Ashtavasu : Previous birth of Bhishma

The wife of one of the vasus is tempted to steal the wish-bearing cow

Ashtavasu means 8 Vasu’s. Ashtavasus are eight Ganadevatas or attendants of Indra. They represent 8 fundamental elements of nature.

Names of 8 Vasu’s according to Mahabharata are as follows:

NameMeaning
DharaEarth
AnalaFire
AnilaWind
ApaWater
PratyushaSun
SomaMoon
PrabhasaSky
DhruvaStar

Here is an interesting story related to Ashtavasu’s. Once all Ashtavasu’s along with their wives were enjoying an outing near the Himalayan mountains. They happened to pass by sage Vasishta’s hermitage. Sage Vasishta along with his wife Arundhati had ashram across the river Beas (present-day Himachal Pradesh). Sage was also running Gurukul, where students from all over the country would come to learn from him. Sage Vasishta had a cow called Nandini (Nandini was a daughter of Kamadhenu. Kamadhenu is a divine cow which emerged from churning of the cosmic ocean (Samudra Manthana)). Nandini had the exact resemblance of her mother. She had a pure white coat, with female breasts, wings of the bird, the tail of peahen and there was a special fragrance emitting from her body. This cow had divine powers so could fulfil any desire of its owner.

Indra had gifted this divine cow to sage Vasishta. One of the wives of Vasu’s happened to see this divine cow and happened to like it so much that she had a strong desire of possessing it. She went and expressed her desire to her husband Prabhasa (who is also called as Dyaus). Prabhasa very well knew that Sage Vasishta would never give Nandini to him, so he tried to persuade his wife to forget about Nandini. But his wife was adamant she would not listen to him. To please his wife, Prabhasa along with his brothers went to sage Vasishta’s ashram and stole Nandini and took the cow to his abode.

Sage Vasishta was away from hermitage when Prabhasa stole Nandini. When Vasishta returned hermitage, he was not able to find Nandini in his cow barn. He called all his disciples and inquired whereabout of the divine cow, but it was likely no one noticed Prabhasa stealing it. Vasishta along with his pupil started searching for the cow. Even after searching everywhere cow was nowhere to be found. Vasishta then used his divine power to know what had happened. He understood that this mischief was done by Astavasu. The sage went to Vasu’s place to get back the cow. When the sage arrived at Vasu’s house he was happy to see Nandini standing in the front yard. Vasishta took the cow back and cursed Vasu’s to be born on earth for stealing the property of a brahmin.

When Vasu’s came to know about the curse they came pleading for mercy to the hermitage of Vasishta asking to forgive them. To which sage Vasishta reduced curse of seven Vasu’s who assisted in stealing the cow saying that “they would be liberated as soon as they took birth as a human and Prabhasa who had been the protagonist of the theft, was cursed to endure a long life and could have Iccha-mrityu (can choose the time and manner of his death). Hearing this, all 8 Vasu’s went and requested goddess Ganga to take form as human and to be their mother and to liberate 7 Vasu’s by throwing them to river Ganga as soon as they took birth. Goddess readily agreed to their request as she too was cursed by Brahma to be born into the mortal world as the wife of Shantanu.

In the previous birth, Shantanu was called as Mahabhisha. Mahabhisha was a powerful king who had captured the entire world. He had performed thousands of Ashvamedha Yagna’s as a result of which he attained heaven after his death. Once there was some event in Brahma Loka and Mahabhisha had a chance to visit. All celestial beings, including all Gods and demigods, were present at that event. Suddenly the wind blew and saree of Goddess Ganga slipped, revealing her body. Everybody, present there timidly bent their heads down, but Mahabhisha kept staring at the Ganga. Brahma, who was observing all this lost his temper and cursed Mahabhisha to be born as a mortal king of Kuru dynasty and Ganga who also relished mortal act was cursed to be born as human as a wife of Mahabhisha and come back only after breaking Mahabhisha’s heart.

After a few years, Kuru king Pratipa was meditating in the woods. Ganga who was now in human form approached the king and sat on his right thigh and requested king Pratipa to become her husband. To which Pratipa rejected her request, saying “since she sat on his right thigh, according to tradition right thigh is for daughter or daughter in law and left thigh is for a wife. He asked her to marry his son Shantanu (the same Shantanu, whose previous birth was of Mahabhisha), to which Ganga agreed and she became the wife of Shantanu. As per the agreement with the Vasu’s she after marriage threw all her 7 newborn babies one after another in river Ganga as soon as they were born. When the eighth child was born, she was about to drown the eighth child into the water when king Shantanu interrupted her and stopped her from doing so, to which Ganga reluctantly agreed. That eighth child was Prabhasa of previous birth. Goddess Ganga raised that eighth child and initially named him as Devavrata. Later same Devavrata became famous as Bhishma, one of the greatest warriors of Mahabaratha and had the gift of death at will.

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