She was a woman duped by fate, doubly duped in fact: she couldn’t marry the one she had committed herself to, and was, for long, patiently waiting to marry, and had to marry someone else instead. And that too because of a grave misunderstanding on her own part, although she tended to blame others for it. She was possibly too deeply disappointed for some sober reflection. But perhaps she was incapable of it; wild and tempestuous in nature, she wasn’t the kind who would quietly accept fate.
To Bhagawan Shiva she had dedicated herself. Born as a human, she was waiting for her divine consort, who had disappeared into the nether world. Her father knew who she was, and who she was waiting for.
Now king Santanu of the Kuru clan was a great devotee of Shiva, and pleased with him, the great god blessed him with the title duti iswara (“second Shiva”). Once Santanu, dressed as Shiva, with matted hair, and with ashes smeared all over his body, was wandering in the vicinity of where Ganga lived. He resembled Shiva so completely that even gods were mislead. Ganga saw him while doing tapas, and was distracted. And at a moment of inattention, she mistook him to be her lord. She told her father to marry her to him He was only too happy to agree.
It didn’t take her long to realize her mistake. She realized it during the wedding ceremony itself. She refused to marry Santanu, but relented when her father told her that the sin of betrayal would accrue to him if she did not marry Santanu. He reminded her that it was she who wanted him to marry her to him. She had been a considerate daughter; earlier, when her father expressed his concern that if she (remained unmarried and) attained her womanhood in his house, it would bring his ancestors great misfortune, she assured him that she would arrest her growth and remain a child in his house.
Ganga told Santanu that she was waiting to marry Shiva, and warned him right there that she was rebellious and wild, and couldn’t be controlled by even Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, and that in exasperation, each of them had deserted her, in a manner of speaking. In view of this, he should decide whether he would marry her. Santanu had nothing to decide. He was surely too enamoured of her to withdraw from the marriage. He said it was only proper that the husband must be supportive, generous, and even be indulgent towards his wife. Then she told him that as her husband, he must continuously serve her, must never get angry with her, or misbehave with her or scold her, and that the moment he would disrespectfully call her gaangi, instead of gangaa, she would leave him. Thus as she was planning her release, Santanu promised her everything.
She tortured her husband in every possible way. She was as inventive in finding ways of hurting and humiliating him as she was ruthless. She would keep him starved, cook for him once in three days, and then cook food that was tasteless, and beat him at will. She would tear off his clothes and destroy his sacred books, deny him when he wanted her, and would force him to have sex with her on auspicious days when it was prohibited. She would not allow him to perform his religious duties.
One day she asked Santanu where Shiva was. She thought he might know, being his great devotee. He in fact did; he told her that he was manifest in Kapilas. She was secretly overjoyed; this was what she had been waiting for, for thousands of years, and she decided to leave Santanu at the earliest. From then on she tortured her husband even more severely. In his presence she killed her first born almost immediately after his birth. In fear of her, Santanu left Chitravirya and Vichitravirya, his children unborn from womb (we skip the details of their birth here in order not to distract from the story of Ganga), in the care of the sage Pareswara (more famously known as Parashar) and Satyavati. One day Ganga happened to see them, and figured out that they were Santanu’s children. She cursed them that they die issueless.
Ganga killed another five of her children from Santanu in the same way she had killed their first. When she was going to kill the seventh, Santanu stopped her. He slapped her, and cursed her and took away the infant from her. As he abused her, he called her gaangi.
She was happy as she rose to leave him. She said she had killed their six sons in order to provoke him. He had now uttered the forbidden word, and with that had violated the condition of their marriage. Santanu held her in his arms and tried to stop her asking her how the infant would live without his mother’s milk. Ganga extricated herself from him and said that she didn’t care whatever happened to the child: let the infant live if he wished to, and die if he so wished. This turned out be a boon for the infant – death would not touch him until he wanted to die.
While leaving she cursed Santanu for having touched her. No longer his wife, she had acquired the status of the consort of his guru, Shiva. He had thus committed the crime of touching his guru’s consort. She cursed him that he be killed by the son of the infant, who his father subsequently named Bhishma.
This is the end of Ganga’s story, in one version of Saarala Mahaabhaarata. The only link she would with her son was an unintended one; in addition to Bhishma, he also came to be known as the son of Ganga. In another version though, she did not forget her son. When he fell in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, she sent some revered sages to him with the message that that was an inauspicious time to die, so he should not wish for death till the auspicious time came. For Bhishma of course this was no news; he didn’t have to be told when to die. When the sages returned and told her that her son was exceptionally wise, she felt happy.
Ganga was a good daughter, but a disgusting wife to Santanu. There are no words to describe how terrible, and revolting a mother she was, and one is shocked when one considers that she did all this deliberately, for a selfish end. Granted that she found herself entangled in a difficult situation, and also that she had warned Santanu that she was going to be wild, but all these do not justify even in the smallest measure what all she . It is even more sickening as one considers the fact that it was she herself who was the root cause of her circumstances.
But consider Sarala’s Ganga from another point of view. For the poet, she was the human manifestation of the mighty river Ganga, as he conceptualized the river. Turbulence, wildness, destruction, etc. constitute her essential nature, which she retained in her human form. It is also part of her nature to flow, and break barriers in order to do so, if she encounters them, and she is not constrained to flow in some given, determined path. However it is not wild energy alone that characterizes the mighty Ganga; serenity too is an aspect of her – there are stretches where she flows with quiet dignity. If her treatment of Santanu demonstrates her wildness, her considerateness for her father shows the other aspect of her nature. Marriage with Santanu was a barrier she was bound to break by the force of her nature; she couldn’t stay arrested. It makes no sense to censor her, a form of pure energy, for her turbulent aspect and commend her for her calm aspect.
Thus there is a surface point of view towards her, and a deep point of view as well. But these are not evaluative terms; these are just names of two levels of understanding. Neither can be dispensed with for a fuller understanding of Sarala’s Ganga; they indeed complement each other, and do not cancel out each other. At one level one judges her in terms of the system of values that applies to the humans, and admires her for certain things, and condemns her for others, and even tries to understand her. At another, one just perceives her majesty in her different aspects, and reflects on the rich and complex symbol with non-traditional associations that she becomes in the hands of Sarala.
She was seeking Shiva, relentlessly, and quite appropriately too. Wildness must join wildness. And Shiva is its ultimate description. He is the version of theVedic Rudra in the puranic age: Rudra, who was duly offered his due in every sacrifice but never invited there.