Skip to main content

Chapter 1

Birth of the Kuru Elders

Ambikā peered curiously into the mirror as her maidservants finished adorning her in preparation for the nuptial bed. She had lost none of her beauty despite her months of mourning. Her skin was flawless and as white as milk. Curling jet-black hair framed her oval face. Bow-like eyebrows arched over her black eyes, which curved like two lotus petals. No wonder Vicitravīrya had been so enamored of her, rarely leaving her side. While he was alive her maidservants had adorned her each evening, just in case her lord had desired to approach her. As Ambikā again put on her ornaments and fine dress her mind drifted sadly back to the days she had spent with her husband. After having lain in that great hero’s powerful arms, how strange to now be preparing to meet another man!

Ambikā balked at the prospect, and she felt herself growing increasingly restless. She dismissed the maidservants as they fussed around her. She needed to be alone to think. When Vicitravīrya had died in such an untimely way, she had wanted to ascend his funeral pyre and follow him to the heavens. She could not imagine living without him. But Satyavatī, the queen mother, had restrained her--she still had a duty to perform. Despite the fact that they had enjoyed so much pleasure together, after seven years of marriage they had not produced a child. Without leaving an heir the king was guilty of neglecting a prime duty. How, then, would he be able to reach the higher regions?

Satyavatī had convinced Ambikā and her co-wife Ambālikā to stay and fulfill their husband’s duty and thereby secure the welfare of his soul. The scriptures allowed that in times of emergency a man’s elder brother could conceive children in his wife if he was unable. This was such an emergency. Ambikā suddenly felt more peaceful. Her union with Bhīṣma would not be a betrayal of the love she felt for her husband, but a service to him and to the kingdom. She stopped her restless pacing and lay down on the ivory bed in bashful anticipation. Bhīṣma was a powerful and righteous man. Who better to sire the future king? She should ensure that he felt completely honored by her.

There was a knock at the door. Ambikā looked up shyly. The door opened and a tall man entered. Ambikā’s blood turned cold. This was not Bhīṣma. There in her bedchamber stood a wizened, ugly and filthy ascetic. His matted locks hung about his gaunt face and he stared at her with fierce eyes. His teeth were only slightly less black than his complexion. Around his waist was a soiled loin cloth, his only garment. His hairy body was encrusted with dirt. Without any delay he came toward her and sat by her side. She instantly recoiled from the foul stench emanating from his body. Who was this person? She knew of no brother-in-law other than Bhīṣma. She prayed to the gods that she might lose consciousness, for how could she endure this fearful man’s touch? As he put his hands on her dress she closed her eyes, barely able to repress her urge to scream.

Satyavatī blamed herself. If it had not been for her father’s greed, Hastināpura would not be in such a precarious situation now. Here sat the powerful Bhīṣma, son of the goddess Gaṅgā. There was no greater hero on earth. As the eldest son of the righteous King Śantanu, he was the natural heir to Hastināpura’s throne, but the kingdom’s good fortune had been thwarted by her foolish father on her behalf.

She could still vividly picture the events. It had seemed to be like any other day. She was sitting by the river’s edge, waiting to row travelers across. Her father, leader of the fishermen, had given her that duty so she would gain the religious merits born of service to travelers. On this particular day, however, the emperor of the world, the mighty Śantanu, had been hunting in the nearby forests and was seduced by the alluring fragrance that emanated from her body. Having sought out the source of that celestial scent, he had become bewitched by her beauty. From his gaze it was obvious he desired to marry her. Upon hearing that she was still unmarried, he had hurried to her father’s house to ask for her hand.

When she herself had arrived home, she saw Śantanu leaving their humble hut in dismay. Her father had stipulated that he could only marry her if he promised the throne to her son. But the emperor already had a qualified son in Devavrataḥ, and he had already been consecrated as the prince regent. The king was not prepared, simply for his own pleasure, to wrong his worthy and beloved son. Thus he left, his heart torn by desire.

Satyavatī too had pined for many days, praying to the gods to arrange her union with the king. Then one day, unknown to Śantanu, Devavrataḥ appeared at their hut to solicit her hand on the emperor’s behalf. Her father repeated his condition and Devavrataḥ agreed. He would never ascend Hastināpura’s throne; the crown could go to Satyavatī’s children. Still her father hesitated. He had heard enough about court intrigues to know that if Devavrataḥ relinquished the throne, then Devavrataḥ’s children might feel cheated and oppose Satyavatī’s son. The fisher-king voiced his doubts. Hearing them, Devavrataḥ uttered a terrible vow. He would never accept a wife but would maintain life-long celibacy. In order to secure his father’s happiness, he said, he was ready to renounce all personal enjoyment. Satyavatī now recalled that when Devavrataḥ made that vow, flowers had rained from the sky and a thunderous voice had echoed from the heavens: “From this day his name shall be Bhīṣma, one of a terrible vow.”

Satyavatī looked at Bhīṣma now as he sat respectfully before her. She spoke his name and he looked up, ready to execute her command. Maybe she could yet convince him. He had always been obedient to her, even more so since Śantanu’s death.

“My dear Bhīṣma, please think again,” the queen said as she pulled her fine silk sari over her plaited hair. “You made your vow simply to secure the interests of your father and me. I now absolve you of that vow. You have always been fixed in virtue. Please consider our present situation. Just as you made your vow to serve your elders, you should now serve them by acting for the welfare of our line. Surely this is your duty. Ascend Hastināpura’s throne and beget powerful sons to secure this ancient kingdom’s future.”

Bhīṣma shook his head in exasperation. “Mother, please do not ask me to stray from the path of truth. It can never be as you suggest. The sun may renounce its splendor, water its wetness and the sky its sound, but Bhīṣma will never renounce truth.”

Bhīṣma asked Satyavatī to consider the deeper cause of the unexpected emergency facing the kingdom. It was due to all-powerful destiny. How else could it have come to pass that although Satyavatī had borne two powerful sons, both had died without producing an heir to the throne? All the kings on earth had paid tribute to Satyavatī’s eldest son, Citrāṅgadā. His reputation for prowess in battle and unwavering virtue had reached the heavens. It was thus that the mighty king of the Gandharvas, who bore the same name, became envious upon hearing his glories. The jealous Gandharva could not allow another famous and powerful Citrāṅgadā to live. He came to earth and challenged his rival to battle. After years of fighting, the valorous son of Satyavatī was slain and the proud Gandharva returned triumphant to the heavens.

Then the powerful Vicitravīrya ascended the throne, but suddenly died from an illness after only seven years of ruling. Neither he nor his brother left a child.

Bhīṣma stood up and looked out of the latticed window. A full moon illumined the palace gardens, casting a silver light across the broad sandstone paths where Vicitravīrya had loved to walk with his queens. He turned back to Satyavatī and continued, “Mother, we cannot thwart Providence by acting immorally. In all circumstances a virtuous man acts in obedience to the will of God. Auspiciousness and victory always attend virtue, while grief is the sure result of unrighteousness. Therefore, please do not ask me to abandon my vow.”

Satyavatī sat silently. Bhīṣma’s adherence to truth and virtue was unshakeable. He had spoken well. She bowed her head as he went on, “In any event, Mother, it seems destiny has provided us with a solution quite in keeping with religion. If the illustrious Vyāsadeva produces offspring upon the queens, we shall be saved. Let us pray that everything goes well.”

Satyavatī nodded. It was she who had summoned the powerful Ṛṣi Vyāsadeva, her first-born son. It had taken some courage for her to reveal how she had given birth to that sage even in her maidenhood. Out of fear of public censure she had hidden this fact for years, but she still remembered how the celestial Ṛṣi Parāśara had one day come onto her boat and begotten the great Vyāsadeva in her womb. Parāśara had told her that Providence had destined her for greatness. He was giving an illustrious son who would play an important part in that great destiny. Parāśara had then granted her the boon of keeping her maidenhood even after union with him--and it was he who had blessed her with the celestial fragrance which had captivated Śantanu.

Satyavatī slowly paced the mosaic floor. Hundreds of golden oil lamps lit up the great hall. Along the high walls hung fine paintings of her ancestors, going all the way back to the mighty King Kuru. All of them had been powerful emperors of the globe. Surely the Kuru dynasty would not end now. The queen said, “I have been praying for the kingdom ever since my sons’ demise. I have faith that Vyāsadeva will prove a shelter to us all. But seeing the adverse fate afflicting us, I still cannot help but be fearful.”

Satyavatī felt deeply for the kingdom and for Śantanu’s line. She still acted out of her love for the departed monarch. It was certainly providential that Parāśara had given her Vyāsadeva as her son. Vyāsadeva had grown to maturity immediately upon his birth and had left her, saying, “Dear Mother, should you ever be in difficulty, then simply think of me. I shall come to you at once from wherever I may be.”

As Bhīṣma and Satyavatī spoke, Ambikā’s door opened and Vyāsadeva came out. Bhīṣma bowed at his feet and Satyavatī anxiously asked, “Will the princess bear an accomplished son?”

Raising his hand in blessing as Bhīṣma stood up, the sage replied to Satyavatī, “The queen will bear a son who will be as strong as ten thousand elephants. He will be vastly intelligent, wise and prosperous. He will have a hundred sons. But, O pious lady, for the fault of his mother he will be born blind.”

Satyavatī was shocked. “How can one who is blind become a king of the Kuru race?” she asked.

Vyāsadeva explained that he had gone to Ambikā prepared to beget a son worthy in every way, but the queen had closed her eyes in fear when she saw him. When agreeing to produce an heir to the throne, the sage had stipulated that the queen must accept him in his unpleasant condition. Satyavatī had summoned him from the Himālayas and he had come to her directly from his practice of harsh asceticism. He kept himself unwashed and unkempt as a part of his ascetic vows. He said, “I would have come to the queen in a handsome form decked with jewels if she had first accepted a religious vow for one full year. But you asked that she conceive immediately. Therefore I stated my conditions in place of the religious vow.”

Satyavatī cursed herself for her impatience. She had not wanted to wait. Without an heir to the throne the kingdom was in constant danger. In a land without a monarch even the rains would not fall regularly and the gods would not be propitious. Therefore she had begged Vyāsadeva to approach the queen at once. Now this! A blind son. How could he ever become the king?

“You must give another king to the Kuru race,” she implored. “Please approach the other queen, Ambālikā.”

Vyāsadeva looked upon his anxious mother with compassion. He soothed her fears. Soon he would return again to beget another child. She need only summon him when Ambālikā was prepared to receive him. Vyāsadeva then disappeared from the spot. Satyavatī turned and spoke to Bhīṣma. “This is what I feared. I must now ask Ambālikā to receive the sage. I pray that she will be more successful than her sister.”

Within a month, Vyāsadeva was called. Once again he came from his austerities and appeared in a repulsive condition. Satyavatī led him to Ambālikā’s bedchamber and the sage at once entered. Even though she had been warned by her sister what to expect, the princess was still struck with horror when the grim ascetic approached her. She turned pale with fright, although she kept her eyes open as she conceived. Vyāsadeva then said to the horrified princess, “As you have turned pale upon seeing me, so your son shall also be pale. He will therefore be named Pāṇḍu, the ‘pale one’.” The ṛṣi then left the room. He met his mother outside and she asked about the child. Vyāsadeva replied to her that a greatly powerful boy would be born but he would be pale.

Satyavatī again felt anxious. The child would be pale? What did Vyāsadeva mean? Something was still not right. And in any event, even if everything was fine with this child, with only one qualified prince the kingdom would still be in a precarious position. Vyāsadeva should try once more. She asked him to again approach Ambikā. This time the princess, knowing what to expect, would keep her eyes open. Vyāsadeva smiled and replied, “Be it so. I shall return again shortly after she has delivered her first child.”

In due course of time Ambikā gave birth to a blind child who was named Dhṛtarāṣṭra. Ambālikā delivered a pale child who was nevertheless effulgent and endowed with many auspicious marks on his body, and who was named Pāṇḍu in accord with Vyāsadeva’s words. Soon after, the sage again came to the palace in order to approach Ambikā for a second time.

The queen was alarmed at the prospect of meeting again with the terrible-looking ṛṣi. She went to a maidservant who was an intimate friend and asked that she take her place. Giving the servant her own ornaments and adorning her with the finest robes, she had her wait in the bedchamber for the sage.

Although he knew everything the ṛṣi entered the chamber as before. As soon as she saw the exalted sage the maidservant rose up respectfully. She bowed at his feet and had him sit down comfortably. After gently washing his feet, the girl offered him many kinds of delicious foodstuffs. Vyāsadeva was pleased. After laying with the girl, he said, “O good-natured girl, you shall be a maidservant no longer. Your son from our union will be wise, fortunate and the foremost of all intelligent men upon this earth.”

Again Satyavatī was waiting outside the bedchamber. Vyāsadeva told her, “The queen deceived me and sent instead her servant. That simple girl received me with all respect. She will therefore bear an auspicious child. O Mother, I shall now go and continue my asceticism. I will return when you need me again, but I will not beget any more children.” Vyāsadeva vanished, leaving Bhīṣma and Satyavatī reflecting on his words.

The maidservant gave birth to a child named Vidura, who later became the chief minister and advisor of the Kuru house. He was raised alongside his two brothers, and the three boys grew up like resplendent gods. Everyone was satisfied that the kingdom was secure. Happiness and prosperity were everywhere as the gods showered their blessings on the kingdom. Bhīṣma ruled as regent while the boys grew up.

Although Dhṛtarāṣṭra was the eldest, his blindness disqualified him from becoming the king. Nor could Vidura assume the throne, as he was born of a servant girl. But Pāṇḍu was a worthy monarch in every way; and when he came of age, he was installed on the Kuru throne. Pāṇḍu excelled all men in archery, and he soon became skilled in the Vedic science of leadership and diplomacy.

All three brothers were given the best education and were raised with affection by Bhīṣma. As predicted by Vyāsadeva, Dhṛtarāṣṭra displayed immense bodily strength and Vidura was naturally wise even from childhood. His devotion to religion and morality could not be matched by anyone. When he reached maturity, even the learned Bhīṣma would seek his counsel. It was thus that one day Bhīṣma approached Vidura and said, “O wise one, we should take steps to ensure that our noble line does not again face extinction. The two princes are ready for marriage. I have heard that there are three princesses worthy of being allied to our house. Tell me your thoughts on this, O Vidura.”

Bhīṣma said that there was a princess in the Yadu house named Kuntī, another named Gāndhārī, who was a daughter of the mountain king Suvala, and a third princess named Mādrī, in Madra. He suggested that two of these girls could be sought for Pāṇḍu and the other for Dhṛtarāṣṭra.

Vidura folded his hands and replied, “My lord, you are our father, our protector and our preceptor. You should do whatever you feel is proper for the welfare of our dynasty.”

Bhīṣma paced up and down his palace chamber. He had heard that Gāndhārī had received a boon from Śiva, who had said she would have one hundred sons. Surely she would make a good wife for Dhṛtarāṣṭra, who had also been blessed in a similar way by Vyāsadeva. A hundred sons from that powerful prince would be a great asset to the kingdom and would ensure the perpetuation of the Kuru dynasty. Bhīṣma at once arranged for messengers to go to Suvala and ask for the hand of Gāndhārī.

When King Suvala heard Bhīṣma’s request, he was hesitant. How could his daughter marry a blind prince? But Suvala reflected on the possibility. Dhṛtarāṣṭra belonged to the glorious Kuru house. They had ruled the world for thousands of years. Considering the fame, nobility and virtue of the Kurus, Suvala assented to the marriage. He had his son Śakuni bring Gāndhārī to Hastināpura. When the princess heard that she was to marry the blind Dhṛtarāṣṭra, she took a cloth and bound her own eyes, not wanting to be in any way superior to her lord.

Śakuni gave away his beautiful sister to Dhṛtarāṣṭra along with many gifts sent by Suvala. After being duly respected by Bhīṣma, he then mounted his golden chariot and returned to his kingdom. Gāndhārī became immediately devoted to her husband. She pleased him in every way by her attentions, she never even referred to other men in her speech, and her eyes were always covered by the cloth.

With Dhṛtarāṣṭra married, Bhīṣma turned his mind to Pāṇḍu’s marriage. He had heard that the princess Kuntī would soon select a husband at a special ceremony known as a svayaṁvara. That princess was famous for her beauty and womanly qualifications, and she belonged to the noble Yadu race. Bhīṣma told Pāṇḍu to leave at once for the svayaṁvara and try to win Kuntī’s hand.

The king mounted a great dark stallion and rode swiftly to the southern kingdom of Kuntībhoja, the father of Kuntī. Like a proud lion, he strode into the svayaṁvara arena. When the many other kings assembled there saw Pāṇḍu, broad-chested and with eyes like a furious bull, they considered him to be a second Indra. He outshone all the other monarchs like the sun rising in the morning and obscuring the stars. When Kuntī saw the powerful Hastināpura monarch gazing at her, her mind became agitated. Trembling with emotion, she walked slowly toward him and shyly placed the nuptial garland around his neck.

Although there were many kings and princes desirous of Kuntī’s hand, and although a svayaṁvara would almost always end up in a fight, the kings abandoned any thought of competing with the mighty Pāṇḍu for the princess. Mounting upon their steeds and chariots, they simply returned the way they had come. King Kuntībhoja came down from the royal platform into the arena, his face bright with delight. There could be no better match for his daughter. The king immediately arranged for the wedding ceremony, and he presented Pāṇḍu with gifts of great wealth.

After a few days the couple left for Hastināpura, accompanied by a large retinue bearing many colorful pennants which waved in the breeze. The soldiers beat drums and blew loudly upon their conchshells as they proceeded toward Pāṇḍu’s capital. Seated with Kuntī upon a shining golden chariot and surrounded by Brahmins offering benedictions, Pāṇḍu entered Hastināpura in state.

Bhīṣma was overjoyed to see Pāṇḍu married to the gentle and beautiful princess, but he also felt that the king needed another queen. Although Gāndhārī had received the benediction that she would bear a hundred sons, Kuntī had no such boon. Bhīṣma wanted to ensure that the virtuous monarch was blessed with powerful sons. He went personally to the kingdom of Madra to seek the hand of Mādrī for Pāṇḍu. She was under her brother’s, King Śalya’s, protection.

King Śalya received with all honor Bhīṣma and his retinue of ministers, Brahmins and ṛṣis. He brought Gaṅgā’s son into his palace and offered him a seat of white ivory studded with precious gems. Then the king bathed his feet and offered him arghya. His reception completed, Bhīṣma said to King Śalya, “O King, you should know that I am here to seek a maiden. I have heard that you have an illustrious and chaste sister and I have chosen her for King Pāṇḍu. Please tell me if you approve of this arrangement.”

King Śalya replied that the Kuru house was more than worthy of being allied with his house. There was, however, an ancient custom in his family that no girl could be given in marriage unless the suitor offered a tribute.

Bhīṣma had already heard of this custom because it dated back to the great Brahmā himself. He had come prepared and thus replied to Śalya, “There is no fault in this custom as it has the approval of the self-born creator, Brahmā. Therefore, please accept the gifts I have brought in exchange for the princess.”

Bhīṣma’s men then carried in heaps of gold coins, pearls, corals and gems of various colors, and set them before Śalya. Bhīṣma also presented the king with hundreds of elephants, horses and chariots.

Śalya received all the wealth with a delighted heart. He then gave Mādrī to Bhīṣma, who then soon returned to Hastināpura and performed the wedding ceremony.

Pāṇḍu established each of his wives in their own splendid palaces and gave himself up to enjoyment with them both. He sported in the palace groves and gardens, appearing like a celestial with two beautiful consorts.