Updated: Dec 27, 2021
Mahābhārata is a magnum opus illustrating the rich cultural heritage of Bhārat. 'Mahā' means great and 'Bhārata` means the descendant of Bharata. The Mahābhārata means “the story of the great descendants of Bharata”. The author of this colossal epic is Rishi Krśṇadvaipayana Vyāsa, son of Parāśara and Satyavati. The Mahābhārata is known as the Fifth Veda. It contains the essence of other four Vedas. Vyāsa Rishi calls Mahābhārata not only an Ithihāsa but also a Samhita, Purāna, Akhyāna, Kathā, Dharmasāśtra, and a Kāvya. Mahābhārata is a treasure-trove of knowledge. Mahābhārata is divided into eighteen Parvas or simply put, eighteen books. The story of Mahābhārata traces its roots back to Gangāputra Bhīśma.
Image credits: Abhishek Deshpande
Devavrata, who later came to be known as Bhīśma, is one of the most prolific personalities in “Mahābhārata”. He was an unparalleled archer who fought the invincible Lord Paraśurāma remaining undefeated for 23 days and an astute Statesman belonging to the Kuru Vamśa or the Kuru Dynasty. He was the grand uncle of the Kauravās and Pāndavas. Hence the title “Pitāmaha”.
The circumstances leading to the birth of Devavrata are intriguing. The story begins with the Aśṭavasu, the eight attendants of Indra, the king of Gods. Aśṭavasu visited the Ashrama or hermitage of the sage Vasiśṭa accompanied by their wives. One among the Vasus, Prabhāsa’s wife set her heart on Nandini, the wish-fulfilling cow in Vasiśṭa Rishi’s Aśrama. Prabhāsa assisted by the other vasus stole it indulging in his wife’s whim. They were consequently cursed by Vasiśṭa Rishi as stealing a cow is considered a mortal sin. They pleaded for Vasiśṭa’s mercy and the rest of the seven Vasus were able to assuage him enough to attain liberation from their human life immediately after birth. Whereas Prabhāsa had to endure the human life, but he would go on to have an illustrious incarnation on earth.
Prabhāsa was born as the eighth son of Devi Gangā and Shāntanu, the illustrious King of Hastināpura (a city in the Meerut district in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh). King Shāntanu who belonged to the Kuru dynasty, was enraptured by the beauty of Devi Gangā asked her to marry him. She agreed on the condition that he wouldn’t question her, irrespective of her actions. She then went on to drown their seven sons, who were the incarnations of the seven Vasus, in the river Gangā to break their curse. King Shāntanu, owing to his promise, endured the pain of his sons dying. He could no longer contain his agony. He broke his promise and confronted Devi Gangā as soon as Devavrata the eighth child was born. She took Devavrata and left Shāntanu, but gave him her word that she would return his heir once their child had grown up. Devavrata was trained in various branches of knowledge by sages like Brihaspati, Śukrāchārya, Mārkandeya, Sanatkumāra, Vasiśṭa and others and in warfare by Lord Paraśurāma.
Years passed, king Shāntanu was once strolling on the banks of the river Gangā and saw that a young man had blocked the flow of the river by building a dam out of arrows. Amazed by the skill of the young archerer, Shāntanu approached him curious to know his identity. It was then Devi Gangā appeared and introduced Shāntanu‘s heir, Devavrata. King Shāntanu was extremely pleased and took Gangāputra back to Hastināpura and appointed him as the crown prince.
References  Bharata – ancestor of the Kuru lineage who once ruled over Bharatā and whose ancestral lineage can be traced back to Svāyambhuva Manu, who was created by Brahmā, who was in turn created by Nārāyaṇa, the unknowable all-pervasive primordial being.  Vedas – oldest Sanskrit texts meaning Knowledge. There are four Vedas, the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda  Ithihāsa – history, Samhita - methodical collection of text or verses, Purāna – ancient Hindu literature, Akhyāna - an orderly account of a series of events; a narration, Kathā - story, Dharmasāśtra – a collection of ancient Sanskrit texts which give the codes of conduct and moral principles (dharma) for Hindus, Kāvya - poetry.  Lord Paraśurāma - sixth incarnation of Śri Mahāviṣṇu  Kauravās and Pāndavas - descendants of Kuru, Kauravās - sons of Dhṛtarāṣtra, Pāṇḍava - sons of Pāṇḍu  Devi Gangā – female personified form of the famous and holy river of India, river Ganges  Gangāputra – Son of Devi Gangā, an ancient tradition of Bharat where the sons are called by their mother’s names
Author: Rama Ashwin
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