Created by Jijith Nadumuri at 08 May 2010 09:54 and updated at 05 Jun 2010 16:22

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Death of Chitranganda and Vichitravirya


The 5th episode of Mahabharata describes the lives of Santanu's sons born by Satyavati, viz Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada was slain by a Gandharva of the same name. Vichitravirya, young in age was then made the king. Bhishma arranges the marriage of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, the daughters of the king of Kasi, with King Vichitravirya. The eldest Amba however wanted to marry the king of Salwa. Knowing this Bhishma sent Amba to Salwa kingdom. But Salwa refused to accept Amba. Bhishma also refused to marry Amba since he had pledged celibacy. Amba then pledges that she will become the cause for the death of Bhishma. Ambika and Ambalika marry Vichitravirya. However, Vichitravirya dies young and without any offspring.

References in Mahabharata Wiki


Research and Analysis

The mystery of Chitrangada's death

Mahabharata provides very little information about the eldest son of Satyavati viz. Chitrangada. Below is a few words that is mentioned about Chitrangada:-

Chitrangada was endued with great energy and became an eminent man. After Santanu had ascended to heaven. Bhishma, placing himself under the command of Satyavati, installed that suppressor of foes, viz, Chitrangada, on the throne, who, having soon vanquished by his prowess all monarchs, considered not any man as his equal. And beholding that he could vanquish men, Asuras, and the very gods, his namesake, the powerful king of the Gandharvas, approached him for an encounter. Between that Gandharva and that foremost one of the Kurus, who were both very powerful, there occurred on the field of Kurukshetra a fierce combat which lasted full three years on the banks of the Saraswati. In that terrible encounter characterised by thick showers of weapons and in which the combatants ground each other fiercely, the Gandharva, who had greater prowess or strategic deception, slew the Kuru prince. Having slain Chitrangada, that first of men and oppressor of foes, the Gandharva ascended to heaven. When that tiger among men endued with great prowess was slain, Bhishma, the son of Santanu, performed, all his obsequies. He then installed the boy Vichitravirya of mighty arms, still in his minority, on the throne of the Kurus.

Two important points are to be noted in this narration. One is the mention of a powerful king of the Gandharvas. This Gandharva king seems to be a king of the Gandhara kingdom which lied to the far west of the territories of the Kurus at Hastinapura. I have done my analysis of the Gandharva-Gandhara connection in the article named The Age of The Gandharvas and in the article for the Gandharva kingdom. Gandhara was as powerful as Kuru in those days, perhaps more powerful. Gandhara kingdom lied to the west of Sindhu river but extended its power up to the banks of river Saraswati which was at the western boundary of the Kuru kingdom. The battle is mentioned as taking place on the banks of river Saraswati. The vast plains on the banks of Saraswati, known as Kurukshetra always served as battlefield for many battles. This battle also took place there. The battle is mentioned as lasting for three years. Thus it was a long war between two great powers, the Kurus in the east and the Gandharvas or the Gandharas in the west. The Kurus probably was trying to expand to the west beyond Saraswati and the Gandharas seems to be trying to expand to the east beyond Saraswati. At the end of this attrition based war, the Kuru king Chitrangada was killed by the Gandhara king of the same name.

Thus the mystery behind the Gandharva is now clear. What was the other point? Devavrata or Bhishma who had pledged to protect the throne of Hastinapura and the kings of Hastinapura was no where seen when this three year battle is taking place! So why was Bhishma not helping Chitrangada? Why he left Chitrangada to die in battle? It was not an accident that took place in an hour or in a day. The battle lasted for full three years. Was he trying to let the Kuru king die in battle? If we are to believe that the Devavrata who lived during the period of Santanu and the Bhishma who lived during the time of the Pandavas and the Kauravas were both same, then we may suspect the intention of Devavrata + Bisham here. But the silence of Bhisma can be easily understood if we can accept that Devavrata and Bhisma were not the same. During the time of Chitrangada's battle the Devavrata of Santanu era was probably old or somehow became incompetent as a warrior while the Bhishma seen during the era of the Pandavas was probably only a little elder to Vichitravirya. As we have seen in the analysis that I did in the Episode3, the name Bhishma was originally given to Devavrata of Santanu era. But this name Bhishma was then transferred to some cousin of Devavrata, who also belonged to the Gangeya tribe like him and whom the celibate Devavrata considered like his son, out of fatherly affection. Since the son of Vichitraviry viz. Dhritarashtra is often seen as addressing Bhishma as the elder brother of his father, Bhisma is certainly elder than Vichitravirya, but much younger to Chitrangada.

Thus our point is, the old Bhishma (Devavrata) could not help Chitrangada during his battles because he was then old or was unfit as a warrior or not a warrior at all. If we consider Devavrata and Bhishma as different, then another result is that, there are no battles mentioned in the name of Devavrata. His greatest exhibition of the knowledge of weapons was in creating of a dam made of arrows in the course of river Ganga. This is an engineering marvel but not a military achievement. (The battle between Salwa king and Devavrata is not mentioned in Mahabharata.) Thus Devavrata was probably a warrior but not a great warrior who can battle in the thick of a war. He used his archery skills in achieving engineering feats like restricting the flow of a river. Santanu liked him probably due to his intelligence and his engineering abilities.

After the death of Chitrangada Devavrata did what he could, viz. arranging for the funeral of the slain king and for the coronation of king's younger brother Vichitravirya. After Vichitravirya became king, the old Bhishma (Devavrata) invested his mission to the new Bishma and retired to the woods. Since the reign of Vichitravirya, this new Bhishma who was probably only a few years elder to Vichitravirya continued as the protector of the Kuru throne and remained celibate like his predecessor (viz Devavrata alias the old-Bhisma). However, unlike Devavrata, this new Bhishma was a great warrior, and remained so till his death in a very old age.

I have created an article on the longevity and age discrepancy of Bhishma, Vyasa etc, assuming that some people in the days of Mahabharata could live as much as 120 years, though not all of them, due to pollution free atmosphere and their practice of Yoga and regulated life.

Abduction of the three maidens

In the BR Chopra's Mahabharata serial there is a justification given for the abduction of the three Kasi princesses by Bhishma:-

It says the Kasi king once proposed to marry her sister to Bhishma and this was refused by Bhishma or Santanu and since then onwards, the king wanted to take revenge on Bhishma or the Kurus. Hence he did not invite anybody from the Kuru kingdom for the self-choice ceremony of the three Kasi princesses but invited every other kings. This angered Bhishma and he went to Kasi and abducted the three princesses defeating all the assembled kings.

It is not clear which is the version of Mahabharata that contains this explanation for the act of Bhishma. The Ganguli's version of Mahabharata do not contains this explanation. The explanation given by Bhishma is this (Mbh.1.102):-

The wise have directed that when an accomplished person has been invited, a maiden may be bestowed on him, decked with ornaments and along with many valuable presents. Others again may bestow their daughters by accepting a couple of kine. Some again bestow their daughters by taking a fixed sum, and some take away maidens by force. Some wed with the consent of the maidens, some by drugging them into consent, and some by going unto the maidens' parents and obtaining their sanction. Some again obtain wives as presents for assisting at sacrifices. Of these, the learned always applaud the eighth form of marriage. Kings, however, speak highly of the Swyamvara the fifth form as above and themselves wed according to it. But the sages have said that, that wife is dearly to be prized who is taken away by force, after the slaughter of opponents, from amidst the concourse of princes and kings invited to a self-choice ceremony. Therefore, ye monarchs, I bear away these maidens hence by force. Strive ye, to the best of your might, to vanquish me or to be vanquished. Ye monarchs, I stand here resolved to fight.

This is repeated again at Mbh.5.174 where Bhishma described the incidence of abduction:-

I Bhishma, the son of Santanu, is carrying away by force these maidens. Ye kings, strive ye all to the best of your power for rescuing them! By force do I take them away, ye bulls among men, making you spectators of my act.

Here the culture exhibited by Bhishma shows his attitude towards women. He treats women as an object that can be taken away by force or given as gift! Is this the untold reason why Amva the eldest of the three princesses declared war against Bhishma? Is this the reason for Bhishma's silence when Panchali the wife of the Pandavas was disrobed by the Kauravas in the midst of the royal assembly? Is Bhishma's celibacy also linked with his dislike for women? He also refused to respect Sikhandi as a warrior, since Sikhandi was of a neuter gender and wore robes of women, though he/she was an excellent archer. There are endless information in Mahabharata that leads to the same conclusion about Bhishma. Bhishma bought princess Madri for Pandu the son of Vichitravirya by paying money to her brother Shalya. Perhaps Bhishma is not to take the complete blame. It was probably part of the system prevailed in some communities in those days. Maidens were exchanged even for a couple of kine! Some times maidens were given away in exchange of a fixed sum (This was the culture in Madra, and Bhishma bought princess Madri following this custom). Some times the maidens were taken away by force without any payment (This was the custom that Bhishma followed for abducting the Kasi princesses). Women were also given as presents for assisting sacrifices! Sometimes they were drugged to obtain their consent for marriage! Certainly these were evil customs. The mistake Bhishma did was to follow this culture blindly without reforming it or questioning it. Among all the different ways by which a maiden shall be obtained, Bhishma chose to follow the most heinous method. He considered it as an exhibition of his valor when he says that:- "that wife is dearly to be prized who is taken away by force, after the slaughter of opponents". Perhaps this was why Bhishma had to die in Kurukshetra War, siding with Duryodhana.

Remants of this culture is still seen in traces. In Kyrgistan, abduction of bride by bridegroom is a custom. In most of cases this is enacted as a drama as part of the marriage custom, but sometimes this turn violent and becomes real abduction of women. Though in India this custom is not now seen, several men treat women as an object to be gifted away or taken away as gifts. These are the men who refuses to treat women as their equals. They never like to give freedom to women even in the matters of their marriage. They should know that this is the remnants of an evil practice prevailed during the time of Mahabharata, which was approved by people like Duryodhana. The Bharadwajas represented by Drona and the Gautamas represented by Kripa too never questioned these evil practices. This is clear since Drona and Kripa too, like Bhishma stood as silent spectators when Panchali was treated as an object won in the game of dice, in the midst of the royal assembly. None of them acknowledged the individuality of Panchali, her womanhood and approved the stand of Duryodhana that she is just a priced object won by him. Yudhisthira who staked his wife in the game of dice is equally blamable.

However Vyasa who belonged to the Vasistha-Bhargavas, who had a liberal view point towered the interpretation of the Vedic religion and in the matters of women, revolted against it. That is why we are now able to read these incidence of abduction of women by Bhishma and humiliation of Panchali by the Kauravas, in Mahabharata. Bhishma as well as the Kauravas were slain in the battle. Thus it was a battle of the Vedic-liberals against the Vedic-conservative orthodoxy. Vyasa's approval of Panchali's marriage with five men (the five Pandavas), shows the liberal side of the ancient society which is in complete opposition to the other part of the ancient society which denies women even the freedom to choose her mate. Polyandry was a practice followed in a kingdom called Strirajya (in southern Tibet) not far away from the Kuru kingdom. When we learn about Bhishma's abduction of women by force, we also learn about the love story of Amva and Salwa. Though Salwa succumbed to orthodox-conservative views and ended his love affair with Amva, we thus know that women also had the freedom to be in love with a person of her choice, in those days. While there was forced abductions of women there were also self-choice ceremonies for women where she can choose her husband.

Illness of Vichitravirya

Mbh.1.102:- Though Vichitravirya was virtuous and abstemious, yet, proud of youth and beauty, he soon became lustful after his marriage. The prince passed seven years uninterruptedly in the company of his wives. He was attacked while yet in the prime of youth, with phthisis. Friends and relatives in consultation with one another tried to effect a cure. But in spite of all efforts, the Kuru prince died, setting like the evening sun.

Vichitravirya married at an early age and had to enter into the stressful life of a king all at the same time. It seems all these changes were too much for Vichitravirya. If we read between the lines, Vichitravirya could not focus much on the affairs of the state, which he probably left for Bhishma to handle and he probably indulged in excessive sexual life with his two young wives. This might have weakened his body and he succumbed to the attack of phthisis. The Sanskrit word used for this disease is Raja-Yakshma. Raja-Yakshma means the great poison (accumulating inside the body). Pthisis is in other words modern day Tuberculosis. It is a deadly disease affecting the lungs and is caused by a bacteria. If no treatment is made patient will die. It is a contagious disease and spread through coughing and sneezing. Sometimes the patient cough blood.

Another point to be noted is that Vichitravirya was born in the old age of Santanu. Remember that Santanu's first son Devavrata was in his youth when he married Satyavati. Vichitravirya was the second son in that marriage. There is also indication that, there was a long gap between the birth of Satyavati's first son Chitrangada and second son Vichitravirya, since it is mentioned that Vichitravirya was too young to become a king when his elder brother Chitrangada was dead. Thus Vichitravirya was born when Santanu was in his old ages. Such children were usually not healthy. Another indication for lack of health of Vichitravirya is that he is never mentioned to be participating in any war. He was not present in the war of his elder brother Chitrangada with the Gandharvas. It is unusual of the bards of the kingdom not to sing about the war prowess of the king. Yet there is no war-song in praise of Vichitravirya. He was probably just a nominal king on the throne of Hastinapura, while the kingdom was actually ruled by Bhishma. Perhaps this is why Bhishma has to go to Kasi to win maidens for Vichitravirya. No where in Mahabharata is a king mentioned who had to depend on others valor for obtaining wives. Everywhere it is the king or the warrior himself that went to self-choice ceremonies and obtained their wives. This clearly indicate that Vichitravirya was unfit as a warrior and also points to Vichitravirya's weakness in body by birth.

Conspiracy theories

On the history and character of Bhishma, Mahabharata researchers have different conclusions. Some argue that Bhishma was a noble person who sacrificed everything in his life for the state (the Kuru kingdom and the throne of Hastinapura), while others accuse him to be a conspirator and an opportunist. As for me I am not yet decided on which is the most plausible theory. Mahabharata narration is in favor of the noble characteristics of Bhishma. It describes that Devavrata relinquished the right to throne and chose to became a celibate all by his own will due to his affection for his father Santanu. But the way he abducted the Kasi princesses put a blemish on his character. Similarly his silence during the humiliation of Panchali is questionable. There is also mysterious absence of Devavrata-Bhishma during the war of Chitrangada with the Gandharvas, which again give fodder for conspiracy theorists. I tried to explain it through a different analysis which I already explained. Again it is a fact that Devavrata and/or Bhishma wielded the real power at Hastinapura in spite of him not being the king for a long period of time. His power declined after Pandu became the king. It declined still further after Duryodhana became the king.

The conspiracy theorists argue that Bhishma and his Gangeya tribe (settlers on the banks of river Ganga) was engaged in a power-struggle for the throne of Hastinapura with the Matsya tribes who settled on the banks of river Yamuna. Both allied with the Kuru king Santanu. Ganga of the Gangeya tribe was the first wife of Santanu and Devavrata his eldest son and so the next king. However the Matsyas established their alliance with Santanu through Satyavati and usurped the right to sovereignty through her sons. Bhishma was forced to relinquish his right to throne. Either Bhishma or the Gangeya tribe as a whole conspired to eliminate the sons of Satyavati by not supporting her eldest son Chitrangada in his crucial battle with the Gandharvas. Gangeyas also remained in power through Bhishma, since Vichitravirya was a king only for name sake. Gangeyas also saw to it that the young king always remain away from the affairs of the kingdom and focus more on his two wives. They also saw to it that the king became weak by infecting him with a contagious disease like phthisis. The Matsyas countered this through Satyavati and his eldest son Vyasa, who impregnated the widows of Vichitravirya. Thus Dhritarashtra and Pandu were born. But they had to grow up to a certain age to become kings. Thus the Gangeyas through Bhishma was in power at Hastinapura most of the time since the time of Santanu, till the time of emergence of Pandu as the new king. This was a long period. The only break in this was the short reign of Chitrangada who was slain by the Gandharva forces, without getting any support from the Gangeyas. The struggle between the Gangeyas and the Yamunas (Matsyas) were very subtle and probably was not a direct confrontation since both tribes were allied to the Kurus. It is also possible that Bhishma (representing the Gangeyas) and Satyavati (representing the Yamuna-Matsyas) themselves were not power-hungry and never confronted each other, but were pawns in the hands of their respective tribal leaders. Satyavati's father was one such tribal leader belonging to the Yamuna-Matsya tribe.

It is left to the readers as how much of this conspiracy theory is believable. But one thing that strikes me is that in the struggle of the Kauravas and Pandavas that happened many years later we see the resurfacing of this Ganga-Yamuna struggle. Bhishma, a Gangeya sided with the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra War, while king Virata a Matsya sided with the Pandavas! The city of Hastinapura, controlled by Duryodhana and assisted by Bhishma was on the banks of Ganga, while the city of Indraprastha built by the Pandavas was on the banks of Yamuna!

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