Ganga, the most revered river of India, personifies herself in the story of Mahabharata. Shantanu, a king of Hastinapur and the youngest son of Prapita, sees a beautiful maiden on the bank of river Ganga and proposes her to marry him. This beautiful maiden is Ganga.
Ganga puts forward her pre-nuptial conditions for Shantanu that he must never ask her about the true origin or question her on any of her actions. He must stand by her on all accounts. If he acts against any of these conditions, she will leave him then and there. The king who is so much in love that he accepts Ganga’s conditions. On these crystal-clear pre-nuptial conditions Shantanu and Ganga get married.
Shantanu and Ganga live a life of love and happiness until their first child is born. Ganga takes the new born to the river and drowns him in the water. Shantanu is chocked but he stops himself from asking anything. As the years pass, Ganga gives birth to six more children and she does the same thing – drowns her own children in the river water. Shantanu asks no questions and bears the pain with restraint.
When eighth child is born and Ganga walks to the river with the same intention, Shantanu can no longer hold himself. He stops her from drowning the child in the water. Ganga reminds him of her conditions and tells him that the time has come to leave him.
Until this, the character of Ganga seems to be mysterious. We may rush to call her a heartless woman or even an insane to drown her own children in the water to kill them. However, as the story progresses, the mystery unfolds.
Before leaving him Ganga tells Shantanu her true origin and the reason for her actions. She reveals him that eight children born to them are eight Vasus – the eight elemental gods representing the aspects of nature. They are born as a result of curse of sage Vashishta.
The eight Vasus while travelling with their wives come across Ashram of sage Vashishta. One of the wives is fascinated with the divine cow of sage Vashishta – Nandini. She requests her husband Prabhasa to bring the cow to her. Prabhasa tries to convince his wife not to crave for the cow. However, his wife makes desperate requests which melts his heart. The eight Vasus take Nandini and her calf by force and disappear before Vashishta’s return.
When Vashishta returns and finds Nandini missing he curses eight Vasus to be born as mortal. The eight Vasus ask sage for his forgiveness. Vashishta tells him that the curse has to follow its course but the effect can be reduced. He gives them a way-out – to request Ganga to be mother on the earth and to ask her to relieve them of mortal life as soon as they are born so that they do not have to suffer. After this the eight Vasus approach Ganga and request her to be their mother on the earth.
Now the actions of Ganga start making sense to us. She does not drown her eighth son who is Prabhasa, the one who actually steals the cow, but takes him with her. She returns this son to Shantanu after he has learned Vedas and is skilled in all forms of sciences and archery. This son is none other than Devavrata, popularly known as Bheeshma due to his terrible vows. When we throw a light of Bheeshma’s life, the actions of Ganga make even more sense to us. Although being the most perfect character, he can never rule the reign; although being the eldest one, he can never uphold the authority; although having a boon to choose his time of death, he lives long and suffers; although being a hermit because of his vow of celibacy, he has bottomless attachments to this material world.
So, the story of Ganga in Mahabharata depicts her commitment and courage – commitment to the purpose and courage of the action. Now looking at the character of Ganga as the longest river, we understand these qualities more clearly. The river Ganga flows from the mountains of Himalaya to the bay of Bengal. While flowing it cuts through rocks because of its commitment and courage.
Through her own story in the great epic Mahabharata, Ganga shows her commitment to the greater cause; this commitment enables her to have a detachment to the results and gives the courage of actions. Therefore, the sacred river Ganga unfolds the secret of liberation through her own story.
The message of commitment and courage by Ganga has deeply drippled down in Indian soil. It has flown through the thoughts and actions of Indian society. It has guided us for years to the path of liberation through the various invasions from the ancient times till the current date.
-Shruti Hajirnis Gupte