Ashta Vasu :Vasishta’s curse; rebirth as mortals(Mahabharta)
This story is retold from the sambhava parva of the Mahabharata. As told in Bhishma’s story, goddess Ganga tells her husband King Shantanu the reasons why she had to kill their newborn children. It is at this point in the story when she tells him about the Vasus and their role in her decision to marry him and why she was forced to kill their children.
Vasus are deities representing the eight elements—earth, water, fire, wind, sun, sky, moon and the stars. Each elemental god has a name and it varies depending on which Indian literature you are referring to. In the Mahabharata, they are named Dhara, Aha, Anala, Anila, Pratyusha, Prabhasa, Soma and Dhruva, respectively. They are said to be the children of Manu, who is the son of Brahma, and are collectively called the ashta vasu or eight vasus.
Vasus lived a privileged life in the heavens. One day, all the Vasu brothers visited a forest along with their families, they were having a great time relaxing in the beautiful forest. Whilst they were having their fun picnic, the Vasus saw a cow. It was a very healthy-looking, beautiful animal and the Vasus quickly recognized that it was no ordinary cow.
The cow was the child of Daksha’s daughter, Surabhi and the great rishi Kashyapa. Some texts say that the cow appeared during Samudra manthana or the great churning of the ocean. The cow was called Kamadhenu and had the ability to fulfill all our wishes and the great sage Vasishta was in possession of this wish granting cow. Milk, and its derivative ghee, was and continues to be an essential element of the various vedic rituals, and Vasishta took the milk he needed for the rituals from Kamadhenu. There were instances when other powerful people offered Vasishta insane amounts of wealth in exchange for Kamadhenu, but Vasishta turned those offers down and guarded his cow fiercely.
When Prabhasa’s wife saw the marvelous cow, she decided that it would be a great idea to steal the cow. Prabhasa did not agree to it at first. But his wife convinced him to do it and told him that she had a friend, who was a daughter of an influential king and she would love to obtain this great cow as a gift. Unfortunately for Prabhasa and the rest of the vasus, Prabhasa was convinced and neglected to practice caution.
The vasus, led by Prabhasa, who is the deity representing the sky, steal the cow. When Vasishta got to know about why his beloved cow had gone missing, he was angered by the Vasus’s actions and he cursed them all to be reborn as mortals. The Vasus begged for mercy and Vasishta compromised by letting all except Prabhasa—who planned and led the theft—to return back to heaven a short time after their birth.
The Vasus were traumatized by the idea of living as a mortal on earth. The goal for humankind is to escape the cycle of life and death and find a place in heaven. So, to lose a spot in heaven, that too for a deity, becomes especially hard. The Vasus were miserable and were bemoaning this terrible curse that befell them, when goddess Ganga happened to cross paths with them.
When a concerned Ganga asked the Vasus why they looked so sad, they told her all about Vasishta’s cow and his curse. The Vasus decided that if they must be born as mortals on earth, they would prefer to be born as the sons of a lady as noble as Ganga.
“Please,” they begged Ganga, “be our mother and help us get through this most terrible curse.”
They were ecstatic when Ganga agreed to help them. But. They weren’t done. They had a few more instructions for Ganga.
- Their father must be someone equally noble. They chose King Pratipa’s son as their father, to which Ganga readily agreed since, as seen in Bhishma’s story, she knew King Mahabhisha was to be reborn as Pratipa’s son and she was interested in him.
- They must be killed immediately after their births because they don’t want to spend a moment longer on earth as mortals than they have to. To this Ganga said that she needed to give her husband one son as an heir so she would make it so that only one would survive.
The vasus told her that they would each give 1/8th of their energies to the son who would survive; however, they also warned her that her son would not have any children.
True to her word, Ganga married Pratipa’s son, Shantanu and they had 8 sons together. Ganga killed each one of the first 7 children born to them by throwing them into the water as soon as they were born; however, she spared their 8th son when her husband asked her to stop killing their children.
This child would be later named Bhishma. That is how Vasu Prabhasa was reborn as Bhishma, a mortal on earth and how Bhishma is said to have the energies of all the Vasus.
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The Mahabharata 1: Complete and Unabridged; translated by Bibek Debroy. (2015). Penguin Random House India. (Original work published 2010)
Madhu Walad,Mughal India, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Vasishta and Kamadhenu: Fazi (Mughal dynasty), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Samudra manthana: bazaar art print, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Ganga and Bhishma: Raja Ravi Varma, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons