but would never marry or have offspring.


SHANTANU MEETS THE GODDESS GANGA<br> <i>From the painting by Warwick Goble</i>.
Click to enlarge

From the painting by Warwick Goble.


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A day came thereafter when King Shantanu walked beside the Ganges. Suddenly there appeared before him a maiden of surpassing beauty. She was Ganga in human form. Her celestial garments had the splendour of lotus blooms; she was adorned with rare ornaments, and her teeth were radiant as pearls. The king was silenced by her charms, and gazed upon her steadfastly . . . In time he perceived that the maiden regarded him with love-lorn eyes, as if she sought to look upon him for ever, and he spoke to her, saying: "O slender-waisted and fair one, art thou one of the Danavas, or art thou of the race of Gandharvas, or art thou of the Apsaras; art thou one of the Yakshas or Nagas, 1 or art thou of human kind, O peerless and faultless one? Be thou my bride."

The goddess made answer that she would wed the king, but said she must needs at once depart from him if he spoke harshly to her at any time, or attempted to thwart her in doing as she willed. Shantanu consented to her terms, and Ganga became his bride.

In time the goddess gave birth to a son, but soon afterwards she cast him into the Ganges, saying: "This for thy welfare."

The king was stricken with horror, but he spake not a word to his beautiful bride lest she should leave him.

So were seven babes, one after another, destroyed by their mother in like manner. When the eighth was born, the goddess sought to drown him also; but the king's pent-up wrath broke forth in a torrent of speech, and he upbraided his heartless wife. Thus was his marriage vow broken, and Ganga given power to depart unto her own place. But ere she went she revealed unto the king who she was, and also why she had cast the Vasus, her children, into the Ganges. Then she

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suddenly vanished from before his eyes, taking the last babe with her.

Ere long the fair goddess returned to Shantanu for a brief space, and she brought with her for the king a fair and noble son, who was endowed with the virtues of the Vasus. Then she departed never to come again. The heart of Shantanu was moved towards the child, who became a comely and powerful youth, and was named Satanava. 1

When Shantanu had grown old, he sought to marry a young and beautiful bride whom he loved. For one day as he walked beside the Jumna river he was attracted by a sweet and alluring perfume, which drew him through the trees until he beheld a maiden of celestial beauty with luminous black eyes. 2 The king spake to her and said: "Who art thou, and whose daughter, O timid one? What doest thou here?"

Said the maiden, blessing Shantanu: "I am the daughter of a fisherman, and I ferry passengers across the river in my boat."

Now, the name of this fair maiden was Satyavati. 3 Like Shakuntala, she was of miraculous origin, and had been adopted by her reputed sire. It chanced that a fish once carried away in its stomach two unborn babes, a girl and a boy, whose father was a great rajah. This fish was caught by a fisherman, who opened it and found the children. He sent the manchild unto the rajah and kept the girl, who was reared as his own daughter. She grew to be comely and fair, but a fishy odour ever clung to her.

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One day, as she ferried pilgrims across the Jumna, there entered her boat alone the high and pious Brahman Parashara, who was moved by the maiden's great beauty. He desired that she should become the mother of his son, and promised that ever afterwards an alluring perfume would emanate from her body. He then caused a cloud to fall upon the boat, and it vanished from sight.

When the fisher girl became the mother of a son, he grew suddenly before her eyes, and in a brief space was a man. His name was Vyasa 1; he bade his mother farewell, and hastened to the depths of a forest to spend his days in holy meditation. Ere he departed he said unto Satyavati: "If ever thou hast need of me, think of me, and I shall come to thine aid."

When this wonder had been accomplished, Satyavati became a virgin again through the power of the great sage Parashara, and a delicious odour lingered about her ever afterwards.

On this maiden King Shantanu gazed with love. Then he sought the fisherman, and said he desired the maiden to be his bride. But the man refused to give his daughter to the king in marriage until he promised that her son should be chosen as heir to the throne. Shantanu could not consent to disinherit Satanava, son of Ganga, and went away with a heavy heart.

Greatly the king sorrowed in his heart because of his love for the dark-eyed maiden, and at length Satanava was given his secret. Then that noble son of Ganga went to search for the beautiful daughter of the fisher-man, and he found her. The fisherman said unto him, when he had made known his mission: "If Satyavati bears sons, they will not inherit the kingdom, for the king hath already a son, and he will succeed him."

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Satanava thereupon made a vow renouncing his claim to the throne, and said: "If thou wilt give thy daughter unto my sire to be his queen, I, who am his heir, will never accept the throne, nor marry a wife, or be the father of children. If, then, Satyavati will become the mother of a son, he will surely be chosen rajah." When he had spoken thus, the gods and Apsaras, the mist fairies, caused flowers to fall out of heaven upon the prince's head, and a voice came down the wind, saying: "This one is Bhishma."

So from that day the son of Ganga was called Bhishma, which signifies the "Terrible", for the vow that he had taken was terrible indeed.

Then was Satyavati given in marriage to the king, and she bore him two sons, who were named Chitrangada and Vichitra-virya. 1

In time Santanu sank under the burden of his years, and his soul departed from his body. Unto Bhishma was left the care of the queen-mother, Satyavati, and the two princes.

When the days of mourning went past, Bhishma renounced the throne in accordance with his vow, and Chitrangada was proclaimed king. This youth was a haughty ruler, and his reign was brief. He waged war against the Gandhari of the hills 2 for three years, and was slain in battle by their rajah. Then Bhishma placed Vichitra-virya on the throne, and, as he was but a boy, Bhishma ruled as regent for some years.

At length the time came for the young king to marry, and Bhishma set out to find wives for him. It chanced

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that the King of Kasi (Benares) had three fair daughters whose swayamvara 1 was being proclaimed. When Bhishma was told of this he at once entered his chariot and drove from Hastinapur 2 to Kasi to discover if the girls were worthy of the monarch of Bharatavarsha. He found that they had great beauty, and he was well pleased thereat. The great city was thronged with rajahs who had gathered from far and near to woo the maidens, but Bhishma would not tarry until the day of the swayamvara. He immediately seized the king's fair daughters and placed them in his chariot. Then he challenged the assembled rajahs and sons of rajahs in a voice like thunder, saying:

"The sages have decreed that a king may give his daughter with many gifts unto one he has invited when she hath chosen him. Others may barter their daughters for two kine, and some may give them in exchange for gold. But maidens may also be taken captive. They may be married by consent, or forced to consent, or be obtained by sanction of their sires. Some are given wives as reward for performing sacrifices, a form approved by the sages. Kings ever favour the swayamvara, and obtain wives according to its rules. But learned men have declared that the wife who is to be most highly esteemed is she who is taken captive after battle with the royal guests who attend a swayamvara. Hear and know, then, ye mighty rajahs, I will carry off these fair daughters of the king of Kasi, and I challenge all who are here to overcome me or else be overcome themselves by me in battle."

The royal guests who were there accepted the challenge,

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and Bhishma fought against them with great fury. Bows were bent and ten thousand arrows were discharged against him, but he broke their flight with innumerable darts from his own mighty bow. Strong and brave was he indeed; there was none who could overcome him; he fought and conquered all, until not a rajah was left to contend against him. 1

Thus did Bhishma, the terrible son of the ocean-going Ganga, take captive after battle the three fair daughters of the King of Kasi; and he drove away with them in his chariot towards Hastinapur. 2

When he reached the royal palace he presented the maidens unto Queen Satyavati, who was well pleased, and at once gave many costly gifts to Bhishma. She decided that the captives should become the wives of her son, King Vichitra-virya.

Ere the wedding ceremony was held, the eldest maiden, whose name was Amba, pleaded with the queen to be set free, saying:

"I have been betrothed already by my sire unto the Rajah of Sanva. Oh, send me unto him now, for I cannot marry a second time."

Her prayer was granted, and Bhishma sent her with an escort unto the Rajah of Sanva. Then the fair Amba related unto him how she had been taken captive; but the rajah exclaimed, with anger: "Thou hast already dwelt in the house of a strange man, and I cannot take thee for my wife."

The maiden wept bitterly, and she knelt before the monarch and said: "No man hath wronged me, O

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mighty rajah. Bhishma hath taken a terrible vow of celibacy which he cannot break. If thou wilt not have me for wife, I pray thee to take me as thy concubine, so that I may dwell safely in thy palace."

But the rajah spurned the beautiful maiden, and his servants drove her from the palace and out of the city. So was she compelled to seek refuge in the lonely forest, and there she practised great austerities with purpose to secure power to slay Bhishma, who had wronged her. In the end she threw herself upon a pyre, so that she might attain her desire in the next life. 1

Her two sisters, Amvika and Amvalika, became the wives of Vitchitra-virya, who loved them well; but his days were brief, and he wasted away with sickness until at length he died. No children were born to the king, and his two widows mourned for him.

The heart of Queen Satyavati was stricken with grief because that her two sons were dead, and there was left no heir to the throne of King Bharata.

Now it was the custom in those days that a kinsman should become the father of children to succeed the dead king. 2 So Queen Satyavati spake unto Bhishma, saying: "Take thou the widows of my son and raise up sons who will be as sons of the king."

But Bhishma said: "That I cannot do, for have I not vowed never to be the sire of any children."

In her despair Satyavati then thought of her son Vyasa, and he immediately appeared before her and consented to do as was her desire. 3

Now Vyasa was a mighty sage, but, by reason of his

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austerities in his lonely jungle dwelling, he had grown gaunt and repulsive of aspect so that women shrank from before him; fearsome was he, indeed, to look upon.

Amvika closed her eyes with horror when she beheld the sage, and she had a son who was born blind: he was named Dhritarashtra. Amvalika turned pale with fear: she had a son who was named Pandu, "the pale one".

Satyavati desired that Vyasa should be the father of a son who had no defect; but Amvika sent her handmaiden unto him, and she bore a son who was called Vidura. As it happened, Dharma, god of justice, was put under the spell of a Rishi at this time, to be born among men, and he chose Vidura to be his human incarnation.

The three children were reared by Bhishma, who was regent over the kingdom, and was yet subject to Queen Satyavati. He taught them the laws and trained them as warriors. When the time came to select a king, Dhritarashtra 1 was passed over because that he was blind, and Vidura because of his humble birth, and Pandu, "the pale one", was set upon the throne.



157:1 Pron. bah´ra-ta or bhah´ra-ta.

158:1 The Indian cuckoo.

159:1 Pron. vish-wah-mit´ra.

160:1 The Gandharva marriage was legalized by Manu, but only for members of the Kshatriya (kings and warriors) caste.

161:1 A sign of martial and royal origin.

161:2 Pron. Gaj-as-ah-va´ya.

163:1 Queen.

163:2 This story is the plot of "Shakuntala", the Sanskrit drama of the poet Kalidasa, p. 164 who lived in the fifth century A.D. He makes the king give the heroine a ring, which she loses while bathing. A fish swallows the ring, and it is found by a fisherman, who delivers it to the king. Then suddenly His Majesty remembers his bride, whom he had forgotten and already denied. The misfortunes of the monarch and maid resulted from the curse of the sage Durvasas. Pron. Sha-koon´-ta-lah.

164:1 Pron. chun´dra ("ch" as in "change"). Also Soma, the moon god.

164:2 Subsequently the name for India as a whole.

165:1 Art thou a demon or nymph or fairy or dwarf or demi-god?

166:1 His other names are Deva-bratta and Ganga-bratta, and he was ultimately known as Bhishma.

166:2 The Pharaoh of the Anpu-Bata Egyptian story was similarly attracted by a perfume which issued from a lock of hair. See Egyptian Myth and Legend.

166:3 Pron. sat´ya-vat-ee.

167:1 Pron. vyas´a (two syllables). The reputed author of the Mahá-bhárata.

168:1 Pron. chit-ran´gad-a ("ch" as in "change") and vi-cheet´ra-veer-ya.

168:2 An Aryan tribe in the north-west of India. Part of their territory was included in the Persian empire. Keith identifies them with the Gandarians who accompanied Xerxes in his campaign against the Greeks.

169:1 A festival at which a princess selected a husband from among the kings and warriors assembled together.

169:2 A drive of about 500 miles. Indian poets, however, have never troubled about geographical difficulties.

170:1 The Kasi tribe was Aryan but was disliked by the eastern Aryans because its beliefs were not according to the standards imposed by the Brahmans. Conflicts were frequent.

170:2 Pron. has-teen´a-poor. Marriage by capture was called a Rákshas marriage, and was sanctioned by Manu.

171:1 She helps to kill Bhishma in the great war, having changed her sex with a Yaksha.

171:2 A similar practice is referred to in Genesis xxxviii; it was a regular institution among the ancient Hebrews.

171:3 This custom is called "niyoga", and was legalized by Manu, but only for the lower castes.

172:1 Pron. dreet´a-rash″tra, Pan´doo, and Ve-dur´a ("u" as "oo").

Next: Chapter X. Royal Rivals: the Pandavas and Kauravas