Santanu married Satyavati. Two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya were born to them. After Santanu’s death, Bhishma installed Chitrangada on the throne. Chitrangada was a man of great prowess. He vanquished many kings. It was widely accepted that Chitrangada could not be vanquished by any human being and that only the Asuras (the demons) and the Gods (the celestials) could d defeat him.
A Gandharva once approached Chitrangada and challenged him for a fight. The two fought for three years on the banks of the river Saraswati. Chitrangada was killed in the encounter by his stronger opponent. After his obsequies were performed, Bhishma installed Vichitravirya on the throne. Since Vichitravirya was too young to understand the intricacies of governance, Bhishma ruled the country under the command of his stepmother Satyavati.
When Vichitravirya reached the age of marriage, Bhishma wanted to get him married. He heard that the king of Kasi had arranged for the Swayamvara of his three beautiful daughters. (Swayamvara, meaning self selection of the groom, is a system that enabled a princess to choose one of the kings assembled at the place, offering themselves as grooms) Bhishma went for the Swayamvara as a representative of Vichitravirya, after conveying his plan to his step-mother and getting her approval.
Many kings were assembled in the king’s court. The kings were introduced one by one so that the brides would know their identities. When Bhishma's name was mentioned, he rose from his seat and addressed the king telling him about the eight kinds of marriage and pointed out to him that sages had said that if a woman was considered a prized possession, a king could take her by force. Bhishma then took the three brides along and placed them in his chariot. He then challenged the kings assembled there to stop him, if they could.
The monarchs took up arms and began to fight Bhishma. However, Bhishma chased them away after destroying their weapons and inflicting injuries on them. One of them, King Salya was not willing to give up and challenged Bhishma for a fight. With the other kings witnessing the fight as spectators, Bhishma humbled Salya in the fight but refrained from killing him. Salya went back to his country.
Bhishma brought the three young women to Hastinapura, the capital city of the Kuru kingdom and offered them to his step brother Vichitravirya. After consulting with his step mother Satyavati, Bhishma began to make arrangements for the marriage of the three girls with Vichitravirya.
As arrangements were being made for the marriage, the eldest of the three girls, Amba, came to Bhishma and told him, “I have already chosen the king of Saubha as my husband and he has also agreed to marry me. My father has given his consent for the marriage too. It was arranged that I would choose him during the Swayamvara. You know everything about morality and justice. Do what you think is right.”
Bhishma being a man of virtues consulted the Brahmins well versed in the Vedas. he then told Amba that she was free to do what she wanted to. She left the palace to meet her lover.
The marriage between Vichitravirya and the other two girls Ambika and Ambalika was performed.
Vichitravirya lived a happy life in the company of his two wives for seven years. After this period, he was inflicted by a deadly disease. No treatment worked and he soon died.
Satyavati was plunged into grief not only by the death of her two sons but also by the fact that the Kuru race was left with no heir, the only surviving prince Bhishma having renounced his right to become a king.
She pleaded with Bhishma to raise offspring on the two young widows, ascend the throne and to marry another woman lest his ancestors, with their race cut off, should be plunged into hell. This advice was endorsed by the learned and wise men and the sages present there.
Bhishma said, “Oh mother, though what you want me to do is sanctioned by tradition, I can’t do so because I have taken a vow of celibacy and have also avowed not to ascend the throne. I won’t deviate from my avowed status under any circumstance.” He also pointed out to her that he had given this pledge to her father and that a Kshatriya (one who belongs to the warrior race) should never commit a breach of trust.
Bhishma cited a few incidents from history to apprise her of what the right course was in situations similar to that. He first cited the story of Parasurama, the son of Sage Jamadagni, who, angered by the death of his father at the hands of the three sons of King of Haihaya, killed the king and subsequently wiped out the entire Kshatriya race. The widows of the Kshatriya kings, not out of lust, but out of a desire to keep their race alive, had offspring raised by Brahmins. As per the Vedas (the scriptures), a son so raised belonged not to the Brahmin, the child’s biological father, but to the Kshatriya who had married the child’s mother.
Bhishma cited another historical event involving Sage Dirghatamas. Dirghatamas, at the request of King Vali raised five illustrious sons through Vali’s wife Sudeshana. These sons were considered the sons of Vali. Bhishma suggested a course of action in these lines. He said that an accomplished Brahmin be invited to raise offspring on the wives of Vichitravirya.
Hearing Bhishma’s words, Satyavati said, “When I was a young woman, I was rowing the boat kept by my father for ferrying passengers across the river Yamuna. Once I was carrying the great sage Parasara. He was attracted by me and I yielded to his desire fearing that he would curse me if I resisted him. There was a revolting fishy odour in my body. The sage dispelled it and replaced it with a fragrance which is emanating from me even now. He said that after I gave birth to his child in an island on the river, I would become a virgin again. The child of Parasara born of me had become a great sage himself. He is known by the name Dwaipayana (born in an island). That great sage has classified the Vedas into four parts. For this reason, he is called Vyasa (one who divides or arranges) and Vedavyasa. He went with his father immediately after his birth. He had asked me to think of him when I needed his help. I think he can be asked to beget the children upon the wives of your brother. I will call him, if you agree with my suggestion.”
Bhishma endorsed Satyavati’s proposal since he knew Vyasa to be an ascetic of great virtues and immense power. Satyavati thought of Vyasa and Vyasa sensing her call appeared before her instantly.
After receiving Vyasa with due respect and offering him food, Satyavati requested him to beget children upon the wives of Vichitravirya, his step brother. Vyasa agreed to this request since it was sanctioned by custom. He said that the women should first be purified by observing for one year the vow to be prescribed by him. Only after that he would give them children.
Satyavati pleaded with him to do it immediately since the Kuru race had been without a heir for sometime. Vyasa said that in that case the women had to bear his ugliness and strong odour. This would be the most austere penance for the women, he said. He told his mother to ask her daughter in law to be attired well wearing ornaments and wait for him in her bed chamber.
Satyavati went to her elder daughter in law Ambika and persuaded her to agree for the proposal in the interest of continuation of the Kuru race. Ambika agreed to this after a lot of persuation from her mother in law. She was waiting in her bed when Vyasa entered. Seeing his matted her and ugly appearance, she closed her eyes. She never opened her eyes once when Vyasa had been in unison with her. When Vyasa came out, he was met by Satyavati. He told her that a strong, valiant and intelligent son would be born but he would be born blind because of the fault of his mother.
Satyavati was upset on hearing this. She asked him to give another King since a blind person won’t be able to protect the kingdom. Vyasa said 'So be it,' and left. Eventually, Ambika gave birth to a blind child.
After securing the assent of her younger daughter in law Ambalika, Satyavati summoned Vyasa again. Ambalika, terrified by the looks of Vyasa, became pale with fear. Vyasa told Satyavati that Ambalika’s son would be pale in complexion and suggested that he be called Pandu (the pale.) Satyavati requested him for one more child. Again Vyasa said, ‘So be it’ and left the palace.
After sometime, Satyavati solicited Ambika to approach Vyasa. Recalling the ugly looks of the sage and the strong odour emanating from him, Ambika wanted to avoid him. She sent her maid, a beautiful woman, after adorning her with her own ornaments. When Vyasa arrived, the maid saluted him, treated him with respect and waited on him pleasingly. Pleased with her, Vyasa said, "Oh maid, you will no longer be a slave. You will give birth to a virtuous child who will be known as the most intelligent man on the earth."
He told his mother how he was deceived by her daughter in law and was made to beget a son upon a Sudra woman. He then went away.
The son born to the maid was named Vidura. He was considered the brother of Dritharashtra and Panduby virtue of being the son of Vyasa. Vidura was free from desire and passion. He was conversant with the rules of governance. He was in fact the Lord of Justice born on earth under the curse of sage Mandavya.