History of the Kauravas and Pandavas

Sauti said, “Hearing that Janamejaya was installed in the snake-sacrifice, the learned Rishi Krishna-Dwaipayana went thither on the occasion. Janamejaya with all his Sadasyas, questioned that first of Brahmanas, with joined palms as follows: ‘O Brahmana, thou hast seen with thy own eyes the acts of the Kurus and the Pandavas. I am desirous of hearing thee recite their history. What was the cause of the disunion amongst them that was fruitful of such extraordinary deeds? Why also did that great battle, which caused the death of countless creatures occur between all my grandfathers – their clear sense over-clouded by fate? O excellent Brahmana, tell me all this in full as everything had happened.’ Hearing those words of Janamejaya, Krishna-Dwaipayana directed his disciple Vaisampayana seated by his side, saying, ‘The discord that happened between the Kurus and the Pandavas of old, narrate all to the king even as thou hast heard from me. Then that blessed Brahmana, at the command of his preceptor recited the whole of that history unto the king, the Sadasyas, and all the chieftains there assembled. And he told them all about the hostility and the utter extinction of the Kurus and the Pandavas.”

Vaisampayana said, ‘Bowing down in the first place to my preceptor with the eight parts of my body touching the ground, with devotion and reverence, and with all my heart, worshipping the whole assembly of Brahmanas and other learned persons, I shall recite in full what I have heard from the high-souled and great Rishi Vyasa, the first of intelligent men in the three worlds. And having got it within thy reach, O monarch, thou also art a fit person to hear the composition called Bharata. Encouraged by the command of my preceptor my heart feeleth no fear. Hear, O monarch, why that disunion occurred between the Kurus and the Pandavas. I shall relate all to thee who askest it thou best of the Bharata race! There was a girl known by the name of Satyavati – gifted with great beauty and possessed of every virtue, she plied a boat on the waters of the Yamuna. While engaged in this vocation, Satyavati was seen one day by the great Rishi Parasara, in course of his wanderings. As she was gifted with great beauty, an object of desire even with an anchorite, and of graceful smiles, the wise sage, as soon as he beheld her, desired to have her. And that bull amongst Munis addressed the beauty saying, ‘Accept my embraces, O blessed one!’ Satyavati replied, ‘O holy one, behold the Rishis standing on either bank of the river. Seen by them, how can I grant thy wish?'”

“Thus addressed by her, the ascetic thereupon created a fog which enveloped the whole region in darkness. And the maiden, beholding the fog that was created by the great Rishi wondered much. And the helpless one became suffused with the blushes of bashfulness. And she said, ‘O holy one, note that I am a maiden under the control of my father. O sinless one, by accepting your embraces my virginity will be sullied. O best of Brahmanas, my virginity being sullied, how shall I, O Rishi, be able to return home? Indeed, I shall not then be able to bear life. Reflecting upon all this, O illustrious one, do that which should be done.’ That best of Rishis, gratified with all she said, replied, “Thou shall remain a virgin even if thou grantest my wish. And, O timid one, O beauteous lady, solicit the boon that thou desirest. O thou of fair smiles, my grace hath never before proved fruitless.’ Thus addressed, the maiden asked for the boon that her body might emit a sweet scent (instead of the fish-odour that it had). And the illustrious Rishi thereupon granted that wish of her heart. “Having obtained her boon, she became highly pleased, and her season immediately came. And she accepted the embraces of that Rishi of wonderful deeds. And she thenceforth became known among men by the name of Gandhavati (the sweet-scented one). And men could perceive her scent from the distance of a yojana. And for this she was known by another name which was Yojanagandha (one who scatters her scent for a yojana all around). And the illustrious Parasara, after this, went to his own asylum.”

“And Satyavati gratified with having obtained the excellent boon in consequence of which she became sweet-scented and her virginity remained unsullied conceived through Parasara’s embraces. And she brought forth the very day, on an island in the Yamuna, the child begot upon her by Parasara and gifted with great energy. And the child, with the permission of his mother, set his mind on asceticism. And he went away saying, ‘As soon as thou rememberest me when occasion comes, I shall appear unto thee.’ And it was thus that Vyasa was born of Satyavati through Parasara. And because he was born in an island, he was called Dwaipayana (island-born). And the learned Dwaipayana, beholding that virtue is destined to become lame by one leg each yuga (she having four legs in all) and that the period of life and the strength of men followed the yugas, and moved by the desire of obtaining the favour of Brahman and the Brahmanas, arranged the Vedas. And for this he came to be called Vyasa (the arranger or compiler).

“The monarch Santanu, the most adored of the gods and royal sages, was known in all the worlds for his wisdom, virtues, and truthfulness. The qualities of self-control, liberality, forgiveness, intelligence, modesty, patience and superior energy ever dwelt in that bull among men. And Santanu residing in Hastinapura, the delightful capital of the Kurus, ruled the whole earth bounded by seas. He was truthful and guileless, and like the king of the celestials himself conversant with the dictates of virtue. And from the combination in him of liberality, religion and asceticism, he acquired a great good fortune. He was free from anger and malice, and was handsome in person like Soma himself. In splendour he was like the Sun and in impetuosity of valour like Vayu. In wrath he was like Yama, and in patience like the Earth.”

“One day, as he was wandering along the bank of the Ganges, he saw a lovely maiden of blazing beauty decked with celestial ornaments, and attired in garments of fine texture that resembled in splendour the filaments of the lotus. The damsel also beholding the monarch of blazing splendour moving about in great agitation, was moved herself and experienced an affection for him. She gazed and gazed and longed to gaze on him evermore. The monarch then in soft words addressed her and said, ‘O slender-waisted one, be thou a goddess or the daughter of a Danava, be thou of the race of the Gandharvas, or Apsaras, be thou of the Yakshas or the Nagas, or be thou of human origin, O thou of celestial beauty, I solicit thee to be my wife!’ The maiden then, hearing those soft and sweet words of the smiling monarch, addressed the king in reply, ‘O king, I shall become thy wife and obey thy commands. But, O monarch, thou must not interfere with me in anything I do, be it agreeable or disagreeable. Nor shall thou ever address me unkindly. As long as thou shalt behave kindly I promise to live with thee. But I shall certainly leave thee the moment thou interferest with me or speakest to me an unkind word.'”

“The king answered, ‘Be it so.’ And thereupon the damsel obtaining that excellent monarch, that foremost one of the Bharata race for her husband, became highly pleased. And king Santanu also, obtaining her for his wife, enjoyed to the full the pleasure of her company. And adhering to his promise, he refrained from asking her anything. And the monarch was so enraptured with his beautiful wife that months, seasons, and years rolled on without his being conscious of them. And the king, while thus enjoying himself with his wife, had eight children born unto him who in beauty were like the very celestials themselves. But, O Bharata, those children, one after another, as soon as they were born, were thrown into the river by Ganga who said, ‘This is for thy good.’ And the children sank to rise no more. The king, however, could not be pleased with such conduct. But he spoke not a word about it lest his wife should leave him. But when the eighth child was born, and when his wife as before was about to throw it smilingly into the river, the king with a sorrowful countenance and desirous of saving it from destruction, addressed her and said, ‘Kill it not! Who art thou and whose? Why dost thou kill thy own children? Murderess of thy sons, the load of thy sins is great!'”

“His wife, thus addressed, replied, ‘O thou desirous of offspring, thou hast already become the first of those that have children. I shall not destroy this child of thine. But according to our agreement, the period of my stay with thee is at an end. I am Ganga, the daughter of Jahnu. I am ever worshipped by the great sages; I have lived with thee so long for accomplishing the purposes of the celestials. The eight illustrious Vasus endued with great energy had, from Vasishtha’s curse, to assume human forms. On earth, besides thee, there was none else to deserve the honour of being their begetter. There is no woman also on earth except one like me, a celestial of human form, to become their mother. I assumed a human form to bring them forth. Thou also, having become the father of the eight Vasus, hast acquired many regions of perennial bliss. It was also agreed between myself and the Vasus that I should free them from their human forms as soon as they would be born. I have thus freed them from the curse of the Rishi. Blest be thou; I leave thee, O king! But rear thou this child of rigid vows. That I should live with thee so long was the promise I gave to the Vasus. And let this child be called Gangadatta.'”

“Having said this, the goddess disappeared then and there. And taking with her the child, she went away to the region she chose. And that child of Santanu was named both Gangeya and Devavrata and excelled his father in all accomplishments. Santanu, after the disappearance of his wife, returned to his capital with a sorrowful heart. One day, while pursuing along the banks of the Ganges a deer that he had struck with his arrow, king Santanu observed that the river had become shallow. On observing this, Santanu began to reflect upon this strange phenomenon. He mentally asked why that first of rivers ran out so quickly. And while seeking for a cause, the illustrious monarch beheld that a youth of great comeliness, well-built and amiable person, like Indra himself, had, by his keen celestial weapon, checked the flow of the river. And the king, beholding this extraordinary feat of the river Ganga having been checked in her course near where that youth stood, became very much surprised. This youth was no other than Santanu’s son himself. But as Santanu had seen his son only once a few moments after his birth, he had not sufficient recollection to identify that infant with the youth before his eyes.”

“King Santanu, wondering much at what he saw and imagining the youth to be his own son then addressed Ganga and said, ‘Show me that child.’ Ganga thus addressed, showed him to Santanu. And Ganga said, ‘O tiger among men, that eighth son whom thou hadst some time before begat upon me is this. Know that this excellent child is conversant with all weapons, O monarch, take him now. I have reared him with care. And go home, O tiger among men, taking him with thee. Endued with superior intelligence, he has studied with Vasishtha the entire Vedas with their branches. Skilled in all weapons and a mighty bowman, he is like Indra in battle.’ Thus commanded by Ganga, Santanu took his child resembling the Sun himself in glory and returned to his capital. And having reached his city, he installed his son as his heir-apparent. And the prince soon gratified by his behaviour his father and the other members of the Paurava race: in fact, all the subjects of the kingdom. And the king of incomparable prowess lived happily with that son of his.”

“Four years had thus passed away, when the king one day went into the woods on the bank of the Yamuna. And while the king was rambling there, he perceived a sweet scent coming from an unknown direction. And the monarch, impelled by the desire of ascertaining the cause, wandered hither and thither. And in course of his ramble, he beheld a black-eyed maiden of celestial beauty, the daughter of a fisherman. The king addressing her, said, ‘Who art thou, and whose daughter? What dost thou do here, O timid one?’ She answered, ‘Blest be thou! I am the daughter of the chief of the fishermen. At his command, I am engaged for religious merit, in rowing passengers across this river in my boat.’ And Santanu, beholding that maiden of celestial form endued with beauty, amiableness, and such fragrance, desired her for his wife. And repairing unto her father, the king solicited his consent to the proposed match. But the chief of the fishermen replied to the monarch, saying, ‘O king, listen to the desire I have cherished all along in my heart. O sinless one, if thou desirest to obtain this maiden as a gift from me, give, me then this pledge. I will of course bestow my daughter upon thee for truly I can never obtain a husband for her equal to thee.'”

“Santanu, hearing this, replied, ‘When I have heard of the pledge thou askest, I shall then say whether I would be able to grant it. If it is capable of being granted, I shall certainly grant it.’ The fisherman said, ‘O king, what I ask of thee is this: the son born of this maiden shall be installed by thee on thy throne and none else shall thou make thy successor.’ When Santanu heard this, he felt no inclination to grant such a boon, though the fire of desire sorely burnt him within. The king with his heart afflicted by desire returned to Hastinapura, thinking all the way of the fisherman’s daughter. And having returned home, the monarch passed his time in sorrowful meditation. One day, Devavrata approaching his afflicted father said, ‘All is prosperity with thee; all chiefs obey thee; then how is it that thou grievest thus? Absorbed in thy own thoughts, thou speakest not a word to me in reply. Thou goest not out on horse-back now; thou lookest pale and emaciated, having lost all animation. I wish to know the disease thou sufferest from, so that I may endeavour to apply a remedy.’

“Thus addressed by his son, Santanu answered, ‘Thou sayest truly, O son, that I have become melancholy. I will also tell thee why I am so. O thou of Bharata’s line, thou art the only scion of this our large race. Thou art always engaged in sports of arms and achievements of prowess. But, O son, I am always thinking of the instability of human life. If any danger overtake thee, O child of Ganga, the result is that we become sonless. Truly thou alone art to me as a century of sons. I do not, therefore, desire to wed again. I only desire and pray that prosperity may ever attend thee so that our dynasty may be perpetuated. The wise say that he that hath one son hath no son. Devavrata who was endued with great intelligence, having ascertained all this from the king, reflected within himself for a while. He then went to the old minister devoted to his father’s welfare and asked him about the cause of the king’s grief. When the prince questioned the minister, the latter told him about the boon that was demanded by the chief of the fishermen in respect of his daughter Gandhavati. Then Devavrata, accompanied by many Kshatriya chiefs of venerable age, personally repaired to the chief of the fishermen and begged of him his daughter on behalf of the king.”

“The chief of the fishermen received him with due adorations, and, when the prince took his seat in the court of the chief, the latter addressed him and said, ‘O bull among the Bharatas, thou art the first of all wielders of weapons and the only son of Santanu. Thy power is great. But I have something to tell thee. If the bride’s father was Indra himself, even then he would have to repent of rejecting such an exceedingly honourable and desirable proposal of marriage. I have only one word to say on the part of this maiden. In the matter of the proposed marriage there is one great objection founded on the fact of a rival in the person of a co-wife’s son. O oppressor of all foes, he hath no security, even if he be an Asura or a Gandharva, who hath a rival in thee. There is this only objection to the proposed marriage, and nothing else. Blest be thou! But this is all I have to say in the matter of the bestowal or otherwise, of Satyavati.’

“Devavrata, having heard these words, and moved by the desire of benefiting his father thus answered in the hearing of the assembled chiefs, ‘O foremost of truthful men, listen to the vow I utter! The man has not been or will not be born, who will have the courage to take such a vow! I shall accomplish all that thou demandest! The son that may be born of this maiden shall be our king.’ Thus addressed, the chief of the fishermen, impelled by desire of sovereignty, to achieve the almost impossible, then said, ‘O thou of virtuous soul, thou art come hither as full agent on behalf of thy father Santanu of immeasurable glory; be thou also the sole manager on my behalf in the matter of the bestowal of this my daughter. But, O amiable one, there is something else to be said, something else to be reflected upon by thee. O suppressor of foes, those that have daughters, from the very nature of their obligations, must say what I say. O thou that art devoted to truth, the promise thou hast given in the presence of these chiefs for the benefit of Satyavati, hath, indeed, been worthy of thee. O thou of mighty arms, I have not the least doubt of its ever being violated by thee. But I have my doubts in respect of the children thou mayst beget.”

“The son of Ganga, devoted to truth, having ascertained the scruples of the chief of the fishermen, then said, moved thereto by the desire of benefiting his father, ‘Chief of fishermen, thou best of men, listen to what I say in the presence of these assembled kings. Ye kings, I have already relinquished my right to the throne, I shall now settle the matter of my children. O fisherman, from this day I adopt the vow of Brahmacharya. If I die sonless, I shall yet attain to regions of perennial bliss in heaven!’ Upon these words of the son of Ganga, the hair on the fisherman’s body stood on end from glee, and he replied, ‘I bestow my daughter!’ Immediately after, the Apsaras and the gods with diverse tribes of Rishis began to rain down flowers from the firmament upon the head of Devavrata and exclaimed, ‘This one is Bhishma (the terrible).’ Bhishma then, to serve his father, addressed the illustrious damsel and said, ‘O mother, ascend this chariot, and let us go unto our house.’ Having said this, Bhishma helped the beautiful maiden into his chariot. On arriving with her at Hastinapura, he told Santanu everything as it had happened. And the assembled kings, jointly and individually, applauded his extraordinary act and said, ‘He is really Bhishma!’ And Santanu also, hearing of the extraordinary achievements of his son, became highly gratified and bestowed upon the high-souled prince the boon of death at will, saying, ‘Death shall never come to thee as long as thou desirest to live. Truly death shall approach thee, O sinless one, having first obtained thy command.'”

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows King Shantanu meeting Ganga. The illustration is by the British artist Warwick Goble (1862-1943). Goble was an illustrator of children’s books. This particular piece appeared in the book ‘Indian Myth and Legend’ (Gresham, 1913).


  • The Mahabharata (translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, 1883-1896)