Menaka was a celestial nymph who was born during the Samudra Manthan episode. That episode is also known as the churning of the ocean which happened between the demons and the gods. She was considered a very beautiful woman with an understanding of the world, intelligence and unmeasurable talent. She however desired a family, husband and kids.
One of the Saptarishi, Vishvamitra started to perform serious penance to fulfil his wish of becoming a Maharishi. His dedication, devotion and rising yogic powers started to scare the gods residing in heaven. They decided to send Menaka to him to distract Vishvamitra and control his penance and growing powers. The aim was to lure Vishvamitra using Menaka’s beauty, intelligence and talent.
Menaka, the dancer from Indra’s court always desired a family and hence she did not hesitate to accept this proposition made by the god of rains, Lord Indra. Menaka started her journey to earth. She reached the forest where Vishvamitra was busy meditating. Vishvamitra eventually opened his eyes and saw the beautiful woman standing in front of him. Her beauty, grace, poise and attractive features were successful in breaking his penance. She influenced him with her talent, intelligence and beauty and it was difficult for him to not fall in love with her. She instilled a sense of lust and passion in him.
There are various versions of the stories after this incident. One of the most popular versions is where Menaka genuinely falls in love with Vishvamitra due to his charming personality and influential persona. Menaka forgets the intention of distracting him and starts supporting him in his duties. They have a beautiful daughter named Shakuntala. Bala Kand of Valmiki Ramayana speaks at length about this incident. Shakuntala grows up to marry the king of Hastinapur. King Dushyanta and Shakuntala fall in love with each other in Rishi Kanva’s Ashram. They have a courageous son named Bharata. He becomes a very loved, humble and popular emperor of his time.
The connection of Rishi Kanva and Shakuntala brings us to a different version of Menaka & Vishvamitra’s story. It is true that Menaka and Vishvamitra had a daughter, Shakuntala. However, it is said that Menaka abandons her daughter and her husband after the birth and starts her journey towards heaven. Sage Vishvamitra leaves the infant in bushes. Rishi Kanva finds Shakuntala, the abandoned kid and raises her like his own. Hence, it makes sense that Shakuntala met her loving husband Dushyanta in the hermitage of sage Kanva.
There is a third version of this story that gives a hint towards the desire of Menaka to have a family and becoming a devoted partner to Vishvamitra. Menaka falls in love with Vishvamitra and decides to tell him the truth about Lord Indra’s intentions. She tells him why she suddenly made an appearance in his life. Upon learning that Vishvamitra had been tricked by Indra, he got furious and decided to curse Menaka for a forever separation. Even though she was not the source or mastermind of the act, he felt like she was responsible for leading him in the wrong manner and suggesting intentions.
Menaka had truly fallen in love with him and hence Vishvamitra could not go through the curse. He somehow knew that she had genuine love, care and compassion for him. She reassured him that she had lost ill intentions and wanted to spend a long happy life with him. This version of the story ends in Menaka accompanying Vishwamitra on his penance and journey of becoming a Brahmarishi.