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04 Devavrata becomes Bhishma

Devavrata becomes Bhishma

We all know this story - Devavrata, the son of Shantanu and Ganga was slated to be the king of Hastinapur after his father. But fate had something else in store. Shantanu goes game hunting one day, gets attracted to the aroma from a fishergirl - hence called Matsyagandha (although I cannot personally imagine how someone can get attracted to the smell of fish! ... I mean you can eat it, but smell it? ... tsk, tsk!) - also called Satyavati. He follows her and asks her father for her hand.

Satyavati's father is worried that the king is doing this all in the spur of the moment, and very soon his daughter will be reduced to nothing but a part of the king's harem - maybe just a handmaiden - and will never be the queen anyway. So he does what a father would do - ensure that his girl's future is secure. He tells Shantanu that he can marry his daughter only if he promises that Satyavati's sons will be heirs of the throne.

Shantanu, however self-centered (?), cannot possibly depost his first child Devavrata. So he comes back dejected, and tries to forget this girl of his dreams. But he is madly in love (tell me something new!), and spends all his time in her memory. He loses interest in his kingdom, his court, his family. Devavrata finds that something is amiss. So he does some background research and comes to know of the incidence.

In order to make his father happy (taking cue from the earlier story of Yayati and his son Puru, where Puru agreed to forego his youth so that his father can enjoy youth and life again) ... Devavrata goes to Satyavati's father. He persuades the old man to let Shantanu marry Satyavati. He says he will release his claim on the throne.

The old man says, all that is fine and that he trusts Devavrata about his word, but what if Devavrata bears a son before Satyavati does? Then that child will have a claim before Satyavati's children.

Seeing that the old man is adament about this point, Devavrata takes 'terrible' oath: That he will never marry. Never adopt anyone. And never have a heir, son, descendent. Devavrata's line will end with Devavrata.

The old man is more than satisfied. He blesses Devavrata, sends Satyavati along with him to the king's palace. When Shantanu hears about this, he is dumb-struck. How did Devavrata come up with this 'terrible' oath? ... Overcome with love and gratitude, Shantanu gives a great boon to Devavrata -- that he can choose when he can die -- called the boon of 'Iccha-mrityu' (death when desired).

What is so great about this oath?

Now one always wonders, what is so great and 'terrible' about Devavrata's oath? I mean, agreed that the dude decided not to marry, not to have children (with or without marriage!), not to adopt anyone ... but what is so very special? Don't we have people who do not marry - bachelors etc.? And why would Shantanu give him such a great boon that he can decide when he can die? i.e. almost make him invincible? ....

The answer is not simple. It lies in the way Hinduism looks at the cycle of birth and death.

Firstly, it needs to be noted that although there are brahmacharis (bachelors) in Hinduism, there are no life-long brahmacharis. Brahmacharya is a stage (one of the four dharma-ashramas along with Grihastha, Vaanprastha and Sanyaas) --- it is the stage of study and gathering wisdom. All brahmacharis are supposed to get married, and have children. The life-long celibacy concept is only there in Buddhism, Jainism and other derivatives. And this getting married is true for all - Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras alike. All great rishis - Vashishtha, Vishvamitra etc. married / had children.

The only few ajanm (life-long) brahmacharis known - like Hanuman and Ashwatthama - are immortals. So are others like Narada etc. Everyone else is expected to marry and have children. Now question is --- Why?

Cycle of Life and Death

Let's come to the understanding of what Hinduism considers the world to comprise of and the cycle of Life and Death . According to Puranas, there are 7 lokas (upper worlds / realms) and 7 talas (lower worlds). Out of these the middle three lokas - i.e. Bhuloka, Svarga loka and Narak loka are considerd to make what is called Samsara ('triloka'). You are born on Bhu loka, you do your duties, you earn Paap and Punya, and depending on the tally you either go to Swarga or Naraka based on what Yama the god of Death decides. (p.s. Yama's darbaar - court - is called pitra loka).

Note on the 14 realms:

The 7 lokas (upper realms) from top to bottom are:

  1. Satyaloka (Brahma, Vishnu -- called Vaikunth, and Shiva -- called Kailash) -- top most loka
  2. Tapoloka (even more advanced sages -- saptarshis)
  3. Janaloka (more advanced sages)
  4. Maharloka (sages)
  5. Svar(ga)loka (devas, apsaras, gandharvas) --- Part of Samsara
  6. Bhuvarloka (lesser devas, ghosts, yakshas)
  7. Bhu(r)loka (humans, rakshasa, animals, plants) --- Part of Samsara

Svarga loka is Indra's heaven. Gods, Apsaras and Gandharvas live here. Once you die, if your account of good vs bad deeds shows positive on good (called punya), then you get to stay here till you are re-born. This is as much part of Samsara as Bhu loka. All rules of above are applicable, except that Devas do not die due to Amrita. But when Devas were born, they were mortals too. When you die and go to this heaven, you are still part of Samsara, and bound to the cycle of birth and death.

The seven lower worlds are collectively known as Naraka or Patala. Their names are:

  1. Kakola / Patala (snakes) - "black poison" --- fallen and sinful, region of malice
  2. Rijisha / Rasa tala (Daityas / Demons) - "expelled" -- subterranean region, region of selfishness --- Part of Samsara
  3. Kudmala / Mahatala (Serpents) -- "leprous" -- The 'intensity of hell' begins here
  4. Tamisra / Tala tala (Maya Danava and other demons) -- "darkness" -- lower region, realm of confused thinking
  5. Sutala / Samhata (Lord Vamana, Lord Bali raja and demons) -- "abandoned" -- region of great depth / jealousy
  6. Avichi / Vitala (Lord Shiva and Bhavani and their associates) -- "joyless" --- negative region
  7. Put - Atala (called "childless") --- bottomless region, realm of fear and lust

Below these seven realms of Patala is the Garbha ocean (Garbhodaka) filling half of the universe on which Garbhodakasayi Vishnu lies on Ananta Shesha and from His navel grows a lotus (in which Brahma sits). In the stem of this lotus are situated all the planetary systems.

The seven-fold hellish region in its entirety is also called patala, "fallen region." Scriptures offer other lists of hells, numbering 7 or 21. They are described as places of torment, pain, darkness, confusion and disease, but none are places where souls reside forever. Hinduism has no eternal hell.

The only exception to this is Put. And this is why:

You can move from one realm to another based on your account of Paap and Punya that you accumulate in your life. In case your account of Paap is more, you go to Naraka (usually 3rd or 4th layer of Talas). If Punya is more, you go to Svarga (layer 5 of lokas). You remain there accepting the fruits of your deeds -- good if you have Punya (you will be enjoying songs and dance with apsaras and all the splendor of Indra's Swarga), bad if you have sinned (you will be punished and will be burning in hell). In Swarga or Naraka, you cannot change your state. You only suffer the consequences of your life on Bhu loka.

There is only one way of changing the state -- this is being reborn on Earth. So if you are tired of Naraka, get reborn and then do some good, earn Punya and so you will go to Swarga.

But a rebirth is only possible through your direct descendants. If your lineage is finished, you cannot be reborn. You get stuck in hell -- and go from one level to another, till you reach Put (Atala) and remain there --- till the time of Pralaya i.e. end of the Kali Yuga. So therefore a child is called a Put-ra (son) or Put-ri (daughter) -- reliever from Put. If you do not have children, you cannot be re-born and you are stuck to the nether worlds - forever!

What has this got to do with Devavrata?

So you see where this is going --- when Devavrata took the vow that he will not have any descendant, he almost certainly committed himself to the realm of Put till the end of time. He had no chance to be re-born, no chance of earning punya, no chance of relieving himself from the Samsara.

And that is why his oath became known as Bhishma-pratigya (the 'terrible' oath), and Devavrata was known as 'Bhisma' the terrible.

Shantanu was overcome by this. The fact that when Bhishma dies, he is sure to go to Put and remain there for eternity makes Bhishma's death a very important incidence. For him, there is no going back. No coming back to life in re-birth, no chance to undo any mistakes / paap / sins he does in this life. This is in fact end of road for him - the ultimate dead-end : cul-de-sac!

The only way Shantanu can save Bhishma from this cul-de-sac is to ensure that Bhishma dies like a warrior on the battle-field and that too in Uttarayana (when Sun is moving North), because all those kshatriyas who die a warrior's death in that time are released from their cycle of life and death.

The only way Shantanu could ensure the above is by giving Bhishma himself this choice of his time of death .... which, as we know, he indeed exercised much later in the Great War of Mahabharata. When he died, therefore, it was his choice. He was then relieved from the cycle of life and death, and was collected with the remaining of his brothers in heaven - the other Vasus.

And that is the story of why Devavrata became famous as Bhisma the terrible.

- Shreekant
18 May 2008


rajdeep said…
wrong information dude. You have confused between Patalas and Narakas. Patals are nether regios, which are really very "nice" places, some more matreially prosporous than even the Swargas. And they are invested mainly by Asuras(Daityas, Danavas), Nagas, and some Devas(varuna, Lakshmi etc).

Naraka's or hells on the other hand are reformaries that are otside the realms of Swarga and patals and ruled over by Yama where souls are sent for reform
Rajeev Y said…
I Agree with raj deep. This link has definitions closer to what i heard earlier. Specifically wht the Padam puraran says of the Patalas is what my great grand mother told me.
And Narakas and Patalas are different.
I agree with you guys, Rajdeep and Rajeev,

I did not intend to show Patala to be same as Narakas. In fact, that is the whole point of the post. There are seven 'lower' regions, out of which Patalas are the first few (maybe two). This is the realm of snakes (Nagas).

And, by all accounts, Patalas are quite nice and prosperous. These are places full of riches - arguably since people anyway bury their treasures here :)

As we go further, we enter Narakas. This usually starts with Mahatala - and is what we normally call Naraka. This is where souls are sent till rebirth if your measure of paap (sins) is more than your measure of punya (virtues).

- Shreekant
Ganesh Prasad said…
Very nice explanation. I too have often wondered why a vow of celibacy should be considered so "terrible".
Shrinath Shenoy said…
Although Satyavati was called "Matsyagandhi", on account of an earlier episode with Sage Parashara, which leads to the birth of Veda Vyaasa, she had received a boon from the Sage that instead of the fishy smell which gave her the epithet, the fragrance of Kasturi/Musk should emanate from her. And she was a beauty. This is what enamours Shantanu.
Thanks for the comment Shrinath. Yes that's right, although I do think that it is an extrapolation. Fisherwoman smelling of fish I can get, but why would a fisherwoman smell of musk? ... Anyway no doubt that she must have been quite an enchantress. And Shantanu must have had one good time living his life ... First an apsara (Ganga), then this matsyagandha.
Ketan Solanki said…
I love reading you blogs Shreekant. Do you have any scriptural reference to following statement?

"But a rebirth is only possible through your direct descendants. If your lineage is finished, you cannot be reborn."
Wandering Nomad said…
I believe I’d come across something like that in the mundakopanishad, @Ketan Solanki, but I can look up a little more. Let me know if you find some reference too. Take care, peace!