In the epic Mahabharata, Shantanu was a Kuru king of Hastinapura. He was a descendant of the Bharata race, of the lunar dynasty and great-grandfather of the Pandavas and Kauravas. He was the youngest son of King Pratipa of Hastinapura and had been born in the latter’s old age. The eldest son Devapi had leprosy and gave up his inheritance to become a hermit. The middle son Bahlika (or Vahlika) abandoned his paternal kingdom and started living with his maternal uncle in Balkh and inherited the kingdom from him. Shantanu became the king of Hastinapura by default.
He is best known for being the father of Bhishma, one of the mightiest warriors of all time.
Brahma’s Curse & Birth Of Shantanu
In his previous birth, Shantanu was a powerful king of the Ikshvaku dynasty named Mahabhisha. Mahabhisha possessed many virtuous qualities, and after performing a thousand Ashwamedha Yagnas (Horse Sacrifices) and a hundred Rajasuya Yagnas (to qualify as emperor), he had attained heaven after his death. Once he got an opportunity to visit the court of Brahma where all the Devas and Ganga were also present. While the celestials were worshipping Brahma, a wind blew and displaced Ganga’s clothes revealing her body. Everybody present there bashfully bent their heads except Mahabhisha who kept on gazing at her body. Upon seeing this act, Brahma lost his temper and cursed him to be born as mortals and that Ganga will cause much emotional pain to him. He also said that he will be only freed from this curse when he becomes angry upon Ganga’s deeds. Mahabhisha then requested Brahma to be born as the son of Kuru king Pratipa and his wish was granted by Brahma.
Shantanu & Ganga
Shantanu saw a beautiful woman on the banks of the river Ganges (Ganga) and asked her to marry him. She agreed but with one condition: that Shantanu would not ask any questions about her actions. They married and she later gave birth to a son. But she drowned the child. Shantanu could not ask her the reason, because of his promise, lest she would leave him. One by one, seven sons were born to them and were drowned by Ganga. When Ganga was about to drown the eighth son, Shantanu, devastated, could not restrain himself and confronted her. Finally, Ganga explained to King Shantanu about Brahma’s curse given to Mahabhisha and her. Then she told him that their eight children were Eight Vasus who were cursed by Vasishtha to be born on earth as mortal humans however when they pacified him, he limited his curse and told them that they would be freed from this curse within a year of their birth as humans. So she released the seven of them from this life by drowning them all. However the Vasu Dyaus was cursed to live a long life and to never have a wife or have children. But the sage also gave a boon to him that he would be virtuous, conversant with all the holy scriptures and will be an obedient son to his father. that she will take him to the heavens to train him properly for the King’s throne and status. With these words she disappeared along with the child while Shantanu was struck with grief thinking about spending the rest of his life without her.
Shantanu Reunites With His Son
Painting depicting presentation by Ganga of her son Devavrata (the future Bhishma) to his father, Shantanu
Shantanu, filled with grief from loss of his wife and son, began to practise Brahmacharya and ruled his kingdom extremely well. By merely adopting virtuous behaviour, Shantanu was easily able to conquer the entire world without lifting weapons. All the kings declared Shantanu as Emperor and his reign was a peaceful one. Shantanu gave up hunting and gained popularity from his subjects.
Shantanu & Satyavati
A painting by Raja Ravi Varma depicting Shantanu wooing the fisherwoman SatyavatiDevavrata taking the Bhishma Pratigya Four years later, Shantanu while travelling near the banks of Yamuna smelled a sweet scent coming from an unknown direction. While searching for the cause of the scent, he came across Satyavati from whom the scent was coming. Satyavati was an adopted daughter of the chief of the fishermen of her village. Upon seeing her, Shantanu fell in love with her and desired to her. Upon asking for his consent, her father agreed to the marriage on condition that Satyavati’s son would inherit the throne of Hastinapura.