The Real Ganga, the mother of Bhishma
Mahabharata mentions Bhisma as the son of river Ganga and Kuru King Santanu. Rivers cannot give rise to human babies. So who was Ganga? She is mentioned as the daughter of Jahnu. (Jahnu was a king in the lineage of Bharata. (Bharata > Bhumanyu > Suhotra > Ajamidha > Jahnu.) There was also a sage known as Janhu.) The myth-makers portray her as river Ganga. This could mean that she lived on the banks of Ganga. The name 'Ganga' do not have any Sanskrit root. Thus it belonged to some language spoken on the banks of Ganga during those times. She was extremely beautiful and that is why Santanu married her. Ganga, the queen of Santanu seemed to be suffering from some psychological disorder or some illness that affected delivering healthy babies. Her first seven births were probably still-births or short lived babies. She throw them into river Ganga, before it was ever known to Santanu or the people of the palace if they were alive or healthy or if they were already dead. The rumor that spread was that the queen is killing her babies as soon as they are born by throwing them into river.
Can a mother kill her new-born babies?
Usually palaces were full of secrets and rumors. Birth of a queen's children were always anticipated as they are the future rulers of the kingdom. When a baby is dead prematurely or before birth or immediately after that, it cause a lot of stress to the people in the palace as well as citizens of the kingdom. Usually the queen herself had to take the blame. There is a possibility that the babies of Ganga were born dead and were abandoned by throwing them into the river. Another possibility is that they were born alive but were short lived. So when they are dead their bodies were thrown away into the river. Rumors could have spread that the queen is killing babies as soon as they are born. Santanu, due to his promise made to her, that he will never question her or ask explanation for her actions before their marriage, could not ask the queen about the truth. When the 7th son was also dead, Santanu could not bear it anymore and broke the promise. Alternatively, there wasn't any promise and the story of a promise could be another rumor spread among the citizens when Santanu did not question or punish the queen even when she repeatedly delivered dead babies. Promise or no promise, Santanu might have filled with rage due to all the frustration. Mahabharata mentions that he called Ganga a murderess. He accuses her for the death of the previous seven babies and asked her to spare the eighth one. This allegation could have been terrible for Ganga. She decided to leave Santanu and the palace. She took their baby and left. Knowing that his son is healthy she raised him and gave him all education including military science. Once he became an able warrior Ganga returned her son to Santanu who wanted a heir for his kingdom. Santanu was filled with joy. He accepted Ganga's son who was named Gangeya and Devavrata. Santanu made him the heir-apparent of the kingdom. This person later became the famous Bhishma of Mahabharata.
The incarnation-myth of Mahabhisha and the Vasus
The myth-makers describe Bhishma as an incarnation of a demigod, one among the eight Vasus named Dyu. Vasus are a least known group of gods today but were prominent in those days. (Vasus, Rudras, Maruts, Saddhyas and Adityas were different sub-clans of the Deva tribe). For supporting the incarnation story the myth-makers portrayed the other seven babies of Ganga to be the other seven Vasus. They also described Santanu to be a rebirth of a king named Mahabhisha. This myth has all the flavors of myths found in the Puranas. It mentions Mahabhisha to be a king falling from the heaven as he was cursed to be born on Earth. The myth of Mahabhisha's rebirth is inserted into Mahabharata as Mbh.1.96. Subsequently, one single verse is added in Mbh.1.97 as "This was no other than Mahabhisha", when describing the birth of Santanu. Factual information that can be extracted from this myth is the following:- Mahabhisha was a king in the lineage of Ikshwaku. He was a famous king.
Every hero participated in the Kurukshetra war had a story about their birth, which make them extra-ordinary. These were usually created by the bards or Sutas who make war-songs in praise of their heroes. Such myths were later added into Mahabharata. Thus, as per these myths, Arjuna was the son of Indra (the king of the gods) , Bhima the son of Vayu (the wind) and Dhristadyuman was born from Agni (fire). Bhishma was no exception. Bhishma's mother who lived on the banks of Ganga, was glorified to become the river Ganga herself. That was not enough. He was then deified as the incarnation of the Vasus a group of Devas who were cursed to be borm as humans.
Who was the real Bhishma?
Ignoring the myths, who was Bhishma, and how was his origin? One of the names of Bhishma was Gangeya. It was the name of a tribe. Gangeyas were probably the ruling tribe on the banks of river Ganga. They seems to have conceded their power to the Kurus during the period of Pratipa and Santanu. They either got merged with the Kurus or continued sub-ordinating themselves to the Kurus. Bhishma and his mother probably belonged to the Gangeya tribe. Bhishma's mother lived with Santanu as his queen for sure. Santanu may or may not be the biological father of Bhishma. He can be the son of Ganga (not the river Ganga but a women belonging to the Gangeya tribe), who was later adopted by Santanu. Bhishma's another name Gangadatta (Ganga-datta:- donated by Ganga) indicate this. This was common in those days. Kings could adopt exceptionally capable off-springs of his subjects, especially if they were born of himself. Dushyanta had adopted Bharata, the son of Sakuntala, born to him. Bharata had adopted Bhumanyu, the son of Bharadwaja and made him his successor (see episode2). Ganga's son was well educated. Some versions of Mahabharata indicate that Ganga made him learn the Vedas from the Vasisthas, the science of politics from the Angirasa-Brihaspatis and the military science from the Bhargavas. Such a person was an asset for the kingdom. That is the reason why Santanu joyfully accepted Ganga's son and made him the heir-apparent.
Satyavati, the second queen of Santanu was living on the banks of Yamuna but was not deified by the myth-makers into river Yamuna. Ganga and Satyavati were both women of equal social status. That is why there easily arose a dispute during Santanu's alliance with Satyavati, on who should be the next king among Ganga's son and the sons who will be born to Satyavati. The fact that Ganga's son was Santanu's own son was probably not firmly established. Satyavati's father for sure had considered Bhishma's mother to be equal to his daughter.
Bhishma and Krishna, any similarity?
The death of seven sons and the escape of the eighth baby from death is a common factor found in the birth of Bhishma and in the birth of Krishna. Bhisma's birth happened in the city of Hastinapura on the banks of river Ganga, where as the birth of Krishna happened in the city of Mathura on the banks of river Yamuna, which flew close to river Ganga! This make one think if death of seven child and miraculous escape of the eighth child was a common myth circulating in the Ganga-Yamuna plains? However there are differences. While the murder of Bhishma's brothers were attributed to their mother herself, the murder of Krishna's brothers were attributed to their uncle Kansa. Perhaps this indicate the high infant mortality prevailed in those times?
It is believed that Kansa mercilessly slew the children of Devaki while they were just born. This is believed by many people. But I consider that Kansa was only an indirect cause of their death. He imprisoned his sister Devaki and husband Vasudeva in prison and inflicted them with the fear that he will kill their children. Probably all of the first seven children of Devaki were still births or got aborted during the last stages of pregnancy out of fear for Kansa. A hint for this is available in the birth of Balarama, the 7th child before Krishna. It is a simple case of aborted birth. Devaki's 7th pregnancy was aborted like all the previous six ones. But this time Devaki's abortion coincided with the delivery of a healthy baby by Rohini, another wife of Vasudeva. This lead to the myth that Devaki's pregnancy was transferred to Rohini.
The Secret of Bhishma's longevity
There were also some discrepancies on the history of Santanu and Bhishma as per the Ganguli's version of Mahabharata. At Mbh.1.98 towards the end of the chapter, it is mentioned that Ganga leaves Santanu giving her eighth child to him, asking him to rear the child. The name of the child was mentioned as Gangadatta. At Mbh.1.99 Ganga is mentioned as taking away her son. Here the son is mentioned as Gangeya and Devavrata, towards the end of the chapter. At Mbh.1.100, his name changes to Bhishma, towards the end of the chapter. All of these names appear towards the end of the chapter. Verses at the ends and beginnings of chapters are generally considered as less authentic than those in the middle, as they can be later additions to the chapter. In the middle of chapter 100 we also found mention that Santanu retired to woods after 36 years of domestic life and that his son Devavrata became a great king!
And Santanu, having enjoyed domestic felicity for six and thirty years, retired into the woods. And Santanu's son, the Vasu born of Ganga, named Devavrata resembled Santanu himself in personal beauty, in habits and behaviour, and in learning. And in all branches of knowledge worldly or spiritual his skill was very great. His strength and energy were extraordinary. He became a mighty car-warrior. In fact he was a great king.
One day, while pursuing along the banks of the Ganges a deer that he had struck with his arrow, king Santanu observed that the river had become shallow.
After these the story of Santanu starts again as if nothing happened. It proceeds further to mention of Ganga returning her son to Santanu, who bore the name Gangeya and Devavrata, then to Santanu's meeting with Satyavati and finally to the change of Devavrata's name to Bhishma. There is a possibility that Gangadatta, Devavrata and Bhishma were different people belonging to the Gangeya tribe. Bhishma also is found as living since the days of Santanu, till the days of Abhimanyu (Santanu > Vichitravirya > Pandu > Arjuna > Abhimanyu). That is five generations! Devavrata seem to be a king who succeeded Santanu. Is Bhishma the son of Devavrata? Did he later associated with the Kuru kings and gave up his right to the kingdom and gave way for Satyavati's sons? This also strengthens the theory that Bhishma's association with Ganga is actually due to his tribal roots. He belonged to the Gangeya tribe that became subordinate to the Kuru tribe. From the status of a king, Devavrata was thus demoted to the status of a commander-in-chief. The royalty of Gangeya tribe was thus demoted to that of a fringe-tribe that allied with the Kuru-tribe, whose members now are not permitted to become king but should serve Kuru kings as their commanders. Bhishma's role in Kurukshetra war was indeed that of an army-commander and he was under the power of king Duryodhana. A probable lineage of Bhishma can be Ganga > Gangadatta (Devavrata) > Bhishma. This also explain why Bhishma was always bounded to protect the Kurus at Hastinapura from any external threat. As a member of the Gangeya tribe it was his duty. He had to do that even when Duryodhana became the Kuru king, and he had to fight against the Pandavas whom he liked most. This also solves the absurdity in the long life of Bhishma that as per epic spanned five generations.
Thus we saw that Gangadatta, Devavrata and Bhishma probably were different people belonging to the Gangeya tribe. We also saw that Bhishma could be the son of Devavrata alias Gangadatta. But in chapter 100 we saw that Devavrata promised that he will never marry and beget children. Did he break that promise? That is one possibility. Another possibility is that Devavrata never broke his promise. Bhishma was not his son but his kin. Here we can only speculate. Probably Gangadatta was Devavrata's elder brother, the seventh among the eight sons of Ganga and Bhishma was his son and this seventh son never died like Krishna's elder brother Balarama? Probably Bhishma was the son of Gangadatta, who was named "Bhishma" as that name became famous after Devavrata's terrible pledge of celibacy? Devavrata, since he chose not to marry and never beget children might have loved his brother Gangadatta's son as his own son and might have conferred his name "Bhishma" to this new child. Bhishma later might have adopted the mission of Devavrata (protecting the throne of Hastinapura) as his own mission and might have remained celibate like his foster-father Devavrata. It is then natural that the history of Gangadatta, Devavrata and Bhishma get fused into the story of a single person Bhishma. Such fusion of personalities is rampant in epics and the Puranas. A very good example is the history of Krishna. Some researchers are of the opinion that the Krishna lived in Vrindavana and Mathura was different from the Krishna lived in Dwaraka and that they were separated by many generations.