Santanu meets Satyavati
The third episode of Mahabharata describes how Santanu met the lady named Satyavati. Her occupation was plying boats across river Yamuna. She belonged to a fishermen-tribe and was the daughter of the fishermen chief. Santanu asked the chief to let him marry Satyavati. The chief agrees to the alliance on certain conditions. He wanted Satyavati's sons to be the next king of Hastinapura. Santanu was deeply pained by this demand since he wanted Devavrata, his beloved son by his first wife Ganga, to be the next king. Devavrata solves this deadlock by renouncing kingdom and promising to remain celibate. This was acceptable to Satyavati's father and he agreed to bestow her daughter to Santanu. Due to the terrible pledge of Devavrata by which he renounced both his right to the throne and his right for a married life, he was later known as Bhishma (the terrible).
References in Mahabharata Wiki
Research and Analysis
Read the Analysis of Previous Episode also for reference.
Who was Satyavati?
Satyavati is mentioned in Mahabharata as belonging to the fishermen tribe. Ancient scriptures including Mahabharata mention this tribe as the Matsyas. Matsya means fish in Sanskrit language. The Matsya tribe was a very ancient tribe, more antique than the Kurus, the Bharatas and the Purus. Some of the Matsya branches were royal lineages. One of the sons of king Uparichara Vasu belonging to the Puru clan is mentioned as the originator of the Matsya royal lineage. Considering Satyavati to be belonging to the lineage of Vasu (Kshatriya man) and Matsya (Sudra woman), she can be termed as an Ugra as per the Mahabharata (Mbh.13.48) terminology. However another passage in Mbh.13.48 mentions fishing as an occupation of the Nishadas. This could mean that Satyavati belonged to the Nishada tribe. Since she is mentioned as plying boat, she can as well belong to a special sub-sect of Nishadas called Dasas (Mbh 13.48). Satyavati's father was referred as Dasa-Raja, meaning the king of the Dasas, confirming this assumption. Definition of Nishada however is that they were the children of union of a Kshatriya women and a Sudra man. In any case, she had the genes of both the Kshatriyas and the Sudras.
Myth-makers explains the birth of Satyavati through an unbelievable myth which can be found in Mbh.1.63. Vasu was a king in the race of Puru. He invaded the Chedi kingdom and became later well known as the king of Chedi. He had a beautiful wife named Girika. (The myth of the birth of Girika is even strange. Read it in the article on Uparichara Vasu.) One day he left his wife unwillingly and went to forest for hunting. In the forest, while thinking about his wife, his vital seed dropped. He asked a hawk to carry it and give it to his wife. While the hawk was carrying it, another hawk attacked it and the semen fell into a river, which was then swallowed by a fish by the name Adrika. After ten months when the fishermen caught the fish and killed it, they saw two babies, male and female inside the fish. They gave the babies rightfully to their king Vasu himself! The male child became the famous Matsya king. The female child was none other than Satyavati! As for their fish-mother Adrika, she was an Apsara, who was cursed to become a fish by a Brahmana and she became freed of curse as she delivered the babies and got killed by the fishermen!
This was the strangest myths I could find in Mahabharata. It reveals how imaginative these people were and how they entwine ignorance and imagination into such deadly cocktail. At least some of the ancient people believed that babies are born with the sole contribution from men. They considered women as mere vessels to carry the babies of men. It was unknown to them that to develop an embryo contribution from both man and woman are needed. A fish after swallowing semen delivering babies! Below is a plausible reconstruction of what might have happened. Adrika was a maiden belonging to the Matsya (fishermen) tribe and Vasu beget two children in her, probably when he was away from his wife Girika. Adrika was described as an Apsara, due to her beauty. Apsaras were mentioned as extremely beautiful. The word 'Apsara' can be divided into 'Apa' (water) and Sara (lakes). They were often described as women seen in the vicinity of water-bodies like lakes and rivers. A Matsya lady (fisher-women) too lives close to water-bodies like seas, lakes and rivers. There are also myths about fairies called Matsya-Kanyakas (fish-women) who were half fish and half women. Such tales were also similar to the tales of Apsaras. Thus Matsya Kanyakas and Apsaras seems to be same. Both these terms later assumed the meaning of fairies living close to water bodies, and Apsaras in particular was formerly their tribal name. Fisher-women were the Apsaras and the Apsaras were the fisher-women.
Adrika probably died while delivering the twin babies. Death of women after delivering babies, especially twins, were quite common in those days. The fishermen after learning about the affair between Adrika and the king might have taken the babies to the palace. King after knowing that he was the father of the twins could have raised them in his palace. The male among them later became the famous Matsya king. It is probable that this Matsya king was the forefather of king Virata. Similarly the female among them was probably the ancestor of Satyavati whom king Santanu wished to marry. The territory of the Matsya chief, who was the father of Satyavati was on the banks of river Yamuna where as the territory of king Virata was south-west to Yamuna in Rajastan comprising the districts of Alwar and Bharatpur.
Satyavati's affair with Parasara
Before meeting Santanu, Satyavati had met sage Parasara belonging to the lineage of Vasistha. The son born of Satyavati and Parasara was none other than Vyasa. In (Mbh.13.48 (Ganguli's translation) where it describes the mixed castes, there is a reference that says:- "The son that is begotten by a Brahmana upon a Sudra wife is called Parasara", which I guess is a translation error. Instead of "Parasara" it could be "Parasava". Vyasa's father was a Parasara. There is also mention of a Parasara-race at Mbh.12.320 in Mahabharata. Here the Parasara's race is mentioned as a mendicant race. Vasistha's son was Saktri and his son was Parasara. Parasara's mother is mentioned as Adrisyanti. It is unknown if Adrisyanti was a Brahmana. Taking Saktri to a Brahmana and assuming his wife to be a Sudra, their son Parasara can then be technically called a 'Parasava'. There are Mahabharata versions which consider Parasara as a Matsya ruler (not a sage originally but who became an ascetic in his retirement days), making him a probable Kshatriya king or a Sudra chief connected with the Matsyas.
Another theory is that, during the periods when Mahabharata was being formed, the Bhargavas and the Angirasas were in ideological opposition. The Agastyas and the Vasisthas allied with the Bhargavas. Some consider them to be two were branches of the Bhargavas. The Gautamas and the Bharadwajas were again two branches of the Angirasas. The birth stories of many individuals belonging to the Angirasa tribe were distorted by the Bhargavas. Examples are Bharadwaja Drona's birth and and Gautama Kripa's birth. Drona is mentioned as being born of the semen of Bharadwaja fallen into a pot while Kripa was mentioned as born of the semen of Gautama-Saradwat fallen upon a dump of heath. Factual information that can be derived from all these is only this much:- Drona belongs to the Bharadwaja clan and Kripa belong to the Gautama clan. Everything else seems to be propaganda of the Bhargavas and the Vasisthas. To counter this the Angirasas made the birth of Vyasa belonging to the Vasistha lineage too, a not so great affair. While giving birth to Vyasa, Satyavati is mentioned as only a young girl and Parasara an aged sage and that their union happened while she was taking Parasara across river Yamuna as part of her job. Her job was to ply boats across the river taking travellers to and fro. But variations of this incident in different versions of Mahabharata says that Satyavati and Parasara were both young while giving birth to Vyasa and that Parasara lived in the palace of the Matsyas as her wedded husband. Parasara is mentioned as taking care of the affairs of the kingdom and Vyasa lived in the palace as a prince. It is only in the later stages that Parasara became an ascetic. Thus the popular story about the affair of Satyavati and Parasara and the birth of Vyasa had some elements of propaganda probably introduced by the Angirasas.
Popular version of Mahabharata too contains signs of warrior type qualities of Parasara. He revenged against the death of his father Saktri. He waged war (Rakshasa Satra) against the Kshatriyas like Kalmashapada of Ikshwaku race by terming those Kshatriyas as Rakshasas. However the Parasara who performed Rakshasa Satra and the Parasara who met Satyavati need not be the same Parasara. There is a possibility that the latter was a member in the lineage of the former.
In any case, Satyavati's father insisted that the son of Satyavati should be the future king of Hastinapura and not Ganga's son Devavrata. This gives yet another clue that Santanu's first wife Ganga and Satyavati were both women of equal social status. (Ganga wasn't the river-goddess Ganga). 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.
During the analysis of episode2 we saw that Gangadatta, Devavrata and Bhishma probably were different people belonging to the Gangeya tribe. One possibility is that Bhishma was 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.