The Story that Leads up to the Bhagavad Gita:
From Bharata to the birth of Dhritarashtra & Pandu
The Mahabharata guides your imagination to stretch back into time and contemplate the possibility that our modern world is not at all superior to life in the previous Cycles of Time. My way of reading the great Sanskrit epic embraces the idea that in past eras we human beings were more conscious in general and in particular we were aware of and interacted with realms that are now invisible to most.
Long ago there was a time when our life span was hundreds, even thousands of years - a time when there were no wars, no labor, no envy and its best friend greed. That happiest Cycle of Time is called the Satya or Krita Yuga, the Golden Age. Throughout the Manvantaras, as the end of this golden era draws near, the demonic darkside beings, which in Sanskrit are called the Asuras, begin to fight with the beings of Light in the Heavens. This is a polarity universe made up of both positive and negative forces, and there could be no world without a darkside.
According to the Mahabharata the celestials, led by Indra, continually defeat the demonic in battle and throw them out of the heavens. Having fallen from these supernal realms, the demonic Asuras take birth here on earth and become ‘proud and insolent’ kings. It seems to me that in our current cycle of time, the Kali Yuga, we have many such rulers who are more concerned with their own personal power, wealth, and prestige than they are the well-being of those they are paid to represent.
The Partial Incarnations
The Mahabharata says that the Asuras of that ancient time were taking birth here in such numbers that they began to overwhelm the Earth; and because she was becoming incapable of supporting herself, the Earth went to the Omniscient Lord, Brahma and asked for assistance. Therefore, Brahma commanded the celestials to take birth on Earth to free her from this burden.
‘...and so the celestials in succession descended from heaven to earth, with a portion of themselves, for the destruction of the enemies of the gods and the well-being of the three worlds.’ (J.A.B. van Buitenen)
The idea that the main characters, both heroes and villains, in the epic are partial incarnations of either celestials or demons is pivotal to the story. And perhaps not so far from the truth as modern western thinking might judge. Krishna tells us in the Bhagavad Gita that God dwells within the Heart of each and every man, woman, and child. From the point of view of metaphysics, the human body is a microcosm of the entire universe and therefore the demonic also dwells within each of us, albeit in those centers of power, the chakras, below the Heart.
Pururava & Urvashi
As the lineages spread out like the roots of a vast cosmic tree, we meet Pururava who is said to be a human, but always surrounds himself with super human companions. Pururava has a child with an Apsara, a beautiful sky dancing celestial, named Urvashi. So the various dimensional worlds are not only interacting, but also mating and producing offspring.
Pururava’s grandson is Nahusha, a king of great virtue. His ‘beauty, asceticism, prowess and energy’ have the power to beat the very ‘dwellers of heaven’ and thus we are led to understand that a wise king, who possesses the wisdom and power to master his own consciousness, can control the forces of the higher realms for the good of his kingdom. Self-mastery and integrity can empower us to access the wisdom of the inner realms.
Dushyanta & Sakuntala beget Bharata
Dushyanta was a fearsome courageous king who loved to hunt tigers and wild beasts in the deepest forest, along with his men on hundreds of horses and elephants. One day he ventured into ‘the abode of the Siddhas (masters), Charanas (demigods), the various sorts of Gandharvas (celestial musicians), the Apsaras (sky dancers), the Monkeys and Kinnaras (heavenly-humans)’ - all of whom were said to be ‘drunk with joy!’ Our fearless tiger hunter appears to have wandered into another dimension, right here on the earth where an assortment of intriguing beings were enjoying themselves.
There he met Sakuntala, a woman whose birth was quite auspicious; for there once lived an ascetic whose powers were so vast that he ‘created in anger another world with stars’ (M.N. Dutt). Indra, the ruler of heaven became worried that this fierce ascetic would usurp Indra’s celestial powers and therefore he sent a splendidly beautiful sky-dancing Apsara named Menaka to seduce the ascetic and turn him away from his austerities. Indra’s less than godlike insecurities often lead him to employ such tricks.
The Apsaras are perfect in beauty, form, and accomplishment in the arts; but they have no feelings and so the child that came forth from the love made with this fierce ascetic and the Apsara Menaka was abandoned on a river bank. Curiously the vultures came to encircle and protect the girl child, who was then known as Sakuntala, meaning protected by birds. Another great Rishi, Kanva, found the baby and raised her as his own. Sakuntala was taught the disciplines of self mastery by her adopted father, the seer Kanva, and was therefore quite capable of her own power manifesting austerities.
When Dushyanta met Sakuntala, he was overcome with love and desire for her. Pleading his case for their union that very day, he stated the properness of the rites, a Gandharva marriage for warriors, Kshatriyas. Promising to crown her as his queen, he made her with child - and that child was Bharata.
No ordinary mortals ...
I share these stories with you because they give us the flavor of other worlds and another time. But they also point out that the lineage of the characters in the Mahabharata is derived from the partial incarnations of the celestials and the demonic. There are bits of other-world beings in these ancient heroes and their brave beautiful women, and therefore in Bharata and it is his name that headlines the epic Mahabharata, the Great Bharata. These men and women are not ordinary mortals. But then, one might ask the question, since God dwells within the Heart of us all, are there any ordinary mortals?
Bharata was the son of the virtuous King Dushyanta and the lovely Sakuntala, the lady who was half-Apsara (Menaka) and half-Rishi.
When Sakuntala brought their son to Dushyanta’s kingdom, the king wanted his people to accept the child as his legitimate heir and so in a bit of theatrics, he publicly rejected the child, claiming not to know the sweet and innocent Sakuntala. Injured by his words, Sakuntala gave Dushyanta a good moral thrashing in the form of a lecture on motherhood.
To save the day, a voice from the sky ‘with no visible form’ declared the boy to be the true son of the king and with such a divine stamp of approval, Bharata was accepted from that day on as the heir to the throne. Dushyanta apologized profusely to his beloved, revealing the fortuitous purpose of his deceit, and the two lived happily ever after.
Bharata is said to have ‘brought all the kings of the world under his sway’ (M.N. Dutt), and thus his name, Bharata, also means India itself. For ‘from him has sprung this great race’ all devoted to truth and honesty, blessed with great fortune, many of whom became godlike powerful monarchs, who were ‘all like the celestial.’
The Mahabharata tells us that the young Bharata fought lions for his own pleasure and was able to tame tigers, elephants, rhinoceros, and water buffaloes. He was invincible and ruled with virtue. The virtue of kings is a very important theme in the Mahabharata and there is a very long discourse on the subject (in the Shanti Parva) that should be read by our world leaders today. A kingdom and its people are only as good as the king. A corrupt, weak, cruel king destroys his kingdom.
Shantanu’s love for Ganga
While the preceding descriptions hopefully offer a bit of feeling for the background story landscape, the next king is key to understanding the plot of the Mahabharata.
Shantanu, a descendant of Bharata, was the king of the great city Hastinapur, the capital of the Kurus, who were an important branch of the lineage. Shantanu, the protector of the Bharata race, was virtuous and truthful. ‘The virtue of kindness reigned in his kingdom as he was full of mercy and free from anger.’ (M.N. Dutt)
Like all the mighty men of that time, Shantanu was a lover of hunting and spent many a day roaming the forest. One afternoon as he walked along the banks of the Ganges River, he met a ‘blazing beauty’ whose charms made his hair stand up all over his body in rapture. The term for this reaction is horripilation, which means that you get goose bumps as your hairs stand erect from fear, or in this case an intensely passionate desire. This charming archaic term is used frequently in the Bhagavata Purana to describe the girls’ usual response when they see Krishna.
As fate would have it, the experience of horripilation impels our besotted king to ask the divinely beauteous maiden Ganga, who is the river transformed into a woman, to be his wife and she accepts on certain adamant conditions. Shantanu must promise not to interfere in any of her acts or to ever speak harshly to her. Sounds good to me! Our king was so smitten by Ganga that he consented to her conditions and the two left for his palace to enjoy their bliss. The texts says that Shantanu ‘sinks into the beauty’ of his wife.
Soon a son was born, but Ganga carried the baby boy down to the river and drowned him in the dark waters. Shantanu was naturally overwhelmed with shock and pain; but remembering his promise, he could do nothing. Seven sons were drowned in this way, while the father-king could only watch frozen in silent horror. As each child was cast into its watery grave, Ganga said, ‘This I have done as a favor for your good.’
Finally as Ganga was taking the eighth son away to his death, Shantanu could bear his heartbreak and agony no more. He implored his beloved wife to to tell him why she would commit such crimes, and begged her to spare this last baby. Ganga agreed immediately to spare the boy, but informed her husband that she must now leave him. As to the why of her deeds, she explained that the babes were celestials, ‘illustrious and greatly effulgent Vasus’ who had been cursed to birth in human form by a proud Rishi, Vasistha. In compassion, Ganga offered to birth the Vasus and set them free the day they were born.
This is interesting, for it often seems that in the Sanskrit texts the celestials do not want to be born here on earth in a human body, a condition in which it is all too easy to get lost in the Maya of the five-senses and forget who you are. Ganga was being merciful to these Vasus; but we must remember that Ganga is a goddess and a river and it must be that her celestial law bears little, if any, resemblance to our human moral constraints.
The eighth son was named Bhishma and he plays a crucial role in the Mahabharata. Bhishma was not only the son of a great king in the line of Bharata, but his mother was the river goddess Ganga, and most importantly he was an incarnation of one of the Vasus, who in metaphysics are the spheres-of-existence, the spheres of the elements. As destiny’s child, Bhishma became both a skilled warrior and a man of great knowledge who took his vows very seriously.
Shantanu’s love for Satyavati
Even though Shantanu lived on happily with his son Bhishma, our king of kindness missed his wife Ganga and longs for the companionship of a warm woman to fill the emptiness in his heart. One day as he wandered in the forest along the banks of the river Yamuna, he became aware of an intoxicating fragrance wafting through the woods. Enchanted by the pheromones of such a superb and subtle ambrosial perfume, he followed the scent and came upon the lovely Satyavati.
Satyavati was the source of the divine fragrance, although there was a time when she smelled of fish. The girl had been born in the womb of a fish, who was really a cursed Apsara. Satyavati had been given the boon of this marvelous fragrance by a Rishi, who deeply desired her and in their coupling, gave her a son. Their son was none other than the poet author of the Mahabharata, Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa himself! You see how Vyasa loved to weave webs!
When King Shantanu caught her scent, Satyavati was living in a village as the daughter of a fisherman and Shantanu, after professing his love to the girl, asked her father for his consent to their marriage. The fisherman father told the king he had always known that Satyavati was destined to marry into royalty and therefore he was humbly honored to give his daughter to such a great ruler as Shantanu - but only on the condition that her children alone and no others would inherit the throne.
Being a good king and loving Bhishma, his first born son, Shantanu could not accept such terms. Heartbroken and longing for the pheromone-fragrant Satyavati, he returned to the palace where he moped around until his son realized something was wrong. Being a good son, Bhishma decided to take the matter into his own hands, and in the unselfish and virtuous wish to bring happiness to his beloved father, took an terrible oath.
To ensure that Satyavati’s children would be heir to the kingdom, Bhishma renounced his right to the throne and swore to never know a woman and therefore remain sonless. Bhishma’s vow of celibacy (Brahmacharya) was considered to be so righteous, high-principled, and praise worthy that ‘the celestials, the Apsaras and various classes of Rishis’ showered him with flowers from the firmament (M.N.Dutt).
Bhishma means ‘the terrible’ and his vow was indeed terrible in the sense that its severity was fearful to most men. But not to Bhishma. In gratitude his father gave him the boon of dying at will, meaning Bhishma had the power to choose the moment of his death. You will see much later on in the Mahabharata, this maker of terrible vows ends up dying on an excruciating bed of arrows teaching the victorious warriors the virtues of kingship.
The children of Shantanu & Satyavati: Citrangada & Vichitravirya
The fragrant Satyavati married the kind king Shantanu and the happy lovers had two sons: Citrangada and Vichitravirya.
Citrangada was a great warrior and so successful in his numerous victories over humans that the king of the celestial Gandharvas challenged him to fight on Kurukshetra, the same battlefield where many years later Krishna gave his Bhagavad Gita discourse to Arjuna. The Gandharva Chief killed Citrangada and thus only Vichitravirya was left to become king and to provide an heir.
In the Dvapara Yuga a woman was allowed to choose her husband, and for a princess a festive contest was often held to allow the competing young males the chance to demonstrate their prowess. This delightful and to my mind civilized tradition was called a Sayamvara and one was being held in the city of Varanasi (Benares or Kashi) for the three daughters of the king: Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika.
So Satyavati sent Bhishma to find wives for Vichitravirya. Bhishma was by this time already a bit wrinkled and with white hair; his age frightened the girls and set up an uproar. Bhishma decided not to waste time talking, negotiating the marriages, and kidnapped all the three maidens. The Kshatriyas were by law permitted to carry a bride away by force. The other men and their warriors chased Bhishma in a hailstorm of arrows, but alone that ‘tiger among men’ defeated them.
Back at the palace one of the girls, Amba, revealed that she was already promised to another; so the ever virtuous Bhishma allowed her to leave and return to her beloved. This girl ironically turned out to be the ultimate cause of his death. The other two girls remained to marry and the text says that Vichitravirya enjoyed them for seven years until he was ‘attacked by consumption’ and ‘went to the abode of Yama (death) like a setting sun’ leaving no heir. (M.N. Dutt)
Satyavati always felt guilty for having usurped Bhishma's right to the throne and now entreated the elder statesman son to follow the tradition of marrying the wives of the deceased brother, ascend the throne, and have children. But Bhishma's vow was indeed terrible and he would not break it! Bhishma was stubbornness itself and much later in the epic, Lord Krishna lovingly chastised him for all his impulsive vow taking.
Poet-author & father, Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa
Desperate to continue the line of the throne she felt responsible for, Satyavati remembered her son Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa. Long ago, Vyasa had promised her that he would appear before her whenever she might think of him and so our poet-author comes onto the scene to fulfill his duty and follow in the tradition that to ensure the continuation of the family line, a brother may impregnate his dead brother’s wives, which in this case was a half-brother.
There was a problem, of course! Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa was a Rishi/seer who had been performing great austerities and even though he agreed to his mother’s plan, he was dirty, probably a bit stinky, perhaps encrusted with ashes and cow dung and hairy faced. In his present unwashed state, Vyasa was not an appetizing number for the princesses. But Satyavati was in a hurry and insisted that her seer son, Vyasa, do the deed that day.
Vyasa entered the bedroom of Ambika first and realized that the gentle lady was terrified by his ‘matted locks of copper color, his blazing eyes, and grim beard’ and closed her eyes during the act. Thus her son was born blind - and this blind son was none other than the great Dhritarashtra (Dhri-ta-RASH-tra), whose complex nature of weakness and ambition will fuel his sons to instigate the great war.
The mating with the second wife received a similar reaction, but in this case the girl Ambalika became pale and discolored from fear. Her son was born pale and thus was named Pandu, which means pale. Arjuna is one of the Pandavas, the sons of Pandu, who will fight the sons of Dhritarashtra on the battlefield Kurukshetra.
In his book ‘The Mahabharata, A Literary Study’, the Indian scholar Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair talks about Vyasa’s wry sense of humor. What could be a better example than the poet-author making himself the father of the two men who are the fathers of the 100 Kauravas and the five Pandavas - at least spiritually. Vyasa is the artistic and literal father and grandfather to the main characters in his poem!
The birth of the Pandavas & the Kauravas ... continues ...
The Gods of India, Hindu Polytheism
Alain Danielou, 1965
Inner Traditions Int., 1985, New York