"You must certainly become my wife, whoever you may be." Thus said the great King Santanu to the goddess Ganga who stood before him in human form, intoxicating his senses with her superhuman loveliness.
The king earnestly offered for her love his kingdom, his wealth, his all, his very life.
Ganga replied: "O king, I shall become your wife. But on certain conditions that neither you nor anyone else should ever ask me who I am, or whence I come. You must also not stand in the way of whatever I do, good or bad, nor must you ever be wroth with me on any account whatsoever. You must not say anything displeasing to me. If you act otherwise, I shall leave you then and there. Do you agree?"
The infatuated king vowed his assent, and she became his wife and lived with him.
The heart of the king was captivated by her modesty and grace and the steady love she bore him. King Santanu and Ganga lived a life of perfect happiness, oblivious of the passage of time.
She gave birth to many children; each newborn babe she took to the Ganges and cast into the river, and then returned to the king with a smiling face.
Santanu was filled with horror and anguish at such fiendish conduct, but suffered it all in silence, mindful of the promise be had made. Often he wondered who she was, wherefrom she had come and why she acted like a murderous witch. Still bound by his word, and his all-mastering love for her, he uttered no word of blame or remonstrance.
Thus she killed seven children. When the eighth child was born and she was about to throw it into the Ganges, Santanu could not bear it any longer.
He cried: "Stop, stop, why are you bent on this horrid and unnatural murder of your own innocent babes?" With this outburst the king restrained her.
"O great king," she replied, "you have forgotten your promise, for your heart is set on your child, and you do not need me any more. I go. I shall not kill this child, but listen to my story before you judge me. I, who am constrained to play this hateful role by the curse of Vasishtha, am the goddess Ganga, adored of gods and men. Vasishtha cursed the eight Vasus to be born in the world of men, and moved by their supplications said, I was to be their mother. I bore them to you, and well is it for you that it was so. For you will go to higher regions for this service you have done to the eight Vasus. I shall bring up this last child of yours for some time and then return it to you as my gift."
After saying these words the goddess disappeared with the child. It was this child who later became famous as Bhishma. This was how the Vasus came to incur Vasishtha's curse. They went for a holiday with their wives to a mountain tract where stood the hermitage of Vasishtha: One of them saw Vasishtha's cow, Nandini, grazing there.
Its divinely beautiful form attracted him and he pointed it out to the ladies. They were all loud in praise of the graceful animal, and one of them requested her husband to secure it for her.
He replied: "What need have we, the devas, for the milk of cows? This cow belongs to the sage Vasishtha who is the master of the whole place. Man will certainly become immortal by drinking its milk. But this is no gain to us, who are already immortal. Is it worth our while incurring Vasishtha's wrath merely to satisfy a whim?"
But she was not thus to be put off. "I have a dear companion in the mortal world. It is for her sake that I make this request. Before Vasishtha returns we shall have escaped with the cow. You must certainly do this for my sake, for it is my dearest wish." Finally her husband yielded. All the Vasus joined together and took the cow and its calf away with them.
When Vasishtha returned to his ashrama, he missed the cow and the calf, because they were indispensable for his daily rituals.
Very soon he came to know by his yogic insight all that had taken place. Anger seized him and he uttered a curse against the Vasus. The sage, whose sole wealth was his austerity, willed that they should be born into the world of men. When the Vasus came to know of the curse, repentant too late, they threw themselves on the sage's mercy and implored forgiveness.
Vasishtha said: "The curse must needs take its course. Prabhasa, the Vasu who seized the cow, will live long in the world in all glory, but the others will be freed from the curse as soon as born. My words cannot prove ineffective, but I shall soften the curse to this extent."
Afterwards, Vasishtha set his mind again on his austerities, the effect of which had been slightly impaired by his anger. Sages who perform austerities acquire the power to curse, but every exercise of this power reduces their store of merit.
The Vasus felt relieved and approached the goddess Ganga and begged of her: "We pray you to become our mother. For our sake we beseech you to descend to the earth and marry a worthy man. Throw us into the water as soon as we are born and liberate us from the curse." The goddess granted their prayer, came to the earth and became the wife of Santanu.
When the goddess Ganga left Santanu and disappeared with the eighth child, the king gave up all sensual pleasures and ruled the kingdom in a spirit of asceticism. One day he was wandering along the banks of the Ganges when he saw a boy endowed with the beauty and form of Devendra, the king of the gods.
The child was amusing himself by casting a dam of arrows across the Ganges in flood, playing with the mighty river as a child with an indulgent mother. To the king who stood transfixed with amazement at the sight, the goddess Ganga revealed herself and presented the child as his own son.
She said: "O king, this is that eighth child I bore you. I have brought him up till now. His name is Devavrata. He has mastered the art of arms and equals Parasurama in prowess. He has learnt the Vedas and the Vedanta from Vasishtha, and is well versed in the arts and sciences known to Sukra. Take back with you this child who is a great archer and hero as well as a master in statecraft."
Then she blessed the boy, handed him to his father, the king, and disappeared.