I was thinking of posting one of the many instantly recognizable images of Krishna, such as this flute-playing version from Bhagavata Purana, but I chose this painting by Raja Ravi Varma, inspired by the story that begins Mahabharata.
In case you haven’t read it, here’s what happened:
Once, while hunting, King Santhanu reached the Gangetic plain. There he saw a beautiful woman. The king wanted to know her name.
“I am Ganga Devi”, she replied.
“Would you come with me to my palace as my wife?” The King asked.
“Yes, I would; but on one condition. You shouldn’t stand against any of my wishes. Don’t say ‘no’ to me, under any circumstances. If you do, I will leave you right away.”
Santhanu agreed and they got married. When she delivered her first child she said, “Now, I am going to throw away this child into the river.”
Santhanu was shocked. But he couldn’t say ‘no’. That was the agreement to their marriage.
First, second, third…. Ganga threw away all the babies into the river. As her eighth child was born, Ganga was about to go to the river to throw away the baby. This time, as there was no other go, Santhanu pleaded: “Don’t throw away the child. Please spare this one at least.”
Ganga turned back. She handed the child over to Santhanu and said: “Alright. This one is for you. But as you stood against my desire, I have to leave. All the other seven children are back in Devaloka. This one is the eighth of the Ashtavasus. I’ll look after this boy in his childhood and give him back to you. Good-bye.”
The catch is of course that all these characters were devas born as mortals for different reasons. King Santanu of Puru dynasty was an incarnation of King Mahabhishak of Ikshvaku dynasty who was punished with human birth by Brahmadeva for coveting Goddess Ganga back at the heavenly kingdom of Devaloka. The eight children of Ganga were the eight elemental gods Ashtavasus, who had tried to steal the wish-granting cow Kamadhenu from saint Vashishta and were cursed by the saint to take birth as human beings as well. Ganga wanted to kill them right after birth so that they return to Devaloka as soon as possible. One of the eight, Dyaus, was specifically cursed to remain on Earth for a long time, and Ganga sparing him was actually foretold. He became known as Bhisma, “one who made a terrible promise”, when he took an oath of celibacy, ensuring his father’s sons from a new wife would accend to the throne. Bhisma only died from Arjuna’s arrows in the bloody battle of Kurukshetra, thanks to Krishna’s cunning use of the transgendered Shikhandi as a distraction.