Ambikā peered curiously into the mirror as her maidservants finished adorning her in preparation for the nuptial bed. She had lost none of her beauty despite her months of mourning. Her skin was flawless and as white as milk. Curling jet-black hair framed her oval face. Bow-like eyebrows arched over her black eyes, which curved like two lotus petals. No wonder Vicitravīrya had been so enamoured of her, rarely leaving her side. While he was alive her maidservants had adorned her each evening, just in case her lord had desired to approach her. As Ambikā again put on her ornaments and fine dress her mind drifted sadly back to the days she had spent with her husband. After having lain in that great hero’s powerful arms, how strange to now be preparing to meet another man!
Ambikā balked at the prospect, and she felt herself growing increasingly restless. She dismissed the maidservants as they fussed around her. She needed to be alone to think. When Vicitravīrya had died in such an untimely way, she had wanted to ascend his funeral pyre and follow him to the heavens. She could not imagine living without him. But Satyavatī, the queen mother, had restrained her––she still had a duty to perform. Despite the fact that they had enjoyed so much pleasure together, after seven years of marriage they had not produced a child. Without leaving an heir the king was guilty of neglecting a prime duty. How, then, would he be able to reach the higher regions?
Satyavatī had convinced Ambikā and her co-wife Ambālikā to stay and fulfill their husband’s duty and thereby secure the welfare of his soul. The scriptures allowed that in times of emergency a man’s elder brother could conceive children in his wife if he was unable. This was such an emergency. Ambikā suddenly felt more peaceful. Her union with Bhīṣma would not be a betrayal of the love she felt for her husband, but a service to him and to the kingdom. She stopped her restless pacing and lay down on the ivory bed in bashful anticipation. Bhīṣma was a powerful and righteous man. Who better to sire the future king? She should ensure that he felt completely honored by her.
There was a knock at the door. Ambikā looked up shyly. The door opened and a tall man entered. Ambikā’s blood turned cold. This was not Bhīṣma. There in her bedchamber stood a wizened, ugly and filthy ascetic. His matted locks hung about his gaunt face and he stared at her with fierce eyes. His teeth were only slightly less black than his complexion. Around his waist was a soiled loin cloth, his only garment. His hairy body was encrusted with dirt. Without any delay he came toward her and sat by her side. She instantly recoiled from the foul stench emanating from his body. Who was this person? She knew of no brother-in-law other than Bhīṣma. She prayed to the gods that she might lose consciousness, for how could she endure this fearful man’s touch? As he put his hands on her dress she closed her eyes, barely able to repress her urge to scream.
Satyavatī blamed herself. If it had not been for her father’s greed, Hastināpura would not be in such a precarious situation now. Here sat the powerful Bhīṣma, son of the goddess Gaṅgā. There was no greater hero on earth. As the eldest son of the righteous King Śantanu, he was the natural heir to Hastināpura’s throne, but the kingdom’s good fortune had been thwarted by her foolish father on her behalf.
She could still vividly picture the events. It had seemed to be like any other day. She was sitting by the river’s edge, waiting to row travelers across. Her father, leader of the fishermen, had given her that duty so she would gain the religious merits born of service to travelers. On this particular day, however, the emperor of the world, the mighty Śantanu, had been hunting in the nearby forests and was seduced by the alluring fragrance that emanated from her body. Having sought out the source of that celestial scent, he had become bewitched by her beauty. From his gaze it was obvious he desired to marry her. Upon hearing that she was still unmarried, he had hurried to her father’s house to ask for her hand.
When she herself had arrived home, she saw Śantanu leaving their humble hut in dismay. Her father had stipulated that he could only marry her if he promised the throne to her son. But the emperor already had a qualified son in Devavrataḥ, and he had already been consecrated as the prince regent. The king was not prepared, simply for his own pleasure, to wrong his worthy and beloved son. Thus he left, his heart torn by desire.
Satyavatī too had pined for many days, praying to the gods to arrange her union with the king. Then one day, unknown to Śantanu, Devavrataḥ appeared at their hut to solicit her hand on the emperor’s behalf. Her father repeated his condition and Devavrataḥ agreed. He would never ascend Hastināpura’s throne; the crown could go to Satyavatī’s children. Still her father hesitated. He had heard enough about court intrigues to know that if Devavrataḥ relinquished the throne, then Devavrataḥ’s children might feel cheated and oppose Satyavatī’s son. The fisher-king voiced his doubts. Hearing them, Devavrataḥ uttered a terrible vow. He would never accept a wife but would maintain life-long celibacy. In order to secure his father’s happiness, he said, he was ready to renounce all personal enjoyment. Satyavatī now recalled that when Devavrataḥ made that vow, flowers had rained from the sky and a thunderous voice had echoed from the heavens: “From this day his name shall be Bhīṣma, one of a terrible vow.”
Satyavatī looked at Bhīṣma now as he sat respectfully before her. She spoke his name and he looked up, ready to execute her command. Maybe she could yet convince him. He had always been obedient to her, even more so since Śantanu’s death.
“My dear Bhīṣma, please think again,” the queen said as she pulled her fine silk sari over her plaited hair. “You made your vow simply to secure the interests of your father and me. I now absolve you of that vow. You have always been fixed in virtue. Please consider our present situation. Just as you made your vow to serve your elders, you should now serve them by acting for the welfare of our line. Surely this is your duty. Ascend Hastināpura’s throne and beget powerful sons to secure this ancient kingdom’s future.”
Bhīṣma shook his head in exasperation. “Mother, please do not ask me to stray from the path of truth. It can never be as you suggest. The sun may renounce its splendor, water its wetness and the sky its sound, but Bhīṣma will never renounce truth.”
Bhīṣma asked Satyavatī to consider the deeper cause of the unexpected emergency facing the kingdom. It was due to all-powerful destiny. How else could it have come to pass that although Satyavatī had borne two powerful sons, both had died without producing an heir to the throne? All the kings on earth had paid tribute to Satyavatī’s eldest son, Citrāṅgadā. His reputation for prowess in battle and unwavering virtue had reached the heavens. It was thus that the mighty king of the Gandharvas, who bore the same name, became envious upon hearing his glories. The jealous Gandharva could not allow another famous and powerful Citrāṅgadā to live. He came to earth and challenged his rival to battle. After years of fighting, the valorous son of Satyavatī was slain and the proud Gandharva returned triumphant to the heavens.
Then the powerful Vicitravīrya ascended the throne, but suddenly died from an illness after only seven years of ruling. Neither he nor his brother left a child.
Bhīṣma stood up and looked out of the latticed window. A full moon illumined the palace gardens, casting a silver light across the broad sandstone paths where Vicitravīrya had loved to walk with his queens. He turned back to Satyavatī and continued, “Mother, we cannot thwart Providence by acting immorally. In all circumstances a virtuous man acts in obedience to the will of God. Auspiciousness and victory always attend virtue, while grief is the sure result of unrighteousness. Therefore, please do not ask me to abandon my vow.”
Satyavatī sat silently. Bhīṣma’s adherence to truth and virtue was unshakeable. He had spoken well. She bowed her head as he went on, “In any event, Mother, it seems destiny has provided us with a solution quite in keeping with religion. If the illustrious Vyāsadeva produces offspring upon the queens, we shall be saved. Let us pray that everything goes well.”
Satyavatī nodded. It was she who had summoned the powerful Ṛṣi Vyāsadeva, her first-born son. It had taken some courage for her to reveal how she had given birth to that sage even in her maidenhood. Out of fear of public censure she had hidden this fact for years, but she still remembered how the celestial Ṛṣi Parāśara had one day come onto her boat and begotten the great Vyāsadeva in her womb. Parāśara had told her that Providence had destined her for greatness. He was giving an illustrious son who would play an important part in that great destiny. Parāśara had then granted her the boon of keeping her maidenhood even after union with him––and it was he who had blessed her with the celestial fragrance which had captivated Śantanu.
Satyavatī slowly paced the mosaic floor. Hundreds of golden oil lamps lit up the great hall. Along the high walls hung fine paintings of her ancestors, going all the way back to the mighty King Kuru. All of them had been powerful emperors of the globe. Surely the Kuru dynasty would not end now. The queen said, “I have been praying for the kingdom ever since my sons’ demise. I have faith that Vyāsadeva will prove a shelter to us all. But seeing the adverse fate afflicting us, I still cannot help but be fearful.”
Satyavatī felt deeply for the kingdom and for Śantanu’s line. She still acted out of her love for the departed monarch. It was certainly providential that Parāśara had given her Vyāsadeva as her son. Vyāsadeva had grown to maturity immediately upon his birth and had left her, saying, “Dear Mother, should you ever be in difficulty, then simply think of me. I shall come to you at once from wherever I may be.”
As Bhīṣma and Satyavatī spoke, Ambikā’s door opened and Vyāsadeva came out. Bhīṣma bowed at his feet and Satyavatī anxiously asked, “Will the princess bear an accomplished son?”
Raising his hand in blessing as Bhīṣma stood up, the sage replied to Satyavatī, “The queen will bear a son who will be as strong as ten thousand elephants. He will be vastly intelligent, wise and prosperous. He will have a hundred sons. But, O pious lady, for the fault of his mother he will be born blind.”
Satyavatī was shocked. “How can one who is blind become a king of the Kuru race?” she asked.
Vyāsadeva explained that he had gone to Ambikā prepared to beget a son worthy in every way, but the queen had closed her eyes in fear when she saw him. When agreeing to produce an heir to the throne, the sage had stipulated that the queen must accept him in his unpleasant condition. Satyavatī had summoned him from the Himālayas and he had come to her directly from his practice of harsh asceticism. He kept himself unwashed and unkempt as a part of his ascetic vows. He said, “I would have come to the queen in a handsome form decked with jewels if she had first accepted a religious vow for one full year. But you asked that she conceive immediately. Therefore I stated my conditions in place of the religious vow.”
Satyavatī cursed herself for her impatience. She had not wanted to wait. Without an heir to the throne the kingdom was in constant danger. In a land without a monarch even the rains would not fall regularly and the gods would not be propitious. Therefore she had begged Vyāsadeva to approach the queen at once. Now this! A blind son. How could he ever become the king?
“You must give another king to the Kuru race,” she implored. “Please approach the other queen, Ambālikā.”
Vyāsadeva looked upon his anxious mother with compassion. He soothed her fears. Soon he would return again to beget another child. She need only summon him when Ambālikā was prepared to receive him. Vyāsadeva then disappeared from the spot. Satyavatī turned and spoke to Bhīṣma. “This is what I feared. I must now ask Ambālikā to receive the sage. I pray that she will be more successful than her sister.”