Meet the desirable goddess, Gunga, who resided in the heavenly realms. Her inappropriate display of sexual desire for a human king during a sacred ceremony caused her to fall from grace and return to earth. While on earth, a favor for some other fallen gods resulted in the collapse of the relationship that originally caused her downfall.

"Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it," is how the saying goes. That is something the goddess, Gunga, had to learn the hard way. Gunga's saga takes place over the course of two lifetimes. Goddess Gunga was living in the heavenly region known as Satyaloka, the place of truth and purity. It is an exceptional realm charged with a very high spiritual and godly vibration, A particular king by the name of Mahabhishak, who was devoted to God and had lived a virtuous life on earth, had earned himself a place in Satyaloka in his next birth. One day, in a public assembly in this heavenly place, he happened to see the beautiful Gunga. A playful breeze suddenly shifted Gunga's clothing and Mahabhishak gazed lustfully upon her naked form. Gunga noticed his wanton hunger at her nakedness and felt a strong, sensual desire arise within her for this man, Mahabhishak. She wished to cohabit with him.

Brahma, who is regarded as the creator of the material worlds according to yoga philosophy, and a very highly placed being, happened to notice their exchange of lustful desire in this sacred place. Such behavior was completely inappropriate and unacceptable according to time and circumstance, especially for a high soul like Gunga devi. Angered by this public display, Brahma granted their desire to have each other and become husband and wife — with one small hitch — that they take birth down on the earthly planet and cohabit there, thus losing the privilege of heavenly existence for Gunga and the relinquishing of Mahabhishak's karmic reward in the form of his higher celestial birth. Now, as you may know, when a soul takes a new birth, especially on the way down to a birth of reduced privilege, knowledge of the previous birth is wiped from his memory. This is done for obvious reasons. To be ‘cast out of the garden,' so to speak, and retain the memory of one's former life, would make the new, diminished incarnation unbearable.

In the meantime, in another part of the heavenly worlds, there were eight brothers known as the Vasus. A wife of one of the brothers was walking in the forest one day and saw a most beautiful cow and her calf grazing near the ashram or hermitage of a powerful sage named Vasishta. She wanted to give this cow and calf as a present to her closest friend, so she asked her husband, Dyau, and his seven brothers to go and get the cow and calf and bring them to her. Dyau and his brothers knowingly stole the cow and calf from the sage. When Vasishta returned and saw his cow and calf missing, he knew through the power of his divine vision that they had been stolen and he also knew the identity of the thieves. So he confronted the eight Vasus.

As punishment for their deed, he cursed them to be born upon the earthly planet. They begged Vasishta's mercy. However, a curse cannot be recalled once it is unleashed. Judging them to be truly contrite, the sage altered the curse by saying that when they would be born upon the earth, they would die immediately and return to the heavenly worlds, except for Dyau who was the ringleader. He would have to live on earth a longer period of time before returning to the heavenly realms.

The eight Vasus were faced with a further predicament. How could they arrange to be put to death immediately after being born upon the earth? Who would perform this seemingly heinous act? They happened to come upon the devi, Gunga, and exchanged stories with her of their mutual misfortune of having to take birth on a lower plane of existence. Empathizing strongly with their circumstance, Gunga agreed to let the eight brothers take birth through her womb and pledged to end their lives right after their births in order to free them from their curse.

In the subsequent earthly life, Mahabhishak was born as a king named Shantanu who loved to hunt. One day, while hunting on the banks of the Ganges River, Shantanu saw a beautiful maiden with large, entrancing eyes standing silently, running her fingers through her hair. He believed that a heavenly nymph must have descended to earth to be with him. Hearing his approach, she turned and looked at him. As their eyes met, a blush of shyness suffused her face and she coyly cast her eyes downward while tracing patterns with her toe upon the ground at her feet. A smile played upon her lips. She raised her eyes to look at him and he knew his desire for her was mutually felt. He took her by the hand and said, "Beautiful maiden, I want you to be my love. I am Shantanu, the king of the city of Hastina. I love you and wish to live my life with you."

Gunga smiled and replied, "The moment I saw you I knew I would be your queen." Shantanu's heart was filled with joy. His happiness knew no bounds. Gunga continued, "There is one condition, however. You must not question anything I do. Otherwise, I will leave you and never return."

Believe it or not, the smitten king agreed to this stipulation. Now bear in mind that because Mahabhishak had been a human, the knowledge of his past life was not available to him in his new incarnation as Shantanu. On the other hand, because Gunga had been a resident of the heavenly planets, she remembered everything from her former existence. Further, this is borne out by the fact that Mahabhishak's identity was now as the king, Shantanu, while Gunga's identity remained the same. Of course, she did not reveal her true identity to Shantanu.

Months passed and Shantanu found Gunga to be the ideal wife. With her charm, beauty and sweet words, Gunga embodied many wonderful qualities and was a loving companion to Shantanu. After some time, a son was born to them. When the king heard the news that he had fathered an heir to his throne, he hurried to the queen's chambers to celebrate the joyous birth. But she and the baby were nowhere to be found. Someone said she had hurried to the banks of the Ganges clutching her swaddled, newborn child.

Shantanu hastened to the river and, hiding behind a tree, he saw his loving wife throw their newborn child into the river. Rather than appear grief-stricken or guilt-ridden from such an act, Gunga appeared as if a burden had just been lifted from her mind. He wanted to confront her in her murdering madness but he could not. He had promised that he would never question or displease her. His attachment and love for her were so strong that he was willing to tolerate such behavior. This is not so difficult to believe when we regularly witness, for example, how a mother may tolerate her second husband's physical or sexual abuse of her children from her first marriage. Because she loves him, because she is afraid of being alone, because she hopes he'll stop some day, because she fears the outcome of confronting him — there are so many reasons she'll give herself in order to tolerate the unimaginable. Shantanu was no different in his own way.

Every year, Gunga gave birth to a son and each year, she would throw each boy into the Ganges River immediately following his birth. Shantanu witnessed this tragedy seven times without saying a word. Gunga was everything to him, his very life. But also, it was important that he gain an heir to his throne to continue his line. This desire, too, plagued him.

When the eighth child was born, Shantanu, overcome with grief and anger, followed his beloved Gunga to the river. This time he could bear it no longer. He confronted her, his lips trembling, "What kind of unspeakable inhumanity is this? Why do you do this? I cannot tolerate it any longer. I cannot bear to see my sons destroyed before my very eyes! How can a mother kill her own children? Please, please, spare me this one son. I beg you."

A strange look came upon Gunga's beautiful face. It was a smile mixed with sadness and happiness. Speaking in gentle tones, she addressed the king, "My lord, the time has come when I must leave you. You have questioned me and therefore I can remain with you no longer. However, this child of ours will live. For now, I will take him with me and return him to you at the appropriate time. His name will be Deva Vrata, which means 'he of godly vows.'

The king was numb. What was she saying? The woman who meant everything to him was about to leave him forever because he objected to her killing their sons! He knew there was nothing he could do to stop her from going. His heart was overcome with grief and sorrow for the impending loss of his beloved.

"Gunga, why do you do this to me? Do you not see that my life is bound up in you and that I cannot live without you? Gunga, if you love me, I implore you, do not abandon me." Gunga then proceeded to explain to Shantanu who she really was and what had happened between them in their past life in the heavenly worlds, and how they had come to live together, happily and lovingly, in this life. Then she said, "My lord, the tide of time cannot be stemmed. What has come to pass is now past and what is meant to be will be. Let us be grateful for our time together.

The king, still confused, asked, "But why have you killed our seven sons?" Gunga then related to Shantanu the story of the eight Vasus and how she was actually freeing them from their curse. She explained that this eighth child was meant to live a long life on earth and that she would have him trained by the divine sages and gods so that he would be prepared for the role he would play as heir to the throne of Shantanu's line.

By revealing the story of their past lives, Gunga in essence, ripped the veil of illusion which had so effectively hid the real truth from the eyes of an innocent Shantanu. This veil of illusion known in Sanskrit as maya protects many from seeing the truth of things which they are unprepared to deal with or to accept. This is certainly the case for the majority of humans. Gunga came from the heavenly worlds. Shantanu (Mahabhishak) came from the earthy realms. Though there was a strong attraction between them which later developed into a strong bond, still, Shantanu was not able to truly accommodate the strength, power, behavior, status and destiny of such a soul as Gunga. He was a mere mortal and no match for an immortal goddess or devi. Gunga's explanation left him dumbfounded. All he could understand was the loss of his beloved and that he now had a most wished-for son and heir to his throne who was about to leave him for who knew how long? Gunga and the child faded away before his eyes. Shantanu reluctantly returned to his home, a home now filled with loneliness and desolation.

The first thing we learn from this story is that material desire or desires generated by the body and the senses, can diminish one’s stature. Further, that inappropriate material desire can actually result in a fall from grace. The desire of Mahabhishak and Gunga to have each other sexually was not really the issue since sexual congress and sensual pleasure is available in the heavenly realm. The infraction lay in its appropriateness according to the social circumstance. Mahabhishak had promoted himself through his virtuous deeds and pure heart to a higher birth in the heavenly realms. But in a chance moment, he had inadvertently sabotaged himself and was cast down from his divine reward in order to have the opportunity to fulfill his lustful desire for the heavenly goddess, Gunga.

Once again, he found himself in yet another earthly incarnation from which he had only recently been promoted. It is stated in the Bhagavad-Gita that whatever one thinks of or remembers at the time of death, that state one will attain without fail. If you have only one single material desire remaining when you leave your body, you will inevitably be granted the opportunity to fulfill it by being given yet another earthly body.

You may argue that Gunga wasn’t just any girl down the street, she was a divine goddess and therefore, may have been worth being banished from the heavenly realm. But Mahabhishak was nonetheless covered over yet again by maya or the illusory, bewildering principle of material nature. Yet again, he had forgotten his true identity as a soul and was caught up once more with the mundane, human responsibilities of ruling a kingdom. His attachment to sexual gratification and his hunger for Gunga were cause for bondage. He was bound up in yet another human existence shackling him to birth, old age, disease and death.

Another archetypal theme that is apparent here is a woman marrying a man who is beneath her or not strong enough for her. Subsequently, she finds herself easily in control within the context of their relationship. She takes seven of her newborn sons and throws them into the water, thereby ending their lives, without so much as a peep out of her husband who secretly watches her each time. This seems to be a reasonable example of a husband who is henpecked.

It appears that Gunga and Shantanu are so attached to each other and their sexual dalliance together that they ended up compromising their truth or their behavioral standards in relation to their newborn children. This is reminiscent of the American girl who attended her high school prom and gave birth in a toilet stall and deposited her newborn baby in the trash bin so that she could get back to the dance. Obviously, in this tale, there is a little more to it, what with the curse and birth of the eight Vasus who wanted to return to the heavenly planets as soon as possible. And who wouldn’t, with such behavior going on down here on earth?

This story may also be presented as a classic example of two opposing levels of consciousness or reality being brought together to interact with and influence each other. There are many examples of this in our society. When a smoker and a non-smoker begin to spend time together, one will ultimately influence the other. Either the former will eventually quit smoking or the latter will begin smoking. Rap music and hip-hop culture is an example of life in the ghetto being absorbed into and influencing mainstream culture with little positive result.

In this story, a divine maiden is brought down to the significantly lowered rate of vibration and consciousness of the earth plane. The degree of truth and integrity of action is markedly reduced on the earth realm. Subsequently, her behavior begins to degenerate (from a human perspective) as is evidenced by the homicide of her own children. In direct contradiction of that viewpoint, we can see that Gunga, because of her divine origin, is actually transcendental to the death of her own children, knowing that she is acting in accordance with the will of those eight souls and returning them to the heavenly planet of Satyaloka. This is yet another example of a man wedding himself to a woman whose scope and capacity for understanding is far beyond that of his own. She consciously knows what she is doing regarding the infanticide and is sufficiently detached. She remains apparently unaffected by this terrible act, quite the opposite of what we would expect from a rational, human mother.

This story is clearly illustrative of a very important realization. Any given situation or circumstance can and must be looked at from various perspectives. There is no one way to see things. There are many ways to observe everything. When we view Gunga devi from the human perspective, we are appalled at her behavior. When we see her from the heavenly perspective, her actions make complete sense. Understanding why she did what she did gave little solace to Shantanu, the human king, who had lost all but one of his sons and heirs. And the one he was allowed to keep was about to go away for quite some time. How can a mere mortal wrap his mind around such things, while being deprived of the fruits of his marriage to this exceptional, divine being?

A woman is by nature supposed to be more affectionate and responsive to her children than her husband. Obviously, there are exceptions but this is the general rule. When a mother refuses to step into the maternal role, then the father usually has to take up both the paternal and maternal roles. With Gunga and Shantanu, things never got that far. But the point is that Gunga is a woman who was more detached from or uninvolved with her children than her husband would have been. This is not a very desirable or natural circumstance. And a husband faced with such a situation would feel that it was he and the children versus the wife, their mother. Rather than having a relationship of cooperation, it would be one of opposition or perhaps, antagonism.

Another difficulty inherent in the relationship between Gunga and Shantanu is that a stronger woman will not typically bond very firmly with a weaker man and will therefore leave more easily, even though she may genuinely love her partner. When the writing is on the wall and she feels that their time has come to an end, it will be far easier for her to leave the relationship than it would be for him. This is exactly what takes place with Gunga once Shantanu violates their initial agreement, even after so many years together.

Even though Gunga experiences a fall from grace and is diminished by her desire, we shouldn’t think for a moment that this, in any way, reduces her stature as a goddess or her luster as a woman of divinity. Remember, while on earth, she remained the goddess, Gunga, with complete recollection of her status, supernatural power and divine identity.

From this story, we can learn a few things. Sensual desire and bodily identification can lead to one’s downfall. Humans do not typically remember their past lives since they may lament for what they used to be. When souls die at a young age, that may be a wished-for blessing to those souls even though it may be painful for us. Women should never marry down if they want to assume the role of the female in relationship which, by nature, is what all women most want. Men should not marry women who are beyond their capacity to handle. It is better to marry a woman who is their equal or someone who is beneath their own status. And remember gentlemen, if you stand too close to the fire — you may well get burned.