Thursday, December 22, 2022

Bhishma and the Kuru Bloodline

Vyasa with Satyavati

(Geeta Press Illustration)

The Mahabharata is generally read as the saga of the great war between the two factions of the Kuru dynasty: the Pandavas (the sons of Pandu) and the Kauravas (the sons of Dhritarashtra). But in a biological sense this is not correct. The Kuru bloodline ended with Bhishma—Pandu and Dhritarashtra did not belong to the Kuru bloodline. 

Bhishma was the son of Shantanu, the king of Hastinapur, and Goddess Ganga. When Ganga left Shantanu and returned to heaven, Shantanu married Satyavati. They had two children Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Bhishma had renounced the throne in favor of the children of Satyavati, and he had also taken the vow that he would remain a lifelong celibate to ensure that he did not sire children who might someday challenge the descendants of Shantanu and Satyavati for the throne of Hastinapur.

The task of taking the Kuru bloodline forward belonged to Chitrangada and Vichitravirya.

Chitrangada was an arrogant and violent man. He got into a fight with a Gandharva of the same name. After a fierce battle, which went on for several days, he was killed. Now Vichitravirya was the only one left who could take the Kuru bloodline forward. But he was a man of strange masculinity—the term “Vichitra” means strange, and the term “virya” means masculinity. He could have been impotent, weak, sterile, or sexually divergent. 

Since Vichitravirya was incapable of doing the needful, Bhishma took matters into his own hands. The King of Kashi had organized a svayamvara for the marriage of his three daughters—Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika. Bhishma forcefully entered the svayamvara, abducted the three daughters, and brought them to Hastinapur with the intention of marrying them to Vichitravirya. Amba insisted that she wanted to marry the King of Shalva. Bhisma allowed her to leave.  Ambika and Ambalika were married to Vichitravirya. 

Unfortunately, Vichitravirya died before he could produce a child with Ambika and Ambalika. Satyavati pleaded with Bhishma that he should produce children with Ambika and Ambalika for taking the Kuru bloodline forward. But Bhishma refused to break his vow of celibacy. Satyavati then pleaded with Krishna Dvaipayana (Veda Vyasa), her first child with the wandering Sage Parashara. Her union with Parasara had happened before her marriage with Shantanu—this was a divine union which left her virginity intact despite her becoming a mother. 

At that time, Vyasa was engaged in extreme austerities. Having compiled the four Vedas, he was famous in the three worlds. He accepted the plea of his mother and impregnated Ambika and Ambalika. From Ambika the blind Dhritarashtra was born. From Ambalika the pale and weak Pandu was born. Satyavati was dissatisfied by the deformity of her two grandchildren. She sent Vyasa to Ambika again. But Ambika did not want to have another tryst with the fearsome ascetic. She asked her maid to take her place in the bed. From the maid, Vidura was born. 

By the custom of Niyoga, which was prevalent in that age, Dhritarashtra, Pandu, and Vidura were regarded as the sons of Vichitravirya and hence a part of the Kuru dynasty. But they were the sons of mothers, Ambika, Ambalika, and Ambika’s maid, and father Vyasa—who were not of the Kuru bloodline. Since Vyasa was a Brahmin, it can be argued that the Pandavas and the Kauravas belonged to a Brahmanical bloodline. Bhishma was a Kshatriya and the last of the Kurus.

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