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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.
Brahma's curse and birth of Shantanu
In his previous birth, Shantanu was Mahabhisha, a king of the Ikshvaku dynasty. Due to his meritorious deeds he 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 and Ganga 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 the Kuru king Pratipa and his wish was granted by Brahma. The eight Vasus who had been cursed by the sage Vashistha to born as mortals on earth as a punishment for crossing him approached Ganga. They requested to be born as her and Shantanu's sons and also requested her to kill them. Ganga agreed upon the condition that at least one child might live. They accepted her condition and told her that they will all contribute an eighth part of their energies to that child and he will be remain childless for his whole life. The Kuru king Pratipa was once meditating. At that time Ganga took the form of a beautiful woman approached the king and sat on his right thigh. When he asked her what did she want, Ganga requested him to become his wife. Pratipa however refused since he had taken a vow not to lust for anybody and that she had sat on his right thigh and according to traditions a man's right thigh was for his daughter or daughter-in-law while the left thigh was for his wife. He then proposed her for marrying his son to which she agreed. She also said that his son should never question his acts.A child was born to Pratipa and his wife in their old age. He was named Shantanu because when he was born his father had controlled his passions by ascetic penances. When he grew up into youth, his father told him that if he meets a celestial damsel in secret who asks to marry him, he should agree and he should never question his acts. Pratipa then installed Shnatanu as king of Hastinapura and retired into the woods to perform penances.
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, 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 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 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
- Kisari Mohan Ganguli (2014). The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa: Complete 18 Parvas. Darryl Morris.
Vettam Mani: Puranic Encyclopaedia.[full citation needed]