Shantanu was a great devotee of Bhagawan Shiva. Sarala spoke of him as a “rushi(“rishi”, sage)”. He was so emerged in Shiva consciousness that he would dress himself like him and then even the gods were confused. One day the unbelievable of the unbelievable happened – goddess Ganga was confused. She had taken birth in the mortal world as the daughter of Nirghata. Shiva had disappeared from the mountains of Kailash and where he was engaged in meditation, she did not know. She was waiting for him to emerge out of his meditation so that she could marry him. When she saw Shantanu dressed like Shiva, she thought he was Shiva and told her father to marry her to him. During the wedding ritual itself she realized her mistake. She soon thought of a plan to free herself from that marriage. This story entitled “Ganga” occurs in this blog, posted on May 6, 08.
One of the many vicious things Ganga did to Shantanu in order to exasperate him was force him to abandon the path of dharma. She was very beautiful, sensual and seductive and he fell for her charms. He was completely fulfilled in her. She gave herself to him completely during their union but her heart was not in it; offering him sexual pleasure was her way of controlling him. She knew his weakness and exploited it. She would deny him when he was extremely aroused and force him into sex act on days the shastras did not permit it. Shantanu used to observe twelve bratas and seventy two upavasas(both roughly speaking, “ritual fasts”) steadfastly. Sex, which was believed to be physically and spiritually polluting, was not sanctioned on those sacred days. Sin accrues to one who indulges in it on those days. Quite a few today do have this belief.
Shantanu yielded to her and gave up observing ritual fasts on auspicious days. There was just one exception: ekadasi, an upavasa dedicated to the Supreme god, Narayana. On an ekadasi Ganga asked Shantanu why he was so keen on observing ekadasi and why again with such dedication. One attains mukti by observance of the sacred ekadasi brata and Narayana is pleased with someone who observes this bratain the right spirit, said Shantanu. Samsaraor worldly life is nothing but an unfathomable river and dharma is the only boat that can ferry one across, he told her. Worldly life is the condition of being firmly bound up without ropes; what bind one up are egotism, desire, attachment, hatred and anger, etc. and only the grace of Narayana could give one mukti. Therefore, my beloved, said the ascetic king Shantanu to Ganga, let us together observe the extremely sacred ekadasi brata and attain Vaikuntha, the abode of Narayana.
But that was not the way of the householder and the king, replied Ganga. Once he opted for kingship and the life of a householder, he could no longer follow asceticism. That would not be dharma. Upavasa was not his karma (here, right action). Kingship is a great and noble duty: “ati utakarma” (extremely noble) in Sarala’s words. Ksatriya dharma was not in consonance with asceticism. A king could not afford to fast, said Ganga. He must think of the welfare of his kingdom all the while, punish the wicked, protect his virtuous subjects, support the ashramas, secure his kingdom from enemies, remain in constant readiness to face any attack and must also wage war in order to add territory to his kingdom. You are noble, wise and discriminating, said Ganga to Shantanu, why then are you indulging in observing ekadasi (tu mahavijna jebe atu maharishi / raja pade basi kimpa bhaju ekadasi – (roughly) if you are wise, o sage / being the king, why are you observing ekadasi)
Shantanu could say nothing; she sounded entirely reasonable. He gave in to her logic, to her flawless explication of rajadharma (king’s duty). She did not speak to him like a guru would to her sishya; she spoke to him as a friend would to a friend. The sage-king gave up the ekadasi fast and yielded to her logic, her seduction and her ethereal beauty.
He did not know that her words were untruthful and her motives, dark. She wanted the king to stray from the path of virtue. He had no way to know her intentions; humans are not bestowed with this ability to look into someone’s mind and know whether his words were true or deceptive. They go by faith. Shantanu did not know that his wife’s words were dishonest. We know what he did not know because Sarala tells us.
Why did Ganga stoop so low as to use jnana (roughly, “knowledge”) as a means to make a trusting person stray from a life of dharma? Sarala does not tell us explicitly. But going by the spirit of his narrative we could say that gods and goddesses find it easy to control those who do not follow dharma than those who do. No matter how powerful, gods and goddesses are powerless before the person who is steadfast in dharma. So they would try to make him or her lose perspective and sense of discrimination and abandon dharma. This was what Ganga did to Shatanu. She tempted him with her beauty and misleaded him with her dharma talk.
Sarala’s Shantanu was basically a moral person. He did not marry after Ganga left him. She was his only wife. He did not crave for any woman after she was gone. And he never pined for Ganga. It was as though he had slipped into a phase of intoxication and when Ganga was gone, with her, that phase was gone.
Shantanu, the man the poet Sarala referred to repeatedly as rushi, had one flaw – a tragic flaw, which seriously affected the Kuru family. None of Shantanu’s sons could give him a grandchild. The Kuru lineage, strictly speaking, stopped with them. Dhritarashtra and Pandu were born from a person who was outside, in a strict sense, of the Kuru family. Vyasa was Satyavati’s son, but in Sarala Mahabharata she was not part of the core Kuru family. She was sage Pareshwara’s wife, not king Shantanu’s.
Shantanu’s flaw was his fatal attraction for the beautiful Ganga. He seems to have fallen for her when she came into his sight. Right when the wedding rituals were going on, he got to know that Ganga had made a serious mistake in marrying him. He did not try to help her get out of an unfortunate situation; instead he chose to abide by her clearly unreasonable demands for the continuance of their marriage. He knew she was goddess Ganga, who was waiting to marry Shiva. And Shiva was his ista (the most desired one – here, god), he was his devotee. Coveting a woman whose heart was in his ista was like coveting one’s guru’s consort. His passion for Ganga blinded him and he lost his sense of judgment. The price he paid was very heavy indeed.