Satyavati’s Paradox: A crucial lesson from Vyasa’s Mahabharata

Exclusive to Vedic Management Center by U. Mahesh Prabhu

A few generations before the time of the Mahabharata War, King Shantanu of Hastinapur’s first wife was a princess named Ganga. While there are mythical stories about her representing the greatest river of Indian subcontinent, the Ganga herself, Vyasa never mentions this. Captivated by her stunning beauty, Shantanu desired her hand in marriage – she accepted on one condition: that he would never question her in any of her decisions or actions, whatever they might be. Shantanu, hastily, agreed.

After the marriage, as soon as his wife Ganga gave birth to king’s first son, heir apparent to the throne, the lactating mother drowned the child in the water, a most unexpected and unacceptable act under any normal circumstances. The reason wasn’t clear. But that Shantanu kept quiet for the fear of losing his wife is certain. The same tragedy occurred every time a child was born; the mother drowned each child. This dytsmhr incident continued all the way until the birth of seventh child – Devavrata. Shantanu was no more able to hold on to his fury and lambasted her for her savage act. “How could you do this to your own children?” True to her earlier words, Ganga left the king taking the son with her, with a promise that she’d return him at the right moment.

Years passed since the bizarre incident. During this period Shantanu spent all his time and energy working for the welfare of his subjects. His steadfast commitment to his work ensured peace and prosperity in his country. He seldom saw any woman and remained celibate.

Once Devavrata came of age, Ganga returned him to Shantanu as he was rightful heir to the throne of Hastinapura. Shantanu’s happiness knew no bounds. He declared him as crown prince with pomp and grandeur. The elderly king was pleased that his heir was a worthy one. Devavrata was a strong person of intelligence and capacity. His bravery was unmatched. His knowledge of scriptures was insurmountable. Shanti Parva of Mahabharata speaks volumes about his colossal knowledge. He was just the kind of successor every king would dream of.

A few years passed. Shantanu was very old by then. He was on a hunting expedition when he accidentally lost his way. He was on his chariot with his charioteer. After some time, he found a beautiful damsel named Matsyagandha.  Matsyagandha in Sanskrit means “a girl smelling fish”. But she smelled anything but fish. This was owing to some strange gift from an older sage person named Parashara with whom she had an encounter and, also, a son.

Parashara was desirous of an heir to carry on his work forward but didn’t want to get settled with any ordinary woman. Marriage during the time of the Mahabharata wasn’t the marriage of today. It was not an exclusive physically as well as emotional binding arrangement for “seven lives”. It meant companionship. There even happened to be the concept of Gandharva-Vivaha – marriage by sheer and truthful acceptance of each other without any ceremony, huge functions or feasts. If you felt loved and committed – you were as good as married. Be that as it may, after her fling with Parashara – Matsyagandha’s grace and outlook changed. Her son with Parashara was none other than – author of Mahabharata – Vyasa himself!

When Matsyagandha met Shantanu, she was about the same age as Devavrata – Shantanu’s son. Yet entranced by her beauty Shantanu wasted no time to propose her. He asked her hand in marriage. She grew apprehensive at first, knowing nothing about the old man. But to ensure she wasn’t blunt – she suggested him to talk about the marriage arrangement to her father. The father after listening to Shantanu spent some time with his daughter and presented but one condition for marriage. That was “Matsyagandha’s sons will descend the throne.” It was something Shantanu couldn’t do. After all, how could a father who himself made his only son his crown prince ask him then to step down? It was hard for him to say either yes or no. He returned to his capital city with a heavy heart. His face was filled with sadness and remorse.

Devavrata didn’t take long to notice his father’s changed state and inquired him about the reason. There was no satisfactory answer. But astute Devavrata questioned his father’s charioteer and soon learnt the reason for his father’s distress. Devavrata met the Matsyagandha and her father. He asked for her hand for his own father! On hearing the condition – he wasted little time to renounce his title of “crown prince” to make way for sons of Matsyagandha to take the throne.

But the fisherman still wasn’t happy at that. “What if your sons grow up and make claim to the throne?” Devavrata tried to reason with fisherman. But the latter was not to be assuaged without substantial assurance. Devavrata then made his foremost vow, “Never will I marry nor will I ever father sons – I’ll remain celibate from this day onwards. And if that is not enough…” he declared fiercely “I’ll promise to stay dedicated to the the protection of throne of Hastinapur and to anyone who’ll be seated on it.” His truthfulness and absolute undeterred words convinced the fisherman and he finally agreed to give his daughter’s hand in marriage to Shantanu. For his fierce vows Devavrata was thereafter known as Bhishma.

Shantanu was happy as well as shocked. Happy because he had his desired wife – sad because his beloved son had relinquished his claim to the throne. The marriage happened and Satyavati bore not one but two sons in rather quick succession – Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Shantanu died no much time after the birth of Vichitravirya.

Chitrangada, the strongest of the sons, died in his early twenties in a battle. Vichitravirya, who remained physically and emotionally weak, was put on the throne by Bhishma. But it was Bhishma who ran all the affairs of the state along with the regent queen Matsyagandha – who was renamed Satyavati after marriage with Shantanu.

Vichitravirya wasn’t an appealing person and women didn’t fall for him. It happened such that King of Kashi announced Swayamvara – a practice of choosing a husband, from among a list of suitors by a girl of marriageable age – of his three daughters, named: Amba, Ambika and Ambalika – he intentionally didn’t invite Vichitravirya. This infuriated Bhishma and he took upon himself to abduct the three girls by his brute force. After he took them to Hastinapur and asked them to marry Vichitravirya – Amba refused. Bhishma let her go.

But remaining two – Ambika and Ambalika – didn’t have a long marriage with the weak king and produced no heirs. As a result, the successor to the throne of Hastinapura was in question. Satyavati asked Bhishma to take upon himself to marry the two queens and produce children to the throne. But Bhishma was a man of his words. He refused. “But what is the use of your vow for my sons are gone and the throne of Hastinapura is in question?” asked Satyavati to Bhishma. “My vow was not conditional – it was and will be absolute,” Bhishma replied.

Satyavati then asked for her first son out of wedlock fathered by Parashara – Vyasa – to impregnate the widowed queens.

There’s a crucial lesson for everyone in this story. Satyavati and her father’s lust for influence and power was hardly enduring. To ensure safe path to throne for her future sons Matsyagandha a.k.a. Satyavati made Bhishma swear a vow and stripped him of his right to sons, family as well as companionship. When her sons were born both failed to live long enough to father children. And in a desperate measure she had to ask her pervious son with Parashara to impregnate her daughters-in-law. Even those sons had defects. Dhritarashtra was blind – Pandu often had health issues. What was all that debacle of Satyavati achieve in the end?

We often assume and presume things. We think that if we get something we want that we will be happy. But happiness does not reside in things – it’s in the mind. If your mind is happy – you are best suited to ascertain right objectives, assess your prevalent situations and accomplish it effectively.

But Matsyagandha a.k.a. Satyavati’s vision was a mirage – blind lust for influence and power. She saw a threat in Bhishma to her own sons before marriage – after her sons had died she tried her best to convince Bhishma into marriage. Bhishma was right to turn down her quest on moral grounds, but, if not for Bhishma the throne of Hastinapura would have been lost. Though without a competent king – people were content with the fact that it was under regency of a competent man who let go of his right to throne for the love of his father, namely Bhishma. Selflessness made Bhishma into a great man whom everyone revered. But he was bound by his vow and in the end, he was forced to lead an army of Kauravas against Pandavas to protect the throne of Hastinapura. He was a spiritual father to both – Kauravas as well as Pandavas. Since he had sworn allegiance to the throne and neither Dhritarashtra nor his sons would follow his advice, he reluctantly fell into a war against those whom he didn’t want to fight. Of course, that didn’t save the throne for the Kauravas either. All this arose from the vanity of Satyavati and the old desires of Shantanu that reflect the weaknesses of kings.

We often think we know what we want. Yet we forget that we’ll have more respect for something only when it’s not there or when it is lost. We’re are all mortal with frailties – we don’t live long enough to see the consequences of our own actions – just like Matsyagandha a.k.a. Satyavati. Had Satyavati let Bhishma be the successor – the situation would have been very different. Or maybe it would have been something else. But that’s not the point. “The wise don’t regret for what has happened or worry about that is to happen. They live in the present and learn from the past mistakes of themselves as well as others, and always strive to take a path that is righteous – Dharma.” says Vyasa.

The Mahabharata is more about exposing human weaknesses than any hagiography or glorification of mere human personalities. It shows us what our deep-seated limitations are and how to correct them, should we be willing to make the great labour to do so. Nothing in life comes easy, without examination, or without determination. Wisdom and knowledge comes to those who incessantly strive to exceed their personal limitations.

September 5, 2017

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