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In the epic Mahabharata, Shantanu was a Kuru king of Hastinapura. He was a descendant of the Bharata race, of the lunar dynasty and the ancestor of the Pandavas and the 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 suffered from leprosy and abdicated his inheritance to become a hermit. The middle son Balhika devoted his life to conquer Balkh. Shantanu become the king of Hastinapura by default.
Shantanu and 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, six 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 that she fell in love with him in the courts of Indra (King of the Gods.) The other gods didn’t approve so she was sent to earth to marry him. Then she told him that their eight children were Eight Vasus who were cursed to be born on earth. So she released them from this life by drowning them all. She told him that the Eighth Vasu will live a long life and that she will take him to the heavens to train him properly for the King’s throne and status. With these words she disappeared while King Shantanu was struck with grief thinking about spending rest of his life without her.
Shantanu and Satyavati
Shantanu came across Satyavati, an adopted daughter of a ferryman on the Yamuna river, and fell in love with her by the time his son Devavrata had grown into a young prince. The ferryman agreed to the marriage on condition that the son Satyavati borne son would inherit the throne.
King Shantanu was unable to give his word on accession as his eldest son Devavrata was the heir to the throne. However, Devavrata came to know of this and for the sake of his father, gave his word to the ferryman that he would renounce all his claims to the throne, in favour of Satyavati's children. To reassure the skeptical ferryman, further he also vowed lifelong celibacy to ensure that future generations borne of Satyavati would also not be challenged by his offsprings. Devavrata was later known as Bhishma because of the the terrible oath he took.
Shantanu, in heaven, laments the damage he has caused his dynasty. His father, King Pratipa, had broken Bharatha's doctrine of merit-, not blood-based, kingship. Shantanu felt that he had the perfect solution in Bhishma, both his blood and the most qualified, thereby pleasing his father and fulfilling Bharatha's doctrine. But for the love a woman, the kingdom would have been much more secure.
- Misra, V.S. (2007). Ancient Indian Dynasties, Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, ISBN 81-7276-413-8, p.84
Vettam Mani: Puranic Encyclopaedia.[full citation needed]