Chitravirya and Vichitravirya were the sage-king Shantanu’s sons, but they were not born out of the womb of any woman. They were born of pictures of women. They were cursed by Ganga, Shantanu’s wife, for no fault of theirs. This is their sad story:
Ganga knew that she had married the wrong person in Shantanu and not Shiva, the god of the gods she had been waiting for, for years. She had to free herself from her marriage. She worked out a plan for it almost when the wedding rituals were going on. She extracted a promise from Shantanu that no matter what she did, however sinful or unacceptable her doings might be, he must never get angry with her. He must never deny her, must never rebuke her and must not speak to her rudely or even impolitely. The moment he broke his promise, she would leave him, she warned the king. She made Shantanu’s life utterly miserable in many ways, hoping that in an angry moment he would break his promise deliberately or accidentally and be hurtful to her in action or word. At that very moment she would leave him. She hoped that that blessed moment would come for her soon. Ganga’s story as Shantanu’s wife is narrated in some detail in the post “Ganga” posted in this blog on May 6, 2008.
She would force him to have sex with her and would deny him when he desired it, craved for it. One day he was so aroused that when she refused him union, in desperation he experienced sex with the portrait of a beautiful woman hanging on a wall. From that union a baby was born right then and the happy father named him Chitravirya because he was born of a chitra, a portrait. Terribly scared that Ganga might harm the baby, he left him in the care of sage Pareshwara (more known as Parashara) and his wife Satyavati. Incidentally Satyavati was never Shantanu’s wife. Her story is in this blog, posted on May 22, 08.
Ganga conceived and gave birth to their first son. Overwhelmed with joy, Shantanu entered her private chamber to see his son. Right in front of him Ganga cut the baby into two pieces. Terribly shocked, Santanu uttered “Narayana”, “Narayana”, as he came out of the room.
He was very upset with Ganga but he controlled himself. If her baby did not matter to the mother, who had undergone pregnancy and child birth, he must not lose his calm, he consoled himself. One day after this incident, Ganga denied Shantanu once again when he was very much excited. Very rudely she pushed him out. The poor husband experienced union with the picture of a beautiful woman and as earlier, a baby was born. Shantanu named him “Vichitravirya”. Fearing Ganga he again clandestinely took the baby to Pareshwara and Satyavati and left him under their care and protection. They looked after both Chitravirya and Vichitravirya.
On an auspicious day, Shantanu and Ganga went to the sea near Chandrabhaga for a ritual bath and sage Pareshwara and Satyavati went there too for the same reason. Neither knew about the other’s visit. Their destiny brought them together. They both were having their holy bath at the same time and in close proximity to each other. The children saw their father and came running towards him, saying “father”, “father” and prostrated at his feet. Shantanu was scared. Ganga was there standing next to him. She asked him whether they were his children, they looked so very much like him, she said. Afraid that she might do the same as she had done to their eldest born, Shantanu said no. Who could he get a child from, he replied, since she was his only wife? But Ganga was no ordinary woman, she knew what all had happened and what all would happen. Wild at Shantanu for his lie, she cursed the children, who he had hidden from her, that they would die issue-less. In the belief system articulated in Sarala Mahabharata, dying issue-less would arrest one’s progress in the higher worlds. Sage Pareshwara and Satyavati took the little ones away from Ganga’s angry presence. The innocent children had to pay for their father’s karma (doing). In Sarala Mahabharata, there are those who suffered or gained in their present life because of their karma in some earlier existence. This takes away agency from the one who curses or blesses and renders one a mere nimitta or instrument of destiny. Sarala Mahabharata does not relate the curses on the two children to any karma of theirs in their previous birth. Thus it leaves Ganga unredeemed.
Immediately after the birth of their last child, Ganga left Shantanu. Shantanu named the baby Bhishma. He lived with his three sons. Satyavati came to live with them. When their children reached their marriageable age, sage Pareshwara’s son, sage Vyasa, was married to the beautiful Padmavati, the daughter of Bharadwadasa. Now King Padmanabha, the ruler of Padmadala, who was a great devotee of Narayana, had four beautiful, well bred daughters: Amba, Ambika, Ambalika and Ambilika. Ambika chose to marry Chitravirya. At the auspicious moment, Shantanu and brothers Pareshwara and Bhurishrava accompanied the bridegroom when he left for Padmadala for the wedding. Not one, but two weddings took place there: Chitravirya married Ambika and Vichitravirya married Ambalika. Later, arrangements were made for the marriage of Bhishma with Amba, but it did not take place. That’s a story we will tell some other time.
After their wedding, there isn’t much to tell about the unfortunate Chitravirya and Vichitravirya. They performed jajnas, gave ritual gifts, etc. for a child. But goddess Ganga’s curse could not be undone. Then they fell victim to a deadly form of leprosy. No treatment was of any help. Chitravirya died of it. In order to absolve himself from the sin of being issueless, Vichitravirya went to Prayag tirtha (place of pilgrimage) and sacrificed himself at the sacred Triveni, where the three rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati meet.