Mahābhārata – Episode 1 – Birth of Bhīṣma

This article is part 1 of 112 in the series Mahābhārata


नारायणं नमस्कृत्य
नरञ्चैव नरोत्तमम् ।
देवीं सरस्वतीं व्यासं
ततो जयमुदीरयेत् ॥

Having saluted Nārāyaṇa,
the human and the divine;
Sarasvatī; and Vyāsa –
May Jaya be hailed!

Vaiṣampāyana narrated the story of Mahābhārata, which he had heard from his guru Vyāsa, to Janamejaya during his sarpa-yāga. The Sūta-paurāṇika Ugraśrava (the son of Lomaharṣa) who was present at the sarpa-yāga heard this story. When he visited the twelve-year-long yāga performed by Śaunaka in Naimiṣāraṇya (the Naimiṣa forest), upon the request of the ṛṣis present there, Ugraśrava narrated the Mahābhārata story to them.[1]

The story goes as follows:

There lived a renowned king by name Śantanu who belonged to the Bharatavaṃśa (lineage of the Bharatas). He was fond of hunting; thus he spent a large part of his day in the forest hunting deer, wild buffaloes, and other animals. Once when he was on his routine hunting expedition, he was passing by the river Gaṅgā. There he found a beautiful woman decked in divine, gem-studded ornaments and was awestruck by the richness of her appearance.[2] She too, similarly, felt greatly attracted to him. They never got exhausted admiring each other. Śantanu broke the silence and began the conversation with pleasantries. He asked, “Who are you, O beautiful one? Are you a devī, a dānavī, a gandharvī, an apsarā, a yakṣī, or a human? But be who you may, it doesn’t matter, please be my wife!” The woman heard his pleasing words with a smile on her face[3] and replied, “Dear king, so be it! I consent to be your queen; but you will have to agree to my terms. Give me your word that you will never come in my way or question any of the good or bad deeds that I perform; as long as you abide by these terms I shall live with you; the moment you violate these terms, I shall leave you.” Śantanu happily agreed to her terms and began leading a joyous conjugal life with her. He never obstructed her activities.

Eight sons were born to her, one after another; the moment they were born, she would throw them away in the Gaṅgā and let them drown. Upon seeing this, Śantanu was deeply distressed; but out of his fear of losing her, he remained silent. When the eight son was born, she was on the verge of throwing him into the Gaṅgā, as she had previously done. Unable to stop himself, overcome with sorrow, and with a deep desire to possess the child, he said, “Stop, O child-murderer! Please don’t kill the child! Who are you? Whose daughter are you? Why are you acquiring heaps of sin, killing such innocent children?” In response, she said, “O king, you now seem to be desirous of offspring, aren’t you? So be it, I shall not kill your son. However, according to the terms we had agreed to, my stay with you comes to an end today; I am Gaṅgā, the daughter of Jahnu. These children are the eight Vasus. They took human birth due to the curse of the ṛṣi Vasiṣṭha. I had given them my word that I would relieve them of their human birth even as they are born. I kept my word. Best wishes to you! May you be prosperous! I shall take your leave; please take care of this precocious child who will grow up to be a man of strength and determination.”[4] Saying so, she disappeared.

Śantanu had gained the reputation of being an honest king, who always adhered to dharma and ruled from his capital city of Hastināpura. He was as handsome as the moon, as brilliant as the sun, and as agile as the wind. He was like Yama in his anger and like Mother Earth in his forbearance. He ruled the kingdom in such a manner for thirty-six years without feeling the need for a woman’s company. He spent most of his time roaming about in the forest. Devavrata inherited not only his father’s handsomeness but also his virtuous character. He was well-educated, good at archery and other martial arts, and was filled with goodness

[There’s a story that goes: Gaṅgā took the child with her and nourished him. She looked after his growth and trained him in varied lore. Once when Śantanu was out hunting on the shores of Gaṅgā, he observed that the water in the river had decreased. He set out to learn the reason for this. He then found a radiant boy who was stopping the river’s flow with a dam built with his arrows. He could not understand who this boy was. Upon seeing Śantanu, the boy vanished. Beholding that miracle, Śantanu was surprised and thought of Gaṅgā. She appeared before him and along with her was the little boy. She told him that the boy, Devavrata, was their son. He had learnt the Vedas from Vasiṣṭha, the śāstras from Uśanas, and martial arts from Paraśurāma. She handed over the child to him and went away.[5]]

Śantanu made Devavrata the crown-prince of Hastināpura. All the citizens of the country were fond of Devavrata and so was his father. Four years elapsed. Once when Śantanu was going past the banks of the Yamuna, he encountered a strange but sweet smell. He went in search of the source of the smell and found a dark-eyed fisher-girl. He asked who she was and what she was doing there. She replied, “I am the daughter of the king of fishermen. I ferry people across the river to earn my livelihood; I do this out of a sense of duty. This is the task assigned to me by my father.” Śantanu instantly fell in love with the fisher-girl, who had celestial radiance, was of a charming form, and possessed divine fragrance. He went on to meet the girl’s father, King Dāśa and requested his daughter’s hand in marriage. Dāśa replied, “O king, having given birth to a daughter, it is my duty to give her hand in marriage to a suitable bridegroom. It is my pleasure to learn that you would like to make her your queen. I cannot find a better match than you. However, I have a humble request. If you would take an oath that you will fulfill my desire, then I shall happily give my consent; I know that you are an honest man and you will carry out your promised word.” Śantanu replied, “If you would tell me what you expect of me, then I can consider it. If it is agreeable to me, I shall abide by your terms. If not, I shall not.” King Dāśa said, “Maharaja! The son born to her through you should become the king of this land after your death. That is my wish!” The king did not agree to this. And so, devoting all his thoughts to the girl and mentally brooding over his plight, he returned to his town. Devavrata, who saw his father brooding and in deep thought, asked him, “Father! All is well with you. You’re safe and secure. All the kings are obedient to you. When this is the case, why are you lost in melancholic thought? You’re hardly speaking with anyone!” In response, Śantanu said, “My son, what you are saying is true; I am lost in thought. You are the only son and scion of this great lineage. Humans are mortal, not eternal. If any calamity should befall you, then our lineage will end. Indeed, you alone are superior to a hundred sons. And I too am not desirous of getting married all over again just for the heck of it. My only wish is that our grand lineage should not be destroyed. My son, wherever you be, you should be safe and healthy. But those who know dharma say, ‘One son is no son!’ You are a courageous warrior; one who can’t tolerate dishonour. You spend all your waking hours with weapons and martial training. For someone like you, even the end will come with weapons. Therefore, I have become concerned about what will happen if you die. This, my son, is the reason for my worry.” Devavrata was extremely intelligent. Thus, contemplating upon what these words could mean, he went straightaway to an old minister, a confidant of his father, and asked him what the reason for the king’s preoccupation was. As soon as Devavrata learnt the truth, taking with him a few senior kings, he went to King Dāśa and asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage with his father, King Śantanu. Dāśa welcomed them with great respect, honoured them, offered them a seat, and told Devavrata, “Noble sir, you being the great son of King Śantanu, are rightly capable to discuss his matters. I want to request something of you. If one lets go of such an admirable marriage alliance, whoever it may be, will repent later on. Who can be nobler than you people? But as the father of a girl, I feel that I should make a mention of this. My fear is that later on, this might lead to great hostility. And if you get angered by someone, then surely he will not live in peace! This is the only drawback I see in this alliance, nothing else.” Upon hearing these words, Devavrata replied, in the presence of all the kings, “Now, listen, I will tell you my decided opinion. Such words can’t uttered by anyone born before me, nor can they be uttered by anyone born after me. I will ensure that your wish is fulfilled. The child that will be born to this girl shall become our next king! This is the truth!” The fisherman said, “Having taken such a severe oath in the matters of state, O dharmātma, you are rightly capable of asking this girl’s hand in marriage for your father! But there is another thing. It is but natural that a girl’s father would say this. You taking this oath now in the presence of all these kings truly befits you. And it will be fulfilled. I have no doubt about it. But will your son remain silent? I have my own doubts about it!” Having heard his opinion on the matter, Devavrata said, “King Dāśa! Listen to the words that I utter with these kings as witness. I have already renounced my kingdom. And as for children, I have come to this decision; I will forever remain a celibate! Even though I shall not have children, I will attain the highest heavens!” Delighted upon listening to this oath of Devavrata, with his hairs standing on end, Dāśa said, “I give my daughter!” Devatās, ṛṣis, and apsaras showered flowers from the sky on young Devavrata and praised him by calling him “Bhīṣma!” - the one who took the terrible oath! Bhīṣma then told the girl Satyavati, “Come mother! Please climb the chariot. Let us go home!” and took her to Hastinapura; then he explained the entire episode to his father. All the kings praised him with the words, “He is indeed Bhīṣma!” Highly impressed by this arduous feat of his son, Śantanu conferred upon him a boon, saying, “May you conquer death! Until you desire for death, it will not come to you!”

Śantanu had two sons from Satyavati: Citrāṅgada and Vicitravīrya. Śantanu died even as Vicitravīrya was a small boy. Bhīṣma crowned Citrāṅgada as king and obediently carried out Satyavati’s orders. Citrāṅgada died in a battle with a gandharva of the same name; following this, Bhīṣma made the young Vicitravīrya the king of Hastinapura and consolidated the kingdom for him in a dharmic way. Vicitravīrya greatly respected Bhīṣma as his elder brother.

When Vicitravīrya came of age, Bhīṣma thought of getting him married. He came to know that the king of Kāśī had arranged a svayaṃvara to find a suitable bridegroom for his three daughters, who rivalled each other in beauty. He took his mother Satyavati’s permission and mounted his chariot as a warrior clad in armour. Bhīṣma reached the venue of the svayaṃvara and as the names of the kings assembled there were being called out, he proclaimed, “There are several kinds of marriages, among which kings prefer the svayaṃvara; however, those who know dharma opine that it is far greater to carry away a girl with a display of valour. I go by their words. Now I am going to take away these maidens with me. Those who want to fight with me may come forward. I shall be ready for a battle.” Saying so, he made the three girls sit in his chariot and drove away. The other kings assembled there cast off their ornaments, put on their armours, boarded their chariots and chased Bhīṣma. The battle began. Although Bhīṣma was alone, he defeated all the kings who attacked him and drove with the maidens to his hometown.[6] He wanted them to be married off to his brother Vicitravīrya. At that point, the eldest of the three maidens, Ambā, said that she had already given her heart away to King Śalva and had already accepted him as her husband in her mind. Even in the svayaṃvara, she had intended to garland him alone. It was also her father’s desire that she should marry King Śalva. As Bhīṣma was known to be a person well-versed in dharma, she requested him to act as per its guidelines. Accordingly, he sent her away to king Śalva. He got the other two sisters, Ambikā and Ambālikā married to Vicitravīrya in a formal ceremony.

[But, Śalva did not accept Ambā. Since Bhīṣma had defeated him in battle and won her, he proclaimed that she belonged to Bhīṣma and no one else. Bhīṣma also refused to accept her since she had already fallen for another man. Thus, having been rejected by both Śalva and Bhīṣma and not desiring to go back to her father’s place, she narrated her tale of woe to Paraśurāma. He called his disciple Bhīṣma and ordered him to accept Ambā’s hand in marriage. Bhīṣma did not agree to this. Thus, a battle ensued between teacher and disciple and Paraśurāma lost. He then told Ambā that he was not in a position to help her out in any way. The adamant Ambā, performed rigorous penance to invoke Rudra and asked for a boon that in her next birth, she would be born as Śikhaṇḍi and kill Bhīṣma with her own hands. As soon as Śiva granted her the boon, she jumped into the fire and ended her life. – Ambopākhyaana, Udyogaparva Adhyāyas 170-193.]

Having got married, the young king (i.e. Vicitravīrya), rich in beauty and youth, transformed from being virtuous to being lustful. Even in his youth, he was afflicted with tuberculosis and no amount of treatment could cure his disease. He soon succumbed to it.

To be continued...

This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri's Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his thorough review and astute feedback as well as for being the motivation behind this project.

Additional segments from the epic and notes by the translators have been added in the footnotes. Apart from reading through the Critical Text of the Mahābhārata, the Kannada translations of Ka Sri Nagaraj, Devashikhamani Alasingacharya, and of Bharata Darshana Publications as well as the English translations of Kisari Mohan Ganguli and Bibek Debroy have been consulted in the preparation of this series.



[1] Vaiṣampāyana started off by recounting tales of the ancestors and descendants of Bharata. In the Bharatavaṃśa, there was a rājaṛṣi named Pratīpa who spent years meditating at the source of the Gaṅgā. Once the river took the form of a gorgeous woman and approached the rājaṛṣi and sat down on his right thigh. Seeing this beautiful maiden, Pratīpa asked her what she desired. She wanted to marry him but he was adhering to a strict vow of fidelity. The damsel begged for his love but he gently refused her advances, telling her that she could become his daughter-in-law instead. Moreover, she had seated herself on his right thigh, meant for daughters and daughters-in-law. (The left thigh is for wives and lovers) She accepted his words and told him that she would wed his son. She cautioned him that his son won’t be able to judge the correctness of her actions, and so should not question her.

Pratīpa and his wife had grown quite old when a son was born to them. This child was Mahābhiṣa reborn (i.e. a great king of the Ikṣvāku lineage who died of a curse). The child was called ‘Śantanu’ as he was peaceful by nature. Śantanu realized that it is only through virtuous deeds that one can attain infinite bliss; thus he led a life of virtue. When Śantanu became a young man, Pratīpa told him, “Long back, a divine maiden approached me. If that lovely damsel approaches you in secret and offers herself to you, accept her as your wife. Don’t ask her any questions and don’t judge her actions; accept her for what she is!” Having thus instructed his son, Pratīpa installed him on the throne and retired to the forest.

[2] It was as though the king drank her beauty through his eyes and yet wasn’t satisfied.

[3] She smiled recalling the promise she had made to the Vasus.

[4] Translators’ Note: The background to the story of Gaṅgā disposing of her seven children has been covered in the translation of the introduction to Vacanabhārata.

[5] Translators’ Note: This segment comes in adhyāya 93 of the Ādiparva in the critical edition itself.

[6] Among the kings who fought with Bhīṣma, the strongest contender was Śalva who fought with great might and valour. Their one-on-one combat was akin to two raging bulls (fighting over a cow). In the end, however, Śalva was defeated by Bhīṣma’s superior skill. After this, Bhīṣma drove back to Hastināpura taking great care of the three maidens, treating them like younger sisters or daughters.





Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.



Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh


Hari is a writer, translator, editor, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited 25+ books, mostly related to Indian culture and philosophy. He serves on the advisory board of a few educational institutions.

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Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...